[Frontispiece: "Ah, mein Gott!" he cried, "It is Kaya!"]
THE BLACK CROSS
OLIVE M. BRIGGS
SIGISMOND DE IVANOWSKI
MOFFAT, YARD AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1909, by
MOFFAT, YARD AND COMPANY
Published, February, 1909
THE BLACK CROSS
It was night in St. Petersburg. The moon was high in the heavens, and the domes, crowned with a fresh diadem of snow, glittered with a dazzling whiteness. In the side streets the shadows were heavy, the facades of the great palaces casting strange and dark reflections upon the pavement; but the main thoroughfares were streaked as with silver, while along the quay all was bright and luminous as at noontide, the Neva asleep like a frozen Princess under a breast-plate of shimmering ice.
The wind was cold, the air frosty and gay with tinkling sleigh-bells. A constant stream of people in sledges and on foot filled the Morskaia, hurrying in the one direction. The great Square of the Mariinski was alive with a moving, jostling throng, surging backwards and forwards before the steps of the Theatre like waves on a rock; a gay, well-dressed, chattering multitude, eager to present their tickets, or buy them as the case might be, and enter the gaping doors into the brilliantly lighted foyer beyond.
It was ballet night, but for the first time in the memory of the Theatre no ballet was to be given. Instead of the "Premiere Danseuse," the idol of Russian society, a new star had appeared, suddenly, miraculously almost, dropped from a Polish Province, and had played himself into the innermost heart of St. Petersburg.
The four strings of his Stradivarius, so fragile, so delicate and slim, were as four chains to bind the people to him; four living wires over which the sound of his fame sped from city to city, from province to province, until there was no musician in all the Russias who could play as Velasco, no instrument like his with the gift of tears and of laughter as well, all the range of human emotions hidden within its slender, resinous body.
So the people said as they gossiped together on the steps: "The great Velasco! The wonderful Velasco!" And now he was on his way to Germany. It was his last concert, his "farewell."
The announcement had been blazoned about on red and yellow handbills for weeks. One Salle after the other had offered itself, each more commodious than the last; but they were as nothing to the demands of the box-office. The list grew longer, the clamourings louder; and at last the unprecedented happened. At the request of a titled committee under the signature of the Grand-Duke Stepan himself, the Mariinski, largest and most beautiful of theatres, had opened its doors to the young god; and the price of tickets went up in leaps like a barometer after a storm;—fifteen roubles for a seat, twenty—twenty-five—and finally no seat at all, not even standing-room.
The crowd melted away gradually; the doors of the foyer closed; the harsh cries of the speculators died in the distance. Behind the Theatre the ice on the canal glimmered and sparkled. The moon climbed higher and the bells of the Nikolski Church rang out clearly, resonantly above the tree-tops.
Scarcely had the last stroke sounded when a black sleigh, drawn by a pair of splendid bays, dashed out of a side street and crossed the Pozeluief bridge at a gallop. At the same moment a troika, with three horses abreast, turned sharply into the Glinki and the two collided with a crash, the occupants flung out on the snow, the frightened animals plunging and rearing in a tangled, inextricable heap.
The drivers rushed to the horses' heads.
"A pest on you, son of a goat!" screamed the one, "Have you eyes in the back of your head that you can't see a yard in front of you?"
"Viper!" retorted the other furiously, "Damnation on you and your bad driving! Call the police! Arrest the shark of an anarchist!"
Meanwhile the master of the black sleigh, a heavily built, elderly man, had picked himself out of a drift with the assistance of his lackey and was brushing the snow from his long fur cloak. A fur cap, pulled down over his eyes, hid his face, but his gestures were angry, and his voice was high and rasping.
"Where is the fellow?" he snarled, "Let me see him; let me see his face. Away, Pierre, I tell you, go to the horses! A mercy indeed if their legs are not broken. A pretty pass this, that one can't drive through the streets of the capital, not even incognito!—Call the police!"
The other gentleman, who seemed little more than a boy, stood by the overturned troika wringing his hands:
"Is it hurt, my little one, my treasure, is it scratched? Keep their hoofs away, Bobo, hold them still a moment while I raise one end."
He knelt in the snow and peered eagerly beneath the sleigh.
"Sacre—ment!" cried the older man, "What is he after? Quick, on him, Pierre! Don't let him escape."
The lackey moved cautiously forward, and then gave a sudden leap back as the boyish figure sprang to his feet, clasping a dark, oblong object in his arms.
"A bomb, a bomb! In the name of all the saints! If he should drop it they were doomed, they were dead men!"
The eyes of the lackey were bulging with terror and he stood riveted to the spot. In the meantime the young man had snatched out his watch and was holding it up into a patch of moonlight.
"Twenty past the hour!" he exclaimed, "and old Galitsin fuming, I'll be bound! I'll have to make a run for it. Hey, Bobo!"
As he spoke, an iron hand came down on his shoulder and he looked up amazed into a pair of eyes, small and black and crossed, flashing with fury.
"Drop it," hissed a voice, "and I'll throttle you as you stand! Traitor! Assassin! Your driver obeyed orders, did he? You knew? Vermin, you ran us down! How did you know? Who betrayed me?—Who?"
The youth stood motionless for a moment in astonishment. He was helpless as a girl in that vicious grasp that was bearing him under slowly, relentlessly. "For the love of heaven," he cried, "Let go my arm, you brute, you'll sprain a muscle! Be careful!"
"Drop it, and I swear by all that is holy—"
"You old fool, you curmudgeon, you coward of an old blatherskite!" cried the boy, "I wouldn't drop it for all the world, not if you went on your bended knees. Bobo, yell for the police! Don't you touch my wrist! Look out now! Of all unpleasant things—!
"Bobo, come here. Never mind the horses. I tell you he is ruining my arm!—Hey! Help! You're an anarchist yourself, you fool! Shout, Bobo, shout!"
In the struggle the two had passed from the shadow into the moonlight and they now confronted one another. The master of the black sleigh was still enveloped in his cloak, only the gleam of his eyes, small and black and crossed, was visible under the cap, his beaked nose and the upward twist of his grey mustache.
The youth stood erect and angry; his head was bare, thrown back as a young lion at bay, his dark hair falling like a mane, clustered in waves about his broad, overhanging brows; strange brows and strange eyes underneath. The mouth was sensitive, the chin short and rather full, the whole aspect as of some one distinguished and out of the ordinary.
They stared at one another for a moment and then the hand of the older man dropped to his side. "I beg your pardon," he said, with some show of apology in his tone, "Surely I must have made a mistake. Where have I seen you before? You are no anarchist; pray, pardon me."
The young man was feeling his arm ruefully: "Good gracious, sir," he said, "but you are hasty!—I never felt such a grip. The muscles are quite sore already, but luckily it is the left arm, otherwise, Bozhe moi, I vow I'd sue you!—If it were the fingers now, or the wrist—"
He took off his fur gloves and examined both hands carefully, one after the other. A scornful look came over the older man's face:
"There was no excuse, my friend, for the way your troika rounded that corner. Such driving is criminal in a public street. It's a mercy we weren't all killed! Still, you really must pardon me, these anarchist devils are everywhere nowadays and one has to take precautions. I was hurrying to the Mariinski."
Hardly were the words out of his mouth, when there came the snapping of two watch lids almost simultaneously, and both gentlemen gave a cry of consternation.
"Oh, the deuce!" exclaimed the boy, "so was I, and look at the time if you please; the House will be in an uproar!"
The older man hurried towards the already righted sleigh: "Most unfortunate," he fumed, "and to-night of all nights! The entire concert will be at a standstill. The rug, Pierre, quick the rug! Are the horses ready? Hurry, you great lumbering son of an ox!"
The boy had already leaped into the troika and was wrapping the fur robes about his knees. "We shall put in an appearance about the same time, sir," he called back carelessly over his shoulder. "You won't miss anything, not a note, if that will comfort you. Hey, Bobo, go ahead! The concert can't begin without me."
"Without you," interrupted the other, "eh, what—you? Tysyacha chertei! What do you mean?"
The master of the black sleigh stood up suddenly and threw back his cloak with a haughty gesture. He was in uniform and his breast glittered with orders. His cap fell back from his face, and his eyes, small and black and crossed, his beaked nose, his grey upturned mustache, showed distinctly in the moonlight. The face was known to every Russian, young and old, rich and poor—the Grand-Duke Stepan.
The youth made a low obeisance; then he tossed the hair away from his brows and laughed: "True, your highness," he said with mock humility, "I should have said—'until we both get there,' of course. Your pardon, sire."
The Duke leaned forward: "Stop—!" he exclaimed, "Your face—certainly somewhere I have seen it—Wait!"
The driver of the troika reined in the panting horses three abreast. They pawed the snow, still prancing a little and trembling, their bits flecked with foam. The youth saluted with one hand carelessly, while with the other he grasped the dark, oblong object that was not a bomb.
"Au revoir, your Grace," he cried, "You have seen me before and you will see me again, to-night, if this arm of mine recovers—" He laughed:—"I am Velasco."
As he spoke the horses leaped forward and the troika, darting across the moonlight of the Square, disappeared into the shadows behind the Mariinski.
The Duke gazed after it petrified: "Velasco!" he said, "And I all but twisted his wrist!—Ye gods!
"Go on, Pierre, go on!"
The Theatre was superbly lighted, crowded from the pit to the gallery, from the orchestra chairs to the Bel-Etage with the cream of St. Petersburg aristocracy.
It was like a vast garden of colour.
The brilliant uniforms of the officers mingled with the more delicate hues of ecru and rose, sky-blue and palest heliotrope of the loggias. Fans waved here and there over the house, fluttering, flashing like myriads of butterfly wings. The stage was filled with the black and white of the orchestra and the musicians sat waiting, the conductor gnawing his long mustache in an agony of doubt and bewilderment.
Gradually a hush stole over the House. The fans waved less regularly; the uniforms and the more delicate hues whispered together, glancing first at a box on the first tier, which was still empty, and then at the stage door and back again.
Where was the Grand-Duke Stepan, and where was the star, the idol, the young god, who was to charm their hearts with his four strings?—for whom they had paid fifteen roubles, twenty—twenty-five until there wasn't a seat left, not even standing room; only the crimson-curtained Imperial Loggia in the centre, solitary, significant.
The time passed; the minutes dragged slowly.
Suddenly the curtains moved. An usher appeared and placed a chair. Another moment of silence; then a tall, grey-haired, military figure stepped to the front of the loggia and bowed to right and to left; his eyes, small and black and crossed, glancing haughtily over the throng. "At last!"—The applause was mechanical, in strict accordance with etiquette, but there was a relieved note in it and the thousands of straining eyes leaped back to the stage, eager and watchful.
All at once a small door in the wings opened slightly and a slim boyish figure strode across the boards, a mane of dark hair falling over his brows.
"Velasco!" A roar went up from the House—"Velasco! Ah—h—viva—Velas—co!"
Instantly, with a tap of his baton, the conductor motioned for silence, and then, with the first downward beat, the orchestra began the introduction to the concerto.
The young Violinist stood languidly, his Stradivarius tucked under his arm, the bow held in a slim and graceful hand. His dark eyes roamed over the brilliant spectacle before him, from tier to tier, from top to bottom. He had seen it all before many times; but never so beautiful, so vast an audience, such a glory of colour, such closeness of attention. Raising his violin, with a strange, dreamy swaying of his young body, Velasco drew the bow over the quivering strings in the first solo passage of the Vieuxtemps.
The tones rose and fell above the volume of the orchestra. The depth of them, the sweetness seemed to penetrate to the uttermost corner. A curious tenseness came over the listening audience. Not a soul stirred. The Grand-Duke sat motionless with his head in his hands. The strings vibrated to each individual heart-beat; the bow sighed over them, and with the last note a murmur and then a roar went up.
Velasco stirred slightly, dropped his bow and bowed, without raising his eyes. Then, hardly waiting for the applause to subside, the second movement began, slow and passionate. The notes became fuller and more sensuous. The hush deepened. The silence grew more intense; a strain of listening, a fixed eagerness of watching.
Suddenly, in the midst, the Violinist raised his head from his instrument, drawing the bow with a slow, downward, caressing pressure over the E string. His eyes, half veiled and dreamy, looked straight across the House into a loggia next to the Imperial Box, impelled thereto by some force outside of his own consciousness.
A girl with an exquisite flower-like face was leaning over the crimson rail, her gaze on his, fixed and intent. The gold of her hair glistened in the light. Her lips were parted, the bosom of her dress rising and falling; her small hands clasped.
Velasco gazed steadily for a moment; then he dropped his head again, and swaying slightly played on.
The bow seemed fairly to rend the strings. He toyed with the difficulties; his scales, his arpeggios were as a flash, a ripple of notes tumbling over one another, each one a pearl. His lion's mane caressed the violin; his cheek pressed it like a living thing, closely, passionately, and it answered like a creature possessed.
As the strings vibrated to the last dying note, the beauty of it, the virtuosity, the abandon, drove the House mad with enthusiasm. They rose to him; they shouted his name eagerly, impetuously.
"Velasco! Viva!—Velasco! Bravo—bravissimo!"
Over the packed Theatre the handkerchiefs waved like a myriad of white banners. The bravos redoubled. The women tore the flowers from their girdles to fling on the stage; they lay piled on the white boards about him, broken and sweet, their perfume filling the air.
The young Violinist bowed, his hand on his heart, smiled and bowed again. He went out by the little door, and then came back and bowed and bowed.
The House rose as one man.
"Velasco! Velas—co!" It was deafening.
Suddenly out of the uproar, out of the crowd and the din, from someone, from somewhere, a bunch of violets fell at his feet. He raised them to his lips with a smile. "Viva—Velas—co—o!" The clapping redoubled.
About the stems of the violets, twined and intertwined again, was a twist of paper. His eyes fell for an instant on the blotted words and then the stage door closed behind him. They were few and almost illegible.
"Will you help me—life or death—tonight? Kaya." The rest was a blot. He scanned them again more closely and shook the hair from his eyes.
When the young Violinist came forward for the third time, his dark eyes flashed to the eyes of the girl like steel to a magnet. They seemed to plead, to wrestle with him.
"Will you help me—life or death—tonight? Kaya."
Did her lips move; was it a signal? Her hands seemed to beckon him. He bowed low to the loggia, like one in a trance, once, twice, their eyes still together. And then, suddenly, he wrenched himself away remembering the House, the shouting, cheering, waving House.
Lifting his violin he began to play again slowly, dreamily, hardly knowing how or why, a weird, chanting Polish improvisation like a love song, a song without words. His eyes opened and closed again. Always that gaze, pleading, wrestling, that flower-like face, those clasped hands beckoning.
Who was she—Kaya? His heart beat and throbbed; he was suffocating. With a last wild and passionate note Velasco tore the bow from the strings; it was as though the earth had opened and swallowed him up; he was gone.
 My God.
 A thousand devils!
In one of the poorer quarters of St. Petersburg there is a street on a back canal, and over the street an arch. To the right of the arch is a flight of steps, ancient and worm-eaten, difficult of climbing by day by reason of a hole here, a worn place there, and the perilous tilting of the boards; at night well nigh impassable without a lantern. The steps wind and end in a tenement, once a palace, spanning the water.
It was midnight.
A cloud had come over the moon, light and fleecy at first, but gradually growing blacker and spreading until finally it hung like a huge drop-curtain screening the stars.
The street lay in darkness. From a window in the top of the arch a single light was visible, pale and flickering as the ray from a candle; otherwise the grey bulk of the building seemed lost in the shadows, lifeless and silent.
Suddenly the light went out.
"Hist—st!" As if at a signal something moved on the staircase, creeping forward, and then from the shadow of the tenement, from under the archway, emerged other shadows, moving slowly like wraiths, hesitating, stopping, losing themselves in the general blackness, and then stirring again; shadows within shadows creeping.
Presently a door at the top of the steps opened and shut. Every time it opened, a shadow passed through and another crept forward. No word was spoken, no sound; not a step creaked, not a board stirred. It was a procession of ghosts.
Behind the door was a long stone passage, narrow and dark like a cave. The shadows felt the walls with their hands softly, gropingly, but the hands were silent like the feet. Except for a hurried breathing in the darkness the passage seemed empty.
Beyond were more steps leading down, and another passage, and then a second door locked and barred. Before this door the shadows halted, huddled together. "Hist—st!" Instantly the floor under them began to quiver and drop, inch by inch, foot by foot, down a well of continued blackness. The minutes passed. They still dropped lower and lower, so low that they were now below the level of the canal; down, down into the very foundations of the tenement, once a palace. All of a sudden the darkness ceased.
The room into which the elevator entered was large, low-raftered and lighted by a group of candles at the far end. In the centre was a black table, and about the table thirteen chairs also black. The one at the head was occupied by a figure garbed in a cloak and hood, with a black mask drawn down to the lips. The other chairs were empty.
By the light of the candles the shadows now took shape, the one from the other, and twelve black-cloaked and hooded figures stole forward, also masked to the lips. They passed one by one before the seated mask, touching his hand lightly, fleetingly, as one dipping the fingers into holy water, and then around the table to their seats, each in turn, until all were placed.
Some of the figures were tall, broad-shouldered and heavy, others small and slight. From the height, the strength or delicacy of the chin, the shape and size of the hand, was it alone possible to distinguish the sex; the rest was shrouded in a mystery absolute and unfathomable.
As the last and thirteenth chair was filled, the mask at the head leaned forward and pointed silently to a dark object at the far end of the room about which the candles flickered and sparkled. It was a huge Black Cross suspended as above an altar. Below it lay an open bier, roughly hewn out of the stone, and across it a name in scarlet lettering. The bier was empty.
The twelve other masks turned towards the Cross, reading the name, and they made a sign with the hands in unison, a rapid crisscross motion over the breast, the forehead, the eyes, ending in the low murmur of a word, unintelligible, like a pledge. Then the first mask to the left rose and bowed to the Head.
"Speak," he said, "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Of what is this man accused?"
There was a moment of silence, intense and charged with significance; then the mask spoke.
"In the province of Pskof there is a Commune. One night, last winter, the peasants rose without warning. They shot, they maimed, they hacked, they burned alive every Jew in the village, men, women and children; not one escaped. The police were behind them. The instigator of the police was—"
The Head raised his hand: "Do you know this for a fact, from personal information?"
"I know it for a fact, from personal information."
The first mask took his seat and the second rose, a gaunt figure, the shoulders bowed and crippled under the cloak. His voice was deep and full, with tones plaintive and penetrating.
"A month ago there were seven men arrested. They were taken to 'Peter and Paul' and thrust into dungeons unspeakable. They received no trial; they were convicted of no crime; they never saw their families again. Three of these men are now in the mines. Two are still in the cells. Two are dead."
"Why were they arrested and by whose order?"
"They were workmen who had attended a meeting of the Social Democrats and had helped to circulate Liberal papers. It was done by the order of—"
The third mask sprang to his feet. His fists were clenched, and he was breathing hard like one who has been running.
"It is my turn," he cried, "Let me—speak! You know—you haven't forgotten!—On the Tsar's birthday, a band of students marched to the steps of the Winter Palace. They went peacefully, with trust in their hearts, no weapon in their hands. They were surrounded by Cossacks, who beat them with knouts, riding them down. They were boys, some of them hardly out of the Gymnasium, the flower of our youth, brave sons of Russia ready to fight for her and die." He hesitated and his voice broke. "At the foot of the Alexander Column, they were mown down like grass without warning, or mercy; their blood still sprinkles the stones. Many were killed, hundreds arrested, few escaped. At the head of the Cossacks rode—"
A sigh stirred the room deepening into a groan, and then came a hush. Some buried their faces in their hands, weeping silently behind the masks. After a while the Head raised his hand and the fourth rose, slowly, reluctantly, speaking in a woman's voice so faint and low it could scarcely make itself heard. The masks bent forward listening.
"Last week," it murmured, "the Countess Petrushka was suspected. She was torn from her home, imprisoned"—The voice grew lower and lower. "She was beaten—tortured by the guards; she never returned,—yesterday she was—buried." The voice broke into sobs. "The man who signed the paper was—"
So the trial went on amid the stillness, more and more solemn, more and more impressive, as one accusation followed the other in swift succession; the candles dropping low in their sockets, the light growing dimmer, the room larger and lower and more ghostly, the night waning.
In every case the name was left a blank; but in that strange pause, as if for judgment, the eyes of the masks sought the bier, resting with slow fascination on the words across it, gleaming scarlet beneath the flickering candles, vivid and red like blood.
The final accusation had been made. The twelfth and last mask had sunk back in his chair and the leader rose. The silence was like a pall over the table. When his voice broke through, it was sharp and stern, as the voice of a judge admonishing a court.
"You have all heard," he said, "You are aware of what this man has done, is now doing, will continue to do. Does he merit to live?—Has he deserved to die? For the sake of our country, our people, ourselves, deliberate and determine.—His fate rests in the hands of the Black Cross."
He bowed his head on his breast and waited. No one moved or spoke. At the far end of the room, the candles dripped one by one on the bier, falling lower and lower. Occasionally the wax flared up, lighting the darkness; then all was dim.
Suddenly, as from some mysterious impulse, the thirteen sprang to their feet, and again their hands flashed out in that curious crisscross motion over the breast, the forehead, the eyes, and a murmur went from mouth to mouth like a hiss.
"Cmeptb—Death!" rising into a sound so intense, so terrifying, so muffled and suppressed and menacing, it was as the cry of an animal wounded, dying, about to spring. Falling on their knees, they remained motionless for a moment; then, following the leader, each stepped forward in turn and took their places about the bier.
The ceremony that followed was strange and solemn; one that no outside eye has ever gazed on, no lips have ever dared to breathe. They stood in the shadow of death, their own and another's. Their heads were bowed. Their bodies shook and trembled. With hands raised they took the oath, terrible, relentless, overpowering, gripping them from now on as in a vice; both sexes alike, with voices spent and faint with emotion.
"In the name of the Black Cross I do now pledge myself, an instrument in the service of Justice and Retribution. On whomsoever the choice of Fate shall fall, I vow the sentence of Death shall be fulfilled, by mine own hands if needs be, without weakness, or hesitation, or mercy. And if by any untoward chance this hand should fail, I swear—I swear, before the third day shall have passed, to die instead—to die—instead."
The words ended in a whisper, low, intense, prescient of a woe not to be borne.
"I swear—I pledge myself—by mine own hands if needs be."
A sigh broke the stillness. The masks stirred, recovered themselves and bent over the bier, drawing out, one after the other, a slip of paper folded. There were thirteen slips. Twelve were blank; on one was a Black Cross graven.
They drew in silence; no start, no movement, no trembling of the muscles betrayed the one fated. Twelve drew blanks. Which of them had the Cross; which? They stared dumbly, questioningly, fearfully from one to the other. One was the assassin. Which? The answer was shrouded behind the masks.
Lower and lower the candles burned in their sockets, flickering fitfully. The room grew darker and the figures, cloaked and hooded, seemed to melt back into the shadows from whence they had emerged, less and less distinct, until finally the shadow was one, more and more vapoury, filling the darkness.
Suddenly, a scream cut the silence, like a knife rough and jagged. In a twinkling the lights went out. There was a scuffling, a struggling in the corridor, cries and shouting, the sound of wood splintering, the blows of an axe,—a rushing forward of heavy bodies and the trampling of feet. The doors burst open, and a cordon of police dashed over the wreckage, cursing, shouting—and then stopped on the threshold, staring in amazement and panting with mouths wide open.
"Oi!—Oi! Tysyacha chertei!"
The room was empty, dark, deserted save for an old woman, half-witted, who was crouching on the floor before the sacred Icon, rocking herself and mumbling. They questioned her, but she was deaf and answered at random:
"Eh, gracious sirs—my lords—eh? So old—so poor, so wretched! See, there is nothing!—A copeck, for the love of heaven—half a copeck—a quarter, only a little quarter! Ah! Rioumka vodki—rioumka—vodki!"
The police brushed her aside and searched the room. In the corner was a low cot, hanging on a nail was an old cloak; on the table the remains of a black loaf and an empty cup. They searched and searched in vain; tapping the walls, tearing at the stone foundations, peering up at the rafters, tumbling over one another in their eagerness.
"Chort vozmi—!" shouted the captain, "We are on the wrong track. The scream came from the other side. Head them off! Run, men, run! Here, this passage, and then straight ahead! Devil take the old beggar! Shut up, you hag, or I'll strangle you!—Head them off!"
Gradually the hurrying footsteps died away in the distance. The shouting ceased on the stairs. It was still as the grave, silent, deserted. The old woman glanced over her shoulder. She was still crouching before the Icon, rocking herself backwards and forwards; the beads of the rosary slipping through her fingers one by one; mumbling to herself.
Suddenly she stopped and listened. The rosary fell to the floor. Her eyes watched the wreckage of the doorway closely, suspiciously, like an animal before a trap. The shadows encircled her, they were here, there, everywhere; but none moved, none crept.
Snatching a slip of paper from her bosom, she bent over it, her eyes dilated, her mouth twisted with agony. In the centre of the paper, clearly graven against the white, was a Black Cross.
She moaned aloud, wringing her hands. Her teeth gnawed her lips. She clung to the foot of the Icon, sobbing, struggling with herself, glancing around fearfully into the shadows. A gleam from the candle fell on her hood; it had slipped slightly and a strand of her hair hung from under the cowl. It sparkled like gold.
She staggered to her feet, still sobbing and trembling, catching her breath. Then she went to the nail on the wall and took down the cloak. The woman stood alone in the midst of the shadows; they were heavy, motionless. Glancing to right and left, behind her, to the wreckage of the door, to the furthermost corner, back to the Icon again, her eyes roved, darting from side to side like a creature hunted. Clasping the cloak to her quivering bosom she approached the candle slowly, stealthily. Her steps faltered. She hesitated. She stooped forward—another glance over her shoulder, and blowing with feeble breath, the spark went out.
 A small glass of brandy.
 "The devil take you!"
Velasco sat in his Studio before the great tiled fire-place, dreaming, with his violin across his knees. His servant had gone to bed and he was alone.
The coals burned brightly, and the lamp cast a golden, radiant light on the rug at his feet, rich-hued and jewel tinted as the stained rose windows of Notre Dame. Tapestries hung from the walls, a painting here and there, a few engravings. In the centre stood an Erard, a magnificent concert-grand, open, with music strewn on its polished lid in a confusion of sheets; some piled, some fluttering loose, still others flung to the floor where a chance breeze, or a careless hand, may have scattered them. Near it was the exquisite bronze figure of a young satyr playing the flute, the childish arms and limbs, round and molded, glowing rosy and warm in the lamp light. In one corner was a violin stand, a bow tossed heedlessly across it; and all about were boxes, half packed and disordered. The curtains were drawn. The malachite clock on the mantel-piece was striking two.
Velasco stirred suddenly and his dark head turned from the fire light, moving restlessly against the cushions. He was weary. The applause, the uproar of the Mariinski was still in his ears; before his eyes danced innumerable notes, tiny and black, the sound of them boring into his brain.
"Ye gods—ye gods!"
The young Violinist sprang up and began pacing the room, pressing his hands to his eyes to drive away the notes, humming to himself to get rid of the sound, the theme, the one haunting, irrepressible motive. He walked up and down, lighting one cigarette after the other, puffing once, twice, and then hurling it half-smoked into the coals.
Every little while he stopped and seemed to be listening. Then he went back to his seat before the fire-place and flinging himself down began to play, a few bars at a time, stopping and listening, then playing again. As he played, his eyes grew dreamy and heavy, the brows seemed to press upon them until they drooped under the lids, and his dark hair fell like a screen.
When he stopped, a strange, moody look came over his face and he frowned, tapping the rug nervously with his foot. Sometimes he held the violin between his knees, playing on it as on a cello; then he caught it to his breast again in a sudden fury of improvisation—an arpeggio, light and running, his fingers barely touching the strings—the snatch of a theme—a trill, low and passionate—the rush of a scale. He toyed with the Stradivarius mocking it, clasping it, listening.
His overwrought nerves were as pinpoints pricking his body. His brain was like a church, the organ of music filling it, thundering, reverberating, dying away; and then, as he lay back exhausted, low, subtle, insinuating ran the theme in his ears, the maddening motive.
Beside him was a stand, with a decanter of red wine and a glass. The wine was lustrous and sparkling. He drank of it, and lit another cigarette and threw it away. Presently Velasco took from his pocket a twist of paper blotted, and studied it, with his head in his hands.
"Will you help me—life or death—tonight? Kaya."
He listened again.
The theme was still running, the black notes dancing; but between them intertwined was a face, upturned, exquisite, the eyes pleading, the lips parted, hands clasped and beckoning. That night at the Mariinski—ah!
He had searched for her everywhere. Ushers had flown from loggia to loggia, ransacking the Theatre. Next to the Imperial Box, or was it the second? To the right?—no, the left! Below, or perhaps on the Bel-Etage?—All in vain. Was it only a dream? He stared down at the twist of paper blotted "Kaya—to-night."
Her name came to his lips and he repeated it aloud, smiling to himself, musing. His eyes gazed into the coals, dreamy, heavy, half open, gleaming like dark slits under the brows. They closed gradually and his head fell lower. His hands relaxed. The violin lay on his breast, his pale cheek resting against the arch.
He was asleep.
All of a sudden there came a light tap on the door. A pause, a tap, still lighter; then another pause.
Velasco raised his head and tossed back his hair restlessly; his eyes drooped again.
He started and listened.
Some one was at the Studio door—something. It was like the flutter of a bird's wing against the oak, softly, persistently.
He rose slowly, reluctantly to his feet and went to the door. It was strange, inexplicable. After two, and the moon was gone, the night was dark—unless—An eager look came into his eyes.
"Who is there?" he cried, "Who are you? What do you want?"
A silence followed, as if the bird had poised suddenly with wings outstretched, hovering. Then it came again against the oak: "Tap—tap."
Velasco threw open the door: "Bozhe moi!"
As he did so, a woman's figure, slim and small, hooded and wrapped in a long, black cloak, darted inside, and snatching the door from his hand, closed it behind her rapidly, fearfully, glancing back into the darkness. The woman was panting under the hood. She braced herself against the door, still clasping the bolt as though a weapon. Her back was crooked beneath the cloak and she seemed to be crippled.
Velasco drew back. His eagerness vanished and the light died out of his face. "Who in the name of—" He hesitated: "What in the world—" Then he hesitated again, his dark eyes blinking under his brows.
The woman stretched her hands from under the cloak, clasping them. She was fighting hard for her breath.
"Tell me, Monsieur," she whispered, "Tell me quickly—are you married? Are you going alone to Germany?" Her voice shook and trembled: "Oh, tell me,—quickly."
"Married, my good woman!" exclaimed Velasco. His eyes opened wide and he drew back a little further: "Why really, Madame—Of course I am going alone to Germany. What do you mean? How extraordinary!"
"Quite alone?" repeated the woman, "no friend, no manager? Oh then, sir, do me the little favour, the kindness—it will cost you nothing—I shall never forget it—I shall bless you all the days of my life."
She took a step forward, limping. Velasco recovered himself.
"Sit down, Madame," he said, "and explain. You are trembling so. Let me give you some wine.—Wait a minute. There,—is it money you want? Tell me."
His manner was that of a prince to a beggar, lofty, authoritative, kindly, indifferent. "Sit down, Madame."
The woman shrank back against the door and her hand fled to the bolt as if seeking support. "No—no!" she murmured. "You don't understand. It's not for—not money! I'm in trouble, danger. Don't you see? I must flee from Russia—now, at once. You are going to Germany alone, to-morrow night. Take me with you—take me with—you!"
An irritated look came over Velasco's face. Was the creature mad? "That is nonsense," he said, "I can't take any one with me, and I wouldn't if I could. Besides there is only one passport."
The woman put her hand to her breast. It was throbbing madly under the cloak. "You could take—your—wife," she whispered, "Your wife. No one would suspect."
"Really, my dear Madame!"
Velasco yawned behind his palm. "What you say is simply absurd. I tell you I have no wife."
She stretched out her hands to him: "You are a Pole, a Pole!" Her voice rose passionately. "Surely you have suffered; you hate Russia, this cruel, wicked, tyrannous government. Your sympathy is with us, the people, the Liberals, who are trying—oh, I tell you—I must go, at once! After tomorrow it is death, don't you understand,—death? What is it to you, the matter of another passport? You are Velasco?—Every one knows that name, every one. Your wife goes with you to Germany. Oh, take me—take me—I beseech you."
The Violinist stared down at the hooded face. Her voice was tense and vibrating like the tones of an instrument. It moved him strangely. He felt a curious numbness in his throat and a wave passed over him like a chill. She went on, her hands wrung together under the cloak:
"It isn't much I ask. The journey together—at the frontier we part—part forever. The marriage, oh listen—that is nothing, a ceremony, a farce, just a certificate to show the police—the police—"
Her voice died away in a whisper, broken, panting. She fell back against the door, bracing herself against it, gazing up into his eyes.
Velasco stood motionless for a moment; then he turned on his heel and strode over to the fire-place, staring down into the coals. The sight of that bent and shrinking figure, a woman, old and feeble, trembling like a creature hunted, unmanned him.
"I can't do it," he said slowly, "Don't ask me. I am a musician. I have no interest in politics. There is too much risk. I can't, Madame, I can't."
He felt her coming towards him. The flutter of her cloak, it touched him, and her step was light, like a bird limping.
"You read it?" she whispered, "I saw you at the Mariinski; and there—there are the violets on the table, by the violin. Have you forgotten?"
Velasco started: "Who are you?" he exclaimed. "Not Kaya!" He wheeled around and faced her savagely: "You Kaya, never! Was it you who threw the violets—you?"
His dark eyes measured the shrinking form, bent and crippled, shrouded; and he cried out in his disappointment like a peevish boy: "I thought it was she—she! Kaya was young, fair, her face was like a flower; her hair was like gold; her lips were parted, arched and sweet; her eyes—You, you are not Kaya!—Never!"
His voice was angry and full of scorn: "It was all a dream, a mistake. Go—out of my sight; begone! I'll have nothing to do with anarchists."
He snatched the violets from the table and flung them on the hearth: "Begone, or I'll call the police." He was in a tempest of rage. His disappointment rose in his throat and choked him.
The old woman shrank back from him step by step. He followed threateningly:
"Begone, you beggar."
His heart beat unpleasantly. Devil take the old woman! Impostor! She was old and ugly as sin. He was sleepy and weary. Why had he taken the violets; why had he read the note? If the girl were not Kaya, then who—who?
"Come," he cried sharply, "Be off!"
Suddenly the woman buried her head in her hands. She began to sob in long drawn breaths; they shook her form. She fell back against the Erard, trembling and sobbing.
Velasco stared down at her. His anger left him like a flash and his heart softened. Poor thing, poor creature! She was old and feeble, and crippled. He had forgotten. He had only thought of her, Kaya, the girl with the flower-like face. He shook himself, as if out of a dream, and his hand patted the woman's shoulder soothingly. His voice lost its sharpness.
"Don't," he said, "Don't cry like that, my dear Madame—no, don't! It will be all right. I was hasty. Don't mind what I said,—don't—no!"
She dashed his hand from her shoulder and broke into passionate weeping: "You play like a god," she cried, "but you are not; you are a brute. You have no heart. It is your violin that has the heart. Don't touch me—let me go! It was so little I asked, so little!"
She struggled away from him, but Velasco pursued her. His heart misgave him. He grasped her cloak with one hand, the hood with the other, trying to raise it; "Stop!" he said, "I can't stand a woman crying, young or old. I can't stand it; it makes me sick. Stop, I tell you! I'll do anything. I'll—I'll marry you—You shall go to Germany with me. Only stop for heaven's sake. Don't cry like that—don't!"
He stooped over the shrinking figure still lower; his arm pressed her shoulder. She struggled with him blindly, still sobbing.
"Now, by heaven," cried Velasco, "If you are to be my wife, I'll see your face at least. Be still, Madame, be still!"
The woman cowered away from him, holding out her hands, pressing him back. "I beg of you—I beseech you," she said, "Not my face! No—no, Monsieur!"
She gazed at him in terror, and as she gazed, the hood slipped back from her hair; it fell in a golden flood to her shoulders, curling in little rings and waves about her forehead, her neck; veiling her face. She gave a cry.
Velasco stood for a moment petrified, staring down into the frightened eyes that were like twin wells of blue fixed on his own. Then he leaped forward, snatched at the cloak, flung out his arms,—he had clasped the air. She was gone. The door slammed back in his face and the sound of her hurrying footsteps, light as a bird's, fled in the distance.
He was all alone in the room.
Velasco rubbed his eyes with his hand and stared about him, strangely, mechanically, like a sleep-walker. "What a dream! Ye gods, what a dream!" He stretched his limbs yawning and laughed aloud; then he paled suddenly. Was it a dream; or no—impossible. On the sleeve of his black velvet jacket something glistened and sparkled, a thread as of gold, fine and slender like silk, invisible almost as the fibrous strings of his bow.
He raised it between his fingers. Then slowly, heavily, he went back to his seat before the fire-place and flung himself down.
The lamp-light fell on the Persian rug dimly, flickeringly, the colours were soft as an ancient fresco; the jewels were gone, and the coals burned lower, dying. He lit a cigarette and began to smoke. The violin was in his arms. He played low to himself, dreamily, fitfully, his eyes half closed, dark slits beneath the brows.
At his feet lay the violets crushed and strewn; a twist of paper creased, blotted.
The light of the lamp grew dimmer. The malachite clock struck again and again. The night passed.
Below the Nicholai Bridge, on the right quay of the Neva, stands the palace of the Grand-Duke Stepan, a huge, granite structure, massive in form and splendid in architecture.
The palace was ablaze with light. In the famous ball-room thousands of electric bulbs twinkled and sparkled, star-shaped and dazzling. Its lofty, dome-like vault, resting on marble columns, was encircled by a balcony, narrow and sculptured, from which the music of the band rose and fell, soft, entrancing, invisible, as from the clouds. The walls were of reddish marble rounded at the corners. The floor, shining, polished as a mirror, reflected the swaying forms of the dancers as they whirled to and fro.
Beyond, on the grand stair-case, the guests ascended slowly in groups of twos and threes, flecking the marble with splashes of colour, radiant, vivid, like clusters of rose leaves strewn on the steps. The perfume was intoxicating, languorous. Light trills as of laughter and snatches of talk, gay and fleeting, mingled with the rhythm of the violins.
The ball was at its height.
In an arch of the stair-case stood a young officer. He was leaning nonchalantly against the carved balustrade; the scarlet and gold of his uniform shone against a green background of palms, distinguishing his broad shoulders from among the rest. The palms screened him as in a niche.
The officer was swarthy of complexion with a short, black mustache, and his eyes, small and near together, roamed carelessly over the throng. As the groups approached the head of the stair-case, one after the other, he saluted smiling, half heeding, and his eyes roved on still more carelessly; sometimes they crossed.
Whenever they crossed, his eyes would remain fixed, intent, for a moment, on some one advancing to the foot of the stair-case, eagerly watching as the form came nearer and nearer. Then the muscles relaxed. He frowned impatiently, tapping his sword against the carvings.
The whisper came from behind the leaves of the palms and they swayed slightly, trembling as from a movement, or a breath.
The officer started, turning his black eyes swiftly, fiercely on the green, and then looked away again.
"Ha, Boris!" he muttered, hardly moving his lips, "How you come creeping behind one!—What is it, a message?"
"Hist-st! Speak low."
The voice was like the faint murmur of crickets on a hot summer's day. "The Duke has gone."
"Gone? What! The devil he has!"
"Sh-h!—not five minutes ago! A message came from the Tsar himself. He has just slipped away."
The officer gazed straight ahead of him smiling, and bowed to a couple ascending the stair-case. His lips parted as if in greeting. "Did he send you to tell me?"
"No, the Duchess. She has made some excuse and is receiving alone. No one suspects, not yet; but the guests must be diverted, or else—"
"Be still, Boris, be still, you shake the leaves like a bull. When will he return?"
"By midnight, Prince. Could you start the mazurka at once?"
"Presently, Boris. Go and tell my mother I will—presently. The Countess is late, unaccountably late! Is the snow heavy to-night on the quay; are the sledges blocked? Hiss-st!—There she comes!"
The trembling of the leaves ceased suddenly and the young officer leaned forward, his sword clanking, his eyes crossed and fixed on a vague white spot in the distant foyer.
"She is coming! How slowly she moves! What a throng!—There, she comes, white and sweet like a lily, a flower!" The Prince waved his hand; his sword clanked again. "No, she doesn't see me; her eyes are on the ground—and her hair, it gleams like a crown."
The two figures climbing the grand marble stair-case moved forward slowly, step by step, mingling with the flash and colour of the crowd, lost for a moment at the bend, then reappearing again. The man, evidently a general, was magnificent in his uniform; his breast regal with orders and medals, his grey head held high and his form stiff and straight. On his arm was the Countess, his daughter.
She clung to him, her lips were smiling and her white robes trailed the marble behind her. She was like a young queen, charming and gracious, bowing to right and to left. As the groups drew aside to let her pass, they whispered together, looking up at the carved balustrade; then the crowd closed again.
At the top of the stair-case the Prince sprang forward. He greeted the General hastily, saluting. Then the watchers behind saw how the Countess paused, hesitated, and then, at a few whispered words from the Prince, placed her hand on his arm and the two young figures, the white and the scarlet, disappeared within the doorway.
The violins rose and fell in a dreamy measure. From the sculptured gallery the sound came mysterious, enchanting, swaying the feet with the force of its rhythm.
"Not to-night," said the Countess, "No!" She drew herself away from the arm of the Prince and her lashes drooped over her eyes. "I am tired—later perhaps, Prince."
Her voice, low and remonstrating, was lost in the swing of the waltz. With a sudden, swift movement the scarlet and white seemed welded together, whirling into the vortex of light and of motion.
No word was exchanged. They whirled, gliding, twisting in and out among the dancers; and suddenly, swiftly, as at a signal, the music broke into the measure of the mazurka. A cry went up from the throng. In a twinkling the floor was cleared, the crowd pressed back against the columns; under the reddish marble of the dome four couples gathered, poised hand in hand.
The uniforms of the officers glowed in the light, rich and scarlet, faced with silver and gold. The gowns of their partners were brocade and velvet, purple and crimson, lilac and pearl. Then from the balcony, high up, unseen, the rhythm changed again like a flash, and with it the national dance began.
At first the movements were slow, the steps graceful; the feet seemed scarcely to move, barely gliding over the floor. One by one the couples retreated, the last left alone; and then interchanging. The music grew faster. In that moment, when they were left alone, the Prince bent his head to the slim, swaying whiteness by his side:
"Why did you come so late?" he whispered, "Where were you?"
The Countess' hand was cold like ice. She drew it away and danced on; then she whispered back:
"The Duke! Where is he to-night? He is not here! Why is the mazurka so early, tell me."
They interchanged again.
"Hush," said the Prince, "You noticed?—Don't speak. He has gone to the Tsar.—What is it? Are you ill?"
"Dance, Countess, dance. Don't stop; are you mad? Come nearer. Hush!—The Tsar sent for him, but he will be back at midnight. No one must know."
The figure of the mazurka grew stranger and more complicated. When they were thrown together again, the Countess lifted her blue eyes to the eyes of the Prince. They seemed to look at her and yet to look past her; they were crossed. She shivered slightly and turned her head. Her white figure, slender and light as thistledown, floated away from him, and then in a moment she was back, their hands had touched; they were whirling together faster and faster, the tips of her slippers scarcely touching the floor. She closed her eyes.
"You won't tell, not a soul, I can trust you?" whispered the Prince. "Come closer, closer. There is a plot to-night. Boris told me. The Secret Service men are everywhere, watching. Don't be frightened, Countess—your hand is so cold. Can you hear me? Bend your head—so! They hope to make arrests before he returns."
"When—when does he return?"
"Sh—h! At midnight. Dance faster, faster—Let yourself go!"
The music broke into a mad riot of rhythm; the violins seemed to run races with one another in an intoxication of sound, pulsing, penetrating, overpowering. The white figure twirled in the Prince's arms, her gold hair a blot against the scarlet of his sleeve, faster and faster. Her head drooped; her eyes closed again.
The rhythm was alive, tempting, subtle, like a madness in the veins; and as they whirled, the rubato, dreamy, sudden, caught them as in a leash; the steps faltered, slower, more lingering; slower, still slower until the music stopped, dying away into the dome of the vault in a last faint echo of sound.
The Countess swayed suddenly.
Her face was white as the lace on her bosom, and her eyes grew dark and big, with black shadows sweeping her cheeks. Others stepped forward to the dance; their places were filled and the music commenced again.
"Lean on me," whispered the Prince, "Are you ill? Countess, lean on my arm—so."
His voice was hoarse and excited. He was swaying a little himself from the intoxication of the dance.
"Take me away somewhere, some quiet place," she whispered back. "Let me rest—I am faint."
He drew her after him and the two figures, the scarlet and the white, passed under the archway into a salon beyond. The Prince raised a curtain: "This is the Duke's own room," he said in her ear, "Go under—be quick!"
The curtain fell heavily behind them and the two stood alone in the Grand-Duke's room. There was a desk in the corner littered with papers, a lamp stood beside, heavily shaded, and back in the shadowy recesses was a couch.
"Help me there," whispered the Countess, "And then go—go, Prince, leave me. My head is on fire! See, my cheeks, my hands, how they burn? Help me to the couch."
She staggered and almost fell as they approached it, burying her face in her hands.
"I can't leave you," said the Prince. He was on his knees beside her, kissing her hands, trying to draw them down from her face. "Kaya, what is the matter? Don't hide your eyes—look at me. Shall I call some one? Are you ill?"
The Countess drew back against the cushions, shuddering, pushing him from her: "Don't call any one," she said, "Give me that water on the table there." Her eyes were wide open now and dilated; the hair fell disordered in golden rings and waves about the oval of her face. She drew her breath heavily; her bosom rising and falling like waves after a storm. One hand pressed her lace as if to clutch the pulsing and steady it; the other held the glass to her trembling lips.
The Prince hovered over the couch. He was pale and the crossing of his eyes was more pronounced than ever. "Drink now," he whispered soothingly as if to a child in trouble, "Drink it slowly. It is wine, not water, and will bring back your strength. It was the dance; ah, it was so fast, so mad. You were wonderful! The blood beats in my veins still; I can feel the rhythm throbbing, can you? Speak to me, Countess—are you better?"
"Is any one here," said the girl faintly, "Are we alone?"
"Yes, yes, we are alone."
"Will the Duke come in?"
"Not yet. Put your head back against the cushions and rest. The colour is gone from your cheeks and you are pale like a broken flower. Listen—do you hear the violins in the distance? Your feet move like mine; every pulse in your body is tingling and throbbing. Rest; don't speak, and in a moment—Kaya—"
Again the Countess pushed him back, her blue eyes sparkling, flashing on his: "Prince, hush! Don't speak to me like that. You don't know, how can you! Poor boy—poor boy! Don't look at me; I tell you, don't look at me. In the dusk it might be the Duke himself, his very self! Go—Leave me a little. If he were good like you—but you will be bad too when you are older, wicked, cruel—the blood is there in your veins. You will be like the rest. Keep away from me, Michel. Don't kiss my hands, not—my—hands!"
The Countess tore them away and gazed at the young officer, her eyes wild and dilated. She gave a little cry as of pain.
"No—no! I can bear all the rest, but not this—not this! Get up off your knees Prince. Leave me—leave me for a little while—I must think; I must be alone and think."
Her hair sparkled and gleamed against the cushions. One hand was still clasped to her breast. He stooped over her, panting.
"Come and dance with me, Kaya—dearest. You are well now; your cheeks are like roses. The wine is so strong when one is giddy. Let me put my arms about you—come! I love you. Ah, your hair is like a halo; your lips are trembling. The tears in your eyes are like dew, Kaya."
The Countess rose slowly to her feet. "Yes, you are like your father already," she cried, "Already you are cowardly. You are strong and you think I am weak." Her head was thrown back; she measured him scornfully, "Go and dance, sir. Leave me, I tell you."
The Prince held out his hands. "Leave you!" he cried, "No, Kaya, no. Come and dance."
"Leave me—leave me."
He came nearer: "Are you still faint? Will you rest and let me come back? When? How soon?"
He took out his watch: "Nearly midnight," he cried, "then the Duke will return. When the clock strikes, Kaya, it will be our dance. You will waltz with me then—once more? As soon as the clock strikes?"
"A quarter of an hour, Kaya, no more? I will send word to Boris. He will guard the curtain so no one will enter, unless it is the Duke himself. As soon as the clock strikes, you promise, we will waltz together?"
"Go, Michel, go—I promise."
The Prince made a step forward as though to gather the shrinking figure in his arms. He hesitated; then he moved towards the curtain; hesitated again and looked behind him. Then the heavy folds fell and the girl was alone.
She stood for a moment, watching the folds, then she put her hands to her eyes and swayed as though she were falling.
"God!" she cried, "Must I do it? Is there no other—no other instrument?" She sobbed to herself in little broken words, catching her breath: "I vow—I vow—without weakness, or hesitation, or mercy—with mine own hands if—needs be."
She staggered forward, still sobbing, and bent over the desk. Something white fluttered and fell from her lace; she smoothed it with her fingers; gazed at it.
"God!" she cried, "Oh, God!"
Then she clasped her breast again and drew something out, something dark and hard. She gave a startled glance about the room, covering it with her arms; her form shivering as though in a chill.
"In the name of the Black Cross I swear—I swear—"
Then she crept back to the couch and sank on the floor behind it, covering her face with her hands. As she did so, the door on the corridor opened a crack, then wider, slowly wider, and some one came in. The form was that of a man. He looked about him. The room was still, deserted, and he gave a sigh of relief, hurrying over to the desk. When he turned up the lamp, the light revealed a bundle of papers which he laid on the desk, examining them one after the other, putting his face close to the lamp, studying, absorbed.
The face was that of the Grand-Duke Stepan; his beaked nose, his grey, upturned mustache, his eyes small and crossed. They were fixed on the sheets. All of a sudden he started violently.
Beside him on the desk, just under the lamp, was a slip of paper. There was nothing on the paper but a Black Cross graven, above it: Cmeptb.
As the Duke gazed at it, his face grew ashen, his mouth twitched, his eyes seemed fairly to start from his head; his knees knocked together. He glanced fearfully around, trying vainly to steady his hands.
"Without weakness, without hesitation, or mercy, by mine own hands if needs be, I swear—"
Was it a voice shrieking in his ears? He cowered backwards, huddled together, shivering.
Suddenly there came the click of a revolver. A shot rang out; a moan. The Duke stood motionless for a second; then he faltered, twisted and fell on his face with his arms outstretched.
It was snowing steadily. The drops came so thick and so fast that the city was shrouded as in a great white veil, falling from the sky to the earth. Drifts were piled in the streets; they were frozen and padded as with a carpet, and the sound of sleigh-bells rang muffled in the distance. It was night and dark, with a bitter wind that came shrieking about the corners, blowing the snow, as it fell, into a riot of feathery flakes; sudden gusts that raided the drifts, driving the white maze hither and thither, flinging it up and away in a very fury of madness. The cold was intense.
Before the door of a house on the little Morskaia stood a kareta. It was large and covered. Behind and on top several boxes were strapped, protected from the snow by wrappings of oil-cloth, and on the driver's seat was a valise.
The horses pawed the snow impatiently, tossing their heads and snorting whenever the icy blast struck them. The wind was sharp like a whip. Occasionally the kareta made a sudden lurch forward; then, with guttural oaths and exclamations, the animals were reined back on their haunches, slipping and sliding on the ice, plunging and foaming. The foam turned to ice as it fell, flecking their bits. The breath from their nostrils floated out like a vapour, slender and hoary.
The driver, muffled in furs, swung his arms against his breast, biting his fingers, stamping his feet to keep them from freezing. The kareta, the driver and the horses were covered with snow, lashed by it, blinded with it. They waited wearily. From time to time the driver glanced up at the door of the house and then back at the carriage, shaking his head and muttering fiercely:
"Stand still, you sons of the devil, stand still! You prance and shy as if Satan himself had stuck a dart in you! Hey, there!—Back, back, you limb! Will the Barin never come?"
He swore vigorously to himself under his beard, and the flakes fell from him in a shower. After a while the door of the house opened; some one appeared on the steps and a voice called out:
"Bobo, eh Bobo! Is that you, are you ready? Heavens, what a night!"
"All ready, Monsieur Velasco, all ready."
"The boxes on?"
"You took my valise, did you?"
The figure disappeared for an instant within the doorway and the light went out; then he reappeared, carrying a violin-case under his arm, which he screened from the wet with the folds of his cloak, carefully, as a mother would cover the face of her child. He leaped to the carriage.
"All right, Bobo, go ahead. Wait a moment until I get the latch open. Ye gods! I never felt such cold. My fingers are like frozen sticks. There! Now, the Station: Warchavski Voksal—as fast as you can! Ugh, what a storm!"
The Violinist flung himself back in the corner of the kareta, huddling himself in the furs; the windows were shut and his breath made a steam against the panes. The carriage was black as a cave.
"There ought to be another fur!" he said angrily to himself. His teeth were chattering and his whole body shivered against the cushions. "I told Bobo to put in an extra fur. The devil now, where can it be?"
He groped with his hands, feeling the seat beside him, when all of a sudden he gave an exclamation, alarmed, half suppressed, his eyes staring into the darkness, trying vainly to penetrate.
What was it? Something was there, moving, breathing, alive, on the seat close beside him. Gracious heaven! He wasn't alone! Velasco crouched back instinctively, putting out both hands as if to ward off a blow. He listened, peering. Surely something breathed—there, in the corner! He could make out a shadow, an outline.—No, nothing—it was nothing at all.
His pulses beat rapidly; he groped again with his hands, slowly, fearfully, hesitating and then groping again. It was as though something, someone were trying to elude him in the darkness. His breath came fast; he listened again.
Something cowered and breathed—"Bozhe moi!" He gripped his lip with his teeth and hurled himself forward, grappling into the furthermost recesses of the kareta. His hands grasped a cloak, a human shoulder, a body. It dragged away from him. He clutched it and something shrank back into the shadows. His eyes were blind; he could see nothing, he could hear nothing; he could only feel. It was breathing.
His hand moved cautiously over the cloak, the shoulder. It resisted him, trying vainly to escape; and then, as the carriage dashed on through the darkness, he dragged the thing forward, nearer—nearer, struggling. The breath was on his cheeks. He felt it distinctly—the rustle of something alive.
Velasco clenched his teeth together, clutching the thing, and held it under the window-pane, close, close, straining forward. As he did so the rays of a street lamp fell through the glass, a faint, pale light through the steam on the panes; a flash and it was over. Velasco gave a cry.
Beside him was a woman, slight and veiled, and she was crouching away from him, holding her hands before her face, panting, frightened, even as he was.
"Who are you?" cried Velasco, "What are you? Speak, for the love of heaven! I feel as if I were going mad. Speak!"
He shook the cloak in his trembling grasp and, as he did so, a hand pressed into his own. It was bare, and soft like the leaf of a rose. He grasped it. The fingers clung to him, alive and warm. Velasco hesitated. Then he dropped the hand and from his pocket he snatched a match, striking it against the side of the carriage. It sputtered and went out. He struck another. It flickered for a moment and he held it between his hands, coaxing it. It burned and he held it out, gazing into the corner, coming nearer and nearer. The eyes gleamed at him from behind the veil; nearer—He could see the oval of the face, the lips. Then the match went out.
He snatched at her hand again in the darkness and held it under the fur. "You came after all," he whispered hoarsely, "I thought I had dreamed it. Speak to me; let me hear your voice."
He felt her bending towards him; her shoulder touched his. "You promised—I hold you to your promise."
"Have you changed your mind?"
"No.—Don't take your hand away. No! It is horrible, the storm and the blackness. Hear the wind shriek! The hoofs of the horses are padded with snow; they are galloping. How the carriage lurches and sways! Are you afraid, Kaya? Don't—don't take your hand away."
Velasco's voice was husky and forced like a string out of tune. It was strange, extraordinary to be sitting there in that dark, black cave, his hand clasping the hand of a woman, a stranger. The two sat silent. The horses plunged forward.
Suddenly they stopped. Velasco started as out of a dream and sprang to the window, wiping the steam from the panes with his sleeve.
"Bobo!" he cried, "Madman! This is not the Station. Where are you going, idiot—fool!"
His voice was smothered suddenly by a hand across his lips.
"Hush, Monsieur, have you forgotten? The driver knows, he is one of us. Come with me; and I pray you, I beseech you, don't speak, don't make a sound; step softly and follow."
In a moment the girl was out of the carriage and Velasco behind. Her veil fluttered back; her cloak brushed his shoulder. The storm and the wind beat against them. He ran blindly forward, battling with the gale; but fast as he went she went faster. He could scarcely keep up. In the distance behind them, the carriage and horses were lost in a white mist, a whirl.
"Here," she cried, "Bow your head, quick, the arch—and then through the gate—run! Take my hand in the court—let me lead you. I know every step. Run—run! You waited so long; we shall be late. There is barely time before the train. Ah, run, Monsieur—run!"
The two figures dashed through the alley and into an open cloister, running with their heads bowed against the wind, struggling with the snow in their eyes, in their throats; blinded, panting.
"Stop!" gasped Velasco, "I can't run like this. Stop! You mad thing, you witch! Where, where are you going? Stop, I tell you!"
She dragged at his hand. "Come—a moment further. Come, Monsieur. Ah, it is death—don't falter. Run!"
She caught at a little door under the wall and pushed it madly. It yielded. He sprang in behind her; and then he stood blinking, amazed.
They were alone in the dark, ghostly nave of a huge Church. The long rows of columns stretched out in the distance, tall and stately like pines in a forest; the aisles were broad and shadowy, leading far off in a distant perspective to the outline of an altar and a high cross suspended. They were dim, barely visible.
"Where are we?" he murmured, faltering. "Kaya, speak—tell me."
She put up her face close to his and he saw that her lips were quivering, her eyes blurred with tears. Her veil was white with the snow, like a bride's. She dragged at his hand, and he followed her dumbly, their footsteps echoing, a soft patter across the marble of the church.
It was absolutely dark; only on the far distant altar three candles were lighted, three sparks, red and restless, like fireflies gleaming. Otherwise the nave, the chancel, the transepts were as one vast blackness stretching before them. They fled on in silence; their goal was the candles.
At first the space before the altar seemed empty, deserted, like the rest of the Church; but as they approached, nearer and nearer, three forms seemed to melt from the back of the choir and stood on the steps; two were figures in cloaks; the third was a priest. His surplice shone in the shadows against the outline of the columns. He mounted the steps of the altar and stood with his face to the cross. They seemed to be waiting.
To Velasco the sound of his footsteps echoed and reverberated on the marble, filling the darkness. The noise of them was terrible. He would have covered his ears with his hands, but the girl urged him forward. The soft fingers crept about his own like a vine, clinging, irresistible.
"Come," she breathed, "ah, come, Monsieur—come!"
Then he followed, moving forward hurriedly, blindly, like one hypnotized. His senses were dulled; his will was inert. When he came to himself he was kneeling beside her on the marble, and he heard the voice of the priest, chanting slowly in Slavonic:
"Blessed is our God always, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
"In peace let us pray to the Lord for the servant of God, Velasco, and for the hand-maid of God, Kaya, who now plight each other their troth, and for their salvation. . . . That he will send down upon them perfect and peaceful love. . . . That he will preserve them in oneness of mind and in steadfastness of faith. . . . That he will bless them with a blameless life. . . . That he will deliver us from all tribulation, wrath, peril and necessity. . . . Lord have mercy!
"Lord have mercy!"
He listened in bewilderment; was it himself, or his ghost, his shadow. He tried to think, but everything melted before him in a mist. The girl by his side was a wraith; they were dead, and this was some strange unaccountable happening in another world. The marble felt cold to his knees. Velasco tried to move, to rise, but the hand of the priest held him down. The voice chanted on:
"Hast thou, Velasco, a good, free and unconstrained will and a firm intention to take unto thyself to wife this woman, Kaya, whom thou seest here before thee?"
And in the pause, he heard himself answering, strangely, dreamily, in a voice that was not his own:
"I have, reverend Father."
"Thou hast not promised thyself to any other bride?"
"I have not promised myself, reverend Father."
Then he felt the hand of the priest, pressing the crown down on his forehead; it weighed on his brow, and when he tried to shake it off he could not.
"The servant of God, Velasco, is crowned unto the hand-maid of God, Kaya. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
"The servant of God, Kaya, is crowned unto the servant of God, Velasco. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
"O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honour.
"O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honour.
"O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honour!"
Velasco passed his hand over his face; he was breathing heavily. The crown glittered in the darkness.
"And so may the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the all-holy, consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, one God-head, and one Kingdom, bless you, and grant you length of days, . . . prosperity of life and faith: and fill you with all abundance of earthly good things, and make you worthy to obtain the blessings of the promise: through the prayers of the holy Birth-giver of God, and of all the saints. Amen."
"Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit now, and ever, and unto ages and ages."
The chanting ceased suddenly, and there was silence. Then he felt something falling against him, and he staggered to his feet, dragging the girl up with him. She trembled and shook, pushing him back with her hands; her eyes were full of terror, staring up into his, the eyes of her husband. Again everything grew misty and swayed.
He was signing a paper; how his fingers quivered; he could scarcely hold the pen! The priest drew nearer, and the two cloaked figures. They all signed; and then he felt the paper crackling in the bosom of his coat, where he had thrust it. They were hurrying back through the dark, ghostly nave.
They were running, and the sound of their footsteps seemed louder and noisier than before; they ran side by side, through the door in the wall, the cloisters, the arch, bowing their heads; and there was the carriage, a great blot of whiteness, the horses like spectres. The snow came whirling through the air in sharp, icy flakes, cutting the skin. The wind grew fiercer, more violent.
With a last desperate effort Velasco dashed forward, pursuing the veil, the fluttering cloak—and the door of the carriage closed behind them. In that moment, as it closed, the horses leaped together, as twin bullets from the mouth of a cannon; galloping, lashed and terrified through the night. It was still inside the kareta.
Suddenly Velasco was conscious of a voice at his elbow, whispering to him out of the silence: "Thank you, Monsieur, ah, I thank you! We shall be at the station directly; then a few hours more and it will be—over! You will never see—me—again! I thank you—I thank you with all my heart."
The voice was soft and low, like a violin when the mute is on the strings. He could scarcely hear it for the lurching of the carriage. The horses gave a final plunge forward, and then fell back suddenly, reined in by an iron hand, and the kareta came to a standstill.
The station was all light and confusion; porters were rushing about, truckmen and officials, workmen carrying coloured lanterns. "Not a second to spare!" cried Velasco, "Send the trunks after me, Bobo—Here—my valise!"
He snatched up his violin-case, and the slim, dark-veiled figure darted beside him. "If we miss it!" he heard her crying in his ear, "I shall never forgive myself! I shall—never—forgive myself!"
"We shan't miss it!" cried Velasco, "I have the tickets, the passports for you and for me! Here—to the left! The doors are still open!"
An official rushed forward and took the valise from Velasco's hand: "Here, sir—here! First class compartment!"
Velasco nodded breathlessly, and the two sank down on the crimson cushions; the door slammed. "Ye gods!" They were alone in the compartment; they were saved! Velasco gave a little laugh of triumph. He was hugging his violin close in his arms, and opposite him sat the slim veiled figure. She was looking at him from behind the veil—and she was his wife. "Ye gods!" he laughed again.
"Why are you trembling?" he said, "We are safe now. I told you I had the passports. Are you cold, or afraid?—You shake like a leaf!"
The girl put out her hand, touching his. "Did you see?" she breathed, "There—on the platform—Boris, the Chief of the Third Section!—He was watching!"
Velasco laughed again aloud, happily, like a boy: "What of it? Let him watch! Put up your veil, Kaya. Great heavens, what a night it has been! My heart is going still like a hammer—is yours? Lean back on the cushions—put up your veil. Let me see you once,—let me see you! Look at me as you did in the Theatre—Kaya! Don't tremble."
"He is there," breathed the girl, "I see him behind the curtain! He is talking to the official—The train is late and it doesn't start. Why doesn't it start?"
She gave a little moan and peered out through the veil: "Something has happened, Monsieur! The officials are clustered together, talking—there is some excitement! They are gesticulating and several are pointing to the train! What is it—what is it?"
Velasco laughed again; but the laugh died in his throat. The two turned and gazed at one another with wide, frightened eyes.
"The Chief of the Third Section—see! He is going from compartment to compartment—He is looking at the passports! He is coming here—here!"
"Your passports, Monsieur—Madame?"
Velasco thrust his hand slowly into the breast pocket of his coat and drew out the precious papers. His manner was cold and indifferent, and his eyes had narrowed into sleepy slits again beneath the heaviness of his brows.
Kaya was leaning back on the cushions with the veil drawn closely over her face. She was tapping the panels of the door with a dainty, nervous foot. Neither glanced at the official.
The Chief of the Third Section was in evening dress with a fur cloak thrown hastily over his shoulders. He would have passed for an ordinary citizen on his way to a ball if it had not been for the strangeness of such an attire in a railway station, and the cluster of anxious, humble officials bowing and gesticulating about him. The Chief examined the passports closely and at some length; then he tossed an order over his shoulder in a quick, sharp tone to the group of officials, and one hurried away.
"This lady, Monsieur, she is your wife?"
The voice of the Chief, as he turned to Velasco, was like the passing of a brush over wool. The Violinist shuddered.
"Certainly sir, she is my wife," he returned curtly. "It is so stated on the paper, I believe."
"It is," said the Chief, "The writing is plain, quite clear. Will you be good enough to raise your veil, Madame?"
Kaya shrank back. "My veil!" she stammered. She half rose from her seat, supporting herself, with her hands pressed down on the cushions, gazing up at the waiting official. "No—my veil!—What do you mean?"
"I am sorry to trouble you," said the Chief sharply, "but I said: 'your veil.' Kindly raise it at once. Ha!—Why shouldn't you show your face, Madame?"
His burly form filled the doorway and the white of his shirt front, half screened by the fur, gleamed under the electric light. He seemed enormous.
Velasco's brows lifted suddenly until his eyes were wide open and blazing: "Stand back, you impudent scoundrel!" he cried, "Stand away from my wife! How dare you?"
"Come!" said the Chief. His voice was still sharper. "No nonsense, Monsieur. The veil must be raised and immediately; you are keeping the whole train back. What do you suppose I am here for?" There was menace in his tone as he took a step forward. "Now, Madame, will you raise it, or shall I?"
Kaya retreated slowly to the farther side of the compartment. "Stop," she whispered to Velasco. "Don't get angry; don't do anything, it is useless. Come back in the shadow."
Then she turned and faced the official defiantly, throwing up the veil. Her face was very pale, her eyes were blue and dark, like two pools without a bottom, and her lips pressed together, quivering slightly. Velasco stared at her for a moment and drew a step nearer, laying his hand on her shoulder. He was trembling with rage.
"Are you satisfied now, you cur?" he cried, "Look at her then. You will never see another face as beautiful, not in the whole length and breadth of your cursed country. Look—while you have the chance! By heaven, whoever you are, chief of the devil himself, I'll report you for this—I'll—"
A shrill whistle cut through the torrent of words, and in another moment the Chief had stepped back, and the under officials came crowding through the door of the compartment.
"Arrest them both," cried the Chief shortly, "Get them away at once and don't let them out of your hands. 'Peter and Paul,' quick! The woman is—" He whispered something hoarsely.
In a second the two were surrounded, their hands were chained; they were bound like sheep and dragged, first one, then the other, to a covered sleigh at the rear of the station.
"Put them in—hurry!" cried the Chief, "Gag the fellow; don't let him speak! Is the woman secure, so she can't scream, or moan? Take them off!"
The sleigh started, and the two lay side by side on the floor, jostled by the lurching of the runners, their flesh cut and bruised by the ropes, their mouths parched and panting behind the gags. They could not stir, or moan, or make a sign. They were helpless.
When the sleigh stopped in the grim inner court of the fortress, they were carried out into the darkness, and borne like animals through long, damp passages, down innumerable steps and dim windings until finally a door clicked and opened. They were thrust inside, their bindings were cut, and the door clicked again, slamming in its socket with the sickening crash of steel against steel; the sound reverberating hard and metallic like a blow against the eardrum, finally dying away in the distance, echo upon echo until all was silent.
The girl lay still on the floor where they had left her. She had swooned, and as she returned to consciousness slowly, gradually, her breath came in little gasps through her parted lips and she moaned as she lay. Velasco had dragged himself to his knees and was peering about him, feeling with his hands in the dim waning light. He was muttering to himself in little outbursts of anger and rebellion, rocking his arms to and fro.
"What a hole! What a beastly place! The floor is wet; ugh!—The walls are dank and shiny—things are crawling! Good heavens, something ran over my foot!—It must be a rat, scurrying—scampering! Sapristi! There's another! What a scrape to be in—what a scrape!"
The girl lifted her head and looked at him, straining her eyes for the outline of his shoulders, the mass of his dark curls. He had turned half away and was wringing his hands, feeling them and exclaiming to himself. She crept towards him and stretched out her hand, touching his shoulder.
"Monsieur—Ah, Monsieur Velasco!"
He shuddered away from her: "You, is it you! Are you alive? I thought you were dead! Mon Dieu, I thought I was shut in with a corpse! It is frightful, horrible! I have suffered! God, how I have suffered—the torture of the damned!"
"My hands are cut; I know they are cut! Look, can you see,—are they covered with blood? I am sure I feel it trickling!—Look!"
"No—no, Monsieur, there is no blood."
"I tell you I feel it—and my shoulder, my arm—I shall never be able to play again! I am ruined—ruined—and for what? Why did you come to me? Why didn't you go to someone else—anybody?"
"Ah forgive me, forgive me." The girl crept closer and laid her hand on his shoulder, pathetically as if half afraid. "I shouldn't have gone to you, but—listen, Monsieur—let me tell you—let me explain! I thought there was no danger, not for you, otherwise—Oh, do believe me, not for the world would I have done it! I knew you were an artist; Bobo told us you were going to Germany—I thought—Can you ever forgive me?"
Her voice broke a little and she was silent.
Velasco went on rocking himself, feeling his arms, his hands, his fingers at intervals. "Don't talk," he said, "You make me nervous. You did very wrong; you ought never to have come to me. I hate anarchists; I never could bear them; and now they take me for one! I shall live here all my days—and my Stradivarius, my treasure—Heaven knows where they have put it—lying on the platform of the station, or perhaps broken, or stolen! I shall never see it again, never! Ah, it is cruel—it is not to be borne! Don't speak, I tell you, I can't bear it! You shouldn't have coaxed me!—Ugh! these rats—brr—did you feel it?"
The girl gave a muffled cry. She had shrunk away in the corner, but now she crouched forward, her eyes dilated, staring into the darkness.
"A rat, Monsieur? Ah, it is so dark—I feel things, crawling—crawling; and the damp oozes down from the walls. I am frightened—frightened!"
The last words were a whisper; her throat swelled and she was choked, trembling with terror. She put out her hand and touched something soft—it slid from her and ran. She cried out faintly.
"Come here," said Velasco, "Come nearer! The rats won't hurt you. Rest on my cloak, poor child, are you cold? Where are you?—Let me touch you!"
"Here," said the girl, "I can feel the edge of your cloak; don't put it around me—no! I deserve to suffer, but you—no wonder you hate me! Don't put it around me."
"Come nearer," said Velasco, "I can't see you in this devilish darkness. Are you crying?"
"No, Monsieur, no, let me tell you—it was your playing, your playing that night. I saw you, and then the thought came to me—I will go to him, he will help me; and then—I came."
"Your teeth click together like a castanet rattling," said Velasco, "You tremble like a string under the bow. Come closer. There—one ran over my sleeve, curse the creature! Did you feel him, the vermin? Put my cloak close around you."
"No—no—not your cloak! You are shivering yourself, you need it. Don't—I pray you!"
There was a moment of silent struggle between them.
"Keep still," said Velasco, "My hands are cut, but they are strong still, and yours are like wax, soft as rose leaves. Hold it around you; don't push it away. Now, lean against me; they won't touch you."
The struggle continued for a moment; then the form of the girl relaxed, her head drooped and he felt the light rings of her hair brushing his cheek. She started and then sank back again.
"Can you hear me?" said Velasco, "Perhaps there are spies, people listening; no one can tell. Put your lips to my ear. Why were we arrested, do you know? What have you done?—Ah, these rats! Make a noise with your feet; scuffle as I do, that will drive them away.—"
"I—I can't tell you," whispered the girl, "No—it was nothing, don't ask me. You will know in the morning."
"Tell me now," said Velasco, "When we talk, the darkness seems less, not so terrible. I like to feel you breathing against me; your form is so little and light. Don't move! Put your fingers in mine now and tell me.—Why won't you tell me?—Speak louder."
The girl trembled and he put his arm closer about her.
"Are you afraid of me?" he said, "My tempers are nothing; they are like a gust and it is over. I didn't mean what I said. When I think of my violin, that it is lost, gone forever perhaps, that my hands are so numb and so stiff, it makes me frantic. I feel as if I should go mad for a moment, locked in here; and I never could bear the dark, never; not when I was a child. I see things; sounds ring in my ears. I want to cry out, and storm, and fling myself against the walls; do you? It is my nature, my temperament, I was always like that. My nerves are on fire. Stay by me. When I feel your hand—Kaya, your hair is like silk. Don't move. What was it you did?"
"Only what was just," breathed the girl, "and right. I could not help myself, I could not. I had taken the oath. I was only the instrument."
"The what—?" said Velasco. "If you were an instrument I should take you in my arms and play on you. The strings would be the strands of your hair and my bow would caress them. The tones would be thrilling and soft like your voice; your cheek would be the arch on which my cheek rests. I would shut my eyes and play on you, and you would answer me, and we would sway together, your heart on my breast.—Ah! Where am I? Forgive me, I thought for a moment—Don't be frightened, I thought you were my Stradivarius. I was dreaming.—What were you saying? An instrument—I don't understand."
"Let me go," cried the girl, "don't hold me! Take your cloak from my shoulders. You wouldn't understand if I did tell you. You are an artist and understand nothing but your art. What do you know of the conditions we are struggling against, the suffering, the horrible suffering of our country?"
"Don't be angry," said Velasco, "I talk to my violin sometimes like that. There was nothing to flare up about; I was dreaming, I tell you! What do you know of such things yourself? Ugh! Leave them alone, child; leave all ugly things alone! Come back, or the rats will run over you."
"It is terrible the things that happen," whispered the girl. She was on her knees and she was pushing him away with her hands. "I never knew until lately, but now—now I have met the Revolutionists; they have talked to me, they have told me. They are splendid men. Some of them are extreme, so am I. I hate the Tsar. I loathe him; I loathe them all! I would kill them all if I could."
She was trembling violently: "It is true that I have—" And then she began sobbing, struggling with Velasco as he drew her to him.
"Be still," he said, "Hush! Your voice was like a trumpet then. You are not like a girl at all; you are like a soldier fighting for his flag. What are you talking about? Hush! Let me wrap you again. The rats are getting worse! Creep closer and rest on my arm. The Tsar is the little Father; we must respect him and speak low about him always."
The girl caught her breath, sinking back on his shoulder, wrapped in his fur. She tried to resist him, but his arm was strong and encircled her, his hand clasped her own; it was supple and the wrist was like a hinge. There was a power, an electric force in his touch, a magnetism—she shut her eyes, yielding to it. She was like a violin after all; if he chose to play on her with his bow! Ah—she quivered.
"Monsieur," she said low, "You don't understand. You are a Pole and you care nothing for Poland; how could you understand? And yet you play—my God, how you play, as if you had cared and suffered more than any one in the whole wide world. Have you ever suffered?"
"No," said Velasco, "What should there be to make me suffer? Not until to-night!—Ugh, this is torture, horrible!"
"Have you ever twisted and writhed in an agony of mind that was like madness because—"
"Of course," said Velasco, "After my concerts I am always like that. It is—" He shuddered. "A black depression creeps over one. Bozhe moi! It is awful! Is that what you mean?"
"No," she said, "that is not what I meant. Tell me, Monsieur, have you ever cared for any one?"
Velasco stretched his cramped limbs and yawned. "Never, any one particularly," he said, "that I can think of. I used to like my old master in Warsaw; and I have friends; good gracious! All over Russia and Germany I have friends. You don't mean that?"
The girl stirred uneasily against his arm.
"Was that another rat?" she said, "I felt something run over my dress."
"Draw the cloak to your chin," whispered Velasco, "Huddle yourself in it. There, are you warm? Put your head down again. One moment you are like a boy ready to fight the universe, the next you shake at the sound of a rat.—Kaya!"
She shivered, clinging to him.
"What did you say? Say it again; don't tremble like that."
"I would die," she whispered, "A thousand times I would die rather than have brought this on you. If I had known—if I had guessed!"
"Your hair is like down," said Velasco, "a soft, golden fluff. I can't see it, or you; are you there? I shouldn't know if I didn't feel you breathing, and the touch of your head and your hand. Go to sleep; I will watch."
She murmured and stirred in his arms.
"Yes, yes, I forgive you. I never was angry. If only they haven't hurt my violin, my Stradivarius! If they do, I shall drown myself!—But don't think of it; don't speak of it. Be still and sleep."
She murmured again. He laid his cheek to her hair and they sat silent, the girl half unconscious, Velasco staring out into the darkness, his face white and set.
There was a stirring of something within him impossible to fathom; something apart from himself, strange and different, like the birth of a soul; a second personality, unknown, unrevealed. His heavy eyes gleamed through the slits. The round of his chin stiffened; his mouth took new lines. The luxurious artist personality of the musician was dormant for the first time in his life; his virile and masculine side had begun to awaken. The muscles of his arm swelled suddenly and he felt a strange beating in his heart.
This girl, this stranger! She was helpless, dependent on him and his strength. He would guard her and protect her with his life. His arms were around her and no one should take her from him—no one! Not the Tsar himself! She was breathing, she was there; she was a woman and he was a man, and his strength was as the strength of a lion. What harm could befall her?