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Title: The Gunmaker of Moscow
Author: Sylvanus Cobb, Junr.
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100371.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: May 2011
Date most recently updated: May 2011

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Gunmaker of Moscow
Author: Sylvanus Cobb, Junr.


*

Published in serial form in the Camperdown Chronicle (Vic.), commencing
Thursday 16 November, 1905.

*



CHAPTER I.--THE GUNMAKER AND THE MONK.


The time at which we open our story is midwinter and toward the close of
the seventeenth century. Russia had passed through the long and bitter
ordeal of national night. The Tartar yoke had been worn till the very
bones of the nation were galled, and when this was thrown off civil
dissensions and insurrections commenced. The Poles and Swedes plundered
the country, and amid general tumult and confusion some half dozen men
were clamoring for the throne. At length a few patriotic citizens,
pledging everything they held dear on earth to the cause of freedom from
this curse of anarchy and headed by a noble prince and a humble,
patriotic butcher, made a bold stand to save the country. Moscow was
retaken, and Michael Romanoff was chosen czar, and this illustrious
family still occupies the imperial throne. And now the day of Russian
greatness dawned, but the sun was not fairly up and the broad light
opened not upon the empire until Peter came to the throne.

In the department of the Sloboda--the suburbs of Moscow--and very near
the river Moskwa stood a humble cot, the exterior of which betrayed a
neatness of arrangement and show of taste that more than made up for its
smallness of size. Nor was it so very small, in fact, but only in
contrast, for near at hand about it stood many large, shabby, dirty
looking structures that overlooked the prim cot, as bleak mountains may
look down upon a verdant hill. And within this cot was as neat as
without. The two apartments in front, one of which was only used in
winter, were furnished not only with neatness, but with a fair show of
ornament and luxury. Back of these were a large cooking and dining room
and two small bedrooms, and back still from these were an artisan's shop
and other outbuildings. The shop was devoted principally to the
manufacture of firearms. Some swords and other edged weapons were made
here upon special application.

The gunmaker now stood by his forge watching the white smoke as it
curled up toward the throat of the chimney. He was a young man, not over
three and twenty, and possessed a frame of more than ordinary symmetry
and muscular development. He was not large--not above the medium
size--but a single glance at the swelling chest, the broad shoulders and
the sinewy ridges of the bare arms told at once that he was master of
great physical power. His features were regular, yet strongly marked and
eminently handsome. His brow, which was full and high, was half covered
by the light brown curls that waved over it, while his eyes, which were
of a bright, brilliant deep gray in color, lent a cast of genius to the
intellect of the brow. His name was Ruric Nevel. His father had been
killed in the then late war with the Turks, and the son, leaving his
mother properly cared for, went to Spain soon after the bereavement.
There he found work in the most noted armories, and now, well versed in
the trade, he had returned to his native city to follow his calling and
support his mother.

Near by stood a boy--Paul Peepoff--a bright, intelligent lad, some 15
years of age, who had bound himself to the gunmaker for the purpose of
learning the art. His hair and his eyes were darker than his master's,
and if he possessed not so much sound intellect he certainly possessed
an unwonted degree of keen, quick wit and unswerving integrity.

The sun had been some time below the horizon, and the only light of any
consequence that made things partially visible within the shop came from
the dull blaze of the coals on the forge, as Paul ever and anon bore
down upon the brake that moved the bellows. Suddenly Ruric started back
from the forge as his mind broke from the deep reverie into which he had
fallen, and, having bade his boy to see that matters were properly
disposed for the night, he turned toward the door and was soon in the
kitchen, where his mother had supper all prepared and set out.

Claudia Nevel was a noble-looking woman, if the impress of a noble,
generous soul can be called such, and the light of her still handsome
countenance was never brighter than when gazing upon her boy. She had
seen the snows of 50 winters, and if they had left some silver upon her
head and some age marks upon her face the sunshine of full as many
summers had left her with a thankful, loving heart and a prayerful,
loving soul.

"It is snowing again, faster than ever," remarked Paul as he took his
seat at the table.

"Ah!" returned Ruric, resting his knife a few moments while he bent his
ear to listen to the voice of the storm. "I had hoped 'twould snow no
more for the present. The snow is deep enough now. And how it blows!"

"Never mind," spoke the dame in a trustful, easy tone; "it must storm
when it listeth, and, we can only thank God that we have shelter and
pray for those who have none."

"Amen!" responded Ruric fervently.

After this the trio remained some minutes silent, seeming to be busy in
listening to the storm notes that came pealing about the cot. The wind
was high, and the snow was now dashing upon the windows with a dreary,
melancholy sound. The meal was at length eaten and the table set back,
and shortly afterward Paul retired to his bed. It was his wont to retire
early, for he rose early to build the fires and prepare for the labors
of the day.

Ruric drew his chair close up to the fireplace, and, leaning against the
jamb, he bowed his head and pondered again. This had become a habit with
him of late. Sometimes he would sit thus during a whole hour without
speaking or even moving, and his mother did not interrupt him, as she
supposed he might be solving some mechanical problem that had arisen to
bother him. But these fits of thought had become too frequent, too
lengthy and too moody for such a conclusion, and the good woman was
forced to believe that they were caused by something more remote than
the business of the forge or the lathe. The youth now sat with his brow
resting upon his hand and his eyes bent upon the hearth. For half an
hour he had not moved, and his face wore an anxious, troubled look.

"Ruric, my son," spoke the mother at length in a low, kind tone, "what
is it that occupies your thoughts so much?"

The young man started and turned his gaze upon his mother.

"Did you speak to me, my mother?" he asked after having recalled his
mind to things about him.

"Yes, my boy," she said, "I did speak to you. I asked you what it was
that occupied your thoughts."

"Oh, nothing, nothing," Ruric answered after some moments of hesitation.
"I was only thinking; that was all."

"I know you were thinking, and I know that was all at the time, but of
what, Ruric? Come, hide no secrets from your mother. I have noticed you
of late, and I know you are changed. That old smile is gone from your
face, and sometimes I have feared the gladness has gone from your heart.
I have seen you bent in thought over your work when I knew that of your
work you were not thinking, and I have seen you buried in deep thought
when you should be reading or conversing with me."

"Have I, then, offended you, my mother?"

"No, no; oh, no, my noble boy. Never did such a thought enter my mind.
If I have been made uneasy thereby, it was only in love for thee and the
fear that thou wert not so happy as in the past. Will you not tell me
all? Oh, I hope my boy fears not to trust his mother with his thoughts."

As she spoke thus she moved her seat close to where Ruric sat and placed
her hand upon his arm.

"Tell me, my boy," she added in a low, persuasive tone, "what it is that
dwells thus upon your mind."

Ruric reached out and took his mother's hand, and, having gazed for some
moments into her face, he said:

"Surely, my mother, I have nothing in my soul that I would hide from
thee. If I have kept my thoughts to myself with unseeming silence, it
has been because I feared you would laugh at me if I told you of them."

"Ah, no, my son," the mother replied almost reprovingly. "Nothing that
could claim such deep and absorbing consideration from a mind like yours
would move me to derision. Speak plainly, and be sure of my sympathy."

A few moments more the youth gazed silently upon his mother, and then he
answered:

"All this thought has been of one person--of Rosalind Valdai."

Claudia Nevel started as she heard that name, and for the while the
color forsook her cheeks.

"What, my dear boy, what of her have you thought?" she asked
tremulously.

"What but for one thing could I think, my mother? You have seen her?"

"Yes, Ruric."

"And you have marked the grace--the loveliness--the soul given beauty of
the noble girl?"

"I know that she is beautiful, my son, and also that she is good; at
least so I think."

"Then what but love could move me with deep thought of her? Oh, my
mother, I do love her! I love her with the whole strength of my heart
and soul."

"Alas, my Ruric, she will never dare love thee!"

"You know not that," the youth quickly replied, his eyes burning deeply
and his open brow flushing. "Did I not know she loved me be sure I would
never have allowed my thoughts such range. We were children together,
and even then we loved. Fate has dealt differently by us in the years
that have passed since those childhood times, but yet I am sure that her
love for me is not changed, save as increasing age must change all the
emotions of our nature into deeper, stronger lights and shades."

"But think, my boy; you a mere artisan, she the offspring of nobility
and the ward of a duke--a stern, cold, proud aristocrat, who looks upon
our station only as harsh masters look upon their beasts of burden. I
fear you will find little else but misery in such a course of thought."

"At least, my mother, I will see Rosalind, and if she loves me as I love
her, and if she would accept my hand----"

"Hush, my boy. Do not cherish such hopes. Why should she mate with thee
when the richest nobles of the land would kneel for her hand?"

"Hold!" cried Ruric, starting to his feet, his handsome face flushed and
his bright eye burning. "Speak not thus--at least not now. I flatter not
myself, but I claim a soul as pure and a heart as noble as any man in
the land. My mind is as clear, my hopes are as high, my ambition is as
true to real greatness and my will as firm as any of them. If Rosalind
seeks the love of a true heart and the protection of stout arms and
determined success, then I fear not to place myself by the side of any
suitor in the land; but if she seeks immediate wealth and the glitter of
some high sounding titled, then--ah, I know she does not! But let it
pass now. I will see her."

Claudia would not oppose the wishes of her son, and she said no more
upon the subject. For a while nothing further was said, until Ruric
remarked upon the increasing force of the storm.

"Hark!" uttered his mother, bending her ear in a listening attitude.
"Was that a knock upon our door?"

"Surely no one is out on such a night that could seek shelter here,"
returned Ruric. "You must have----" The youth did not finish the
sentence, for at that moment the knock came so loud that it was not to
be mistaken.

The youth caught up the candle and hastened to the door. He opened it,
but the blast came roaring in, whirling a cloud of snow into Ruric's
face and extinguishing the light at once.

"Is there any one here?" the gunmaker asked, bowing his head and
shielding his eyes from the driving snow with one hand.

"Yes," returned a voice from the Stygian darkness. "In God's name, let
me in, or I shall perish."

"Then follow quickly," said Ruric. "Here, give me your hand. There, now
come."

The youth found the thickly gloved hand--gloved with the softest
fur--and, having led the invisible applicant into the hall, he closed
the door and then led the way to the kitchen. As soon as the candle was
relighted Ruric turned and gazed upon the newcomer. He was a monk and
habited something like one of the black monks of St. Michael. He was of
medium height and possessed a rotundity of person which was comical to
behold. He was fat and unwieldy and waddled about with laughable steps.
His huge black robe, which reached from his chin to his toes, was
secured about the waist with a sash of the same color, and the snow
which lay upon the shoulders and back presented a striking contrast.
Ruric brushed away the snow with his own hand, and having taken his
visitor's thick fur bonnet the latter took a seat hear the fire.

Before a word was spoken the youthful host carefully examined his
guest's features, and the latter seemed equally desirous of discovering
what manner of people he had fallen in with. The monk's face was a
peculiar one. The features were very dark and prominent and almost
angular in their strongly marked outlines. His brow was very strong in
mental development, and his eyes were dark and brilliant. The slight
circle of hair that escaped from beneath the tight skullcap which he
retained upon his head was somewhat tinged with silver, though his face
did not betray such advanced age as this silvery hair would seem to
indicate.

"You have been caught in a severe storm, good father," said the youth
after his guest had somewhat recovered from the effect of the cold.

"Aye, that I have, my son," the monk returned in a deep, rumbling tone.
"I left the Kremlin this morning little thinking of such a change. This
storm has commenced since I started on my return. About half a mile from
here my horse got foundered in the snow, and I left him with an honest
peasant and then started to make the rest of my way on foot, but I
reckoned wildly. The driving storm blinded me, and the piling drifts
swallowed me up at every dozen steps. My body is not very well adapted
for such work. Ha, ha, ha! But I saw your light, and I determined to
seek shelter here for the night. By St. Michael, but this is a most
severe storm. Yet you are comfortable here."

"Aye, father, we try to be comfortable," said Ruric. "My mother could
hardly survive a winter in some of the dwellings which stand hereabout."

The monk made no answer to this save a sort of commendatory nod, and
shortly afterward the youth asked:

"Do you belong here in the city, good father?"

"Aye, at present I do," the monk returned. And then, with a smile, he
added: "I suppose you would like to know whom you have thus received. My
name is Vladimir, and my home is wherever I may chance to be on God's
heritage. At present I am residing here in Moscow. There, could you ask
me to be more frank?"

Ruric smiled, but he made no direct reply. He was too deeply interested
in the face of the monk to enter with much eagerness into conversation.
At length the guest asked if he could be accommodated with some sleeping
place, and, having answered in the affirmative, the youth lighted
another candle and conducted him to a chamber which was located directly
over the kitchen and which was very well warmed by meant of several iron
tubes that connected with the furnace below.

"Mother," uttered Ruric as soon as he had returned to the kitchen, "who
is that man?"

"How should I know?" the woman replied.

"But have you never seen him before?" Ruric asked in an earnest, eager
tone.

"I cannot tell, my son. His face most surely calls up some strange
emotions in my mind, but I think I never saw him before."

"And yet he seems familiar to me," the son resumed. "Those eyes I surely
have seen before, but to save my soul I cannot remember when nor where."

And so Ruric pondered, but to no avail. After he had retired to his bed
he lay awake and thought of the strange face, and all through the night
his dreams were but startling visions of the black monk.




CHAPTER II.--A STRANGE PROCEEDING.


When Ruric came down in the morning, he found the monk already there and
breakfast nearly ready. But little was said during the mealtime, for the
monk seemed busy with thoughts of his own, and Ruric was too much
engaged in studying the strange man's features and pondering upon the
various doubts and surmises that had entered his mind. After the meal
was over the monk accompanied the gunmaker to his shop and there he
spent some time in examining the quaint articles of machinery that were
used in the manufacture of arms.

Ruric was engaged in finishing a pair of pistols, and for some minutes
the monk had stood silently by his side watching his movements. At
length the youth stopped in his work and laid the pistol down.

"Excuse me, good father," he said rather nervously, at the same time
gazing his visitor in the face, "but I must ask you a question. Where
have I seen you, before?"

"How should I know?" the monk returned, with a smile.

"Why," resumed Ruric, with some hesitancy, "I knew not but that you
might enlighten me. I have surely seen you somewhere."

"And are there not hundreds whom you have seen in this great city, aye,
thousands, whom you might recognize as you recognize me?"

"Ah, it may be so, but not like this. There may be a thousand faces I
would recollect to have seen, but not one of them would excite even a
passing emotion in my soul. But your face calls up some powerful
emotion, some startling memory of the past, which bothers me! Who are
you, good, father? What are you? Where have we met before? Was it in
Spain?"

"No," said Vladimir, with a shake of the head. And then, with a more
serious shade upon his face, he added: "Let this pass now. I will not
deny to you that there may be some grounds for your strange fancies, but
I assure you most sacredly that until last night I never came in direct
companionship with you before--at any rate, not to my knowledge. You
have acted the good Samaritan toward me, and I hope I may at some time
return the favor."

"No, no!" quickly responded the youth. "If you return it, then it will
be a favor no more. I have only done for you what every man should do to
his neighbor, and so far from needing thanks for my services I would
rather give them for the occasion, for I know of no source of joy so
pure and pleasurable as that feeling in the soul which tells us we have
done a good act."

The dark monk reached forth and took the youthful artisan's hand, and,
with more than ordinary emotion, he said:

"You touch the harp strings of the soul with a noble hand, my son, and
if any deed of kindness can give me joy it will be a deed for you. We
may meet again, and until then I can only say, God bless and prosper
thee."

With these words the monk turned away, and ere Ruric could command
presence of mind enough to follow him he had gone from the house. The
youth wished to say something, but amid the varied emotions that went
leaping through his mind he could gather no connected thoughts.

After the monk was gone Ruric returned to his bench and resumed his
work. He asked his boy if he had ever seen the strange man before, but
Paul only shook his head and answered dubiously.

"What do you mean?" the gunmaker asked, gazing the boy in the face. "Do
you think you have seen him before?"

"I cannot tell my master. I may have seen him before and I may not. But
surely you would not suppose that my memory would serve you better than
your own."

Ruric was not fully assured by this answer. He gazed into Paul's face,
and he fancied he detected some show of intelligence there which had not
been spoken. But he resolved to ask no more questions at present. He had
asked enough, he thought upon such a subject, and he made up his mind to
bother himself no more about it, feeling sure that if his boy knew
anything which would be for his master's interest to know it would be
communicated in due season. So he applied himself anew to his work, and
at noon the pistols were finished.

Toward the middle of the afternoon, just as Ruric had finished tempering
some parts of a gun-lock, the back door of his shop was opened, and two
men entered. They were young men, dressed in costly furs and both of
them stout and good looking. The gunmaker recognized them as the Count
Conrad Damonoff and his friend Stephen Urzen.

"I think I speak with Ruric Nevel?" said the count, moving forward.

"You do," returned Ruric not at all surprised by the visit, since people
of all classes were in the habit of calling at his place to order arms.

The count turned a shade paler than before, and his nether lip trembled.
But Ruric thought that might be the result of coming from the cold into
a warm place. However, he was soon undeceived, for the count's next
remark was significant:

"You are acquainted with the Lady Rosalind Valdai?" he said.

"I am," returned Ruric, now beginning to wonder.

"Well, sir," returned Damonoff, with much haughtiness, "perhaps my
business can be quickly and satisfactorily settled. It is my desire to
make the Lady Rosalind my wife."

Ruric Nevel started at these words, and he clasped his hands to hide
their tremulousness. But he was not long debating upon an answer.

"And why have you come to me with this information, sir?" he asked.

"You should know that already. Do you not love the lady?"

"Upon my soul, sir count, you ask me a strange question. What right have
you to question me upon such a theme?"

"The right that every man has to pave the way for his own rights,"
replied Damonoff sharply. "But if you choose not to answer let it pass.
I know you do love the lady, and now I ask you to renounce all claims to
her hand."

"By St. Paul, sir count, your tongue runs into strange moods of speech.
I renounce all claims to Rosalind Valdai's hand!--Was't so you meant?"

"Aye, sir,--precisely so."

"Perhaps you will inform me what claims I may have upon the Lady," Ruric
returned, with some tremulousness in his tone, for the very subject was
one that moved him deeply.

"Ruric Nevel, you shall not say that I did not make myself fully
understood, and hence I will explain." The count spoke this as speaks a
man who feels that he is doing a very condescending thing, and in the
same tone he proceeded: "The Lady Rosalind is of noble parentage and
very wealthy. My own station and wealth are equal with hers--my station,
at all events. She may possess the undivided right to more property than
I do; but matters not. I love her and must have her for my wife. I have
been to see the noble duke, her guardian, and he objects not to my suit.
But he informed me that there was one impediment, and that was her love
for you. He knows full well, as I know, and as all must know, that she
could never become your wife; but yet he is anxious not to interfere too
much against her inclinations. So a simple denial from you to the effect
that you can never claim her hand is all that is necessary. You
understand me, I trust. We see this only for the fair lady's own good.
Of course you must be aware that the duke would never consent to her
union with you; and yet he would wish to have your denial to show to
Rosalind when he announces his decision. I have a paper here all drawn
up, and all that will be necessary is simply your signature. Here. It is
only a plain, simple avowal on your part that you have no hopes nor
thoughts of seeking the hand of the lady in marriage."

As the count spoke he drew a paper from the bosom of his marten doublet,
and, having opened it, he handed it toward the gunmaker. But Ruric took
it not. He drew back and gazed the visitor sternly in the face.

"Sir count," he uttered in a tone full of noble indignation, "what do
you suppose I am? Do you mean to tell me that Olga, Duke of Tula, has
commissioned you to obtain such a renunciation of me?"

"Stephen," spoke the count, turning to his companion, "you heard the
instructions the duke gave me this morning?"

"Aye," returned Urzen, directing his speech to Ruric; "I did hear, and
you have stated the case plainly."

"I may be as much surprised as yourself," resumed the count haughtily,
"at this strange taste of the duke. Why he should seek this signal from
you I can only imagine upon his desire to call up no regrets in the
bosom of his fair ward. He knows that she was once intimate with you and
that she now feels a warm friendship for you. For her sake he would have
this signal from you."

"But how for her sake?" asked Ruric.

"Why," returned Damonoff, "do you not see? Rosalind in the simplicity of
her heart may think that you--a--that you might claim her love and out
of pure principle grant it to you simply because you were the first
claimant."

"But I never claimed her love," said Ruric warmly. "If she loves me, she
loves me from her heart. With the noble duke I never spoke but once, and
then he came here for me to temper his sword. If you will marry with the
lady, do so, and if you seek help in the work seek it from those who
have some power in the matter."

"You mistake, sir," uttered the count hotly. "I seek not power now. I
only seek a simple word from one who may have some influence, even as a
beggar, having saved the life of a king, may, through royal gratitude;
wield an influence. Will you sign the paper?"

Now; all this seemed strange to Ruric, and he knew that there was
something behind the curtain which he was not permitted to know. He knew
the proud and stubborn duke well enough to know that he never would have
sent such a message as this but for some design more than had yet
appeared. In short, he could not understand the matter at all. It looked
dark and complex, and its face was in direct conflict with the nature of
the man from whom it now appeared to have emanated. Ruric pondered upon
this a few moments, and he made up his mind that he would on no account
yield an atom to the strange demand thus made upon him.

"Sir count," he said calmly and surely, "you have plainly stated your
proposition, and I will as plainly answer. I cannot sign the paper."

"Ha!" gasped Damonoff in quick passion. "Do you refuse?"

"Most flatly."

For a few moments the count gazed into Ruric's face though he doubted
the evidence of his own senses.

"It is the duke's command," he said at length.

"The Duke of Tula holds no power of command over me," was the gunmaker's
calm reply.

"Beware! Once more, I say, sign this paper!"

"You but waste your breath, sir count, in speaking thus. You have my
answer."

"By heavens, Ruric Nevel, you'll sign this!" the count cried madly.

"Never, sir!"

"But look ye, sirrah! Here is my whole future of life based upon my
hopes of union with this fair girl. Her guardian bids me get this paper
of you ere I can have her hand. And now do you think I'll give it up so
easily? By the saints of heaven, I'll have your name to this or I'll
have your life!"

"Now your tongue runs away with you, sir count. I have given you my
answer. Be sure that only one man on earth can prevail upon me to place
my name upon that paper."

"And who is he?"

"I mean the emperor."

"But you will sign it!" hissed Damonoff, turning pale with rage. "Here
it is--sign! If you would live--sign!"

"Perhaps he cannot write," suggested Urzen contemptuously. "Then he may
make his mark," rejoined the count in the same contemptuous tone.

"It might not require much more urging to induce me to make my mark in a
manner not at all agreeable to you, sir," the youth returned, with his
teeth now set and the dark veins upon his brow starting more plainly
out. "You have come upon my premises, and you have sought your purpose.
You now have your answer, and for your own sake, for my sake, I beg you
to leave me."

"Not until your name is upon this paper!" cried Damonoff, shaking the
missive furiously and crumpling it in his hand.

"Are you mad, sir count? Do you think me a fool?"

"Aye, a consummate one."

"Then," returned Ruric, with a curl of utter contempt upon his finely
chiseled lip, "you need have no further dealings with me. There is my
door, sir."

For some moments Conrad Damonoff seemed unable to speak from very anger.
He had surely some deep, anxious purpose in obtaining Ruric's name to
that paper, and to be thus thwarted by a common artisan was maddening to
one who based all his force of character upon his title.

"Sign!" he hissed.

"Fool!" uttered Ruric unable longer to contain himself in view of such
stupid persistence. "Do you seek a quarrel with me?"

"Seek? I seek, what I will have. Will you sign?"

"Once more--no!"

"Then, by heavens, you shall know what it is to thwart such as me! How's
that?"

As these words passed from the count's lips in a low, hissing whisper he
aimed a blow with his fist at Ruric's head. The gunmaker had not dreamed
of such a dastard act, and he was not prepared for it, yet he dodged it
sufficiently to escape the mark upon his face, receiving the blow
lightly upon the side of his head. But he stopped not to consider now.
As the count drew back Ruric dealt him a blow upon the brow that felled
him to the floor like a dead ox.

"Beware, Stephen Urzen!" he whispered to the count's companion as that
individual made a movement as though he would come forward. "I am not
myself now, and you are safest where you are."

The man thus addressed viewed the gunmaker a few moments, and he seemed
to conclude that he had better avoid a personal encounter, for his fists
relaxed and he moved to the side of his fallen friend and assisted him
to his feet.

Conrad Damonoff gazed into his antagonist's face a few moments in
silence. His face was ashen pale, and his whole frame quivered. Upon,
his forehead there was a livid spot where he had been struck, but the
skin was not broken.

"Ruric Nevel," he said in a hissing, maddening tone, "you will hear from
me! The mad spirit of a vengeance such as mine cannot be trifled with!"

And with this he turned away.

"Paul," said the gunmaker, turning to his boy after the men had gone
away, "not a word of this to my mother. Be sure."




CHAPTER III.--LOVE.


That night Ruric Nevel had strange fancies while waking and strange
dreams while sleeping. Long and deeply did he ponder upon the strange
business which had called Count Conrad to his shop, and in no way, under
no light, could he get any reason from it. Why he, a youth who had never
spoken with the proud duke save once on common business and who was so
far down in the social scale should have been thus called upon to give a
virtual consent to the bestowal of Rosalind Valdai's hand, was beyond
his ken. He was but a poor artisan; she a wealthy heiress and a scion of
nobility, and she was under the legal guardianship of the duke, whose
word, so far is she was concerned, was law. And, again, Conrad Damonoff
was a count and reputed to be wealthy. To be sure, he was somewhat
dissolute; but, then, a majority of his compeers were the same. Now, if
this count loved the Lady Rosalind and had asked for her hand and the
duke was willing he should have it, why had this extraordinary proposal
been sent to the poor gunmaker?

Ruric asked this question of himself a hundred times. He would begin and
lay down all the premises in his mind, and then he would try to make the
deduction, but no reasonable one could he arrive at. One thought clung
to him like a dim specter at night, which hope would make an angel and
which fear would paint a demon. Could it be possible that Rosalind had
told her love for him and that the duke would pay some deference to it?
He tried to think so. Hope whispered that it might be so, but fear would
force itself in and speak in tones so loud that they could not be
misunderstood. Finally the youth resolved upon the only reasonable
course. He concluded to let the matter rest, so far as his own surmises
were concerned, until he could see Rosalind, and that he was determined
to do as soon as possible.

On the following morning, as he was preparing for breakfast, he saw
Olga, the duke, pass by and strike off into the Borodino road. "Now,"
thought he, "is the time for the visit to Rosalind." And as soon as he
had eaten his breakfast he prepared for the visit. He dressed well, and
no man in Moscow had a nobler look when the dust of toil was removed
from his brow and garb.

"Paul," he said, entering the shop where the boy was at work, "I may be
back at noon. At any rate, such is my intention, and if either of those
men calls who were here yesterday you may tell them so."

"But," returned the lad, "if they ask me any questions?"

"Answer them as you think best."

"And if they should ask me if you would fight?"

"Tell them that I hold my life as too dear to sell to such as they."

"But surely, my master, the count will challenge you."

"I think he will. And," added Ruric as an entire new thought came to his
mind, "mayhap he came here to create a quarrel to that end. By my soul,
I think he did."

"I am sure of it," said Paul.

A moment later Runic's frame quivered with suppressed passion. Then he
said:

"Let them come, and if they come, or if either of them comes, while I am
gone, tell them, or him, that I am their very humble servant in all
things reasonable."

Paul promised, and then the gunmaker turned away. In the hall he threw
on his heavy fur pelisse, and, having reached the nearest hostelry, he
took a horse and sledge and started off for the Kremlin, within which
the duke resided.

Within one of the sumptuously furnished apartments of the palace of the
Duke of Tula sat Rosalind Valdai. She was a beautiful girl, molded in
perfect form, with the full flush of health and vigor and possessing a
face of peculiar sweetness and intelligence. She was only 19 years of
age, and she had been ten years an orphan. Her hair was of a golden hue,
and the sunlight loved to dwell amid the clustering curls. Her eyes,
which were of a deep, liquid blue, sparkled brightly when she was happy,
and when she smiled, the lovely dimples of her cheeks held the smile
even after it had faded from her lips. There was nothing of the
aristocrat in her look--nothing proud, nothing haughty--but gentleness
and love were the true elements of her soul, and she could only be happy
when she knew that she was truly loved. She liked respect, but she
spurned that respect which only aims at outward show while the heart may
be reeking with vilest selfishness.

Rosalind sat there in the apartment which was hers for her own private
use, and she was sad and thoughtful. One fair hand supported her pure
brow, while with the other she twisted the ends of the silken sash that
confined her heavy robe. Thus she sat when the door of her apartment was
opened and a young girl entered. This newcomer was a small, fair
creature, bright and quick, with that raven hair and those large dark
eyes of dreamy light which bespeak the child of Moslem blood. Her name
was Zenobie, and she was now about 16 years of age. Rosalind's father
had picked her up on the battle-field from which the Turks had fled, and
being unable to find any claimant, he had brought her home, then almost
an infant. And now she was Rosalind's attendant and companion. She loved
her kind and gentle mistress and would have laid down life itself in the
service.

"How now, Zenobie?" asked Rosalind as she noticed the girl hesitate.

"There is a gentleman below who would see you," the girl replied.

"Tell him I cannot see him," said Rosalind, trembling.

"But this is Ruric Nevel, my mistress."

"Ruric!" uttered the fair maiden, starting up, while the rich blood
mounted to her brow and temples. "Oh, I am glad he has come! My prayers
are surely answered. Lead him hither, Zenobie."

The girl departed, and ere long afterward Ruric entered the apartment.
He walked quickly to where Rosalind had arisen to her feet, and, taking
one of her hands in both his own, he pressed it to his lips. He had had
a well formed speech upon his lips when he entered the room, but 'twas
gone now. He could only gaze into the lovely face before him and murmur
the name that sounded so sweetly to his ears. But the emotions of his
soul became calm at length, and then he spoke with more freedom.

"Lady," he said after he had taken his seat, "you will pardon me for
this visit when you know its cause, and you will pardon me, too, if I
speak plainly what I have to speak."

"Surely, sir----"

"Oh, call me Ruric. Let us at least not forget the friendship of
childhood."

"Then I am not a lady," said Rosalind, smiling.

"No, Rosalind."

"Ah, Ruric!"

"As we were in childhood," whispered the youth.

"In all but years," returned Rosalind in the same low tone. "And I may
wear the same image in my heart?"

"I cannot cast it from mine if I would."

"The image of childhood, dear Rosalind?"

"Aye, save that it has grown to manhood, dear Ruric."

What more could he ask for love? He had not aimed at this confession so
soon, but he put it not from him now. He gazed a moment into the fair
maiden's kindling eye, and as he saw the love-lit tear gathering there
and the happy smile working its way about the rosy lips and away in the
joyous dimples he opened his arms and clasped the fondly loved one to
his bosom.

"Oh, I am not deceived in this," he murmured, "speak, dearest one."

"I cannot forget the love of the happy time agone," the noble girl
replied, gazing up through her happy tears. "Oh, how many and many an
hour, have I prayed to God that those days might return and that the one
true heart of earth I loved might be mine once more. Ruric, why should I
hide the truth or why set it aside? To me thou art all in all. I have no
one else to love and none to love me else save the noble girl who
brought you hither. I can tell you no more."

Happy Ruric! Happy at that moment, forgetting all else but the love that
gleamed out upon him then, he clasped the cherished object ardently to
his bosom.

But the moments flew on, and at length his mind came to the subject of
his visit.

"Rosalind," he said, holding one of her fair hands in his grasp, "you
know the Count Conrad Damonoff?"

"Aye," returned the maiden, with a shudder. "He is here very often, and
he has forced himself upon my companionship when, if he had sense, he
must have known I liked it not."

"He is a suitor for your hand, is he not?"

"He was, but he is not now."

"Not now?" repeated Ruric, with surprise. "What mean you?"

"Why, simply that he has asked the duke for my hand and that he was
answered in he negative."

"Did you hear the duke answer him so?"

"No; but so the duke assured me he had done. But what mean you?"

"I will tell you. Yesterday the count came to my dwelling accompanied by
Stephen Urzen. He had a paper drawn up by the duke's own hand in which I
was made to say--or rather, by which the writer said, that he disclaimed
all pretensions to your hand and that he wished not to marry you--that
he freely gave you up, meaning to seek within the sphere of his own
social circle some companion when he wished. And this I was asked to
sign."

"By the count?"

"Yes, by the duke's orders."

"Oh, it cannot be!" uttered the fair girl, trembling.

"And he further assured me that the duke had requested him to obtain my
signature thereto, so that he might receive your hand without
impediment."

"So that the count might receive my hand?"

"Yes."

"But the duke assured me only yesterday that I should be troubled no
more with the count. May there not be some mistake?"

"There can be no mistake on my part. The instrument was in the duke's
own hand."

"But you did not sign it?"

"Ask me if I took my own life--if I made a curse for all I loved."

"It is strange," the maiden murmured, bowing her head a few moments.
"And yet," she added, looking up into her companion's face, "I do not
think the duke would be treacherous."

"He may be," answered Ruric. "He knows how lightly our noble emperor
holds empty titles, and perhaps he fears if this matter came to the
imperial ear and you should claim the right to marry with whom you
pleased, Peter would grant your prayer; hence he wished to get my claim
set aside so that he may have a clearer field in which to move. Do you
know how the duke's affairs stand at present?"

Rosalind, thought awhile ere she answered and then, while a startled
expression came to her face, she said:

"Ruric, I do remember now that between the duke and young Damonoff there
is some matter of dispute. There is some question of property."

"Ah!" uttered the youth earnestly. "How is that?"

"Why, as near as I can understand it, there was a dispute between the
duke and the elder Damonoff concerning the ownership of Drotzen, the
estate on the Don, in Kaluga, and since the father's death Conrad has
maintained his family claim. You know the duke and the old count married
sisters, and this estate belonged to them."

"And now," suggested Ruric, "may not the duke mean to compromise this
matter by giving your hand to the count and taking Drotzen in exchange?"

"Oh, I cannot think so!" the maiden returned earnestly. "The duke would
not do that. He is kind to me, I am sure. He loves me as though I were
his own child. I know he does, for in a thousand ways he has shown it.
He is mindful of my comfort and anticipates my every want. No, no; if he
is deceiving any one, he must be deceiving the count."

Ruric started as the new suspicion flashed upon him. Had the duke sent
Damonoff upon that mission on purpose to get him into a quarrel?

"By my soul," thought the youth to himself, "the duke knows that I have
taught the sword play, and he knows that the count would be no match for
me. So he thinks in this subtle manner to make me an instrument for
ridding him of a plague!"

But the youth was careful not to let Rosalind know of this. He knew she
would be unhappy if she knew that a duel was likely to come off between
himself and the count. After some minutes of comparative silence Ruric
touched upon a point which lay very near his heart.

"Rosalind," he said, taking both her hands in his own, "there is one
point upon which we have never spoken, and I know you would have me
speak plainly and candidly. You know my situation. My father and your
father fought side by side, but my father fell, while yours returned to
his home. For his eminent services your father received a title and a
noble estate from the grateful Feodor, while my father was only
forgotten; hence our stations are now widely different. Yet I am not
poor. No other man in the empire can compete with me in the manufacture
of arms, and from my labor I derive a handsome income. You know it all.
And now, if other obstacles were removed, would you give me your hand
and become mine for life?"

"Aye, Ruric," the noble girl answered, with beaming eyes and a joyful
expression of countenance. "Were you reduced to the lowest estate of
poverty, so long as your generous, pure soul was free I should only be
the more anxious to lift you up. Oh, my love knows only the heart
whereon it is secured, and for my future of joy I ask only the truth of
my husband's love."

"Bless you, dearest!" Ruric murmured, clasping the fair being to his
bosom. And for a long while Rosalind's head lay pillowed upon the
shoulder of the man she truly, fondly loved. That was not the time for
bringing forward doubts and fears. Ruric had many questions in his mind
concerning the impediments that stood in the way of their union, but he
kept them to himself now. At length he arose to take his departure, and
he simply said as he drew the maiden to his side: "You will not allow
the duke to give your hand away?"

"Never, Ruric."

"If he asks you for your hand to bestow upon any of his friends, you
will tell him----"

"That my heart is not mine to give and that my hand cannot go without
it."

"Oh, bless you, Rosalind, bless you! God keep and guard you ever."

There was one warm, ardent pressure of lip to lip, and then Ruric Nevel
turned away and was soon in the open court. Here he entered his sledge
and then drove to the barracks in the Khitagorod, where he inquired for
Alaric Orsa, a lieutenant of the guard. The officer was quickly found,
and as he met Ruric his salutation was warm and cordial. He was a young
man, not over five and twenty, and one of the finest looking soldiers in
the guard.

"Alaric," said the gunmaker after the first friendly salutations had
passed, "I may have a meeting with Conrad, Count Damonoff. He has sought
a quarrel--insulted me most grossly--aimed a blow at my head--and I
knocked him down. You can judge as well as I what the result must be."

"Most assuredly he will challenge you!" cried the officer excitedly.

"So I think," resumed Ruric calmly. "And, now, will you serve me in the
event?"

"With pleasure."

"I may refer his messenger to you?"

"Yes--surely. And how shall I act? What will you do?"

"Knock him down again under the same provocation."

"I understand. You wish to retract nothing?"

"No. Listen; I will tell you all since I seek your aid."

And thereupon Ruric related all that had occurred at the time of the
count's visit to his shop.

"Good," uttered Alaric as the gunmaker finished. "He must challenge you,
and then you'll punish him. He's too proud now. He can handle some of
his lilytops who associate with him, and perhaps he thinks he can do the
same when he comes out among the harder men. But never mind, I will be
punctual and faithful."

Ruric reached home just as his mother was placing the board for dinner.
He often went away on business, and she thought not of asking him any
questions.




CHAPTER IV.--THE CHALLENGE.


In the afternoon Ruric retired to his shop, where he went at work upon a
gun which had been ordered some days before. As yet he had said nothing
to Paul concerning the affair of the day before since his return from
the Kremlin. He asked him now, however, if any one had called.

"Only the monk," returned Paul, without seeming to consider that there
was anything very important in the visit.

"Do you mean the black monk--Vladimir?" asked the young man, starting.

"Yes, my master. He called here about the middle of the forenoon. He
wanted one of the small daggers with the pearl haft."

"And did you let him have one?"

"Certainly. He paid me 4 ducats for it and would have paid more had I
been willing to take it."

"And did he make any conversation?"

"Yes. He asked me why the Count Damonoff came here yesterday."

"Ha! How did he know of their visit?"

"He was waiting at the inn for a sledge when he overheard the count and
his companion conversing upon the subject."

"And did he ask you any questions touching the particulars?"

"Yes--many."

"And how answered you?"

"I told him the whole story, from beginning to end. I found that he knew
something of their purpose from what he accidentally overheard, and,
rather than have him go away full of surmises, I told him all."

"Of the message too?"

"Yes, my master. I told him all that happened, from the showing of the
paper which the duke had drawn up to the departure of the angry man."

"And what did the monk say?" Ruric asked very earnestly.

"Why, he said he knew the count and that he was a proud, reckless fellow
and worth but little to society; that was all. He did not seem to care
much about it anyway; only he said he should have done just as you did
and that every law of justice would bear you out. He had more curiosity
than interest, though I am sure all his sympathies are with you."

"Very well," returned Ruric. "It can matter but little what the monk
thinks about it, though I would rather have him know the truth if he
must know anything, for I would not be misunderstood."

"He understands it all now, my master, and I trust you are not offended
at the liberty I took in telling him."

"Not at all, Paul; not at all."

Here the conversation dropped and the work was resumed in silence. It
was past 3 o'clock when Ruric's mother came and informed him that a
gentleman in the house would speak with him.

"Is it Stephen Urzen?" asked the youth.

His mother said it was.

"Then bid him come out here."

Claudia retired, and in a few moments more the gentleman made his
appearance.

"Ruric Nevel," he said, bowing very stiffly and haughtily, "I bring a
message from the Count Damonoff."

"Very well, sir," returned the gunmaker proudly, "I am ready to receive
it."

Thereupon Urzen drew a sealed note from his pocket and handed it to
Ruric, who took it and broke the seal. He opened it and read as follows:

RURIC NEVEL--An insult of the most aggravating nature has for the time
leveled all distinctions of caste between us. Your blood alone can wash
out the stain. I would not murder you outright, and in no other way but
this can I reach you. My friend, the bearer of this, will make all
arrangements. If you dare not meet me, say so, that all may know who is
the coward.

"DAMONOFF."

When Ruric had read the missive, he crushed it in his hand and gazed its
bearer some moments in the face without speaking.

"Will you answer?" asked Urzen. He spoke more softly than before, for he
saw something in the gunmaker's face which he dared not provoke.

"Are you acquainted with Alaric Orsa, a lieutenant of the guard?"

"Yes, sir; I know him well."

"Then let me refer you to him. He will make all necessary arrangements,
and I shall hold myself bound by his plans. I trust that is
satisfactory."

"Yes, sir."

"Then you and I need have no more to say."

"Only on one point," said Urzen, with some little show of confusion.
"You are the challenged party, and you will have the choice of weapons.
The count has not mentioned this--mind you, he has not, but I as his
friend deem it no more than right to speak of it--I trust you will
choose a gentleman's weapon. In the use of the pistol or the gun he is
not versed."

"While you imagine I am," said Ruric, with a contemptuous curl of the
lip, for he knew that the man was lying. He could see by the fellow's
very looks that Damonoff had commissioned him to broach this matter.

"Of course you are," returned Urzen.

"And the count is most excellently versed in the use of the sword, is he
not?"

"He is accounted a fair swordsman."

"Aye; so I thought. But it matters not to me. The thought had not
entered my mind before, save that I supposed swords would be the only
weapons thought of. However, Orsa will settle it with you. I have given
him no directions at all save to serve me as he thinks proper and to act
upon the understandings that if I have given offense to the count I
would do the same again under provocation. You understand now?"

"I do, sir," returned Urzen in a choking tone.

"Then wait a moment, and I will give you a message to Orsa."

Thus speaking, Ruric went to his desk, and upon the bottom of the
missive he had received from the count he wrote:

DEAR ALARIC--I send this to you by the same hand that bore it to me, and
you are hereby empowered to act for me as you may deem proper. I shall
be governed strictly by your arrangements.

"RURIC."

Having written this, he showed it to Urzen and asked him if he would
bear it to the lieutenant. An affirmative reply was given, and then,
simply folding the note in the opposite way from the original fold, the
gunmaker superscribed it anew to the lieutenant and handed it to his
visitor. Urzen took it, and, with a stiff bow, but without speaking, he
turned and left the place.

That evening about 8 o'clock a sledge drove up to Ruric's door, and
Alaric Orsa entered the house. He called the youth aside and informed
him that the arrangements had all been made.

"Damonoff is in a hurry," he said, "and we have appointed the meeting at
10 o'clock tomorrow forenoon. It will take place at the bend of the
river just beyond the Viska hill."

"And the weapons?" asked Ruric.

"Swords," returned Orsa. "The count will bring his own, and he gives you
the privilege of selecting such a one as you choose."

"I thank you, Alaric, for your kindness thus far, and you may rest
assured that I shall be prompt."

"Suppose I call here in the morning for you?" suggested the visitor.

"I should be pleased to have you do so."

"I will, then. I shall be along in good season with my sledge, and we
will both reach the ground together."

Thus it was arranged, and then Orsa took his leave.

When Ruric returned to his seat by the fireplace, he noticed that his
mother watched him narrowly and with more than ordinary interest. He had
once made up his mind that he would say nothing to his mother about the
affair until it was over, but as the time was set and the hour drew nigh
his mind wavered. When it was over, where might he be? But he was cut
short in his reflections by the voice of his parent.

"Ruric," she said, and her voice trembled while she spoke, "you will
pardon me for prying into your affairs, but I cannot hide from myself
that something of more than usual moment is the matter with you. Why are
these men calling to and fro? And why are you so thoughtful and moody?
You know a mother's feelings, and you will pardon a mother's anxiety."

"Surely, my mother," the youth returned, gazing up for a moment and then
letting his eyes droop again. At length he resumed, "I made up my mind
to tell you all ere you spoke."

There was something deep and significant in Ruric's tone, and his mother
quickly caught the spark.

"What is it?" she tremblingly uttered, moving her chair nearer to her
child's side.

"Listen," the young man said. And thereupon he detailed the
circumstances attending the visit of the Count Damonoff to his shop.
Then he told of his own visit to Rosalind and its result and then of the
visit of Stephen Urzen.

"And now, my mother," he added without waiting for any reply, "you know
it all. You see how I am situated. Remember, our nation has reached it's
present point by successful war. The soul of the nation is built upon
military honor, and since our noble emperor has opened the way of
advancement of the lowest of his subjects who are brave and true the
coward is looked upon with disgust upon all hands. Yet, my mother, I
would have you speak."

For some moments Claudia Nevel was silent. But at length she said, while
a tear glistened in her eye:

"I have given one loved being up to my country's good. Russia took my
husband from me, and I could ill afford now to lose my son. Yet rather
than one stain should rest upon his name I would see him dead before me.
Oh, Ruric, you know whether dishonor would rest upon you were you to
refuse this challenge."

"I will speak plainly, my dear mother," returned the youth, in a
tremulous tone, for his parent's kindness had moved him. "In my soul I
should feel perfectly justified in refusing this meeting, for no
principal of real honor is at stake. But were I to back out now from
this I should never meet another generous look in Moscow. Every one
would point the finger of scorn toward me, and the word coward would
ring always in my ears. It may be a false state of things--I feel that
it really is so--but how can I help it? It is the curse of all great
military epochs. Battle alone makes heroes, and so all must measure
their honor by the force of their arms. The count carries even now upon
his brow the mark of my blow, and all will say he has a right to demand
satisfaction, though I know that he provoked the quarrel on purpose. I
cannot refuse him on the ground of station, for he is above me in that.
I must meet him."

"Then," said the mother in a low, calm tone, but with much effort, "you
shall not feel that your mother would thwart your design. If your own
good judgment says go, then go. If they bring your body to me in the
stern grasp of death, I shall pray for the soul that has gone and shall
hope to meet you in the home of the redeemed. If you come back to me
alive, I shall thank God that you are spared. But, alas, the joy will be
clouded with the thought of blood upon your hands and the knowledge that
my joy is another's grief!"

"No, no, my mother," cried Ruric quickly and earnestly. "I will not have
a fellow being's blood upon my hand if I can avoid it. Only to save my
own life will I take his. He has done all this himself--all, all. The
quarrel was his own, and the first blow was his. The challenge is his,
and now is not the responsibility his also?"

"It is, my son, so far as he alone is concerned. If you have a
responsibility, it must be to your own soul. But tell me, has not the
emperor made some new law touching this practice of dueling?"

"Yes, but only the challenger is responsible. The party challenged is
held free from blame in the eyes of the law."

"Then I shall interpose no more objections," said the mother. She tried
to speak hopefully, but she could not hide the fearful sadness of her
heart, "Could fervent prayer avert the blow it should not fall, but I
can only pray as one without power."

A long time after this was passed in silence. Both the mother and son
seemed to have something upon their minds which they wished to say, but
dared not. But the former at length overcame her reluctance.

"Ruric, my son," she said, keeping back the tears that struggled for
utterance in their silent speech, "is there any little word you would
leave--any matter of moment----"

"No, no," the boy answered, speaking calmly by effort. "I am yours, and
all is yours. But I shall not fall."

"Ah, be not too confident, my son. Let no such assurance lead you to
forget your God. I have heard of this count. It was he who slew Rutger,
and Momjako, too, he slew in the duel. He is an expert swordsman and
surely means to kill you if he can."

"I am aware of that, my mother. But do you know that we are all prone to
overlook our own powers when pondering upon the feats of others? I may
be pardoned for assuring you that the only man who has ever yet overcome
the count at the sword play was one of my own scholars. While in Spain I
practiced with some of the best swordsmen in the kingdom. But, listen, I
will send one word. For yourself I can tell you nothing which you do not
know. But yet you may see Rosalind. If you do, tell her----But you know
my soul. You can tell her as you please. But I shall not fall."

It was now late, and ere long Ruric kissed his mother and then retired
to his bed.

And the widow was left alone. With her eyes she followed the retreating
form of her beloved son, and when he was gone from her sight she bowed
her head and sobbed aloud. When she reached her humble couch, she knelt
by the side thereof and poured forth her pent up soul to God. When her
head had pressed the pillow, she tried to hope, she tried to fasten one
hope in her mind, but she looked only into the night. Not one ray of
light reached her struggling soul. She opened her eyes of promise in
vain, for she looked into a gloom so utter that out of its depths loomed
only the blackness of despair.

Sleep on Ruric. But oh, couldst thou know how thy fond mother's heart is
racked there'd be no sleep for thee!




CHAPTER V.--THE DUEL.


On the following morning Ruric was up betimes, and at the breakfast
table not a word of the one all absorbing theme was uttered. After the
meal was finished the gunmaker went out to his shop and took down from
one of the closets a long leathern case in which were two swords, both
of the same make and finish, only different in size. They were Toledo
blades and of most exquisite workmanship and finish. Ruric took out the
heaviest one, which was a two edged weapon with a cross hilt of heavily
gilded metal. He placed the point upon the floor, and then, with all his
might, he bent the blade till the pommel touched the point. The lithe
steel sprang back to its place with a sharp clang, and the texture was
not started. Then he struck the flat of the blade upon the anvil with
great force. The ring was sharp and clear, and the weapon remained
unharmed.

"By St. Michael, Paul, Moscow does not contain another blade like that.
Damascus never saw a better."

This spoke the gunmaker to his boy as he balanced the beautiful weapon
in his hand.

"I think you are right, my master," the boy returned, who had beheld the
trial of the blade with unbounded admiration. "But," he added, "could
you not temper a blade like that?"

"Perhaps if I had the steel. But I have not. The steel of these two
blades came from India and was originally in one weapon, a ponderous two
handed affair belonging to a Bengal chieftain. The metal possesses all
the hardness of the finest razor, with the elasticity of the most subtle
spring. My old master at Toledo gave me these as a memento. Were I to
mention the sum of money he was once offered for the largest one you
would hardly credit it."

"How much?" asked Paul, with a boy's curiosity.

"It was a sum equal to about 700 ducats."

"And yet he gave it away."

"Aye, for its price was but imaginary, while its worth to him was only
commensurate with the good it did him. If he told the truth, he loved
me, and these he gave me as a parting gift as the best patterns I could
wish for when making such."

After this Ruric put up the small sword, and then he gave Paul a few
directions about the work, promising to be back before night. The
faithful boy shook his head dubiously as he heard this promise, but he
said nothing, and shortly afterward Ruric went into the house. Just then
Alaric Orsa drove up to the door.

Ruric was all ready but putting on his bonnet and pelisse. His mother
was in the kitchen. He went to her with a smile upon his face. He put
his arms about her and drew her to his bosom.

"God bless you, my mother! I shall come back." He said this and then
kissed her.

"God keep--and----"

It was all she could say.

Ruric gazed a moment into her face, then he kissed her again, and again
he said:

"God bless you, my mother! I shall come back."

He dared not stop to speak more. Gently seating his fond mother upon a
chair, he turned and hurried from the place. In the hall he threw on his
pelisse and bonnet, and then he opened the door and passed out.

"Have you a good weapon?" asked Orsa as the horse started on.

"I have a fair one. I think it will not deceive me," returned Ruric.

"I asked," continued Orsa, "because Damonoff prides himself upon the
weapon he wears. It is a German blade, and he thinks he can cut in twain
the blade of any other weapon in Moscow with it."

"I have a good weapon," Ruric said quietly, "and one which has stood
more tests than most swords will bear." And after some further remarks
he related the peculiar circumstances attending the making of the sword
and his possession of it.

At length they struck upon the river, and in half an hour more they
reached the appointed spot. The day was beautiful. The sun shone
brightly upon the glistening snow, and the air was still and calm. The
sharp frost of the atmosphere served only to brace the system up, and
Ruric threw open his pelisse that he might breathe more freely. He had
been upon the ground but a few minutes when the other party came in
sight around the head of the river.

As soon as the count and his second arrived and the horses had been
secured the lieutenant proposed that they should repair to the building
which was close at hand. This was a large open boathouse which was
unused and deserted in the winter, and it was proposed to go in there
because the reflection of the strong sunlight from the bright snow was
calculated to blind and blur the eye.

"Ha! What means that?" uttered Orsa as he saw a sledge just turning the
bend of the river with an officer in it.

"It is only a surgeon," replied Damonoff. "I would not cut a man's flesh
without giving him a fair chance to survive it."

"And then you may find him serviceable to yourself, eh?" suggested the
lieutenant.

"Of course. There is no telling what may happen."

In a moment more the new sledge came up, and Ruric recognized its inmate
as an army surgeon whom he had seen before, though he knew not his name.

"Now for the old boathouse," cried Urzen.

"Aye," added Damonoff. "Let us have this business done, for I would be
back to dinner. I dine with Olga today, and a fair maiden awaits my
coming."

"Notice him not," whispered Orsa, who walked close by Ruric's side.
"That is one of his chief points when engaged in an affair of this kind.
He hopes to get you angry and so unhinge your nerves."

"Never fear," returned the gunmaker. "Be sure he only brings new danger
to himself, for such efforts will find their point in the muscle of my
arm."

The party halted when they reached the interior of the rough structure,
and the count threw off his pelisse and drew his sword. Ruric followed
his example.

"Sir count," the latter said as he moved a step forward, "ere we
commence this work I wish all present to understand distinctly how I
stand. You have sought this quarrel from the first. Without the least
provocation from me you have insulted me most grossly, and this is the
climax. So, before God and man, be the result upon your own head."

"Out, lying knave----"

"Hold," cried the surgeon, laying his hand heavily upon the count's
arms. "You have no right to speak thus, for you lower yourself when you
do it. If you have come to fight, do so honorably."

An angry reply was upon Damonoff's lips, but he did not speak it. He
turned to his antagonist and said:

"Will you measure weapons, sir? Mine may be a mite the longest. I seek
no advantage, and I have one here of the same length and weight as my
own if you wish it."

"I am well satisfied as it is," replied Ruric.

"Then take your ground. Are you ready?"

"I am!"

The two swords were crossed in an instant, with a clear, sharp clang.

There was some contrast between the two combatants, but not much
apparently. The count was a little the taller, and Ruric was somewhat
heavier. But to a close observer there was a peculiar contrast in the
bearing of the two men. That breast swelling out so nobly and those
massive shoulders, made for the seat of physical power, were Ruric's
alone to possess. Yet Conrad Damonoff was accounted a strong man. In the
athletic sports of the court club he had few superiors and not many
equals. But Ruric Nevel had never shown his strength there.

Now, for the first time, that contemptuous look passed from the count's
face. As his eye caught his antagonist's position, as he noticed the
calm, dignified, quiet ease of every limb and as he caught the deep,
mystic fire of those expressive eyes he knew that he had no common
amateur to deal with.

At length Conrad Damonoff started back, and a quick cry escaped his
lips. His antagonist's point had touched his bosom. It had pressed
against his heart and had not been driven home. Well he knew that his
life was his no longer, for the gunmaker had gained it and spared it.

"You fence well," he gasped, struggling to regain his composure.

"You are not a novice," returned Ruric calmly, at the same time allowing
his point to drop.

"Come on," the count uttered, now gathering all his energies for another
effort.

And again the weapons were crossed. This time Damonoff was more guarded.
Before he had been impelled by his own assurance, but now he was forced
to regard his opponent's power. Ruric quickly found that the other was
more careful than at first, and he carried his own point accordingly. At
the twelfth stroke the count made a feint to the left, then at the
throat, and then, with a quick, lightning-like motion, he brought his
point to his antagonist's heart. But his meaning had been read from the
first by Ruric. The youth caught the motion of the eye, and he saw that
his heart wast the place looked to. His own movement was almost
instinctive. He received his antagonist's sword midway upon his own
blade, then moved his arm quickly forward and caught the point under his
cross guard; then, with all his power, he wrenched his arm upward and
backward, and the count's sword went flying across the building. It
struck the opposite wall with a dull clang, and the next instant it was
half buried in the snow.

"Fear not, sir," said Ruric as the count started back, with both hands
raised. "I never strike an unarmed man."

Damontoff's arms fell to his side, and a deep blush of shame mantled his
face.

"By St. Paul," cried the surgeon, "your life is forfeited, sir count,
and now you should be satisfied."

"No, no," the discomfited man exclaimed, starting up with rage and
mortification. "That was but a slip. 'Twas a false step, a cowardly
feint. I am not overcome."

"But, man of mortality, even now your life is Nevel's. He may run you
through now if he chooses."

"But he has not," the count cried, springing to where his sword had
fallen and snatching it up.

"Sir count," here spoke Ruric calmly, but with marked contempt, "you
should not blame me for what I have done, for thrice have you tried to
break my sword."

"Then try it again!" Damonoff returned. "Take my sword again if you
can."

"Perhaps not," our hero retorted. "But be sure your sword shall be used
no more after this day."

"Ha! Brag not, but strike. If you can----"

The conclusion of the sentence was drowned by the clash of steel.

At the second stroke the count made another furious thrust at his
antagonist's heart. Ruric sprang quickly aside, and with the whole power
of his good right arm he struck Damonoff's blade close to the haft and
broke it in twain.

"My other sword, my other word!" the count shouted, now blinded by
absolute madness. "Oh, give me my other----"

"Hold!" cried both the surgeon and Stephen Urzen in concert. "You are
mad, Conrad."

"Mad? Oh, I shall be mad! Where is my sword?" the reckless man yelled,
casting the bladeless pommel down.

"But will you not listen one----"

"Away, I say! Shall I give up because my sword is broken? By the gods,
the weapon deceived me. Where is the other?"

"Deceived thee, Conrad?" repeated the surgeon sarcastically. "By the
Holy Ghost, had thy head but received a hundredth part of the blow
'twould not be upon thy shoulders now!"

But the count was beyond all reason. In his madness he saw not that his
sword had been broken on purpose. He did not see that he had been at his
antagonist's mercy. But his friends saw it all.

"Ha! Whom have we here?" cried Alaric, whose eye had caught a dark form
at the entrance of the old building.

It was Vladimir, the monk.

"How now? What seek ye here?" asked Urzen as the fat, burly monk waddled
toward the party.

"I heard the clash of arms, my son, as I rode by, and I stopped to see
what it was. Surely where the work of death is going on a child of the
holy church of God may come."

"Aye," cried the count. "Come in and welcome, but meddle not. Now, my
sword, where is it?"

Reluctantly Urzen brought forward the second sword, but ere he gave it
up he said:

"Beware, Conrad. You had better----"

"Peace, babbler!" the excited fool hissed, snatching the weapon and then
turning quickly upon the gunmaker.

Thus far Ruric had remained silent, but he felt it his duty to speak
now.

"Sir count," he said in a tone so stern and authoritative and with a
look so commanding that the other was held in abeyance by it, "I must
speak one word. You have provoked a quarrel with me, and you have
challenged me. I have no fear of death when duty calls for my life, but
I would not die thus, nor would I slay a fellow being thus. Six separate
times today since our swords first crossed have I spared your life----"

"Liar!"

"----and twice have I had you before me unarmed," Ruric continued
without noticing the interruption. "I had hoped this would have shown
you that I sought not harm to you and, furthermore, that you were no
match for me at this kind of work."

"Out, fool!" yelled Damonoff, now fairly frothing with rage. "If you
dare not cross sword's again, say so, but do not crawl off like a
coward!"

"One word more," uttered Ruric, paling for an instant beneath the
unmerciful insult of the senseless tongue that assailed him, and he
stood proudly erect while he spoke, "before these men here assembled and
before God I swear that thus far I have spared you, but my own life may
be the forfeit if I trifle with you more. So now beware. You have
sufficient warning."

Perhaps the count really overlooked the facts of which Ruric had spoken.
In his ungovernable rage he may have fancied that 'twas only accident
that had worked against him. However, he started forward once more and
made a furious lunge at his antagonist.

"Now," he gasped, "play your best, for my sword's my own."

But Ruric spoke not. He saw that the count was stronger than before--for
his rage seemed to give him a maniac's power--and that he was earnest
only for life or death. He struck quickly and furiously, and his
movements were strange and unprecedented. He threw up all rules of
exercise and cut and thrust only in wild madness. Twice Ruric came nigh
being run through. He lost all run of his opponent's play and quickly
saw that he must put a stop to the conflict or run the risk of leaving a
childless mother in his home to see that day's sun sink.

"Will you give o'er?" he asked as he struck the count's point down.

"Never! Submit to such as you? Bah!"

A few moments more the conflict lasted. One more opportunity he had at
Damonoff's heart, and he spared him. All present saw it save the madman.

"Fool!" uttered the monk, who trembled from head to foot with
excitement, his huge belly shaking like a bag of jelly. "Will you throw
away your own life, Ruric Nevel? Shall I tell your mother you left her
of your own will?"

This mention of his mother called the last lingering doubt from Ruric's
mind. Again he struck the opposing point down, and then he pressed his
own point upon the count's bosom. He avoided the heart--he tried to
avoid the vitals--but he threw his arm forward, and his glittering blade
passed through the fool's body. With an expression of pain upon his
features he started back and rested his reeking point upon the trodden
snow. The count came furiously on again, but he struck wildly and at
random, Ruric merely warding off his blows, until finally his arm sank.
On the next moment his sword fell from his nerveless grasp, and he sank,
fainting, back into the arms of his attendants.




CHAPTER VI.--BEFORE THE EMPEROR.


"Is he dead?" asked Ruric, starting quickly forward.

"Hold, my son," uttered the monk, laying his hand upon the young man's
arm. "Surely you have nothing to fear. It was none of your work, no more
than if you had run your sword to the heart of a wild beast that had
attacked you."

"But I did not touch his heart," quickly returned the youth. "I was
careful of that. I would have struck him upon the head with the flat of
my sword, but I feared I might break his skull."

"He is not dead yet," answered the surgeon as Ruric pressed forward and
asked the question a second time. "He has only fainted from the shock of
the blow, coupled with his own fears and passions."

"But will he die?" Ruric asked, kneeling down by the fallen man's side.

"I cannot yet tell," the doctor said, at the same time wiping the blood
away, which was flowing freely.

"But why not probe the wound now?" suggested the monk. "Now is the best
time, for the place is not yet inflamed, and while he is thus insensible
he will be free from pain."

The surgeon at once saw the truth and propriety of this, and he
proceeded to act upon the suggestion. Having selected a probe which
appeared applicable, he examined the wound. Ruric watched him eagerly
and with a painful expression.

"I do not think this wound is mortal," the surgeon reported as he
carefully felt his way along the course the steel had taken. "It has
passed below the right lung, and only severed some of the smaller blood
vessels. I think, with proper care, he may recover."

"Thank God!" fervently ejaculated Ruric, with his hands clasped.

"But why so anxious?" asked Urzen. "You were ready enough to accept his
challenge."

"Aye, else you would have called me coward," returned the gunmaker, with
a flashing eye. "Had I refused to meet him that fatal word would have
met me at every turn. I knew that such a man as he was no match for me
at any game where strength of arm and sleight of hand were required. So
I meant to disarm him and then give him up his life, believing that such
a move would end the combat. You know how I labored to spare him. But I
could not. Yet I would not have the life of a fellow being, a
countryman, upon my hands in such a quarrel. My father died fighting for
his country, and so would I die if my death must come from the hand of
man. But to die thus would be a curse upon my name, and to inflict such
death upon another would be a curse in my memory."

"I believe you, my son," the monk said. "Only if the count dies you
should not allow such feelings as you mention to overcome you. In no way
are you to blame for this."

"True, father. You speak truly," added the surgeon. "The young man has
acted most nobly, and no blame can be attached to him."

Ruric seemed somewhat relieved by these assurances, and, having seen the
count's wound dressed and assisted in bearing the insensible form to the
sledge, he took Alaric's proffered arm and proceeded to his own team.

"Who is that monk?" asked the lieutenant as they entered their sledge.

"I only know that he is called Vladimir," returned Ruric. "I have only
seen him once before. Have you ever seen him ere this?"

"Yes; several times about our barracks. He has been there when some of
our poor fellows have been sick and dying. He seems to be a good hearted
man and, I judge, quite intelligent."

"I agree with you there," our hero said. "I think he is a good man, but
there is nevertheless a mystery about him which I cannot solve. His
countenance is familiar to me, and yet I cannot tell where nor when I
have seen him."

"Aye," added Alaric quickly and eagerly; "that is precisely the case
with me. I am very sure that I have seen that man under different
circumstances. And others of our company have thought the same."

The two men watched the movements of the monk while they thus spoke, and
they noticed that he entered his sledge and drove off towards Borodino.

"Ruric," said the lieutenant after they had ridden some little distance
and at the same time gazing wonderingly into his companion's face, "you
handle the sword like a magician. By my soul, I'd give all I own at this
present moment, my commission and all, if I could handle the sword as
you can."

"I do understand the weapon passing well," returned the youth modestly,
"but I have worked hard to gain the science."

"Ah, 'tis not all science," the officer added. "That wondrous strength
of yours is a host in itself."

"And yet," said Ruric, "I have seen weaker men than myself who would
overcome me easily or, at least, who might overcome me."

"But they were not in this city," suggested Orsa, with a peculiar shake
of the head.

"True, Alaric. I am not in the habit of mentioning my own powers, but
yet I may say that there is no man in Moscow who is my superior in the
use of any sort of offensive arms."

The lieutenant readily admitted the truth of this, and then the
conversation turned upon the subject of the count and the course he had
pursued with respect to the event which had just transpired. This
conversation lasted until they reached the door of Ruric's residence,
and, having thanked his friend for his kindness and expressed the hope
that at some time he might have opportunity to return some adequate
favor, the gunmaker entered the house.

The widow sat in her great chair by the fire. She was pale and anxious.
Her brow was supported by her hands, and at every sound from without she
would start up with a frightened expression and listen. At length the
sound of bells struck upon her ear. They came nearer and nearer, and
they stopped at her door. She would have arisen, but she could not. With
her hands clasped she bent eagerly forward and listened with a frantic
interest. Soon the door opened. Surely no one but he would enter without
knocking. She started to her feet. The inner door opened. A male form
stood before her.

"Mother!"

"Ruric! My boy's safe!"

She tottered forward and sank upon the bosom of her noble son, and while
she wound her arms tightly about him she murmured her thanks to God.

By and by the widow became more calm, but still there was an earnest,
eager look of fear upon her face. Ruric saw it, and he knew well what it
meant.

"Mother," he said, "the count is not dead."

"Nor wounded?" she uttered quickly and eagerly.

"Yes; badly. But, listen, I could not help it." And thereupon he recited
all the circumstances connected with the conflict. When he had
concluded, his mother pondered a few moments, and then she said:

"Surely, my son, I will try to suffer nothing from this, even should the
wicked man die. In all you acted upon the defensive. From the first he
has only been intent on attacking you, and on the battleground he would
have killed you if he could."

"Most surely he would, mother. Aye, he would not have hesitated to stab
me in the back could he have gained the opportunity. He was mad beyond
all self control, and his eagerness to kill me was only equaled by his
chagrin at being overcome by one whom he had hoped easily to conquer."

After this Ruric went to his shop, but Paul manifested no great emotion
upon beholding him.

"You seem to take it as a matter of course that I should return alive
and well," said the gunmaker, with a smile.

"Why, of course," returned the boy composedly. "What would a score of
such men as he be to you? Conrad Damonoff hold a sword before Ruric
Nevel--? No I only smiled when I heard his challenge. I should have as
soon thought of being anxious about your return from a marten hunt."

Ruric smiled at his boy's peculiar eagerness of expression, but he felt
a degree of pride in his words nevertheless.

It was towards the latter part of the afternoon that Ruric was somewhat
startled by seeing some of the imperial guard approaching his house, and
ere long afterward his mother came to him, pale and trembling, and
informed him that he was wanted by the emperor's officers.

"Oh," she groaned, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, "they will take
you from me now!"

"Fear not, my mother," the youth confidently returned. "The emperor will
not blame me when he knows all the particulars. But come, let us go in."

Ruric found the officers, three of them, in the kitchen, and he asked
them if they sought him.

"We seek Ruric Nevel, the gunmaker," replied the leader.

"I am the man, sir. May I know what is wanted?"

"Cannot you guess?"

"Why, yes. I suppose it must be on account of the duel which was fought
this morning."

"Exactly."

"And who wants me?"

"Who should want you but the emperor?"

"Oh! they will not take my noble boy from me!" cried Claudia, catching
the officer by the arm. "Tell our good emperor that Russia has taken my
husband from me; that he fell in his country's cause. Tell him my boy
was not to blame----"

"Hush, mother," interposed Ruric. "Fear not yet."

"Come," said the leader. "It is growing late, and Peter will not brook
delay."

"But they will not harm him!" the mother frantically cried, clinging now
to her son.

"No, no, my mother. Rest you easy here until I return." And then,
turning to the guard, he added "Lead on, and I will follow."

"Now rest you easy, my dear mother." And with these words Ruric gently
set her back into her chair and then hastened out after the officers. In
the entry he put on his bonnet and pelisse, and then followed his
conductors out to the street, where stood a double sledge, with two
horses attached.

"You seem to look upon the killing of a Russian noblemen as a very small
affair," said one of the officers after they had started on their way.

"Is he dead, then?" Ruric quickly asked.

"The doctors think his case a critical one. But that is not the thing.
You would have killed him if you could."

"No, no. By heavens,'tis not so! All who were present will swear that I
tried to spare him."

"Very well," returned the officer. "We shall see about that when we come
to the palace. Perhaps you may go clear; but, upon my soul, I would not
willingly occupy your place."

Ruric cared not to argue the point with those who knew nothing about the
circumstances, so he remained silent during the rest of the ride. It was
near sundown when they reached the imperial palace, and Ruric was
conducted at once into the emperor's presence.

The Emperor Peter was in one of the smaller audience chambers, sitting
at a large table covered with purple velvet heavily wrought with gold,
and upon either hand stood some of his private attendants. He was a
young man, not yet so old as Ruric by some three years, but his face
already wore a mature look. His frame was solid, but not large, being
rather slight than otherwise in physical bulk. His dress betrayed
negligence and carelessness and was in marked contrast with the rich
garbs of his attendants. Such was Peter of Russia, yet a youth, small in
frame and careless of those graces which go to make up the sum of court
life, but still able to bear the affairs of a great nation upon his
shoulders. Within that head worked a mighty brain, and in that bosom
beat a heart thirsting more for the good of Russia than for self or
kindred.

Ruric saw Stephen Urzen and the surgeon there, and he also saw the Duke
of Tula there. He met the duke's eye, and a peculiar sensation of fear
ran through his mind as he saw the stern, threatening expression that
rested upon Olga's face.

"Sire," spoke the leader of those who had conducted the prisoner
thither, "Ruric Nevel stands before you."

"Ah," uttered Peter, casting his eagle eye over the forms before him.
"Nevel, advance."

With a bold yet modest step Ruric advanced to the table, and, with a low
bow, he awaited the emperor's pleasure. There was a shudder perceptible
in the frames of those who wished the prisoner well, for well they knew
their mighty ruler's iron will and sternness of legal purpose.




CHAPTER VII.--A STARTLING TRIAL.


In order to understand the circumstances under which Ruric was brought
before the emperor it will be necessary to go back a few hours. The
autocrat had occasion to send for the surgeon, Kopani, who had attended
at the duel, and as he was some time in answering the summons he was
questioned, when he did come, concerning his tardiness. His answer was
that he had been attending the Count Damonoff.

"And what ails the count?" asked the emperor. "He was well yesterday."

"Yes, but he met with an accident today."

"Look ye, Kopani," the young ruler cried, who saw in an instant that
something unusual had happened, "think not to conceal anything from me.
What is it, now?"

"Sire, I meant not to hide anything from you. The count has been engaged
in a duel."

"Ha! Was he challenged?"

"No, sire. He was the challenger."

"So, so. And who was the other party?"

"A humble gunmaker, sire, named Ruric Nevel."

"Nevel, Nevel," soliloquized Peter. "The name is familiar."

"His father was a captain in the last war with the Turks. He rose from
the ranks under Feodor and was one of the bravest of the brave."

"Captain Nevel. Ah, yes. I remember now. He and Valdai were the two who
first mounted the ramparts at Izium. So the old dispatches read."

"Yes, sire. Poor Nevel was shot a month afterward while leading his
brave company against a whole squadron of Turkish infantry, while Valdai
came home and got a colonel's commission."

"And afterward received a title," added Peter. "Yes, sire."

"And this gunmaker is this captain's son?"

"Yes, sire."

"And methinks Valdai left a child."

"He did, sire; a daughter, who is now with Olga. She is his ward."

"Yes, yes. And the count fought a duel with young Nevel and got beaten,
eh?"

Before the surgeon could answer a page entered the chamber and announced
that the Duke of Tula wished to see his imperial master.

The emperor directed that he should be admitted, and ere long afterward
the proud duke entered the apartment. He was a tall, stout man, with
light hair and blue eyes, and not far from five and forty years of age.
His bearing was haughty, though he was forced to a show of respect now
that he was before his master.

"Sire," spoke the duke after the usual salutations had passed, "I have
come to demand justice at thy hands. My young friend the Count Conrad
Damonoff has been most brutally murdered."

"Ha! Say ye so, Olga?"

"Yes, sire."

"But how was it?"

"Thus it was, sire: On the day before yesterday I sent the count with a
message to one Ruric Nevel, who is a gunmaker in Sloboda. He went as I
wished, and while there the gunmaker, who is a huge fellow provoked a
quarrel and knocked the nobleman down. Of course the count was offended,
and as the ruffian threatened to repeat the offense and as he
furthermore grossly insulted a noble lady whom the count held most dear
he could hardly help challenging him. The fellow accepted the challenge
and has succeeded by the most cowardly manoeuvering in inflicting upon
him a mortal wound."

"This is a serious affair," said the emperor, who had not failed to note
the astonished look of the surgeon while the duke was telling his story.

"It is most serious, sire, and surely the ruffian should be at once
executed."

"But did you not say that the count challenged him?"

"I did, sire, but you must remember that it was an instinct of
self-preservation with the noble count. The fellow would have
undoubtedly murdered him had he not taken this course."

"Were you present at the duel, my lord?"

"No, sire, but I have a friend without who was present."

"Then you may bring him in."

The duke departed, and when he returned Stephen Urzen bore him company.

"This is the man, sire," Olga said as he led his companion forward.

The emperor gazed upon Urzen a few moments in silence and then said:

"You were present at this duel, were you not, sir?"

"I was, sire," the man answered, bowing low.

"And he was at their first meeting also, sire," interposed the duke.
"Ah, yes. Then you know all about the affair?"

"Yes, sire," answered Urzen.

"Then tell me about it."

"First, sire," commenced the man, casting a sort of assuring glance at
the duke, "the count went to the gunmaker's shop to get him to--to----"

"Let me explain here, sire," interrupted the duke as his puppet
hesitated, "this man may not know properly about that mission. Living
with me is a young girl, a ward of mine, a gentle, timid being who has
been somewhat a comfort to me in my loneliness. In childhood she was
acquainted with this Ruric Nevel, and now the fellow has presumed
thereupon several times to insult her of late with his disgusting
familiarity. She dared not remonstrate with him for fear of violence, so
she referred the matter to me. The count has been anxious to win her for
a wife, so I thought him not an improper person to send on the delicate
mission. Accordingly I wrote a sort of promise in the form of a
voluntary assurance pledging the signer not to make himself familiar
with the lady any more. And at the same time he received the assurance
that his presence was very disagreeable to the person mentioned. This I
supposed he would sign at once, and as the count aspired to her hand I
deemed it no more than right that he should render her this service.
Now, sire, this gentleman may continue."

Thus bidden Urzen resumed:

"The noble count was desirous, sire, that I should accompany him, and I
did so. Upon reaching the man's shop we found him at work upon a
gunlock, I think. He received the note, but refused to sign it. The
count urged him to sign in mild, persuasive language until the fellow
became insolent. Then he used some stronger terms, and I think he made
some threat of what he would do if his insults to the lady were
repeated, and thereupon the gunmaker struck him a furious blow in the
face and knocked him down. I cannot remember all the threatening
language which the fellow used, but it was fearful."

"And how about the duel?" asked the emperor.

In answer to this Urzen went on and related what he had prepared on the
subject, and it need only be said that the report was about on a par
with what we have already heard. He even went so far as to swear that
the count had tried repeatedly to compromise matters after the conflict
had begun, that he begged of Nevel to give up the battle but that the
latter, thirsting for the young nobleman's blood, kept hotly, madly at
it.

It was at this juncture and without referring to the surgeon that the
emperor sent for Ruric, and, having learned that a lieutenant of the
Khitagorod guard was present at the duel, he sent for him also. Orsa
arrived first and was present when Ruric came.

And now Ruric Nevel stood before his emperor. Peter gazed upon him for
some moments, and then he said:

"Sir; thy bearing is bold."

"Why should it not be, sire, when I stand before one whom, I honor and
respect and do not fear?" So spoke Ruric calmly and with peculiar
dignity.

"Not fear?" repeated the autocrat sternly.

"No, sire. Peter of Russia is not a man to be feared by those who love
and honor him."

"Insolence!" uttered the duke.

The emperor looked up into his face, and he added:

"Now, sire, you can see for yourself some of his traits of character."

"Aye," returned Peter, "I see. They are wonderful. I knew not that among
my artisans there were men of such boldness."

The duke knew not how to interpret this, and he moved back a pace.

"Now, sir," resumed Peter, turning to the gunmaker, "how dared you
strike a Russian nobleman?"

"I did not, sire. Conrad Damonoff came to my shop, and he brought me a
paper in which I was required or ordered to relinquish all claims to the
hand of----"

"Sire," interposed the duke, "he misstates----"

"Never mind," broke in the emperor, with an authoritative wave of the
hand, "we will hear nothing about the lady here. Why did you strike the
count?"

"Because, sire, he descended from his station and struck me. He threw
away the shield which should protect the nobleman and struck me without
provocation."

"And then you knocked him down?"

"I did, sire."

"And perhaps you would have done the same to me."

"Sire," answered the youth quickly, "when Damonoff tried by threats to
make me sign his paper I told him there was but one man on earth at
whose order I would do that thing. The man who has the right to command
shall never have occasion to strike me."

There was something in this reply and more in the tone and bearing of
him who spoke it that made the duke tremble. He saw plainly that the
emperor's eyes sparkled with admiration as they rested upon the
gunmaker.

"But now about this duel," resumed the emperor. "How dared you take
advantage of the count in the conflict?"

"Advantage, sire?" repeated the youth in surprise.

"Aye. Did he not, Stephen Urzen?"

"He did, sire," replied the man thus addressed.

"And which of the two do you call the best swordsman?" Peter asked.

"Why, sir, the count is or was vastly his superior."

"And what say you, sir lieutenant?"

Alaric trembled, for this was addressed to him. He knew that the duke
was anxious to crush his friend, and he feared to draw the wrath of that
powerful nobleman down upon his head. But a happy thought came to his
aid.

"Sire," he said, "I would rather you would judge of that for yourself."

"Me judge? And how am I to do that?"

"Let Ruric Nevel's skill be tried here before you. If I mistake not, you
have some good swordsmen near your palace. There is Demetrius, the
Greek."

"What, my master at arms?"

"Yes, sire."

"Why, he is the best swordsman in my empire. I think our young
adventurer would fare badly in his hands."

"Never mind, sire. You could judge."

"Why," said Peter, with a smile, "Demetrius handles the count as I would
a mere child."

"Sire," spoke Ruric modestly, but yet frankly, "it were surely no
disgrace to be overcome by your tutor."

"And will you take a turn with him at the swords?"

"Yes, sire, if so it please you."

"By my soul," cried the emperor, leaping up, "we'll have some diversion
out of this trial. What ho, there! Light up the chamber. Let every lamp
be lighted, for we want sight now. Send Demetrius here and tell him to
bring his round edged swords!"

Both the duke and Urzen stood aghast at this new turn, but they dared
not interfere, for they saw that their imperial master was all
excitement now to see a trial of skill at that science which, above all
others, he tried to make his officers learn. But then they had one
hope--Demetrius might overcome the gunmaker so easily that Peter should
not see his real power.

Demetrius soon came, and under his arm he carried the swords. They were
of the common size, but with round edges and points on purpose for play.
The master at arms was a powerfully built man and possessed a splendid
form. He was a Greek by birth and was now retained by the emperor as a
teacher of the sword exercise.

"Demetrius," said Peter, "I have sent for you to entertain us with a
show of your skill. Here is a man about whose power there is some
dispute. Mind you, it is all in kindness. Ruric Nevel, take your
weapon."

The youth stepped forward and extended his left hand for the sword, and
the right hand he extended for the other to grasp. It was taken warmly,
for the Greek saw in an instant that he had a noble man to deal with.
And those two men were not much unlike in form. Demetrius was an atom
the taller, but Ruric showed the more muscle.

The night had come on, but the great lamps were all lighted, and the
room was as bright as day.

"Sir," said Ruric, addressing the Greek, "this is none of my seeking,
though I confess that for a long while I have longed to cross a playful
sword with you. I play well."

"I like you," the Greek returned bluntly and kindly, "and if you beat me
I will not like you less. I can afford to be beat once, seeing that thus
far I have never been since first I offered to fence."

"Come, come," cried Peter, who was impatient for the entertainment,
"let's see the opening. Now, stand aside, gentlemen."

Like twins stood those swordsmen as their weapons crossed with a clear,
sharp clang. The Greek led off carefully and Ruric as carefully warded
every stroke. Then the former assumed a guard, and Ruric led off in
turn. Ere long the swords clashed with sharper ring, and soon sparks of
fire flew out from the clanging steel. Louder and louder grew the clang,
and quicker and quicker grew the strokes. The thrusts were made with
skill and force, but as yet neither had been touched.

The emperor was in ecstasy. He clapped his hands and shouted bravo with
all his might.

By and by Ruric's eye grew more intense in its sparkling fire. His
opponent saw it, but he could not tell what it meant. The youth was
about to risk the most daring feat of all he knew. Steadily burned his
eye, and his lips were set like steel. At length he saw that the Greek
was playing for a thrust, and he lowered his point. Demetrius saw the
chance, and, drawing his arm quickly back, he made the thrust with all
his power. He was sure now he had won, for there was no earthly way in
which his point could be struck either down or up. But see! With a
gliding motion--a motion almost imperceptible--Ruric raises his sword,
and the other slides along upon its side, and the other point, instead
of touching his breast, is caught in the cross-guard of his haft. Then,
quick as lightning and with all his might, Ruric bends his elbow
downward with the whole weight of his massive shoulder and throws his
wrist upward. On that instant the Greek sees and feels what meant that
strange fire of the eye. He feels his point caught, but before he can
close his grasp more firmly the haft is wrenched from his hand. It
strikes the vaulted ceiling with a dull clang and descending, is caught
fairly on the hilt by Ruric Nevel.

For a moment all is still as death in that chamber. Ruric is the first
to break the silence. He advances to the Greek, and as he hands back
both the swords he says:

"Demetrius, remember your promise. I know you are a brave man, for I can
see it in your forgiving glance. You will not like me the less for
this."

"By heaven, no!" the noble Greek cries, dropping both the swords and
extending both hands, which the gunmaker grasped. "I honor you, I love
you."

Peter Alexiowitz, the impetuous emperor, then in the zeal and fire of
youth, leaped from his standing place and caught Ruric by the hand.

"By St. Michael," he cried earnestly and loudly, "you stand clear of all
blame, for full well do I know that had you so desired you could have
slain Conrad Damonoff at your first thrust."

"Sire," returned the youth, now speaking tremulously, "twice did I
disarm the count and yet spare him. And when in my rage I broke his
weapon in twain to bring him to his senses he seized a second sword."

"Sir duke," spoke the emperor, turning toward Olga, who stood trembling
with rage and mortification, "you see you must have labored under a
mistake. You can retire now. Not a word, sir!"

With a quivering lip and a trembling step the duke left the apartment,
and after him went Stephen Urzen.

"Now, Ruric Nevel, if you leave Moscow without my consent you do at your
peril. I would not lose sight of you. You are at liberty."

In an hour more Ruric was upon his mother's bosom. He told her all that
had happened, all but the last words of the emperor. He did not tell her
of those, for he knew not whether they boded him good or evil.




CHAPTER VIII.--THE MASK FALLS FROM THE VILLAIN'S FACE.


It was about two weeks after the events last recorded that Rosalind
Valdai sat in her own apartment, with Zenobie for her companion. It was
in the afternoon, and a severe storm was raging without.

"Now, Zenobie," spoke the beautiful maiden, "we have a moment alone--the
first since morning. And now tell me about that black monk. What did you
say his name was?"

"Vladimir."

"Ah, yes. I have heard his name, and, if I mistake not he is a sort of
mysterious being."

"He is, my mistress, and I am just as confident that I have seen him
before, as I am that I have seen you before."

"How? Seen him before?"

"Yes."

"But where?"

"Ah," returned the young girl, with a dubious shake of the head, "there
is the mystery. For the life of me I cannot tell. He knew me--he knows
everybody--and yet he has not been long in the city, if one might judge
from his conversation."

"But what did he stop you for? Where was it?" asked Rosalind eagerly.

"It was in the church he stopped me--in our Church of St. Stephen. He
was at the altar, and he beckoned to me as I arose to come out. I went
to him and he asked about you."

"About me?"

"Yes--and about Ruric Nevel."

"And what about us?" the maiden asked, blushing.

"He asked me if I thought you loved the young gunmaker. He was so
kind--and he appeared so anxious to know--and then he seemed to take
such an interest in Ruric that I could not refuse to answer him."

"But what did you tell him?"

"I told him you did love Ruric. I told him how you had been children
together--and how you would now give your hand to him sooner than to the
proudest noble in the land. He asked me some things about the duke, but
I would not tell him. When I must tell of evil if I tell the truth, I
will not speak if I can properly avoid it."

"You were, right, Zenobie. You were very right about this last part, but
you should not have told all you knew concerning Ruric and me."

"I hope I did nothing wrong. Oh, I should be proud to acknowledge my
love for such a man."

"Aye, and so I am, my little sprite. I love Ruric with my whole soul and
would be proud to give him my hand this day, but that is no reason why
you should tell of it."

"Surely, my mistress, I meant no harm," the young girl cried eagerly.

"Hush, Zenobie. I do not blame you; only I would have you careful."

"And I would be careful. But, oh, you could not have resisted him. He
drew it from me almost ere I knew it. He put his questions in such a
strange manner that I could not speak without telling what he wanted to
know. He did not say, 'Does she love Ruric Nevel?' but he took it for
granted that such was the case, and then ere I was aware of it he had
made me say so. But he surely does not mean you harm, nor does he mean
harm to Ruric. He is a good man, I know."

"I wish I could see him," returned Rosalind half to herself.

"You cannot mistake him if you ever do see him, my mistress. He is a
strange looking man, and, then, he dresses differently from most of our
church officers. He dresses all in black--today it was in black velvet.
But his shape is his most striking characteristic. He is the fattest man
in Moscow. His belly shakes when he laughs, and his chin seems to sink
clear out of sight. He would be a funny man and would make me laugh if
he did not puzzle me so."

"And did he ask you about anything else?"

"No; only he asked me if I knew how the duke stood with the emperor, and
I told him I thought he stood very well. Then he said he had heard that
they had had some dispute concerning the duel between Count Damonoff and
Ruric. But I told him I guessed that had resulted in no estrangement,
for the duke was as much at court as ever. And after that he told me
about the duel, as he was there and saw nearly the whole of the affair."

And Zenobie went on and told all that the monk related about Ruric's
bravery, and Rosalind listened now attentively and eagerly. It was a
theme that pleased her. The attendant saw how gratefully the account
came upon the ears of her mistress, and she closed the recital with some
opinion of her own wherein Ruric Nevel was held up as a pattern after
which all men who wished to win the love of woman should be made.

But before any answer could be made by Rosalind the door of the
apartment was opened, and the duke entered. He smiled very kindly as he
bowed to his ward, and then, with a wave of his hand, he motioned for
Zenobie to withdraw, and after the attendant was gone he took a seat
close by his fair charge. The maiden looked up into his face, and,
though there was no serious look there as yet, still she could plainly
see that he had something of more than usual importance on his mind. She
shuddered as she gazed upon him, for she could not help it. There was
something in the look of the man--a sort of hidden intent, which came
out in his tone and glance--a deep meaning--something which he had never
spoken, but which was yet manifest--that moved her thus. What it was she
could not tell. It was the prompting of that instinct of the human soul
which may repel an object while yet the working mind detects no harm.

But she was not to remain in the dark much longer. The evil one was
loose, and his bonds of restraint were cast off. He had marked his prey,
and the meshes were gathering about it.

"Rosalind," the duke said in a tone which he meant should have been easy
and frank, but which nevertheless was marked strongly with effort,
"there is some talk among the surgeons now that Conrad Damonoff may
recover."

"Oh, I am glad of that!" the fair girl uttered earnestly.

"Yes, I suppose so," resumed Olga, eyeing her sharply. "But you have no
particular care for him, I presume?"

"For--for the count?"

"Aye; it was of him I was speaking."

"No, sir. I care only for him as I care for all who need to become
better ere they die."

"Aha, yes!" said the duke, biting his lip, for in his own mind he had
the frankness to acknowledge that he was about as needy of virtue as was
the count. "But," he resumed, with a faint smile, "you never loved the
man?"

"No, sir," the maiden answered, gazing up into her guardian's face, with
an inquisitive look.

"So I thought, so I thought." As Olga thus spoke he smiled again and
moved his chair nearer to Rosalind. "I am well aware," he resumed, "that
your affections have not as yet been set upon any one who is capable of
making a proper companion for you through all the ups and downs of
life."

Rosalind's eyes drooped beneath the steady gaze of the speaker, and her
frame trembled. But ere she could make any reply the duke went on:

"My dear Rosalind, I have come now upon a business which I may justly
call the most important of my life. I have not approached this subject
lightly nor with over zeal, but I have come to it through careful
consideration and anxious study."

Here the duke stopped and gazed into Rosalind's face. She met his gaze,
and her eyes drooped again. She trembled more than before, and a dim,
dreadful fear worked its way to her mind.

"Rosalind," the nobleman continued, "when I was but 19 years of age, I
was married with the girl whom I loved. She lived with me four short,
happy years. In that time we were blessed with two children, but they
lived not long to cheer us. And then my beautiful wife died, and the
world was all dark and drear to me. I thought I should never love again.
Time passed on, and you were placed in my charge. When you first came, I
loved you, and I wondered if you were to take the place of the children
I had lost. But you grew quickly up. Your mind was expanded, and your
heart was large. I found that I could not make a child of you, and then
I sat down all alone and asked myself what place it was you had assumed
in my heart. Can you guess the answer, Rosalind?"

"As a little child," answered the maiden, trembling violently.

"No, no sweet one! I pondered, and I studied, and I examined myself
carefully, and I found that the memory of my departed wife was fast
fading away before the rising of another one just as pure and just as
holy. Now do you understand?"

"No, no! Oh, no!" the maiden uttered in a frightened whisper.

"Then listen further," continued the nobleman in a low, earnest tone and
with a strange fire in his deep blue eyes. "As your charms of both mind
and person were gradually developed I came to look upon you with new
feelings, or, I should say, with the old feeling more fully developed. I
looked around me. I saw my sumptuous palace without a legitimate female
head. In my parties I had no companion to assist and guide me, and in my
loneliness I had no mate to cheer and enliven me. I wished not that such
should be the case. At length my eyes were opened, and I saw plainly the
spirit that was moving upon my soul. I looked upon you, and I knew that
I had found the woman who was to give me joy once more. Rosalind, I love
you truly, fondly, and I would make you my wife. Now you cannot fail to
understand me, can you?"

Rosalind gazed up into the face of her guardian, and she was pale as
death.

"You do not mean--oh!"

It was a deep, painful groan, and the fair girl clasped her hands toward
the man before her.

"Hold!" he said almost sternly. "I am not trifling now. I am not only
serious, but firm in purpose. When you were placed under my charge, your
father bade me do as I would, and now I would make you my wife. The
Count Damonoff was the first who came for your hand, and had he been a
proper man, and had you loved him, I should have interposed no
objections, but you did not love him, and that affair is past. Now I lay
my claim upon you, and my fortune and title I lay at your feet."

"And what is to become of my estate?" the maiden asked quickly and
meaningly, for the thought flashed upon her.

"Why--we'll have the two united," returned the duke, with some
hesitation.

"No, no!" Rosalind cried. "You will not do this! Oh, spare me from such
a fate!"

"Spare thee, girl--spare thee from becoming the wife of one of the most
powerful noblemen in the empire? You must be crazy."

"My guardian," spoke the fair girl, now looking her companion steadily
in the face, "you only do this to try me. When you know that such a
union would make me miserable forever, when you know it would cast out
all the joys of life and extinguish the last hope of peace from my soul,
you surely will not press it."

"Rosalind Valdai, I have resolved that you shall be my wife. Mind you,
this is one of the firm, fixed purposes of my soul, and those who know
the Duke of Tula best know that he never gives up a purpose once fixed
in his mind. You cannot mistake me now."

Slowly the stern fact dawned upon Rosalind's mind. There had been a
lingering hope that he might be only trying her to see if she loved him
or if she would willingly become his wife. Awhile she remained with her
head bowed and her bosom heaving with the wild emotion thus called up.
But at length she looked up and spoke.

"Sir," she said faintly, but with marked decision, "you cannot make me
your wife."

"Ah! And why not?"

"Because I will never consent."

"Ah! Say you so?"

"I do, and I mean it."

"Ha, ha, ha! You know little of my power if you think you can thwart me
in my purpose. I tell thee, as sure as the God of heaven lives, you
shall be my wife."

"No, no! Before heaven I protest against such an unholy union. You
cannot have my heart, and such a union would be but foul mockery."

"Oho! Now you come to the point. I can't have your heart, eh? Perhaps
your heart is given to the gunmaker?"

Rosalind's eyes flashed in an instant. The words of the duke were spoken
sneeringly and contemptuously, and they jarred upon the young girl's
soul.

"Aye," she quickly uttered, and boldly, too, "I do love Ruric Nevel, and
he is worthy of my love."

"Now, my pretty ward," resumed Olga in a tone of peculiar irony, "you
have spoken as I hoped you would speak--plainly and to the point, so I
can answer just as plainly. Know, then, that Ruric Nevel can never be
your husband. He stands charged with a horrid crime, and the emperor
only waits to see whether the count recovers or not ere he awards the
punishment. The gunmaker is forbidden on pain of death to leave the
city. So you may cast him from your thoughts as soon as possible."

"What crime is Ruric accused of?" the maiden asked.

"Of murder."

"In wounding the count?"

"Yes."

"Oh, how can you bring your tongue to such speech? You know the noble
youth was not to blame in this affair. He was----"

"Hold, Rosalind. I want no argument on this question. You have heard
what I have said, and be assured that I mean it. I had hoped you would
receive my proposal with more favor, but I did not enter into the plan
until my mind was all made up and the thing all fixed. You will become
my wife within one month!"

"I will flee to the emperor," gasped Rosalind.

"You will not leave this palace again until you are the Duchess of
Tula!"

"I will never speak the word that is necessary to make me your
wife--never! At the altar, if you be by my side, my lips shall be
sealed, and no power on earth shall loose them!"

"Do you mean this?" whispered the duke.

"As God lives I do!"

"Then mark me,"--the stout, dark nobleman gazed fixedly into the
maiden's face as he spoke, and in his look and tone there was a fiendish
expression that could not be mistaken--"I shall do all in my power to
make you my lawful wife. If you refuse me, you shall be beaten with the
knout in the market place, where all may see the ungrateful girl who
refused the heart and hand of the noble Duke of Tula. Aye, and after
thou art beaten thou shalt be cast into the streets for dogs to bark at.
Dost hear me, Rosalind Valdai?"

With one deep, soul dying moan the poor girl sank down, shivering and
pale. The duke caught her as she fell, and, having laid her senseless
form back upon the couch, he strode from the apartment.




CHAPTER IX.--THE MASK FALLS LOWER DOWN AND REVEALS THE HEART.


It was early evening ere Zenobie entered the apartment of her young
mistress. As she opened the door she found all dark within. She moved
into the room, and, shading her candle with her hand, she gazed about.
The wind still howled fearfully without, and the snow came driving
against the windows. When the girl had reached the extremity of the
place, she called her mistress' name, and she was answered by a low
groan from the couch in the corner. Thither she hastened, and there she
found her mistress.

"Rosalind--my mistress!" she cried, kneeling down.

"Who is it?" the maiden asked, starting up and gazing frantically
around.

"It is I, Zenobie. Say, my dear, good mistress, what is it? What is the
matter? What has happened?"

With a quick movement Rosalind put her attendant away and sat up, and,
having gazed about her for some moments, she murmured:

"Where am I? Who is here?"

"It is I. You are in your own chamber. Come, you are cold here."

Without resistance the maiden suffered herself to be led to the place
where the heated air came up from the furnace below, and there she sat
down.

"What is it?" again asked Zenobie eagerly. "What has happened?"

Rosalind bowed her head upon her hands, and after some moments of
thought she looked up. She was very pale, and a fearful tremor shook her
frame.

"Zenobie," she uttered in a low, strange whisper, "ask me no more now. I
am not well. Oh, ask me no more now."

"My mistress," returned the faithful girl, placing one arm about
Rosalind's neck, "you know what you may tell me and what you may not.
But whom will you trust if you trust not me? Oh, give me your love, and
if I can serve you let me do so."

"I would trust you with life itself," the maiden returned, "and some
time you shall know all that has happened here, but not now--not now.
Oh, I cannot speak it now!"

"Say no more, my mistress; only let me serve you. You will have some
refreshment--something to eat."

"You may bring, me some wine, Zenobie."

And thereupon the young girl hastened away.

In the meantime the duke was in his private room below. He was pacing to
and fro across the floor, with his hands behind him, and his brow was
dark and lowering. Ever and anon he would stop near the door and listen
and then proceed. At length there came a rap upon the door, and the duke
said, "Enter." It was a priest who entered the apartment--a small,
deformed man, somewhere about 50 years of age. His face was very dark,
his features sharp and angular, his eyes dark and sunken deep into his
head, his brow heavy above his eyes, where the shaggy brows hung over,
but sloping back from thence, leaving the points where phrenologists
locate benevolence and veneration deficient and flat. Upon his shoulders
he wore a huge, ungainly hump, and, all in all, he was just such a man
as a timid person should shun. His name was Savotano. The duke had been
the means of getting him into the church, and in consideration thereof
he had bound himself to do the duke's evil work. But this was not all.

Some years before there had been a murder in Moscow and Savotano did the
bloody deed. It was a work of pure vengeance. Olga had him apprehended,
but he was not brought to justice. The duke found him to be a shrewd,
unscrupulous wretch, willing to serve those who would pay him well, and
ready to let himself then to any one who could save his life. Olga was a
man of plots and schemes. He fancied that such a man as Savotano might
be of use to him, so he proposed to save him if he would serve his
benefactor. The villain was glad enough to accept the proposition and
the bargain was made. Could Savotano enter the church and assume the
sacred garb he might in many cases work to better advantage. The wretch
readily agreed to this, too, and through Olga's powerful influence he
gained a place in the church. He knew that the duke held his very life,
and he failed not to serve him. His clerical robes shielded him from
much suspicion, and, moreover, the place gave him additional advantages
to work at his diabolical trade. His salary from the government was
sufficient for his support, while an occasional sum from his master
enabled him to enjoy many of those luxuries which were denied to most of
his brethren. Olga feared not to trust this man, for the fellow had
nothing to gain by betrayal, but everything to lose.

And such was the man who now entered the duke's private room. He entered
with a bold air, for, though he was somewhat in the duke's power, yet
there was a peculiar satisfaction in knowing that when he fell the noble
lord must fall with him, part way at least. Brethren in crime cannot
count much upon respect.

"I have come, my lord," the priest said as he shook the snow from his
robe, and then took a seat by the furnace-pipe.

"And how is the count?" asked Olga.

"He is recovering, I am sure."

"Does Kopani say so?"

"Yes. He says he will have him out within a month."

"By heavens, Savotano, this must not be."

"But tell me, my lord, what is the particular need of the count's
departing?"

The duke gazed his visitor a few moments in the face and then said:

"Why, since the affair interests you, I'll tell you. Thus far I have
paid you promptly all your dues, but I cannot do so much longer unless
we can make some of our points work. My property is on the decrease
fast. I have not enough left to live on. Within the past three years I
have made some bad ventures. I put it into----But never mind--suffice it
for me to say that I am at the end of my fortune."

The duke was about to say that he had placed large sums in the hands of
the Minister Gallitzin for the purpose of carrying out the conspiracy by
which the Princess Sophia was to have been placed upon the throne, with
Gallitzin for her prime minister and himself also high in power. He
chose not to tell of this. And no wonder, for heads had ere then been
taken to pay for such indiscretions.

"And now, if this count survives, I thus have one source cut off. My
half of Drotzen is used up and mortgaged to him, but if he dies the
whole comes to me. His father and myself married sisters, and they owned
Drotzen, and on his side the count is the only heir. So in the event of
his death the whole comes to me. You understand this now."

"Perfectly," returned the priest, "And 'tis a pity your first effort did
not succeed."

"So it is," said the duke uneasily. "When I sent him with that message
to the gunmaker, I felt sure he would be slain, and then I hoped that
the other could be disposed of for having slain him. But the emperor has
turned all my plans upside down, for the present at least. Savotano, you
must have a hand in Damonoff's medicine!"

"That is easily done, my lord," replied the priest quietly.

"You have free access there?"

"Yes."

"And can you not watch with him some night?"

"I think I can."

"Then do so. When he is dead, 200 ducats are yours."

"Then he dies."

"Good! And now there is one more. This gunmaker must be got out of the
way."

"Ah!" uttered Savotano, looking up incredulously. "Do you mean so?"

"Most assuredly I do."

"But why him?"

"Do you fear to undertake the work?"

"Not at all, my lord. I only wished to know why he was wanted away."

"The reason is simple. I must marry with Rosalind Valdai. Her property
is worth the whole of Drotzen twice fold--over two million of ducats."

"So much?" uttered the priest, opening his eyes with greedy wonder.

"Yes; it is one of the finest estates in Moscow, and it pays her now a
yearly income of a hundred thousand ducats. She does not know it. Ha,
ha, ha!"

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the priest in concert. "She doesn't, eh?"

"No; she knows nothing about it. But I must secure this, and in order to
do it I must marry her, and--if I would be sure of that this accursed
gunmaker must be got out of the way."

"But what is he to her?"

"She loves him."

"And is not your authority----"

"Hold, Savotano. I'll explain to you in a few words. I'm afraid the
emperor has taken a fancy to this youngster, and if he has he may be
appealed to in this case. The girl will take marriage hard. I shall have
to hire you to perform the ceremony."

"Which I should, be pleased to do," returned the priest, with a coarse
smile. "You shall have the opportunity. But first we must have the young
Nevel taken car of."

"I think I can manage that, my lord."

"And how will you do it?"

"I suppose you don't want him put where he can get off and come back
here."

"No. Finish him while you are about it."

"I will."

"But, mind, it must be done so that in no possible way suspicion can
fall upon me. You must contrive some way so that suspicion shall be led
at once to some apparent point and there baffled."

"Leave me alone for that, my lord. I can call help if I want it."

"Are there not places in the city where a body can be hidden--where it
may be so disposed of and never be found?" asked the duke as the thought
came to his mind.

"Never mind," returned the other, with a confident nod of the head. "If
I meddle with the matter, it shall be well done."

"Very well. I'll trust it with you."

For a few moments after this there was a dead silence, during which only
the moaning of the wind could be heard. But at length the duke started
up, and, with sudden energy, he said:

"Ah, Savotano, there is one thing I came nigh forgetting. You have heard
of this strange monk--Vladimir his name is."

"Aye, and I have seen him too. You mean that huge lump of human fat?"

"Yes. And now tell me who and what he is. He was at the duel, and I know
he has been here to my house. Who is he?"

"You've secured me there, my lord, for I can tell you no more about him
than I can about the man in the moon. In short, no one seems to know
him, save that he is a monk of some Roman order and named Vladimir. He
has been here only a few months, as near as I can find out, and yet I
think I know what his business is, or, at least, why he's here."

"Ah, you suspect?"

"Yes, and if my suspicions be correct we could have him taken care of at
any moment."

"Explain."

"Why, I think he is a spy of the pope, sent here from Rome to learn
something of our emperor's plans."

"But he has not visited the imperial palace."

"Oh, yes, my lord; he has been there several times, and once the emperor
himself was obliged to send him out of the audience chamber."

"But have you any particular reasons for thinking him a spy from the
pope?"

"Why, he is a Romish monk, and he hangs about the most important places
in our city. Even the circumstance I have just related--his trying to
remain in the audience chamber while private business was going on and
having to be ordered out by the emperor--is some ground for suspicion. I
mean to watch him at all events."

"That's right," returned the duke. And then, after a moment's thought,
he added: "I do not see why he should be around after every petty duel
that may be fought, if he is a spy from Rome, and, besides, I have heard
one or two persons say that they were sure they had seen him before."

"Oh, that may be only the result of some strong resemblance which he
bears to some one else. I am sure he was never here before--not in
Moscow."

Again the humpbacked priest was cautioned about the work he had in hand,
and, having promised over and over again to be very careful, he took his
leave.

And Olga, duke of Tula, was left alone with his own thoughts. Better for
him had that wicked priest been his executioner. Better for him had he
been upon the count's bed, racked with dying pains. Better for him had
he been a poor gunmaker, so he had been honest. Oh! better for him had
he been the meanest beggar that walked the earth than what he was! But
he did not realize this. He had a goal ahead, and he tried to overlook
the black, dreadful gulf that yawned between him and it.




CHAPTER X.--A STRANGE DISCOVERY.


The news went out that the Count Conrad Damonoff must die. A few days
before the best surgeon in Moscow said he would recover, but now, that
same surgeon said he must fall. A strange change had come over him. It
was not a fever, but, rather, a consuming of vitality, he was failing,
fast, and no art of medicine could revive him. Some thought he must be
bleeding inwardly, but others knew better than this, because in that
case there would be some outward symptoms. The wound itself was healing,
but the disease was not. The physician and the priest were now in daily,
and the former almost in hourly, attendance. The surgeon was Kopani, and
the priest was the hunchbacked Savotano.

Thus lay the count upon his bed, weak and faint, but at present almost
free from pain, and an old woman was his only attendant, the priest
having just left. It was just after noon. The dying man had just taken a
powerful stimulating draft, though it was against the injunctions of the
priest, as he said that by such means the invalid might die bereft of
sense and thus lose his hold upon salvation. He had just taken this
draft when, there was a low rap upon the door. The woman arose to answer
the summons. She conversed a few moments with the girl who had knocked,
and when she returned to the bed she announced that Ruric Nevel wished
to enter.

"Let him come in," whispered the count.

"But----"

"Never mind," he interrupted as the woman commenced thus to expostulate.
"Let him come in. By heavens, if he is my enemy let me see him! It may
serve to arouse me."

So the woman went to the door again, and soon afterward Ruric Nevel
entered the apartment. He stepped lightly, noiselessly, to the bedside,
but it was some moments ere he could distinguish objects by the subdued
light of the place. By and by, however, he overcame the difficulty, and
he started back in horror as he beheld the features of his adversary.
How pale and sunken! How deathlike and ghastly! The count noticed the
movement, and he noticed the look.

"Count Damonoff," spoke the gunmaker in a low, solemn tone, "a few days
since I heard that you were recovering, and I thanked God. But today
they told me you were dying, and I have come to ask that I may take your
hand ere you pass away from earth. As God is my Maker and my Judge, I
would rather lie down here and die for you than have you pass away with
a curse of me upon your soul or on your lips. Forgive me for what I have
done and never again will I engage in such a wicked work. For my own
life, it is my country's and my mother's and I have no right to throw it
away, and my antagonist's life is the sacred property of God, which I
have no right to touch but in self-defense. Forgive me."

Slowly and heavily moved the dying man over, and then he extended his
thin and wasted hand.

"Ruric," he said, and his voice was stronger now, for the potion was
working, "I am glad you have come--very glad--for I have wished, above
all else of earth, to see you. I could not send for you, for I knew not
how you might come. I have been all wrong in the things that have passed
betwixt thee and me. I was mad and a fool. I blame you not, but rather
do I thank you for your kindness through all the scene. Oh, I forgive
you with all my heart. And now tell me that I am forgiven."

"Forgiven?" repeated Ruric, with a trembling lip, still holding the
count's hand within both his own. "Oh, would to God I could call you
back to life! Forgiven? Oh, God, who reads all hearts, knows how humble,
how sacred, is my forgiveness to you! Could I call you back, could I
wipe out the past from my memory, I could die content."

"Enough," returned the count warmly. "This was my holiest wish, though
pride has kept back its utterance. Oh, I feared you would gloat over my
death--that you would be glad when I was gone."

"No, no! I should have been a monster then!"

"There are many such. And yet I wronged you by the thought. But I could
not help it."

A moment more passed in silence, and then the invalid, resumed:

"There is one reason why I should like to live--I should be prepared for
a better life. Since Death has come--since I have known that he stood
waiting by my bed--I have wondered at the evil life I have led, and I
have thought that if the dark king would let me remain here a few years
more I could be a better man. But 'tis too late now. The die is cast.
Yet I have some joy in this. You have shed a happy light upon my dying
hour. God bless you!"

Ruric's feelings were easily moved, and there was something in the deep
solemnity of this occasion that started his heart to a tender mood, and
the last words of the dying man overflowed the cup. He bowed his head,
and, covering his eyes with one hand while he held in the other the hand
of Conrad, he wept freely and silently.

At this moment the woman arose and left the room.

"She's gone," said the count after he had recovered somewhat from the
deep emotions which had been stirred within his own soul. "Sit down here
beside me."

Ruric obeyed the request, and after he had seated himself he gazed sadly
into the sick man's face.

"Say, Ruric," the count asked, while an eager look overspread his face,
"was't true what Kopani told me--that you overcame Demetrius the Greek
with the sword?"

"I did," the youth replied in a whisper.


"But you did not disarm him? You did not fairly take his sword from
him?"

"I did, Conrad."

"My soul, is it possible? And where have you been all your life?"

"In Moscow and in Spain."

"And yet obscure."

"Never mind that now," interposed Ruric. "I have something of more
interest. Do you--But you will pardon me for what I may say, for I
assure you I mean it all for your good?"

"Speak on," said Conrad, at the same time running his eyes almost
enviously over the gunmakers nobly developed breast and shoulders.

"Then, first, I have just come from the Lady Rosalind--Ah, I meant
not----"

"Go on. I may have felt a pang at the mention of that name, but I know
she loves you, and were I strong at this moment as ever I'd relinquish
all claims of her to you. So fear not."

"Thank you, sir count, for this. But, I was remarking, I am not long
from her presence, and between us both we have suspected some dark
things. Do you think the duke was really your friend?"

The count started, and a strange gleam shot from his eyes.

"Go on," he uttered.

"Then listen. Before you ever came to my shop the duke had solemnly
promised Rosalind that she should receive no more trouble from you that
you would claim her hand no more."

"Do you know this?"

"I do."

"But it cannot be. Why should he have sent me on that mission to you?"

"I had taught one of his officers the sword exercise, and he knew I was
your superior in strength and the use of the weapon."

"Well, go on," whispered the count nervously and anxiously.

"Why, he thought very likely that we should not meet on such a question
without a quarrel. He knew your natural impetuosity and my strength of
arm and hoped you--would fall."

"But--go on!"

"His estate is running out, and he wants the whole of Drotzen."

"Ah, I see it now!"

"The duke had proposed himself for Rosalind's hand," resumed Ruric. "He
says he has loved her long and he will force her to marry him if he can,
though he breaks her heart."

"My God!" gasped the count, fairly starting up to a sitting posture.
"How blind I have been! By my soul, he never was cordial, never kind!"

Ruric gently laid the sick man back, and then he said:

"From all that I can see and understand, the proud duke meant to get all
your wealth and all of Rosalind's."

The count spoke not yet. He lay with his eyes closed and groaned in
agony at the strange revelations that were breaking in upon him.

But, see! Why starts Ruric so suddenly, and why does he turn so pale?
Why do his hands tremble, and why is his brow bent so eagerly?

"What is it?" asked the count, startled by the strange event.

"Hold!" whispered Ruric in a frantic tone. "You were recovering once?"

"From this wound?"

"Yes."

"Yes. I was getting well fast, and the doctors said I should be stout
and well in a month. But suddenly this change came on. Let's see. On
Friday morning I felt the first relapse."

"The very time!" gasped Ruric to himself.

The count moved his head forward and would have caught his companion by
the hand if he could. "For God's sake, Ruric, what is it?"

"As I came this way I saw a hump-backed priest pass out from this
house?" said the gunmaker interrogatively.

"Yes, yes," returned the count, speaking shortly and quickly. "It was
Savotano. He has attended me. The duke recommended him."

"And was he here Thursday night?"

"Thursday? Ah, yes; he watched with me that night."

"And has he been in attendance since?"

"Yes--every day. But why do you ask? Say, what is that meaning upon your
face? What is it?"

"At this moment the door of the apartment was quietly, noiselessly,
opened, and Kopani, the surgeon, entered the place.

"Ha!" cried Ruric, starting toward him and grasping him by the arm.
"Your patient is poisoned! A deadly poison has been given him, and it is
even now eating his life away!"

"Impossible!" gasped the surgeon, straining his eyes to see plainly who
it was that spoke to him. "Ah!" he uttered as he became somewhat used to
the gloom of the apartment. "Is it you, sir?"

"Aye, but mind not that now. Cannot you do something for the count? He
has been poisoned."

"It cannot be!"

"By the hopes of my salvation," cried Conrad Damonoff, starting up to a
sitting posture, "he speaks the truth! That accursed priest! Oh, Olga,
Olga, I never dreamed that thou wast mine enemy!"

"But what is it all?" the surgeon asked, gazing first upon Ruric and
then upon the count. "Speak, some one!"

"Tell him," groaned Conrad.

"Listen," said the gunmaker. "I have my suspicions. But, mind you, they
are founded on facts, and the facts are these: The Duke of Tula is well
nigh free from the possession of property. His half of Drotzen is all
mortgaged, and he wants the other half. That other half he cannot have
while Damonoff lives. The duke, too, has sworn that Rosalind Valdai
shall be his wife, so he would have her property also. This humpbacked
priest is Olga's special tool. It was Olga got him into the church, and
it was Olga who freed him more than once from deserved punishment. Last
Thursday evening he was with the duke in private council, and he came
from thence directly to this place. Now you can judge for your self."

The surgeon started slightly, and then he bowed his head. A few moments
he remained thus, and then he leaped up and clasped his hands.

"By the living God of all things," he cried, "it is, it is! There is no
burning up, as I thought, of icy, wintry fire, but the hellish work is
from a human hand! Hold! I know the symptoms! I know them now. Be quiet,
Conrad. It may not yet be too late."

As the surgeon spoke he hastily opened a small leathern case he carried
with him, and from thence he took a powerful emetic. The woman was sent
for, and when she came she obtained warm water. The potion was given, a
small quantity at a time, at intervals of about five minutes until the
desired effect was produced. A strange mass of stuff was thrown up, and
Kopani took it to the light and examined it. Most of it was of dark,
brownish color, but with streaks of yellow and coarse blotches of red
and green. The yellow substance was of a mucous formation, while the red
and green seemed to more liquid.

"'Tis poison!" the surgeon said. "And it has been administered in small
quantities."

"And cannot something be done?" asked Ruric eagerly. "Oh, save him if
you can! Save him, and I'll bless you ever! You can--oh, say you can!"

The surgeon caught the youth by the hand. There was something in this
noble spirit that moved him, and he knew now that all must have been
forgiven between the two men.

"I'll try," he said. "I have antidotes with me. By heavens, all is not
lost yet!"

"Then hasten," urged Ruric, half crazed beneath the weight of the great
discovery which he had thus helped to make.

"Be not uneasy. I will see that he suffers not for want of human skill."
And as the surgeon thus spoke he moved to the sideboard and mixed an
antidote. But he did not give it until the invalid had vomited all he
could.

"Hold!" cried Ruric as the surgeon took up the wine to mix the antidote
with. "Touch not a thing here. Perhaps the villain has poisoned them
all!"

"So it may be," Kopani said, setting down the bottle. He then turned to
the woman, who had remained standing by the fire like one in a trance,
and asked her to bring a fresh bottle of wine. She quickly obeyed, and
when she was gone Kopani took all the articles upon the table and set
them on one side. He would not throw them away, for he meant to analyze
them.

When the woman returned, Kopani mixed the new potion and administered
it, and ere long afterward the count fell asleep.

"Ruric Nevel," said the surgeon as soon as he was sure the invalid would
sleep, "will you remain here awhile? I wish to go and analyze some of
these things. I have only to go to the academy. I will be back in an
hour at the furthest."

The gunmaker gladly consented to this, and, having gathered up the vials
and the wine bottle and concealed them beneath his pelisse, the surgeon
left.

Ruric Nevel was happier now, for hope was with him while he prayed that
God might spare the unfortunate count.




CHAPTER XI.--AN ASTOUNDING AFFAIR.


Half an hour had the gunmaker sat by the side of the sick man's bed when
he was aroused from the reverie into which he had fallen by the gentle
opening of the door. He turned and beheld a human form emerging from the
narrow, dark entryway. As it came into the room the watcher started, for
he beheld the humpbacked priest, Savotano.

"Who is here?" the arch fiend whispered, shading his eyes and trying to
peer into the gloom.

"----sh!" uttered Ruric. "The count is asleep."

By this time our hero had so far overcome the first emotion caused by
the villain's entrance that he could be calm.

"And who is this?" the priest whispered, moving nearer to the bed. "Ha!
The gunmaker!"

"Yes," replied the youth, watching every look and movement of the fellow
most closely.

"You are in a strange place, I should say," Savotano whispered, not
looking the young man directly in the face, but casting upon him a
sidelong glance, as though he dared not look direct.

"Speak not too loud, sir priest," said our hero, determined to enter
into no conversation with the man if he could avoid it. "Do not awaken
the count, for he is very faint and weak."

And then Ruric had another reason. He feared if Damonoff should awake
that the strange discovery they had made might be revealed, and, of
course, he wished not that the villain should yet know how well he was
understood.

"But why are you here?" pursued Savotano, who seemed determined to know.
"I am this poor man's spiritual comforter, and I surely have a right to
know wherefore is the presence of one bearing the peculiar relations
toward him which are sustained by you."

Ruric's first impulse was one of disgust and wrath, but he managed to
keep it to himself.

"Sir priest," he returned, moving his chair noiselessly nearer to the
visitor, so that his whisper might not disturb the sleeper, "I heard
that the count was dying, and I would not have him die without first
forgiving me for all that I had done."

"And has he done it?"

"He has."

"And why do you remain here? Where is his attendant?"

"She is out somewhere. The count has had a strange fit--a startling
spasm--and I feared if he had another the woman could not manage him
alone."

"Ah!" uttered Savotano. "A spasm?"

"Yes, a most strange one, as though something were at his heart, as
though his brain were on fire and his whole system shaking."

The priest turned his head away, but Ruric saw plainly the exultant look
which rested there. There was no mistaking any more. That one look--for
Ruric saw it--was proof enough.

"Well, well," the misshapen villain said, "I will call again when he is
awake. I would not have him die and I not by him."

Thus speaking Savotano arose and moved toward the door. His step was
eager, and his every look betrayed some anxious purpose. He stopped as
he reached the door and looked back, but he did not speak. Ruric was
afraid he might go to the sideboard to look at the medicine, but he did
not. He simply cast one more glance at the watcher and then left the
room.

In half an hour more the surgeon returned. His face wore a clear,
emphatic expression, and his movements were all quick and prompt, as
though each one was for the purpose of announcing some self evident
decision.

"Well," he uttered, with a quickly drawn breath, "we have put the
medicines to a test." And then he leaned back and looked into Ruric's
face.

"And what did you find?" the young man asked.

"Just what we expected. We have detected arsenic in three of the
medicines which the count had to take. But this poison is not alone.
There is much opium in the wine, even so that we could smell it when our
suspicions guided us. The poison has been most adroitly fixed. The
priest must have one of those recipes which have been used by scientific
poisoners, for no physician in Moscow could have concocted the deadly
poison."

"But wherein was it so wondrously peculiar?" asked Ruric, with interest.

"Why, in this: Arsenic was the principal poisoning agent, but that alone
would produce symptoms which any physician would know at once. In this
case there was something present which overcame all the outward signs of
the poison and only let it eat upon the vitals. I know not the secret,
though I know there is such a one. Had it not been for your fortunate
suspicions the count would have died from the effects of the wound. The
poison was working silently and surely, without pain and without outward
sign different from the usual sinking of the worn and fainting body. But
I have hopes now. The villain must not know that we have discovered him.
We will let the thing run for the present."

Kopani was not a little surprised when he found that the priest had been
there during his absence, but before he could make any further remark
the count awoke. He felt very faint, but that strange sickness of the
stomach was lessened. The surgeon prepared some suitable diluents, and,
having called in the woman, he gave directions that they should be given
in large quantities, and also directed her to prepare some strong barley
water for the patient to drink as he wanted beverage.

All the vials were replaced upon the sideboard and then refilled with
liquids somewhat like those they had before contained. But the nurse was
directed not to use them. Everything that her patient was to take she
was to keep under her own charge in the kitchen, and she was also most
particularly cautioned against allowing the priest to gain anything from
her. But Kopani meant to be sure on that score. He had a little business
to transact, and then he was coming back to spend the night himself by
the count's side. He meant at all events that the poisoner should have
no more opportunity to exercise his diabolical science upon the sick
nobleman. He promised the count that he should have safe and competent
watchers thereafter.

It was fairly dark now, as Ruric could see by raising the curtain and
looking out. He had no idea it was so late. Time had passed without his
notice. He moved to the side of the bed and took the invalid's hand.

"I must go now," he said. "But if you are willing I will come again----"

"You will come," uttered Conrad in reply, returning the grasp of the
hand with all his feeble power. "Oh, you must come often now. I hope I
shall live. Perhaps I shall. If I do, I shall owe my life to you. And
God knows--for the feeling is even now firm in my soul--that I will
always remember how you saved me, and I will never think, never, of the
sad blow you struck me. Come--come to me when you can, for now--now--as
God lives, I speak the truth--not I love you!"

"God bless and keep you!" murmured Ruric in a husky, tremulous voice.
And with these words, coming from the very depths of his soul, he turned
away and left the room. He heard the voice of the count as he moved
toward the open door and thanked God that 'twas a blessing which fell
upon his ears.

Ah, those who know not what true forgiveness is know not the holiest
emotion of earth!

Ruric had left his sledge at a neighboring inn, and as soon as he gained
the street he bent his steps that way. He had gone half the distance
from the residence of the count to the inn and was just upon the point
of crossing the street when he heard his name pronounced by some one
behind him. He stopped and looked around and saw a man approaching him.

It was too dark to distinguish faces plainly even at a usual
conversational distance, yet Ruric was not long in concluding that the
man who had thus hailed him was a stranger. He was a medium sized man
and so closely enveloped in his bonnet and pelisse that his form and
features would have been hidden even had it been lighter than it was.

"Did you speak to me?" asked the youth as the man came up.

"Yes, sir. Is your name Ruric Nevel?"

"It is."

"Then you are wanted a few moments at the residence of a lieutenant
named Orsa."

"Alaric Orsa?" asked Ruric.

"The same."

"But he does not live here in the Kremlin."

"He is here now, at any rate, and, would see you."

"But you said he was at his residence," suggested our hero, who was
fearful that some evil might be meant for him.

"I know nothing to the contrary, sir," the stranger returned promptly.
"All I can say is Alaric Orsa has fallen upon the ice and hurt himself
severely and upon being informed that you were near by with a sledge he
asked that you might be sent for."

"Been hurt, has he?"

"Yes, sir."

"Badly?"

"I believe no bones are broken, but he is so badly sprained that he
cannot walk."

"Ah, then perhaps he wants me to carry him home."

"I can't say as to that, sir. They only sent me to find you. I don't
know the man myself."

There was something so frank in the statement thus made that Ruric
believed it all honest, and he stood no longer in doubt.

"I will go," he said. "But lead the way quickly, for I have no time to
waste."

"I will lead as fast as you will want to follow," answered the man.

And thus speaking he turned back, and, having gone some dozen rods by
the way they had both come, he turned down a narrow street which led
toward the river. Half way down this he went, and then he turned
again--this time to the left--and thus Ruric found himself in a narrow,
dark lane, within which the snow was deep and almost untrodden.

"Look ye," cried the youth, stopping as he found himself over knees in
snow, "I think we have gone about far enough in this direction."

"This is the shortest way," said the stranger guide apologetically. "I
did not think the snow was so deep here. But it's only in the next
street."

"Then on you go."

Again the stranger started, and Ruric followed on. The lane was a
crooked one, and more than once the youth had another inclination to
stop. He had no direst fear, but yet he had some just grounds for doubt.
Had he not seen what had been attempted against the count he might have
had no such doubts now, but as it was he thought that if one attempt had
been made to ruin him through the emperor's displeasure by the man who
was now trying to murder the count it would not be at all improbable
that some more effective plan should be adopted toward him. He was
pondering thus when they came to a cross lane full as narrow as this,
into which the guide turned.

"Look ye once more, sirrah!" cried the youth, now stopping short. "Do
you call this a street?"

"Yes, sir, and on this street we shall find the man we seek. It is only
a short cut from where he is to the inn where your horse is, so you
won't have to retrace these dubious ways. Only a little farther, sir."

"But I don't like this."

"Why, bless you, sir, if you wish to go direct to the inn where your
horse is this will be the nearest way."

"Well, on you go."

And on they went, now slipping on the ice, now in the snow to their
knees and anon stumbling along over frozen hubbles and deep holes. At
length the guide stopped and opened a small gate which was fixed in a
high, thick brick wall. Ruric hesitated here again. He had no weapon of
any kind. If he had had even a pistol or a sword, he would have cared
not. But he did not show his thoughts to his guide. The gate opened with
a creak upon its frosty hinges, and by the dim starlight the youth could
see an open court beyond, and farther still a house of some kind loomed
up.

"This place seems not to be used much," remarked Ruric as he saw the
snow in the court was trodden but little, only one or two tracks being
visible from the gate to the house.

"Ah--yes--you said--what?"

"I said this place didn't seem to be used much," the youth repeated,
though he was sure the fellow heard the first line.

"Ah, yes--a--the usual entrance is the other way, by the sledge path."

"And where is that?" Ruric asked, not being able to see any such path.

"O--it's around on the other side."

By this time they had reached the door of the house, which our hero
could now see had an old, dilapidated appearance, and the guide plied
the iron knocker with zeal. Ere long a man made his appearance with a
lantern in his hand.

"Ah! Has the gunmaker come?" the latter asked.

"Yes," returned the guide.

"Well, I'm glad he's here, but I don't believe Orsa is fit to move,"
said the first speaker. And then, turning to Ruric, he said:

"But I'm glad you've come, sir, for the lieutenant wishes to see you
very much. This way, sir."

This was all so frank and prompt that the young man began to think he
had been a fool for being frightened. He followed the man with the
lantern into the hall, and from thence down a long flight of stairs into
a basement. The lantern did not give much light, but it was sufficient
to reveal the fact that the house was an old one and not very large, for
Ruric could see windows upon the opposite side of the hall which looked
out of doors. As he reached the foot of the stairs he found himself upon
a brick floor, and he saw the walls were of stone. A little farther on a
door was opened, and this led to a small apartment, within which was a
fireplace and a good fire burning.

"There, good sir," said the second guide, "if you will wait a few
moments I will go and see how the lieutenant is."

As soon as Ruric was left alone he looked about him. The room was of
moderate size for a small house, and the idea of inhabiting the cellars
was a common one in Moscow during the winter season. The windows, two in
number, were close up to the ceiling and very small and were patched
with pieces of board in two or three places. Ere long the man came back,
and with him came three others, one of whom the youth recognized as the
individual who had conducted him to the house.

"Orsa will see you, sir," said he with the lantern.

Ruric arose to follow him, the other three men approaching the fire as
though they would remain there. He had reached the door and passed
through into the room beyond when he thought he heard footsteps behind
him. It was a sliding, shuffling sound, and he turned his head to see
what it was. As he did so he received a blow which staggered him and
which would have felled an ordinary man to the floor. He gathered
himself quickly up, but before he could fairly turn about he received a
second blow, heavier than the first, which brought him upon his knees.
In an instant all four of the men were upon him, and he could see that
they had ropes in their hands with which to bind him. With all his might
he threw the fellow who held his right hand back against the wall, and
another he sent in an opposite direction, and in a moment more he would
have been upon his feet, but just at that instant a noose was adroitly
slipped over his head, and as the rope tightened about his neck he was
drawn back upon the brick floor again.

"Now, resist any more, and we'll choke you as sure as fate!" cried the
man who had held the lantern and now had a hold upon the rope.

"Oh," groaned Ruric, while the massive cords worked like cables in his
arms and shoulders, "give me a fair chance! Let me up and free--then
lock your doors, if you please!"

"No, no, good sir," replied the ruffian, with a wicked smile. "We know
your power, and we are not disposed to test it further. We have had
trouble enough already. Shall we----"

The man stopped speaking, for at that moment another noose was slipped
down over Ruric's head, and ere he could avoid it, it had been drawn
tightly about his arms. He was now at the mercy of his captors, and,
having rolled him over upon his breast, they proceeded to secure his
arms behind him, which, being done, they bade him to rise. Of course he
could have no desire to lie there upon the cold bricks, and he got upon
his feet as well as he could.

"Now, Ruric Nevel, I will conduct you to your own apartment," said the
leader of the gang.

"But wherefore is this?" the gunmaker gasped, rendered almost speechless
with the mingled emotions of surprise and anger. "Why have ye done this?
Whose hirelings are ye that ye thus waylay and seize upon an honest man
who has done no harm to any of you?"

"Never mind that now, sir," the ruffian coolly answered. "Suffice it for
you to know that you are safe for the present."

"But will ye not tell me what this is for? There is some intent."

"Yes, and come with me and you shall see. Come."

Thus speaking, the man turned once more, and, having picked up his
lantern, he moved on, while the others, taking Ruric by the arms,
followed after. The prisoner made no resistance now, for he knew that it
would be useless. At a short distance another flight of stairs was
reached.

"Down here?" uttered Ruric, with a shudder.

"Of course. You'd freeze up here."

These words struck harshly upon the youth's soul, for it meant that he
was to be detained in this lonesome place.

At the bottom of these stairs they came to a vaulted passage, at the end
of which was a door. This was opened, and Ruric was led through into the
place beyond. He cast his eyes quickly about, and he found himself in a
narrow apartment, the walls and floor of which were of stone and the
roof of brick, the latter being arched. In one corner was a couch, and
upon it were some old skins.

And here the youth was to be left. His guide simply pointed to the low
couch and then turned away. Ruric asked a question, but it was not
answered. In a few moments more the heavy door was closed upon him, and
he was in total darkness. He sought the couch, and, with a deep groan,
he sank down.




CHAPTER XII.--A CONFERENCE, AND HOW IT WAS INTERRUPTED.


Rosalind Valdai and Zenobie were together in their sitting room, and the
former had been weeping. She looked paler than when we saw her before,
and her brow was heavy. Smiles no longer crept about the dimples of her
cheeks, and her eyes had a sad, mournful look. Her face plainly showed
that she had suffered much.

"My dear mistress," urged the faithful Zenobie, throwing her arms about
Rosalind's neck and drawing her head upon her bosom, "weep no more. Oh,
there must be some hope! Surely God will not suffer such an unholy work
to be done."

"Ah, Zenobie," returned the fair maiden in a fluttering, melancholy
tone, "where can I look for hope?"

"I say in God. You have told me we must look to him, and I have believed
you. Have you not always been good to God?"

"I have been as good as I knew how, though I have sinned."

"How sinned? Oh, my mistress, if you have sinned, then who is pure? Tell
me."

"We all sin, Zenobie. It is our nature."

"So I have often heard, but I hardly think you have sinned. What have
you done which you knew to be wrong?"

"Nothing, nothing."

"Then how have you sinned?"

"Ah, Zenobie, we all do things which we ought not to do. But yet I mean
to do as near right as I can."

"Then leave the rest with God. Oh, when poor mortals do as near right as
lies in their power, surely they may leave the rest with God without
fear. And now, if God is just, as you tell me, why should he allow the
wicked duke to triumph over you? What justice would there be in that
when you are all goodness and he is sin itself?"

Rosalind was puzzled. She had tried to teach her attendant to love and
honor God, and she had so far succeeded that Zenobie understood all the
principles of Christianity and embraced them gladly and joyfully. But
now how should she make this point understood? How should she reconcile
this apparent injustice with God's universal mercy and justice?

"Can you not tell me?" the young girl asked again. "Why should God allow
such a thing? You say he is all powerful and can do what he wills."

"Zenobie," returned the maiden after pondering for awhile, "you do not
look at the subject in a proper light. God does not operate by petty,
individual decisions, as an emperor does. He sees that certain laws are
necessary for the good of mankind, and not a single law of all his code
is there but is very good. Last night your head ached, and you suffered,
and, of course, you had violated some natural law. It was your own
fault. And so this suffering which is now come upon me is the result of
a violation of one of God's laws."

"Ah," cried Zenobie eagerly, "but you are the one who suffers while
another violate the law. In my case I did both and do not complain."

"But listen," pursued Rosalind, with a brightening countenance, for the
true idea had come to her mind. "It would not be just for a person to
enjoy all the good of a law and leave others to suffer all the evil. God
has established in us a social nature, and through that part of our
nature come the sweetest of our earthly enjoyments. Such a law--the law
of sociality--must be universal, and if men break that law they must
suffer, and the only just way in which God could shield me from
suffering would be to release me from the effects of the law. Then I
should be a poor, lonesome outcast, forced to live all my days alone
like a barren rock upon the top of some bleak mountain. But I would
rather live among people and enjoy the companionship of my fellows. I
have freely accepted the boon, and now, when its evils come, I must
suffer. Had God's intent been followed out there would have been no
suffering. It is not his fault that the duke sins. Do you understand
me?"

"I don't know," murmured the young girl dubiously.

"But, see," resumed Rosalind. "You choose to exercise your social
nature, and of your own accord you mingle among your fellows. Do you not
see that thus you are enjoying one of God's richest blessings--the
blessing of sociality, friendship and love?"

"Yes, I see."

"Well, so far God is good in having given you that power for such
enjoyment?"

"Yes, I see."

"Well, now, under that law, when my father and mother died I found a
friend in the duke and here have found a home. But circumstances have
changed. The duke has become wicked in thought--he wants more money--and
he will prostitute a power which in obeyance of God's law would be good
to my ruin. Now, God cannot save me without rending to pieces one of his
most powerful laws and one which is meant for a universal good. The
moment he does that he destroys that principle of human dependence
whence flow those most holy virtues of love, friendship and charity. He
must act by universal laws and not by partial rules and individual
exceptions. So as long as I can enjoy the blessings of social life I
must be subject to the evils of treachery and social wickedness. Do you
not understand now?"

"I see, I see," the girl murmured thoughtfully.

"Aye, Zenobie," the mistress added, while a holy light shone upon her
countenance, "God has made us subject to ills here. But look beyond the
grave, and how bright it is with hope! I have a father and a mother
there. Oh, in all my misery, even in the worst state to which the bad
duke can reduce me, I would not change places with him. You seemed to
intimate that God would see me suffer and yet let the duke triumph.
Triumph? Oh, Zenobie, for what would you have that man's heart in your
bosom and his soul in your keeping?"

"I would rather die!" the girl cried, while a cold shudder ran through
her frame.

"Then, you see, he does not go clear. Oh, how blind and simple are those
who imagine there can be pleasure in sin!"

This opened a new theme to Zenobie's mind, and she pondered upon it a
long while. But by and by she came back to the theme from whence they
had started, and in pursuance thereof she said:

"My mistress, are you sure the duke will persist in this?"

"Aye, Zenobie; I know he will," Rosalind answered, while the old shudder
came back to her frame and the old grief to her soul.

"And have you no hope?"

"Only one--in Ruric. He may help me."

"Oh, I hope he can! He is a noble man."

Rosalind answered with a look of gratitude, and Zenobie proceeded:

"Where is the titled lord more noble than he? Oh, were I to choose a
husband now and he was free and I was in your position I'd choose Ruric
Nevel before all the emperors of earth."

"So would I," returned the fair maiden.

"If I were a countess, as you are, oh, how I should love to make such a
man a count!"

"But my marrying him would not make him a count. Were he a count, and I
like what he is now in station, his marrying me would give me the title.
But we poor women do not have that power."

"Well, then, we should so much the more have the right to choose our own
husbands."

Rosalind made no oral answer, but her look showed that she sympathized
with the sentiment.

"My mistress," at length spoke Zenobie again, this time in a low
whisper, "why may we not leave this place?"

Rosalind started as though she had heard the speech of a spirit, and for
a moment a look of hope gleamed upon her face. But it quickly passed
away.

"Alas, where should we go!"

This was a part of the plan which Zenobie had not thought of, and ere
she could make any reply, one of the female domestics entered the
apartment and announced that a woman wished to see her young mistress.
Rosalind asked who it was, but the girl could only tell her that it was
a middle aged woman and very good looking. The young countess bade
Zenobie go down and conduct her up. Ere long afterward the attendant
returned, and with her came Claudia Nevel. Rosalind had not seen the
good woman for over a year, but she knew her at once, and, starting up
from her seat, she bounded forward and embraced her warmly.

"Ah, Aunt Claudia, I am glad you have come! You will let me call you
aunt, as I did in those happy times long gone by?"

"Aye, sweet Rosalind," returned the widow, imprinting a warm kiss upon
the fair white brow.

The countess noticed the strange sadness of the woman's tone, and then,
for the first time also, she noticed the sadness of her look.

"Aunt Claudia, you look sad," she said, while a chill dread struck to
her own heart.

"Aye," the widow uttered, as though she were afraid to venture the
question she wished to ask; "I have been very sad because I have had a
terrible fear. Has--has not Ruric been here?"

"When?" uttered the maiden, catching the whole fear now.

"Within these three days."

"Just then. Day before yesterday he was here--in the forenoon."

"And I have not seen him since!" the poor woman groaned.

"Not seen him? Ruric gone? Oh, where, where?"

"He said he was going to see the Count Damonoff when he left here,"
interposed Zenobie, who joined in the grief.

"Aye; so he told me," returned the mother. "I have been there, and they
have not seen him since that evening. The surgeon who attends the count
went out to the inn where Ruric put up his horse, and the animal was
still there, his owner having not called for him."

"O God, have mercy!" ejaculated the young countess in a paroxysm of
grief.

At this moment there came a rap upon the door, and Zenobie went to
answer the summons. It was the black monk, Vladimir, who thus demanded
admittance. At any other time both Rosalind and Claudia might have been
startled by the strange visit, but now they instinctively hailed his
coming as a source of hope.

"Ladies," spoke the fat monk, approaching the spot where they stood and
bowing very low, "you will pardon this unseemly method of gaining
admission here, but I had no other choice, for I feared the duke would
refuse me did I apply to him. I have come to learn, if possible, where
Ruric Nevel may be."

The widow tried to answer, but instead of speaking she burst into tears.
Rosalind struggled a moment with the deep emotions that stirred within
her, and she, too, fell to weeping. Zenobie was obliged to answer.

"Good father," said she, "we here are after the same knowledge. His poor
mother has come here to try if she might find some clew to the noble
youth, and thus did my mistress gain the first intelligence that he was
gone. Pray, good sir, do you know anything about him? What have you
heard?"

Both Claudia and the young countess now raised their heads, for they
would hear what reply the monk could make.

"I only know that he is missing," Vladimir replied. "A little while ago
I called upon the sick count, and there I learned that Ruric Nevel had
mysteriously disappeared, and I learned also of the noble purpose for
which he visited the count."

"Aye," interposed Claudia, with sudden energy; "he went to try to gain
the count's forgiveness. I don't think they spoke falsely there. I don't
think any there would wish him harm from any lingering revenge."

"No, no!" returned the monk. "His mission thither was most nobly
fulfilled. So far from cherishing any spirit of revenge is the count
that he will ever bear for Ruric the holiest gratitude of his son."

"Do you think so?" the widow asked hopefully.

"I know it," was the monk's assured reply.

"But," he continued, relapsing into perplexity, "I cannot imagine what
has become of him. But, hold! My dear child, is there not a hump-backed,
ungainly priest who sometimes visits your guardian?"

This was addressed to Rosalind, and a fearful tremor shook her frame as
she heard it, for its import was at once apparent.

"Do you suspect----" She had started forward and grasped the monk's arm
as she thus commenced, but she could not continue. The thought she would
have uttered was terrible.

"Go on," whispered Vladimir, bending his head low down so as to catch
her very thoughts if they left her lips. "What would you say?"

"Oh, I ought not, and yet I know his soul is capable even of that."

Thus much the fair countess murmured to herself, and then she gazed up
and spoke to the strange man before her.

"Do you suspect my guardian?"

"Do you suspect him?" the monk returned.

"Oh, I know not what to think!"

"But listen," resumed Vladimir earnestly. "I would know all that you
know, and then perhaps I can assist you. Fear not, for as true as God
lives I mean to save Ruric if I can, and if I can but gain a clew to him
now, I can surely save you both. Trust me, for I possess a wondrous
power for the good of those who trust me. Now, what end could the duke
have in view in wishing for Ruric's removal? I know what he had in view
in concocting the duel--it was the death of Damonoff and the undivided
possession of Drotzen. Now, answer me, what does he aim at now?"

In spite of all doubts Rosalind found herself trusting the monk. There
was an air of conscious truth and power in his look and tone that won
upon her.

"Good father," she returned after a few moments' thought, "the duke has
sworn by a most fearful oath that he will have me for his wife!"

"Ha!" uttered the monk, starting back a pace and clenching his hands.
"Does he mean that?"

"Oh, most truly he does!" the young countess replied, and she spoke more
firmly now, for there was something in the sudden energy of the monk's
exclamation that gave her hope.

"Then he wants your estates too. By my soul, he is aiming for wealth
with a high hand! And do you suppose he fears Ruric Nevel in connection
with this scheme?"

"Yes, father--I will speak plainly, for I trust you. I do not think you
would betray one who never harmed you."

"Let the end of these things tell you that. But now finish what you had
begun--about your thoughts of the duke."

"He knows, holy father, that I love Ruric, and he knows, too, that Ruric
loves me. May he not under such circumstances fear that the noble youth
will try to thwart him?"

"Very likely," returned Vladimir thoughtfully. "I will profit by this,
and I am much mistaken if you do not also profit by it. I have those in
Moscow who will work for me. I cannot, of course, directly assure you of
salvation, for Ruric may never be found."

A quick groan escaped from Claudia's lips as the monk thus spoke, but
before Rosalind could speak the door of the apartment was opened, and
the Duke of Tula strode in! He stopped as he came nigh to where the
company stood, and his eyes flashed and his frame trembled with passion.

"How now?" he cried as soon as he could command speech. "What means this
gathering here in my own palace? Meddling monk, how dare you drag your
detestable form hither? Out, reptile, out! And let me catch you here
again and my dogs shall tear you up as they do carrion!"

Without a word the monk turned away. His face was pale as death and his
hands were clinched till the fingers' ends seemed to settle themselves
into the palms.

"Remember," the duke exclaimed as Vladimir reached the door, "if you
dare to cross my door stool again----"

"Hold!" gasped the monk in a hoarse, startling tone. "Offer no more
threats. But, mark me, proud duke, you shall see the day on which you'll
wish God had made you a dog ere he gave you speech to arouse the just
vengeance of Vladimir!"

Thus speaking, the black monk disappeared. Olga started to pursue him,
but he did not follow out the impulse. Ere he reached the door he
stopped and turned back.

"And you, woman, who art thou?" he uttered, turning an angry look upon
Claudia.

"I am a mourning mother in search of her lost son," the woman sadly
replied.

"Ha! I see the likeness now. You are the woman Nevel, mother of the
young villain who bears that name! Leave my palace at once, and don't
you dare to enter it again!"

The poor woman tried to speak, but she could not. With a deep sob, she
turned away and slowly walked from the room.

"Now," resumed the duke, turning toward Rosalind, "what means this
secret council?"

"My lord," returned the countess, struggling hard to overcome her
powerful emotions, "they were here--to--to----"

But she could not finish the sentence. Her soul was too deeply moved.
She only gave the foul wretch one look of horror and disgust, and then,
covering her face with her hands, she sobbed aloud.

If the bad man had anything further to say, he reserved it for some
future time.




CHAPTER XIII.--THE PLOTTER IS AT WORK.


Count Conrad Damonoff was able to sit up. He was in a great stuffed
chair, playing with a favorite dog, while near by him sat Stephen Urzen.
The young nobleman had gained rapidly since the visit of Ruric, for the
antidotes he had taken had proved efficient, and he soon came back to
the point he had reached before the administering of the poison.

"Stephen," he said, pushing his dog gently from him, "has anything been
heard yet from Ruric Nevel?"

"Not that I know of," returned Urzen.

"Oh, I wish I were able to assist in the search! But have you heard
anything of what suspicions may be afloat?"

"Only that the hump-backed priest is looked upon by some as having had
some hand in it."

"Ha! And how does suspicion point toward him?"

"Why, in no direct way, I believe. I cannot understand it. All I know is
he is suspected."

The count pondered a few moments, and he thought he could see it. Urzen
did not know the secret of his friend's strange relapse, for that had
been kept private. So he had no clew to the priest's true character, as
the count possessed.

"I believe the fellow is a villain," Urzen resumed. "He is surely a
villainous looking man."

"So he is," responded the count.

"I never saw such a wicked look before in any human face."

"Ah!" uttered a voice close by the door. "Who comes in for the
flattering remark, my friend?"

Both the count and Stephen turned, and the hump-backed priest himself
stood in their presence.

"Ha!" he uttered as he noticed the position of the invalid. "Up? By the
Lady Virgin, you are recovering!"

"Aye," returned Conrad; "I am gaining fast now, as you may see."

The priest struggled hard with his feelings, and at length he managed to
conceal the deep disappointment he felt--that is, he hid it from
Stephen's eyes, but the count knew him too well.

"You have not been very punctual of late, father," the latter said, also
trying to conceal his real feelings.

"No, no," returned Savotano in a perplexed manner; "I admit it. But the
fact is I have been called away. Let's see. I have not been here since
the evening on which I found a stranger sitting by your side while you
were asleep."

"Who was the stranger?"

"I don't know. I think I never saw him before. He was a good looking
young man. Perhaps he was some relative of yours?"

This downright falsehood, so bold and flagrant, astonished even the
count, for he knew the conversation which the priest had held with Ruric
on that occasion, and, quick as lightning, too, went the thought to the
sick man's mind that this was to hide the probability of his being
suspected in connection with Ruric's disappearance.

"I thought you knew that man," the count said, looking the priest
sharply in the face.

"No. I may have seen him before, but I did not surely recognize him
then. I asked him why he was here, but he would not answer me save by
urging me to silence. Who was he, my son?"

The count was at first inclined not to answer, but he thought better of
it and finally told the priest that it was Ruric Nevel. The villain
seemed much surprised at this and professed to wonder why the fellow
should come to that place.

Urzen, who knew nothing of the falsehood which rested under all this
questioning, went on and explained the nature of Ruric's mission and its
result.

And thereupon Savotano expressed a wondrous degree of joy and
gratification, and he even presumed to bless God that such a
reconciliation had taken place.

"And now," the priest resumed, after this matter had been disposed of,
"how happened this sudden change in your disease, my son? The doctors
thought you dying when I was here last."

"Yes, I know," answered the count, still hiding the deep disgust that
moved within him; "but a new physician was called in, and he prescribed
a new medicine. He said the medicine I had been taking was unsuited to
my case, and so he gave me new. You can see the result."

"Yes, I see," was the reply, "and as you seem to have very good company
I'll take my leave. I have several calls to make tonight."

The count made no reply to this, and as the priest found that he was not
urged to remain he arose at once. He stopped twice before he reached the
door, but in neither case did he speak. As soon as he gained the street
he turned toward the upper part of the city, and he stopped not until he
had reached the palace of the Duke of Tula. The old porter admitted him
without question, and he made his way at once to the hall, where he
inquired for the duke. One of the servants went in search of his master,
and when he returned he bade the priest follow him. The duke was in his
private room, and as soon as the servant had withdrawn he bade his
visitor take a seat.

"Now, Savotano, how is it?" he asked. "Have you seen the count?"

"Aye; I am from there now. By all that's bad, my lord, the villain is
gaining!"

"Gaining?" repeated Olga, with surprise. "But you assured me he was well
nigh gone."

"So he was, so he was. But he is recovering now."

"But how is it?"

"Why, he tells me he had a new physician and that the old medicine was
all condemned and an entire new course prescribed."

"And under this new treatment he is recovering, eh?"

"Yes."

"Well, have you not taken some measures to fix this new medicine? By the
gods, Savotano, you must not let him slip now!"

"Ah, my lord, I have only told you how he explained the matter. I have
another explanation."

"What is it, sir priest?"

"Why, they simply know that some one has attempted to poison the count."

"Ha! Did they say anything?"

"No; there was no need. I know that the medicine he was taking before
was the right kind of medicine, so far as it came from the hands of the
surgeon. And then there is another thing--the count must have had some
powerful antidote on purpose for the poison."

"How do you know that?"

"Simply because he would not have now been alive had not such been the
case. You may be sure, my lord, that they know poison has been
administered. They have discovered it in some way and taken the most
effective and speedy method to overcome it. I know this."

"And do you think they suspect you?" the duke asked, with some show of
uneasiness.

"I don't know; but I fear they do. However, that amounts to
nothing--only to prevent me from working any further at present in the
same direction. I have not laid myself open to detection in any way. By
heavens, 'tis too bad! In four and twenty hours more he would have been
a dead man."

"Then you know when the discovery was made?"

"Yes, on the afternoon before Ruric Nevel was captured. I was there just
before night, and the gunmaker was then there, and I noticed that the
vials were gone from the table, though I gave no signs then of having
noticed it. They had even then commenced some treatment for his cure,
for I could see that the appearance of his skin had changed. You must
not blame me."

"I do not, Savotano; but there may be some way left yet."

"Oh, yes; there are a hundred ways in which we can dispose of him. But I
may find some way yet before he gets out."

"Look ye," the duke said after a short pondering over his own thoughts;
"you must watch every chance. Something may turn up in our favor. You
may find some opportunity to finish him yet. I wish you could."

"I will do all I can, be sure of that. I shall watch narrowly. And, now,
about the other one. Young Nevel is safe and can be disposed of at any
moment. I have let him live thus far because I had no orders otherwise."

"Aye; that was right," replied Olga. And as he did so he arose and
commenced to pace the room. The priest followed him with his eyes, but
said nothing. At length the duke stopped and looked Savotano in the
face.

"It would not be a difficult case to kill him?" he uttered in a low
whisper.

"Not at all. Nothing could be more easy."

"And could detection ensue?"

"In no possible way."

"Then----"

"Listen," spoke the hump-back as Olga hesitated. "I strongly suspect
that 'twas this same gunmaker that led to the investigation of that
medicine, and if it was he then you will be more quickly suspected than
I shall."

"Ha! Why think ye so?"

"Because he is a fellow of wondrous wit and intelligence and can see
without being told. He has had several conferences here, and it was from
here that he went direct to the count's residence. He knows by this time
why the duel was hatched up, and if he has half the mind I give him
credit for he will know that you are at the bottom of the poisoning
business. I am sure of this."

"By heavens, you are right, Savotano! Let him die!"

"I had thought myself that would be the best way, for if he were at
large you would not be safe."

"You can have him killed without noise or disturbance?"

"I think so," replied the priest, with a wicked smile. "At all events,
his noise would not hurt any one, for he is rather too far away from the
world to make himself heard."

"Where is he?"

"Why, where you recommended--in the farthest vault beneath your old
bathing house, and that is a place where he cannot be readily found."

"And what disposition can you make of the body after the work is done?"

"Why, that is simple. It can be hidden in the old conduit. You know, the
conduit still exists there, and probably in some places between there
and the river it is perfect, but near the building it is all in ruins.
The body can be hidden so far in that no stench can come from it in
summer time even to those in the vault itself. So, you see, that is
easy."

"Then let the work be done at once--say tonight."

"Tomorrow night, my lord, will do as well, for I am engaged tonight."

"Very well; let it be tomorrow night. But, mind, this is settled. There
is no more question about this affair. When I see you again, I trust you
will have no reason to offer why Ruric Nevel has not been disposed of."

"You need have no fears on that head, my lord. You may consider that the
gunmaker is dead."

"Right! So let it be."

And thus did the wicked duke dispose of Ruric Nevel.

Again Olga took a turn across the room, and when he stopped there was a
dark cloud upon his brow.

"Savotano," he said, "there is one more man whom I at least would be
assured is not in my way. I mean that infernal monk."

"I saw him this morning, my lord, and I am sure he is watching me. And
he is not alone. He has others with him. I have been followed, and one
of my men--the one who entrapped Nevel--told me not two hours ago that
he knew his steps had been followed."

"And do you think this monk is at the bottom, of it?" asked the duke,
with some uneasiness.

"I know it, for I have seen him when I knew he was watching me."

"Then why have you not got him out of the way?"

"Aha!" uttered the priest, with a dubious shake of the head. "We cannot
always do as we would. But he shall not live long, if I can help him
off, and I think the opportunity may offer itself."

"He is a bold fellow. Why, I found him only yesterday in my own
palace--in the chamber of the countess."

"Ha! And could you not have disposed of him then?"

"Not well. It was in broad day, and people were about. But if I catch
him here again my sword shall find his heart. I have given him legal
warning. But," continued the duke after some further thought, "you must
be careful in your dealings with him. He may have some organized band
always about him."

"I will be caught in no trap," returned the priest confidently. "He
shall find that I can be as keen as he can. But it is very strange----"

"What is strange?" asked Olga, starting, for he, too, had been thinking
of a very strange thing.

"Why, that this black monk should turn up here in Moscow so suddenly and
commence, the first thing, to dog my footsteps and hang about your
palace."

"Aye," responded Olga, "and the same thought was in my mind when you
spoke. But never mind; he shall not escape me if he presumes much more.
By heavens, they shall know that the Duke of Tula is not to be trifled
with. There is but one power in Moscow above mine, and that is the
emperor himself, and I may say that even he is not above me. He cannot
get along without me. Does anything turn up to puzzle him, he sends
straightway for me."

"Then, use your power for your own good, my lord."

"I will. Fear not for me on that score."

At this juncture the priest arose to take his leave.

"You have your instructions," said Olga.

"I remember them well, my lord, and they shall be carried out to the
letter."

"And when done let me know."

"I will obey."

And once more the misshapen priest was in the street and the duke was
alone.

"Ah, my lord," muttered the pliant tool to himself as he walked
thoughtfully along, "you may be a little too confident of your own
power. I have known such things in Russia."




CHAPTER XIV.--THE MYSTIC TRIBUNAL.


Away back of the old Cathedral of Moscow and in a narrow, dark court
which was overlooked by the towers of the giant edifice stood a
curiously constructed stone building, which, though not connected bodily
with the cathedral, yet seemed to belong to it. It was low and broad,
with a flat, tiled roof and without a visible window. Within one of the
apartments of this building--an apartment away down in the bowels of the
earth, where the light of day never came--were seated six men. The room
was of fair size, and the floor, the walls and the ceiling were of dark
stone. Wooden benches were arranged about the place, and there were some
other articles of furniture there, too--strange contrivances they were
and fashioned after various shapes and patterns. But of that anon. The
place was lighted by a large hanging lamp which had just power enough to
make the room gloomy and dismal. The six men sat about a table, on which
were a book and sword, and the most prominent man there was Vladimir,
the monk.

And Vladimir alone exposed his face. All the rest wore black masks,
their robes being of the same melancholy hue. They sat there silent as
death, Vladimir gazing down upon the table and the other five gazing
fixedly upon him. They were stout men, all of them, and they bore
themselves toward Vladimir as bears a servant to his acknowledged
master.

"The hour is waxing late," said Vladimir at length, looking up from the
table. His voice sounded in that place like the echo of a tomb. It was
low and hollow, and the others started as they heard it.

"There's time yet to spare, master," replied one who sat next the monk.

"I trust we shall not be disappointed," said Vladimir at the expiration
of a few moments more.

To this no answer was returned.

At length there came a dull echo from overhead, and the six dark sitters
started up to listen. The sound grew louder, and soon it sent down into
that dismal chamber the notes of coming footsteps. In a few moments more
the heavy iron door creaked upon its hinges, and three men entered, and
soon behind them came three more. Those who came in advance were two of
them leading the third as a prisoner. And so it was with those behind.
The iron door creaked again, and when the heavy bolts had been shored
into their sockets the two prisoners were led forward.

"Master," spoke one of the newcomers, "we have brought the
prisoners--two of them--as you commanded."

"It is well," said Vladimir. "Let them be brought before us."

As the two men are brought to where the light can strike upon their
faces we see the two guides who conducted Ruric Nevel to his place of
confinement. One of them was he who met Ruric in the street, and the
other is the one who guided him into the old bathhouse with the lantern
in his hand. They shuddered fearfully as they gazed around upon the
dismal scene, and their looks plainly showed that they knew not why they
had been brought thither.

"Lesko Totma!" pronounced Vladimir.

The first of the prisoners--he who had met Ruric in the street--started
as he heard that name and tried to speak.

"Are you the man?" asked the monk, looking into his face.

"Yes, holy father," the wretch tremblingly replied.

"Then stand you here in front of me."

The fellow was moved up in front of the table, and surprise and fear
seemed to be struggling for the mastery over him, for he recognized now
the strange monk about whom he had probably heard so much.

"Lesko Totma," said Vladimir low and slowly, "you have been seen much in
the company of a hump-backed priest named Savotano. You know such a
priest, do you not?"

The man hesitated. He gazed furtively about him and trembled more than
before.

"Answer me!"

"Yes, sir; I know him."

"And now, sir, be sure that you answer me directly and truly. Do you
know a young gunmaker named Ruric Nevel?"

The fellow started with a perceptible quake as this question was asked,
but he seemed to have been prepared for it, for his answer was direct.

"No, sir; I do not."

"Ha! Beware! Think well before you speak."

"If you mean the man who fought the duel with the Count Damonoff, then I
have heard of him, but I do not know that I ever saw him."

"Then you are sure of this?"

"Of course I am."

"Frederic Viska!"

The second prisoner now came forward. He was a few years younger than
his companion, though somewhat larger and evidently more bold. Totma was
conducted out of the apartment as Viska came forward.

"You, too, have been in the company of this priest, Savotano, have you
not?" the monk asked.

"I know him," the fellow replied, with a slight touch of defiance in his
tone. He had not surely looked about him to see those strange
contrivances by which he was surrounded, or he would not have ventured
such a tone.

"And you have been some in his company?"

"Perhaps so."

"Very well. And, now, do you not also know Ruric Nevel?"

"I have seen him, too, sir."

"And now--can you tell me where he is at this present time?"

"No," was the answer, short and quick.

"Beware! If you have any regard for your own welfare, you will answer me
truly. Where is Ruric Nevel?"

"I tell you I know nothing about him--nothing at all."

"And of this you are sure?"

"Who are you that assume to question me thus? I know you not."

Viska spoke this in a tone of virtuous indignation, probably thinking
that that turn might serve him.

"We will let you into the secret by and by," the monk returned, with a
peculiar shake of the head. "But I will ask you once more, do you know
where Nevel is?"

"No!"

"You need not speak quite so loud. We hear easily."

"Then don't ask me impertinent questions," retorted the prisoner.

Vladimir started half way up, and his fists were clinched, but the quick
flush passed from his face, and he sat back again.

"Look ye," he said as soon as he was sure his anger would not manifest
itself, "were I not sure that you know what I ask I would not question
you thus. And now, once more I ask you, will you give me some clew to
the whereabouts of Ruric Nevel?"

"I'll answer you once more. I know nothing about him. You must not think
that this dark place and you men all dressed in black can frighten men
into telling a lie as it might a child."

At this point Vladimir turned to one of his men, one of those who helped
bring the prisoners in, and said:

"You know this to be the man?"

"Yes, my master."

"And you have seen him in private confab with the hump-backed priest?"

"I have."

"And the other things you told me are true?"

"They are, master."

"Then let down those interpreters."

At this command two of the attendants moved to the back side of the
room, where they unhooked a stout chain from the wall, and as they
allowed it to slide through their hands a curious piece of machinery
descended directly in front of the table. It consisted of a stout bar of
iron which was suspended midway upon the chain and there rested parallel
with the ceiling. Upon each end of this bar were straps of iron armed
with springs and screws. At a motion from the monk the prisoner was led
back till he stood directly beneath the bar, and then his arms were
seized and raised up. He struggled some and cursed more, but he was soon
overcome. The iron bands were passed around his wrists, and connected
with these were two small cups which were slipped over the thumbs. After
these had been firmly secured the chain was tightened, and the fellow's
hands were raised far above his head. There were two results produced by
tightening the chain. It not only tended to draw the thumbs back upon
the wrists, but it also twisted the thumb, the two cups being armed with
file-like teeth within and closing tightly upon the flesh.

"Now, sir," spoke Vladimir lowly and deeply, "I am going to ask these
questions again, and you will do well to answer them truly. Will you
tell me where Ruric Nevel is?"

"I don't know."

"Will you tell me where you saw him last?"

"I haven't seen him since he fought the duel with Damonoff."

"Beware!"

"I have not."

"Mark me, I have had you watched, and I know that you have seen Nevel
within these three days. This I know, so I have no hesitation in the
course I am about to pursue. Once more, where is Ruric Nevel?"

The man hesitated now, but his answer was still the same. He would not
tell.

Vladimir made a motion to the two men who stood by the wall, and they
gave a pull upon the chain.

"O God!" gasped the prisoner as the painful twist and wrench came upon
his thumbs.

"Will you answer?"

"How can I? How can I?"

"By speaking what you know."

"I know nothing."

Another signal was made to the men at the chain, and they pulled again;
another groan from the prisoner, but no other response.

Another signal and another pull.

"Mercy!" shrieked the poor wretch, quivering with pain.

"Will you answer?"

"I don't know."

"Then we must try again."

"No, no; O God, no more!"

"But you must answer."

"I don't know."

"Then you must have forgotten, and such treacherous memories need
starting up."

As Vladimir thus spoke he waved his hand again.

"O God, have mercy! Oh-o-o! Save me! Save me!"

"Save yourself."

The wretch was in torment now without ceasing. Nearly the whole of his
weight bore upon his wrists and thumbs, and the latter were drawn over
almost to the wrist. But he would not answer. He had a deeper fear than
this. He feared to break the horrid oaths by which he was bound to the
scheming priest.

One more pull upon the chain, and the man's feet were clear of the
floor. His whole weight now bore upon his thumbs, and he groaned in the
agony of torture. He bore it a few moments, but his coward soul could
bear no more.

"O God! Down, down! Let me down!"

"But answer. Where is Ruric Nevel?"

"I--I--don't----"

"Hold, thou false hearted villain!" shouted Vladimir in a voice of
thunder. "This is the last of this torture, but when we take you from
here we can put you into a state compared with which the pain you now
experience is real joy. Each particular limb shall be wrenched all out
of shape, and your very eyes shall start out like----"

"Down, down! O great God, down!"

"Where is Ruric Nevel?"

"I'll tell you! I'll tell you if you spare me!"

"Tell me first!"

There was a moment more of hesitation, one single moment, and then the
miserable wretch gave up.

"He's in the bathhouse."

"Ha! Where?"

"In the old bathhouse near the river on the Tula pass in one of the
vaults!"

"Very well. Let him down."

The chain was slacked up, and Frederic Viska was once more upon his
feet. He trembled yet, for there was pain in his arms.

"Now carry him out," ordered Vladimir, "and bring the other one in."

In a few moments more Lesko Totma was before the strange tribunal. He
trembled fearfully, for he had been where he could hear his companion's
groans without hearing what he said.

"Lesko Totma," spoke the monk in a low, deep tone, "we have given you
time for thought, and mayhap you have your memory brightened by this
time. Now, where is Ruric Nevel?"

"I don't know."

"Ah, you still forget, eh?"

"I never knew."

"A most strange forgetfulness, I must confess. Let the interpreters be
adjusted!"

"Oh, mercy! Don't murder me!" But no notice was taken of his cries. The
straps and conical cups were adjusted and the chain drawn tight. At the
first turn of the self-acting screw the fellow shrieked. It was not so
much with the present pain as with the fear of what was to come. The
very presage of the place, so dark and dismal, had more effect upon his
mind than it had upon his companion.

At a second pull of the chain he groaned and begged for mercy. He had
heard of this dark place, and he fancied that men who came there seldom
went away alive.

"Hark ye, base wretch," the monk said, "if you do not tell me where the
young gunmaker is I'll have you torn limb from limb. Another pull,
there!"

As the wrench came again the villain fairly shouted with pain.

"Oh, let me go! Let me go! I'll tell all!"

"Then tell. You leave not this place alive until you have told."

"He is--O God! He is--in the old bath!"

"Where?"

"The duke's bath, on the pass of Tula!"

"Whereabouts there?"

"In the lowest, farthest vault. Oh, spare!"

Vladimir waved his hand, and the quaking wretch was freed from his
torture.

"Now conduct them both to the dungeons and lock them up. They must not
run at large for the present. Let them be secure."

"No, no," cried Viska, who had been brought back. "You were to let me go
if I told you."

"Not free, sir," said Vladimir.

"But you have no right to hold me thus. I am nearly dead with pain now
where you have torn my hands in pieces. By the----"

"Silence, dog! My authority here is my power. My right is my might. I
have you, and I will keep you. Were I to let you go I might not have the
power to catch you again, as legal officers could. Lead them off, and
then we'll turn our attention to the duke's bath!"




CHAPTER XV.--WHAT HAPPENED AT THE DUKE'S BATH.


Ruric Nevel could keep no account of time. Darkness, and darkness only,
dwelt with him in his prison house--darkness so utter that the only
effect of opening the eyes was the nervous reality of the motion. In
fact, 'twas lighter with the eyes closed than with them opened, for when
tightly closed there were peculiar fantastic shapes floating in the
imagination, and even this was a relief. And then there was a sort of
kaleidoscopic succession of colors when the lids were tightly pressed
that seemed grateful to the nerves and gave variety to the mind. But
when the eyes were open only a cold, impenetrable blackness was present,
within which there were no shapes, no forms, save the one form of utter
chaos.

Ruric felt sure he had been there four days, and at times it appeared
longer than that. Food and drink had been brought to him thrice, and he
was now without both. His strength had not yet left him, though there
were pains in his limbs and a chilling sensation about the heart. He had
broken the rope from his arms on the first day of his confinement, and
he had hoped to overcome the man who brought him food and drink and thus
make his escape, but no human being had yet come in to him. His food had
been passed in through a small wicket.

"And this is the end of life!" he murmured to himself as he paced slowly
to and fro across the dungeon. "Thus ends all the hopes of youth, and
here the prayers of a lifetime must close in one last hope--one hope of
heaven when earth has passed away! My mother, no farewell can reach thee
from the lips of thy son. He will lie down in the dark slumber of death,
and thou shalt not know his resting place! And thou, loved one--oh, thou
fondly cherished, wildly worshiped being--thy smiles can shine no more
for me! Oh, Rosalind, would that I could see thee but once--that once
more I might press thee to my bosom and bid thee remember me when I am
gone! Had I never seen thee I might not be here now! And yet, O God, for
life itself I would not wipe away the written story of that holy love
from my heart!"

The thought of Rosalind came heavily upon him. All else he could give up
in a higher hope than that of earth, but for her he held a strange fear.
She would be another's.

"And must it be so?" he continued after some minutes of painful
reflection. "Alas, she will be nothing to me hereafter! My mother will
know her son, but Rosalind will know another! And yet she may carry the
old love with her always. She may never forget it. Oh, could I but
once----"

He stopped suddenly, for he heard a footfall in the low passage close by
the dungeon. He listened, and he heard more. There were several feet,
and soon he heard voices. He moved back to the extremity of the vault
and listened. The feet stopped, and the sound of grating iron, like the
drawing of a bolt, was heard. Soon afterward the door was opened, and
the light from a lantern flashed into the place. For a few moments the
prisoner was blind by the sudden transition, but by degrees he overcame
the difficulty and was able to look up.

The first object upon which his eyes fell was the hump-backed priest,
Savotano. There were four others behind him, but Ruric noticed them not
yet. He saw before him the man whom he believed to be the instrument of
his suffering, and with one bound he reached him and felled him to the
floor.

"Hold!" cried one of the others, one who held the lantern. "We have come
to conduct thee out from here."

"Ha! Say ye so?"

"Most surely we have."

"Then stand aside and let me go."

"Just as you say. The doors are open, and you may go. You may follow us,
or you may go in advance."

"Then lead on," returned Ruric, "and I will follow."

"As you say."

Thus speaking, the man assisted the priest to his feet and led him out
from the cell. In a few moments more the others went out also, and Ruric
prepared to follow. He heard the priest cursing, but he noticed that one
of the others led him off. The youth stepped forth into the passage, but
he did not place the fullest confidence in what he had heard. He reached
the foot of the stairs, and the others were nearly up. He started to
follow them and had nearly gained the top when a quick, lightning like
shadow flitted before him. He would have started back, but 'twas too
late. There came a blow upon his head, and, with a dull, crashing
sensation, he sank down. He realized that he was turned over and that a
rope was being lashed about his arms.

But the prisoner had not been fully stunned. He returned to
consciousness as they lifted him to his feet, and his first impulse was
to try to force his bonds asunder, but this he could not do. He gazed up
now, and he found only two men with him, and they wore masks upon their
faces. They were stout, powerful men, and their very bearing was
murderous, and his heart sank within him.

"Come," said one of them. "You'll go with us. We won't force you if
you'll walk."

"But where?" asked the youth. "What mean you?"

"You'll see when you get there. But there's no time to waste, so come."

What could the prisoner do? His hands were firmly bound behind him, and
his great strength availed not a bit. He knew that he could not resist,
so he simply bowed his head in token of submission and prepared to
follow his conductors. But they left him not to follow at will. They
took him by either arm and thus led him away. He remembered the room
into which he had been first conducted on the evening of his capture,
but he was not detained there. From here a long corridor led off to
where a wing of the building had been partly torn away, and they soon
came to a large circular apartment, in the center of which was a deep
basin where in years gone by people had been wont to bathe. The walls
looked grim and ragged by the feeble rays of the lantern, and the chill
wind came moaning through the cracks and crevices in the decaying
masonry.

"There," spoke one of the guides as he set his lantern upon the top of a
broken column. "We will stop here."

The words were spoken in a sort of hushed, unmerciful tone, and Ruric
felt them strike fearfully upon him. He gazed upon the man who had
spoken, and he saw that he was preparing to throw off his pelisse, which
he had thus far worn. As soon as this was off he moved to where his
companion stood and commenced whispering.

Could Ruric mistake longer? What reason but one could there have been
for bringing him to such a place? To the left, where the basin had once
emptied itself, there was a dark, deep, cave-like place, at the mouth of
which a heap of rubbish had collected. What a place in which to hide a
dead body! So thought Ruric. But he was startled from the dark reverie
by a darker reality.

One of the men had taken a club, a long, heavy bludgeon which the youth
had not before seen, and was just balancing it in one hand while he spat
upon the other.

"You will not murder me here in cold blood!" uttered Ruric, starting
back.

The stout ruffian clutched the club in both hands, but made no verbal
answer.

"Speak! For God's sake answer me!" the prisoner exclaimed, starting back
another pace. "Do you mean to murder me?"

"Why," answered the man with the club in a cool, offhanded manner,
"since you are so anxious to know, I'll tell you. You will die within a
minute!"

"And will you take the life of one who never harmed you? Hold! If money
be your object----"

"Stop!" interrupted the villain. "You can't argue us out of it in that
way. You've got to die, and the sooner you go the sooner you'll get over
it. You won't suffer a bit if you don't go to kicking up a fuss. There,
now. If you hadn't bothered me 'twould have been all over by this time."

Oh, what would Ruric have given at that moment for the use of one of his
arms! But that was beyond praying for. Yet he had his feet. He said
nothing more, but he allowed the man to come within a few yards of him,
and then he prepared for the only means of defense he had. The huge club
was raised, and at that moment Ruric saw that the other man also had a
club. He knew then that they had been concealed there until now.

"Hark!" uttered the second villain just as his companion had raised his
club. "What noise is that?"

"I suppose they're coming to see if we've finished the job," returned
the other, "and, by the saints, we ought to have done it ere this. But
they shall find it done!"

The ponderous club was raised again, and, with a quick, decisive
movement, the man advanced. Ruric made a movement of the body as though
he would bow his head for the stroke. Every nerve and muscle of his
frame was set for the trial, and for the instant his heart stood still.
Quick as thought his body bent--his right knee was brought almost to his
chin--and then, with all the force he could command, he planted his foot
in the pit of the assassin's stomach. The effect was electrical. The
wretch bent like a broken stick and sank down without a single sign of
life.

The second man uttered an oath and sprang forward with uplifted club,
but Ruric easily dodged the blow, and then, as the thought for the first
time flashed upon his mind, he darted to where the lantern stood and
overturned it. He had noticed an open passage close at hand which seemed
to lead to some sort of a dressing room, and, guided by his memory
alone, for it was now dark as Erebus there, he glided swiftly into it.
When he knocked over the lantern, he had upset column and all, and just
as he reached the passage he heard a heavy fall, and he knew that his
enemy had stumbled over the fallen column. "He heard the curses, loud
and deep, which dropped from the lips of the baffled man as he picked
himself up, and in a moment more he was edified by a conversation
between the two, for villain No. 1 had revived, though the tone of his
voice plainly indicated that he had a severe pain still lingering with
him.

"Michael, Michael!" groaned No. 1, and as he spoke Ruric could hear him
scrambling up on his feet.

"Hi, Oriel!" returned No. 2.

"Have you dropped him?"

"No!" cried Michael, with a curse which we do not choose to transcribe.
"He's a perfect devil!"

"But where's the lantern?"

"He put it out."

"But you ought to have knocked him down, you clown."

"So had you."

"Me? Why, he kicked me over."

"Well, he dodged by me and kicked over the lantern."

"But where is he now?"

"He's gone. Hark! Ha, I guess they've caught him. Don't you hear?"

"Yes; they've caught somebody."

"And of course it's him. He went that way. Let's go and find----"

He did not finish the sentence, for at that moment a voice came up in
thunder tones, and it said:

"RURIC! RURIC!"

"Good God!" gasped villain No. 1. "What is that?"

"RURIC! RURIC!"

"By the living gods, that is not from any of our men!" uttered the
second ruffian. "Ha, they are coming this way!"

"RURIC! RURIC!"

"Where shall we flee?" cried Michael.

"There is but one place," returned Oriel. "Here in the little drawing
room. Come, let's find it. Oh, curses on that gunmaker's head! If he be
not the very devil, then he's a bound partner of his. Have you found the
entrance, Michael?"

"No. It's near you somewhere. Can't you--Ha! In, in!"

At that moment the glare of a flaming torch flashed through the gloom of
the place, and the two villains stood revealed. A dozen stout men, all
well armed, appeared in the only passage by which they could escape, for
to have fled into the drawing room of which they had spoken would avail
them nothing.

"Ho, villains!" shouted Vladimir the monk, raising his flaming torch
high above his head with his left hand, while in his right he waved a
heavy sword. "Where is Ruric Nevel?"

"Here, here!" cried our hero, starting forward into the larger room.

"What! Safe--alive--well?" uttered Vladimir.

"Aye, my noblest of friends. But, oh, cast off this accursed bond from
my arms. It eats into the flesh."

The rope was quickly taken off, and then the youth embraced his
deliverer. No questions were asked there. Only a few sincere thanks were
uttered, and then attention was turned to the two villains, who yet
stood trembling near them. They had not attempted an escape, for the way
was blocked up. They were quickly secured, and then the party turned
away from the place, and as they went Ruric gave the monk an account of
the manner in which he had been entrapped and of the events which had
transpired since.

"Merciful heavens!" ejaculated Vladimir as Ruric closed his account of
the manner in which he had overcome the two men who had thought to
murder him. "It was a narrow escape."

"But I might not have escaped without your coming," the youth said, "for
they would surely have found me. With my hands lashed behind me as they
were I could not have escaped."

"True, true," returned Vladimir thoughtfully. "It was a narrow chance.
But it is over now."

"And how gained you the knowledge of my whereabouts?" asked Ruric.

"I'll explain it to you when we have time. But did I understand you to
say that the hump-backed priest was there?"

"He came to my dungeon with the rest, and 'twas he that I knocked down.
Have you not found him?"

"No; we have seen nothing of him. We found two men in the hall, and that
was all."

The place was searched all through for the priest, but he could not be
found, and when Vladimir was assured that the arch villain had made his
escape he prepared to leave the building. The prisoners--four of
them--were led out first and taken away by the monk's followers.

When Ruric reached the street, the stars were all out, and the cool,
frosty air struck gratefully upon his brow. He turned toward his
mysterious companion, and under the grateful impulse of the moment he
stopped. He raised his hands toward heaven, uttered one fervent sentence
of thanksgiving to God and then moved on again.




CHAPTER XVI.--THWARTED, BUT NOT SUBDUED.


It was long after midnight, and yet the Widow Nevel had not sought her
bed. She was now pacing to and fro across her kitchen, and the boy Paul
sat nodding in his chair. Suddenly the woman stopped, and Paul started
up.

"Do you think that message was a false one?" she asked, looking the boy
in the face.

"I don't know," he returned. "If he came from the black monk, as he said
he did, then I think he spoke the truth."

"Oh, they would not have deceived me."

"No, my mistress; I am sure they would not."

"But it is very late."

"Hark! There are bells."

The widow heard them, and, with a wildly fluttering heart, she sank into
a chair.

"They have stopped in front of the house," uttered Paul, whose ears were
bent.

"Go--go--open----"

Paul started. The widow heard the door opened, and she heard voices in
the hall. In a moment more the inner door was opened, and she looked up.
She saw a manly form; she heard the magic word "Mother!" trembling upon
the air. With one low cry of joy she started to her feet, and in the
next moment she was clasped to the bosom of her son.

"Did I not tell you I'd bring him back to you?" cried Vladimir, rubbing
his hands with joy.

"Oh, God bless you, sir!" the widow murmured, gazing through her tears
into the monk's face.

"So, so," returned the strange man. "The blessing of an honest soul is
reward enough for one night, so I'll take myself off for the present."

"No, no," cried Ruric. "You'll remain here till morning."

But the monk could not be prevailed upon so to do. He had business to
attend to, and he could not stop, and he hurried away as quickly as
possible to avoid the thanks that were showered upon him.

After Vladimir was gone Ruric sat down and related to his mother all
that had occurred since that day on which he left her to go and see the
count. She trembled fearfully as he related the diabolical attempts that
had been made upon him, and when he had concluded she sat for a few
moments like one in a painful trance.

"And do you think," she said at length, while a cold shudder ran through
her frame, "that the Duke of Tula was the cause of all this?"

"I am sure of it, my mother."

"Then you are not safe yet."

"But I shall see the emperor."

"I have seen him, my son."

"Ah! And what said he?"

"Why, he said if we could find out who had done you harm he would punish
them. Then I asked him, 'Suppose it was a duke?' and he said in that
case he should have to look into the matter. Oh, I fear he would not
dare to punish the powerful Olga."

"Perhaps not, but yet, my mother, I will give him credit for better
things. Yet," the youth continued in a sad tone, "there is one for whom
I care more than self and who is now within the wicked duke's power. Oh,
she is his beyond any power of the emperor!"

"Not absolutely beyond his power, is she?" the mother asked.

"Why, of course Peter has the power to set aside any wardship, but
'twould not be policy for him to interfere in the domestic affairs of
his powerful nobles. I feel sure that his heart would bid him interfere,
but his judgment would oppose it. You have seen Rosalind?"

"Yes."

"And was she unhappy when she knew that I was missing?"

"Ah, Ruric," returned the mother, with a kindling eye, "you do not know
how that noble girl loves you! Oh, her heart was almost broken when she
knew that evil had befallen you!"

The widow had it in her mind to tell of the scene which had transpired
upon the duke's coming into the maiden's presence when she was there,
but she thought a second time ere she spoke, and she then concluded not
to speak of it at present, for she knew 'twould only serve to give her
son additional pain without bestowing any benefit.

"By heavens," uttered Ruric at the end of a troubled reverie and at the
same time clasping his hands vehemently together, "was ever man so
surrounded by impenetrable mystery before! This monk is surely a good
man. He has served me well, and I am sure he would serve me more if
opportunity offered. But who is he? Have you found out anything
concerning him?"

"I have not, my son."

"But is it not strange?"

"It is."

And so they conversed until their drooping lids would no longer remain
apart, and then, having first rendered up their thanks to God and asked
his help for the future, they retired to their respective places of
rest. Ruric had strange dreams, and for the life of him he could not
tell whether they were good or bad. Once he dreamed that he was a duke
himself and that he had a wife whose face he had never seen. She would
not raise her veil until the ceremony was performed. Then she removed
the obstruction, and Ruric started on beholding the face of Vladimir,
the monk! And then Vladimir seemed to say, 'All this I have done for
thee. Do you like it?' And Ruric dared not object, because Vladimir had
done so much for him.

And now while Ruric awakes from his dreams and wonders what they mean
let us look in and see what is going on in the ducal palace.

It was early morning, and the Duke of Tula was once more in his own
private apartment. He had not slept well, for he, too, had had dreams,
and they were troublesome ones. They hung about him even now, and they
filled his mind with dark and gloomy forebodings. He paced to and fro
across the apartment, sometimes stopping and bowing his head and then
starting on again with new clouds upon his brow. Thus he walked and
pondered until he was aroused by a stealthy footfall close by the door.
He stopped and listened. He knew the step. 'Twas the one he had been
waiting for. He moved to the door and opened it, and the hump-backed
priest, Savotano, entered the apartment.

"By St. Paul, Savotano, I feared you would never come," the duke uttered
as his workman closed the door behind him.

"I would have come sooner if I could, my lord, but even now it is early
morning. The sun is hardly above the city walls."

"Well, it is early, I know, but I have not slept well."

"I have not slept at all, my lord."

"No, Savotano. You look worn and weary. But you have been at work."

"Aye; I have."

"And you have come to tell me the result of that work. Does it move you
so to do such work? I thought you were used to it?"

The priest gazed into his master's face, but he did not speak.

"Bah!" uttered Olga contemptuously. "What is the killing of a man? But
tell me, did you conceal the body so that no one will find it?"

It was some moments before Savotano spoke. His frame trembled, and his
hands worked nervously together. But at length he said in a hesitating
tone:

"He is not dead, my lord."

"Not dead yet? But you promised me he should be."

"I know, but we could not do it."

"Bah! I gave you credit for more firmness. Not kill a man? What is there
so terrible in that?"

"You misunderstood me, my lord. We did all we could toward killing him,
but he escaped us."

"Hold!" cried the duke, starting forward and grasping the priest by the
shoulder. "You do not mean that Ruric Nevel has escaped you?"

"He has, my lord."

"But not entirely. You do not mean that he has fairly gone from out your
hands?"

"He has, my lord. But listen----"

"Listen, thou bungler! By the saints, what story can you tell to make
that smooth and reasonable? You had him in your power, and you should
have kept him."

"But, my lord, the devil himself is working for that man. We went last
night to kill the fellow, and I waited all of two hours for Totma and
Viska, but the rascals did not come, and I engaged others."

"And did they prove treacherous?" cried Olga in sudden passion.

"No, my lord; they did their best, but they were interrupted by that
accursed monk, who came backed by some dozen men."

"What! Do you mean that Vladimir came there?"

"Yes."

"And with a band of armed men?"

"Yes."

"Then, by the gods, there's treachery somewhere."

"I know not what to think, my lord," returned Savotano in an uneasy,
perplexed tone. "The only men who are absent are Lesko Totma and
Frederic Viska, and they are surely our best men."

"But you see plainly that there must have been treachery," exclaimed the
duke passionately. "Oh, how I would like to know the man! And did this
monk carry off the gunmaker?"

"He did. And he captured four of our men. I escaped without being seen."

"That is fortunate----"

"I mean that the monk did not see me, nor did any of his followers. But
the gunmaker saw me."

"And do you think he mistrusted you had any hand in the matter of his
imprisonment?"

"I should judge so," returned the priest, with a peculiar twinge of
vengeance about the lips. "The villain knocked me down."

"Ha!"

"Aye; the moment he saw me."

"But do you think he knows anything about it?"

"No. I do not think he does. He can only suspect."

"Then we'll be prepared for him if your own men are to be depended upon.
But leave that to me. I'll fix that matter with the emperor. I'll see
him this very day, and be sure he shall have a story that can destroy
all evidence which these fellows can hatch up."

"But I must flee, my lord."

"Not yet, Savotano. I must have your help within a very short time. By
the true God, I swear that the Countess Rosalind Valdai shall be my wife
within the present week. I'll place the seal of fact upon that matter at
once. Fear not, for I know my influence over the emperor will shield you
from all harm. Why, Peter would sooner lose his right hand than lose
me."

"Then most surely I will remain, my lord, for I much wish to perform
that ceremony for you. But who is this black monk--this Vladimir?"

The duke started across the floor, and for some moments he continued
pacing to and fro. When he stopped, he brought his hands together with
an energetic movement, and, looking the priest sternly in the face, he
said:

"Let that monk be who he may, whether man or devil, God or saint, I'll
destroy him! I have the power, and I'll use it. As warden of the city I
have the power to arrest him upon suspicion of conspiracy. I'll do it!
Where is he now?"

"I know not."

"Never mind; I'll to the emperor first. I'll study my plan, and ere the
sun sets it shall be carried out. By heavens, I'll be baffled thus no
more. I could have wished that this gunmaker had been quietly out of the
way, for then all would have been clear and plain, and I should not have
feared the trouble of his clamoring about my ears. But let him go. I
would not give much for the life he has left. I'll dispose of him soon.
But that monk! By heavens, he dies at once and without consultation with
the emperor, for I can swear he is a conspirator."

"Good!" ejaculated the priest.

And thus the business was arranged for the present. Passion helped the
duke wondrously in his conclusions, and the wish was made into the
power. But even before the priest left, the stout nobleman began to wish
that he had a very little more power. In fact, as he came to reason he
began to doubt, but he gave up not one idea of the plan he had formed
for the vengeance his soul so madly craved.




CHAPTER XVII.--TRANSACTIONS OF A NIGHT.


"I dare not! Oh, I dare not!"

"But it is your only hope."

"And whither shall we go?"

"Anywhere rather than remain here. Oh, my mistress, if you do stay here
you know the fate which awaits you. There is no other means of escape
from the wicked duke's power."

"And I must thus cast myself among strangers, lose my all of earth----"

"Hold, Rosalind! By St Paul, there is surely one in Moscow who will help
you! Let us go to the emperor. Oh, if he be the man I have heard, he
will surely listen!"

"Ah, Zenobie, the duke is high in power, and his influence is great at
court. Peter would not dare to thwart him."

"It may be so, but I do not believe it. And yet, my mistress, just think
for one moment how you stand in that respect. You have nothing to lose.
This life of earth, with all its pains and sorrows and with its most
exquisite tortures, holds nothing worse for you within the bounds of
possibility than to become the duke's wife. If there were but one chance
in the thousand, you had better try it. Remember, you cannot possibly
lose anything, but the chances are for you. Let us go to the emperor."

"But how, Zenobie?"

"This evening, after the darkness of night has gathered over the city,
let us go. I tell you I do not believe the emperor will deliberately
suffer a great wrong to be done for the sake of pacifying the duke. He
has more noble independence than that."

The young countess did not answer at once. She pressed her small white
hand hard upon her brow, and thus she remained for some time buried in
profound thought. At length she raised her head, and the fire of
determination was in her eye.

"I will go," she said. "I will go to the emperor. He will help me if he
has a human heart."

"You have one satisfaction, my mistress--he cannot harm you."

"Cannot?"

"I mean that you can but be made to marry with Olga, and all other harm
would be as nothing compared with that."

"Aye; you are right, Zenobie. We will go this very night."

The more Rosalind pondered upon this new resolve the more hope did she
derive from it. Ere long she conversed more freely with her attendant,
and at times that old smile would struggle for a moment upon her face.
Yet she had gloomy moments too. Her fear was too deeply fixed to be
swept away so easily.

The afternoon passed away, and as the shades of night gathered over the
great city the two girls were astir. Zenobie gathered together such
articles of clothing as would be needed and then proceeded to prepare
her mistress for the adventure.

"Fear not," she said as she drew on Rosalind's robe of fur, "for there
can be no danger worse than that we flee from. Try only to remember that
you flee from the duke's foul embrace."

This served to nerve the fair young countess up to the task, and her
frame ceased its trembling.

"I shall not falter now," she said. "But shall we find the emperor at
this late hour?"

"Bless me, 'tis not late! But even if we do not see him tonight we can
do it in the morning. We shall find plenty in the imperial palace who
will shelter us till then."

The girls were now ready, and all that remained was to start on their
strange mission. With noiseless steps they left the apartment where they
had dressed and proceeded along the corridor to the great staircase.
Zenobie knew there would be less danger there than to go down the other
way among the servants. Having descended these stairs, they came to the
great hall which opened one way into the saloons. They took the former
course and were soon in the court. The only trouble now was in passing
the porter's lodge at the gate, for they knew the great gate was not
open, and to gain the street they must pass through the room where the
porter always staid. Zenobie went ahead and looked in. The porter sat by
the fire playing with his dog.

"My mistress," whispered the girl as she came back, "old John is in the
lodge, and we need have no fear. He is a simple, good natured fellow,
and I am sure I can get by him. Do you go in advance; cover up your
face; don't look at him, and be sure you don't tremble. Leave it all to
me. Remember, now, you have----"

"Fear not, Zenobie. Go on."

So on they went, and when they reached the lodge Rosalind went in first
and stood by the wicket, while Zenobie followed and opened the door that
looked into the porter's room.

"Good John," she uttered in anxious tones, "come and open the wicket for
me, quick. My good mistress is very ill, and Tilda and I are going for
the doctor. Come; be quick."

"But why don't some of the men go?" asked John as he started up and
forced his dog back.

"Because 'twould take them longer to do the errand than 'twill us. But
don't detain us. We shan't be long."

The honest porter had orders not to allow the countess to pass out, but
he thought not of that now. He had known the gentle girl from a child,
and so well did he love her that he might not have stopped her even had
he known she was then waiting to pass out. At all events, he could not
refuse the present request, so he came out and opened the wicket without
further question, and the girls passed through.

"Now, now," uttered Zenobie in nervous haste, "we are clear of the
palace. Here is the street. Our walk is not long."

Rosalind answered not; but, drawing her robe more closely about her to
keep out the cold, biting wind, she hastened along by the side of her
companion. Hope was now alive within her. She turned one glance behind
her, and she could see the light which she had left burning in her
chamber. It seemed at that moment to be the fiery eye of a demon gazing
after her, and instinctively she quickened her pace.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Twice during the day did the Duke of Tula call at the imperial palace
without being able to find the emperor, but in the evening he was more
fortunate. The emperor was in, and Olga was admitted at once to his
presence.

"Well, my lord duke," said Peter as Olga approached, "what business
calls you from home at this hour?"

"Business of importance, sire--business of less moment to me than to the
state."

"Ah! Proceed."

Only two attendants were with the emperor, one of whom was Demetrius the
Greek, and the place of audience was in one of the private apartments
near the bedchamber, where only privileged ones were ever allowed to
come.

"Sire," commenced the duke, "you remember the gunmaker who was before
you not long since?"

"Ah, yes--the one who took my Greek's sword from him?"

"The same, sire. Have you heard from him since?"

"By my soul, Olga, I had well nigh forgotten the fellow. Yes, yes; I
remember him well now. He was a right stout knave."

"Aye, and a dangerous one, too, sire--a dangerous man," said the duke,
with a dubious shake of his head.

"Ah! What has he done?"

"Why, he has been engaged in various robberies to my certain knowledge,
and only a few evenings since he knocked down one of our holy priests
and robbed him of all he had. He is at the head of a numerous band of
desperadoes."

"Is it possible?"

"I know it, sire."

"By St. Paul, I should not have believed this!"

"Nor would I have believed it, sire, had I not received proofs not to be
questioned. I, as is my duty, have long been anxious to ferret out this
gang of robbers----"

"But I never heard of them, Olga," interrupted Peter.

"Ah, sire, because I gave direction that you should not be troubled with
the affair. But I have them now. It is only last evening that I got a
clew upon them. We found them in an old building near the river here in
the Kremlin, and this same Ruric Nevel was with them. But he made his
escape."

"I do remember me now that the fellow had a bold bearing and a fearless
look," said the emperor half to himself, "and if such a man turns
villain there must be danger in it."

"Aye, sire, you speak truly, and now, with your order, I can apprehend
the fellow at once."

"I can send and have it done, my dear duke."

"But your officers may not find him. I know where he is and can have him
taken at once. He has several hiding places."

"Well, then you might do the work with more advantage."

"Aye, and I can have him tried and disposed of without further trouble
to you, sire."

"No, no. I wish to see him," returned the emperor. "I will give you the
necessary order, and you may bring him here."

Peter then turned to his secretary and bade him fill an order for Ruric
Nevel's arrest. The stout master at arms looked on with a troubled
countenance, and his glances toward the duke were anything but loving.
He did not seem to relish the business at all, and the expression of his
countenance would seem to indicate that he did not believe all that the
duke had said.

However, the order was soon made out and in the duke's possession.

"Remember," said Peter, "you will bring him before me."

"You shall be obeyed, sire."

If the emperor did not notice the strange, dark look of the duke as he
turned away, the Greek did, and he fancied too, that he knew what it
meant. But he said nothing then.

Olga bowed low as he clutched the order and, having once more promised
obedience, he hurried from the imperial presence. As he passed out
through the wide court he walked slowly and thoughtfully and with his
head bowed. But soon he started up, his hands came together with an
emphatic movement, and he moved on more quickly. He had gained the
street and approached a small court within which stood a house of
entertainment, where he stopped. In a few moments more a man came out
from the inn, and as soon as he had satisfied himself that the newcomer
was the duke he spoke.

"Olga, is't you?"

"Yes."

It needed but a single glance in the dim starlight to recognize the form
of the humpbacked priest. He walked quickly to where the duke stood, and
the two moved off together.

"Now what luck?" Savotano asked as they gained the street once more.

"Good--as good as I could even hope," returned the duke. "I have the
power for arresting the gunmaker."

"And for executing him?"

"It amounts to the same. I am ordered to bring him before the emperor,
but that is easily managed."

Here the duke stopped and gazed about him, and then, bending his head so
that no word could possibly pass beyond his companion's ears, he
continued:

"You can call upon three of your best men, and I can furnish two from
among my own servants. Early in the morning, by the time the sun is up,
they must be at the gunmaker's dwelling. They must make him angry--of
course he will resist--and then kill him. It is very simple--very. They
can easily dispatch him thus, and then we have only to tell the emperor
that he resisted the imperial authority even unto death. So, you see,
this is even better than it would have been had I received direct
authority for his death, for then some form of trial would have been
necessary, but now we have only to go to his house, provoke him to
quarrel, kill him and then tell the emperor how it happened. What think
you?"

"Why," returned the priest, with a wicked chuckle, "I can only say that
Master Nevel is done for--he is a dead man."

"Exactly. Nothing could be better--nothing."

After the explanation of this fiendish, hellish scheme the two walked on
some distance in silence.

"Stop!" uttered the duke, catching his companion by the arm, "There come
two persons this way. We must not meet them. Here--into this
passage--quick!"

It was a narrow, dark passage leading to the next street, into which the
duke dragged his companion, and here he meant to remain until the two
persons had passed. The fact was the duke did not wish to be seen with
the priest at that hour in the street, and it is no matter of surprise
that he should at that moment have been influenced by guilty fear. The
two pedestrians came on and passed the spot where the men stood. They
were females, and one of them the priest saw in the face. The features
were upturned to the starlight, and he recognized them. He caught the
duke quickly and nervously by the arm.

"By the host of heaven," he whispered, "'twas the countess!"

"Rosalind?" gasped Olga.

"Yes, as sure as death!"

"Then come, quick!"

Savotano understood the meaning of this, and he followed the duke
quickly out. At a few bounds Olga reached the females, and one of them
he caught by the arm. She uttered a sharp, quick cry, and as she turned
her face up she revealed the fair features of the Countess Rosalind
Valdai. The priest had no need to stop the other girl, for she stopped
of her own accord as soon as she found that her mistress was captured.

"Aha!" Olga uttered when he saw that pale face. "What now, eh? Where are
you bound at this unseemly hour?"

"O God!" It was all the poor girl could utter. She saw the dark face of
her hated and feared guardian, and the last glimmer of hope faded from
her soul.

"By my soul," the duke resumed, fastening his grip surely upon the
maiden's arm, "it is fortunate I have found you, for you might have
fallen into difficulty else. You were bound for the imperial palace,
eh?"

At first Rosalind thought of struggling for escape, but she felt the
strong grip upon her arm, and she knew that such a movement could result
only in her own harm.

"Say," repeated the duke, "were you not bound for the palace?"

"Aye, proud duke, I was," the countess replied, gazing up into the man's
face "I was trying to escape from your accursed power!"

"Aha! But come; we'll turn toward home. You'll be better off there. And
this is our little Zenobie, is it?"

The attendant looked up, but she made no reply. Then Olga turned to the
priest.

"Savotano, hurry off your men in the morning, and then come to me. I'll
have work for you tomorrow. By St. Paul, the work delays no longer!"

And then, with a sinking, breaking heart, Rosalind Valdai was led back
toward the ducal palace.




CHAPTER XVIII.--STRANGE AND COMPLICATED.


Ruric Nevel dreamed that he was a great general and that he was upon the
eve of an engagement. He gained a view of the commander of the opposing
army, and he saw that it was the Duke of Tula. Yet the duke had an
enormous hump upon his back, and instead of the usual uniform he wore
the garb of a priest. This was very strange--at least so ran Ruric's
thoughts in the dream. Soon the engagement commenced, and the loud
mouthed artillery opened its thunder. The din was deafening and strange,
and Ruric shouted in vain to his aids, for the roar of cannon drank up
his words direct from his lips. Louder and more loud grew the crash, and
finally Ruric started for the charge. His horse was shot under him, and,
with a quick leap, he reached his feet.

"Ruric, Ruric, my master!"

Slowly the youth opened his eyes, and Paul stood by him in his
nightclothes. He gazed about him and found that he had leaped from his
bed and now stood shivering upon the floor.

"Don't you hear that racket at the door?" asked Paul.

"What?--Ha!--There is some one knocking," Ruric uttered as he heard the
sound.

"And have you not heard it before?"

"No."

"Why did you leap up thus?"

"I was dreaming."

"I thought 'twas the noise below. Why, they've been making a perfect
thunder of noise down there. Shall I go down?"

"Yes, go, Paul, and I will dress as soon as possible. What time is it?"

"It must be near daybreak."

And thus speaking Paul turned and went to his own room, where he threw
on an outer garment, and then he went down. At the door he found a stout
man wrapped up in furs, while close by stood a sledge with two horses
attached to it. In the east the golden tints of morn were already
visible.

"A gunmaker named Nevel lives here, does he not?" asked the applicant
after having first made some passing remark on the trouble he had had in
starting some one up.

Paul feared that there might be something out of the way, but he dared
not tell a falsehood where it could not possibly be of any use, so he
answered in the affirmative.

"Then let me see him as speedily as possible."

"He is preparing to come down, sir. If you will walk in, you may see him
very soon."

The stranger followed the boy into the kitchen, where it was quite warm,
the fire in the furnace having been burning all night. Ere long Ruric
came down, and the visitor started up.

"How!" uttered the gunmaker, starting forward and extending his hand.
"Demetrius?"

"Aye, my friend," the Greek replied, with a smile. "I am an early
visitor, eh?"

"I should say so. But early or late you are welcome."

"Thank you. But we must not spend much time here now. My sledge is here
at your door, and I wish you to accompany me."

"But wherefore is this?" asked the youth in surprise. "What has happened
now?"

"I'll tell you: Last night Olga, the duke, came to see the emperor. I
had just been giving his majesty some exercise at the sword, so I was
present at the interview. The duke wished for power to arrest you, and
in explanation of the request he stated that you were at the head of a
band of robbers here in the city and that you had already committed
several robberies. I needn't tell you all he said, but he made you out
to be a most unmitigated villain, and with this the emperor granted his
request. Olga wished for power to execute you at once, but Peter would
not go so far as that. He gave the power of arrest, but ordered the duke
to bring you before him."

Ruric stood for a few moments like one confounded.

"Then he must carry me to the emperor," he said at length.

"Ah," returned Demetrius, with a dubious shake of the head, "be not too
sure of that. I saw a look upon his face when he turned away that meant
more than he dared to speak. As sure as fate, he never means that you
shall see the emperor. I know it--I saw it in his evil eye."

"But will he dare disobey the order?"

"Yes, for he hopes to escape by falsehood. How easy for him to swear
that he had to kill you to take you!"

"I see. I see!" uttered Ruric.

"Then come with me."

"Did the emperor send you?"

"No; but I take the responsibility. I will take you to him myself. Be
sure the duke's hirelings will be here before long. Trust to me, and all
shall be well."

Ruric pondered a few moments, and he saw that his friend was right.

"Let me go and see my mother," he said, "and then I will go with you."

"But make haste," urged the Greek, "for the duke's men may be here soon,
and I do not wish them to see you. And tell your mother to inform
whoever may call that she knows nor where you are gone, but that you
will be back by night."

The youth nodded assent and then went into his mother's room, where he
explained to her what had happened and what he was about to do.

"And how long must these things be?" the mother uttered, gazing eagerly
upon her son.

"Not long," returned Ruric. "I may do much toward settling the matter
today. But fear not, for I am now safe and shall be until I see you
again."

The widow promised all that her son asked and soon became assured that
all was well, but Paul was left with the duty of attending to those who
might come for Ruric though they might see the widow if they persisted.
The boy promised to tell all that asked for his master that he was gone
away on business and would not return till evening.

The mother came out before Ruric was ready to start, and her examination
of the Greek's countenance seemed to be satisfactory, for the anxious
look left her face, and she looked upon the visitor kindly.

As Ruric entered the sledge the dawn of day was plainly announced in the
east and the stars were paling in the sky. The Greek did not take the
direct road to the Kremlin, but struck off to the westward, and so
entered by the Neglina.

An hour later a party of five men drove up to the gunmaker's cot. They
were dark, villainous looking men, and murder was plainly stamped upon
their faces. They entered the dwelling, but they found not their prey.
They stormed and swore, but to no purpose, and when they were convinced
that the gunmaker was not there they went away.

An hour later still another party drove up to the same cot. It consisted
of two men in a double sledge, one of whom was Vladimir, the monk. The
fat, mystic man entered the cot, and there he remained for some time.
When he came out, the widow and Paul accompanied him, and they all got
into the sledge and drove off together.

What did it mean?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was noon. The proud duke was once more alone in his private room, and
he was pacing uneasily to and fro. There was a cloud upon his brow and
trouble in his soul. His lips were firmly set and his hands clinched.
Ever and anon he muttered to himself, and when he did so his hands would
work nervously and emphatically. He looked often at his watch, and often
he stopped near the door and hearkened.

At length came that well known shuffling, uncertain, catlike tread. He
threw open his door, and the dark priest glided in.

"Ha, Savotano, I've waited for you," the duke uttered, sinking into a
chair, for his nervous walking had made him weary. "Now tell me the work
is done. Oh, for God's sake, don't tell me again of failure!"

"Alas, my lord----"

"Hold, Savotano! By the host of hosts, you are not going to tell me of
failure!"

"Not really a failure, my lord," the priest returned nervously, "but our
men did not find the gunmaker at home. He had gone when we got there,
and no one knew where."

"No one knew? Did not his mother know?"

"No. She said he did not tell her where he was going. He only left word
that he was going on business and should not return till evening."

"By heavens, I think he has fled!"

"No, my lord, I do not think so. I think he must have had business."

"But what time were you there?"

"Shortly after sunrise?"

"And he gone then?"

"Aye! He had been gone an hour."

"It looks suspicious. But the men must be there this evening. He shall
not escape me now."

"There is no fear of that, my lord. I will see that he is apprehended as
soon as he returns."

"Right, Savotano, right! And now to the other matter. I am to be married
this afternoon!"

"Ah! So soon?"

"Yes; I waste no more time. What is the use?"

"None, my lord--none at all."

"Then you must remain, for the ceremony shall be performed as soon as
possible."

"And does the countess know of your determination?"

"Yes. She knew it ere she retired last night. I told her she should not
escape again till she could carry my name with her. By the mass, sir,
she sealed her own doom! Ha, ha, ha! The Duke of Tula will have his
coffers filled again. Money must come somehow, and how else so easily as
this?"

"Sure enough," returned the priest, with that old, coarse, wicked
smile--"sure enough, my lord--how?"

"In no way. Ho, I'll put the seal upon that budget and stamp it--mine!
So here you remain until I am married. Today--until that ceremony is
performed I am not sure. But tomorrow they cannot harm me. Oh, she shall
be mine, Savotano! Today she is my wife, tonight she shares my bed, and
tomorrow all heaven and earth and hell combined cannot undo the work. I
have waited long enough. I have worked and schemed and have puzzled my
brain to one great purpose, and yet each step I had marked out has
failed me. Damonoff lives--the gunmaker lives--the black monk lives--but
I, too, live! Ha! I live, Savotano, and now the work shall be done as it
might have been done at first had I been so disposed!"

The duke had arisen to his feet while speaking thus, and his manner had
been frantic and excited. As he ceased speaking he sank into his chair
and gazed the priest in the face. He was all iron now. Every nerve and
muscle was set, and a fierce determination was in his soul.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There is one more scene in the ducal palace, and it goes on at the very
time while the duke and his tool were together.

Vladimir, the monk, was in the chamber of the countess, and the fair
occupant and her maid were there with him.

"And you are sure he means to make you his wife today," said the monk in
continuation of a conversation which had been going on for some moments;
"that he will have the ceremony performed whether you consent or not?"

"Yes, sir," the countess murmured. She gazed into the strange man's face
a few moments after she had spoken, and then, starting quickly up, she
threw herself upon her knees before him.

"Oh," she cried, with her clasped hands raised toward him, "can you not
help me in this bitter moment? Do not say no. Oh, I know you have some
strange power, and you may help me. You cannot know the misery I suffer.
Oh, earth has no pangs more cruel! In all the long catalogue of woes
there is nothing more bitter! Sir----" and the maiden raised both hands
toward heaven as she thus continued--"sooner than be that man's wife I
would with my own hand let my lifeblood out, were not the act a sin
against my God! But you may help me."

"Alas, lady, I cannot assure you now."

"Oh, say not so! You can help me flee from here; you can find some
hiding place--some place where my days can be spent in safety from this
great evil."

"But how can I help you away, lady?"

"Because you know some secret entrance to the palace. You know some
secret passage, else you would not be here now."

"True," the monk replied in a perplexed tone, "I do know such a way, for
by that way I came, and by that way shall I return, but I cannot convey
you away thus. I am sorry that----"

The monk stopped here, for at that moment a heavy footfall sounded
without. He had started up from his seat when the door opened and the
stout duke entered. The countess uttered one low, quick cry and sank
down. She would have sunk to the floor had not Zenobie caught her and
bore her to the couch.

The monk stood erect, with his arms folded across his breast, but his
right hand was hidden within the bosom of his robe. The duke started
back like one thunderstruck, and it was some moments ere he could gain
the power of speech. He turned first as pale as death, and then the
blood mounted, hotly, fiercely to his brow.

"By the living God," he gasped in a hissing, frantic tone, "how came ye
here?"

"To learn of your wickedness, Duke of Tula," calmly responded Vladimir.

"Ha! Do you beard me in my very palace, dog? But you have ventured here
once too often. As sure as there is life in me, you go not hence alive!"

"Hold, Olga!" spoke the monk, and so strange and powerful was the tone
that, though the duke had turned toward the door, yet he stopped. "This
lady tells me you mean to make her your wife. Is it so?"

"Out, accursed monk! Who gave thee right to question me?"

"By my soul, proud duke, you shall know that anon. But listen. If you
force the lady to that thing, you do it at your peril! You had better
seek the fabled potion of the gods and drink and be a dog than do that
thing!"

"Hold a moment, monk!" cried the duke, now nearly blind with passion.
"You go not hence alive! What, ho, there! Without, I say! Zenobie, pull
that bellcord--quick! Back, monk! You pass not here alive! What, ho!
Without, there!"

"Beware, Olga!" spoke the monk as calmly as before, at the same time
drawing a heavy pistol from his bosom and cocking it "I would shoot you
as I would a dog! Offer me one motion of impediment to my passage, and
you die on the instant!"

Instinctively the duke moved to one side. There was something in the
look and tone of the strange man that he dared not cope with then. The
monk passed out, but as soon as he was gone the duke sprang to the
bellcord and pulled it till he broke it. In a few moments more the
servants came rushing in.

"Out, dogs," the madman shouted, "and stop that monk from leaving the
palace! Kill him on the spot where you find him if he dares to offer the
least resistance! Kill him! You have my orders; and I am alone
responsible!"

Thus speaking, the duke rushed from the apartment to start up more of
his household. First to the gate of the court he went. But the monk was
not there, nor had he been there. Then he rushed to the postern, but
that was locked, and the snow was untrodden before it. He returned to
the hall, and one by one the servants came back from the search.

No monk could be found!

At first Olga was tempted to believe that his servants deceived him. But
he quickly set that thought aside, for he could see by their
countenances that they were as much astonished as he. The search was
renewed, but the strange man was not to be found! There was some wonder
and some uneasiness.




CHAPTER XIX.-CONCLUSION.


Pale as death sat the fair young countess in her dressing room. She did
not tremble now, for every nerve had become fixed in utter despair.

"Will you not change your dress, my mistress?" asked Zenobie in a low,
tremulous tone.

"No, no," the maiden replied, and her voice sounded strangely even in
her own ear, it was so low and hollow. "Why should I dress for the
sacrifice? The dumb beast may suffer garlands about its neck before
being led to the heathen altar, but, alas, God has not given me a
brute's ignorance to help me now. No, no, Zenobie; I will not dress for
the bride."

"But the duke expects it."

"I care not. He cannot ask me to do it. He may do all he wills, for I am
helpless here, but he dare not ask."

"Oh, my dear mistress!" cried the faithful girl, throwing her arms about
the neck of her mistress and weeping as she did so, "would to God that I
could bear this for you."

"I thank you all the same, my best of friends," the countess replied,
gazing gratefully up into her attendant's face. "But it matters not much
now. I shall not suffer long. My sorrow will soon cease."

Zenobie looked inquiringly up, but she did not speak.

"God will soon take me home," the wretched maiden murmured after a
pause. "I feel the chill hand upon my heart even now, and I know that
earth cannot bind my spirit long with such a curse upon it."

Zenobie had no more words of consolation to offer, so she did all she
could do. She drew the head of her mistress upon her bosom, and there
she held it for a long time. She held it thus until the door of the
apartment was opened and a female domestic entered.

"Lady," the newcomer said, trembling perceptibly while she spoke, "the
duke bade me tell you he awaited your coming below in the hall."

She stopped here and seemed to wait for an answer. But Rosalind did not
speak.

"What answer shall I give him, lady?"

At this the countess started up, but she sank back again without
speaking.

"Tell him we will come," interposed Zenobie, who saw that the
announcement had taken the last power of effort from her mistress.

"Yes--yes," whispered the countess as the messenger hesitated and gazed
inquisitively into her face.

And with this the woman left the apartment.

"My dear mistress," spoke Zenobie, now calling all her power of self
control to her aid, "all means of help and escape we have tried in vain.
The time has come----"

"O, God have mercy!" groaned the countess.

"----and we must meet it, since there is no further hope. It will be
better to go down at once than to arouse the bad man's anger by more
delay. Were there the least glimmer of hope, we would not go. But there
is not. You know what I mean."

A few moments Rosalind sat like one dead. Then she started up, with her
hands clasped, and raised her eyes toward heaven. She did not speak
aloud, but her lips moved, and she surely uttered a prayer to God, and
it was none the less eloquent because it was silent. Then she turned to
her companion. Her lips were set and colorless, and a deathly look had
overspread her whole face.

"Zenobie," she said in a tone which bore no feeling more than the
gliding of a cold, icy sound, "I am ready. Once more, before the last
joy of earth departs from me, let me bless thee and press thee to my
bosom. I am pure now!"

She opened her arms as she spoke, and when she closed them again Zenobie
was within their embrace.

"Bless you, bless you ever! God keep and guide you to the end of life
and then receive you home to himself! Kiss me. There--I am ready now!"

The broken hearted girl wiped the tear from her eye, and in a moment
more she was as cold and passionless as before.

"Lead on, Zenobie. I shall walk without help."

Without looking around the Moslem maiden led the way to the hall. She
walked slowly, and she fancied she could hear the beating of her
mistress' heart. In the hall stood the duke with some half dozen of his
own male attendants. He took the hand of the countess as she approached
him and gazed earnestly into her face, but he did not speak. He led her
toward one of the drawing rooms, and when they entered there they found
the humpbacked priest already in waiting. Rosalind came well nigh
fainting when she saw this miserable villain ready for his work. She
knew now that the priest was like the master.

"You see, my dear countess," spoke the duke in a low, hypocritical tone,
"that we have all prepared. I trust we shall have no trouble before this
holy man."

This last sentence was spoken in a threatening tone, but it had no
effect upon Rosalind. She hardly heard the words he spoke.

"Come, father," said Olga, turning now to the priest. "We are ready."

Savotano moved forward and mumbled a Latin prayer. Then he looked upon
the twain before him and directed them to kneel.

"No, no, no!" gasped the fair countess, trembling for the first time. "I
cannot do that!"

"Kneel!" hissed the duke between his clinched teeth, and as he spoke he
grasped the maiden more firmly by the arm and forced her down. She
uttered a quick cry of pain as she felt the unmerciful grip, but she
could not resist the strong arm of her persecutor.

"Now go on!" the duke cried as he held the maiden down. "Go on,
Savotano, and let the business be done as soon as possible."

"Hold!"

It was a voice of thunder which spoke thus, and it came from the door.
The duke started to his feet, and he beheld Ruric Nevel, the gunmaker,
approaching the spot. But the youth came not alone. Behind him came the
huge bulk of Vladimir, the monk, and more still, back of the monk came
the widow, Claudia Nevel, and the boy, Paul, and then there were,
besides all this, a heavy tramp of feet in the hall and the clang of
steel.

"Hold! Stop this accursed mockery!" Ruric shouted as he strode up the
apartment.

"Miserable dog!" gasped the duke, mad and frantic with rage, "how dare
you come hither?"

"Look ye, proud duke," the monk interposed, coming quickly forward; "I
am at the bottom of all this. I have come to stop this foul work!"

Rosalind had started to her feet when she first heard Ruric's voice, and
now, as the monk spoke, a ray of hope darted to her soul, and, with a
quick bound, she reached her lover's side.

"Ruric, Ruric!" It was all she could say, and, with a flood of tears,
she pillowed her head upon his bosom, and his stout arms were wound
fondly about her.

"Fear not," he whispered, "for, oh! Rosalind, thou art safe now."

The mad duke saw the movement, and, with a bitter curse, he started
toward them.

"Now, by the living gods!" he shouted, with his fists clinched and his
eyes flashing fire, "you have come to your death! What, ho, there!
Without! Slaves, where are ye?"

In a moment more the side door was thrown open, and a dozen of the
duke's servants came rushing in.

"Ha!" Olga cried. "You are in time. Seize these dogs! Kill them on the
spot if they offer one act of resistance. At them now! Down with the
dogs!"

"HOLD!" It was Vladimir who spoke, and every arm dropped as they heard
that voice. It was different from the voice they had heard the fat monk
use before.

The duke started as though a thunderbolt had burst at his feet.

"Who art thou?" he gasped, staggering farther back.

"Olga--Duke of Tula----" spoke the monk in tones which sounded strange
for him, because they were so different from those he had been wont to
use, "I am thy master!"

As he spoke he threw open the long black robe which enveloped his person
and cast it upon the floor at his feet and there it lay, a huge pile of
wadding and stuffing! The vast rotundity of person was gone, and the
strange man now stood in his own fair form. His chin--that prominent
chin--was no more hidden, and he was but a small man--not much larger
than the boy Paul, who stood near him. Next he placed his hand to his
head and tore away the tight skull-cap, and the ring of gray hair came
away with it, leaving a cluster of glossy hair floating down over the
neck and shoulders!

"Great God of mercy," gasped Savotano, staggering back, "it is the
EMPEROR!"

"Aye," cried Peter, turning his darkly flashing eye upon the staggering
duke, "I am your emperor! Paul, go and call the guard."

The boy hastened from the palace, and when he returned he was followed
by a party of the Imperial guard.

"Mercy, mercy, sire!" gasped the duke, sinking down on his knees.

But the emperor answered him not. He only turned to his guard and bade
them secure the duke and the foul priest.

Rosalind Valdai gazed upon the transformed man until the strange truth
worked its way to her struggling mind, and then she turned once more to
Ruric. She gazed up into his face, and she saw the holy smile which
rested there. The joyful truth came to her now, and, with one long, low
cry of frantic hope and bliss, she sank upon her noble lover's bosom.
She could not speak. She could only cling closely and more close to her
loved protector, and, with her head pillowed close by the heart that
beat for her, she wept away all the grief of her opened soul.

"Olga," spoke the emperor after the nobleman had been firmly bound,
"your race of iniquity is run."

"No, no, sire!" the duke cried in humble, supplicating tones. "Say not
so! In this single thing I may have been wrong, but let my mad,
consuming love be some palliation for my offense. Oh, you will not crush
me with public shame for this! You will not cast from you one who loves
you well!"

"Oh, miserable man," uttered Peter, with a look of utter contempt upon
the base wretch, "add not perjury to your already accumulated crimes.
Hark ye: some months since I knew there was conspiracy in my capital,
and I knew there was much of evil, too, which was never reported to me.
I resolved to ferret it out, and to that end I meant to mingle among my
people without their knowing me. So I had that robe made and so stuffed
and wadded that I could even hide my chin in the seeming fat. I assumed
the garb, and my own master at arms did not at first know me. Once in a
while I made my page assume the garb and be seen in it about the city,
and thus all thought of suspecting me was cut off. I have been at work,
Olga, and I have found out all I sought. It was mere accident that first
threw me in the way of this young gunmaker, and it was by accident, too,
that I overheard the Count Damonoff and his companion discussing the
subject of their mission to the gunmaker's shop. Of course I followed
that scheme up, and I should have snatched our fair young countess from
your grasp ere this had I not been desirous of arriving at another point
first. Perhaps you know that the Princess Sophia and the Minister
Gallitzin have planned a grand overturn of my throne? Ah! You tremble!
And now, my noble duke," the emperor continued in a deeper tone, "I have
learned of your own guilt in that affair. Oh, you do love me, do you?
But I know you now. Two of your tools are in my hands. They are named
Totma and Viska. They have made a full confession, and I now know all
your villainies. I know what you have planned against this noble
countess and against her noble lover. I know what you planned against
the Count Damonoff, and I know, too, what you have planned against your
emperor. Not a word, sir! You are the Duke of Tula no more. A more
worthy man wears the ducal coronet from this hour. Ruric Nevel shall
assume the station you have disgraced, and I know he will ennoble it
once more."

As Peter ceased speaking he waved his hand to his officers, and they
bore the prisoners from the room. The priest said not a word, but Olga
cursed loudly and bitterly.

When the dark villains had gone, Peter stepped forward and took
Rosalind's hand. There was a tear in his eye, and his nether lip
trembled.

"Fair cousin," he said in a low soft tone, "I could not promise thee
that thou shouldst not wed with the Duke of Tula, for I had even then
planned that you should do that thing. But it will not be very hard,
will it?"

The countess gazed up, and a murmur of thanks was upon her lips, but the
gushing flood started forth anew, and she could only look the joyful
blessings she could not speak. Peter imprinted a kiss upon her pure brow
and then gave her hand to Ruric, and as he did so he said, with a warm
smile:

"You must be her guardian hereafter, and should you tire of the duty
your emperor will be ever ready to grant her the asylum she needs."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A week had passed away from the time of the strange scene just recorded.
The former duke, Olga, had been convicted of treason and was now on his
way to the eternal wilds of Siberia. But let me say here he never
reached the land of his banishment. His proud heart broke on the road,
and he died, unknown and uncared for, in a peasant's cot among the
rugged mountains of Uralia. He had begged of the officer who guided him
not to tell his station, and the peasants supposed they were burying a
common traveler when they laid away the mortal remains of Olga in the
cold grave they had prepared.

Savotano, the hump-backed priest, was executed as a common murderer,
while, his companions in crime were punished as their various degrees of
guilt demanded.

And now comes the closing scene.

Within the largest apartment of the ducal palace were assembled a
brilliant company, and the emperor himself was master of the ceremonies.

Ruric Nevel, the gunmaker of Moscow, knelt at the emperor's feet, and
Peter drew his sword and laid the glittering blade upon Ruric's
shoulders, and as he did so he said:

"Arise, Sir Ruric, duke of Tula, and receive thy just titles and bonded
instruments!"

The youth arose, pale and trembling with the strange excitement of the
moment, and then the emperor handed him a broad parchment roll, with its
heavy seals and vignette bearing the arms of the dukedom.

"Now," cried Peter, whose brow was flushed with the joy he himself was
making, "let the rest of the work go on. Come, holy father, we need your
help to perform the rest of the ceremony."

Ruric was pale no longer. As he felt the warm hand of Rosalind trembling
within his own the rich blood mounted to his brow and temples, and in
his dark eyes that strange love light danced like reflected sunbeams.

The word was spoken--the bond of union was made--and, after all,
Rosalind Valdai had become Duchess of Tula. The widowed mother was the
first to bless them, and the emperor came next. Then came Paul and
Zenobie, hand in hand.

"Aha!" spoke the happy duchess as she caught the new light of Zenobie's
eye and then turned to the glowing face of Paul. "You are playing at the
game of love."

"You will not object," whispered the fair girl, hiding her face upon the
bosom of her mistress.

"No, no, Zenobie."

"And you, my master," spoke Paul, gazing eagerly into Ruric's face, "you
will not say nay."

"No, no, my noble Paul. If you can win her, you have my consent."

But she was won already.

But there was yet one more to come. Conrad, Count Damonoff, somewhat
pale and weak, but yet on the sure road to health, moved slowly forward
and took the hand of the joyous bride. Then he reached forth the other
hand and took the palm of Ruric, and as he thus held both their hands he
said:

"My lord and lady, and, I must say, my best of friends, let this moment
atone for all of darkness between us in the past. Be you happy both, and
may God bless you. Let me be accounted among your friends, and let the
future prove how grateful I can be."

"Aye," cried Ruric, grasping the count's hand more firmly, "let the
future show how grateful we can all be for the blessings of this hour,
and while we look to God for help we will not fail to remember in our
prayers the author of our joys--our noble emperor, Peter of Russia."

And so closed the scene as it should--with one long, loud shout of:

"God bless our emperor!"

Peter never forgot that moment. In the long years thereafter when he
sometimes let the clouds of passion settle upon his soul he remembered
that scene and that shout. It was one of the bright spots in the memory
of his youth which he cherished always.



THE END.


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