IN DIREST PERIL
By David Christie Murray
AUTHOR OF "TIME'S REVENGES" "A WASTED CRIME" ETC.
It is not often that an honorable man commits a theft and yet leaves no stain upon his honor. It can happen still less often that a man of honor robs the lady he loves and honors above all womankind, and wins her hand in marriage by the act. Yet before we were married I robbed my wife of forty thousand pounds, breaking into her house to steal it; and here-now that we are both old-she is still so proud of me for having done that, that she must needs make me tell the story. A better writer would have done it better, but my wife has polished my rough phrases; and, at any rate, the plain truth about the strangest things which have happened in my knowledge is here set plainly down.
(Late acting) General of Division
under General Garibaldi.
IN DIREST PERIL
I have told my wife quite plainly that in my opinion I am as little fitted by nature for the task she has laid upon my shoulders as any man alive. I have spent a great part of my life in action; and though the later part of it has been quieter and more peaceful than the earlier, and though I have enjoyed opportunities of study which I never had before, I am still anything but a bookish man, and I am not at all confident about such essential matters as grammar and spelling. The history I am called upon to tell is one which, if it were put into the hands of a professed man of letters, might be made unusually interesting. I am sure of that, for in a life of strange adventure I have encountered nothing so strange. But, for my own part, the utmost I can do is to tell the thing as it happened as nearly as I can, and if I cannot command those graces of style which would come naturally to a practised pen, I can only ask that the reader will dispense with them.
The natural beginning of the story is that I fell in love with the lady who has now for eight-and-thirty blessed and happy years been my wife. It may be that I may not again find opportunity to say one thing that should be said. That lady is a pearl among women; and I am prouder of having fallen in love with her at first sight, as I did, than I should be if I had taken a city or won a pitched battle. I have sought opportunities of doing these things far and near, but they have been denied to me. I trust that I have always been on the right side. I know that, except in one case, I have always been on the weaker side; but until my marriage I was what is generally called a soldier of fortune. I am known to this day as Captain Fyffe, though I never held her most sacred Majesty's commission. That I should be delighted to fight in my country's cause goes, I hope, without saying; but I never had the opportunity, and my sword, until the date of my marriage, was always at the service of oppressed nationalities. This, however, is not my story, and I must do my best to hold to that. Should I take to blotting and erasing, there is no knowing when my task would be over. I will be as little garrulous as I can.
It was in the height of the London season of 1847, and I had just got back from the Argentine Republic. I had been fighting for General Rosas, but the man's greed and his reckless ambition had gradually drawn me away from him, and at last, after an open quarrel, I broke my sword across my knee before him, threw the fragments at his feet, and left the camp. I did it at the risk of my life; and if Rosas had cared to lift a hand, his men would have shot me or hanged me from the nearest tree with all the pleasure in the world. An event which has nothing whatever to do with this story had got into the newspapers, and for a time I was made a lion of. I found it agreeable enough to begin with, but I was beginning to get tired of it, when the event of which I have already spoken happened. My poor friend, the Honorable George Brunow, had taken me, at the Duchess's invitation, to Belcaster House, and it was there I met my fate. There was a great crush on the stairs, and the rooms were crowded. I never once succeeded in getting as much as a glimpse of our hostess during the whole time of my stay at the house, but before half an hour had gone by I was content to miss that honor. Brunow and I, tight wedged in the crowd, were laughing and talking on the staircase, when I caught sight of a lady a step or two above me. She was signalling with her fan to a friend behind me, and I thought then, and I think still, that her smiling face was the most beautiful thing I had ever beheld. Her hair, which is pure silver now, and no less lovely, was as dark as night, but her face was full of pure color, the brow pale, the cheeks rosy, and the red of the lips unusually bright and full for an Englishwoman, as I at first thought her to be. Her beautiful figure was set off to great advantage by a simple gown of white Indian muslin-the white was of a crearaish tone, I remember, and a string of large pearls was her only ornament. My heart gave a sudden odd leap when I saw her, and I had the feeling I have known more than once when I have been ordered on a dangerous service. But the sensation did not pass away, as it does under danger when the feeling comes that action is necessary. I continued to flutter like a school-girl; and when by accident her eyes met mine, a moment later, I felt that I blushed like fire. I could read a sort of recognition in her glance, and for a moment it seemed as if she would float down the stairs, in spite of the intervening crush, and speak to me. But instead of that she sighted Brunow at my side and beckoned him.
* Note by Violet Fyffe.—My husband had saved the life of his general a day earlier, in circumstances of extraordinary heroism. I do not expect to find any record of that sort of act in any pages written by his hand.
"Can you contrive to come to me, Mr. Brunow?" she asked, in a voice as lovely as her own eyes. They were the first words I heard her speak, and I seem to hear them again as I write them down, just as I can see her exquisite face and noble figure instinct with youth, though when I raise my eyes I can see my old wife-God bless her!-walking a little feebly in the garden, with a walking-stick of mine to help her steps.
Brunow made his way to her, and they talked for a minute. I couldn't help listening to her voice, and I heard my own name.
"You know the gentleman who stood beside you?" she asked. And Brunow answering that he and I were old friends, she said, "It is Captain Fyffe, I think."
"No other, Miss Rossano," said Brunow.
"Bring him here and introduce me to him," she said. "I have a great desire to know Captain Fyffe."
At this I hardly knew whether I stood on my head or my heels; but Brunow calling me by name, and the crush thinning just then for a moment, I made my way easily to the step below the one she stood on, and Brunow introduced us to each other. Now I had lived very much away from women all my life. I lost my mother early, and of sisters and cousins and such-like feminine furniture I had none, so that I had never had practice among them; and I speak quite honestly in saying that I would sooner have stormed a breach than have faced this young lady. Not that even my intolerable shyness and the sense of my own clumsiness before her could make it altogether disagreeable to be there, but because there was such a riot in my head-and in my heart, too—and I was mortally afraid of blurting out something which should tell her how I felt. And if you will look at it rightly, a gentleman—and when I say a gentleman I mean nothing more or less than a man of good birth and right feeling—has no right to think, even in his own heart, too admiringly of a young lady at their first meeting. At the very moment when I saw my wife I thought her, I knew her, indeed, to be the most faultlessly beautiful woman I had ever seen, and I was as certain as I am now that her soul was as flawless as her face. My heart was right, but I was too precipitate in my feelings, and if I had dared I would have knelt before her. All this, I dare say, is romantic and old-fashioned to the verge of absurdity; but it is so true that all the other truths I have known, excepting those I have no right to speak of here, seem to fall into insignificance beside it. I fell in love with my wife there and then; and without even knowing it I was vowed to her service as truly as I have been in the forty-two years that have gone by since then. I thank Heaven for it humbly, for there is nothing which can so help a man in his struggles against what is base and unworthy in himself as his love for a good woman. If that has grown to be an old-fashioned doctrine in these days I am sorry for the world. It is true, it has been true, and will be true again.
"I have heard of you often, Captain Fyffe," said the charming voice, "and I am delighted to meet you. Your old comrade, Jack Rollinson, is a cousin of mine."
I blushed again at this; but I could have heard nothing that would have pleased me more, for, early as it was, I would have given anything to stand well in this lady's eyes, and Rollinson and I were fast friends. I had the good-fortune to save his life in a row at Santa Fe, and from that hour poor Jack sang my praises in and out of season. I knew that if Miss Rossano had gained any opinion of me from Jack Rollinson it would not be a bad one. Indeed, my only fear was that Jack had probably praised me so far beyond my merits that nobody who had seen the portrait would have the slightest chance of recognizing the original. But when I had once heard my old comrade's name I was able to identify this charming young lady. Rollinson had more than once spoken of his beautiful cousin, Violet Rossano, and I knew a little of her history. I learned more of it that night, and myself became concerned in it in a very surprising manner.
Miss Rossano and I talked of Jack and of our common adventures, and to my delight, and the great easing of my embarrassment, she treated me almost like an old friend. She was swept off by the crowd at last; but in going she bade me call upon her at her aunt's house-Lady Rollinson's-where I might have news of my friend; and it need scarce be said that I promised eagerly to accept her invitation.
When I saw that I had seen the last of her for that evening I had no desire to stay in the crush which filled the rooms; and finding Brunow in the same mind as myself, I went away with him. Brunow lived off Regent Street, in a garret handsomely furnished and tenantable, but stuffy and confined to my notions, used as I had been to the open-air life of a soldier on active service. We threw the windows wide open, and sat down beside them with a tumbler of cool liquor apiece, Brunow with his cigar, and I with my pipe-which I was glad to get back to after a regimen of those beastly South American cigarettes—and we made ourselves comfortable. My mind was so full of my beautiful new acquaintance that I must needs approach her in my talk, and I used Jack Rollinson as a sort of stalking-horse. Brunow, as I found out later on, was in love with her-after his fashion—which, as I shall have to show you, was not very profound or manly; but, at any rate, he was glad of a chance to talk about her, and I was glad to listen.
"That beautiful girl you met to-night," he told me, "has a strange history. She is one-and-twenty years of age, and her father is still living, but she and he never saw each other in their lives."
I said something to the effect that this was strange, and I asked the reason of it.
"I dare say," Brunow answered, "that I am the only man in England who knows the truth about the matter. The world has given the Conte di Rossano up for dead years and years ago. His daughter has no idea that he is alive. Yet I saw him no more than six weeks ago."
"And you have not told her?" I asked.
"Why should I pain her for nothing?" he demanded in his turn. "She never saw him. She never even knew enough of him to grieve for him. He is not so much as a memory in her mind. And since they can never come together, it is better for her to go on believing that he died while she was in her babyhood."
"What is to prevent their coming together?" I asked.
"He is a prisoner," said Brunow, gravely. "Mind you, Fyffe, I tell you this in the strictest confidence, and I know you well enough to trust you."
I knew Brunow well enough to know that if there were any truth in the story, it would be told in the strictest confidence until it was property as common as the news of the town crier. I knew him well enough to know also that if it were not true, but merely one of his countless romances, it would be forgotten in the morning in the growth of some new invention as romantic and as baseless as itself. In any case, I gave him the assurance he asked for, and he went on with his story.
"More than two-and-twenty years ago Miss Ros-sano's grandfather, General Sir Arthur Rawlings, and his wife made a trip through Italy. They took with them their daughter Violet, and in Rome they met the Conte di Rossano, who by all accounts was then a young, rich, handsome fellow, and the hope of the National party. The National party in Italy has always had a hope of some sort, and their hope is always just about as hopeful as a sane man's despair."
"I am not so sure of that," I cried. "I shall live to see the Italians a free people yet!"
"You are one of the enthusiasts," said Brunow, laughing. "And I suppose that if you got an opportunity you'd lend the cause a hand." I said "Assuredly," and Brunow laughed again. "Well, to keep to the story," he went on, "the count saw Miss Rawlings, and fell head over ears in love with her at first sight. He was young, he was handsome; he had spent years in England, and spoke the language like a native. He made love like Romeo, but the young lady at first would not listen to him. He followed the party to England, stuck to his cause like a man, and finally won it. The only objection anybody had to urge against him was that he was hand in glove with the conspirators against Austrian rule. The Austrian's were just as much a fixture in Italy as they are at this day; the Italians were just as hotly bent as they are now on getting rid of them, and Sir Arthur, who was an old diplomat, was afraid of the prospective son-in-law's political ideas. He tried at first to make marriage a question of surrender of the cause, but the count was ultra-romantic, ultra-patriotic, ultra-Italian all over in point of fact. Not even for love's sake would he throw over his country, and, oddly enough, it was this bit of romanticism which clinched the lady's affection."
"And why oddly?" I asked him.
"My dear fellow," said Brunow, "why should I characterize or analyze a woman's whims. The story is the main point. Miss Rawlings married the count. Within three months of their marriage the count went back to Italy to assist in the stirring up of some confounded Italian hot-pot or other, and was never heard of again. Seven or eight months after, the girl you met to-night was born. Her mother died a few months later. The count's estates were confiscated by the Austrian government, and the little orphan was bred by her grandparents. They are dead now, and Miss Rossano is chaperoned by her aunt, Lady Rollinson, and lives with her. When she is two-and-twenty she will come in for her dead mother's money, some forty or maybe fifty thousand pounds. In the meantime she inherits some two thousand a year from her grandfather. There are better things in the marriage market, but—"
There he stopped and sipped at his tumbler, and I sat thinking for a while. Barring that one little point in the story at which Brunow introduced himself, I was disposed to give the history entire credence. But that Brunow should have seen the mournful hero of the tale within the last six weeks was altogether too like Brunow to be believed without some confirmation. One rarely tells even the most practised romancer outright and in so many words that he is not telling the truth, but I fenced for a time.
"And the count's alive, you say?"
"Alive? I saw him barely six weeks ago. I'll tell you all about it." He leaned forward in his chair, and I would have sworn that he was inventing as he went on. "I was at a little place called Itzia, in the Tyrol, when by pure chance I stumbled on a fellow I had known in Paris and Vienna—a fellow named Reschia, Lieutenant Reschia. He was on General Radetsky's staff when I knew him first—an empty-headed fellow rather; but a man's glad to meet anybody in a place like Itzia; and when he asked me to dine with him at the fortress, I was jolly glad to go. 'We've got an old file here,' he told me, 'the Italians would give anything to get hold of if they only knew where he was. I believe they'd tear the place down with their nails to get at him.' It was after dinner, and he was ridiculously confidential. He pledged me to secrecy of course, and of course I told him that I should respect any confidence he reposed in me. Of course I did, out there; and equally, of course, I'm not bound here. It came out they'd got the Conte di Rossano there, and when I heard the name I jumped. Reschia didn't take notice of my surprise, and after a time I said I should like to see the fellow. He pointed him out to me next day, taking exercise in the court-yard."
"The count," I said, still less than doubtful of the truth of Brunow's story—"the count must have been a man of unusual importance to the political party to be remembered with such a passionate devotion after so many years."
"God bless your soul," cried Brunow, "it was devotion! Those Austrian fellows are as cunning as the devil. The Italians have been made to believe these twenty years that the count was playing fast and loose with both parties. His jailers made out that he had been a paid spy in their service, and pretended that he had been killed by one of the Nationalist party, whom they hanged."
"Of course you made no effort to release him?"
"How the deuce could I? Release him! If you knew the fortress at Itzia you'd think twice before trying that. Besides—hang it all, man!—I was Reschia's guest; and he told me the story under the seal of confession."
I spoke unguardedly, but I was not allowed to go far.
"If your story is true, Brunow—"
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, with sudden anger. Everybody knew how utterly irresponsible he was, but nothing made him so angry as to be doubted. "The story's true; and if proof were wanted, here is proof enough."
He rose with unusual vivacity, and, throwing open an escritoire, took from it a disorderly little pile of papers. He searched this through, muttering in a wounded tone meanwhile. "True? If the story's true? I'll show you whether it's true or not! No! By George, it isn't here! Now where on earth can I have put that paper?"
Just as I was laughing inwardly to think how well he thought it worth while to pretend, he slapped his forehead with a sudden air of recollection, turned again to the escritoire, drew from it a crumpled dirty scrap of paper, and striding over to me thrust it into my hand. "Read that," he said.
"These lines," I read, "are written by the Conte di Rossano, for more than twenty years a prisoner in the fortress of Itzia. They are carried at grave danger to himself by an attendant whose pity has been moved by the contemplation of a life of great misery. Should they reach the hands of the English stranger for whom they are intended, he is besought, for the love of God, to convey them to the Contessa di Rossano, daughter of Sir Arthur Rawlings, of Barston Manor, Warwickshire, who must long have mourned the writer as dead."
"That was slipped into my hand as I was leaving the village," said Brunow. "If the countess had been living—unless she had been married again—I should have thought it my duty to let her know the truth. But Miss Rossano knows nothing—guesses nothing. Why should I wound her with a piece of news like this?"
We did not talk much more that night, but I had plenty to think about as I walked home to my hotel.
If I had never seen that pencilled scrap of paper, I should have had no belief in Brunow's story. But though he was a romancer to his finger tips, and as irresponsible as a baby, I had never known him to take the least trouble to bolster up any of his inventions, or to show the least shame when he was discovered in a lie. I am told that people who suffer from kleptomania cannot be taught to be ashamed of stealing, though even a dog has grace enough to be abashed if you catch him in an act of dishonesty. I have met in my lifetime two or three men like Brunow, who lie without temptation, and who do not feel disgraced when detected.
For once I could not help believing him, and his story stuck in my mind in a very disagreeable way, for Miss Rossano fairly haunted me, and anything which was associated with her had an importance in my eyes. It was a hard thing to think that such a living tragedy should be so close to a creature so young and bright and happy. I praised Brunow in my own mind for his sensible resolution to keep the secret of her father's existence from her, but I was constantly thinking whether there might not be some possibility of setting the prisoner free. If I had been a rich man I could see quite enough chance of adventure to tempt me to the enterprise. I hated the Austrian rule with all my heart and soul, as at that time the Austrian rule deserved that every freeborn Englishman should hate it. The thought of Italian independence set my blood on fire, and I would as soon have fought for that cause as for any in the world.
I don't care to talk much about my own character, but I have often laughed to hear myself spoken of as a man whose life has been guided by romantic considerations. If I know anything about myself at all it is that I am severely practical. I could not even think of so far-away an enterprise as the attempted rescue of the count, a thing which, at the time, I was altogether unlikely and unable to attempt, without taking account of all the pros and cons, so, far as I could see them. In my own mind I laid special stress on the friendly attendant mentioned in the count's brief and pathetic letter. I felt sure that if I only had money enough to make that fellow feel safe about his future, I could have got the prisoner away. For in my own practical, hard-headed way I had got at the maps of the country and had studied the roads and had read up every line I could find.
If I try to explain what kept me a whole four weeks from accepting Miss Rossano's invitation to call upon her at the house of her aunt, Lady Rollinson, I am not at all sure that I shall succeed; I can say quite truly that there was not a waking hour in all that time in which she did not occupy my mind. Every morning I resolved that I would make the promised call, and every day dwindled into midnight without my having done it. I need not say that I was by this time aware of the condition of my heart. I ridiculed myself without avail, and tried to despise myself as a feather-headed fellow who had become a woman's captive at a glance. It was certainly not her wealth and my poverty which kept me away from her, for I never gave that matter a single thought—nor should I at any time in my life have regarded money as an inducement to marriage, or the want of it as a bar. It was no exalted idea of her birth as compared with mine, for I am one of the Fyffes of Dumbartonshire, and there is as good blood in my veins as flows from the heart of any Italian that ever wore a head. The plain fact, so far as I can make myself plain, is that I had already determined to win Miss Rossano for myself if I could, and that I felt that she deserved to be approached with delicacy and reserve. I knew all the while that I might be wasting chances, and I endured a good deal of trouble on that account. But four whole weeks went by before I ventured to obey her invitation to call, and by that time I was sore afraid that she had forgotten all about me.
It was Lady Rollinson herself who received me; a fat and comfortable lady of something more than fifty, as I should judge, though it is a perilous thing for a man to be meddling with guesses at a lady's age. She looked as if she could enjoy a good dinner, and as if she liked to have things soft and cosey about her; but in spite of that, she wore a countenance of pronounced kindliness, and received me, so to speak, with open arms. Her son, Jack, had inspired her with all manner of absurd beliefs about me, and she praised me to my face about my courage until I felt inclined to prove it by running away from an old woman. I assured her of what was actually the fact, that Jack's rescue was a very ordinary business, and accompanied by very little danger to myself; but this set her praising my modesty (which has never been my strong point), and I thought it best to turn the conversation. I ventured to hope that Miss Rossano was well.
"I am very sorry to tell you," said Lady Rollinson, "that Miss Rossano is very unwell indeed. She has been greatly upset this morning. We have had the strangest news, and I don't know whether we ought to believe it or not. I don't think I have ever been so flustered in my life; and as for Violet, poor dear, it's no wonder that she's disturbed by it, for she's one of the tenderest-hearted girls in the world, and the idea that she has been happy all the time is quite enough to kill anybody, I am sure."
Lady Rollinson rambled in this wise, and if I had had nothing to go on beforehand I should not have been able to make head or tail of her discourse; but Brunow's story flashed into my mind in a second, and I was sure that in some fashion it had reached Miss Rossano's ears. She gave me no time to offer a question, even if I had been disposed to do it, but started off again at once, and put all chance of doubt to rest.
"Poor Violet doesn't remember her father, for he has been supposed to be dead this twenty years; but he was the Conte di Rossano, a very handsome and charming young Italian gentleman, and I remember his courting Violet's mother as if it were only yesterday. The poor dear girl has the right to call herself the Contessa di Rossano; but that would be little use to her, for the Austrian government confiscated all her father's estates, and she never saw a penny from them, and I don't suppose she ever will. But her father went to Italy before she was born, and now it turns out that in place of being killed there, as every one thought at the time, he was taken prisoner by the Austrians. He's alive still, it seems, and a hopeless prisoner. Poor Violet only learned the truth last night, and she has done nothing but cry ever since."
I said I had heard the story from Brunow, but that I understood he had bound himself to strict secrecy about it.
"He might as well have held his tongue," cried her ladyship, "for all the good talking can do. But I've known George Brunow all his life, Captain Fyffe, and of course the idea of his keeping a secret is absurd. Mr. Brunow would talk a dog's hind-leg off, and you can't believe a quarter of the things he says. Only in this case he got a letter from the count, and some busybody persuaded him to surrender it, and brought it to poor Violet, and she has compared the handwriting with some letters of her father's which came to her from her poor dear mother, and she's quite convinced that it's the same, though twenty years is a long time, and a man's writing changes very often in less than that."
I heard a rustle in the room, and, turning, I saw Miss Rossano standing within a yard or two of us. How much of our conversation she had heard I could not tell, but I was certain from her look that she knew its purport.
"Good-morning, Captain Fyffe," she said, holding out her hand. I rose and took it in my own, and found that it burned like fire. Her eyelids were red and heavy, but her cheeks were almost colorless. She told me long afterwards that the pity she saw in my looks almost broke her down, and, indeed, I remember well how I felt when I saw her beautiful mouth trembling with the pain and sorrow which lay at her heart. She kept her self-possession, however, but by a sort of feminine instinct, I suppose, she sat down with her face away from the light, and when she spoke again no one who had not known the condition of affairs would have guessed, from the firm and even tones of her voice, that she suffered as she did. I think very highly of courage, whether in a man or in a woman, and I have no words to say how I admired her self-control.
"My aunt has been telling you of my dreadful news," she began, and I answered with a mere nod. Her next words almost took my breath away. "I am glad that you have called, and if you had not done so, I should have taken the liberty to send for you. You are a man of courage and experience, Captain Fyffe, and I wish to ask your advice and help."
I answered that I should be glad to render any service in my power, but I was afraid to show how eager I was to be of use to her, and I thought that my answer sounded grudging and reluctant.
"Thank you," she said, simply. I could see her great eyes shining from the dusk in which she sat, and they seemed never to leave my face for a moment. "I heard you say just now that Mr. Brunow had told you the story. Did he show you this?"
She drew a scrap of paper from the bosom of her dress, and I took it from her hand. I told her I had seen it before, and returned it to her.
"Without this," she went on, "I should have had no faith in Mr. Brunow's statement; but I have compared it with old letters of my father's, and I have no doubt that it was written by his hand. Now, Captain Fyffe"—she did her hardest to be business-like and commonplace in manner through all this interview, and my honor and esteem rose higher every moment—"now, Captain Fyffe, I want to ask you if in your judgment there is anything which can be done. I come to you—I tell you frankly—because you have already done my family one incalculable service. It is a poor way of offering thanks to burden you with a new trouble."
"If I have done anything to save you from grief or trouble, Miss Rossano," I replied, "I can ask for no better reward than to be allowed to repeat my service."
If she had been anybody but the woman she was she might have accepted my words, which I knew were spoken with coldness and restraint, as a mere surface compliment of no value. But I never knew her yet mistaken' in respect of that one virtue of sincerity. It is especially her own, and it is the touchstone by which a true heart tests all others.
"Thank you," she answered, simply.
I told her it was four weeks that day since I had first heard of the matter, and that I had since given it a good deal of practical consideration. I drew for her a rough map of the country, showing the roads, marking the places where guards were posted, and so on, and I gave her what information I had been able to acquire about the rates of possible travel. From Itzia I calculated we could, if well mounted, cross the frontier in about nine hours. There were no telegraph wires in that region in those days, and I pointed out that with a start of a single hour escape was probable. I laid stress on the value of the sympathetic attendant, and she hung with clasped hands and suspended breath on every word I spoke.
"You have thought of all this already?" she asked, when I had said all I then had to say.
"I have thought of little else," I answered. "But now I must tell you that all this will cost money."
"We can see to that," said Lady Rollinson, who was almost as interested as her niece. She showed it another way; for while Miss Rossano had listened without a word, the old lady had been full of starts and ejaculations.
"I must be able to tell the man on whose aid I shall have to rely that the relatives of the count are wealthy, and that they will reward him handsomely. I may even have to promise him an independence for life."
"You may promise him anything it is in my power to give him," cried Miss Rossano. "If I could secure my father's liberty I would surrender every penny I have in the world."
"The man is a common soldier," I responded. "He has his rations and his clothes, and a few copper coins a day to find him a little beer and tobacco. To such a man a pension of a pound a week would look like Paradise. Much depends on his condition. If he is a single man, I may secure him. If he is married and has a family, I shall find greater difficulties in the way. The great thing is not to hope too much. I will try, if you will allow me, and I will leave no stone unturned."
"Captain Fyffe, how shall I thank you?" cried Miss Rossano.
"I shall be repaid, madame," I answered, "if I succeed." She did not understand me then, but I told her afterwards what my meaning had been. I told her that I should have earned the right, if I brought her father back with me, to tell her I had earned the right to say that I knew no such pride as to live or die in her service. And that was simply true, though I had as yet met her but twice. I think that love at first sight must be a commoner thing than many people imagine. If it was so real with a sober-sided, hard-headed fellow like myself, who had spent all the years of his manhood in rough-and-tumble warfare, what must it be with romantic and high-strung people who are more naturally prone to it.
"You will run great risks, Captain Fyffe," said her ladyship.
"It has been the habit of my life," I answered, "to run as few risks as possible."
"I hardly know if we have the right to ask you to undertake such a hair-brained enterprise," she said again.
"I have not waited to be asked, Lady Rollinson. I am a volunteer."
"Give us at least a hint of what you propose to do," urged her ladyship. "Let us be sure that you do not intend to run into danger."
"It would be futile to plan until I am on the spot," I answered; "and as for danger—I shall meet nothing I can avoid."
"I shall trust Captain Fyffe entirely," said Miss Rossano. "As for money, Captain Fyffe," she added, turning to me, "you must not be cramped in that respect. Will you call and see my bankers to-morrow?"
"I should prefer," I answered, "to start to-night. I have ample funds for my immediate purposes, and I shall make my way, in the first place, to Vienna. Tell me your banker's name, and I will find out his agents there. And now good-bye, Miss Rossano. I cannot promise success, but I will do what I can."
She answered that she was sure of that; and when she had given me the name of her bankers and I had made a note of it, we shook hands and parted. For my own part I was glad that Lady Rollinson's presence made our parting commonplace.
I hailed the first hackney carriage I met and drove to my rooms. There I found my passport, and went with it to the Foreign Office, where, through the good offices of an old schoolfellow, I had it vised without loss of time, and then home again to pack. Travelling was slower then than it is to-day, but we thought it mighty rapid, and scarcely to be improved upon, it differed so from the post-chaise and stage-coach crawl of a few years before. There was no direct correspondence between Hamburgh and Vienna, but the journey was shorter by a day than it had been when I had last made it. I reached the Austrian capital after an entirely adventureless journey, and felt that my enterprise was begun.
I called at the Embassy, and had my papers finally put in order. I called on the Viennese agents of Miss Rossano's bankers, and found that no less a sum than one thousand pounds had been placed to my credit. Not only was this liberal provision made for contingencies, but I received a letter from Miss Rossano telling me that anything within her means was fully at my disposal. I thought it not unlikely that with so persuasive a sum behind me I might be able to win over the kindly jailer to our side. My thoughts were very often with this man, and I spent a good deal of useless time in speculating about him. Was he married or single? That was a point on which much depended, and I was half inclined to pray that he might prove to be a bachelor. Marital responsibilities were all against my hopes. Marital confidences might well upset the best-laid plans I could devise.
I was thinking thus as I paced the Ring Strasse on the third day after my arrival in Vienna. I lingered in the capital against the grain, for I was eager to be at work, but it was part of a policy which I had already settled. Itzia was not the sort of place for which one would make a straight road, unless one had special business there, and it was the merest seeming of having any special business there which I was profoundly anxious to avoid. So I lingered in Vienna, and on this third day, pacing the chief street, I felt a sudden hand clapped upon my shoulder, and, turning, faced Brunow.
"Here you are," he cried, still keeping his hand upon my shoulder as I turned. "I have been to the bank and to your hotel. I have been hunting you, in point of fact, all day, and here at last I come upon you by chance."
"What brings you in Vienna?" I asked him. I did my best to be cordial, but I was sorry for his intrusion, and would willingly have known him to be a thousand miles away.
He glanced swiftly and warily about him, and, seeing nobody within ear-shot, answered in an easy tone:
"I have come to assist in your enterprise, Fyffe, and I mean to see you through it."
"I think," I told him, "that I prefer to go through my enterprise alone."
"My dear fellow," said Brunow, "I couldn't dream of allowing you to run any risk alone in such a cause. And besides that, I have a little selfish reason of my own. In addition, you don't speak the language, and will be in a thousand corners. I was bred here, and speak the language like a native. I have already the entree to the place you desire to get into, and I can introduce you. My sympathetic friend—" He broke off suddenly because a foot-passenger drew near. "It is, as you say, a beastly journey, but, as you say again, it's done with, and when you know Vienna as well as I do, you will say it pays for the trouble ten times over. Vienna, my dear fellow, is the jolliest and the handsomest city in the world." The passenger went by, and he resumed at the dropped word. "My sympathetic friend will recognize me, and at my return will be immediately on the qui vive. Negotiations will be as good as opened the very minute of my arrival. You'll want an interpreter, and here am I sworn to the cause, and secret as the tomb. In effect, I'm going, and I don't see how the deuce you expected to get on without me."
"I suppose," I asked him, "you know what to expect if we fail and are caught?"
He took me by the arm and walked with me along the road, sinking his voice to a confidential murmur.
"You're a son of Mars, Fyffe, and you ought to be able to understand my feelings. You've met Miss Rossano, and I dare say you can understand the possibility of a man actually losing his head over a creature so charming and so well provided for." I could have struck him for the cynicism of his final words, but I restrained myself. "Now I don't mind telling you, Fyffe, that I've a little bit of a tendresse in that direction, and, between ourselves, I'm not at all sure that it isn't returned. Miss Rossano is convinced that this is a service of especial and particular danger. So it might be for a headstrong old warrior like yourself if you were in it alone; but as I shall manage it there won't be a hint of danger, and we shall get the credit without the risk. And so, my dear Fyffe, I'm with you. My motives I believe are as purely selfish as I should always wish them to be. Yours of course are as purely unselfish as you would always desire."
Of course I knew already the man's complete want of responsibility. Here almost in his first breath he couldn't dream of allowing me to run the risk alone, and here in almost his last breath there was to be no risk at all. I dreaded his companionship; and when I had taken time to think the matter over I told him so quite plainly.
"My dear Fyffe," he answered, "you don't know me. You haven't seen me under circumstances demanding discretion. You tell me I'm a feather-head, and I've not the slightest doubt in the world that if you asked any of our common acquaintances you'd find the epithet endorsed. It's my way, my boy, but it's only a little outside trick of mine, and it has nothing to do with the real man inside. And besides that, Fyffe, you know you can't prevent my going, and so—why argue about it?"
"There is risk in this business," I said, "and grave risk. Let us have no further folly on that theme. I could prevent you from going, and I would if it were not for the fact that I think it more dangerous to leave you behind than to take you with me. You would be hinting this to this man, and that to the other, and I should have a noose about my neck through that slack tongue of yours before I had been away a fortnight. You shall go, but I warn you of the risk beforehand."
"There's no risk at all," he said, pettishly. "I've told you so already."
"Pardon me," I answered. "I am going to show you the risk. If this enterprise should fail by any folly of yours, if I am sacrificed by any indiscretion or stupidity on your part, I will shoot you. I am going out with my life in my hand, and I mean to take care of it. You can be useful to me, and I will use you. But please understand the conditions, for so truly as you and I stand here, I mean to keep them."
I knew enough of Brunow to be sure that he would treat this plain statement as if it were a jest, and I knew that he read me well enough to be sure that it was nothing of the sort. The threat made him safe. In an hour he was talking as if he had forgotten all about it, but I knew better.
We travelled at apparent random for nearly three weeks, and when at last we reached Itzia, no man could possibly have guessed that we had set out with that little place as our serious destination. It was Brunow who suggested this lingering method of approach, and it was he also who gave a semblance of nature to our proceedings by pausing here and there to set up his camp-stool and easel in some picturesque defile, or in the streets of some quaint village. Twice this innocent blind brought us into collision with the military police, who were in a condition of perpetual disquiet, and suspected everybody. Our papers, however, were in perfect order, and Brunow in particular was so well provided with credentials that we were easily set going again, and so by a circuitous road we approached Itzia, and finally pounced down upon it from the hills.
I found it a village of not more than four or five hundred inhabitants, set in the midst of a green plateau surrounded by gaunt hills, and watered by a fair, broad stream. The fortress in which the Conte di Rossano was confined stood on the lowest slope of the nearest hill, and frowned down upon the village with a threatening aspect, dwarfed as it was almost into nothing by the surrounding majesties of nature. It was a building of modern date—not more than fifty years of age I should be inclined to say—and it boasted nothing in the way of architectural beauty. It was built of an ugly dark stone, was strongly fortified, and was flanked by outlying batteries which surrounded the mouth of the defile which led from Zetta on the frontier. The artillery of to-day would reduce the fortress of Itzia to a rubbish heap in less than an hour; but it was a strong place for the date of its erection, and even now the difficulty of bringing siege guns along the broken and difficult mountain pathways makes it worth calculating as a point of resistance against invasion.
I saw it first at the close of a dull day when a storm was brewing. The sky was overcast, and the clouds were mustering fast from the south in black battalions. Every now and then a hoarse echoing rumble of sound went wandering about in the hollows of the hills with a deep cavernous tone, which sounded astonishingly threatening and foreboding. I suppose that everybody knows more or less the feeling which associates itself with the first view of any memorable place, and fixes itself as it were upon his recollection of it. After all these years I can hardly think of the fortress at Itzia without some return of the depression and half-dismay which fell upon me when I first looked at it, with the black clouds gathering thickly over it, the mountain on which it stood looking as if it would topple over and bury fortress and valley, and one spear-like gleam of bleak sunshine lighting up a few of its windows and a few square yards of its western wall. Of course I had never been guilty of such a madness as to think of approaching the place by anything but wile and stratagem; and its bulk and blackness and the thickness of its walls had nothing in the world to do with the success or failure of my enterprise, and yet I could not resist a feeling of discouragement which almost amounted to a sense of superstition.
We had engaged a guide from some little village, the name of which I forget, at which we had rested on the previous night; and the castle was the first object to which he had called our attention.
"There!" he cried, pausing at a sudden bend in the road, and turning half round upon us with his right hand pointing forward. "There is the fortress of Itzia. The end of your journey, gentlemen."
I spoke the language very feebly, but I happened to understand every word he said, and his speech gave me a nervous chill. It was not altogether unlikely that the end of our journey lay in that forbidding heap of dark stone, and the thought was not an agreeable one. Brunow caught the fancy too, and turning on me with a smile which I thought not quite natural, said:
"A bad omen!"
We trudged along pretty wearily, for we had made on foot a good five-and-twenty miles that day, and the country had been extremely difficult. The mountain road had scarcely been worthy to be called a road at all, and in the course of it we had had a score or so of break-back climbs. Brunow had held out with an unexpected stoutness, but I think another mile of such a road would have left him helpless; and though I was more innured to personal fatigue than he, I gave half a grunt and half a groan of comfort at the thought of stretching my legs in an arm-chair at the village inn. We were both as hungry as we had a right to be, and finding our feet set upon turf instead of insecure stones with points all over them, we mustered our forces for a brief run downhill. The guide, who had done the journey with a stolid indifference, set up a whoop and raced after us speedily, getting the better of us, and so we entered the village racing like a trio of school-boys, Brunow and I shouting to each other and laughing. Some of the villagers came to their doors and looked with an ox-like kind of wonder after us, but just then the first open growl of the tempest sounded, the premature blackness of the evening was split wide open by a sudden flash, and the rain began to fall as it can only fall in mountain countries and in the tropics, I suppose the inhabitants simply thought we were flying from the storm, and, anyway, at the first sign of it they slammed and fastened their doors, and we raced on, drenched almost to the skin in the first minute.
Brunow knew the inn, of course, and was recognized immediately on his arrival. The fat hostess, stolid as she looked, seemed glad to see him; and her pretty daughter, who looked in the characteristic costume of the country as if she had just stepped off the stage or was just ready to step on to it, received him with demure smiles and blushes. He was quite a lion among the ladies, was Brunow, and I had no doubt he had been doing some little execution here. In a minute or two, at the landlady's bidding, we had stripped off our soaked coats and were sitting by a wood-fire, each in a brief Tyrolean jacket, with lace and silver buttons all about it—the property, as we found out afterwards, of our host and his son, who were out just then shooting on the hills, and likely, as we learned, to be away all night.
We had an excellent meal: fish from the river, fowl from the poultry-yard—we heard the clucking of the doomed hen, and the indignant remonstrances of her companions—a capital omelette, and country cheese and butter. With these comfortable things we had a bottle of honest wine of unknown vintage, but palatable and generous; and when the meal was over we sat and smoked in a kind of animal ease begotten of the past labor and present comfort. The storm lashed the panes, and though the time of year was but late August, and the hour not beyond six of the afternoon, it was so dark we could scarce see across the road. Yet every flash of lightning that hung with its blue, quivering light in the skies for two or three seconds at a time showed the fortress to either of us who chose to look out of window; and tired and bodily contented as I was, I never saw its gloomy form thus gloomily illuminated; but my first feeling on beholding it came back to me, and with it the guide's phrase: "The end of your journey, gentlemen!" The Austrian government would have seen to that if any merest guess of our purpose had occurred to the stupidest of its officials. I speak of Austria as she was, not as she is. She has learned something in the universal struggle for freedom which has shaken Europe since I first opened my eyes upon the world. But in those days—I speak it calmly, and with something, at least I hope, of the judgment which should belong to old age—Austria was a power to be loathed and warred against by all good men, a stronghold of tyranny and cruelty, a dark land within whose darkness dark deeds were done, a country where the oppressed found no helper. I am heaping up words in vain, which is a thing outside my habits. Every student of history knows what Austria was at that time, and there are thousands still living who are old enough to remember.
We went to bed early that night in spite of thunder and lightning, rain and wind, and slept as we deserved to do after the heavy marching of the day. When I got up in the morning the mountains were smiling in a sun-bath, the river wound shining through fields of delightful green, and the fortress, ugly as it was in itself, took from its surroundings, and helped to give them back again a picturesque and pleasing look. The feeling I had first had in respect to it never came back again in its first force; and when I looked at it with the refreshment of rest in my own heart, and the brightness of the clean-washed earth and heaven about it and above it, I could afford to smile at the womanish foreboding and chill of the night before.
Brunow was still sleeping, and I was loath to disturb him; so dressing myself carelessly but without noise, I went down-stairs, and there munched a fragment of black bread and drank a draught of milk. Then having tried in vain to say that I wanted a towel, I contrived to express myself to the landlord's pretty daughter by signs. I pointed out-of-doors, made a pantomime of undressing, diving, and swimming, and then a further pantomime of rubbing myself down. At this she understood, supplied me with what I wanted, and led me to the door, whence she pointed to the left, and then seemed by a sweeping motion of the hand to indicate a turning to the right. I took the way thus signalled, and in a very little time found myself in a sequestered spot by the water-side, which looked as if it might have been made for my purpose. A great boulder as big as a moderate-sized house protected the place from view on the village side, and the place was bowered in trees. A short, soft grass made a delightful footing, and on the opposite side of the river a fallen tree had been trimmed into convenient shape for diving from. A narrow track worn through the grass showed that this place was frequently approached. I was seated and in the act of unlacing my heavy mountain boots, when I heard a cheery and melodious voice singing; and, looking up, I saw at a little distance through the trees a young Austrian officer in undress, strolling at an easy pace towards me. He, too, had evidently come out for a morning dip, for he was swinging a towel in his right hand, and was lounging straight towards the river.
As he came nearer I saw that he was handsome in an effeminate sort of way, with a slight lady-like sort of figure, a blond mustache, so light in color as to be almost invisible at a distance, and fine girlish eyes of a light blue. As he saw me in turn he gave me a good-morning in a cheery tone, and I returned his salutation. He noticed my accent at once and said,
"Ah! An Englishman?" I answered, "Yes;" and having disembarrassed myself of the heavy boots, stood up to throw off my jacket. "And a soldier?" he said. Then speaking in English this time, but with a very laughable and halting accent—an accent, I should be inclined to say, almost as laughable and halting as mine sounded to him. "I mak yeeoo velkom at my place."
At this I asked him if the place were private and I an intruder, but this little bit of English, took him altogether out of his depth.
"I speak English abominably," he said in fluent and accurate French; "properly speaking, I do not know it at all. May I ask if you speak French?"
French and Spanish are the only two foreign languages of which I know anything, but I speak them both with ease, though I dare say with little elegance. I repeated my question, and he, with great good-humor, responded that he had no claim upon the place, and was delighted to find a companion of similar tastes; I went on undressing without more ado, and in a minute more was ploughing about in the water, the first nip of which had an icy and almost maddening delight in it. I found out later on that the stream came almost straight from the mountain-tops of ice and snow.
"You would not have bathed here five or six hours ago," said my companion, as he swam beside me. "The storm lasted but two hours, yet the river was raging here until long after midnight. It falls, however, as soon as it rises, and now, except for the wet banks, you would hardly guess that it had been in flood."
I had reason to remember what he said not very much later on, at a moment perhaps as anxious as any I have ever had to face in my life. But that will come in its place, and I only notice it here because it was one of those odd things in life that we all notice at one time or another, that at our first accidental meeting the man whose business it was to guard the prisoner I had come to rescue should give me a bit of comforting knowledge in this way. For my companion turned out to be none other than that Lieutenant Breschia of whom Brunow had spoken. When my swim was finished he gathered up his clothes in a neat bundle, and holding them in the air in one hand, paddled himself easily across with the other, and dressed beside me.
"It is ambition of mine," he said, in a laughing, boyish way, which made his manner very charming and natural, "to learn your English tongue. But I am stupid with it, and whenever I meet an Englishman I waste my chances and converse with him in one of the tongues I know already. You are great masters of language, you Englishmen."
I told him that we bore a very indifferent reputation in that respect, and that next to the French, who in that one regard are the most intractable people in the world, we were probably less acquainted with foreign languages than any people in Europe. He looked surprised.
"I think, sir, you rate yourselves too low. May I offer you a cigar? I can assure you of its quality, for I import my own. It is true that I have not met many Englishmen in my time, but I have met none who have not been admirable linguists. A friend of mine, an Englishman, who was in this neighborhood but a few weeks ago, is one of the finest I have known. He may perhaps be known to you. Have you ever met, may I ask, the honorable Brunow?"
This gave me a little inward start, and I had begun to guess already at the identity of my companion. I bit the end from the cigar I had accepted from him a moment before, and asked,
"The Honorable George Brunow?"
"That is he," cried the young fellow, delightedly. "You know him?"
"He is my companion," I replied. "I left him asleep at the auberge less than an hour ago."
"You are the friend of my friend Brunow!" he exclaimed. "Sir, I am delighted to meet you. And Brunow is here again? What news! And do you stay long? Oh, once again life will be bearable. In this dull hole, sir, I pledge you my most sacred word of honor, a man has but one contemplation; his thoughts are all towards suicide. Figure for yourself the life we lead here: the commandant a bachelor of sixty, and "—he lowered his voice and bent laughingly to my ear—"a bore the most intense, the most rigid, the most unbending, conceivable by the mind of man. But pardon me—that is my name. You have not travelled in this direction with Brunow without hearing it?"
"No, indeed," I answered. "Brunow has spoken of you hundreds of times. I have no card, but my name is Fyffe. Brunow shall give us a formal introduction by-and-by."
I did my best to carry off the situation, but I doubt if I achieved any very great measure of success. I can say honestly that if there is one thing in this world I abhor with all my heart and soul it is treachery. And there was no escape from the fact that I was here for the express purpose of playing the traitor with this amiable and friendly young fellow, and there is no escape from the fact that I was bound to go on playing the traitor with him, to receive his friendly advances, to accept his welcome, and all the while to plot and plan to work away from him the prisoner it was his duty to guard, and for whose safe-keeping his reputation at least, and perhaps his life, was responsible. This reflection kept me awkward and constrained, but luckily for me he took no notice of my clumsiness, but rattled on as if he took an actual delight in the sound of his own voice.
"Brunow," he declared, "is the most delightful man I have ever known. The common complaint I hear against your delightful countrymen, Monsieur Fiff, is that they are devoid of esprit of verve—that they are too alive to their responsibilities, that they live in a cave of depression of spirits. As I say, I have not known many; but I have not found them so, and Brunow least of all. Brunow in his gayety, in his wit, is French of the French. An astonishing man. Though, even here—in that infernal fortress yonder where I suffer incredibly from le spleen—I laugh when I am by myself, and when the face and voice of Brunow present themselves to my memory. What conversation, eh? What inventions! What a noble farceur! Let us go and see him."
He set off at an impetuous pace, which he moderated almost immediately; and gayly chattering all the way, led me—feeling like a villain at every step, yet not in the least relaxing from my purpose—to the hostel, where we found Brunow chaffing the landlady, who was already busy in the preparation of our breakfast. The impetuous Lieutenant Breschia fell upon his neck and kissed him on both cheeks, and Brunow returned the salute with heartiness. I may as well let the fact out at once and have the declaration over: I was beginning to have a serious dislike for Brunow, though I strove to subdue it, trying to reflect how much our rivalry, of which he knew nothing, might possibly warp my judgment of him. At that minute I felt a downright twinge of hatred and contempt for him; and his kisses made him seem like a sort of Judas in my eyes. I did not pause to reflect that the kiss meant no more to him than a shake of the hand means to a man who has been bred in England, and it is a form of salute which—though I have been familiar with the sight of it for years together—I cordially hate. Those beastly South American Spaniards, among whom I fought, were always at it, with their beards scented with garlic and tobacco! It was a form of salute I had hard work to avoid at times; but I should always have been ready to astonish the man who had succeeded in getting at me in that fashion. I loathed Brunow for his acceptance and return of that caress; and yet the man-was doing no more than his breeding demanded of him; and if he had recoiled from his friend he would have insulted him. I loathed myself because this duplicity was necessary to our plan, but I never proposed to myself for a moment to go back from the plan itself. I stood pledged to Miss Rossano to rescue her father from that horrible long-drawn imprisonment if the courage, or the wit, of man could compass it; and I meant, with all my heart and soul, to keep my word. In spite of that I had no stomach for the means it was necessary to employ; and at last it came to this: in place of hating and despising myself for using the means, I took to hating and despising the Austrians for making the means necessary.
In less than a minute Brunow was justifying his friend's opinion of him by an extravagantly farcical story of our adventures by the way, and the young Austrian was laughing at him as if he would burst his stays. I knew, of course, that he wore those feminine additions to the toilet, because within the last hour I had seen him take them off and put them on again; and the effeminacy of that trick, which was of course merely national and professional, and not in the least to be charged against him personally, added to the disgust I felt at him and at Brunow, and at the whole Austrian nation, and at myself, and at our joint treachery—Brunow's and mine.
So I carried my own moodiness out into the village street, and suddenly remembering that I was smoking a cigar the harmless, merry-hearted youngster had given me, I hurled it away and walked hotly along the road in a state of mind altogether unenviable. I brought myself to reason in a quarter of an hour, and got back to the inn in time for breakfast; but I know that I made poor company, and sat there glum and silent while my two companions shouted with boisterous laughter, and drank more wine than was good for them at so early an hour in the morning.
At last Brunow shook hands with the lieutenant, and embraced him into the bargain, and kissed him, and was kissed on both cheeks again, the young officer having to go back to his duty. I escaped the kisses and was let off with a hand-shake, with which also I would gladly have dispensed if I could.
Then Brunow and I were left alone; but he was so full of his conspirator's caution—developed in a minute when there was no need for it, and likely as soon to be forgotten when it was wanted—that though not a soul in the house could understand a word of English, he would not speak to me until he had led me into a deep pine wood at the back of the house, and on the first slope of the mountain, and even there he went peering about and beating the bushes and undergrowth with a stick, as if he had been a stage-spy, until I lost temper with him, and shouted to him to begin. He came and sat mysteriously at my side.
"You see," he said, "how I stand with Breschia. I can have the run of the fortress at any time, and so, if you play your cards properly, can you."
"Was there any need," I asked, ill-humoredly, "to bring me here to say that?" I admit that I was in a quite unreasonable temper, and that an angel would have been tempted to quarrel with me. I called Bru-now "a melodramatic ass" I remember very well, and I told him that if we fell into a habit of getting in the corners to conspire we should only draw suspicion upon ourselves. I spoke with a roughness altogether unnecessary, but then it must be remembered that Brunow, whom I was fast learning to dislike and despise, bade so far to be of more service than myself, and it is always bitter to be beaten by an inferior. I stung him, and he replied angrily, and the result of it was that we separated for the day. I went uphill, and by-and-by lost myself and came quite unexpectedly upon a highway, from which I could look down upon the fortress. Being assured by this that I could not easily lose myself again, I walked for a considerable distance, until from the top of a hill I could look down the straight road into a broad and fertile plain, with a city far and far away shining on the limit of it.
"This," I said, "is the road we shall have to travel if ever we get the Conte di Rossano out of prison."
And following the mental road pointed out by this finger-post of thought, I sat down and allowed my fancy to carry me into all manner of worthless and impracticable plans of rescue in which I could dispense with Brunow's aid. I was engaged in this unprofitable exercise, when I suddenly discerned a carriage near the hill-top. It came on with difficulty, and the two horses that drew it were dead blown when they reached the level, and stood trembling with their late exertion. A strikingly handsome woman put her head round the front of the carriage as if to look at the road before her. Catching sight of me she smiled and addressed me in the language of the country. I responded in French, and in that tongue she asked me how far it still was to Itzia. I told her as nearly as I could guess; she thanked me, and then leaned back in her carriage, waiting until the horses should have rested. In due time she drove on, with a little inclination of the head so regal and condescending that she might have been a princess at the least. When she was two or three hundred yards away I arose and followed. The carriage went out of sight in a little while, and I thought no more about it or its occupant until I saw the vehicle itself standing empty at the door of the inn.
The lady was seated in her rich dress in the common room, and she and Brunow were talking like old friends. Brunow's anger was no more lasting than a child's, and by this time he had quite recovered his good-humor.
"Oh, here you are, old fellow," he cried, genially. "Baroness, permit me to introduce to you Captain Fyffe. Fyffe, this is the Baroness Bonnar."
When I saw the lady face to face I perceived that she was older than I had fancied her to be, and I saw that she adopted certain devices to hide the ravages of time which had, as they always have, the effect of emphasizing them. I wonder if women will ever learn the perfect folly and uselessness of that sort of trickery.
The Baroness Bonnar was very gracious in her manners, but she seemed to me much less like a real great lady than like an actress who played at being a great lady. I am not very penetrating in that respect, and, as I have said already, I knew next to nothing of women and their ways, and so I was not disposed to trust my own judgment, but put it on one side with a certain contempt and impatience of myself. As a matter of fact, as I found out not so long afterwards, the Baroness Bonnar was no more a baroness than I was a baron, but simply and merely an adventuress who had spent some time on the Vienna stage, where she had secured no great success. She was now one of that almost innumerable band of spies who lived at that time in the service of the Austrian government. She was not a very clever woman, I am inclined to think, but she had been clever enough to induce a high official to fall in love with her, and by keeping this high official hanging off and on she had contrived to obtain promotion in her abominable calling far beyond her intellectual deserts. Brunow, it seemed, had known her for a year or two, but I learned afterwards that he had made no guess as to her real business in life.
The foolish fellow was so delighted at the unexpected opportunity for a flirtation that the whole purpose of our journey seemed to be forgotten by him. The baroness, with her maid and her coachman—. who were both on the same pay with herself (without her having the least guess of it), and reported all her doings to her superiors—stayed only one night in Itzia, and then went on to a village some dozen miles away, where she put up with some friends of hers who had a country-house there. Then nothing would please Brunow but that he must hire a horse and ride off to this country-house, and spend hours in the society of the sham baroness, while our scheme for the release of Miss Rossano's father hung in the wind, without making even a sign of progress.
The young lieutenant was almost my only companion, and once or twice he dined with me at the inn, and twice I had breakfast with him in the fortress; but these interviews with him brought me no nearer to my purpose. A third invitation brought something in its train, however, and, to tell the truth, I asked nothing much better than to have Brunow out of my scheme. The matter came about in this wise: Breschia and I were seated in his private room, when a non-commissioned officer entered with his report for the day, and stood, forage-cap in hand, at attention while his superior read it over. Some conversation ensued between them, which my ignorance of the language prevented me from following; but I understood the phrase with which Breschia brought it to a close.
"Send him here," he said. "Send him at once."
The non-commissioned officer saluted and retired, and Breschia turned laughingly on me.
"We have here an original who is always getting into trouble. A good fellow, and an honest servant, but so incorrigibly kind-hearted that he is always breaking our rules. I shall have to be serious with him in spite of myself."
He poured out a cup of black coffee as he spoke, and set it with a bottle of maraschino and an open box of cigars at my elbow. I had scarcely selected and lit ray cigar, when there came a tap at the door; and at the lieutenant's call to enter a man in uniform came in, and, having closed the door behind him, stood rigidly at attention. Breschia addressed him in a tone of anger, which sounded real enough, and the man stood like a statue to receive his reproof. There was nothing in the least degree remarkable about the fellow, who was just a mere simple, common soldier. He was attired in a sort of fatigue costume, and looked and smelled as if he had just been sent away from stable duty. His short cropped hair was of a fiery auburn, and his rough features, with a prodigious mustache and the most ponderous over-beetling eyebrows I had ever seen, gave him a look rather of ferocity than of good-nature. But when in answer to the lieutenant's rating he began to excuse himself, it was evident even to an ear so untrained and ignorant as mine that he spoke in a language which was not his own. He spoke haltingly and stammeringly; and at last, despairing of making himself understood, he made a little motion of his hands without moving them from his sides, and so stood as if to receive sentence. Again Breschia spoke to him, and again the man responded. The lieutenant broke into a fit of laughter, and the man stood there immovable, with his little fingers at the seams of his canvas trousers, and his rugged visage frowning straight before him.
"Go!" said the lieutenant, speaking, to my surprise, in his own halting English. "You are too much a silly fellow. Go; and do it not again.... Eh? Will you?"
"Well, sir," the man answered, speaking, to my astonishment, in good native-sounding English, "I'm sorry to displease, and I try to do my duty—"
"Hold your tongue," cried Breschia, and the man obeyed at once. "Behold a man," cried the lieutenant, turning upon me and speaking in his customary French, "who has been in the English army, and who is as incapable of an idea of discipline as if he were a popular prima donna."
"Oh," said I, turning round on the man and addressing him in English, "you have been in the army at home, I hear?"
"Yes, sir," he answered, saluting me as he had done the lieutenant on his entrance. "Two-and-twenty years, sir."
"You don't mind my talking to the fellow?" I asked the lieutenant, reverting to French again.
"Pas du tout," said the lieutenant. "Vous le trouverez bien bete, je vous promis."
"How long have you been in the Austrian service?"
"Not in the service at all, sir. General's groom, sir."
"You're in fatigue dress?"
"Yes, sir. Old custom, sir. Like the feel of it, sir."
"Been here long?"
"Ten years, sir."
"Why, how's this? You don't look a day over forty."
"Forty-two, sir. Joined the band at home as a boy. Sixteenth Lancers, sir."
"What's your name?"
"Hinge, sir. Robert Hinge, sir. Son of Bob Hinge, sir. Tattenham Fancy. Champion of the light-weights years back, sir."
"Oh! What have you been getting into trouble about?"
"Beg your pardon, sir. Mustn't talk about that, sir. Discipline, sir. Can see as you're an officer. That ought to be enough, sir."
"Quite enough. Drink my health, if there's anything fit to drink it in. You don't object, Breschia?"
"Not at all," the lieutenant answered. "You have done with him? Very good. Go. And let me hear of you no more, or I shall report you. To your general. Do you hear?"
The man saluted and went out.
"He is so good, and so stupid—that individual there," said Breschia, gladly plunging back into a more familiar language than English, though I could see he was proud of having acquitted himself so well in that tongue. "He is so stupid and so good, but I do nothing but laugh at him. But Rodetzsky is a martinet, and if he were here just now the man would be in trouble."
"What has he been doing?" I asked.
"He has been smuggling tobacco to the prisoners," Breschia answered, and all of a sudden I found my heart beating like a hammer. Was this the man, I wondered, who had shown compassion to Miss Ros-sano's hapless father? And was he therefore the man of all others whom I needed to lay hands on? If that were so it seemed nothing less than a providence that the man should be English, for my ignorance of all the patois dialects of the country, and even of its main language, made the speech of the Austrian soldiers a sealed book to me.
Did it ever happen to you that you have met a person whom you have never heard of and never thought of before—a person who was destined to affect your fate in some way—and that from the first moment of your encounter you seemed fated to renew acquaintance with him? It has happened more than once to me, and it happened so in this case. That very afternoon, when I returned from a lonely tramp upon the hills, I found the man Hinge in the kitchen of the inn. He bore a note from Breschia to Brunow, and was awaiting the return of that gentleman, who was once again away in pursuit of the soi-disant baroness, but had promised to be back in time for dinner. When I entered the kitchen to demand a draught of milk, the man rose up and saluted me, and explained his errand. In the course of my ramble I had had hardly anything but this man in mind, and I had been planning to make use of him. When I met him all my plans seemed to go to pieces. I shall have to confess before I have done with it that I am the poorest plotter in the world. Give me something downright to do, and I will try to do it; but in dodges and evasions and pretences I have little skill indeed. I took the note from the man's hand and promised that Brunow should receive it. Then I drank the milk which the landlady's daughter had already set before me, and stood there tongue-tied and bewildered, not knowing how to begin. The man himself relieved me.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, taking his glass in his left hand, and saluting again with the right. "Your health, sir."
"That's poor tack," I said, nodding towards the glass. He had made a grimace over the wine.
"Well, so it is, sir," he replied; "but it's better than nothing, and it's about all we poor folks can afford, sir."
"Did you ever taste Scotch whiskey?" I asked him. He smiled a slow smile as if he remembered something pleasing.
"Why, yes, sir, I have, sir, and I won't deceive you."
"Come to my room," I said, "and I'll give you as good a glass as you ever tasted in your life."
He set down his glass of sour wine on the table with an emphatic quickness, and his soldierly tread sounded behind me in the uncarpeted passage and up the bare deal steps. When he came to my room I bade him sit down, but he remained standing, and I had to give the invitation as an order before he would obey it. Then he sat like a figure carved in wood, with his shoulders back, his head well up, a hand on either knee, and a face as expressionless as the back of his head. I got my flask out of my knapsack, and with it a little collapsible cup of silver, found the water-bottle, and set everything before him.
"Help yourself!" He took a thimbleful. "Help yourself, man!" He took another thimbleful. I seized the flask from his hand and poured him enough for a good tumbler. "Now, there's the water; help yourself to that."
He obeyed, and tasted the mixture with a solemn satisfaction.
"My friend, Lieutenant Breschia, tells me," I said then, for by this time I had made up my mind how to begin with him, "that you are constantly breaking the rules of the fortress. He tells me that you have been giving the prisoners tobacco."
"That's a fact, sir," he admitted.
"Give them some more," I said, "first chance you get." I laid a gold coin on the table before him, and sat down in front of him. "I'd give some of the poor beggars something better than tobacco if I had my way."
"And so would I, sir," he answered. "And the Lord knows it. It needn't all go in tobacco, I suppose, sir?" He had taken up the coin and was holding it in his thumb and finger by this time. "Any kind o' little comfort 'l do as well, sir?"
"Any kind of little comfort, as you say," I answered.
"Thank you, sir," he said, pocketing the coin. "You're an Englishman and you're a gentleman, sir, and I'm very much obliged to you."
I made no answer, for I wanted to see if my man would talk. I thought he looked as if he would like to ease his mind.
"You haven't been over the fortress, have you, sir?" I shook my head. "Miserable kind of an 'ole it is, sir, for a man to live in. I think I should go stark, starin', ravin' mad if I was to live there long, sir."
"So bad as that?" I asked.
"You may well say that, sir," he rejoined. "I've got a nice, easy, comfortable place along with the general, and I don't want to lose it. So long as we're in Vienna or anywhere else but here, I'm satisfied. But here! Why, good Lord, sir, it's simply sickening."
I supposed it was pretty dull.
"Oh, it's dull enough, sir, but it ain't that. It's what you may call such a miserable hole, sir. There's nothing like it in old England, thank God, sir!"
"Have they many prisoners here?" I asked.
"Prisoners, sir? There's a regular rookery of 'em. The place swarms with 'em. I should think there's a matter o' five hundred, as near as I can guess."
I ejaculated "Nonsense!"
"Don't you believe it's nonsense, sir," he answered. "They're as thick on the ground as rats in an old rick, sir. P'litical prisoners most of 'em is, sir; Eyetalians, mainly. Of course one doesn't value that kind o' rubbish much. They're foreigners, sir, every man Jack of 'em. But then, sir, these damned Austrians ain't no better, and they treat their prisoners like they was so much dirt beneath 'em."
"You look like an honest fellow," I said, "but you're not very discreet. Suppose I repeated what you have told me to the general?"
"Why, sir," he answered, with a twinkle in his eye, "I don't suppose you'll do that, sir; but if you did, sir, the general's got a good groom, sir, and he knows it. He's a judge of a horse, sir, and he knows when a horse is in condition. And, besides that, he knows my opinion about these here Austrians, sir."
No, I thought to myself. Robert Hinge sounds very plausible, looks very honest, and is undeniably an Englishman. But supposing Robert Hinge to have been put purposely in my way this morning as a very good-natured and very stupid fellow, and supposing Robert Hinge to have been sent over to me on purpose to draw me out? Quite possible, quite likely, indeed—quite in the Austrian manner, as all the world knew well.
"Don't get yourself into more mischief, anyway," I said, rising from my seat. He took the hint, finished his glass standing, and left me with a military salute. I sat for a full hour smoking and thinking, occupied mainly in wondering whether I had thrown a chance away. There was nothing to be got by wasting time, and I worried myself into a state of feverish nervousness by thinking that this man Hinge was probably a true and genuine fellow, and that I had missed my chance with him. It was the clattering of a horse's hoof in the back yard of the inn that awoke me from my reverie, and looking out I saw Brunow in the act of dismounting. He waved his hand to me, and surrendering his horse to a hostler, entered the house. I heard Hinge address him in English, and then he came tearing upstairs. The note Breschia had sent to him lay upon the table, and when he had read it he shouted from the stair-head, "Certainly. My compliments to the lieutenant, and we will come with pleasure."
"Here's Breschia suddenly left almost alone," he explained when he re-entered the room. "He writes apologizing for troubling us with his poor hospitality so often, but will I go over and take you with me? He declares it will be a charity, and in the great hereafter will be remembered in our favor."
I was willing enough to go; and the hour being already near, we made some slight change in our attire and strolled across to the fortress. Breschia met us gayly and entertained us well, but nothing of note happened at the dinner. We sat late over our wine, and it was pitch dark when at last we rose to go. Breschia at first insisted on accompanying us, but, to tell the plain truth about the matter, he had taken more than was altogether good for him, and was not to be trusted to return alone. We compromised for a man with a lantern, and on that shook hands and took our leave. A man in uniform met us at the gate of the grim place, and was about to set out with us when Hinge appeared, and, without a word, took the lantern from his hand. As we made our way along the dark and stony road, with the little circle of light dancing and waving in front of us, Hinge stumbled against me twice or thrice. At first it crossed me that he had been making free with the gift of that afternoon, and that he had spent a portion of it for his own benefit, rather than that of the prisoners, in whom he professed to take so great an interest; but at the third or fourth lurch he gave it dawned upon me that with his left hand he was groping for my right. Brunow was just a step in front of us, and I held my hand out openly. The man slipped into it a twisted scrap of paper, which I transferred carefully to my waistcoat pocket.
"Here's the bridge, gentlemen," said Hinge, "and that's the inn right before you, where the lights are."
"All right," I answered. "We can find the way now quite easily. Good-night!"
"Good-night, gentlemen," he answered, and so turned away, while Brunow and I footed it home in silence.
We occupied the same room, and I did not care to read whatever message I might have received in his presence. He had proved so lukewarm in the enterprise on which we had both embarked, and had now so apparently forgotten all about it in dancing attendance on the Baroness Bonnar, that I should have made no scruple of leaving him out of my councils altogether. When he had half undressed I made some pretence of wanting something from below, and read my missive in the kitchen. It was late, and the room was empty.
I was not surprised to find I knew the handwriting, and that it was the same that Brunow had shown me in his rooms on the night on which I had first seen Miss Rossano.
This is what I read:
"The wretched prisoner, the Conte di Rossano, who has languished for years in this fortress, asks, for the love of Heaven, that the Englishman for whose hands this is meant will send a line to the Contessa di Rossano, daughter of General Sir Arthur Rollinson, to assure her that her husband still lives. If she should still live, and have remarried, for pity find some means to let the writer know it."
I went to bed saying nothing of this, but held sleepless by it all the night. With the idea which had come to me that afternoon of the possibility of Hinge being set upon me to act as a spy and to discover my intent so strong upon me that I could not shake it off, I tossed and tumbled in a very sea of doubt and trouble. I was more than half persuaded all along that this fancy was a mere chimera, and yet it took such force in my mind. It was past two o'clock when the moon rose. I got up noiselessly, filled and lit my pipe, and sat staring at the great solemn bulk of the fortress, as it stood for the time being almost white in the moonlight against the monstrous shadow of the bills. My mind was in a miserable whirl, and I knew not what to make of anything. This wretched state lasted until broad dawn, and I was still troubled by it when I walked into the keen morning air, towel in hand, for my customary swim. I undressed slowly by the river-side and stood thinking, until I was so nipped by the keen breath of the wind which blew clear down from the mountain-tops that I plunged into the stream for refuge from it. I remember as distinctly as if it had happened a minute ago, that at the very second when I dived an impulse came into my mind. I thought as I struck the water, "I'll trust that fellow!" I dived far, and swam under water until I was forced to rise for air. "I'll trust that fellow!" I thought again; and as I passed my hand across my forehead to squeeze the water from my hair, I saw "that fellow" on the very top of a little rise of land which lay between me and the fortress, and hid it entirely from my sight.
I swam back to the place from which I had originally dived, towelled myself hastily, dressed, and set out at a round pace towards the bridge. I reached it when he was within a hundred yards, and with a signal to him to follow, sauntered on towards the pine wood.
A backward glance assured me that he had seen my signal and was coming.
"You gave me that last night," I said, holding the scrap of paper before me. "You knew what was in it?"
"I didn't know, sir; I guessed. Poor gentleman's wife, sir? I thought so, sir."
"Robert Hinge, you're an Englishman, and you've served your queen."
"And king as well, sir. King William was on the throne when I joined, sir."
"How long have you known this unhappy gentleman, this Count Rossano, who is imprisoned here?"
"Eight years and over."
The man stood bolt upright before me until I gave him the word to stand at ease. I questioned him closely, and with a growing belief in him. This was the substance of what I heard from him: He had been in General Rodetzsky's service for a year or thereabouts when he first came to visit the fortress. The stables in which the general's horses were bestowed were in themselves beautifully tidy, but outside, immediately beside the door, was a great heap of manure and rotten straw, the accumulation of years, which was an eyesore to the new groom, who took immediate measures for removing it. He was at work at it a whole day and then left it. Returning a week later to his task, he thrust the prongs of his pitchfork through a pane of glass which lay hidden by the rubbish heap, and heard not only the crash and fall of the glass itself, but a startled cry. A peasant was in charge of the cart which was carrying away the refuse heap, and Robert Hinge took no apparent notice of this cry. He knew that the fortress was a prison. He had heard queer stories about the treatment the Austrians gave their prisoners. His interest was awakened, and his fancy began to be excited. When he had filled the cart, and the peasant had gone away, Hinge cleared from the wall the remainder of the heap, and found that he had laid bare a grated window almost on a level with the ground. The glass was so thickly incrusted with filth as to be as opaque as the wall by which it was surrounded, but at the broken pane a face appeared. The man in telling me the story was honestly moved. He could not describe the condition of the man he saw without imprecations on his jailer and the whole country that held them. He told me that the prisoner's hair grew to his waist, and was of a dreadful unwholesome gray; that his beard and mustache were matted, his eyes were sunken, and his face was unwashed and of the color of stale unbaked bread. The man spoke with difficulty, but had a fair knowledge of English, though he seemed unused to it. He had inhabited that hole in the earth for years. How many years he did not know until Hinge, in answer to his questions, told him the date of the year and the day of the month. The conversation was interrupted by the coming of an officer, and Hinge covered up the window before anything was seen. Afterwards he broke a few more panes and heaped clean straw against the wall to hide the window, but in such a fashion as to admit air and light. Many hundreds of times he had sat outside his stable door within arm's-length of the prisoner, and had listened to him while he talked. They had a preconcerted signal at which the prisoner instantly ceased to speak. Food and water were thrust in upon the unhappy man at regular intervals, but he was never visited, and lived a horrible, lonely death in life there, which made the flesh creep to hear of. The stench of the chamber Hinge described as something horrible and sickening, and he thought it a marvel that the man had lived so long.