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Title: The Counterstroke
Author: Ambrose Pratt
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Language: English
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THE COUNTERSTROKE

By

AMBROSE PRATT




"The floor that supported the Turk gave way."





The Counterstroke

By AMBROSE PRATT

Author of "FRANKS, DUELLIST," ETC.

R. F. FENNO & COMPANY
PUBLISHERS:
18 EAST SEVENTEENTH STREET,
NEW YORK CITY.


Published in book form in 1906.
Also published in The Evening News, Sydney, N.S.W.
commencing 31 July, 1905,
and in The Mornington Standard, Vic.
commencing 13 January, 1906.



Contents:
CHAPTER I.—THE ACADEMY OF EX-AMBASSADORS
CHAPTER II.—PORTRAITS
CHAPTER III.—A SPY UPON A SPY
CHAPTER IV.—TWO WOMEN'S HEARTS
CHAPTER V.—FRANCINE DISAPPEARS
CHAPTER VI.—A DIFFICULT SITUATION
CHAPTER VII.—LOVE AND LIES
CHAPTER VIII.—THE TORTURE OF THE THUMBSCREWS
CHAPTER IX.—THE VOYAGE OF THE "SEA HAWK"
CHAPTER X.—THE COUNCIL OF KINGS
CHAPTER XI.—THE VENGEANCE OF A PRINCE
CHAPTER XII.—THE LORD OF ATTALA
CHAPTER XIII.—CONDEMNED TO DEATH
CHAPTER XIV.—A DREAM OF HOPE
CHAPTER XV.—THE DOOM OF A MONARCH
CHAPTER XVI.—THE TREASURE-CHAMBER OF THE NIHILISTS
CHAPTER XVII.—ESCAPE
CHAPTER XVIII.—THE CAUTION OF A KING
CHAPTER XIX.—EXPLANATION: ASSASSINATION
CHAPTER XX.—SIDE-LIGHTS AND SERMONS
CHAPTER XXI.—A SUPPER PARTY
CHAPTER XXII.—A GAME OF DICE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
CHAPTER XXIII.—THE INVASION OF ATTALA
CHAPTER XXIV.—THE CAPTURE OF ATTALA
CHAPTER XXV.—THE LOVE OF OELTJEN
CHAPTER XXVI.—THE END OF BOSA GRACCI
CHAPTER XXVII.—FRANCINE



CHAPTER I.—THE ACADEMY OF EX-AMBASSADORS

AT a late hour on a certain cold night in February, in the year 1900, three gentlemen stood near an old padlocked iron gateway at the northern end of Finchley Road, London. They had arrived at that common point by separate conveyances, and it was easy to discover that they were strangers to each other, for although all stood within a circle whose diameter did not exceed three yards, and although the night was dark and the road otherwise utterly deserted, the face of each, dimly discernible by the light of a neighbouring street lamp, wore an air of blank unconsciousness of all companionship.

The gentleman nearest the gate, and the tallest of the three, was wrapped in a heavy fur greatcoat. His cleanshaven face—strong, impassive, and good to look upon—was of a type unmistakably English, and he wore an eye-glass that appeared to have become cemented into its position.

The second gentleman was of a short but sturdy build, and his bristling moustache, whose yellow and stiff-waxed points turned fiercely upwards, proclaimed him of Teutonic origin. He wore an imposing military cloak of foreign cut and manufacture, and his attitude was that of a soldier mounting guard.

The third gentleman, whose tightly-fitting black frock coat was shiny and threadbare to the verge of seediness, seemed to be of excessively nervous disposition; he stamped about incessantly, swished often at the darkness with his cane, and sent a fire of impatient glances in all directions from a pair of large and piercing black eyes. He was slightly formed and lithe, active as a panther, never still. His face was tiny-featured, pallid, and almost fleshless, its plainness intensified by the few straggling black hairs that apologized for the lack of a proper moustache and imperial, but relieved from absolute ugliness by the beauty of his eyes. No man might confidently predicate his place of origin, but he resembled most an Austrian, and perhaps a Jew, for his nose was long and slightly hooked.

A wearisome half-hour passed by in absolute silence; the relative positions of the three gentlemen remained unchanged, but the impatience of the Austrian appeared to have communicated itself to his companions, for the German often consulted his watch and the Englishman was swearing softly under his breath.

"An hour past the appointed time," he muttered at last, half-aloud.

The German turned to him. "Less five minutes, my Lord; it is five minutes to twelve," he observed in excellent English.

"What, you know me?" cried the Englishman.

"I saw you once not long ago, at the Court of the Czar: you are Lord Francis Cressingham."

"You have me at a disadvantage then."

The German bowed. "My name is Oeltjen, Ludwig Oeltjen."

"What! Count Ludwig Oeltjen, chief attache to the German Ambassador in London?"

"Not now, my Lord; I have retired——"

"Ah, that fatal—whew, my tongue! I beg your pardon, Count."

"No need, my Lord. But it surprises me that you had not already heard; unhappily the affair was kept but half a secret——"

The third gentleman here broke in, speaking in English quaintly accentuated rather than broken. "May I offer you of my cigarettes, messieurs?"

Lord Francis curtly shook his head; Count Oeltjen shrugged his shoulders. "No, I thank you, sir."

The eyes of the Austrian swept a burning glance over the pair who had disdained his advance, but he proceeded with tranquil voice: "it was that I might beg from you a match, I wish very much to smoke."

Lord Cressingham handed him a box from his waistcoat pocket without speaking. The Austrian struck a light and returned the box with a low bow.

During a deep silence, some clock near by tolled midnight, and a second after the last stroke the iron gate before which they had waited so long opened with a sharp clinking crunch.

"Enter!" commanded a voice from the dark beyond. The three men glanced at each other and each made a courteous inclination of invitation and stood motionless.

"You, my Lord."

"After you, Count."

"But perhaps this gentleman!"

The Austrian bowed to the ground. "I am neither my lord nor count," he responded, his tone suggestive of subdued satire.

"Ah, well," muttered the Englishman, and he strode forward squaring his shoulders as he walked. He was closely followed by the other two. The gate clanged behind them and an elderly gentleman in evening dress emerged from the shadow of the wall. "This way," he said laconically, and without turning his head stalked up the path towards the dark porch of a gloomy stone house removed some twenty paces from the pavement.

The figure of a man was vaguely perceptible standing in the open doorway silhouetted against an artificial twilight within.

"Have all arrived?" he demanded, his voice grave and richly sonorous.

"Three," replied the man in evening dress.

"Their names?"

"Lord Francis Cressingham, Count Karl von Oeltjen, and the Archduke of——"

"Silence!" cried the Austrian, interrupting suddenly.

Lord Francis and the Count, thrilled with surprise, searched for each other's eyes in the darkness.

The man in the doorway stepped aside, disclosing the entrance to a wide and spacious, but dimly lighted hall. "Welcome to my house, gentlemen; may it please you, enter!" he said politely.

The Austrian was the first to obey. The Englishman and the German followed, exchanging questioning glances immediately they had crossed the threshold. The master of the house entered last, after muttering something in an undertone to the gentleman in evening dress who thereupon disappeared. He carefully fastened the door behind him, then strode down the hall to an archway defended with heavy velvet curtains. These he threw aside, and the visitors were dazzled by a sudden shaft of brilliant gaslight. Behind the arch stretched a stately and magnificent apartment full thirty feet square, which was, however, poorly furnished, indeed tenanted solely by five armed divans arranged to face each other in a small circle in the very centre of the thickly matted floor. The room had evidently been originally designed as the auditorium of a small private theatre, for at one end was a platform intended for a stage. It was illumined by a single chandelier, which contained, however, twenty gas jets and which hovered immediately above the circle of chairs.

The master of the house observed the surprise with which his guests surveyed his arrangements. "Here we shall be free to converse unreservedly," he explained, pointing to the chairs; "the world may see us, for aught I care, but I do not wish the world to overhear us."

The three visitors regarded him with curiosity. They beheld a man neither old nor young, a man of heavy mask-like countenance, with big fleshy nose and sullen jowl over which a pasty skin was so loosely drawn that puffy bags fell away at intervals from eyes and cheeks and jaws. The face, although superlatively ugly, was nevertheless ennobled by a broad and splendid brow, and enlivened by a pair of twinkling black eyes that shone with humour and keen intelligence.

He suffered the glances of his guests with a certain calm and dignified composure, staring straight before him and allowing them to look their full upon him. The examination lasted a few seconds only, for no conclusion could be drawn by the most penetrating from that stolid visage, and this fact was quickly recognized by all.

The Austrian was the first to turn away. "You—I don't know your name, sir," he said affectedly, "have kept us standing in the cold an hour."

"By Jove! yes," said Lord Francis.

"An hour exactly," said Count von Oeltjen.

The master of the house slightly smiled. "My name is for the present Perigord. It is true that by an accident I have kept you waiting sixty minutes; well—the more reason that we get to business at once: seat yourselves, gentlemen, if you please!"

Mr. Perigord, who was over six feet in height and of great bulk, forthwith crossed the apartment in a few ponderous strides and seated himself with perfect sang froid in the largest divan.

"Insolent!" muttered the Austrian.

Lord Francis readjusted his monocle, which had become displaced through sheer surprise. Count von Oeltjen coughed. No one appeared the least inclined to follow the direction or example of his host.

Mr. Perigord, observing their disposition, made a peculiar gesture with his hands, holding them aloft in an attitude of admiration; thereafter he placed three fingers of his right hand upon his lips. His guests each immediately fell upon one knee, the left, their arms uplifted to heaven, their hands inclined to the right shoulder.

"Shibboleth! Shibboleth! Shibboleth!" said Mr. Perigord.

"Tob!" murmured Lord Francis.

"Banai!" whispered Count von Oeltjen.

"Amalabec!" said the Austrian, his voice growing strangely husky.

Mr. Perigord slowly stood erect. "Heleniham!" he said impressively.

On a common impulse the others rose to their feet, then fell on both knees, their heads bent in an attitude of adoration.

"Gibulum!" said Lord Francis.

"Jubulun!" muttered the Count.

"Zebulan!" said the Austrian.

Mr. Perigord raised his arms above his head, holding his left elbow with the finger and thumb of his right hand. "Mahak-Makar-a-bak," he said, intoning the words slowly in the manner of a priest making sacrifice. The three men humbly bent themselves before him, touching their foreheads with their open palms.

"Arise, gentlemen, and seat yourselves," said Mr. Perigord. This time he was obeyed without question and in deepest silence, the silence of speechless astonishment. It was as though the huge, flabby-faced man had suddenly accomplished his own apotheosis, for all traces of combativeness had disappeared from the faces of the three, leaving them stricken dumb and strangely reverent, like Brahmins before a sacred idol's shrine.

Mr. Perigord surveyed his guests with a keenly scrutinizing gaze, for a period so extended that the stillness became almost insupportable. He appeared to be endeavouring to read their thoughts and with such a measure of success that all three were plainly suffering much mental disquietude. Lord Francis clutched the arms of his chair with a grasp of iron. Count von Oeltjen tugged violently at his moustache, while the Austrian simply writhed in his seat unable to meet, much less return, his host's searching and compelling stare.

Finally Mr. Perigord appeared to have satisfied himself. He smiled slightly, and addressed them in low even tones, his voice nevertheless occasionally expressive of satire and tinged with subtle malice.

"Most worshipful Knights of the Ninth Arch, in this encampment whether you be counts, belted earls, archdukes, or even princes of the blood royal, you meet as brothers and subjects of our Order. Is it not so?"

"Aye," returned the three, shooting questionful and hesitating glances at each other.

"It is well. You were summoned hither this evening for a solemn purpose which I shall presently disclose to you. It is better first, however, that as brothers you be made acquainted with each other."

Here the Austrian rose abruptly from his chair, his lips parted as if for speech, but Mr. Perigord frowned him down.

"Fear not, sir, names are as nothing save as symbols; yours shall be respected. Well then, you first. Uncle of a monarch, heir perhaps to a crown, you shall be called Prince Carlos; are you content?" (A cynical smile flashed for a second across his lips.) "You have an enemy, fearless, remorseless, implacable, who has already twice narrowly failed in accomplishing your destruction. Once death essayed to clutch you lurking in the green depths of a pond. A trespasser whose providential presence in the Royal Park was unsuspected by your enemy, hearing your drowning scream, plunged in and rescued you at the risk of his own life, since he could not swim. Once again death flaunted his ensign in your face, this time hid in the honeyed poison of a woman's scarlet lips. You received a warning, and for the moment escaped. But you are foolish, Prince, to nurse your danger still. Had you disobeyed the summons which explains your presence here to-night, to-morrow would have seen Europe in mourning, Madame Viyella a murderess!"

On mention of that name Lord Francis and Count von Oeltjen uttered cries of dismay, but the effect on the prince was more startling—he fell back on his chair limp and nerveless, his cheeks livid, his eyes glowing like coals. "False, false!" he muttered, or rather groaned.

Mr. Perigord went on unheeding. "You, Lord Francis Cressingham, three months ago secretary to the Ambassador at the Court of the Czar, were obliged to resign your position and abandon a career which your energy and brilliant talents must have rendered glorious because on the solicitation of a woman, for whose smile you had already forgotten ties which bound you in all honour to a woman of greater beauty and queenly worth, you carried a letter to one high in office but a traitor to his salt, a letter which but for the vigilance of my agents might have accomplished its nefarious object. Shall I state that object?"

Lord Francis Cressingham, who was nervously biting at lips turned absolutely bloodless, stammered hoarsely, "No!"

Mr. Perigord smiled satirically. "The Czar still rules," he said, adding with marked coldness, "but unhappily Madame Viyella has succeeded in persuading you that she was an innocent agent and unaware of the contents of that letter!"

A pause succeeded, during which the falling of a pin to the floor would have appeared a loud and startling noise.

"You, Count Ludwig von Oeltjen," said Mr. Perigord suddenly breaking the silence, "were chief attache to the Kaiser's embassy in London until three weeks ago. You were then compelled to resign, and the reason officially assigned for your retirement was the misplacing of an important dispatch entrusted to your charge, which through some mishap was said to have reached its destination too late to be of service. The real cause of your dismissal was somewhat different. A certain reigning monarch was at that time paying a visit to Her Majesty the Queen of England. You were induced to undertake the presentation to that king of a petition from his majesty's subjects resident in England, which purported to be an address of welcome, I believe, praying for some favours speciously put forward as a means for your delusion. It was writ on parchment, subtly perfumed by a scent which to inhale meant death. Your mission happily failed of its intention. Your honesty was not questioned, but you were required to name the person who had so befooled you. You persistently refused, and, in consequence of your obstinacy, Germany lost a faithful servant, and Madame Viyella, Countess of Hobenstein, still reigns a sovereign beauty and petted favourite at half the Courts of Europe."

The Count von Oeltjen drew his breath sharply through tightly clenched teeth. Bending forward he demanded hoarsely: "Who the devil, sir, are you, who know so much?"

Mr. Perigord for answer threw back the left lapel of his coat, his action displaying the presence of a large brooch fastened to his breast, whereupon was traced a strange device, wrought with diamonds of great size and brilliancy. "Prince, peer or peasant," he said with grave solemnity, his manner of malice entirely gone, "what matters, it? I am he to whom all true Masons owe allegiance. And yet your question is not impertinent and deserves a different answer. Be satisfied to know that social rank I have none. I am of royal birth, but I have no right to name my parents; therefore am I a veritable nobody, a mountebank if you will, but a mountebank who holds the reins of a mighty power, not the less puissant because its methods are concealed. For sixteen years I have concentrated and devoted all my energies of brain and body and the resources of a large fortune to the accomplishment of an object, a mission which I have persuaded myself to believe is incontestably virtuous and just. To that end I have used all my talents, sacrificed my desires, pleasures and ambitions, and forced myself to become an idea rather than a person, a purpose rather than a human being. Throughout those years I have lived an anchorite, without once tasting the kiss of woman or permitting a drop of wine to cross my lips, always working, working, working, often despairing, but never relinquishing my task. My labours have not gone entirely unrewarded, my cause has produced many proselytes, it has been sanctified and consecrated by the greatest priest on earth. Emperors have become my helpmates in its service, kings my servants, princes and peers my ardent followers. The obscurity of my origin was at first a deadly bar to progress, but that obstacle was conquered the instant that I became a Mason, and now, in spite of it, no potentate on earth denies me right of place. At last I see the end in view. The knowledge which for sixteen long years I have sought so patiently has at last been partially revealed to me and I am now within measurable distance of accomplishing the mission which I believe that the Most High God has confided into my hands."

He paused, and raised his right hand reverently upward, while his three guests stared at him spellbound.

After a moment he resumed: "You wonder, gentlemen, what the nature of that mission is, still more perhaps why I have called you here. Listen then, and learn. When still a young man, a hotblood like yourselves, while travelling in Russia I fell madly in love with an evil woman, the beautiful but infamous Sophie Peroffskaja. For her sake I became a Nihilist, and the friend of bloody scoundrels such as Russakoff, Jelaboff, Kibaichick and a score of others. These men laid specious arguments before me. They told me blood-curdling tales of the horrors of Russian serfdom, the cruelty of the nobles, their selfishness and viciousness, their wanton disregard of human misery and suffering. Unhappily, they proved their stories true. Having entered their circle to gratify a woman's caprice, I remained among them a Nihilist from sympathy, and, a young impassioned man, for a term I thought their objects noble, their ineffable methods more than justified. You have all heard of the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Well, I stood beside Russakoff when Russakoff threw the bomb. Bah! calm yourselves, gentlemen, I had no hand in the massacre, and was as ignorant of those fiends' dreadful purpose as yourselves. But that fact did not save me. I served six months in the mines of Siberia, and was only released after the exercise of powerful intervention. But it was a changed man who received his passport and was deported from the realms of the Czar. During my imprisonment I had learned many things before unknown to me and had much opportunity for serious reflection. I recognized then how senseless and unreasonable was the assassination of Alexander, the one Czar who had truly loved his people, who had freed the serfs of his own will, and who had done more than all his imperial progenitors combined to establish personal liberty in Russia. With deep and constant consideration came further enlightenment, and I began to see how criminally near-sighted were men who sought to punish individuals for the sins of centuries, and who blindly hoped to destroy an institution so hydra-headed as monarchy by the murder of a king, or a score of kings. It then occurred to me that the leaders of Nihilism must be men of incredible ignorance to persist in such designs. Memory forbade, however, the entertaining long of such a proposition. I had read pamphlets, the handiwork of the mysterious leaders of the society, whose specious and brilliant contents could only have emanated from powerful and enlightened minds. Irresistibly, therefore, was the conviction forced upon me that the society of which I had been a member was controlled by men whom either madness, revenge or personal ambition excited to the planning and perpetration of such monstrous crimes, and who for their own wicked ends played upon the ignorance and noble but misdirected enthusiasm of their following. This terrible conviction grew stronger through the weary, slaving days, but I was tortured with the vanity of knowledge come too late. Having lost hope of ever walking the earth a free man again, I dared to make one night a solemn pact with God. Kneeling on the stone floor of my cell I vowed to the Most High that if He saw fit to accomplish my release, I would devote my life, my fortune, my very soul, to abolish Nihilism and disband by any means and at any cost or hazard that small but dangerous coterie of men whose objects are, avowedly, ideally grand, but whose methods are so accursedly inhuman. Gentlemen, God heard, and took me at my word. His answer was swift and sure. After I had sworn my vow I fell into a deep dreamless sleep; I was awakened at dawn by a soldier who struck off my chains and informed me that I was free. Overcome, I fell upon my knees and gratefully renewed my covenant, but the soldier thought I returned thanks for my good fortune, and, an unbeliever, he kicked me brutally upon the side. At another time I should have strangled him, for I was strong and quick-tempered in those days, but I felt that I had become God's servant, and rising humbly followed the ruffian without attempting to revenge his coward act. Since that day, my life has all been moulded on that plan."

In the pause that followed, silence reigned supreme; the faces of all had grown profoundly grave, passionately attentive.

Mr. Perigord gazed musingly at his guests, and presently continued: "My work was of necessity infinitely tedious. From my short acquaintance with Nihilism, I knew something of its laws and secrets but nothing of the organization of its chiefs. With gold I purchased much knowledge, with patience more, but it cost me five years of ceaseless effort to acquire the groundwork that I needed. Those five years taught me that the society is composed of three circles. The outermost comprises no less than half a million neophytes scattered among the poor and proscribed not only of Russia but of all the other nations of Europe. These neophytes, who are generally unintelligent and illiterate creatures drawn from the lowest classes of humanity, are captained by members of the second circle, men of a slightly better type, indeed sometimes aristocrats, who act as mediums between the inmost and outermost circles. So much it was not difficult to discover, but so closely and faithfully are the secrets of the order kept that it cost me a further eight years of unremitting inquiry and nigh thirty thousand pounds before I could ascertain one simple little thing—namely, the number of the chiefs who constitute the inmost circle. At last I succeeded, and the day of my success was never more despairing. I had journeyed to Cairo to hear the news. The traitor whom I had bought having muttered in my ear a number—three—was about to whisper names, when a bullet fired at him point blank from across the street in which we stood, took his life, and a second bullet cut off the lobe of my left ear. That day, gentlemen, President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in France. I did not relax my diligence; Divine Providence assisted me; a month since I discovered much of that which I have sought for so long and often so hopelessly. The manner of my discovery need not be discussed, only the fact that at last, gentlemen, I have acquired power to name in a breath the three creatures who now direct the terrible machinery of Anarchism and Nihilism."

The listeners neither murmured nor moved; they appeared to be frozen and tongue-tied, so pale and still were they.

Mr. Perigord waited a moment, looking at them expectantly; then with a shrug of his huge shoulders once more resumed.

"You make no remark, you ask no questions, most worshipful Knights of the Ninth Arch. You do well. Come hither, gather closer round me, brothers—so. I have sent for you because I need your help, therefore my secrets are your secrets So! Listen, and you shall hear how vilely can the devil deface God's handiwork. Madame the Countess of Hobenstein is a beautiful woman, is it not so, and kind? Ha, ha, ha! My brothers, the inmost circle of which I have spoken, is composed of three men. Of one of these Madame Viyella is the daughter, of the second the wife, of the third the mistress!"

Prince Carlos sank back in his chair uttering a loud hysterical laugh. "Her husband is dead!" he cried.

Lord Francis and Von Oeltjen gazed at their host with dazed and stupid faces, "Yes, he is dead," they repeated.

Mr. Perigord frowned. "The Count von Hobenstein is dead," he answered grimly, and drew from his pocket a folded paper. "Read!"

The Prince snatched the paper and tore it open; the others stooped over him to see. Quickly they fell back.

Lord Francis put his hand to his head. Von Oeltjen threw out his arms dramatically. Only Prince Carlos did not seem to understand. "What does it mean?" he gasped; "a copy certificate of a marriage celebrated in New York between Katherin Viyella and——"

"Mr. Frederick Smith," interrupted Perigord, with a queer little smile; "a common enough name, is it not?"

"But perhaps assumed," suggested Lord Francis Cressingham.

"Undoubtedly assumed," replied Perigord.

"Diable! who is Katherin's father?" muttered the Count von Oeltjen,

"And who, in God's name, is her lover?" almost shouted the Prince, who seemed overcome with a sudden frenzy of rage.

"Gentlemen," said Perigord, "you behold assigned to you your tasks. You, Lord Francis, will devote yourself heart and soul to the discovery of the name of Madame Viyella's father. The task should be easy, for the woman believes herself at present in love with you. I can give you no assistance except to inform you that the late Count von Hobenstein some twelve years back married in Bavaria an American actress who called herself Kate Staines; the name, however, was assumed."

"Are those my orders, sir?"

"Yes." Mr. Perigord turned to the Prince. "Your Highness is so foolish as to remain, in spite of repeated warnings, still infatuated. We must therefore seek to turn your madness to our own account. A jealous man should make a good detective; you must ascertain the name of Madame's lover——"

The Prince, who had retreated several steps during this speech, here interrupted fiercely: "Never—an action so base—I——"

Mr. Perigord looked him in the eyes, and spoke gravely, kindly, as to an angry child. "Patience, Prince; the object is good, if the method be unseemly. Believe me, I assign you a task whose first aim is the preservation of your own life. For two months has your death been decreed; twice have you miraculously escaped assassination; take care that the third attempt be not better planned. I have called upon you to assist me where I might have commanded a score of others, in order that you might help in the work of your own salvation, and at the same time lessen your indebtedness to me. You force me into explanations. It was I who fished you from the pond at Hohenlinden. You saw me not, for I left you while still unconscious in order to track your assassin, but into your tight-clenched hand I thrust a symbol to remind you——"

"Great heaven!" gasped the Prince.

"A pencil case engraved with the word 'Jehovah.' Nay, words are useless. Prince. Speak not of gratitude, but rather act the part of grateful man. You will do my bidding?"

"I—I—I, yes, ah——"

"It is well. You, Count von Oeltjen——"

"Sir."

"Will set out at once for Paris. You will seek out the Chief of Police, and say to him these words: 'Tunnel, Bordighera, Perigord,' whereupon that officer will know how to prevent the Nihilists from undermining the railway over which the President must presently pass on his visit to Mentone. But be careful, Count, let drop no mention of my whereabouts."

The Count saluted. "And after, sir?"

"Return to London with all speed, for I shall soon have further need of you. You will hear from me!"

Mr. Perigord rose to his feet and moved slowly to the door. There arrived he turned and pointed gravely to some curtains opposite. "Beyond those hangings, gentlemen, you will find supper, and a servant who when you are ready will guide you to the street. Pray excuse me from personally attending you. I have much to do. Good night."

He bowed, and would have gone but for Lord Francis Cressingham, who had impulsively started forward, his right hand outstretched.

"Well, my lord?"

Lord Francis hesitated a second, then plucking up courage asked: "And for me—is it forbidden that I leave England?"

"Absolutely—is that all?"

"But Madame Viyella—she may at any moment——"

"She will remain where you remain."

"Ah, er—I—excuse me, sir, but I should like to know the end of all this."

"You mean?"

"I mean that if I, if the Prince, succeed in our tasks, are we pledged—I put it badly, sir," he stammered, then blurted out: "Your object, sir, is the destruction of Nihilism; does that involve the destruction of Nihilists?"

Mr. Perigord eyed him thoughtfully a moment, then answered with cold deliberation: "You have been a soldier, sir, and should have learned the lesson of unquestioning obedience. My commands have much to do with you, my designs need concern you nothing. But reassure yourself; you will be required to do nought that is not entirely lawful."

Next instant he had disappeared, and the three gentlemen presently obeyed his latest admonition. They found in the indicated room a rich repast awaiting them, composed of choicest foods and wines spread temptingly upon an unclothed marble table. But appetites they had none. Each swallowed hastily a glass of spirit, and forthwith departed in the wake of the gentleman who had first admitted them to Mr. Perigord's mysterious house.


CHAPTER II.—PORTRAITS

MISS FRANCINE ELLIOTT, only daughter of Colonel Vernon Elliott, V.C., C.B., sat one afternoon in the library of her father's house in Berkeley Square, giving tea to her cousin and intimate friend, Captain Lethby, of the 1st Dragoon Guards.

Miss Elliott was twenty-four years of age, and a girl of much parts and character. She managed unaided her father's household, her mother having died in her infancy; she was president of a woman's franchise society, secretary to an important private charitable institution, and treasurer to one of the largest working girls' clubs in London. She had already painted two pictures which had been hung in the Royal Academy; she possessed an exceedingly sweet contralto voice, and for four years past had sung at almost every charitable concert organized in the city. She was a clever conversationalist, and much in demand for four o'clocks and dinner parties; she loved dancing above all other pleasures, and during the five seasons since she had been "out" had contrived to be present and enjoy herself at almost every fashionable ball given by society's best set.

Naturally she was a very busy young woman indeed, who had very little spare time ever on her hands, but in spite of her manifold duties, and in spite of her popularity and the adulation she received in consequence, she remained an unspoiled and unassuming girl, remarkable chiefly for a sweet and approachable demeanour, and a manner whose charm was universally admitted, and which converted her most distant acquaintances into admiring friends.

She was rather tall; slight, but not thin; she had a firm but gliding gait, an unimaginably graceful carriage. Her eyes were large and blue as the sea; they looked at one directly, straight and true. Her chin was prominent but softly rounded; her faintly aquiline nose was beautifully shaped, and its curved and quivering nostrils strangely matched the sensitive mouth beneath. She seemed to exhale kindness and distinction. To see her was to wish to know her.

Captain Lethby had been in love with his cousin for quite six years, but after two refusals of his suit he had gradually settled into the assured position of her chum and closest friend. He had not abandoned all hope of winning her, but his addresses were never in evidence, and in consequence he had enjoyed for two years the privilege of her fullest confidence, and was usually also her appointed escort. He found in such constant companionship a solace for his long-repressed desires, and was therefore satisfied to wait. He was a frank and generous-hearted gentleman, not good-looking, but he looked good, and in spite of rather blunt and off-hand manners was the best-liked officer in his regiment. It is true that he spent his money freely, and that he had plenty to spend, being an only son and heir to a baronetcy and uninvolved estates, two advantages alone sufficient to win for almost any man a certain popularity.

His open face at present wore an expression of embarrassment, for Miss Elliott was attentively regarding him, awaiting his reply to a question he appeared to find a difficulty in answering.

"Lord Francis Cressingham is a friend of yours, surely?" she repeated. "He used to be, I know," added the girl.

Captain Lethby fenced with her. "Oh, ah, well, of course, he used to be one of us, you know."

"But you do not like him? Out with it, Jack; you have no secrets from me, have you?" with an arch smile.

Captain Lethby fidgeted in his chair. "Well, er, the fact is, Francine, I like him well enough. It's a question of respect. You see, he got badly mixed up in that Russian affair, and although he resigned at once, he hasn't attempted to give out anything like a proper explanation. Our fellows say there was more in it than mere carelessness; and then, he's been acting so queerly ever since. Never goes anywhere except to the house of that foreign Countess-what's-her-name. And even when one meets him there he keeps out of one's road. Funny business altogether. May I smoke?"

"Why, yes, of course. But what do you think of it yourself?"

Captain Lethby puffed out three long smoke wreaths. "Hum, er—well. Blessed if I know what to think. No more tea, thanks. What makes you so keen about him, Francine?"

The girl gave a queer little smile. "You might offer me a cigarette, Jack. Thanks." As she lit the cigarette she gave a contented sigh and remarked: "I was there myself last night."

"Where?"

"At the Countess of Hobenstein's."

"The deuce! Beg pardon, Francine, but what under heaven took you there?"

"A hansom."

"But, er, you know—er, they say the Queen refused to receive her."

"Do they? I don't believe it. There was a big crowd there, and all good people. I like her, Jack."

"Well, wonders will never cease; I didn't think she'd be your sort."

"Why not?" imperiously. "She is the sweetest woman I have met for years, and pardon me, Jack, but although all London is discussing her, you are the first person who has said a word to me of her disparagingly."

"I beg your pardon," retorted the Captain; "I only said I didn't think she was your sort."

Francine laughed merrily. "You did not mean that to be uncomplimentary, did you, Jack?"

The Captain did not catch the point. "Did you meet Cressingham there?" he asked.

"I saw him at a distance. He was looking far from well."

Lethby regarded the girl with jealous eyes. "You seem to take a lot of interest in him," he remarked.

"He was once a friend of mine. Do you know, Jack, he is the only man who ever——" she hesitated, blushing faintly and casting down her eyes.

"Who ever what?"

"Nothing."

"Francine!"

"Yes, Jack."

"You are blushing; you have a secret."

"Not from you, Jack; I meant to tell you some day."

"Then tell me now."

"Oh, how stern you look! Really, I always meant to tell you—but somehow I have never had an opportunity. There, don't look at me; turn away your head—so. You see, it was a little serious at first——"

"Francine!"

"Ah, please not to look, or I can't tell you. It was at Lady Martin's ball. But it isn't serious now, Jack. I've got over it. It was ever so long back, quite six months ago, my salad days in fact; every one has salad days, haven't they?"

"Go on," said Lethby, staring morosely at the wall.

"He was going next day to St. Petersburg. We had a waltz together; then he took me to the library, and, and—he kissed me, Jack."

"Ah! and you?" very sternly.

"I, I rather liked it. He asked me to be his wife."

"Francine, you love him!"

The girl's lips trembled. "N—no, Jack, not now."

"The infernal cad!" growled Captain Lethby.

"You are wrong," cried the girl. "I, I refused him. I have no right to complain."

"Tell that to the Marines!" cried the Captain rudely, getting noisily to his feet as he spoke. But at that moment a servant tapped at the door and entered, with the announcement: "The Countess of Hobenstein."

"I forgot to tell you she was coming; please stay, Jack," said Miss Elliott.

"And Lord Francis Cressingham," continued the footman pompously.

On mention of the second name, Miss Elliott turned quite pale and rose abruptly. "How do you do?" she said, holding out her hand to the lady who was pausing on the threshold. Then: "So glad you came; allow me to present—The Countess of Hobenstein—Captain Lethby. Won't you sit here. Countess? How d'ye do, Lord Francis! I fancy you gentlemen are acquainted. James, some fresh tea, please—and wine, or would you prefer spirit, Lord Francis?"

"No, thanks, a cup of tea, if I may."

Lord Francis Cressingham's handsome and determined face was not seen to advantage just then; he looked a little haggard and careworn, and appeared to be nervously uneasy, for his eye-glass defied his efforts to adjust it firmly in its place. Captain Lethby favoured him with the coldest of nods, and turned to observe the Countess.

Katherin Viyella, Countess of Hobenstein, was a woman of perhaps six-and-thirty years of age, but she was so magically preserved, and possessed of such excessive physical vitality, that she seemed at the utmost twenty-nine.

She was somewhat above the average height and moulded languorously, the lithe and fascinating curves of her generously ample figure defying the suspicion of art in construction, although her gown was of itself a veritable artistic triumph. Beneath a cloak, which presently she cast carelessly aside, she wore a clinging, seamless robe of fine grey lawn that fitted her with glove-like closeness, its simplicity daring to excess.

Her face, less beautiful than bewitchingly attractive, was the face of an enchantress. Its only strictly perfect feature was the nose, which was of classic straightness. Her forehead was broad and high, draped with a heavy fringe of dark-brown hair, parted sharply to one side. Her teeth and full red-lipped mouth were expressive and alluring, but seemed strangely at odds with her low-lidded Eastern eyes, which set irregularly under black arched brows were the home of a speaking spirit that lurked in their red-brown depths, a spirit endowed with such a power of sensuous suggestion that Madame's shortest glance was able to convey a subtle and intoxicating challenge.

Captain Lethby suffered the momentary fire of her regard, and surrendered at discretion.

"Ah," she murmured softly, her vowels marked with a quaint and foreign roundness of enunciation, "I have wished to meet you, Captain Lethby."

She had never heard of him before, but it was one of her principles to flatter all prospective victims, and she marked a fresh victim here. "Won't you come and speak with me?"

The Captain, who had been about to decamp, deposited himself at her side without hesitation, and Miss Elliott found herself alone with Cressingham. Lord Francis was rendered uncomfortable at her propinquity, but, a man of resource, he contrived to make the conversation for some moments general. After a while, however, it languished in spite of him, and he fell to watching the Countess, while Miss Elliott busied herself with the tea.

"You have not called since your return—until to-day," she murmured in a low voice presently.

He started, and changed colour. "No—I have been very busy."

"Indeed! Sugar, Countess?"

"If you please, my dear—may I call you 'my dear'? Do you know, I want to be great friends with you, Miss Elliott."

"That is sweet of you, Countess. Lord Francis, will you——ah, thanks."

The Countess smiled bewitchingly. "I want to carry you off with me to-night. I have a box at St. James'. Please say that I may."

"Unhappily I cannot this evening, Countess. I have to sing at a concert."

"Then won't you take me with you? I should so love to hear you sing."

Miss Elliott blushed with pleasure. "If you would care really. It is the Factory Girls and Sempstresses' Club. Rather a poor place, you know."

"I was a poor girl once myself. Thank you so much, dear; it will be a great pleasure to me."

"May I go too?" asked Captain Lethby suddenly.

"Why not?" said Miss Elliott; "you know you are always welcome there, Jack. Let me see, what was the amount of your last subscription? Ten pounds, I think."

"Nonsense," cried the Captain laughingly, "more like ten pence: but your concerts are good fun sometimes."

"And you, mon ami," said the Countess, turning languidly to Cressingham, "you will come with us?"

"Thank you, no. I have an engagement."

He spoke so sharply that all stared at him. The Countess smiled in his face. "Postpone it, my Lord, I wish you to come."

"No."

"To please me,"—with a caressing glance.

The man turned pale. "I cannot."

The Countess abruptly stood up, her dark eyes gleaming, and with a quick movement drew her cloak about her. "Well, for the present, au revoir, ma chére—no, do not trouble. At what time shall I call for you, or will you call for me?"

"I shall call for you—shall we say at nine?" replied Miss Elliott.

"An admirable hour. I shall expect you."

She moved across the floor with an indescribable half-floating half-surging gait, her evident agitation filling the room with a vague intangible essence of emotion. When passing Cressingham, a glove fell from her hand.

Captain Lethby started forward, but Lord Francis picked it up. "Your glove, Countess," he said, following her to the door.

She slightly turned her head, and muttered in a low, fierce whisper: "You dare to stay!" smiled, and was gone. Cressingham hesitated, hat in hand, as if uncertain what to do.

Miss Elliott, whose quick ears had caught the Countess' strange words, watched him searchingly, a satirical smile just curling her lips. He caught the look, and his pallor deepened. "I should like another cup of tea," he said.

Captain Lethby got to his feet. "And I must be going. Au revoir, Francine."

"Good-bye, Jack, be here not later than 8.30. Certainly, Lord Francis, one can see that you need it; you are awfully pale, have you a headache? Do sit down!"

"Don't bother with the tea, Miss Elliott; it was only an excuse," said Cressingham.

"Then some wine; shall I ring?"

"Please not."

"A cigarette, perhaps?"

"I thank you, no." He sat down upon a chair, holding his cane tightly clasped with both hands.

Miss Elliott toyed with a ring on the third finger of her left hand. A man's signet it was, cut from a single piece of chrysophrase. Unconsciously Cressingham's eyes followed her action, and when he saw the ring he started visibly and cried: "You wear that still, Fran——Miss Elliott."

The girl, smiling composedly, drew the ring from her finger and held it out to him. "I have worn it for the last fortnight, my Lord, hoping for a chance to return it to you. The chance has now arrived."

The man took the ring and weighed it carefully upon his palm, his eyes downcast. "I have no right to ask you to keep it," he murmured.

Miss Elliott laughed merrily. "Really, Lord Francis, you grow quite amusing; do I seem to want it?"

He looked up and caught the challenge in her glance. "No," he replied.

"You spoke just now of an excuse," said Miss Elliott.

"Captain Lethby was here. I wanted to stay—to say something to you."

"Well?"

"It is something impertinent, I don't know how to put it."

"Then leave it unsaid, please. I hate to be out of friends with people. Lord Francis, but I don't think I could suffer an impertinence."

Lord Francis looked excessively uncomfortable. "If only your father were in England," he sighed.

"Oh, it is advice you want to offer me," cried the girl, amused.

"Yes, advice, that is it." He caught eagerly at the word. "Advice, yes, a piece of advice which I would not dare to advance if I had not your welfare deep at heart, Miss Elliott."

His face grew passionately earnest as he spoke, and the girl found herself involuntarily growing earnest too.

"Speak, then," she said.

"It is about that woman,"—he groaned out the words with an effort that was painfully transparent—"who was here just now, the Countess of Hobenstein."

"Ah!" the girl's eyes flashed and she clasped her hands across her knee. "Be careful, Lord Francis. I like 'that woman' as you call her."

The man almost groaned. "For heaven's sake don't allow yourself to like her!" he cried. "She means you harm; yes, Francine, she means you harm."

"Francine!" echoed Miss Elliott springing to her feet; "you have no right to name me so, and less to speak ill of my friends. How dare you say such a thing to me of the Countess—and behind her back?"

Cressingham arose too. "I dare, Miss Elliott, because I, I once"—(he gulped down a breath)—"because I wish to be your friend, and surely it is a friend's part to warn his friend when there is danger. Pardon me one moment. Please let me speak. I know that what I am saying will cut me off from your acquaintance for all time, but say it I must so that at all hazards you be warned. That woman has been my ruin; wantonly and deliberately she wrecked my career, and, not yet satisfied, she now pursues me with professions of affection. Recently she has chosen to regard you as a rival. I think that she is mad, at all events she is dangerous; I believe that she hates you, I know that she will try to do you harm."

"My Lord!" Miss Elliott seemed trying not to laugh.

"Forgive me, Miss Elliott, what I have said must sound to you horribly absurd and egotistical. But for all that I pledge you my honour it is true. I felt that it was my duty to warn you, even though it has only worked me further injury."

"Time will show, my Lord," said Miss Elliott coldly.

"Ay, Time. It is the only friend I have left." The words were spoken with such unaffected sadness that the girl's heart was touched. She moved a step nearer to the man and put her hand timidly upon his arm.

"Lord Francis, if what you say is true, why do you, why do you persevere in an acquaintance which appears to you so evil?"

He looked at her gravely, his eyes full of melancholy. "I cannot answer you, Miss Elliott."

The girl drew herself erect, and surveyed him with a chilling smile. "I think I understand. Lord Francis, I thank you for the warning. Perhaps it was kindly meant. Need I detain you longer?"

"No." Cressingham bowed low. "Good-bye." He stood gazing at her imploringly.

But Miss Elliott, turning her back, crossed the room to ring the bell.

"Good-bye," she replied without looking at him, and with a quick sigh he departed.

When the girl was quite alone she sank into a deep armchair and thought these words aloud: "I suppose I can't be a proper sort of woman, certainly not the sort that one reads about in improving books. I know I ought to feel frightfully indignant, the outraged divinity business, and all that. But I don't a bit. I love Frank Cressingham, and I don't care much who knows it, so long as he does not. As for that woman, she has fascinated him, of course, but I don't believe he loves her. I can feel that she is not a good woman. Any way and whether or not, she is not going to keep him. He is too good for her, and I want him, yes, I want him, want him with all my heart."

Then Miss Elliott went to her bedroom, locked the door, threw herself upon her bed, and wept unreservedly for quite ten minutes.


CHAPTER III.—A SPY UPON A SPY

LORD FRANCIS CRESSINGHAM found Captain Lethby waiting for him upon the steps of Colonel Elliott's house. The Captain held a twisted piece of paper in one hand; with the other he was impatiently twirling his walking-stick.

"The Countess asked me to give you this note," he announced abruptly.

"Ah, thanks." Cressingham crushed the paper into his pocket. "Are you going city-wards?"

"I think not."

"Well then, good-day to you," with a nod.

"One moment, Cressingham, if you please."

"Ten if you like. Anything urgent?"

"Let us walk on." The Captain's face was troubled; they walked in silence for a little and stopped by common impulse at the corner of Dover Street and Piccadilly.

"The fact is, Cressingham, I've wanted to speak to you for quite a while, but you're so infernally hard to get hold of, since——" he hesitated.

"Since I got the sack from the F.O.," said the other grimly.

"I didn't quite mean that, but you've said it yourself. We used to be friends once, Cressingham——"

"Once!—--"

"Well——"

"Oh, I quite understand; your manner when we met to-day left little to be explained."

"Bosh!" blurted out the Captain. "It's not your part to be satirical; you are the deserter, Frank. The old rooms which you always shared with me are still there and never once have you come near me."

"I thought——"

"Never mind what you thought. You never gave me a chance. You resigned from the regiment without saying a word to a soul. You've never been to the club, never called at the mess. How can you wonder that your old pals are offended? The fellows are thinking all sorts of things——"

"Let them think!"

"Oh, it's all very well to take that stand, but you are not treating them properly. They have a right to an explanation, and you know it. Vernon and I have stood your sponsors long enough. It's time you took a hand, or at least gave one of us the right to speak."

Cressingham's face softened. "You're a good fellow, Jack, but I can't yet, I'm too cut up."

"Absurd," cried the other sharply. "Don't you see how foolish you are? What's the use of nursing the beastly thing? It's not as if you'd cleared out and gone to India or somewhere. Then they'd have understood your feelings and forgotten the whole business before this. But here you stay right in the heart of things, avoiding everybody and not condescending to offer the smallest explanation. 'Pon my soul, it's no wonder that people talk about you and imagine things."

"It's kind of you, Jack, to come down on me like this. I know you're right. Well then, I'll see the Colonel; Vernon's a good sort, he has refused to send on my resignation—I got a note from him to-day."

"Good man. You'll stay on with us, then."

"If Vernon advises me—after he hears what I have to say. Fact is, I was damnably careless, Jack, and deserved the thrashing I got. But for an accident, I'd have disgraced the old regiment. The facts were not published, but you have a right to know. It was a Nihilist conspiracy, and the brutes made use of me. The Czar might have been assassinated."

"Great heavens!"

"I was near to cutting my throat at one time, and would have, too, if they had called my honour into question."

"Don't talk rot, Frank. The F.O.'s stupid enough, but it never gets drunk, all at one time."

"I'm dashed glad to have chatted the thing over with you, old chap. I feel better now than I've done for weeks."

"Well, good-bye, old fellow. See Vernon soon, won't you?"

"To-morrow. Good-bye, Jack."

"Eh, by-the-bye, dine with me at the club to-morrow night?"

"Very well."

Captain Lethby got into a hansom, and presently remembered that he had entirely overlooked his original intention of rating his friend for his extraordinary treatment of Miss Elliott. But he soon forgot the whole matter in the recollection of Madame Viyella's bright eyes and certain kind speeches which she had murmured in his ears. Indeed, so fickle is the heart of man, he forgot also his own devotion to his cousin and the fact that he had worshipped at her shrine for six long years.

Cressingham wandered moodily to his rooms in Jermyn Street, and there arrived nervously plucked open the Countess' note.

It was laconic, and bore sharply to the point: "Expect me at twelve." He threw it in the fire, and lighting a cigar cast himself upon a lounge, the prey of exasperating thought and vain imaginings. He saw himself as he had set out from London half a year back, an ardent, and successful lover, for although Francine Elliott had not verbally accepted his proposal, still, she had promised to wear his ring and she had not been offended at his kiss. He recalled with heartfelt bitterness the ambitious and splendid future that had beckoned to him at that time. Rich and young, the only son of one of England's greatest nobles, a career had opened for him in the diplomatic service of his country which only needed his own diligence and intelligent cooperation to lead him to the foremost rank of power and statesmanship. And true happiness had seemed more than possible, for his sweetheart was a woman without peer in her class; well born, beautiful, an heiress, and, above all, worthy beyond dispute of the best blessings in the gift of Fortune, alike for her goodness of heart, her purity of mind and her sweet, untiring charity.

He reviewed the causes of his ruin as dispassionately as he could, but from the red coals into which he stared rose up the sorceress face and form of Katherin Viyella to taunt him and to disturb him as of old. She came, a Cleopatra smile upon her lips, bewildering and reckless challenge in her eyes, advancing towards him, gliding like a graceful phantom through the splendid ball-room of the Winter Palace, nearer, ever nearer, her gaze unfalteringly fixed on his, demanding, beseeching, commanding of him he knew not what.

Vividly he remembered how her first glance had filled his soul with doubt and trouble, with dreams and wild, intolerant desires. How he had struggled to resist her, to remain true to his English love, whom in his heart of hearts he always worshipped and worshipped still! Then the drifting, when day by day his resolutions weakened one by one. Last of all that mad and fateful night when Katherin had come at a witch hour to his rooms and prayed for his assistance.

The story she had told him! Her distress and her despair! Even now it was at times impossible to realize that she had been so base. He shuddered to recall her acting, her incredibly perfect acting. Weeping in his arms she had pretended a confession. She had fallen, she said, victim to a momentary weakness, a criminal weakness, and her desire was only to escape the consequences of her folly. A great man, the very greatest, had sought her love with gifts, and for a moment she had been tempted—the gifts were jewels, jewels fit only for a queen to wear. She gave him the jewels wrapped in an unsigned letter full of imprecation and remorse, whose contents she recited to his unwilling ears. She implored him to be the messenger of their return. He was to take them that very instant to a certain chamberlain, to say to him certain words, and then, on his return—well, what he would, she loved him, she said, and was willing to bestow on him for love that gift which another and greater than he had sought to purchase in vain.

He had done her bidding, blindly done her bidding, and then returning generously put her from him and refused to profit by her hour of weakness and surrender.

Then came the morrow, the darkest morning of his life, the saddest and most humiliating, when his angry chief with wrathful face and blazing eyes had informed him of that letter's inner meaning; had told him to his face he was a fool and unfitted for the duties of his office.

It seemed that he had carried to the hands of a double traitor a damnably injurious weapon of destruction, and for a moment the life of a king had rested on the fickle disposition of a rascal. The jewels were a snare, for their facets had been poisoned and their lightest handling meant certain death. The king had been saved, but policy demanded a sacrifice, and the traitor whose treachery had saved the king, the chamberlain into whose hands Cressingham had confided the fatal letter, was rightfully made the victim. A lesser victim was Cressingham himself, for he was constrained to resign, the world being carelessly informed that his own failing health was the cause of his retirement, an excuse ruinous to him from its transparent simplicity.

Only Viyella had entirely escaped, for Cressingham had kept her secret, and she had known how to convince both him and her imperial host that her hands were clean in the affair. Soon after his retirement she had followed him to England anxious for his complete subjugation, for curiously enough the woman had fallen deeply in love with the self-contained, reserved young Englishman whom she had ruined and who had never once reproached her for his ruin.

But he had been too severely handled by fate and felt his disaster too keenly and completely to resume at once the part of ardent lover. For her sake and at her bidding he had remained in England, longing all the while to hide himself at the world's end, but in spite of such a real sacrifice he had been unable to satisfy her of his devotion, and at the same time a closer knowledge of the woman had given him cause for much serious reflection and misgiving.

He had discovered her to possess an insatiable craving for admiration, excitement and conquest. His own coldness had aroused her every energy. He had studied the methods she employed with other men and recognized them applied in form a thousand times intensified to himself. Gradually she declined in his esteem; he commenced to harbour doubts and strange suspicions, and he would at last have been content to break the bonds between them; but here the tragic contrariety of fate came into evidence.

The more that his affection for her subsided, the stronger grew the flame of hers for him, and sometimes, the mask thrown altogether aside, she showed herself to him, a woman with her womanly armour of reserve dissolved, a creature of pathos and passion, imperious, languishing and pleading in a breath, madly resentful of his coldness, his slave, his plaything, did he care to stoop.

Then came the interview with Perigord, in which his suspicions were converted into certainties and the scales finally removed from his eyes. Thereafter he had no choice but to recognize in Katherin Viyella her veritable ego, and while the man in him saw her outer covering beautiful as that of an angel, his mind's eye caught traces of a soul within, wicked, licentious and powerful for evil. Had he been a free agent he would have fled from England to escape her, but bound by chains he dared not break he was forced to remain and honestly endeavour to achieve the task which he had been allotted.

It became his duty to elucidate a hidden page in Madame's history, to win from her, since she alone held the key to the riddle, the story of her parentage, to ascertain the name of her father, well assured in his heart the while that that name once revealed would open the door to a chamber of horrors unspeakable. He felt that he stood upon the threshold of a tragedy mysterious and terrible. He knew himself that meanest of all creatures, a spy, and hating his occupation with all the ardour of a straightforward, upright nature, he caught himself pitying the woman and yielding to the weakness of procrastination.

Meanwhile Madame Viyella, seeking the reason of his growing coldness, had had her jealousy aroused. An inscribed photograph hanging above his desk, a sharp question and the manner of his answer, had been to her instinct all sufficient; she felt she had a rival, and she knew her rival's name. A storm had followed, and Madame, losing all self-control, passionately informed her lover of an intention so violently fantastical that he had smiled at first, but her words sank into his heart later, and in contemplation of her actions he became so fearful that she might really dare to try to realize her threat, that he had that afternoon forced himself to call upon and warn Miss Elliott in the manner that has already been described.

The remembrance of that interview made him restless and extremely self-dissatisfied. How gauche and awkward he had been: how melodramatic and foolish must have appeared his words, his spoken fears! They now appeared wild and senseless to himself, and yet he could not regret that he had spoken. That woman was capable of anything, and she was jealous as the devil; even in the cold light of day he could not divest himself of a certain undefinable dread of her. She inspired him now with the same consciousness of potential evil that the sight of a serpent gives to all human creatures, the same intangible power of fascination too that renders even the most loathing curious.

Toying with his solitary dinner he dreamed of her, and afterwards, trying vainly to read, her elfish face with its slow, subtle smile eclipsed the printed pages on his knee, defying him to concentrate his mind on aught but her. How he wished that he had never met her, that his life had never been inflicted with the burden of her blighting personality! Ah, if only that, what other things had been, what more tender, peaceful and purer visions had now been his! That thought was bitterest of all, for the sweet "might have been" had departed from the regions of the possible.

Francine Elliott's face took fashion in his fancy, too calm in its purity and self-control, pitiful for his pain but immeasurably scornful for his weakness. The expression of it maddened him, so infinitely far it placed her from his reach. How good she was, he thought, how beautiful, how strong! And he had lost her, for what? Dead Sea fruit! Ruin: almost disgrace: the love of a woman whom he had already almost ceased to find desirable.

The clock struck ten, and still he rested musing, gazing always into the glowing fire which his servant without his cognisance had periodically kept replenished. At eleven he aroused himself, for his man announced a visitor. It was strange to come back to things real, from the land of dreams. He caught himself looking curiously all about him, at the furniture, at the pictures, at the floor, as though he had returned from some long sojourn in a foreign country and expected to discover here and there the handiwork of time. Last of all he saw his visitor, and slowly got to his feet struggling to collect his thoughts.

"Ah," he said, "Ludwig von Oeltjen!"

"Yes, my Lord, I hope I find you well."

"Oh, ah, quite, thank you—get a chair, won't you? I fancy I must have been half asleep."

"No wonder, in a cosy nook like this," said the other, glancing in surprise at the luxuriant appointments of the room. "Himmel!" he cried suddenly, "not, surely not a Franchia, that?" pointing to a large crucifixion done on copper, which swung beside a pier glass on the mantel.

"It's an old favourite of mine," said Cressingham; "I always take it about with me. The colours are so rich and restful, you know, and the treatment so quaint and medieval."

"It's a perfect treasure," examining it critically. "My father has a small one, a copy, I fancy. I should like him to see this; he's a collector."

"Indeed! You have returned from France?"

"Yesterday. I have just left——" He made a peculiar sign with his hands.

"What, Perigord?"

"S—sh. Yes. He goes to-morrow to Brussels on some mysterious business or other. The man is a marvel! Who do you think was with him?"

"I'm a fool at riddles."

"The Prince of Wales!"

"Nonsense!"

"I beg your pardon, my Lord."

"Forgive me, Count, you took my breath away. He sent for you, I suppose. I have not heard from him yet."

"Be easy; you will. He sent for me to carry you a message."

"Ah!" Lord Francis Cressingham's monocle became displaced—an infallible sign with him of mental agitation.

"He is dissatisfied; he bids you waste no further time but get to work immediately."

Cressingham's cheeks coloured slowly with anger and embarrassment. "He sent only a verbal message, then?"

"Yes, and appointed me besides to an unpleasant duty. As he has not forbidden me to speak, I shall inform you of it. I am to be a spy on you, my Lord."

"What!" thundered Cressingham, springing abruptly to his feet; "he does not trust me?"

Oeltjen waved his hand. "Softly, softly," he murmured with a humorously deprecating smile. "He trusts nobody. In my turn I too am watched by an unknown agent. He makes no secret of his methods, and quite frankly disclosed his arrangements for—what shall I say—our comfort."

Cressingham's indignation changed presently to mirth. The quaintness of the plan appealed to him, and he resumed his seat laughing a little, but his laughter was half-hearted.

"You will have a bad time, I fear, Count; do you propose to sleep on my doorstep? I hope you won't bore too many holes through the doors, and there are one or two cabinets and things I'd like you respect—for instance, that old——"

"Excuse me," struck in the Count with dignity; "really the matter is serious; we are, I think, men of honour."

"I hope so," drily.

"I do not like my position at all."

"I am quite of your way of thinking."

"I am an officer of the German Army."

Cressingham eyed him interrogatively. "I of the English Army," he remarked. "Besides that, we are members of——"

"Just so, whose orders I must obey."

"So I suppose must I."

"Precisely—but afterwards——"

"Afterwards? Count."

"Afterwards, my Lord, we shall be free agents, and should you feel in any way aggrieved by what I am obliged to do in the course of my present duty—you understand me?"

"Proceed."

"Why, I shall hold myself entirely at your service."

Cressingham put up his eye-glass and surveyed the German with visage calm and imperturbable. "Really, Count, I don't want to fight you. We don't fight in England nowadays, you know. Besides, I shouldn't be at all aggrieved with you—you can't help yourself any more than I."

Oeltjen shrugged his shoulders. "So long as we understand each other."

"Quite so. When, er, when do your duties commence?"

"Immediately."

"I see. Do you intend to live with me?"

"It would be convenient."

"As my guest, I hope."

"With pleasure, my lord. Otherwise I must have taken rooms in this building."

Cressingham rang a bell, and presently a servant entered. "John, a friend has come to stay with me. Get a bedroom fixed up somehow. And, er" (turning to the Count), "have you any luggage with you?"

"A bag downstairs."

"Take the Count von Oeltjen's bag to his room, John. Let us know when everything is ready."

"Yes, sir." The servant departed, and the gentlemen stared grimly at each other, the expression of either anything but cordial.

"I expect a visitor at midnight," said Cressingham slowly.

"Indeed."

"Yes; a lady."

"Ah!"

"In fact, Madame."

The Count flushed crimson, and bit his lip. "You are fortunate," he said with a snarl of suppressed rage.

"What!" cried Cressingham, "you still——"

The German flung out his hands, and stamped violently upon the floor. "I am no stick nor stone, sir; the lady was to have been my wife."

"Mine also."

"My Lord!" The Count's face was livid, and he hissed the words.

"Calm yourself, sir," said Cressingham very coldly; "why should we quarrel—yet, at all events?"

"True—there is always time."

"Pardon me, it is almost twelve; do your instructions include eavesdropping? I use the phrase without an afterthought."

The Count with pain restrained himself, but unable to speak could only shake his head; he was furious with passion.

"I might suggest then that you retire. Ah, what is it, John?"

The servant muttered: "A lady, sir."

"Keep her a second, John. Count, it is unfortunate, but you must meet Madame, unless——"

"Anything, my Lord, but that, anything."

"Then there is nothing for it but my bedroom—through that door yonder."

The Count hurried from the room, and had barely disappeared when a woman, heavily cloaked and veiled, entered by the other door.

Cressingham strode across the room to meet her. "You are punctual, Madame," he said.

"Madame!" echoed the woman, and slowly drew aside her veil.

The man fell back with a startled cry. "My God! Miss Elliott—you here!"


CHAPTER IV.—TWO WOMEN'S HEARTS

"YES, my Lord, though you at first mistook me," said Miss Elliott, with a pointed smile; her cheeks were scarlet; she looked straight at him, her eyes luminous as stars.

"I—I beg your pardon," stammered Cressingham, entirely discomfited.

"I have come to return a compliment. This afternoon you warned me of some danger which you believe is threatening me. It is now my turn to put you on your guard against a peril so real and imminent that I have disregarded hour and place."

"How good you are!" he muttered, still half-dazed with his surprise.

"It was after the concert. I went with some of my girls to call upon one who is ill and in want. It was at a tenement house in Soho, a very poor place indeed, where the rooms are small and have only thin partitions between them. While waiting by the sick bed for a surgeon for whom I had sent, I overheard a conversation between two foreigners in an adjoining room. They spoke in Swedish, and quite unreservedly, thinking I suppose that they incurred no risk of being understood. Luckily for you, my Lord, I spent two years in Stockholm. I think that they are Nihilists; at any rate, they are acting under orders given them by the head of some mysterious society whose enemy apparently you are. They spoke of a Madame Viyella and a man called Uljen—or something like that—first, and then mentioned your name. It seems that you were seen issuing late one night quite recently from a certain house in London, a house occupied by enemies of their society. This fact, taken in conjunction with your intimacy with Madame Viyella, has aroused the fears of their master, and your removal has been planned in consequence. This very night an attempt will be made to murder you. A forged letter will be brought entreating your immediate presence at the house I have mentioned, which house I gathered has now changed ownership and is under their control. If you go, you will be stabbed and your body buried in a cellar——"

A low tapping at that moment sounded on the outer door. Miss Elliott stopped speaking and looked at Cressingham inquiringly.

His face was white and miserable; he stood wringing his hands a moment, then turning to the girl muttered in a low passionate whisper: "Miss Elliott, I am accurst to-night; it would have been almost better that you had left me to my fate. There is one without there who if she sees you here would——My God! who can tell what she would do? Your fair name to-morrow—ah, what am I saying, what shall I do?"

"Who is it?" imperiously.

"Madame Viyella."

"Ah, the woman they spoke of!"

"You do not understand; it is the Countess of Hobenstein."

The girl turned scarlet, and hot tears glistened in her eyes. "I am properly punished," she muttered—then: "You must not let her see me—at least, not that. I should die of shame! Oh, I might have guessed, I might have guessed!"

The tapping recommenced. Lord Cressingham swiftly crossed the room and drew aside some curtains. "It breaks my heart," he almost groaned, "but I must ask you to wait here; it is my dressing-room."

"But—is there no other exit?"

"None."

"Through that door there."

"My bedroom; there is a man in it already."

"A man!"

"Ah, trust me a Little, Miss Elliott. I am less black than I appear."

She gave him a burning glance.

"Madame waits," she said, her voice full of bitter satire. He fell back, and she closed the door in his face. The tapping was louder now and more imperious. Drawing the curtains into place again he swiftly and noiselessly returned to his chair before the fire.

"Come in," he called in drowsy tones.

The handle was tried. "I can't," replied a voice without.

Cressingham got noisily to his feet, and stumbling to the door pushed aside the latch.

"A thousand pardons," he cried; "I fancy I must have been dozing."

"Dozing! you slept like the dead, my boy. I have been hammering there for quite a time."

Cressingham rubbed his eyes and pretended to yawn. "I'm awfully sorry," he said sleepily.

The Countess swept into the room and round it with long, undulating strides, shedding coat, cloak and wraps to the floor as she proceeded. The man leisurely followed her, picking up each article in turn. Madame was now apparelled like a queen. A splendid dress of shimmering jet work on a ground of black brocade enveloped her luscious figure tightly, and above it her alabaster shoulders and milk white bosom shone forth in bold relief. A single band of diamonds embraced the rounded column of her neck, and from her corsage swung a chain of brilliants almost to her knees.

Proudly conscious of her beauty, she faced the man as a queen might her subject; a moveless, faintly scornful smile upon her lips. "Well, my boy, I've taken the measure of your English baby-face."

Cressingham shrugged his shoulders. "And then?"

"Bah, I am not jealous any more. She is pretty, yes, and good—good, all English women are pretty and good. She may be even a little more so than the rest, but she could not content you, Frank—for long. She is too cold, too sensible, too much always conscious of herself, too proud, too self-restrained. Did you ever think she could love you, Frank? Ha, ha, ha! My poor boy. It makes me laugh to think of you married to that woman. You would love her for a week, and then—bah, you would freeze and come to me to warm you back to life again. What does she know of love? I know her, I tell you, and her class. Bah! you are blushing like the girl herself if she could hear me. I tell you——"

"Stop. I forbid you——"

"Why should I stop? I am a woman of the world, and you—do you fear to hear these things? Do they shock your English prejudices? Ah, believe me, Frank—that girl, I tell you——"

"Katherin! be silent!"

The Countess stamped her foot. "I will speak. But there, after all, it is needless; why should I speak of her? Here are you and I alone together." She approached him in one long sweeping stride and put her hands upon his shoulders; "you have been so cold lately, Frank, so distant. It is not that girl, I shall not believe that, for you have not seen her until to day. It must be this cursed English climate. But I, Frank, look at me!"

He caught her by the wrists, but she maintained her hold.

"Look me in the eyes; tell me what you see there, dear one."

Cressingham vainly attempted to push her from him; he was near choking.

"Katherin," he muttered hoarsely, "think, think!"

"I have thought," she answered, smiling strangely, her bosom heaving with a sudden gust of passion. "I have thought and thought, but nothing alters me. You are mine, and I am yours, for my love is absolute. Frank, do you understand?"

"You are mad," he cried.

"Yes; I am mad—for love of you." She swayed towards him until her body touched his trembling limbs. "Frank," she whispered, her breath hot upon his face; "I love you; have you nothing to say to me?"

White-faced and desperate, he thrust her fiercely from him and fell back. She stood with parted lips, with sobbing breasts, gazing at him, a speechless but marvellously perfect picture, unable immediately to believe, to realize, he had rebuffed her.

Cressingham stared at the floor, a statue of misery and complete dejection. He felt that besides Madame's he was the centre of another woman's conjectures; he knew that Miss Elliott must have heard all, perhaps had seen all, for twice had the curtains slightly moved. With all his soul he longed that moment for freedom to disclose himself, to let this siren see how utterly her power was gone. But he was oath-bound, and, moreover, behind another door lurked the Count von Oeltjen, spy upon him and guardian of his trust. He had still a duty to perform, and to carry out that duty it now became his task to damn himself in the eyes of the woman he loved, since did he finally disdain the Countess all hope of tricking her was gone.

Madame watched him, her brain thronged with fevered thoughts and agonized suspicions. It was true, then, he loved this English girl and dared to be true to her! And yet, and yet! Perhaps he was jealous, perhaps he had learned some of her well-hidden secrets. No; impossible! And yet—was he mad or she? Formerly he had not seemed such an Antony. Was it her wild abandon that he feared? She was on the verge of tears. Strangling a hysterical sob, she drew herself erect, slowly, slowly, always staring at him.

"Frank!" she gasped at last.

He raised his eyes to hers, his mind at last resolved. It was necessary to play a part and sacrifice himself.

"Well!" he answered, gruffly and rudely.

"What do you mean?"

"I am not the fool you think me, that is all."

She caught her breath, and cried: "Explain!" one hand pressed tightly to her heart.

He answered her with brutal plainness, speaking the first words that occurred to him.

"It is you who should explain; you visit me and pretend to love me, but you have another lover who visits you."

Madame sighed deeply and breathed again, her mind at ease. "After all, he is only jealous," she told herself. And then she thought sharply, asking herself many questions. This jealousy must have a cause. He could not be jealous of the men usually about her; he must have seen something to arouse his suspicions. Perhaps he had seen—ah, that was it. She smiled the wonderful subtle smile with which she had known how to win to her so many hearts, and murmured: "Are you jealous, dear one. Then of whom?"

"You best know that."

"Ah, Frank, you need not be. I love none but you!"

"Liar!"

Still she smiled.

"Frank, dear, you are wrong; really you are wrong. I think I know what you mean; you saw me last Thursday night——"

Cressingham seized upon the chance: "Yes; last Thursday night, Madame. Little did you dream that I was by."

"You saw me bid farewell to a man at my own door; was that wrong of me?"

"But at what an hour, Madame!"

"It was late——"

"Morning, Madame!"

"Even so. Frank, dear, presently you will go on your knees to me and ask me to forgive you; and I——"

"And you, Madame?"

"Will not forgive you, dear, unless you trust me now."

He folded his arms, biting his lips to force himself to keep up the cursed comedy. "I cannot."

"Then ask me what you wish."

"Who was the man?"

Madame facing him, always smiling that strange mysterious smile, caught up her cloak from the chair beside her and threw it on her shoulders, then her wrap, while Cressingham stood idle, stiff, and still.

"The man"—Madame glided slowly to the outer door—"was my own father." She paused.

Cressingham uttered a queer choking cry, so great was his surprise: "Your father!"

"I have said it."

Cressingham threw out his hands. "I don't believe you!" he said brutally.

Madame still smiled. "I love you, Frank, but do not try me too far. I shall go now. No; don't come near me; your touch would burn. I am almost hating you. Remember, you have called me liar—twice. To-morrow, come to me with your apology. Perhaps I shall forgive." She gave a great sob. "Ah, Frank, how could you—how could you dare insult me so?"

With a swift movement she threw open the door, passed, and was gone. Cressingham listened dumbly in the silence to the patter of her footsteps on the passage. He heard her falter on the stairway, fumble with the latch below, and presently the street door's crashing close. Then he staggered, rather than walked, to his bedroom.

Oeltjen was standing just within the threshold. "I shall show you to your room now, if you please."

"Very well, my Lord," said Oeltjen. "I should, however, tell you that I have been listening to your conversation."

"Indeed, and you approve?" Cressingham spoke very loudly, hoping that Miss Elliott would hear. He had conceived the sudden wild hope of attempting to exculpate himself in her eyes thus.

"I think that you went a little too far. Your acting, however, was on the whole superb."

"Thanks," drily. "My fear is, however, for the morrow."

"You fear what?"

"That in a colder moment she will know better how to guard her secrets. Even to-night she was careful to disclose no name. She said 'my father,' only 'my father.'"

"True."

Cressingham thought for a while. "It is a terrible part for me to play," he said at last. "Do you know, Oeltjen, although I know the woman is bad, I feel an awful ruffian at tricking her like this."

"Ach Himmel! she loves you, that is plain! But" (in a whisper) "where is the other woman, the first, my Lord, the one that warned you?"

Cressingham turned pale. "That is my business!" he said curtly.

"I beg your pardon."

Cressingham bowed. "Let us go," he said.

But a loud knock sounded on the door as they approached it. Cressingham pushed aside the latch, and his servant, in slippers and pyjamas, entered, a letter in his outstretched hand; he seemed half asleep.

"For you, my Lord."

"Who brought it?"

"A cabman."

"Wait a moment, John, and you can show the Count to his room." He opened the letter, and presently passed it in silence to Oeltjen. It was a card inscribed with certain hieroglyphics.

The Count glanced at it, and whispered meaningly: "Already the path grows dangerous, my Lord. It is perhaps my turn next."

Cressingham shrugged his shoulders and pocketed the card. "Perhaps. Good night."

"Sleep well!" said the German, and smiling satirically he departed in the servant's wake.

Cressingham shut the door, and turned to face his greatest task. Miss Elliott stood between the parted curtains of the dressing-room, her face pale, but self-possessed and calm.

"It was, oh, so cold in there, and dark," she muttered, shivering a little.

He pointed to the fire. "You had better wait a moment and warm yourself. Presently the passage will be clear."

She crossed the room and spread out her hands to the blaze, her back turned to the man. He stood irresolutely a moment, nervously gnawing at his under lip, then, growing desperate at her silence, spoke.

"Miss Elliott."

She slowly turned her head, and looked at him across her shoulder.

"You heard?"

She nodded. "Everything."

"What can you think of me?"

"I scarcely know just yet; indeed, I haven't really thought of you. I am trying still to realize how it is that a woman can so degrade herself. How she threw herself at you!"

"Spare me," he groaned.

She gave a little rippling laugh. "I almost begin to fear you, Lord Francis; you must possess some dangerous magic fatal to my sex. And yet, how deaf you were to her entreaties, but that was because you had an audience perhaps?"

"Miss Elliott, I assure you on my honour——"

"Spare me, my lord," she interrupted icily; "I have already seen you act to-night. What time is that?"

A clock was chiming somewhere in the City, its tones reaching them in muffled melancholy. Cressingham glanced at his watch. "Half-past two!"

"Luckily I have a latch-key," said the girl. "Don't you think the coast is clear by now?"

"One moment!" He hurried into the dressing-room and a second after came out with hat and coat. The girl regarded him with much contempt.

"Do you think I should accept your escort farther than the street?" she queried bitterly. His lips tightened, but without reply he opened the door for her to pass, and in unbroken silence they trod the passage and descended the stairs. There he paused, but she passed on and stood by the door, attempting herself to open it. With a hopeless little laugh he assisted her, and she glided through into the street. Two men, standing not a yard from the door, peered rudely into her veiled face. She drew back with a little gasp, an involuntary cry for help. Cressingham sprang out at once, but the men slunk off quickly down the street.

"Thank you," said Miss Elliott. "It was nothing, but seeing them so close and suddenly, they frightened me for a second."

"At least, let me put you in a cab," he said imploringly. "Really, the streets are not always safe at this hour. It may be the last favour I shall ever ask of you."

"Very well, then."

He walked with her a few steps down the street and whistled. Instantly a four-wheeler standing in the shadows of some houses not far distant moved out into the light and came quickly towards them. To Cressingham it seemed that the cab must have been waiting by appointment, so swift was its response, but another matter now engrossed his mind. A few, a very few seconds remained to him during which he might fight for his happiness. Silence might be more dignified, but at any rate he could not possibly hurt himself more by speech than he was harmed already.

"Francine," he muttered suddenly, "you wrong me in your thoughts. I'm not so black as you think me. I'm in an awful mess, and the curse of it is I can't explain. But on my honour, Francine, I'm not the loose fellow you think me. I couldn't be, for I love you, you, you with all my soul, and that alone would keep me straight."

Miss Elliott, watching him from behind the thick meshes of her veil, thought how handsome he looked standing in the lamplight there, his eyes so bright, his face so passionately eager: a quaint thought entered her mind, and an impulse.

"Really, my Lord," she said, "you should never wear that monocle of yours, you look so much better without." Her laugh rippled out like the pealing of a silver bell.

Cressingham opened the carriage door, a black frown on his face.

"Where shall I tell the man to drive you?"

"Bruton Street, please. Good night!"

Cressingham made one last appeal. He held the door open, and standing close beside it whispered: "Francine, I'm the most miserable man on earth."

She muttered back from the darkness; "Is that my fault?"

"It is not altogether mine. Ah, for heaven's sake, believe me!"

Miss Elliott did a strange thing. Cressingham's left hand was leaning lightly against the glass of the window. Stretching forth her own she took it gently to her and drew from his third finger the ring which she had returned him yesterday; then she dropped his hand, and said: "You shall have one more chance; are you content?"

For a second he stood dazed, but a happy light came presently into his eyes, and, stooping, he caught and passionately kissed a portion of her gown.

"More, much more than content," he whispered huskily. "May I hope to see you soon?"

"To-morrow, if you like, at four."

"Heaven bless you, dear. Good night!"

The cab rattled off, and Cressingham, watching it with loving eyes, saw soon after it had turned the corner the forms of two men running in the same direction. The occurrence gave him a moment's vague uneasiness, but it soon departed altogether from his mind.


CHAPTER V.—FRANCINE DISAPPEARS

LUDWIG VON OELTJEN felt much at odds with the world. He had been pitchforked by fate into a false position that exposed his sensitive nature at every step to jars and discords which he was unable properly to resent. In the first instance he was compelled to play the spy upon a man whom he respected and admired. In other circumstances a warm friendship might have grown up between himself and Cressingham. Each was a young man of good birth and breeding, of uncommon intelligence, of upright disposition. And yet they differed sufficiently in temperament to render their natures mutually attractive. The German was nervous, highly strung, ceremonious, and strong willed; the Englishman calm, self centred, and determined, but generous and obliging. The pity of it was they could not meet on common ground. The relationship between them forbade an entente cordiale. Moreover, Oeltjen was still deeply in love with Madame Viyella, and recent events had shown him Cressingham not only as a successful rival, but a rival indifferent to success.

It is hard to watch unmoved another win a treasure ardently but hopelessly desired, but it is infinitely harder not to hate the person who wins that treasure without appreciating it. Oeltjen had listened to Madame Viyella lavishing her love upon Lord Cressingham. That was a misfortune which as a brave man he could bear with composure. But to see his rival disdain the prize which he would have welcomed as a priceless boon in spite of all things moving to the contrary—was a stab to his pride and amour propre which made him writhe in mental anguish.

Von Oeltjen survived this ordeal, and after a long and bitter night spent in struggling with his bad angel, emerged superior to pain and circumstance, his own conqueror. He sought Lord Francis in the early morning before his purpose could have time to cool, and without preliminary put the whole case reservelessly before him.

The Englishman, still in bed, listened to his quaint apologia from the depths of his feather pillows, and without interrupting once by word or sign.

At the end he stretched forth his hand, and said: "I'm glad you've spoken, old fellow. I half saw how it was all along, but was not able to help myself. The fact is we are just two little puppets in a game which is being played by people a lot more powerful than either of us. We are each bound to see the thing through, and we are hatefully situated. But it's no good kicking, neither of us is to blame. For myself, I see no reason why we shouldn't get along without quarrelling. At all events I'll do my best, but most depends on you; you have the worst of the deal by far."

Oeltjen took his hand.

"That is kind of you, my Lord. You will forgive me for disturbing you?"

"Disturbing me? That's good. Why, man, you've acted like a brick." And after the other had departed he repeated the word. "Brick; yes, that's just what he is. I wish he was an Englishman!" which remark showed that Cressingham appreciated Oeltjen's conduct properly, for an Englishman can express for a foreigner no higher form of praise.

The Count appeared to interpret his duties lightly. He accompanied Cressingham at noon to Madame Viyella's doorstep and there left him, although Cressingham would have much preferred a stricter and complete espionage, for secretly he dreaded the approaching interview.

The Countess received him in her boudoir. She wore a loose dressing robe of opal silk open at the neck, and was reclining at full length on a lounge engaged in the role of partial invalid, salts and essences about her. The room was softly illumined with some concealed artificial light, the windows being heavily draped with dark purple curtains to exclude the day. She looked very languid and lovely, and her pose, if studied, was a work of highest art, for all traces of art were absolutely wanting.

"Speak softly, please, Frank," she murmured; "my head aches."

He took a chair near by and watched her silently for so long that at last she raised her low lidded eyes and looked at him.

"I wait," she said.

"For what?"

"Surely—your excuses."

"I cannot apologize yet, Katherin; I am unconvinced."

She thought a moment, thinking deeply.

"Do you know, Frank," she said at last, "no man has ever insulted me but you. I do not like it. I have a mind not to bother trying to convince you—a mind to let you go."

"In that case, Madame——" He arose, hat in hand.

Her eyes opened wide. "You would go; you would dare leave me?" she gasped.

He nodded.

She stared at him, turning pale as death, then cried of a sudden—

"Go then. Never let me see your face again."

He bowed and obeyed, but from the door heard a low, painful moan. He turned. Madame Viyella was sobbing as though her heart would break.

Cressingham found an echo of her emotion in his own heart. Madame Viyella was very beautiful, even though her face was not of classic type. It was no sense of duty which prompted him to take the woman in his arms and press hot kisses on her crimson tear-wet mouth. Nor did a single recollection of his sweetheart come to intervene when, Madame's bosom next his heart, his nerves thrilled and his blood took fire at her siren sweetness.

And a siren at that moment was Madame. Her tears soon dried, she rested in his arms contentedly, and looked at him with burning heavy lidded eyes, her parted lips occasionally giving forth a sob or a deep sigh.

Madame had won. He was hers, hers at last she told herself exultantly. With a swift lithe movement she rose and stood before him, her dark hair falling in a shower below her waist. He rose too, breathing hard.

She took his hand and put it to her heart, which beat within its cage a wild impassioned prisoner. "It is yours!" she whispered; "all, all yours, do you believe me now?"

"Katherin!" The cry was a struggling one; he was fighting for control.

The woman smiled to see. She sat upon the lounge and drew him down beside her—with a gust of words. "Foolish boy, you are still jealous. Really, it was my father, Frank. I know it is hard for you to believe, but it is true. I cannot tell you his name, dear, nor anything about him. He is a great person, and I am only his natural daughter. Do you understand? No one in the world knows aught of this but you, dear one. He sometimes visits me, but always secretly. Were our relationship once suspected—I should see him no more, and, Frank, he is the only near friend that I have. I love him, dear; he has been always good to me. I should not tell you anything of this. Ah, how I trust you!"

"Trust me more. What is his name?"

The woman smiled at him. "You are an honourable man, dear, are you not? You would not break your word, much less an oath?"

"Ah!"

"I am oath-bound, Frank. You would not counsel me to break my vow. But ah, for your sake anything. Am I not yours, soul as well as body? Dear one, order me to break my oath! Are you not my master?"

Cressingham was beaten, and although he dimly recognized the method, the art of her attack was too perfect to allow a thought of insincerity. Honest as steel himself, he answered frankly as another of as pure calibre. "I have no right to ask that of you, Katherin."

"Then let us talk of love!" she cried, "since we are now together here with nought at last but love between us."

Fate saved him for the moment. There came a servant with a message for Madame; a person had called to see her who was of too exalted rank for cavalier dismissal. She got to her feet, a jealous light in her eyes and anger unconcealed; she hated so to let him go, but she whispered in his ear some burning words, and Cressingham left her pledged to return that very night.

The cold calm light of the day without offered a sudden blight to his still tingling senses, chilling the blood that still throbbed insolently in his veins. He remembered Miss Elliott then, and realized the depths into which he had almost fallen, the abyss on whose brink he still stood tottering. He remembered too the task which he had undertaken, and saw himself a double failure: a traitor to his duty, a traitor to his love.

In an almost reckless mood he called upon Colonel Vernon, his commanding officer, a kindly old soldier who had not fathered a crack regiment long enough to forget the follies of his own youth and who bore the reputation of being lenient to all faults save those that tarnished honour. To him Cressingham made full confession of his Russian fiasco, save only that he gave no names.

The Colonel had always been fond of his junior captain, and did not want to lose him, but he saw an opportunity dear to his heart and, as he afterwards told his friend General Poole, he "rated the youngster soundly. These hot bloods want a lesson now and then, Poole, and when they want it, sir, by gad they get it—from me!"

But the "ragging" once over, the Colonel proceeded straightway to discount his words; he invited Cressingham to lunch, and over the second bottle of Heidsieck waxed so reminiscent that Cressingham presently perceived he sat before a man who had spent a wilder and more thoughtless youth than he, and he was astonished and a little amused to find how proud at heart the old man was of the semidisgraceful pranks and mishaps of his past.

The lesson did him good from a worldly point of view. It showed him that pains of the present become pleasant mental tit-bits for the jaded palate of maturer years. It taught him to attach less weight than was his wont to his own backslidings and shortcomings. He left the Colonel feeling half satisfied that an undiscovered sin is at most only half a sin. This moral obliquity of vision furnished him with an excuse to keep his appointment with Miss Elliott, in spite of the morning's treacheries. He had been false to her—granted; but then, she did not know of it! He loved her in spite of his falseness, indeed his fault had made him perhaps appreciate her more.

So he argued, attempting to convince himself, and when he reached her door the argument was still half finished. He had a queer instinctive presentiment that he would find her cold to him, that she would read his heart and divine the wrong that he had done her. That she loved him he never doubted; so strangely penetrating is the mind of love, he had been able to read her heart in that without tangible reason or encouragement. Ah, well, perhaps she would save him from himself. He had been weak before temptation, and would infallibly be weak again before a similar temptation, but like most well-meaning sinners he was remorseful and anxious to find grace immediately the cause of sin had been removed. "Lead us not into temptation!" is the most necessary prayer of all, as Christ the Master knew, for in fashioning that exhortation, which has descended down the centuries to us, a legacy divine, He phrased that simple heart cry last of all in token of its measureless importance. Cressingham wanted to be saved from temptation, and so he rang the bell.

The butler answered the door, a man whom Cressingham knew well and had often liberally tipped; he seemed distrait and disturbed to-day, and his welcome was effusive, for, an old servant, he knew well the reading of social symptoms, and he had long guessed at the gentleman's attachment to his mistress.

"Please come in, my lud—shall I take your coat and hat, my lud? The library, if you please, my lud."

"Miss Elliott at home, Adams?"

The butler followed him into the library. "Ah, my lud, I'm so glad you've come, my lud." The man seemed so upset and anxious that Cressingham involuntarily felt concerned.

"Your mistress is not ill, Adams?"

"No, my lud; leastwise I hope not—we all hope not. But, my lud, I—I——"

Cressingham saw over the man's shoulder the faces of two servants peering anxiously upon them from the passage without.

"What the dickens is the matter?" he demanded somewhat testily.

"The fact is my lud,—last night—I—the mistress, she——"

"Out with it, man!"

Adams gave a desperate glance at the doorway and a frown which scattered the faces in the passage.

"The fact is, my lud, Miss Elliott went out last night to sing at a concert—and—and—she hasn't come home yet."

"But," stammered Cressingham, "she—she—I have an appointment to see her here at four."

The butler's face lighted up immediately. "Ah, then, my lud, she'll be back directly I expect. And oh, my lud, I hope as how you'll not mention to her what I said. You see, we all got anxious about her, 'specially as how she's never stayed away before without lettin' us know aforehand—and she sent the coachman home early with the 'osses and said as how she wouldn't keep 'em waiting in the cold, but she'd come home in a cab."

Cressingham scarcely heard him. He was tormented with a sudden wild, madly fanciful idea, which, however, he presently put from him as past the bounds of possibility.

"I expect she has spent the night with some lady friend, Adams," he said kindly. "Certainly I shall not mention what you have said; your anxiety for her does you credit."

"Thank you, my lud." Adams went slowly out and closed the door.

"Strange," thought Cressingham; "she left me intending to go home. I told the cabman to drive to Bruton Street. Perhaps she changed her mind and went elsewhere, but it's queer she didn't send a message or something to her servants all to-day. She's so methodical in her habits, too, does the housekeeping and all that sort of thing. Perhaps she's ill."

He paced the floor for a quarter hour distractedly, reflecting, listening anxiously to every sound without, often going to the window and attempting to peer into the street below. Then he could stand it no longer, and violently rang the bell.

Adams appeared with disconcerting promptitude. "Ah, er—I'd like a glass of whiskey, Adams, please."

The butler opened a cabinet and produced glasses and decanters, also cigarettes; afterwards he loitered hesitatingly.

"Well, what is it?" said Cressingham.

"It's half-past, sir, and still no sign of her. We've been wondering in the servants' hall if a accident might a happened."

"Have you the papers, Adams?"

"Yes, my lud, and we've gone through 'em all that careful. There's nothin' in 'em, my lud, 'cept about the concert. The Countess o' Hobstein was with her, sir."

"Ah!"

"Besides, if she'd been took to a hospital, my lud, word would a been sent here at once."

"So it would. It can't be that then that has detained her, at least it's not likely."

"No, my lud—as I says to Richards, what is the coachman, my lud—it's no use jumping to look at the black side o' things, though in general it's the black side as turns up."

"Quite so, Adams. By the by, Colonel Elliott is expected home shortly, is he not?"

"To-morrow, my lud, which, if you'll pardon me mentionin' it, my lud, is what has made us feel more anxious like, my lud, for Miss Elliott allowed to her maid yesterday as how she was goin' to do up his rooms herself this morning, the Colonel bein' rather a fidgetty old gentleman as doesn't like his things touched or put out of their places. And his rooms have been locked up ever since he went away, and we not bein' able to air them the whole day, seein' as Miss Elliott has the keys herself."

Every word the butler said had the effect of making Cressingham more deeply disquieted; unwilling, however, to give himself away, he dismissed the man, and spent a solitary hour walking the library floor in a fever of impatience. At the end of that time he doggedly resolved to see the thing out, and lighting the gas took a book and settled himself in a chair. Not that he did much reading; he was too wretchedly disturbed for that, but he killed time in a miserable moping fashion until the clock struck seven, and he remembered his engagement with Captain Lethby.

He said good-bye to Adams, who was by then thoroughly alarmed, and promising hurriedly to call back later in the evening, drove swiftly to his rooms to dress, reflecting with some relief that Lethby was Miss Elliott's cousin and would probably have news of her.

At the club he was greeted as one back from the dead; all his old friends swooped down on him like so many hawks, and in the midst of their careless badinage and raillery he forgot for the time his anxious fears. Dinner passed as such dinners pass, with jokes and quips, with wine-engendered jeux d'esprit, and more or less witty anecdote. It was a gay, good-tempered meal, for a dozen had gathered round the recreant one, refusing to allow Lethby the distinction of entertaining him in solitary state, and Cressingham, who had always been noted as a man's man, was gayest of the gay.

With the liqueurs, however, he remembered, and on the first opportunity drew Lethby aside.

"Have you seen or heard from your cousin to-day, Lethby?" he asked quietly.

"No, dear boy. Why?"

"I called there this afternoon pretty late, and the servants told me she has not returned home since she went to that concert last night. The butler was upset about it, thinking an accident had happened or something."

"Nonsense, man; she went home with some friend, or else to nurse one of her poor girls. You can never bet on Francine; she's a great sick-bed girl, don't you know."

"But she'd have sent her people word, surely. Besides, her father returns to-morrow. Adams tells me she had intended to do out his rooms herself."

Lethby laughed. "Oh, it's Adams is it; he's a regular old woman."

"Well, old chap, I hope you're right, but I promised Adams I'd call back and see if she'd returned. You'd better come with me, Jack. I'm off now."

"Well, good luck to you, Frank. I can't go with you, as I'm booked for a waltz with the Countess at ten—charming woman, the Countess, Frank. Depend on it, you'll find Francine has got home long before this. Hope she gives Adams a good rap over the knuckles, he deserves it. Ta-ta."

"Good-bye."

Cressingham drove at once to Berkeley Square; Miss Elliott had not returned. He waited until midnight, then despatched one of the servants with a sharp note to Captain Lethby. He himself hurried to his own rooms and put the whole matter before the Count von Oeltjen. He had completely forgotten his engagement with Katherin Viyella.


CHAPTER VI.—A DIFFICULT SITUATION

OELTJEN was at first most concerned at the failure of his coadjutor's mission, for he recognized at once that the situation no longer offered a hope of extracting from Madame Viyella the information required by Mr. Perigord. Regarding Miss Elliott's disappearance, he was inclined to be quite tranquil, preferring to believe that she had some good private reason for absenting herself, or was detained by some unforeseen or accidental circumstance. When, however, Cressingham informed him of Katherin Viyella's wild and jealous threat against Miss Elliott's life, and also of the circumstance of the two men who had met himself and Miss Elliott at the door the previous night, and, lastly, of the two figures he had caught a glimpse of running after Miss Elliott's cab as she drove off, the Count's face became grave and thoughtful as that of his companion.

He strongly urged Cressingham at all hazards to keep his appointment with Madame Viyella as a course which offered the only present chance of sounding their now joint suspicions. For a long while Cressingham utterly refused, feeling himself entirely unequal to the task of making love to a woman he had commenced to detest.

But they were saved the trouble of determining by the advent of Madame herself, who, finding her lover once again recreant, had made up her mind to visit him. She entered the room abruptly, the light of battle in her eyes, Cressingham's protesting servant following her to the door. Perhaps she had thought to find her lover engaged with some other woman; at any rate, her face grew instantly composed on sight of Oeltjen. She found grace indeed to appear faintly embarrassed, but not for long. With wonderful sang froid she advanced to the two men, offering a hand to either. "How fortunate am I, messieurs, to find two friends, expecting only one. You will be surprised, dear Count, to find me visiting your friend at such an hour, but less so, I hope, when I tell you that Lord Francis is my fiancé, and that I have come to make him mes adieux. To-morrow, at daylight (She glanced at the clock), indeed, but that is only two short hours hence, I set off for Vienna, having been called suddenly to visit the death-bed of a relative."

The two men exchanged unquiet glances.

"That is unfortunate, Madame," said Oeltjen. "If you will permit me then, I shall retire. I am at present a guest of your fiancé, Madame. I wish you bon voyage and a happy return—to you, Cressingham, I offer my heartiest felicitations. Au revoir."

"Au revoir, Count," said Madame; then as the door closed upon him she turned fiercely on the other. "Infame, perjured one, what have you to say?"

Cressingham found it necessary to exercise his nicest diplomacy.

"Nothing, Katherin, except that I have not been able to help myself. A strange thing has happened. It appears that your new friend Miss Elliott (the girl of whom you were recently so foolishly jealous) has mysteriously disappeared from her home. Lethby, her cousin, whom you know, has been frightfully upset about it, only learned the facts a few hours back, and he hurried at once to me to demand my assistance in searching for her. Well, what could I do? The man is my friend. It was impossible to refuse. I have been with him driving for hours from one police-station to another, longing all the while to slip away and go to you."

He watched Madame with the keenest scrutiny as he spoke, but her face reflected only surprise and some amusement.

"Captain Lethby is her lover you know, has been for several years," he concluded rather lamely.

"Miss Elliott has disappeared—when?" demanded Madame.

"No one has seen her since the concert last night to which you accompanied her, Katherin."

"That is strange—perhaps some accident?"

"I confess I rather feared at first that her disappearance was due to you," said the man pointedly; "you said some queer things the other day, you know."

Madame frowned.

"What nonsense, Frank. I was mad at the time, and scarcely knew what I said. But enough of her. You must come with me to Vienna."

"Eh, what!"

"You must come with me to Vienna. My father has been taken very ill; he has cabled me to go to him at once."

Cressingham looked at her stupidly, a rush of whirling thoughts aching his head. Here indeed was a marvellous opportunity given him of discovering the identity of her mysterious parent, a chance he felt he ought not to abandon. But on the other hand, what of Miss Elliott? His whole heart cried out to him to stay in London. His sweetheart at that moment might be in some danger and he deserting her. He still thought that Katherin Viyella had had a hand in her disappearance, in spite of her careless disavowal of all concern in it. A tortured moment left him nerveless and miserable. Not knowing what to do, he vaguely temporized.

"But how can I accompany you, Katherin?"

"How you like; my friend, my lover, my husband. Do we not belong to each other?"

"But, dear, we must have some regard for appearances."

"Ah, bah! appearances! Am I not my own mistress?"

"Really, dear, I think it would be better for me to follow you. I know how devoted you are, sweet one, and I glory in it; but I must take care of my dear girl's good name. Some day you will be my wife, Katey; is it not so?"

Well he knew that such a thing was far removed from the regions of the possible, but Madame did not know he knew, and she had played so long a part that she was bound in it. She dared not undeceive him yet, fearing that the coldness of his English nature might revolt from her control did he know that she had lied to him.

"Ah, Frank," she murmured with a melting look. "Can you wait?"

But he was master now. "Marry me at once then, sweetheart—it can be done. I know a clergyman, a good fellow, who won't mind being knocked up—and then we can go off on our honeymoon together."

He had won, but she made one last pouting attempt. "Frank, you know there is no time now for that." She put her arms about him and whispered tenderly: "We have all our lives before us for marriage, dear. That is only a contract. If I am content to wait and trust you—surely you——"

He put her gently from him. "We regard these things differently in England, Kate," he answered, a note of sternness in his voice. "My wife's name must be above the reach of all suspicion. Do you understand, dear?"

"How cruel you are, Frank. You think of the world; I only of our two selves." Tears stood in her eyes.

The woman was so beautiful in her distress that Cressingham took her in his arms and satisfied her amply with the ardour of his kisses, but presently he led her to the door and to her waiting carriage. She gave him her address in Vienna and departed, charging him with her latest breath to follow soon—she could not live without him long, she said.

Cressingham found Oeltjen waiting in his drawing room. "I heard everything," said the Count. "I think you should have sunk all considerations and gone off with her. I cannot understand why you did not."

"You forget my instructions not to leave England."

"I forget nothing—those instructions depended upon Madame, and were only given you in order to curtail her movements through her infatuation for yourself."

Cressingham hesitated a moment, then blurted out: "Look here, Oeltjen, I'll be frank with you. I simply can't leave London until I hear from Miss Elliott—there, the murder is out."

Oeltjen gave a long, low whistle. "Ah, pardon me—I think I see. You love the English lady."

"I do."

The Count laughed happily and executed a pas seul, effervescent as a schoolboy.

"My friend, I could kiss you," he cried. "I can now be your friend, for I am no longer jealous of you. You see," he said, sobering as suddenly as his spirits had risen, "I have worshipped Madame so long and, in spite of me, I cannot help but hate all others who love her too. Ah, what I have suffered these days! but now I no longer care—she loves you, yes; but you love another. Ah, you smile at me, you do not understand. You love with your heads, you cold Englishmen. With us, we love with the heart. You see a woman beautiful as a dream—you love her. You are told she is bad, you at once discover that she is to be despised, and—pouf, she is to you in future a beautiful creature indeed, but to be in your hearts despised. With us Germans, it is so different. We love the same woman, but once we have given our hearts to her we do not recall the gift. I am not plain perhaps, for I cannot quite express all that I mean. For myself, I love Madame knowing what she is too well, but still I love her. You know how little hope I have, but still I love her. What are her faults, her crimes to me? I love her. When she dies, if I survive her I shall love her still, and sometimes go to muse and weep upon her tomb."

Cressingham silently took and pressed the Count's hand. The men looked deep into each other's eyes, and from that moment a friendship sprang up between them which no circumstance could ever mar completely.

Von Oeltjen spoke presently. "We are in a great difficulty, my friend. I wish that Mr. Perigord were here."

"He is here!" replied a deep, low voice, which made the gentlemen start as if a thunderbolt had fallen.

Standing in the open doorway was the huge loose figure of the master, holding before him in a grasp of iron, a foot from the floor, the helpless pyjama-clad form of Cressingham's servant, one hand across his mouth to suppress outcry.

"This fellow wanted to prevent my entrance," he observed carelessly. "I rang and rang; he came at last and told me to go to the devil."

"How can I apologize, sir!" said Cressingham, a little stiffly.

"No need. You can go!" (to the startled valet, who instantly hopped off). He stepped into the room and locked the door behind him, drawing the curtains close.

"It appears you wanted me," he said. "Indeed, I think it is time that I returned, although I have only been from England a few hours. So Katherin Viyella sets out for Vienna?"

"You know that?" gasped Cressingham and Oeltjen in a breath.

"And more—but not enough, not enough. Who is the woman that her friends have kidnapped in mistake for her?"

He eyed the pair before him keenly, but their faces expressed only blank surprise.

"H'm, you don't know; that's bad. You do nothing, you know nothing! Are you blind, the pair of you? It is lucky that some of my agents are more sensible. She is tall, slight, fair" (he took a note-book from his pocket and read from it), "blue eyes, rather pretty, dressed from head to heel in a yellow sealskin coat, fur outside, blue silk lining."

"Good God! Francine Elliott!" shouted Cressingham.

"Elliott, Elliott; not the daughter of Colonel Francis Elliott?"

"The same—she went with Madame yesterday evening to a concert, and has not returned home since. Her servants and—er—friends have been awfully anxious about her, and are only waiting until morning to put the matter in the hands of the police."

"Ah! this lady visited you late last night, Lord Francis!"

"She came to warn me of a plot to murder me. It seems that I was seen coming from your house in Finchley Road, and this fact, added to my intimacy with Madame, made your enemies anxious. They determined to get rid of me, and concocted a plan. They took the very same house which you must have vacated and forged a summons to get me there, intending to assassinate me on my arrival. Miss Elliott overheard a conversation in Swedish between two men in a tenement house in the east, while she was making a call on a sick protegeé of hers after the concert. It was then late, and the affair was to be carried out that same night, so she drove straight to my rooms to warn me."

"I see. She must be a plucky girl."

Cressingham's eyes flashed. "Plucky, yes—but, great heavens, it seems that she's come to harm through me. Where is she——"

"Softly, my lord," said Perigord, "one thing at a time please. Was Madame Viyella here when Miss Elliott called?"

"No, she arrived while we were talking, and Miss Elliott, not caring to meet her, waited in my dressing room until she had gone."

"Ha, it was a clear mistake; true, their heights are similar, and then the abductors were probably ignorant fools who took the girl for Madame in the first instance and let their proper quarry slip."

"Why should they want to kidnap Madame?" gasped Cressingham.

"Your fault, my Lord; you kept her dangling too long. You should have got her secret from her the first day. Delays are ever dangerous, your delay was fatal. The circle having their suspicions wakened on hearing that you had visited my house, tried to get Madame away from England, for they are quite aware of her attachment to you, and they feared lest you should exert your influence to worm some of their secrets from her. But Madame refused to leave you—and they got panic-stricken. Therefore they determined to cause your assassination, and at the same time spirit Madame off to the Continent, where they might keep her in confinement until she became more amenable to reason. Their double plot failed. You were warned in time, and their agents kidnapped Miss Elliott instead of Madame. On discovering their mistake they adopted the final expedient of cabling Madame some message which must be of most vital moment, for immediately on receipt of it she telegraphed to Kaputsky, the chief of the second circle in Vienna, that she would set off to-morrow, or rather" (he glanced at the clock) "this morning for the Continent. What the message they sent her was, I cannot tell, for although I hold a copy, it is in a cypher which I cannot read. Perhaps, however, Madame told you something, my lord?"

"That her father was ill, dying, she said, I think," said Cressingham. "But for heaven's sake, sir, tell me where they have got Miss Elliott. Is she in any danger? Do they contemplate——"

"I am not omniscient, young man. What I do know is this. Some twelve hours ago a steam yacht put in at Flushing and landed a young woman who was supposed to be very ill. No doubt they had drugged Miss Elliott, for she was put ashore lying on a stretcher, quite unconscious, and taken in that condition straight to an hotel. My agent there saw her face, and telegraphed me that their prisoner was not Madame. I arrived on the scene two hours later, by means of a special train, and acquired all the information I could from one of their agents who is my paid spy. Very soon afterwards they found out their mistake for themselves. None of the abductors apparently knew Madame by sight, but Kaputsky, having quite by accident (he is an old flame of Madame's) gone in to contemplate the sleeping beauty, discovered that his men had abducted the wrong woman. There followed a fine old row, nearly every word of which I heard; but later I was not so fortunate. When Kaputsky recovered his temper, he became doubly careful, and although my room was directly overhead and the floor bored through and fitted with an ear trumpet as well, I was unable to gather more than an outline of his dispositions concerning Miss Elliott. He set off at once himself for Vienna, and very soon afterwards Miss Elliott was removed from the hotel and put on board the yacht, which weighed anchor within five minutes and steamed out to sea."

"My God!" cried Cressingham, "they will murder her."

"I think not; I hope not," said Oeltjen soothingly. "What object would they have in committing such a crime?"

Perigord glanced slowly from one to the other. "Ah," he said suddenly; "I forgot: you were once attached to Miss Elliott, my Lord."

"Once!" muttered Cressingham, his voice hoarse with despair.

Perigord smiled. "Have no fear on that score, my Lord. They do not intend to murder the young woman, but to take her for the present to some secret place of theirs. They would probably return her to England at once, safe and sound, but they are not ready to quit London yet, and they know that, Miss Elliott once free, the police would swarm about their ears."

"But where, where?" he cried distractedly.

"That I shall ascertain to-morrow night at latest. Before then Captain Klein, the deputy, Klein the murderer, will have fallen into my hands, and he shall be made to speak. Colonel Elliott will arrive in London in a few hours. Fortunately he is one of us and can be persuaded to grasp the situation. I shall make it my duty to explain to him, and to him shall be the task of rescuing his daughter."

"Ah, sir," cried Cressingham, "let me assist in that!"

"For you," said Perigord coldly, "I have another plan. Madame Viyella——"

"That cursed woman——" cried the young man hotly——"am I not yet rid of her?"

"Judge! At daylight, indeed about this time, yes she will be just about now getting into her carriage with her maid, in order to drive to Waterloo. Her maid is mine, her coachman is mine, her footman is mine! You understand! Going through Hyde Park the carriage will stop, the footman will get down and go to the door. Madame will ask the reason. The footman will dash in her face a mask of chloroform. The footman will then resume his place and the carriage will proceed, not to Waterloo, but to can you guess where, my Lord?"

"Not, not—here," stammered Cressingham, pale as death and very miserable.

"But yes—why not? I have not had time to arrange for her another asylum. Here she will be quite safe. Your rooms are small but compact. The only difficulty is your servant. Him you must dismiss first thing in the morning. I shall provide a man to take his place whom you will find altogether trustworthy. It will be your pleasant task, when Madame recovers consciousness, to see that she wants for nothing; but she must not leave her room, you understand? Should Madame lose her temper and scream out, I should suggest chloroform, or a gag, whichever you prefer. The man I shall send you has a stock of both."

"How long must I act the cad in this fashion?" grated Cressingham between his shut teeth.

"Until I send for Madame. I shall relieve you of her charge as soon as possible."

"And then?"

"I shall have other work for you, work more suited to your taste, I hope, that is if you care to assist in rescuing Miss Elliott."

Cressingham's whole face eagerly lit up. "Ah, sir!" he cried, "I should be grateful to you all my life."

Perigord patted him kindly on the shoulder. "Let us go downstairs now and wait there to receive our prisoner. We must not run any risk of interruption or of being overlooked by servants."

"One moment, sir, I have forgotten to tell you something. Some few nights ago—Thursday, I fancy—Madame was visited by her father."

Perigord stopped suddenly. "Ha! who told you this?"

"She herself; she fancied that I saw her bid a man farewell at her own doorstep in the early morning, and thinking me jealous she informed me it was her father."

"She lied. Prince Carlos, who has carried out his duties better than you, my lord, saw this man; it was Klein—a deputy."

"But is it not possible that Klein may be her father?"

"Bah, he is younger than she. By-the-by, you must bear with the Prince if you run across him; the man is mad with jealousy. Do you know what he told me this evening? He calmly informed me that he had discovered Madame's lover, one of the three infamous chiefs of the inner circle, in the person of Lord Francis Cressingham, and he earnestly begged to be appointed your executioner."

"But that is beyond a joke, sir."

"Precisely, therefore I put you on your guard. Remember, he is a Prince, and his person sacred. But let us go down. Oeltjen, your arm."

The three men noiselessly slipped down the stairs, and softly opened the street door. They had not long to wait. In about ten minutes a brougham drawn by two fine chestnuts drew up before the building; a footman sprang to the ground and opening the carriage door lifted bodily into the street the limp form of a woman whose face was covered with a wrap. A second woman followed quickly unassisted, and these two carried Madame between them, swiftly but with infinite care, into the house and up the stairs, guided by Lord Francis, to his room.

Perigord and Oeltjen departed arm in arm immediately the carriage had arrived.

Lord Francis recognized the sweet subtle smell of chloroform quickly permeating his rooms, and wondering idly at the lavish use made of it, asked himself the question, would Madame wake at all perhaps? But he soon put that thought aside: somehow he felt his task less brutal and more easy since his last conversation with Perigord, in which he had learned of Madame's latest lie to him. It is always hard for an honest nature to sympathize deeply with a liar, and although he too had lately resorted to trickery, still, there was excuse for himself, he argued, in the duty which demanded such diplomacy. He had at any rate deceived Madame in a good cause; she had deceived him, or striven to, for no cause at all—except that a lie had appeared to her the readiest pathway from a trying situation.

His lips tightened as he thought of her subsequent address in throwing herself upon his honour so as to avoid the questions which she could not answer. He felt almost glad that he had now a chance of squaring the account between them.

For a time he sat lost in marvel at the power of this strange creature Perigord, who knew how to win so many and diverse instruments into his service. For the thousandth time he asked himself the question: "who—what is Perigord?" But with a smile at the bootless nature of the query he presently returned to his apartment, and after double locking the outer door and carefully secreting the keys, he put on a heavy dressing gown and reposed himself to sleep upon the thick rugs by the fire.

The humbly apologetic rays of a weak and cloud-fogged sun were mildly discussing with the darkness a question of precedence when he awoke. The clock was striking ten, and some one was beating against the inner wall of the bedroom. At first half-dazed he got slowly to his feet, and memory came to him with a rush.

He saw that it was necessary to obtrude upon Madame's solitude, indeed she seemed anxious for such an attention to be paid her. Lord Cressingham was not a very vain man, but all men are somewhat vain. His first act was to seek a mirror, brush and comb, and fix himself up becomingly as possible considering the imperious nature of the noise Madame was making and his consequent impatience. Then he approached the bedroom door, gave a knock, a loud cough, waited a second, noisily turned the handle, then, observing that the hammering had ceased, he pushed the door a little open and cautiously poked his head round the corner.


CHAPTER VII.—LOVE AND LIES

MADAME was sitting fully dressed in an arm-chair her eyes big with anger and amaze. She stared at him for a full minute, quite unable to realize the meaning of it all, scarcely able to believe that it was Cressingham who stood there looking at her so guiltily.

"Where am I?" she whispered at last.

The ghost of a smile flickered over his lips. "In my chair, Katherin."

"Ah this is your room, then! Was it you who carried me off?"

The man had not yet formulated a plan of action, and was at a dead loss to explain. "One moment," he whispered, having heard a knock at his outer door.

He hurried out, and took a quite absurd time in dismissing his servant, giving the fellow half a year's wages in advance. Even after the man had departed he lingered, desperately racking his brains for an idea, but Perigord's promised servant arrived and he was still befogged.

The new lacquey was a dapper little Frenchman, exquisitely dressed, very sharp faced, and active as a cat upon his dainty little feet. He was already fully seized of his duties, and had brought with him a basket of eatables, which he immediately proceeded to arrange upon a tray.

"Madame and you, my Lord, will be hungr—r—r—y," he remarked. Cressingham determined to seek his advice.

"I don't know your name——"

"Guillaume Bellair, Monseigneur."

"Well, Bellair, the fact is I don't know what the deuce to say to Madame. She is awake, and has demanded an explanation."

Bellair shrugged his shoulders. "N'importe, my Lord, shall I carry to Madame her breakfast?"

"No, give it to me."

"Take my advice, my Lord, and breakfast with Madame."

Cressingham gave the man a haughty look and bore the tray into the inner room.

The Countess was as he had left her, a little more imperious perhaps.

"Really, Frank, I am very patient, but my fortitude has a limit. Here have I been forcibly abducted and delayed from going to my dying father's bedside. I demand to know at once the reason of such an outrage and to be immediately released."

"Eat some breakfast first, Kate, to please me."

"It would choke me, besides I——Answer me!"

"Well then, if you must," Cressingham stared desperately at the window. "A couple of hours after you left me last night, or rather this morning, a man brought you here, carried by two women—his servants. Of course, I was very surprised, but he made a sign—I ought to tell you Kate, I belong to a secret society."

"Frank!"

"Yes, it's true——"

"What not——" she shut her lips of a sudden very tightly, but Cressingham's inspiration had come to him.

"Yes," he whispered; "I am a Nihilist. I joined years ago in a mad moment and have never been able to shake off the shackles since."

Madame watched him with glowing eyes. "Go on!" she muttered.

"This man, as I told you, made a sign which I was compelled to recognize and to obey. He had you carried into this room, and commanded me to keep you hidden here until he should send for you."

"My God, why, why!"

"I cannot tell," said Cressingham.

"Describe him to me!" she cried.

"I saw so little of him, he wore a greatcoat and was masked."

"Was he tall or short?"

"About medium height."

"What sign did he make?"

"Ah, dear, that I may not tell you."

"Was it this?" Madame thrust out her hand and made a curious motion with her fingers. Cressingham affected to start, but shook his head.

"This?" Madame crooked her little finger and bit the knuckle, raising at the same time her eyebrows.

Cressingham sprang to his feet. "Kate, Kate!" he cried, "don't tell me you are a Nihilist too."

"But I am," she muttered. "Tell me, this man, was he old?"

"I could not tell."

"Surely you noticed something about him," she cried angrily. "Had he a thick black beard?"

"No, clean shaven!"

Madame turned deathly pale. "Did you see his teeth?"

"Ah, let me remember, something struck me about his teeth or mouth, or something at the time, I think. I can't recall. I was so upset."

"Were they set wide apart and very yellow?"

"I believe they were. I can't swear to it, though."

Madame shivered all over and closed her eyes. Presently she looked up and said: "We are in danger, Frank—the pair of us. I know the man; he was once my lover, and he has been for a long time madly jealous of you. He has brought me to you intending to get us together to kill us both. We must escape."

"Who is he?" asked Cressingham eagerly.

"I dare not tell you. But I must escape."

"Useless, Kate."

"Why?"

"The man, whoever he was, has left a spy on guard here. He is in the outside room now."

"My God! I must see who he is!"

She went to the door and stooping peeped through the keyhole, peering long.

Suddenly she rose up and fell sharply back. "I saw him," she panted; "I don't know him at all. He is at the keyhole now trying to see and to listen!"

Cressingham caught up a towel and flung it over the knob. "At any rate we can block him there!" he muttered, frowning himself, for no man likes being spied on.

Madame clasped her hands. "I see the whole plot," she muttered; "that fellow has a bomb and soon, perhaps, he will fix it to destroy us and escape himself."

Her terror was so evidently unaffected that Cressingham felt it his duty to soothe her.

"I can relieve your mind as to that," he said. "The man has brought nothing with him, neither bag nor baggage, and his master ordered him not to leave the room on any pretext whatever until he came himself to carry you away."

"But why, why would he bring me here?"

"I don't know; perhaps you've mistaken the man, Kate, and it may not be the one you think. Ah, his voice! it comes to me now. He spoke to me in broken English, and so huskily one could hardly understand him—but to the man out there he spoke in fluent Russian."

Madame's face began to look dazed. "One thing," she whispered suddenly, "surely you must have noticed, was he stout of build and did he roll his r's tremendously?"

"Yes."

"It's Kaputsky, then. What can it all mean? I only got a cable from him yesterday."

"Perhaps the cable was a mistake."

"Ah, or a forgery. My heaven! could Perigord have sent it?"

"Who is Kaputsky—who is Perigord?" demanded Cressingham with a splendid assumption of jealous impatience. "It seems to me, Kate, that you have a lot of secrets."

"Kaputsky is a friend, one high in office; the other is a bitter enemy of our society. Let me think! There is a reason in all this. I almost commence to see. Perhaps my abduction had been planned. Perigord grows more daring every day, they say. It is true that I have been warned quite often lately. At any rate, we are safe since it is not that other. Something grave must have happened, though, for Kaputsky to take this step; some great danger must have threatened, and he has adopted this high-handed plan of saving me, knowing how obstinate I am at times. That must be it, yes, that must be it. Ah, how I wish I knew! Tell me, Frank, what were the women like who carried me?"

"Foreigners both" (Madame's maid was English); "Germans, I think, or Austrians. They were dressed in black, and seemed pretty plain and middle-aged. I did not notice anything else; indeed, I saw them only for a second, as they left immediately they had disposed of you."

"I wonder what they did with my servants; ah, I remember! the footman put the chloroform in my face. He must be one of us."

"Very likely; at any rate you can be sure that your friend, Kaputsky, would know how to avoid publicity in the affair. Well, I suppose all we can do is wait. What about breakfast, Kate?"

"A good idea!" Madame prepared to eat. The viands had grown cold in their dispute, but both were hungry and inclined as well to appreciate the two small bottles of sweet champagne which Bellair's thoughtfulness had provided. The meal was quite a bright affair, for Madame's fears had been dissipated and Cressingham was entirely contented with the manner in which an ugly situation had been settled. Afterwards Madame reminded him that the spy outside must be considered, and propriety. Cressingham agreed with her, and departed.

Madame had not offered once to kiss him; indeed he had never found her so cold, and felt piqued to understand the reason.

It might have been that pique which induced him to approach his dressing-room and there to don fresh and immaculate apparel, to spend a long hour at his toilet table, and finally emerge a spotless and very handsome dandy. But his trouble was wasted on Madame, if indeed he had undergone that trouble on her account. Lying back in the chair with her eyes shut, she maintained perfect silence for so long that he guessed she must be sleeping. He turned at last in despair to Bellair for companionship, but when about to speak the lackey put his fingers to his lips with a gesture too impressive to be misunderstood, and walking slowly to the room door stood with his back against it. Then he lifted both his hands and commenced to use the deaf and dumb alphabet, which fortunately Lord Francis understood.

"Madame listens," he telegraphed on his fingers. "I heard what you told her. Keep it up. Ask me questions."

Cressingham nodded. "What the devil do you mean by fooling round that door, sir," he demanded sharply.

Bellair answered impertinently: "I know my duty, sare. I am not responsible to you."

"No matter; I shall not allow that sort of practice here. Madame has not wings, therefore she cannot fly. You have no need to spy on her in that fashion."

"Mon Dieu!" growled the man. "I was told to keep an eye on her, and must obey instructions."

"Who gave you such orders, you insolent dog. Not Monsieur Kaputsky—I'll swear."

"What—you know——"

"Yes, I know, and shall presently inform him of your insolence."

"A thousand pardons, Monseigneur. I had no intention to offend—I—I——"

"Keep silent then, and let me try to forget your presence here."

Bellair smiled his approbation, and took a chair some distance off. Cressingham yawned and buried his face in a book.

At last Madame wanted tea; it was after four and she was so thirsty. Bellair was called into the room, and after some by-play, which involved the acceptance of a heavy bribe, he was induced to go out for tea and also to order dinner, provided that he was allowed to lock Monseigneur in with Madame during his absence. Naturally Madame was at first terribly shocked at the mere suggestion of such a thing, but she was hungry, and Cressingham specious. Were they not affianced? Madame blushed divinely and consented.

She had effected quite a toilette during her lonely hours. The man marvelled at her appearance and complimented her quite ardently.

Madame blushed (really she appeared under twenty).

No recollection of Miss Elliott came to disturb him. He (pardon him, Fidelity; Constancy, forgive!) approached the chair, and kneeling by Madame implored a kiss. Madame held up a rosy forefinger to admonish him.

"Frank, dear, be generous; am I not at your mercy? I trust you, Frank!" she whispered.

Her affectation baffled him. A few short hours before had she not begged him to accompany her abroad, had she not nestled in his arms, a passionate world-forgetting creature, anxious only for his love? And now——He could not understand her, therefore quite humanly became offended at her coldness.

And Madame! She was in her element. All her life and bright intelligence had been devoted to the exploration of the hearts of men. What wonder then that she knew them thoroughly; her knowledge had been bought dearly enough, as Madame in infrequent moments of self-questioning reflection had sometimes recognized remorsefully. Luckily for her peace of mind, she did not often think. She was not all a bad woman, and she still possessed the remnant of a heart which in her girlhood had been so powerful a means of government, that had her fortune been to meet and love a proper man, it would have resolved her life into a path just as far removed from evil as now it was remote from good.

She loved Cressingham, partly because of the many manly virtues which she could not help discerning in his nature. But years of evil had printed their ineffable stamp upon her mind.

"You have ceased to love me," said Lord Francis reproachfully.

Madame smiled to remember how many men had said the same thing to her when treated similarly. "Would you care?" she whispered.

He bit his lip in sheer vexation. Yesterday he had despised her proffered love; to-day it seemed desirable because withheld.

"How can you ask me such a thing?" he cried; "you know how I love you, Kate!"

Madame found his words very sweet to listen to; she had not heard many such from him of latter days, therefore they ministered a comforting incense to her vanity.

She gave him a languishing glance. "How should I remember, dear, you have not told me for—ah, so many days."

"With all my heart!" he answered, and Madame sighed and fell to musing, well content to be wooed thus, her mood of the moment being peaceful and composed. Cressingham watched her as she dreamed, speculating idly on the subject of her thoughts, drinking in her strange wild beauty and almost loving her. It seemed to him that nature had made a terrible mistake in the forming of this woman. Why had a shell so beautiful been fashioned if to be deprived of that crown of beauty, a perfect soul? There came to his mind the thought of other women whose names still shone like stars in the shadowy annals of the world. He wondered half-doubtingly, if their charms could really have eclipsed Madame's, and wondered more to remember and realize how comparatively few were those women cherished by history whose supreme beauty had been equalled by their virtues. "Is there not something evil in beauty?" he asked himself, and he found the question impossible to answer.

"Do you know what I am thinking?" asked Madame suddenly.

"No—tell me, dear."

"I am wishing I had met you years ago, that we had married, that I was—ah, do not laugh at me, Frank—that I was a—mother, the mother of your child!"

"Kate!" He stared at her in swift dismay, but Madame was serious.

She continued dreamily: "Really, dear, I have always longed to have a child; every woman does, I think. Do you know, when I see babies with their nurses in the street I often stop to speak to them and kiss their hands. Their little hands appeal to one so, so small and crumpled-up they are, when they stretch out to me they make me feel tight here;" she put her hand to her heart.

Cressingham felt strangely shocked, just as shocked as he would had he listened to a better woman uttering a blasphemy. And yet, somehow he was compelled to sympathize, for Madame was a good woman just then. Her eyes were dreamy and bright with dew, her lips parted in an ecstacy of meditation. It was as though she dreamed indeed, and believing herself a mother clasping her infant to her heart.

But what a douche on his imaginings! He found something actually revolting in the idea of Madame as a mother. Getting to his feet he paced the floor in silence until Bellair returned with Madame's tea.

The man vouchsafed a piece of information as he entered. "At midnight, Monseigneur, Monsieur will come for Madame."

Cressingham nodded, Madame smiled, and when Bellair had gone grew quite hilarious, for she was pleased that a term had been placed on her incarceration even in so soft a prison, so intolerant was her nature of restraint. Cressingham, feeling the need of exercise, continued his walk until dinner had arrived, keeping up, the while, a running fire of chaffing conversation.

After an excellent dinner, Madame puffed a cigarette. She called her lover to her.

"Kiss me," she commanded.

He brushed her forehead with his lips.

A sudden rage possessed her at his coldness, and quite beside herself she struck him sharply on the mouth.

He started back maddened at the blow, but next second Madame repented.

But Cressingham, white with anger, and in spite of her whimpering entreaties, hurried from the room, banging the door fiercely behind him.

An hour of meditation made him remorseful, too. After all, she had but given way to a moment's temper, and had instantly repented. He was a man, she only a woman; he should have pardoned her. Even as he relented, there came a soft tapping at the outer door. He turned in time to see enter the apartment two women thickly veiled, behind them Von Oeltjen, his finger on his lip.

Bellair made a comprehensive gesture, and the women brushing by Cressingham, entered Madame's room noiseless as phantoms, closing the door soundlessly behind them. A short pause succeeded, then a sharp quickly-smothered cry—and a long silence, which no one cared to break.

Cressingham felt boiling in his heart a mixture of wild impulses, some of which madly urged him to help Madame, some to rush away, away, anywhere, anywhere in or out of the world, so that he might rid his brain of thought, and rest. As in a horrid dream he saw the women presently emerge from the room bearing Madame's body like a corpse between them. She was utterly unconscious, and rested in their grasp so still and helpless that his heart cried out in very pity for her state, the more perhaps because her face had lost a great part of its beauty in the pallor of the drug. He watched them bear her carefully away, and noted, half-dazed, that the house was wrapped in silence, that the clock's hands almost stood at two. One dim consolation only seemed remaining: presently he would be alone.

But that too faded. Von Oeltjen approached him. "Better put on your thickest coat," he murmured, "the night is bitter cold."

"What!" said Cressingham stupidly; "I am wanted too?"

"Why, certainly! Hasten, please."

Soon he found himself in a carriage seated beside the Count, a carriage that bore them swiftly and unfalteringly through the gloom, for a grey mist enveloped the city, and the streets through which they passed were utterly deserted.


CHAPTER VIII.—THE TORTURE OF THE THUMBSCREWS

THE drive was long and wearisome; just before daylight broke they departed from the high road to enter an avenue of leafless larch trees, and in the grey light of dawn drew up at last before the ruins of a grand old manor house built in the best Elizabethan style, but long given over to decay. Cressingham with much surprise recognized the place as the property of old Lord Sedgewick, a remote connexion of his family, and knew therefore that he must be in Kent and not far distant from the sea. The whole house was dark, and seemed deserted. Oeltjen led the way to the farthest door of the left wing, which he opened with a latch-key. Entering, they climbed by match-light a flight of narrow, winding stairs and passed along a dusky corridor into a large double-bedded room.

Oeltjen lighted a candle, and throwing himself into a chair commenced at once to undress himself. "You must excuse me," he remarked, "but I'm dead tired. I have not rested these eight-and-forty hours."

"But what am I to do?" said Cressingham.

"Well, I can't say, unless you follow my example. There is no one in the place except Perigord's servants and his prisoners. Perigord himself will not arrive before the evening."

"Then why the dickens was I brought here?"

"To ensure your safety; you are a marked man, my friend."

Cressingham stamped impatiently to the window, and when next he turned to question his companion found that Oeltjen had got half-clothed between the blankets and was already fast asleep. With a muttered oath he approached the other bed and cast himself upon it, but he was more weary than he guessed, and presently forgot his discontent in dreamless sleep.

In the afternoon Oeltjen aroused him, and they wandered together through long halls and stately but cobwebbed corridors to the kitchen on the lower floor, where a servant in charge gave them cold meat, bread and cheese and a flask of cider. Afterwards they endeavoured to explore the house, but soon tired of that dusty task. Many rooms were locked, but those unbarred which they could enter all told the one sad story of desertion and neglect. Furniture of massive type and old-world structure and design there was in plenty, but moth-eaten, dust-covered and deplorably decayed, while the carpets simply rotted on the floors. It was a spectacle to make a careful housewife weep, and Cressingham and Oeltjen were filled with generous anger at the shameful ruin that they saw. They discovered at last in the ground floor of the right wing a billiard room which was in a slightly better state of preservation and bore traces of recent use. No doubt the caretaker in his master's absence was used to entertain the village champions there. At any rate the table was fit to play upon, and several cues were tipped. The two friends, glad of such recreation, whiled away the waiting hours in amiable rivalry. Late in the evening they dined on the remains of their lunch—other food there was none—and when at about ten o'clock they heard the sound of an approaching cavalcade they were in a condition of mind to welcome Satan himself, so that he brought them a relief from the dull silence of that sombre mansion.

The new-comers proved to be Perigord, Colonel Elliott, the man Guillaume Bellair—and a fourth, a tall and heavily-bearded Norseman, who looked every inch a sailor. Perigord gravely saluted them, giving Cressingham a word of thanks, then he introduced them both to the Norseman—Captain Fagerholm, he called him.

Colonel Elliott greeted Cressingham kindly, but with a certain reserve of manner. The old gentleman was a narrow-shouldered, thin, and excessively sallow person; his face suggested a nagging liver and choleric disposition: just now he was on the qui vive of anxiety, and in his struggle to appear calm and unconcerned, his manner was unconsciously pathetic, and his eyes constantly appealed to one with the unspoken words: "Am I not quite a Spartan? Please do not pretend to think me over-anxious for the safety of my child. Above all do not pity me!" In reality, the Colonel, though quick-tempered, was one of the kindest and warmest-hearted men in the world. As they proceeded indoors, Cressingham, who was very fond of him, whispered in his ear: "How have you arranged about your servants and the public, regarding your daughter's disappearance?"

The Colonel's lip trembled as he replied: "I have not seen them. Perigord met me at the station and gave me the news. He made me write a note to the butler saying Francine was with me at Dover, and he took the note to my house himself and explained matters; he was very kind."

Cressingham whispered back: "Who is Perigord, Colonel?"

The old man shook his head. "I don't know, although I have known him for these ten years past. He's a right good fellow though, and has done me many services. Francine is awfully fond of him."

"What! Fran——your daughter knows him?"

"Yes!" Here was more food for Cressingham's mental consumption, but he was not given time to digest it just then.

Perigord had led them to the very end of the building, and now pausing before a ponderous iron-bound door, was fitting a huge key into its massive lock. The bolt shot back with a sharp snap, and through the open door entrance was disclosed a wide and stately chamber, which, though lighted with waxen tapers manifold, was nevertheless so spacious that it scarcely seemed illumined, and its comers faded into actual gloom. The room extended from one side of the building to the other; three of its walls were slashed with narrow windows, now however closely shuttered and barred, and the fourth, through which they had entered, was hidden altogether behind long drooping sheets of rich embroidered arras, centuries old and much the worse for wear. Two rows of stiff armour-plated warriors kept watch and ward, drawn up erect, visors down, their mailed hands threateningly grasping sword, mace or battle-axe, forming as they stood a wide and splendid avenue to a dais at the farthest end of the apartment. Memory woke in Cressingham when he recognized the figures, and vaguely he recalled a half-fearful hour of his boyhood spent in gazing at those speechless emblems of a bye-gone warlike age. More vaguely still he remembered that his cousin, Lord Sedgewick, had once possessed the craze of collecting arms, armour and the dreadful implements of torture used by old Norman barons and other feudal lords; his glance sought and found quite near at hand a skeleton rack, reposing between two red-cross knights; farther on two rusty, hateful-looking boots and, scattered here and there among the mail, pincers, thumbscrews, leaden cranium caskets and ugly little beds of death.

With a shudder he turned from these grim objects to contemplate the living tenants of the room. On the dais a man was seated on a chair between two standing black-clad figures. Approaching, he saw that the chair was of iron, and the man securely fastened there by bands of stained and rusted steel. His mouth was tightly bandaged, but his black eyes sparkled with an eager and venomous brilliancy. He was thick-set, middle-aged and bald, and his face was of a low and vulgar type, with its receding forehead, nose flat and sprawling like a negro's, jaw ponderous and brutal.

Perigord, last to enter the apartment, softly closed the door, then strode down the avenue without a pause until he had reached the dais. There he stopped while the others gathered round him, his eyes fixed steadily upon the prisoner. "Rupert Klein," he said, his slow, sonorous accents strangely suggestive of calm and well-resolved determination; "twelve months ago I saved you from Siberia because you once rescued a child from the barbarism of a drunken ruffian. I thought for that reason there must be some good in you. Since then Baron Lavalovski has paid for my mistaken judgment with his life. I have reason to believe that his is not the only murder to your credit. I have better reason to know that on account of your peculiar talents you have been recently chosen by your society as instrument for the perpetration of a certain crime—ha! I see I am not mistaken!" (The man had writhed in his chair.) "However, I am not here to judge you now—only to seek from you some information which is in your power to give. I require you to tell me the name and whereabouts of the island whereon the chief of your society sometimes resides. I already know something—enough to prevent your deceiving me. Will you speak? If so, nod your head, and the bandage shall be removed."

The man remained still as marble, staring straight before him.

Perigord made a sign to the guards. They stooped down and fastened something to the prisoner's manacled right hand.

"One!" said Perigord slowly, and paused.

"Two!" another pause. "Three!" Klein's face turned suddenly purple; for a second he strained like a tiger at his bonds, then sharply nodded his head.

Perigord said: "Take off the gag." But scarcely was this done when the prisoner sent forth a wild, unearthly shout for help, a scream so full of physical anguish that it froze the blood in some of his hearers' hearts.

It was, however, quickly smothered, and the man gagged again.

"Four!" intoned Perigord, his voice utterly unmoved.

Cressingham, who watched the prisoner intently, saw his eyes roll in their sockets and the whites gradually fill with blood. Feeling unmanned and sick, he turned away. Oeltjen was staring horror-struck, his face white as death; Colonel Elliott trembled in every limb; Captain Fagerholm was livid with emotion. But no one spoke or seemed to think of interference.

"Five!" said Perigord. Klein uttered a groan so fierce and prolonged that it penetrated the mufflings of the gag and was distinctly audible.

The horrid sound broke down Cressingham's control. "I cannot stand this!" he cried. "Mr. Perigord, you must stop this fiendish work; what are you thinking of? Gentlemen, I appeal to you—Oeltjen, Colonel Elliott!"

For answer Perigord stamped his foot, and as if by magic five men issued from shadows where they had previously lurked unseen. In the hand of each rested a revolver. "You see," said Perigord with icy immobility.

"My God!" cried the young man. "Do you mean——"

"I mean that I shall brook no interference, sir!" At a nod, two of the men approached, and before Cressingham had recovered his surprise his wrist and arms were grasped and he was helpless. Perigord coldly returned to business: "Six!" he said.

Klein's eyes, which had shone with a light of hope during the altercation, grew dull with desperation. He nodded his head. A second time was the bandage removed.

"Water!" he gasped. A cup was put to his lips, which he drained at a draught.

"Now!" said Perigord.

"The Island of Gotkska," he muttered faintly,

"Where is that?"

"North of Gothland, in the Baltic."

"Gag him!" said Perigord quietly. When this was done: "Put the screw on his left thumb, the point well beneath the nail—so!" (he bent over to examine their work). "That is well, now turn firmly but not too quickly. One!"

Klein gave a muffled shriek of agony.

"For God's sake stop, this is wanton, the fellow has told you!" almost sobbed Cressingham, in whose eyes stood tears of generous rage.

"Lies!" returned the other briefly. "Two! three!"

Klein groaning horribly nodded his head, continuing to groan after the gag was gone.

"Well," said Perigord, for the first time showing some impatience, "speak quickly and the truth; this is your last chance to save yourself the torture of the boot!"

"Archipelago; Anarchos!" gasped the prisoner between his moans.

Perigord drew a sharp breath and his eyes glittered like stars.

"Latitude and longitude?" he demanded quickly.

"I don't know. It lies midway between Kos and Amargos."

"Turkey or Greece?"

"Turkey! For the love of God take off the screws!"

Perigord eyed him narrowly, still perhaps in doubt, but at that instant came a fearful interruption. The door through which all had entered was suddenly thrown open, and a loud, strident voice cried out in Russian: "Master, master, save yourself. Come quickly this way. The Anarchists! a bomb, a bomb!" A man stood in the doorway, pale and panic-struck, imploring wildly with his hands.

Perigord demanded sharply "Where?" but the man, unable to speak, pointed a trembling finger at the farthest wall.

Already the executioners and the servants had taken fright, and without asking permission were retreating in disorder. Cressingham alone of the others had understood the man's words and he explained them briefly to his companions, while Perigord stood dumbly listening.

Something that he appeared to hear roused him soon to action. "Come, gentlemen," he cried, "the fellow may be right! We had better retire."

"And leave that poor wretch to die perhaps?" cried Cressingham indignantly.

The young man sprang to the dais and attempted to lift the chair bodily, seeing at once the uselessness of seeking to release the prisoner. He found the chair, however, fastened firmly to the floor. Putting forth all his strength he tried to uptear the screws, unheeding a dull booming roar beneath his very feet. While he strained he was caught suddenly in a giant's grip and borne struggling vainly at a swift pace down the avenue of armoured figures, his ears ringing with Klein's shrieks and desperate yells for help. But he was held powerless as a babe, and when Perigord put him down outside the door he was breathless and exhausted.

They had not long to wait for further developments. A second explosion followed quickly on the heels of the first, and this a fatal one. First, a sharp report like the firing of a cannon close at hand; then a rending crash which shook the floor beneath their feet and made the whole building tremble. Peering through the door, they could see for one short instant the farthest wall of the armoury crumpling up and collapsing inwards like a folding hand, then came a thunderous noise, which dwarfed all others by comparison; the air was quickly choked with dust, and all about their heads fell bricks and plaster with a wild and awful clattering. Silence and the dark succeeded; a deathly silence, a dense, impenetrable darkness. Cressingham stood stupefied and breathless, unable to realize he lived. He heard presently a slight rasping sound, then caught a flicker of light some distance off. Perigord had struck a lucifer and stood calmly surveying the dreadful ruin around him. "Is any one hurt or injured?" he asked, his voice sounding strangely harsh and unfamiliar.

At the question Cressingham realized that his left arm hung limp and helpless at his side, but he felt it carefully and found it was not broken. "Not I," he answered, "thanks to you, Mr. Perigord." Colonel Elliott was badly shaken and had his face cut open by some falling plaster, and some of the servants were much bruised, but not one seriously injured. Perigord, Oeltjen and Captain Fagerholm had escaped untouched. Presently they all made their way by a distant staircase to the ground floor, and quitting the building hurried out to seek the fate of Klein. They found him after a little search lying beneath a heap of debris quite dead and mangled horribly. There was no need to free him from his bonds, the chair had been smashed to fragments, but Perigord ordered the screws to be removed from his dead hands and his body taken to the kitchen.

The gentlemen were still surveying the ruin by the light of a hastily constructed bonfire, when they became conscious of the presence of a stranger who came upon them like a spirit from the dark.

It was Prince Carlos. On seeing him Perigord led the whole party to the kitchen, and dismissing the servants gave the new comer a succinct account of the proceedings. The Prince, whom Cressingham regarded curiously, appeared strangely anxious, but his face grew composed when he had heard everything, and he was the first to propose a scheme which might explain to the world the whole occurrence. His idea was that Perigord, to whom the mansion had been lent by Lord Sedgewick, should declare the explosion the result of a large gas escape within the armoury, and he strongly urged Perigord not to conceal Klein's body but to notify the authorities at once of his death and himself attend the necessarily ensuing inquest.

Perigord having listened to him politely to the end, with a commanding gesture called for the attention of all.

"Gentlemen!" he said impressively, "this accident was caused by an escape of gas. That is a fact to be understood and remembered by us all. I shall myself pay for the damage done, but there will be no inquest, as fortunately no one was injured by the explosion. Klein's body will be carried at once by my servants on board my yacht, the Sea Hawk, which now awaits its freight not three miles distant. Captain Fagerholm, you will proceed at once to the Sea Hawk and steam with all speed to Naples, disposing of the corpse en route. You will take especial care of Madame Katherin Viyella, who is already imprisoned in my state room, and more particularly when you reach Naples; she must hold no communication with the shore—you understand. Prince Carlos, Colonel Elliott and Lord Francis Cressingham, you will accompany Captain Fagerholm. I shall myself join you at Naples, whereupon we shall proceed immediately to effect the rescue of Miss Francine Elliott."

"Thank God!" cried the Colonel.

"And now, gentlemen, au revoir. Captain Fagerholm, you know the way?"

The Captain saluted. "Excellency, yes."

"Good; lose no time then; your freight shall reach the boat as soon as you. Good-night!"

"Good-night, Excellency!" The Captain strode immediately to the door, followed by the three gentlemen under orders. He guided them across a score of fallow fields and wasted meadows to the sea. They encountered no living soul in their march, for their route was circuitous and avoided habitations like the plague. At a short distance from the beach a little launch swung darkly at anchor, but at a whistle from the captain it sprang to life and glided shorewards. Even before it touched the sand, Bellair with three others came upon them carrying between them on a sling a square packing case into which had been doubled up the mangled corpse of Klein.

In unbroken silence the embarkation took place, and twenty minutes afterwards they boarded a beautiful 500 ton yacht which lay with smoking funnels in mid-stream. Cressingham was shown into a cabin furnished with a luxury and magnificence that astonished him, knowing as he did Perigord's simple and austere habits of life. In a rack reposed decanters of spirit and liqueurs which to taste was to enjoy, and he found an open cabinet replete with choice tobacco, pipes and many brands of cigarettes and rare Havannas. He chose a Russian cigarette, and the dainty weed was scarce consumed before the motion of the yacht apprised him it was under way and steaming seawards with surprising speed. In another hour he forgot his troubles and all recent happenings in the pangs of mal de mer. Lord Francis Cressingham was a bad sailor.


CHAPTER IX.—THE VOYAGE OF THE "SEA HAWK"

FIFTY-FOUR hours slipped by before Cressingham was sufficiently recovered to try the deck, and even then it was with fear and trembling. Tempted, however, by the smooth and gliding motion of the yacht, he left his cabin and weakly made his way up the companion stairs. He found Madame the Countess of Hobenstein reclining at full length on a deck lounge, and in that position holding a small court composed of Captain Fagerholm, Colonel Elliott and Prince Carlos, all of whom were paying her every possible attention.

When she caught sight of the new comer, she promptly dismissed the others, ordering them away with a quite regal indifference to their feelings. Cressingham was glad to take one of the vacated chairs, for he felt "anyhow," but Madame noting his pallor recalled Prince Carlos and commanded him to bring her a bottle of champagne. The Prince gave a black scowl at his rival, but obeyed, although he did not return in person. Madame made Cressingham drink quite half the bottle, and sipped a glass herself.

"What a liar you are, Frank, my boy!" she murmured presently, regarding him with a little enigmatical smile.

His face flushed a little. "Tu quoque," he answered her.

"So they have me by the heels at last, and you, the man I loved, have done it. No other could have. Not Perigord with all his millions and his minions."

"Don't make a scene, please; I'm not equal to it."

"Oh, of course not. You may ruin me, but I must not make a scene about it! What a fool I was, wasn't I?"

"What's done—is done, Kate."

"The funny part of it is that I don't yet know whether I hate or love you most. I ought to hate you, shouldn't I?"

"Oh, hate me if you choose."

"You don't care, is that it? Did you fool me with your love as well?"

Madame rose to her elbow, her eyes glittering. Cressingham felt too ill to trifle with her, especially as there was no longer any need to do so. "I have known you exactly for what you are, these weeks past," he said wearily.

Madame was silent for quite a time, then she muttered in a very low voice: "I understand now a lot that previously puzzled me. I thought you were so good, so pure-minded, so honourable. Tell me, Frank, did you ever really care for me?"

"Once."

"Ah, thanks for that, dear. It would have hurt so to have lost everything. I can always think of that whatever comes. Do you know, Frank, I love you still, in spite of all."

"Please don't."

"But you owe me something surely, Frank; a very little—but something; are you not conqueror?"

"What do you want?"

"Only your friendship, dear. Please be kind to me until this voyage is over. Ah, never fear; I shall have time to expiate my sins. I hug to my heart no delusions on that score. I know my fate. I am in the power of men who know no mercy. They will either kill me or confine me in some terrible prison house, where I shall grow old in utter loneliness. Pity me, Frank, and grant me what I ask; it will not be for long, and is not so very much, is it, dear?"

Tears glistened in Madame's beautiful eyes, two big diamond drops that slowly grew in size trembled on the lashes and then rolled down her peach-like cheeks. She had never appeared more pathetic, nor more perfect. Her words entered into Cressingham's heart, for he recognized the truth in them. He had been compelled to stand by and witness the torturing of Klein, and he could not help believing that some terrible fate was reserved for this poor creature, who in spite of all her crimes was still a woman, and wonderfully beautiful.

"I shall do my best," he murmured, then sighed—"We are all puppets, fate-handled puppets, Kate. What I have done I have been constrained to do. Perhaps it has been the same with you. I shall try at least to think so, since I am least worthy in the world to be your judge."

Madame smiled, and dried her eyes. "You are a good fellow, Frank. I wish I might have been a better woman; but let us try to forget. We have a day or two before us which we may enjoy—after that, for me at least, the deluge!"

She cried out suddenly: "Captain Fagerholm! Colonel Elliott!"

The gentlemen hurried to her delighted to have been recalled to grace. Cressingham noted with amaze that each was already a devoted slave—even the Colonel, in spite of his three-score years and patchwork liver.

"I am going to give a dinner party!" said Madame; "a dinner party on deck, may I?"

"Why certainly," said the Captain heartily. "That is, provided you invite me."

"As if there were need for that proviso," said Madame with a look that brought a flush to the Captain's cheeks. "My guests shall be: His Highness Prince—Carlos you call him, is it not so? Lord Francis, Colonel Elliott, and you Captain—ah, you will have the place of honour on my right hand; are you not my guardian, eh?" She gave a rippling, mellow laugh. "Then after dinner, if you are very good, I shall feed you with sugar plums as a reward of virtue. Are you not charmed?"

"Utterly, Madame," responded all.

"Then to you, Captain, I give the task of seeing that everything is properly prepared. Let me see; first we shall have shellfish—with Sauterne; second, soup (Julien) with claret, say Medoc; next, a single entree, say quail roasted, with asparagus and chipped potatoes—and the wine, something light, ah yes, Lachryma Christi, that will do. Then the piece de resistance; ah, you English, I must study you in this—well, then, roast beef, we shall call it boeuf roti, so that everybody may be satisfied; with that, two wines, Hiedsieck for you men, for me Veuve Cliquot. Next—ah, you need not lift up your hands, you men; I also, although a woman, detest pastry, but I shall allow you to have cheese and café-avec, then with me Benedictine or Chartreuse. Does the menu please you?"

"Madame, you are a perfect hostess!" cried the Colonel for all.

"Then, Captain, see to it, my reputation is in your hands. It is now eleven; we shall dine at eight, and here where the deck is so nice and wide, by the light of the stars and electricity."

Madame rattled on and kept her court the whole day occupied with her pretty coquetries and light-hearted merriment. She showed herself a perfect mistress of the art of entertainment and not a dull moment was allowed to any near her, so full she was of life and sparkling spirits, so fluent her conversation, so manifold her moods and methods of engrossing male attention. Only Prince Carlos kept from her, jealous perhaps of Cressingham. He remained below deck all day, and when called to dinner put in his appearance tardily and with a manner of manifest reluctance. But Madame soon changed all that. She seemed determined that her party should prove an unqualified success, and that all her guests should be entirely pleased. Therefore to the Prince she showed herself so gracious, so meltingly coquettish, that presently he was charmed from his reserve. And yet so perfect was her art that not for a second did any other feel neglected. To each and all with quick and sparkling change was addressed a different charm, a smile, a glance of witchery, or subtle blandishment, and the while—never an instant still—the bandied ball of conversation was flung back and forth between the five, gaining each time it left Madame added lustre from her sparkling wit.

Cressingham, who knew something by experience of Madame's powers of fascination, was nevertheless completely dazzled by her latest effort, for never before had he witnessed her exert herself so thoroughly to please. He was charmed with the result, and reflected with a measure of sadness on the wantonness with which nature had bestowed such precious gifts. But the yacht had commenced to roll a little during the meal, and the young man before long ceased to interest himself in idle speculation. It soon required a fierce effort on his part even to keep his seat, yet he pretended to eat and tried to make his companions believe that he was enjoying himself. Every time the vessel pitched he felt that the bottom was going out of things and that he, like Gerontius, trembled on the dizzy brink of some sheer infinite descent and needs must sink and sink into that vast abyss. Then when the dive followed the pitch he realized the comparative bliss he had the second previous enjoyed and made miserably aware of the emotions of Lucifer falling from Heaven, wondered at what precise instant he would be required to yield up the ghost, that is to say, his dinner.

The psychological moment soon arrived. After the Benedictine, Madame produced a handsomely decorated box of sweets, tied up with dainty ribands whose ends were sealed with bright green wax. "These are my sugar plums," she announced, "but before I open the box I must tell you how I got them. Listen! once upon a time, about a week ago, a pretty lady—that's me—wanted a great statesman to do her a great favour. He refused at first; because, well, because——She coaxed and flattered him, and finally he gave her a half promise. Then he discovered that if he kept his word he would betray an official secret; so he did not know what to do. He did not want to fail in his duty, he did not want to offend the pretty lady. He thought and thought, and finally made up his mind. He sent the pretty lady two offerings, a note enclosed with each. The first was a diamond necklace, and its letter said: 'Madame, keep this gift, and wearing it command my love and ask my honour what you will.' The second offering was this box of sweeties; the letter is here, I shall read it, my friends, to show you how clever an Englishman can be at times: 'Madame, keep this gift, it is simpler than the other, but I think you needs must find it more acceptable, for it is offered you with feelings of devotion and sincere respect.'"

Her audience exchanged smiling glances, and Madame continued: "It is unnecessary, gentlemen, to finish the story since you see that I have kept the sugar plums. Prince, will you open them?"

Prince Carlos took the box and slashed the ribands with a penknife. Within reposed a score of richly candied fruits, and in their very midst a little nest of wool. On the wool lay a marquise ring set with five priceless emeralds. Everyone gave a little gasp of amaze, but Madame caught up the jewel with a cry of rapture and kissed it ardently.

"It was so hard to return the necklace," she explained. "After all, the great statesman was nice to the pretty lady, wasn't he?" She was just like a child in her joy and excitement, and the others found it a real pleasure to watch her, she had so bewitched them; all, that is to say, excepting Cressingham, who was too seasick to be aught but cynical.

Madame took up the sweetmeats presently and extracting one between two dainty fingers extended it towards the Prince. He bowed and murmured: "I never eat sweets, you know that, Madame."

She pouted prettily, and turned to the Colonel: "You sir, will not disdain me too; do not dare!"

The Colonel thought for one fleeting second sadly of his liver, but like a gallant old gentleman put fear behind him and ate the dainty up. Captain Fagerholm followed suit, but Cressingham's psychological moment had arrived. The very odour of the rich candied stuff effected the disaster which he had fought off for so long. With the courage of a hero he put it in his mouth, but at that stage heroism vanished. He could not swallow it, his throat, his every nerve and sense went into sudden revolt.

Uttering a wild, unintelligible gurgle of excuse, he sprang to his feet and made a bolt for his cabin, where happily arrived without mishap he was very ill indeed for quite an hour afterwards. He slept fitfully that night and his sleep was so filled with wretched dreams that in the morning he woke seedy and depressed, and suffering from what the patent medicine advertisements describe as "Prognostications of evil," and what he himself called "blue devils."

A stiff whiskey and soda did him very little good, but it gave him strength to stand a severe shock presently. He had just commenced to dress when a tap sounded on his door and there entered the second officer, a grim, hard-visaged Dane, who not being a ladies' man had not ventured on the quarter-deck, and therefore Cressingham met him now for the first time.

"Good morning," said Cressingham, suspending operations and sitting down on his bunk, one leg in, one out of his trousers. "Anything I can do; you see I'm dressing."

The officer replied in German: "Captain Fagerholm and one of the passengers, an old man, are lying in their cabins stone dead."

"Dead!" echoed Cressingham stupidly. "Dead, not dead?"

"Yes!" The man was stolid as an owl, he did not appear at all agitated or surprised, only a little annoyed and much perplexed. "They must have died in their sleep quite peacefully," he continued. "There are no marks on their bodies, and their faces are perfectly composed. Do you think they could have been poisoned, sir?"

Cressingham feverishly recommenced to dress. "When was this?" he demanded.

"An hour ago, sir. I found the Captain first, and when I saw he was dead I started in to tell the others. The little dark man, a prince, isn't he, found the old gentleman, Colonel—ah, I forget his name. The Prince is on deck now talking to the woman passenger. He asked me to tell you."

"I see. I suppose you are the captain now?"

"I suppose so. The Prince has asked me to touch at Spartivento, as he wishes to cable the news somewhere. I don't know quite whether to do as he says or not; you see. Captain Fagerholm was going straight to Napoli under strict orders to stop nowhere. Naturally those orders should now apply to me. Do you not think so?"

"Undoubtedly, Mr.——?"

"Voerloeff."

"Mr. Voerloeff. I thoroughly agree with you, and, moreover, I happen to know that Mr. Perigord will be anxiously awaiting our arrival and would be much annoyed if we delayed our journey by an hour."

"That settles the matter, then. I must now go on deck, but if you will send for me when you are ready I shall take you to see the bodies."

Cressingham no longer felt a trace of sea-sickness. Voerloeff's news had effected a complete cure by virtue of its shock and horrid suddenness. The young man felt unable to think at first of anything but the dreadful facts, but soon he commenced to ask himself reasons, to seek causes, to suspect and argue with himself. He went to inspect the bodies with Voerloeff, and found Captain Fagerholm lying as the officer had described, and the only sign which he could detect himself of anything wrong was a slight blueish swelling round the nostrils and lips. Otherwise he might have been taken to be enjoying deep and peaceful slumber, so calm and reposeful were his features. He must have died without consciousness of pain and actually while sleeping, for his eyelids were closed and in nowise strained, while the eyes beneath were turned slightly upwards as is always the case in sleep.

"It looks like heart disease," said Voerloeff, after a prolonged examination of the Captain's corpse.

Cressingham shut the cabin door and answered: "It was not heart disease, Voerloeff. It was poison. Last night the woman passenger, who is really as you know a prisoner, gave us a dinner party, and afterwards sugar plums. The dinner was not poisoned, for we all partook, and three of us still live. The plums were, for those who ate of them are dead. The Prince refused to eat: he is alive. I was ill, seasick, just as I was about to swallow one: I am alive. Whether Madame ate any or not I do not know, but if she ate any she ate harmless ones."

Voerloeff nodded his head very gravely. "Women are the devil, sir. What would you advise me to do?"

"Put her in irons, and confine her to the cabin."

"Good, very good; I shall do it." He went to the door, then turned with shrugging shoulders: "The Prince, what of him; he is interested in this woman; he may object?"

"I shall settle with him," said Cressingham. "Do not tell him what you intend, but ask him to come and see me in my cabin."

"Good." The Dane swung off, and Cressingham hurried back to his cabin, wishing above all things that there was a doctor on board so that he might verify or disprove his terrible suspicions.

Prince Carlos knocked at his cabin door after a lapse of some minutes. Cressingham received him courteously and gave him a seat. The Prince was excessively nervous and ill at ease, but he endeavoured with so much labour to appear composed that he almost succeeded. Cressingham cut straight into the heart of things, and informed him of his own dark suspicions of Madame. The Prince listened with difficulty, every moment fiercely interjecting, but Cressingham persisted to the end.

"Bah!" cried the Prince at last; "Madame gave me the box unopened as she had herself received it from her English statesman. Was it not sealed; did you not see me cut the strings? Do you forget the ring and Madame's surprise and pleasure at finding it? Besides, Madame ate more plums herself than we all put together!"

Cressingham frowned. "All that proves nothing. Madame is a clever woman, a superlatively perfect actress. I have reason to know it, and so I think have you."

"Well, my Lord, I think you are mad to suspect her. In my opinion, the men died of heart disease."

"What, two in one night, your Highness, out of a company of five?"

"Why not? Stranger things have happened."

"Possibly, your Highness."

"Hark! what is that?" A woman's scream rang out of a sudden through the stillness, a wild cry for help. The Prince sprang excitedly to his feet.

"Stay!" said Cressingham. "There is no need for your Highness to be disturbed. I can explain the meaning of that scream. Madame is being put in irons——"

"What!" thundered the Prince.

"A measure I consider most necessary for our common safety."

The men stared at each other for ten seconds; Cressingham stern and quite resolved, the Prince mad with anger, his face white, his eyes glittering like beads.

"You treat a woman in this fashion," he stuttered slowly; "it is not because you truly suspect her; it is because she has disdained you and thrown you aside, and you wish revenge. My Lord Cressingham, you are a contemptible hound, and it is I who tell you so."

Prince Carlos evidently forgot that he was speaking to an Englishman, for instead of removing himself to a safe distance while delivering this speech, he thrust his forehead almost under Cressingham's nose.

Cressingham's reply was not in words. Disregarding the fact that the Prince was his guest, and the further fact that his guest was a Prince, he answered like an Englishman, straight from the shoulder, and with such hearty good will that Prince Carlos was knocked completely insensible for a space of several minutes. When he recovered, it was to see Cressingham contemplatively regarding him through a haze of cigarette smoke.

The Prince rose slowly to his feet, and gazed with stupid but venomous eyes at his enemy. "I shall kill you," he gasped, finding words with the utmost difficulty.

To the Englishman he appeared a very pitiful object indeed; Cressingham felt almost sorry for the blow, such a tiny little man he was, so small and spiteful in his impotent rage and his despair. "You want to fight me, I suppose?" he asked coolly.

"Ah! fight you, canaille! Never!"

"Oh, you mean murder, then." Cressingham laughed contemptuously. The Prince got somehow to the door, gave his enemy one terrible glance and vanished.

Cressingham soon afterwards betook himself to the cabin of Captain Elliott, in order to inspect the body of his old friend. He had been at first quite satisfied to have examined the corpse of Captain Fagerholm, but later a sense of duty impelled him to leave no particular of his obligations undone.

The old gentleman was lying on his right side, his mouth wide open. Cressingham could detect no motion of the heart, but taking out his watch he put the cold, bright glass above the Colonel's lips. To his joyful surprise, on withdrawing it the surface was slightly dulled. He at once shouted for assistance, and presently on the arrival of Voerloeff everything in the power of amateur physicians was done to resuscitate the apparently expiring man. They alternately drenched the head and shoulders with cold water, and vigorously chafed his limbs, then forced a quantity of raw spirit down his throat.

Their efforts met with some measure of success. The Colonel, after an hour of this treatment, commenced to breathe stertorously, but it was impossible to waken him to consciousness. He lay in a deep coma, and was apparently insensible to pain, resting utterly unresponsive to the pricking of a needle or any other form or device of torture which they essayed for his arousing. In spite of this, a regular system was instituted, and with short intervals during the next forty-eight hours relays of sailors were employed in repeating the process of drenching and chafing the old man's body.

Throughout that day and the next Cressingham received a score of imploring messages from Madame, but he steeled his heart and replied to none of them. He did not see the Prince again, and Voerloeff informed him that his Highness was confined to his cabin, having struck his head against a skylight and severely bruised his forehead.

On the afternoon of the second day they sighted the smoking top of Mount Vesuvius, and some hours afterwards dropped anchor in the Bay of Naples, a mile outside the breakwater. Within twenty minutes of their arrival a steam launch came to the yacht's side, and Mr. Perigord and the port health officer climbed on board together.

Voerloeff immediately led them to the Captain's cabin, and a little later into the saloon. Cressingham once heard the Prince's nervous voice raised in loud expostulation, after that nothing for quite two hours, at the end of which time the whole party came silently on deck.

Perigord approached the young man, and whispering in his ear, "You have done well," said aloud, "I wish you to accompany me ashore, my Lord."

Cressingham nodded, and with great difficulty restraining his curiosity, followed Perigord down the gangway into the little steam tender that groaned alongside. A very strong hot wind was blowing from the land, and there being no shelter on the launch, conversation was rendered impossible.

In silence they landed. Prince Carlos saluted Perigord without speech and disappeared in a carriage. The health officer bowed very gravely and departed also in silence, except that he rattled some coins in his pocket as if to reassure himself.

But Perigord at last broke from his reserve and spoke: "I congratulate you on your sea-sickness, my Lord."

"Then you think as I?" cried Cressingham, delighted with such support.

"Precisely, since I still retain possession of my reason. But let us dine together, that is if you have any appetite."

"Why, I think so, sir."

Perigord took the young man's arm with a gesture almost affectionate, and led him slowly into the city.

CHAPTER X.—THE COUNCIL OF KINGS

MR. PERIGORD glanced in at two or three restaurants, but apparently dissatisfied with the appearance of their occupants, finally requisitioned a private room at the Hotel de l'Europe at the end of the Toledo. He ordered a very plain repast, and while they partook of it leisurely explained himself. "The Captain's body," he said, "will be removed ashore during the evening. The health officer has already certified that he died of apoplexy; therefore we shall be troubled with no official inquiry. There will, however, be made privately a post-mortem examination of the contents of his stomach in order to determine the proper cause of death. The doctor suspects aconite or apomorphia, and I am inclined to agree with him."

"What of the Colonel?" asked the young man anxiously.

Perigord shook his head. "Impossible to say, my Lord. The doctor thinks he cannot recover; he says the old man must have had the morphine habit or he could not have survived so long. He will be taken ashore, however, and everything that medical skill can do will be done to help him. His is a very sad case, for even should he recover he will probably be either paralyzed or permanently insane."

"How horrible! And Madame?" inquired Cressingham; "is she to escape scot-free?"

"I think not: her fate will, however, be determined this evening. By the way, my Lord, I have to thank you for the manner in which you have recently acquitted yourself of the duties allotted you. You have hitherto obeyed me without question, trusting almost blindly to my word. It is time that I requited your confidence to some extent. To-night I shall endeavour to secure your admission to the council of my coadjutors, amongst whom are numbered some of the great ones of the earth. I think, moreover, if all goes well, that I can promise you a complete rehabilitation in the career which you had chosen for yourself, and which was so unfortunately interrupted. That, however, must largely depend upon your own energy and perseverance. If you continue to show yourself worthy, you will find many powerful men willing to assist you and anxious to become your friends."

"You are very good, sir," said Cressingham gratefully, "but I fear that what you suggest is beyond the bounds of possibility. I'm afraid I have damned myself too completely. The British Government would never give me another chance."

Perigord surveyed the young man with a strange smile, his powerful face animated with an expression of quaint kindliness and unwonted warmth. "We shall see; we shall see. Wait a little, my Lord. Time is full of balmy attributes; a little time and who knows what may hap. But tell me, is it true that Prince Carlos fell and bruised his face? I thought his explanation was peculiar."

Cressingham coloured. "He insulted me most grossly, sir. I knocked him down."

"That is bad, my boy, very bad. The man is of royal blood. He is slightly crazed, I think. I warned you, did I not, to bear with him?"

"You did, sir—but I lost my temper; he wished to prevent us drawing Madame's teeth, professed to believe her a maligned angel, and called me by an unforgivable name."

"I see; and yet she appears to loathe him; will not allow him to go near her, I believe, so Voerloeff informed me. Is that right?"

"I do not know that, sir, but I do know that he conversed with her immediately the bodies were discovered."

"Ah—and he wished Voerloeff to stop at Spartivento. It is really quite a lucky thing that you are a bad sailor, my Lord."

"I don't quite understand you, sir."

"The Prince refused to taste Madame's sugar plums, is not that so?"

"That is true!"

"He wished to stop at Spartivento, and violently defended Madame."

"All true, sir."

"You infer nothing from these facts?"

"I dare not, sir—why, what——"

"My Lord," said Perigord gravely, "in an enterprise such as ours the lightest happenings require investigation, and that investigation should be founded on the maxim that your staunchest seeming friend may be at heart an enemy. But you have finished your dinner; your friend Oeltjen will be waiting for us on the Piazza Reale. Let us go."

Cressingham got up, and mustering his courage while the other paid the bill, inquired: "Recent events will not delay us in proceeding to the rescue of Miss Elliott, sir, I hope?"

"I hope not," answered Perigord. "In a short while we shall definitely know."

Five minutes' walk took them to Maraschi's corner, where they found the Count von Oeltjen, who cordially shook hands with Cressingham. The three gentlemen then entered a fiacre and drove northwards, Perigord giving the driver an address that completely astonished Cressingham. At ten o'clock they drew up before the gateway of the Palace of King Humbert of Italy, and Perigord having given a pass-word to the sentries on guard, they were all permitted to pass into the Royal grounds.

Perigord led the way to a side entrance, defended by a porch, within which stood a dozen soldiers, an officer, and about twenty black-clad gentlemen. To the officer he simply announced his name, and instantly they were ushered with the greatest courteousness through a spacious hall into an ante-chamber, where Perigord bade his companions wait, he himself proceeding with the officer to an inner room.

An hour passed, which Cressingham devoted to informing Oeltjen of his adventures on the Sea Hawk. At the end of that time an old and courtly gentleman came, who asked them to follow him. They proceeded from the ante-chamber to a wide corridor, thronged with officers magnificently dressed, who all stood to attention like so many private soldiers.

Passing between their ranks they entered a second anteroom, where were seated three grave-looking gentlemen in evening dress, who politely arose and bowed to the strangers. Their guide led them to the further door, on which he knocked, and opened, bidding them enter, himself remaining outside and closing the door behind them.

The friends found themselves in a large and stately apartment decorated with all the ornate extravagance of the early Italian renaissance; it was brilliantly illuminated, and its walls hung with many fine oil paintings. A large table occupied the centre of the room, and about this table were seated seven gentlemen, six of whom were attired in ordinary dinner suits. The seventh wore the richly-coloured state robe of a Cardinal and on his head a scarlet biretta. He occupied the head of the table; on his left hand sat King Humbert, whose stern and warlike features were set in an expression cold and impassive. The other five gentlemen were unrecognizable behind heavy velvet masks.

Mr. Perigord stood at the foot of the table immediately opposite the Cardinal. He appeared to have been just speaking, and to have paused at the interruption. The eight gentlemen stared for some space at Cressingham and Oeltjen without speaking.

Cressingham, who recognized King Humbert and thought that he could also recognize the King's vis-a-vis, made (as well as Oeltjen) a reverent obeisance. He was profoundly moved at finding himself in such august company, and although he had been in a measure prepared, he nevertheless experienced a shock so great that for the first time in his life he was touched with nervousness and veritable timidity. Having bowed, he unconsciously drew himself up like a soldier and stood at the salute, enduring the examination with tremors hitherto unknown to him. Oeltjen, who had doubtless known better what to expect, was more at ease.

Perigord broke a silence whose intensity was growing painful. "As I said before, your Eminence and your Majesties," he began gravely, speaking in French, his deep powerful voice filling the room with heavy waves of sound; "I shall personally answer for these gentlemen. Lord Francis Cressingham" (Cressingham involuntarily stepped forward) "has already rendered our cause important services. Ludwig, Count von Oeltjen, has for the past two weeks been my private secretary, his trustworthiness I have amply proved."

The Cardinal answered in a thin rasping voice: "Your assurance, Mr. Perigord, is sufficient recommendation. If you are satisfied, we are more than pleased to welcome the gentlemen amongst us. Is it not so?"

He looked slowly round the table. King Humbert for answer slightly nodded, and the six masked gentlemen immediately removed their masks. Cressingham stood petrified to meet the open gaze of five reigning monarchs and the Crown Prince of Italy, who sat beside the King, his father. As well as the Prince, the Cardinal, King Humbert, and Perigord, the council was composed of the Czar Nicholas of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the Emperor of Austria, and the King of Sweden.

They all slightly bowed to the two astonished intruders; then, apparently dismissing the matter from their thoughts, glanced inquiringly towards the Cardinal, who seemed to act as president.

"The Archduke —— is now twenty minutes late," said his Eminence; "doubtless he has been detained. I think we need not wait further, but proceed to business."

Cressingham heard the name then uttered with a start, for he had at last rightly guessed the identity of Prince Carlos.

The others all signified approval.

Perigord immediately beckoned to von Oeltjen, and, pointing to a mass of papers on the table at his left hand, gave some direction.

The Count selected a certain document, which he handed to his master and fell back a step.

Cressingham was thus left lonely, but with plenty of matter to occupy his eyes and thoughts.

Perigord divided the document given him in half, and handed one portion to von Oeltjen with a muttered word. The Count took the paper immediately and presented it with a low reverence to the Cardinal.

"That, your Eminence," said Perigord, "is a duplicate account of my expenditures during the last three months. The sum total amounts to Ł41,000 English. If it pleases you, I shall read aloud the items in order that your Eminence may check the figures."

"What is the balance in hand?" asked the Kaiser.

"Ł109,000, your Majesty."

"Then," said the Kaiser, "there is no immediate need of further contribution. I think, my brothers, we may safely leave matters of accounts to the discretion of his Eminence. For my part, I must be at Berlin to-morrow, and would like to set out the first moment possible."

A hum of approval followed. The Cardinal bowed, and putting the sheets aside, addressed Perigord, who continued standing.

"You may consider the accounts passed, sir, subject to my subsequent ratification. We shall be pleased now to hear your report."

Oeltjen handed Perigord a second document, which he opened and conned for some moments in silence. Cressingham took this opportunity to regard him, and was struck with the man's dignity and calm repose of manner. Even in an assemblage of kings he stood forth a figure full of strength and grandeur, suffering nothing by comparisons. And this although most of his features considered separately were incomparably ugly. But his forehead was so broad and noble, his air and general appearance so manifestly full of lofty purpose, and the man himself so large and powerful a presence, that his very homeliness was pleasing and his tout-ensemble carried invincibly to the dullest mind a restful conviction of capability and impervious integrity.

"Your Eminence, your Majesties," he presently began; "it was first my intention to recite my progress step by step, but lest such a course might weary you I shall condense as much as possible. Three months ago I informed you that I had at last discovered a key to the mystery which has baffled us so long. By the expenditure of a large sum of money, I was able to purchase from a dying and repentant man, who, wishing to provide for his children, was thus induced to partially betray his trust, a priceless piece of information regarding the three iniquitous chiefs of Nihilism——"

Here he was interrupted, for the door opened and Prince Carlos entered the apartment. He made a long apology for his delay to the president, and was provided with a seat.

On seeing Cressingham he started up with a scowl and seemed about to speak. The others regarded him expectantly, but he changed his mind and resumed his chair.

Perigord, when silence again obtained, proceeded: "I discovered that a close connexion subsisted between the three chiefs of that dreadful society and a woman who by virtue of her rank, talents, and beauty has long been an ornament at the Courts of your Majesties. I refer to the woman Katherin Viyella, soi disant Countess of Hobenstein. With the approval of your Eminence and your Majesties, I then undertook the task of ascertaining Madame Viyella's parentage, confident that such a course would lead us to the knowledge we desire. I regret to say that in this I have so far failed. I have, however, succeeded in taking Madame Viyella a prisoner, and she is now in my power. In fact she is at this moment confined on board my yacht which lies at anchor in the bay yonder. I should tell you that Madame Viyella is an unwilling prisoner, and such is her address that during the voyage from England hither, not two days since, she succeeded in poisoning my friend Colonel Elliott and the captain of my yacht——"

"My God!" cried several, interrupting sharply.

"The captain is dead, Colonel Elliott is still alive, but unconscious and sinking fast. Madame tried also to poison Lord Cressingham and your Highness"—he turned to Prince Carlos, who looked very uncomfortable but said nothing—"but an accident averted in those cases her designs. Your Majesties may ask me why I took Madame prisoner. My answer is that the time appeared ripe. Madame knows very well how to guard her secrets, and she is too dangerous and capable an instrument of evil to allow at large. Moreover, the course was of a sudden rendered acutely necessary by circumstances beyond my control. I had laid certain traps for Madame, hoping to surprise her secrets from her. Madame was cleverer than I; she saw the traps, and both laughed at me and tricked my agents. Her friends, however, less wise than she, feared that she might, unwittingly or otherwise, betray them. They endeavoured to entice her from England, but failed. Their fears intensified by her refusals, they suddenly determined to forcibly abduct her from the country in order to ensure their safety. Their spies, however, who were entrusted with this task, mistook another woman for Madame; they carried out of England and still hold in their power Miss Francine Elliott, only daughter of the man whom two days ago Madame tried to murder, and the affianced wife of Lord Francis Cressingham."

Prince Carlos here gave vent to a deep exclamation, a guttural "Ah!"

Perigord flashed at him a searching glance and proceeded: "By a fortunate circumstance I personally overheard at Flushing a conversation between Kaputsky (who, as you know, is an active but cunning member, too cunning to convict) and the commander of the yacht which conveyed Miss Elliott from London. I thus learned that they proposed to carry Miss Elliott in their yacht to a certain island, whose name was not mentioned, in the Mediterranean Sea, where the president of the inmost circle is at present residing. I might at that moment have interrupted their designs and rescued Miss Elliott from their clutches. Had I done so, however, it would have destroyed all hope of successfully carrying out a plan which I then immediately conceived. That plan was, and is, to discover the whereabouts of this island, and seize it, if necessary, under arms. It has long puzzled us all to know where the permanent stronghold of the society is pitched. I no longer entertain any doubt but that this island once discovered and taken will be found to contain the solution of all those mysteries which have distressed us for so long. Even should none of the chiefs be discovered there when we attack the place, our operations may be so conducted that it will be possible to conceal all evidence of hostile presence and await their arrival to capture or destroy them. We shall, however, have to use superlative caution and address in attacking the place, for of one thing I am certain, if this island be the stronghold of Nihilism as I conceive, it is connected with the mainland of Europe by one or several secret cables——"

"Ah!" Prince Carlos this time gave a sharp cry, which seemed strangely like one of dismay.

Perigord slightly smiled, but did not look at him. "For," he continued, "I have long since come to the conclusion that the Nihilists have not trusted their more important communications through the medium of the public telegraphs; indeed, I have absolutely proved this to be the case, and yet we have had frequently thrust upon us overwhelming, staggering proof that information has been secretly and instantaneously conveyed across long distances and communications exchanged for the purpose of dazzling or defeating us in a manner that could be only explained otherwise by magic."

"Or cypher," said Prince Carlos, with a sneer.

Perigord smiled again and addressed himself entirely to the Prince. "That explanation occurred to me, your Highness, but an exhaustive examination (which their Majesties some time since rendered possible)"—he bowed to the kings—"of the entire telegraphic correspondence between the principal cities of Austria, Germany, Italy and Russia, during prolonged and well chosen periods of time, has utterly failed to discover a trace of messages which our agents had proved to have been transmitted from place to place with telegraphic speed."

"You claim that the Nihilists have a private transcontinental telegraph system as well as a direct cable communication to the island, then?"

"Either that or well arranged small private subways between certain centres; their organization, at any rate, is so perfect as to defy detection. Your Highness knows that the secret police of all Europe have assisted us to the utmost limit of their power without result."

"Ah, bah, the police!"

"To resume," said Perigord. "Having conceived this plan, I proceeded forthwith to put it into execution. Klein, the deputy, who—as your Eminence and your Majesties well know—assassinated Lavalovski and twice attempted even greater crimes, had been chosen to make an attempt upon the life of the present President of the French Republic. I ascertained that his idea was to undermine a railway near Mentone and blow up the train carrying the President as it passed through a certain tunnel. This diabolical outrage was happily frustrated, chiefly through the energy of my secretary, the Count von Oeltjen, here." (Oeltjen turned fiery red.) "Klein was quietly arrested and given into my keeping. I had him carried to England, and there adopted certain measures to loosen his tongue. So closely, however, were my movements watched and followed by our enemies that while in the act of hearing his confession in a place guarded with extraordinary precautions, a bomb was fired. Klein was killed, and my servants and myself only narrowly escaped with our lives."

At this a perfect storm of exclamation broke from the excited lips of the kings, who had hung on the speaker's words with breathless interest.

Perigord waited a moment for silence, and then resumed: "The Nihilists were nevertheless too late; Klein had spoken!" (Perigord now watched Prince Carlos with a covert but steady keenness.) "Finding his situation hopeless, he confessed that the stronghold of his chiefs rested on the Isle of Anarchos (a fitting name for such a place), a small island of the Archipelago belonging to Turkey."

Prince Carlos raised a face of icy calm to meet Perigord's inquiring stare. "I pray God that Klein has told you the truth!" he said with deep earnestness.

Perigord nodded and turned his glance away. "I believe that he has," he answered quietly; "I cannot believe otherwise."

Deep silence lasted for several moments, then King Humbert, clearing his throat, spoke gruffly.

"That is all, sir?"

"Your Majesty, my report is ended. There remains for us to consider two things: first, what shall be done with the person of Katherin Viyella; secondly, what steps shall be taken, if any, to capture the Isle of Anarchos. I venture to suggest that each matter should be disposed of in turn."

"A good suggestion," said the Cardinal.

"Since it promises to save time," said the Kaiser.

The Emperor of Austria sighed. "It is a sad thing to war with women."

"Your Majesty," said the King of Sweden, "we defend ourselves from our enemies; we do not war with men or women."

"You are right and wrong," said the Czar softly. "War is the greatest evil which humanity may suffer; unhappily, to defend ourselves in this instance war is compulsory. I like to think, however, that out of this present evil good must come, even should our plans miscarry; indeed, good has come already, since as representatives of Europe we are met together united in a common cause. And even should we fail for a time in our desires, and before success arrives I or one of us be struck down by an assassin hand, the seed we plant must grow, and I pray shall one day develop into a splendid understanding amity of brotherhood which will be proof against the pricks of time and pride and jealousy, thus guaranteeing for our peoples secure and lasting peace."

"Amen!" said the Cardinal solemnly, and there echoed round the table a deep and reverent "Amen."

"Your Eminence," said Perigord very gravely, "Katherin Viyella is not made of that clay from which traitors spring. She is a wicked woman, but her nature is irrevocably loyal. We cannot release her, we dare not. The labour of long years would be thereby rendered vain, and the precious lives of your Majesties thenceforth irremediably liable to the perils of the past, which perils we now stand on the threshold of finally eradicating. I repeat, we cannot release Katherin Viyella, but we can keep her prisoner."

The kings looked at each other with unquiet glances. No one spoke.

"It is, in my humble conception, our only course," said Perigord.

The kings nodded. The Cardinal drummed on the table with his fingers.

"Where?" he asked; and the question interpreted the expressions of all.

Perigord spoke slowly, looking at each of his august audience in turn: "Siberia; England; Austria; Germany; Hungary; Italy."

No one replied, though many shook their heads.

"Siberia is best, but it is far," said Perigord.

Silence.

"Italy has convents. Your Eminence——"

The Cardinal started. "You are right, Mr. Perigord. I shall take this duty on myself. The woman should, however, be delivered to me at once, for I set out on a journey early in the morning. I shall care for her."

There followed a deep murmur of approval and relief. The Czar spoke for all: "Your Eminence's kindness in accepting such a burden commands our lasting gratitude."

"And now," said Perigord, "comes the matter of importance."

The Crown Prince of Italy here murmured something in King Humbert's ear.

The "Warrior King" started, and cried out: "My brothers, is there not a chair for Mr. Perigord? What a clumsy creature am I to act the part of host so badly!"

"Forgive us, my dear sir," said the Czar with a bland smile.

"My dear Mr. Perigord," murmured the others.

Perigord looked directly at the Prince and smiled.

"If I may, your Majesties, I shall, for I am weary; I have done much to-day and travelled far." He immediately sat down and opened a paper which, in obedience to a sign, von Oeltjen had handed him.

"If your Eminence and your Majesties consent, I shall read a prepared statement which I think will narrow somewhat our field of choice."

"Proceed," said the Cardinal.

"Your Eminence, your Majesties: I should despair to suggest to you a course which technically interpreted would involve the issue of united Europe making war upon a friendly state. Anarchos is an island owned by Turkey, under the Sultan's ruling and protection. Turkey is at peace with the world. It is therefore impossible that any accredited invasion of the remotest portion of that realm should be countenanced by you. And yet, in order to achieve the fulfilment of our aims and also to restore to liberty a lady who has already suffered unwittingly in our cause two unrequitable misfortunes, imprisonment and the murder of her father, the invasion and capture of Anarchos is of vital import. The difficulty so presented, however, is not insurmountable. If—if, your Majesties, devoted men could be found, willing to risk their lives in an enterprise which circumstances have conspired to place absolutely beyond the reach of your powerful protection should disaster meet their efforts—why, then, your Majesties, with the help of God, we can work your enemies' undoing. I possess a yacht which is sufficiently provided with arms and ammunition to equip two score of men. I want no more. A score I have already on board. I should command the expedition. Here are Lord Cressingham and the Count von Oeltjen; therefore I need only seventeen to make my band complete."

He ceased, and looked quietly up. The Cardinal, the kings and princes were staring at him with the keenest scrutiny, as if seeking to read his very heart.

"Your devotion goes so far?" muttered the Kaiser, as if unable to believe.

Perigord smiled. "I regard the affair as a recreation, your Majesty—a pleasant recreation after years of toil."

"I can promise you three men now," said the Kaiser; "a thousand in three days."

"I four," said the Czar musingly; "more I cannot spare; of necessity I am almost unattended."

"I," said King Humbert, "shall supply you with the remainder of your company."

Perigord immediately stood up. "Your Majesties, I thank you. My yacht is the Sea Hawk. She lies a mile outside the breakwater. I shall set out at daylight to-morrow morning."

"So soon?" said the Cardinal.

"Your Eminence, delays are dangerous; moreover, I have nothing to keep me here. Where would your Eminence wish that I should deliver to your keeping the woman, Katherin Viyella?"

The Cardinal considered for a moment. "Secrecy is necessary above all things," he replied. "Bring her three hours hence to the sea wall opposite the Villa Annunziata. I shall there await you."

"As your Eminence pleases. Your Majesties, I have the honour to wish you farewell!" He bowed very deeply, and signing to Cressingham and Oeltjen, backed slowly towards the door.

But in a second King Humbert sprang to his feet. "Not thus," he cried gruffly; "for my part, I like to shake a man by the hand when I can. You would not baulk me of such a pleasure, Perigord?"

"Your Majesty does me too much honour," said Perigord. But the other kings quickly followed Humbert's example—one and all came forward, and, as if on a preconcerted signal, smilingly surrounded him. In a moment they fell back, but when they did so Perigord's sober apparel was marvellously transformed, for a dozen glittering stars shone on his breast, and round his neck swung a gold chain on which depended the most coveted of European distinctions—the gift of Wilhelm of Germany.

Perigord could scarcely speak; he stammered out a phrase or two, then seemingly a little unmanned, hastened to the door. In the first anteroom, however, he appeared completely restored to his old calm and impenetrable demeanour. Quietly removing all the decorations, he placed them in his pocket without so much as a glance at them, and hurried his companions from the palace and thence without pause to the sea. His first words were to Cressingham, whom he addressed in quick, sharp accents of command.

"Oeltjen and I proceed immediately on board the yacht; in three hours we shall return and shall await you here. You will conceal yourself hereabouts, and when Prince Carlos leaves the palace follow him. Wherever he may go, follow him, you understand. If possible, do not let yourself be seen, but at all hazards follow him. I fear him; I have ceased to trust him."

Cressingham heartily disliked the order, but he did not refuse to obey; indeed, he had grown to respect Mr. Perigord so highly of late that his old habits of regarding certain things had become tempered by the opinions of the other concerning them, and he had long ago commenced to recognize the imperious nature of the emprise on which he was embarked as a legitimate excuse for many actions which formerly he might have considered transgressions against his code of honour.

Left solitary, he pulled his hat over his eyes, buttoned up his coat to the chin, and strolled as near as he could to the palace gates without drawing upon himself the attention of the guards.


CHAPTER XI.—THE VENGEANCE OF A PRINCE

HE had not to wait more than five minutes before a carriage emerged bearing Prince Carlos. He had expected the Prince on foot, and might have allowed the carriage to pass unsuspected in the darkness but for the fact that the Prince that moment was in the act of lighting a cigarette, and his features were thus revealed.

Cressingham gave a hurried glance around, but not a single conveyance was in sight. Bracing himself up he prepared for a run, and presently his powers were taxed in that direction to their utmost limit. The carriage set off citywards at a very smart pace, but soon turned abruptly east to thread a maze of narrow and ill-lighted thoroughfares. Cressingham almost lost it many times, but straining every nerve he pressed gamely on, and at last beheld it draw up before a large and imposing mansion. He stopped abruptly, almost done, for, although a fine athlete, his illness on the voyage had made him weaker than he thought.

Leaning against a wall in the shadow of a portico he panted sobbingly for breath, and the world swung round him for a while. He saw through a blurred haze the Prince alight from the carriage and ascend the steps. Even at the distance which separated them, all of a hundred yards, he heard the man's impatient thunder at the door. Then followed a grateful silence, during which he gradually recovered his strength and curiosity. Slipping cautiously along the houses, he approached the carriage by full fifty paces, and there narrowly escaped a fatal accident. Two policemen on their rounds had turned the corner of the street and quickly overtook him. They were disputing excitedly together, else they must have noticed him, for although he shrunk into the shadow and flattened himself as much as possible against a wall, they passed so close that either could have touched him. Holding his breath, he feared they would hear the beating of his heart, but they noted nothing, and presently exchanged some words with the driver of the Prince's carriage.

Hardly had they disappeared from view when the Prince himself descended the steps of the house, a lady leaning on his arm. Cressingham strained his eyes, but could only catch a glimpse of the outlines of her figure.

The Prince placed her in the carriage, then entered himself. The driver whipped up his horses, the carriage turned and passed within a dozen feet of the amateur detective. Cressingham waited until it had turned the corner, then dashed off in pursuit.

As nearly as he could recall the way, it seemed to retrace its previous path, but now more leisurely, and he was able to keep it in view with less expenditure of effort. Presently emerging from the streets upon the sea road, it increased its speed, driving rapidly northwards towards the upper neck of the great bay. The speed told on Cressingham, but with clenched hands and hard-set teeth he ran along, satisfied to keep his quarry even distantly in sight so that he did not lose it altogether. One mile, two miles; he had his second wind by this, and the old bull-dog instincts of the English race awoke grimly in his heart. He would run till he dropped; he could be broken, he would not be beaten.

Three miles! Buildings were now infrequent; those that he saw, splendid villas enclosed in spacious grounds, but few and far between; street lamps had been left behind. The red back lights of the carriage twinkled in the distance, and the carriage was going quite slowly. To his left stretched the magnificent panorama of the bay; to his right, the dark bold outlines of the classic hills of Italy. But Cressingham knew nothing now of time or place; he saw nothing, thought of nothing but those sparkling spots so far ahead that twinkled and mocked at him like the eyes of demons. All idea of duty had long vanished from his mind. It had become a personal struggle between himself and those demon eyes. He felt that they were taunting him, and with the fierce revengeful energy of despair he put forth all his fast expiring strength and forced his tottering limbs along.

Then came despair indeed; the carriage had suddenly disappeared, and he was helpless, for he could run no more. But still he walked on at the best pace he could, though utterly exhausted, unconscious that he was climbing to the summit of a little hill.

He topped it at last, to see before him a tiny span of beach a quarter mile below, and the carriage waiting there. With a little cry of triumph some energy returned to him. The slope assisting, he staggered down the hill, and, turning to the side, approached the carriage from the sand. He saw a boat resting by the beach and several dark figures standing there. Hardly knowing what he did, he struggled towards them, and at last threw himself upon the ground, fifty paces from the group, behind a little clump of stunted shrubs. No one had observed him, for his footsteps had been noiseless and the dark was kind. For a terrible five minutes he panted, helpless as a babe and almost fainting; then his breath returning, he forced himself to kneel and watch.

As he watched, two figures detached themselves from the group and walked his way—a man and woman, who spoke together with the utmost earnestness. They halted presently, only a few paces from his lair. He tried to listen to their conversation, but the wild throbbing of his heart and the surging of the blood in his veins had robbed him for a time of the power of hearing.

They stood, their backs turned to him, but soon he recognized the Prince from certain extravagant gesticulations peculiar to the man. After what seemed to Cressingham an interminable period, but in reality was only a few moments, he had so far recovered his composure as to hear vague murmurs, and a little later words and whole sentences. The Prince spoke quickly and eagerly; his demeanour was authoritative and unrestrained; he appeared to be angrily urging some course upon the woman which was repugnant to her inclinations; she answered him for long in monosyllables, and her attitude was distinctly combative.

"You are mad even to dream of returning," cried the Prince in fluent Russian. "Are you blind to the dangers that threaten? You will be lonely. What then? Dull, perhaps, but safe! Soon I shall go to you—as soon as possible. That prospect does not please you? Speak!"

"What do you call soon?" asked the woman in a muffled voice.

"One week, perhaps; two at furthest. I would accompany you now did I dare; but in that case I should be ruined. Already I believe that Perigord suspects. It will require much art and my constant presence here for the next few days to baffle his suspicions."

Cressingham experienced such a shock on hearing these words that his strength and energy returned in sudden flood. He strained forward, fearing to lose a word.

The woman replied: "You are all so much afraid of Perigord! For me, I laugh at him! Twice have I fooled and mocked at him as easily as that——" She snapped her fingers, and suddenly gave vent to a peal of laughter, mellow, rippling, and beautiful.

Cressingham found the sound most tantalisingly familiar, but he could not fix it in his memory; he was certain that he knew the woman, though; who, who under heaven could she be? She spoke on when her laughter ceased: "Even already he will know that his pretty bird has flown. Ah, what would I not give to see his face this instant!"

"We waste time!" said the Prince. "You should be gone ere this. Let us bid each other farewell here."

"Good-bye, then," said the woman, holding out her hand.

"Have you no warmer offering for your husband, Katherin?"

"Katherin!" thought Cressingham, and suddenly he understood. The blow was sharp, and almost took away his senses. He bit his lips to keep back the cry that burst trembling from his heart. "My God! Madame escaped and here!"

With a violent effort he restrained himself from immediately rushing forth and doing he knew not what. Madame's words came to him in a sort of dream: "When you make me your wife before the world, I shall be kinder—not before. Too long have I been a soft, submissive fool."

"Kate, Kate, you know well how impossible it is. My nephew——"

"Your nephew will not live for ever. If you had not been such a fool——"

"Hush!" cried the Prince, glancing round him furtively. "Ha, those shrubs; some one may be lurking there. Why did I not notice them before?" Swinging on his heel, he quickly approached the Englishman, peering into the bushes as he came. Cressingham awaited him, uncertain and indeterminate, leaving all to fate. The Prince skirted the clump very closely, kicking at the stumps with his feet, his hands outstretched to feel as he proceeded. When he had reached the back of the clump he halted within a foot of the other, and sharply struck a match.

Then he gave a little cry, and fell to the ground dazed and stupid, for Cressingham's fist had caught him squarely on the chin. Cressingham swiftly followed up his advantage, and kneeling on the Prince's chest, caught him by the throat.

There had been very little noise in the encounter, but quite enough to alarm Madame. "Frederic," she called out, "what have you found?"

Cressingham thought it necessary to answer her, but he had not reckoned on his voice. "Nothing," he cried, trying to imitate the Prince. But the word was a hollow croak, so weak and flaccid were all his organs from the exertions he had undergone.

Madame, completely alarmed, ran towards the boat, calling loudly for assistance. Cressingham saw that his case was desperate, for he had no weapon, not even a stick, and he had counted at least six figures by the boat.

Giving the Prince's neck a final wrench, he got quickly to his feet, and stooping low, ran as swiftly as he could directly to the sea. He saw in silhouette the men leave the boat and run towards Madame. He reached the water without mishap and without discovery, for the darkness had befriended him and he had left the Prince quite unconscious.

Then a desperate idea occurred to him. All the attendants of the Prince had gone to investigate their master's accident, leaving Madame midway between the clump of bushes and the boat. Could he only make a dash and seize the boat, he would be able to row across the bay and warn Perigord in time perhaps to avert any serious misfortune to the expedition and to effect Madame's re-arrest. Gathering his energies together, he slipped noiselessly along the edge of the waves until he crouched almost opposite Madame and only twenty paces from his goal.

But Madame's prescience seemed more than mortal. Although straining her gaze in the direction of the bushes, some instinct must have warned her, for she turned and, in spite of the dark, discerned the figure of her enemy. She uttered a loud cry, and Cressingham, seeing caution useless, immediately sprang erect and sprinted to the boat. He reached it well ahead of all pursuit, but he reached it to despair. The boat, a great cumbersome launch, rested with half its keel upon the beach, and his most frantic efforts failed to move it a single hairsbreadth.

Sick with anger and completely desperate, he seized a stretcher (the oars were fastened firmly to the rowlocks) and turned to face his pursuers. Two men sprung at him. The nearest he sent to earth with a slashing straightforward stroke that must have broken a negro's skull. The second, however, closed with him, and in a moment all was over, for Cressingham was spent. Other men presently arrived who bound him hand and foot, then the Prince, supported by Madame.

"Hasten!" cried the Prince; "there may be others."

"First see if we know this one," said Madame.

The sailors immediately proceeded to launch the boat. Madame made the Prince rest upon the sand, then striking a light peered into the face of the prisoner. "Blood of Mary!" she cried hoarsely. "You!"

"Who is it?" demanded the Prince.

"Lord Francis Cressingham."

"Caramba!" The Prince got to his feet, nimble as a monkey, his ills entirely cured by such delightful news; the man who had twice struck him—a Prince—to be in his hands and power so soon! He could scarcely credit his good fortune.

"Are you sure, Kate? let me see for myself," he cried.

Another match was struck, and a single glance assured him. "Ah, bah!" he said gleefully. "We need not fear, nor haste too violently. The fellow must have followed me alone, perhaps by the orders of Perigord, for he was, as I told you, at the conference, and your escape could not have been discovered until the yacht was visited. As for——"

"What shall we do with him?" demanded Madame.

"Do with him, why, kill him. Bah, better than that, I have an idea; you shall take him with you to the island and keep him there alive till I arrive. Then we shall hold an auto da fe. That will give fine revenge for the tortures Perigord inflicted on poor Klein!"

"And the blow——"

"Two blows, Madame! But you interrupted me. Cressingham once out of the way, I shall declare him the one guilty of your abduction. Who shall contradict me? Ha, ha, ha! He shall bear the burden of my misdeeds. Ha, ha, ha! What think you of my plan?"

Madame, always a coquette, said laughingly: "Brilliant, my Prince. But you will trust him to me, Frederic. You are no longer jealous, eh?"

The Prince gave a hoarse chuckle and struck a third match which he held above the prisoner. "Oh, yes, I am jealous, Kate, but in a moment I shall not be, for I intend to spoil his beauty. Regard me!"

Suddenly raising his foot he deliberately kicked Cressingham in the mouth. The Englishman writhed upwards, blood streaming from his lips, but the brutal boot was again lifted, and a second kick on his temple deprived him utterly of consciousness. A fury seemed to have come upon the Prince. He danced about his helpless enemy uttering insane ejaculations of delight, kicking the prostrate body savagely at intervals.

Madame watched him (to do her justice) horror-struck, but the man was her husband, and she wished above all things just then to lull his jealousy to sleep.

Forcing herself to calm, she observed with a voice icy but tremulous: "When you have quite finished amusing yourself, I should like to get away, my dear. If you are wise, you also will hasten back to the city, for be sure that Perigord will visit you immediately he knows of my escape. You should be on hand to receive him."

The Prince, recollecting himself, gave Cressingham a final kick in the face, reluctant to abandon an exercise which he had found so entirely pleasing. He was, however, still wildly excited; approaching Madame he caught her in his arms and violently embraced her. "A week hence, Madame, prepare to give your husband a loving welcome. Au revoir!"

He then flung off to his carriage, and drove swiftly citywards, singing like a drunken man at the top of his voice some silly street ditty—his vulgar song of triumph! and the man a Prince!

Madame viciously wiped her face where he had kissed her, and ordered Cressingham to be carried to the boat. Four lusty sailors manned the oars and the shore was soon left far behind. They rowed an hour steadily against wind and tide and then reached a long and dark low-lying narrow steamer, that hovered like a night bird with folded pinion on the water ready at an instant's notice to take to flight. Cressingham was hoisted up the side, bleeding from a dozen cuts, still limp and senseless. Madame followed and ordered him to be taken to a cabin that she might dress his wounds and tend him.

The Captain came to her, bowing and reverencing like a serf. "Your pleasure, Princess?" he asked humbly in Corsican.

"To Attala at once—and full speed, Nickolaiff;—forced draught!" said Madame.

"As the Princess pleases," the Captain murmured, and next moment the night bird steamer took to wing.


CHAPTER XII.—THE LORD OF ATTALA

CRESSINGHAM'S injuries were painful rather than serious. His lower lip was badly cut, two of his side teeth broken and many others loosened, his nose cruelly torn, both cheeks horribly bruised and on his forehead a wound inflicted by the Prince's boot heel which promised to leave a scar he must carry to the grave. Besides these, his body was black and blue from the vicious pounding he had received. It is scarcely matter to marvel at that when he woke to a consciousness of his surroundings his frame of mind was feverishly revengeful, in spite of the fact that Madame had swathed his head and face in bandages and smothered him from head to heel with some soothing balsam.

He stared at Madame through black-fringed and bunged-up eyes with an expression of ludicrous ill-will, for his face was comically distorted, and he wore the appearance of a prize-fighter who had somewhat more than met his match.

Madame was sympathetic, but for the life of her could not avoid a smile. "Are you comfy?" she inquired.

He glanced at the linen night-gown that enclosed his limbs. "Thanks," he answered surlily; "but where am I, where are my clothes?"

He attempted to sit up, but he was very sore and weak, and he fell back with a groan that made Madame's cheeks blanch.

"Forgive me," he muttered, "I didn't know I was so bad; that brute must have let himself go. I'm aching all over. Are any bones smashed, do you know?"

"No," sighed Madame, and murmured: "Frank, dear, you must not blame me for this. I did what I could to stop him, but he was mad and struck me as well."

"Did he, the cad! Ah, I'd like to have him in my clutches for a moment, weak and ill as I am. But tell me, what ship is this we're on?"

"The Argonaut."

"Whose, and where bound?"

"My father owns it; we are going to him."

"I suppose you can be frank with me now, eh? Where does your father live?"

"On one of the Isles Sanguinaires. Attala it is called."

"Never heard of such a place—have pity on my ignorance."

"It lies off the Corsican coast."

"Ah, then, Klein lied to us after all!"

Madame smiled. "What could you expect, dear? My father chooses his agents well: indeed, he has to."

"Kate, before I lost my senses there was some talk I heard of an auto-da-fe. Is that what you are saving me for?" he pointed to his bandages.

Madame shook her head. "My husband is a dreamer of dreams; your fate will really rest in my father's hands."

"And who is your father? Tell me of him, Katherin."

"He is Count of Attala, a Corsican noble."

"More, more—how is it he became a Nihilist?"

"My poor boy, what does it matter, the knowledge wouldn't profit you?"

"But I am curious, I beg of you to tell me."

"You would do better to sleep and try to get well."

"Kate!"

"Well then, if it must it must; but there is little enough to tell you, dear. It all happened ages before I was born; he has been chief of the Nihilists for nearly three-quarters of a century. He is an awful old man, Frank. He must be over a hundred years old, but is still as active and energetic as a youth. He is horribly cynical and cold, and although he loves me I have always been afraid of him, and I dread going home almost as much as you can or should. He was always terribly ambitious, and once he tried hard and thought to make himself King of Corsica, but a rival baffled him. In revenge he sold his confederates to the French and drove his rival into exile, but did not better himself by the exchange, for the French broke their promises and laughed at him. I think he turned Nihilist in order to revenge himself upon the French, for he has never forgiven them and still hates them like poison. I was with him when news reached us of the death of Sadi Carnot in 1894. He turned to me and said with a smile that froze my blood: 'Katherin, I could die happy if that man had been a king.'"

"He planned Carnot's murder, then?" gasped Cressingham.

Madame laughed at the horror of his voice. "Ah, bah! what murders, as you call them, has he not planned? His aims have been always chiefly directed against France, though. Twice he attempted Louis Phillippe's life, three times that of Napoleon III, and every president since then, at one time or another, has stood in mortal peril. I do not think that Monsieur Loubet will live long, but he has been warned, he may resign to save himself."

"He must be the fiend incarnate!" cried the young man.

Madame yawned. "I think I shall retire, if you'll excuse me, Frank. I'm very weary."

"One moment," Cressingham implored. "Who are the other two leaders—there are two, are there not?"

Madame drew herself up with a gesture of pride and her lip curled scornfully. "Figure-heads!" she cried. "My father is not the man to share authority."

"But who are they, these figure heads?"

"They often change," said Madame with a frown; "when they outlive their period of usefulness they die. The present living ones are: first, my husband, you know him, I think"—(she smiled)—"the other is Yussef El Jibaloff, a Russo-Turk, and a natural son of Prince Skoboleff. He was once Grand Vizier and is still a trusted friend of the Sultan."

"Rumour says he has another accomplishment, Kate. I have heard it whispered—a mighty lady-killer."

Madame gave him a burning glance. "I know your meaning, Frank, but you are wrong. The man is a brute, and I hate him. He misused me when I was quite a child, and in my father's house."

"But your father, Kate?"

"Laughed when I told him and bade me ran away and play. I was just fifteen, and that was my first lesson in the school of life. Do you wonder that with such able tutors I have become what I am?"

There surged into Cressingham's heart a flood of warm and generous pity for the woman. "Had you no mother?" he whispered.

She shook her head. "I never knew her; but my old nurse has told me much about her. She was the daughter of one of my father's victims, and very beautiful. He abducted her and made her his wife. When I was quite a baby, he struck me because my wails annoyed him. My mother chided him, and in a fit of rage he killed her. I think he did not mean to do it; indeed, I feel sure that he has always mourned her, for he has never since had anything to do with women, and before he met and loved her, he was a veritable Turk."

"Thank you, Kate, for telling me all this," said Cressingham. "It has given me a clue to follow you. I was so much in the dark before. But please before we say goodnight, tell me one thing more: Miss Elliott, is she imprisoned on this island of your father's?"

"Frank, you love that girl!"

He shook his head. "It seems in any case that I shall not be allowed to live to love her long."

Madame sighed deeply. "She is there. Good-night, Frank."

"Good-night, and thanks."

Madame reached the door and turned. "Frank!"

"Yes!"

"The plum I gave you was not poisoned, it was one of those I intended for myself and my husband, who was just then too useful to kill, for I depended on him for my escape."

"Really, Kate?"

"Yes, it's truth time now."

"How did you get away from the Sea Hawk?"

"The Prince sent some men with a forged letter. Voerloeff is a wooden-headed fool; he let me go without a question. Frank——"

"Yes."

"You look simply dreadful bandaged up like that. Your lips are all puffed out, and black, and oh, your eyes—you are, ugh! so ugly!"

"Thanks," drily. "I won't need a mirror now that you've told me all I might see in it."

"Yes, you're dreadfully ugly," continued Madame, with a quaint, sweet smile; "but it doesn't alter me a bit. I still—look away, Frank—I still love you, dear!" The door closed upon her, but next moment it opened a little, and she peeped shyly through the crevice, her face charming with an expression of timid, almost pleading coquetry.

"Say you don't love that girl, Frank!"

Cressingham shook his head, and Madame, interpreting in her own favour his equivocal response, kissed her hand to him and departed with beaming eyes.

In ten minutes Cressingham was sleeping like the dead, and he did not wake until eighteen hours had spun their unseen fibres round his heart and the stars of another night were burning brightly in the moonless heavens. The steamer had stopped; perhaps it was the rest from travail, the sudden calm succeeding the ceaseless thundering and shuddering of the screws that recalled him to his senses. The cabin lamp was lighted, and his clothes, nicely brushed and folded, rested on the couch, while a deck chair by the bedside held a tray of dainty edibles and a flask of wine. He felt still sore, but already infinitely better, and hungry as a hunter. Dressing quickly, often smothering a groan in the operation, he made a hearty meal and drained the flask, reflecting wisely that even should he be proceeding to his death it were just as well to die with a full stomach as an empty one.

He tried the door afterwards half doubtingly, but it yielded and he went on deck. The night was cloudless and marvellously mild and a balmy wind just fanned the world's surface with a tenderly caressing touch, laden with faint, sweet memory-arousing odours. Cressingham noted with surprise that the masts of the yacht had disappeared, and that her funnel had been extraordinarily reduced in size. They lay in a tiny harbour, scarce a mile across, composed of two circular, narrow and low-lying strips of land that stretched out from the mainland like two embracing, anxious arms, and almost met to seaward. The mainland was mountainous, but no other feature could be distinguished in the dark.

The coastline in the bay, mingling with the waters deep in the shade, was indiscernible, but half way up a mountain close at hand a group of lights regularly arranged suggested the outline of a house of large dimensions, perhaps a castle.

Cressingham, lost in contemplation and conjecture, was startled by the placing of a hand upon his arm. It was Madame. "Yonder is Attala," she said; "my home. What were you dreaming of?"

"Of your father, Kate. How do you suppose he will receive me?"

"Like the courtly gentleman he is. Do you wish advice?"

"Indeed, I need it badly, don't you think so?"

"Then treat my father as he treats you. He will receive you kindly in the first place, but if he should by chance continue kind pretend to like and to admire him. Like all great men, he is very vain. Ah, you smile at the adjective, you will not always—he is great at all events in crime."

"Forgive me, Kate, and thanks for your advice, but tell me frankly is it likely he will do as you suggest and take a fancy to me?"

Madame surveyed him anxiously, and shook her head. "I'm afraid not, dear. I'd like to say yes—but I think otherwise. You see, he adores beauty both in men and women, later you will understand and discover, but he hates ugliness or deformity just as ardently, and he will not permit a creature to approach him that is not near perfect. If my infernal husband had not so brutally ill-used your face, he would have been sure to like you, for he has a weakness for all things English, in spite of the fact that your country gave a home to his old enemy. You see the French so hate the English, and have suffered so much at the hands of your countrymen, that father cannot help but feel a little kindly to the English."

"I see—well, I shall be prepared for his aversion. Do you think he will kill me?"

"I shall not allow him to if I can help it. Do you think I want to lose you, Frank? Why, I may have to spend years on this wretched little island. It would be death in life alone."

Cressingham smiled at the selfishness lying beneath her spoken thought, but the reply that trembled on his lips was never uttered, for the Captain interrupting led them to a gangway and thence into a little steam launch that puffed alongside the yacht.

The water swayed gently with a long, steady, gliding swell, its surface unbroken by the slightest ripple, and the boat sped shorewards with surprising speed. They landed at a small stone jetty, where Madame dismissed the sailors and bade only Cressingham attend her. They climbed arm in arm a gentle slope for some short distance from the sea, then came to a narrow stone stairway leading abruptly upwards to the heights. Step by step they ascended toilfully until, half the height traversed, they found a resting terrace and seats of carven wood.

Halting a little while for breath they recommenced the journey, and in twenty minutes reached a flat ledge of rock, fifty feet square, from which the stone wall of an old half-ruined mediaeval tower sheered straight above them to a dizzy height. Behind the tower stretched a straggling granite mansion that seemed built right into the mountain's heart, for huge crags jutted threateningly above its castellated tops, crags whose fall seemed momentarily imminent. A wide granite flagged path led from the steps around the tower which brought them soon unto a splendid marble porch whose outer doors stood open and whose inner doors were glorified with long and broad panels of rich stained glass.

Madame advancing rapped on the door with as much sang froid as though she were making an afternoon call on some Park Lane acquaintance. It opened wide, and Cressingham stood amazed to see a hall more grand and splendid than that of any European palace he had ever visited. Stately classic columns of dazzling alabaster ran in double rows down each side to the farthest end, full sixty yards away, where a wide white marble staircase mounted gently for twenty feet, then bifurcated, each fork leading to a carven marble balustraded gallery supported by the columns underneath. The floor was composed of innumerable small solid sheet glass mirrors mosaiced into flowery patterns which, reflecting in all directions the many-coloured electric lights above, filled the great chamber with a flashing radiance indescribably magnificent.

Immediately opposite the doorway in middle distance stood a band of gorgeously upholstered negro servants, each a marvel of physical perfection, their black and shining faces being in keeping, intelligent and, although the faces of negroes, comely featured. In the centre of this group, reclining on a many pillowed lounge, was a figure that once descried arrested and irrevocably held the glance, however much inclined to rove. A long lean figure it was, the figure of a tall and thin but shapely gentleman attired in the manner of a bygone age. A coat of black velvet and rich embroidered doublet of white satin encased his body. His legs were clad in black velvet trunks and black silk stockings, and on his feet he wore a pair of high-heeled, pointed toed and diamond buckled shoes. He was old, that one might tell, but nothing of his age, for his head was covered with an old-world powdered wig carefully coiffured with its queue resting between his shoulders at the back. At first glance his face appeared supremely beautiful. The eye observed with delight that rare combination a perfect tout ensemble and individual perfection of feature. But a long gaze inspired both doubt and fear commingled with aversion. The brow, so lofty and intelligent, was deeply scored with frowning furrows straight above the eyes. The long and delicately pencilled eyebrows took a satanic upward sweep beyond the temples. The eyes so large and beautifully shaped were of a light sheeny colour, like nothing so much as burnished steel, and their regard was hard as iron, cold and cynical as death. The long straight nose with its arched and quivering nostrils seemed to speak of strength, indeed, commanding strength, but strength combined with supernatural pride. The arched and clearly chiselled lips were red, but thin and cruel, and their corners drooped with weariness or scorn. The perfect oval of the cheeks was honeycombed with narrow wrinkles, and a million tiny crowsfeet lurked beneath the eyes. The shell-like ears coned upwards to a point like the ears Italian painters gave to satyrs and to demons, and finally one noted with a shudder that the massive chin was strangely cloven. Behind the head of the lounge on which the old gentleman reclined stood two small, copper coloured men, who appeared to be slaves, for they were chained together by thin steel gyves about six feet long, the left wrist of one to the right of the other. They waited upon their master with the most scrupulous attention, swaying obediently to his slightest gesture, their eyes always unwaveringly fixed upon his face. Cressingham subsequently learned that these men were both dumb, and were the Count d'Attala's special attendants, who never quitted him a moment on any pretext, and who saved him from the smallest physical exertion.

The Count d'Attala, tenderly assisted by the manacled slaves, was raised slowly to his feet as Madame with her escort crossed the threshold, and with stately measured steps he advanced to greet them, supported and leaning heavily on the arms of his attendants. Madame he took for an instant to his breast; he touched her forehead with his lips, then put her from him. "Welcome, my daughter," he said, and looked keenly at her. His voice was a thin baritone, and more than anything about him betrayed the measure of his age. Seemingly satisfied with her appearance he smiled and turned to Cressingham, to start back, however, at sight of the Englishman's bandaged face and battered looks. But he quickly controlled his emotion, and extending both hands gave the young man a cordial grasp.

"Welcome to my house, Lord Francis Cressingham," he cried in English. "All that I have is yours. It is a poor endowment, but a man cannot give more than he has."

"My Lord," replied Cressingham gravely. "I thank you. I should apologize for my unfortunate appearance, but I fear to inflict on your Lordship an unmerited aspersion, since I have suffered at the hands of one of your Lordship's servants who I know acted irresponsibly."

The Count turned inquiringly to Madame, who answered: "My father, it was the Prince. Lord Francis lay bound and helpless at his mercy: behold the mercy of the Prince!"

The Count smiled, and his face in that smile was the face of a Satan, powerful, inscrutable, scornful, unutterably cruel. "The Prince acted on his own responsibility, believe me, my Lord," he said slowly. "I never ill-use a man whom I intend to kill."

Cressingham felt a shuddering coldness at his heart, but he answered with calm indifference: "Your Lordship is a man of great mind who is satisfied with the supreme. Meaner natures and lesser intellects seek to improve on the punishment of death, unable to realize or understand that what is absolute is best."

"You mean?"

"That in the hearts of the multitude hope springs perennially so strong that pain with life prolonged is ever preferable to an instant painless death."

"My dear Lord Francis, you speak of ordinary pain. I have known men pray for death——"

"While in agony."

"True, but for the moment, of your goodness, let the question pass. Supper has been long spread and I doubt not you are both hungry."

Offering his arm with a courtly bow to his daughter, the old gentleman, always assisted by the dumb slaves, led the way to a little dining-room beyond the staircase, and there Cressingham beheld a small square table set for four in the most modern Parisian style.

They seated themselves to find a printed menu before the plate of each; and this card was so replete and promiseful of all good things that it was hard to choose a dish among them.

A negro footman stood silently beside each chair waiting commands with stiff formality, and a fourth stood by the door. The manacled slaves took up a position one on each side the Count, the chain that bound them passing behind his back. The Count d'Attala ordered caviare, Cressingham foiegras, Madame macaroni, tomato sauce and cheese.

The Count d'Attala then beckoned to the fourth negro.

"Miss Elliott is dressing?" he demanded.

The negro bowed low, and Madame glanced quickly at Cressingham, whose heart had been profoundly moved on mention of that name.

"Bid her hasten!" said the Count sharply.

The negro bowed again and prepared to depart, but on that instant the door opened and there entered the room apparelled in a shimmering satin empire gown, whose jewelled drapings spoke of bygone courts and queenly gatherings—Miss Francine Elliott.


CHAPTER XIII.—CONDEMNED TO DEATH

CRESSINGHAM sprang to his feet; the Count remained seated. Miss Elliott swept gracefully across the room to the unoccupied chair; she nodded to the Count, bowed to Madame and gave Cressingham her hand, starting and paling a little to mark his battered face. "An accident?" she asked tremulously.

He nodded, unable for a second to answer, but his eyes told her how glad he was to see her once again.

The Count beckoned to the fourth negro, who immediately came forward and stood beside Miss Elliott's chair. She gave a hurried order and turned again to Cressingham. "You are not seriously hurt, I hope?"

"No, a few days should recover me. But you, are you well?"

"In health, yes." Her glance spoke volumes.

The Count d'Attala frowned and spoke to Cressingham: "To resume our conversation, my Lord——"

"A sad theme to discuss before ladies," interrupted Cressingham.

"That depends on the manner in which it is discussed. Death is of itself not an incident to stir a single tremor in a sane and well regulated mind. Do you fear death, Kate?"

"No, father, not I," said Madame. "Not that I want to die, but when the old Captain comes my way recruiting, he'll find me ready to enlist."

"And you, Miss Elliott?"

The girl smiled a little sadly, then answered: "I don't think I fear death, very much, Count. It is really not so very terrible a thing; indeed, at times its very contemplation is a comfort, since it offers a refuge to the hopeless before whose portals all the stings of life are forced to pause."

"You see, my Lord," said the Count grimly, "your fears were needless." He turned to Miss Elliott: "Lord Cressingham and I were disputing a certain point. He contended that death is of itself the best punishment one man may inflict upon another."

"A sane man, sir," cried Cressingham.

"While I," went on the Count, unmoved, "declared and still declare that certain pains may make a victim look for death as the best and kindest gift left in the lap of life."

"Then," said Cressingham, "I withdraw my statement and beg permission to agree with you. May we not therefore change the conversation, sir?"

"Not yet, for it is a propos of my intentions with regard to you."

"I beg your pardon, sir."

"Granted. You see, my lord, the motto of my house constrains me to declare myself. 'Bis dat qui cito dat.' As a sane man I have no desire to torture you unless you wish for torture. Do you catch my meaning?"

Cressingham lifted a mouthful of dainty to his lips, and answered presently: "I think I understand you, sir, but I cannot see the need of such immediate haste. After the ladies have retired we might resume the conversation."

"You must allow me to be the best judge of that necessity, my Lord," said the Count, and he slowly bit off and munched a piece of bread and caviare.

Madame and Miss Elliott stared at the two men silently, and without evincing a desire to eat.

Cressingham's nerves were on stretch, but his blood was up, and he ate quite heartily, as though enjoying himself, at perfect ease.

"You see," went on the Count, "I have determined that the incident we spoke of shall visit you to-morrow. There only remains to arrange the manner of your dissolution."

"I understand," said Cressingham. Miss Elliott grew of a sudden very white and her eyes glowed like stars.

"If you would prefer a lingering death," resumed the Count, "I have no desire to thwart your wishes. I have on hand a large assortment of tortures from which you are at liberty to choose. Some would postpone the final moment for a week, thus allowing you full scope to put your theories to the test."

"My dear sir—I told you before that you had converted me."

"Ah, I beg your pardon, I did not take you literally. In that case it would be as well perhaps that we should now discuss the more painless modes of death. Have you given the matter any thought?"

"Well, I can't say that I have." Cressingham could hardly comprehend that the man was really serious. It occurred to him that this was a gross and frightful jest, a bitter device for the testing of his nerves; but a glance at Madame discounted such an explanation. Her face was ghastly pale, and her hand which rested on the table trembled spasmodically.

The Count observed the ladies with delighted eyes. "Kate, Miss Elliott," he cried suddenly, with well acted concern, "you eat nothing."

Madame took up her knife and fork, but Miss Elliott shook her head. "I am not hungry," she muttered.

The Count ordered wine, and when it had arrived sat back and sipped a glass. Cressingham followed suit; his appetite had fled, but he forced himself to appear indifferent, vowing inwardly that he would not let this monster have the satisfaction of discerning in him one single sign of terror or confusion.

"Perhaps, Kate, you could oblige your friend with an idea culled from your experience," suggested the Count with a cruel smile.

Madame coloured slowly. "I beg you to excuse me," she answered.

"You then, Miss Elliott?"

Francine turned if possible paler than before. "This is all some horrid jest," she cried.

The Count smiled again. "My dear young lady, I never jest," he said; "I am too old to play the fool. Come, have you no suggestion?"

"None except that you kill me too!" She seemed about to faint and swayed towards Cressingham, but he sent her a glance that gave her sudden strength.

The Count bent upon her a countenance of severe reproach. "What, you dare to say that you are tired of life! Ah, bah, you have scarcely tasted it, besides you are a woman. You think now that you love this young man, perhaps. Believe me, that will pass. You are beautiful, young; there are many years before you. Death, no! I have other views for you."

She was silent; he eyed her a moment, then turned to Cressingham. "It seems that we shall be obliged to decide the matter between ourselves, my Lord."

"Best, I think," said Cressingham.

"Ah-m," he cleared his throat and gave the young man a burning, searching glance. "What of a bullet through the heart or brain? Death would be almost instantaneous."

"Brutal," objected Cressingham.

"True, quite true! Science has of late years so refined these matters for us! We shall therefore pass by suffocation, drowning, the rope, the dagger and the coarser poisons. There remains to consider a few comfort-giving powders and to choose one or some of them."

"Exactly. I have heard that morphia——"

"A good groundwork, my Lord, wherewith to induce sleep, but a death-dealing dose often causes pain. Now if you will allow me to offer a suggestion?"

"Why certainly; are you not master of ceremonies?"

"Ha, ha, ha! quite so. Well, morphia first to bring you sleep and dreams, visions glorious, my lord, for morphia is nothing but a form of that hasheesh of which the ancients were so fond. But mingled with the morphia a little aconite and then in the midst of splendid dreams will come death, a darker dream than the others, but who shall say less sensuous or beautiful?"

"Excellent!"

"It is agreed then?"

"Why, yes."

"I see you handle that knife, my Lord, with, what shall I say—a murderous intention in your eyes. I shall spare you the trouble of attempting to use it fruitlessly. Mark this button on my chair. Observe, I turn it—thus. Ah, you see!"

As he turned the button, Cressingham and the two ladies were on a sudden rendered rigid and helpless as stone figures where they sat, and they endured moreover tortures unspeakable.

"You hear that clicking sound?" said the Count. "It scarcely is necessary to explain the matter to persons of your intelligence. You are all seated on electric chairs, this button controls the circuit. So! I switch it off, you are released! But beyond that, my Lord, these negroes about us are my servants. You must surely have thought me lavish of display to require so many to wait on us at table." He laughed, a long, low, hideous chuckle of fiendish mirth it was.

Cressingham commenced to despair, for he now fully realized how utterly helpless was his position, but with a violent effort he kept his self control and asked: "At what hour, sir, do you intend that I shall die?"

"At noon to-morrow!"

Cressingham was about to speak when a loud rap came to the door and a tall negro servant entered.

"What is it?" asked the Count.

"A cable, Highness."

"Read it aloud!"

The man unfolded the paper in his hand. "Khan Barbaroka—Perigord—Eruted—Semaphore."

"The translation, fool! do you think I carry cyphers in my head?"

"Pardon, Highness. 'Expedition sailed this afternoon, Perigord commanding. Cressingham blamed for Katherin's escape. Elopement suspected. Police of all nations awake. Orders given for European coastlines to be searched for secret cable stations, commencing east. Have warned Peluchi. Keep Cressingham alive without fail till I arrive. He is my prisoner. Frederick.'"

The Count d'Attala uttered a grim laugh. "The fool presumes to give me orders, he shall see! Really, my Lord, I feel quite a humanitarian in your regard. The Prince will undoubtedly be here to-morrow evening anticipating a fine feast of revenge. The fellow is a coarse brute at heart, who would put you to all manner of inconveniences. We shall, however, forestall him."

Cressingham shivered. "Thanks, sir; I perfectly appreciate your amiable intentions," he said with satire; "you will kill me painlessly at noon to-morrow, less to save me tortures though than to spite your son-in-law."

"Pardon me, spite is a bad word, and discourteous—say disappoint."

"Ah, a thousand apologies—disappoint."

"Until noon to-morrow, my Lord, everything I have is yours."

"Including liberty?"

"Everything," interrupted the Count, "with the single exception of my daughter's company. I need her, for we have many matters to converse upon—eh, Katherin?"

"Yes, father." Madame's manner was painfully subdued; she was pale and pensive, and Cressingham, observing her narrowly, thought her a little fearful too.

The Count nodded to the manacled attendants, who at once lifted him to his feet. "You will excuse me, my Lord. I seldom eat much supper, and I have business. Come, Katherin!"

Madame arose too and took his proffered arm. The Count turned at the door: "My servants will show you to a room when you are weary"—he gave here a coarse chuckle—"that is if you need separate accommodation, my Lord. Here is a lady who was just now anxious to die with you, possibly she will be disposed to lighten your latest hours. If so do not hesitate on my account, for on this demesne exist neither conventions, prejudices, morals——"

"Nor manners, sir!" interrupted Cressingham hotly, starting upwards as he spoke, his face ablaze with passion.

"Tut, tut," said the Count, smilingly shrugging his shoulders; "manners are conventions; here we are always natural, and say what we think if it amuses us. I am sorry my suggestion failed to please you, for beside Miss Elliott there is no other woman on this isle but Kate, and her I need to-night, unhappily. You must try to forgive me, my Lord."

"Ah, bah!"

"Exactly—'ah, bah'—'tis an expressive phrase. By the way, there is a little warning I should give you before we part. Until noon to-morrow, as I have already told you, all that I possess is yours, including your liberty. But see that you are to be found at noon to-morrow! This island is small, scarce three miles square, 'tis inhabited only by my people, but it is mountainous, and you perchance might find some tempting hole to hide in. Well in that case, my Lord, you will be sought out quite leisurely, and perhaps before you are found my son-in-law will have arrived. You understand? He is a devil, that man, and loves inflicting pain. If he has nothing else to do, he tortures animals or insects to pass away his time. I wish to save you from his mercy (I am aware you think it is because I wish to spite him); in reality it is because you happen to be an Englishman, and I love the English. Good-night, my Lord."

"A demain, sir."

"A demain, vraiment, et a la morte." His chuckle sounded far down the corridor, even after the door had closed, and Cressingham was alone with Francine Elliott. They looked at each other silently for long, then two big tears fell splashing from the girl's eyes on to her gown.

"For heaven's sake don't weep, dear," said the man.

She stifled a sob. "It won't help us, will it, that?" and tried to smile, but her lips trembled pitifully.

He stooped above her and kissed a loose strand of her hair. "Darling," he said brokenly, "the worst of it all is that I am powerless now to help you."

She started to her feet. "Tell me everything that has happened since we parted, tell me why I am here, why you are to die, everything!"

He did as he was bid, and two long hours were spent in the recital. Francine heard of her father's condition in dry-eyed, speechless misery; she listened throughout like one in a dream, but she heard all, understood all, and at the end, when Cressingham had no more to tell, she put her hand upon his arm and said—

"There is no hope for either you or me, Lord Francis, we are in the hands of a human tiger; escape is impossible. This tiny little island is inhabited only by the Count, his grandson and a score or two of negroes and mongrel Europeans, every one of whom is a ruffian steeped in crime. I have been here now six days and have been everywhere, seen everything that may be seen, and studied all the creatures that surround us. The Count has not sought to control my actions and does not now seek to control yours, because he well knows such precautions are entirely needless. To escape we should need wings."

"Or a boat," muttered Cressingham.

"There are only two boats on the island," sighed the girl, "and they are always kept securely chained when not in use."

"In another hour we shall have daylight," said the man. "I shall then explore the place—who knows, dear; some kind fate may befriend us."

The girl sighed, and said: "Then take me with you, will you please, Lord Francis. Let us spend the last few hours together that are left us."

"Us?" he queried.

"Yes, us! do you think I should care to live without—hope?"

"Francine!"

"I mean it!"

"You would kill yourself?"

"Not that. I have not the courage. But you are an English gentleman. I put my life and honour in your hands. You will kill me when the last comes; promise me!"

He shook his head. "No, dear, I'll not do that; you are in no immediate peril. I think, dear, they will not try to harm you in any way, they have no reason to. Besides, you must be rescued one day, soon I hope, for Perigord will never rest till he has fulfilled his mission. Moreover, I depend on you to clear my name for me, the name which that villain has tarnished. No, Francine, you must live if only for my sake."

She smiled sadly. "My father is dying, you are about to die. What is there left in life for me?"

"Come, come, dear, I haven't given up hope yet, nor shall I till the very end."

"Hope, what is that with us, Lord Francis? A despairing effort to postpone facing the inevitable."

"While life lasts, Francine, hope is the mainspring of ambition. It gives me ambition now to work and find a way from here for both of us. It gives me wider vision and points to better days, to longer life and love——"

"Ah, you are brave—but you have not seen, you cannot understand."

"Dear, let us talk a moment of ourselves. The last time that we met you were so kind to me I dared to dream——"

"Ah, heaven—how long ago it seems!"

"Yes, long enough, and fearful things have happened in between. But Francine——"

"Ah, let us rest, my Lord. Soon if you think of trying to explore the place we shall have toilsome work enough to do."

She led him to a couch and seated there looked up at him. "Do you know, I feel so weary and so old, so very old."

He regarded her with tender pity, but a little of reproach was in his eyes. "Too weary to remember, dear?" he asked. "I have been trying to speak to you of something that might have been, that yet perhaps might be."

"Ah, my Lord, what now matters anything?"

"Love, Francine."

She sighed profoundly, and shook her head. "I loved you once, I think, perhaps I love you still, but I am miserable. Oh, my poor old father! Ah, to think he is so ill, he that loved me so, and I away from him." With a sudden gasping cry she threw herself forward on the couch and great heart-breaking sobs shook her slender body violently. Cressingham watched her in silence, tears trickling down his own cheeks. His heart ached to soothe her, to help her in her great grief, but he dared not touch her, he felt himself somehow too unworthy and the girl too sacred. But soon she grew more composed and controlling herself looked sadly up at him. "What, do men weep?" she asked, a mournful smile parting her quivering lips.

He nodded, and answered huskily, "When they see the one they love in pain, men sometimes weep."

"Ah," she sighed, "you love me, Frank?"

"Yes, dear," he said simply.

"Sit down beside me." He obeyed. "Do you think there is any hereafter, Frank?"

"I do."

She sighed again. "I do not. I have tried, ah, so hard, to believe that somewhere beyond our ken a good God exists who will judge us when we die according to our lives on earth. But I can't, I can't, I never could. It all seems too unreasonable, too wild and fanciful. Never a shred of proof has any one advanced to me. If God exist why does He not disclose Himself?"

"He does, Francine."

"Where?"

"In hearts and lives: sweet, pure, kind, charitable hearts and lives like yours. Do you think your sweet, unselfish life has been of itself without fount or purpose? It came from God, dear, and to God it will return."

"You are foolish, Frank, because you love me. I have not led a really good life. I have been a little charitable, but that was only because it pleased me to help the helpless better than to disregard their cries. Listen, Frank, I have sat by more than twenty death-beds of the poor and watched the spirits of the sufferers depart. Would you not think at solemn times like that some little sign would come? Well, I have watched and watched, filled sometimes with hope and a wish to be convinced. But no, all have died in the same dreary fashion, simply ceasing to live because disease had disjointed or destroyed the parts of their bodies whose coherence constituted life. Even from their last words, no meaning could be drawn. Some died wailing to their friends around them for help impossible to give; some in silence selfishly resigned; others praying to their God and asking mercy for their sins."

"Francine, it hurts me, dear, hearing such things from you. It sounds somehow like blasphemy, coming from your lips."

"It is blasphemy, Frank, but it is what I believe and think. I have told you these things to show you how utterly hopeless I am both in life and death."

"My poor girl, how I pity you!"

"Can you not help me, Frank?"

"I help you? I?"

"Teach me to believe as you do; give me some of your faith. I should so love to think that after death I might meet father and you again!"

"Ah, dear, I am helpless! I know so little of God or Christ. I believe in them because I was taught to believe when a child. I have never questioned that teaching, never cared to, for what is all so beautiful must be true."

"My poor Frank, you are only half a Christian! Good heavens, that there are so many millions like you! I used to despise such faith at one time, preferring my own wholehearted paganism. But now somehow it is different. I long so to be comforted a little."

"Francine, soon it will be daylight."

"Frank, my heart is breaking; in a few hours you will die."

"Dear, you love me then? Ah, say you love me, Francine!" He bent towards her, his arms outstretched, and the girl went to him slowly, with parted lips and brilliant eyes that shone with unshed tears.

"Kiss me, Francine!" Their lips met in a long feverish caress, and slowly the colour mounted to the girl's wan cheeks. The man gathered her in close embrace and held her tightly to him, not satisfied until she rested on his knees and her head reclined upon his shoulder. And she, a little comforted, looked up at him and whispered: "I have so longed to be your wife, Frank. I have always loved you, dear! Ever since I have known you!"

"Darling!" he muttered, and kissed her passionately again.

She smiled. "I never intended to let that woman have you, Frank; I wanted you too much."

"I never really loved her!" he muttered.

"Ah! I am glad of that—but even if you had, I must have loved you all the same. I don't think I'm a very good girl, Frank. Even when I thought she was your mistress I still wanted you. Do you hate me for saying these things? But I may speak now without restraint, mayn't I, since we are so soon to lose each other?"

"Sweetheart, let us hope a little still."

"I cannot, Frank; but hold me to you—kiss me often; when you kiss me, for a second I forget to think, and am almost happy."

For a long while they reclined in silence folded in sweet companionship, moveless and speechless. They watched the dawn creep into the room, at first a pallid spectre that sought to strangle unawares the lamp's hard light and scarce succeeded, later a rosy sprite that peeped in at the windows to mock the man-made glare with the contrast of her dainty blushing beauty. The lovers saw each other soon by day, and each received a little shock, for the face of either was haggard beyond belief and eloquent of misery.

"Frank," said the girl, breaking at last the long silence; "pure love is beautiful, isn't it?"

"Yes, dear, it is beautiful."

"I would gladly give up my life to save yours, Frank."

"Need I tell you, darling, that my feelings are the same?"

"No, I know. We belong to each other now, do we not? Soul and body, Frank?"

"Soul and body, dear."

"You will not now refuse to take me with you when the time comes?" she muttered tremulously. "Ah, Frank, promise me. If you die I shall kill myself. I lied when I said I hadn't the courage, for I have; but ah, dear, it would be sweeter far to die by your hand. Listen, dear, you said that I am in no peril. You are wrong; I am. I already guess what my fate shall be, for that terrible man has hinted things, and sneered so often in the one direction that I am almost sure. He intends to sell me to some hateful friend of his, a Turk, I think, for he is expecting a visit from a Turk."

"My God!" cried Cressingham, "he would never dare?"

"Ah, Frank, what would he not dare? In pity promise me, dear love."

Cressingham kissed her on the lips. "Darling, if an hour before noon I find all hope gone it shall be as you wish, we shall die together."

The girl arose, and took from the bosom of her dress a small but vicious looking dagger, jewel hilted, which she gave to her lover. "I stole it from the Count's own room," she said, "the very first night that I arrived here. Let it be with this!"

He nodded, and concealed the blade about him, and presently Francine slipped from the room to change her gown. When she had gone Cressingham paced the room awhile, then, practical man that he was, crammed both his pockets with eatables from the uncleared table. Miss Elliott returned very soon wrapped in a long, grey cloak, and was his guide from the chateau.

Guards there were none, the doors were all on latch, and no living soul appeared to be on watch. The girl led the way behind the house to where a flight of stone steps, similar to those he had climbed with Madame the previous night, stretched winding upwards to the mountain top. Up these they toiled, and in half an hour had gained the summit, where a splendid view extended on all sides for a vast distance. Cressingham saw at a glance how small was the island on which they rested. It lay like a gleaming green jewel in a sapphire sea, for save for a few small clearings its mountainous sides were covered with dense thickets of olive-tinted shrubs. Looking sheer down the steps he marked how cunningly the house was perched. It was entirely hidden from the sea by the massive ruined walls of the ancient castle (whose tower and turrets he had seen before), and only from the farthest inlet of the tiny bay below could it be seen at all.

The yacht which had carried him from Naples had completely vanished, and not a sail was in sight. The island itself offered no landing place except the inner coastline of the little bay, and perhaps, on a fine day, the outer shores of the necks of land that made the harbour, for they were dented here and there with sandy reaches.

Elsewhere the coast was formed of jagged crags and precipitous cliffs that sheered abruptly from the waters. He noticed about half a mile from the chateau, almost at the base of one of these small promontories, a small stone boat-house that, defended by a coping of high rocks, seemed to run a little distance from the land, for the waves lapped at its sides with curling tongues of spray. Straining his eyes seawards, he espied, a dozen miles north-east, the outline of another island which seemed, as near as he could judge, of more important size than Attala. At first he thought, indeed, it was the mainland, but the rising sun showed him only a flat, low-lying coast with seas beyond, but the sight gave him a faint hope none the less, so hard indeed it is for hope to die. As Francine had said, there were only two boats visible on the island. Those lay in shallow water near the beach, but a glance, even at that distance, showed that they were fastened and secure with chains and giant padlocks.

Cressingham pointed to the boat-house. "What is kept there, Francine?"

"I am not sure, Frank, for no one is allowed in there except Desiré, the Count's grandson, who has always been my mentor and companion (he is only a boy, Frank). Desiré told me as a secret that his grandfather, the Count, uses it as a workshop, and spends a great deal of time there on a boat which he is building of steel and aluminium. This, it seems, is the old man's single hobby. He has invented some new motive power which be believes will revolutionize the shipping world, and in order to test it, he is building a boat with the help of his grandson only, for he will trust no other living soul with his secret. It is true, I think, for I have often seen the Count escorted there by his servants, and they always wait on the beach till he returns, since he permits no one to follow him within."

"Ha, I should like to see the inside of that boat-house, Francine!"

"No use, dear. I have tried, but it is built of solid stone, and its one door, which is of plated steel, is always locked. Desiré even dared not take me there."

The lovers spent two hours on the look-out hand in hand, Cressingham always gazing seawards, racking his brains for an idea, some plan which might offer a tiny chance to win him his desires. But no hope came to cheer him. Every chance of escape was inevitably removed, and despair, a grim-visaged spectre, came at last, and stared him in the face. A brave man, he fought the phantom off, and assuming an aspect of cheerfulness which almost deceived the girl, invited her to sit upon the steps and share his breakfast.

"Is it possible that you can eat?" she asked sadly.

He forced a laugh. "Must, my sweetheart. I never could think properly on an empty stomach. Come along, darling, we'll have to clear out of this soon, you know, and it's a pretty fairish journey we'll be taking."

"A long journey, indeed!" sighed the girl; "a journey from which there will be no returning!"

"Well, who wants to come back here, anyway?" demanded Cressingham, forcing himself to seem light-hearted. The girl sat down beside him and watched him eat with wide but tender eyes.

"You cannot deceive me, Frank," she muttered presently; "you are forcing yourself."

"Not I," he cried. "Come, come, sweetheart, it's barely eight o'clock; we have four hours yet. By jove, who is that?"

The girl followed his gesture, and saw wandering along the beach the graceful figure of a lad, who carried a bundle slung across his shoulders.

"It's Desiré going to the boat-house," she replied.

They watched the boy lightly climb some boulders, then arriving at the boat-house open the door, enter and disappear, the door closing behind him.

"He must need light to work by," objected Cressingham; "perhaps the building opens on the bay."

"No, dear; it can open there, I think, for there is a big iron door, but it dips right into the water, and is always closed; he works by electricity, I think."

"What sort of a lad is this Desiré?"

"A real sweet boy," said Francine. "He hates this island bitterly. He has always been shut up here. He is very clever, I think; he knows all about science and electricity, and that sort of thing. I have heard him argue with the Count—who is a very learned man, Frank, to do him justice—but each time Desiré held his own. Desiré works early and late in that boat-house, only coming out for his health's sake, for his grandfather has promised him, if the boat is a success, that he shall go to some university in England."

"I see; but is not the lad mixed up with the Nihilists?"

"Yes and no; he is, of course, a Nihilist, he had to be, but he loathes them in his heart."

"Francine, this boy might help us if we could get to him."

"Ah, dear, he is only a lad! What could he do?"

"He might give us a key to unlock one of those boats. Only think of it, Francine. See! my God, one of the boats is fitted up with oars and sails. There is not a living soul on the beach or near it. Great heaven, let us go at once! If we could steal away now, we should get a good start and with a wind! Francine, was I not right to eat? Please God, I'll get you safe off yet."

The girl's eyes had taken a sudden light of hope, reflected perhaps from his, for the man was near frantic with excitement. Joining hands, they commenced the descent like a pair of eager children, but had not proceeded twenty yards before a turn of the winding steps brought them to a little platform and face to face with Madame Katherin Viyella.

"Stop!" she commanded. "I have come in search of you."

"For what purpose?" he demanded roughly, for on sight of her every bad feeling in his heart had mounted uppermost and it was in his mind to kill her, since she might bar the slender chance of their escape.

Madame held up a large key. "My father sleeps at last," she said, "and I have procured this key. The servants are now at breakfast. You must slip down speedily to the beach and with this key unlock one of the boats. You should get an hour's start at least. More I cannot do for you, Frank; I have risked my life in doing this much. Go, dear, go!"

"Kate, you have done this for me!"

"To save your life!" said Madame wearily; "I could not bear to see you die. All I ask in return is that you should think kindly of me sometimes."

"You know all my escape must mean?"

The woman smiled. "You are foolish, Frank. The Chief of the Nihilists will never be taken; if you escape, he will abandon this retreat, that is all."

"Ah, I see. Well, Kate, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Good-bye." He held out his hand, but Madame looked at him reproachfully, and without a word he took her in his arms and kissed her lightly on the lips.

"Farewell!" he said. "Come, Francine!" But Miss Elliott stared at him, turned of a sudden cold as stone. "Do you think I would owe my life to that woman, my father's murderess? You are mad, or dream, my Lord."

Cressingham groaned on seeing this new difficulty in his path, but Madame, with a strange smile, swung on her heel and walked off with these words: "Delay will be fatal, Frank. Soon the beach will be alive with negroes who are going fishing out to sea. Their boat is now awaiting you. If you are wise, haste and take it. Farewell!"

"Francine!" said the man hoarsely, "you see before you a chance to save two lives, yours and mine. What matter whence comes this chance? It is ours, let us take it."

"You go, my Lord," said Francine icily. "I shall stay."

"You know I shall not go without you," he cried.

"I beg your pardon, I know nothing now."

Cressingham threw himself on his knees before her. "Francine, I know I am not worthy of you. I never was, but on my honour, darling, I love only you. I kissed that woman just as I would have kissed one of those cursed negroes if he had brought me a means of winning you from here."

"You kissed her!"

"I did. Hate me, cast me off if you will, dear, but let me save you."

"Or yourself!" The words were stinging as a whip lash. Cressingham got slowly to his feet and looked at her; when next he spoke his voice was calm and low. "You do me an injustice, dear; but have it as you will. My death at least will prove I am not all the cad you think me." He seated himself on the steps and buried his face in his hands.

Precious minutes passed slowly one by one, but he was hopeless now, and did not feel so keenly as he had felt before. It came to him as a real surprise when at last a trembling hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a faltering voice whispered in his ear, "I was so jealous, Frank!"

Starting to his feet he seized the girl, his eyes agleam again with hope.

"Francine!" he cried, and strained her to him, but she pushed herself away. "First wipe your lips," she muttered. "I could not let you kiss me after her!"

Next moment they were speeding seawards down the steps.


CHAPTER XIV.—A DREAM OF HOPE

THE adventurers arrived at the beach at last, and apparently without having been observed. Cressingham cast an anxious glance behind him as they reached the boats, but no one could he see nor any sign of life. With trembling fingers he unlocked the padlock of the boat that was already equipped, and drew it swiftly towards them from the sea.

It was then that they heard a loud mocking laugh, and turning, saw the figure of the Count d'Attala supported on the arms of his slaves, and accompanied by half a score of negroes, issue from a tunnel in the rock some fifty yards away.

But Cressingham was desperate. Seizing Francine in his arms he threw her in the boat, and springing aboard himself, caught up the oars and fitted them into their rowlocks. He saw that some of the negroes carried sculls upon their shoulders, and that all were armed, but with a muttered cry to providence, he refused to let himself think, and bent all his energies for a mad race with death.

Miss Elliott crouched down in the stern and covered her face with her hands, for she could only see one upshot of the struggle, and had abandoned herself to despair.

Cressingham heard the Count give a stern order: "No, do not shoot! After them; take them alive."

Putting forth his utmost strength, he strained at the oars, but the boat was huge and cumbersome, the oars were heavy, long, and difficult to manage. He saw the negroes enter the other boat and push from the beach. He marked their course, four strong men at the oars. They passed him wide, intent on heading him off. Accomplishing their purpose, they stopped and leisurely awaited him. With an angry cry he ceased his toil, seeing the mad vanity of further travail, for he was hopelessly entrapped.

"It's all up with us, Francine," he muttered hoarsely.

The girl stood up and gazed with wild eyes into his.

"The time has come to keep your promise, Frank," she cried.

He got to his feet, too, and glanced despairingly about him, as though taking a last look at the bright world before departing on that unknown voyage from which there can be no return.

The negroes were backing water and slowly approaching him, still eighty yards distant. His own boat lay idle on the water immediately opposite the portcullised mouth of the stone boat-house of the Count d'Attala.

The boy Desiré stood upon the beach outside the door gazing at them intently, while two hundred paces to the right the Count himself sat on a rock smoking a cigarette and waiting unconcernedly for his prisoners to be brought back to him.

Suddenly Cressingham gave a start. "We have one hope left!" he cried.

"What is it, dear?"

"The boat-house. I must leave you, dear. It is a chance and a desperate one, but it may save us yet. See, darling, the sea door of the boat-house only just dips into the sea. I shall pretend to stab myself, and then jump overboard. Then I shall dive, and swimming under water, try and reach the boat-house door, under which I shall swim, and afterwards throw myself upon Desiré's mercy. If he is the lad you think, he will help us; who knows? Shall I chance it, dear?"

"Yes, Frank, go, and God be with you. If there is a God, He will surely help you!"

"Then kiss me, dear."

They embraced, and then, in full view of all the watchers, Cressingham took the dagger from his pocket, brandished it before the eyes of his pursuers, and to all seeming plunged it deep into his heart. He gave a sharp scream, and toppling overboard, disappeared instantly beneath the surface of the waters. Miss Elliott uttered a terrible shriek and threw herself at full length in the bottom of the boat. The negroes, with fierce guttural cries, propelled their own boat swiftly forward.

The boy Desiré stood as if turned to stone, while the Count d'Attala started to his feet, let fall his cigarette, and swore a savage oath at the man who had dared to balk him thus.

Miss Elliott was soon roughly roused from her position, but she did not heed the negroes' insolence. Every second that passed seemed to her an agonized eternity, for every second she expected to hear the outcry which would proclaim her lover's failure, his capture and his death. She held her eyes tightly closed and scarcely dared to breathe, so fiercely terrible was her anxiety, but minutes passed and nothing happened. Could it be possible, she asked herself, that he had actually succeeded?

With a fearful effort she opened her eyes and glanced at the shore. No, it seemed incredible. The boat-house was fully sixty yards away. But yet, and yet her lover had not appeared again. Perhaps he had deceived her! Perhaps he had really killed himself in order to force her to live on! Perhaps he was drowned! Each thought filled her heart with anguish unspeakable. As in a horrible dream she saw the negroes leaning over the boatside peering keenly into the dark waters. She marked Desiré now perched on the roof of the boat-house glancing eagerly about him. But Cressingham did not appear again, and after a half hour infinitely dreadful to the girl the search was abandoned and she was taken to the landing place and subsequently to the chateau, no one apparently having conceived an idea so mad as that Cressingham might have performed the apparently impossible feat of swimming under water for so great a distance to take refuge in the boat-house.

As for Cressingham, when he took the dive he entertained no illusions. He was desperately conscious that the slender chance he grasped at was his last and only hope of salvation, and he swam for dear life itself. The swim was long and full of fearful effort, for before he had traversed half the distance his breath was almost used, and he combated two forms of death instead of one. But with bursting heart and swollen lungs he struggled madly on, fortunately in the right direction, but he never gave a thought to that. He ceased struggling at last, unable to move another muscle without taking breath, and his only idea at first was failure. He had done his best; no man might do more. Well, he had failed, and must pay the penalty. His mind was filled with a vague pity for Francine; he had not kept his promise to her, he now would never have the opportunity. He wondered dimly if she would have the courage to take her own life; and then, forgetting her, there came into his brain a thousand mind-pictures of the past, vivid, real and flashing pictures that flitted past his mental eyes with phantasmagoric rapidity. Long-forgotten incidents of his childhood recurred to him, events buried in the deep oblivion of years. He remembered to have heard that such sensations preluded death, but a strange lassitude held his limbs, he experienced no pain, but rather a blissful and reposeful dreaminess.

Suddenly all this went from him. He was really dying now, and nature's struggle with its old arch enemy set in in spite of him. His hands unconsciously beat the waters, uplifting him, and finally he reached the surface. The anguish of the fight with death restored him to his senses, his aching lungs discharged the long-held poisonous breath, and a deep draught of sweet air took its place, but the transition was accomplished with a torture so keen that only weakness kept him from screaming out.

He wondered vaguely in a moment why he was not already seized and why he heard no shouts of triumph at his appearance. Then he opened his eyes that had closed in his late unconsciousness, and they were dazed with a brilliant glare of artificial light. With a gasp of rapture hope returned, and he realized that after all he had succeeded. One of his hands in his drowning struggle had unconsciously clutched a stake driven into the water. This had stayed and saved him. Slowly strength returned, and he looked curiously about him. The boat-house was a single apartment, long and narrow; one half composed of a stone platform whereon reposed long wooden work-tables and a score of strange, bright, many-wheeled engines, covered with crystal frames, and other implements; the other half was all water to the iron portcullis at the farther end behind him. Above his head was a platform of planks running from the stone floor right to the portcullis, and above this platform swung a narrow skeleton-like boat, whose sides shone like burnished silver in the fierce electric light.

Cressingham discovered that he could completely conceal himself from observation by remaining beneath the plank platform. He had no desire to land just then, fearing that the Count d'Attala might accompany Desiré back to the boat-house. Nor was he mistaken. After half an hour of waiting, he heard voices, and the lad entered the building, his grandfather at his heels.

"Do you think his body will soon come up, sir?" asked the boy in Italian. His voice was soft and liquid as that of a girl.

"I don't," answered the Count; "he must have been dead before he touched the water, for he sank like a stone. The bay is full of currents, and his body will be probably carried out to sea—that is, if the sharks let it alone. I can't understand how he got that dagger, though."

"Perhaps Miss Elliott gave it to him."

"Ah, boy, you are right. I missed a knife from my room some days since; I thought you had taken it, and intended to ask you."

"No, sir, I touched no dagger."

"Well, how goes the work, lad?"

"Smoothly, sir. I have completed the alloy, and am now shaping it into plates. It's hard work, though."

"Bah! you are young."

"I am not grumbling, grandfather; please don't think I'm grumbling. I wouldn't shirk anything to earn what you have promised, sir."

"Well, well; don't waste time. I shall expect to hear from you this afternoon that half the plates at least are finished."

"I'll do my best, sir."

The Count d'Attala strode out, showing no signs of weakness although deprived of the assistance of his slaves. He slammed the door behind him violently.

Cressingham from his humid lair watched the boy take up a large sheet of white metal and place it in a frame, then bring to bear on it an appliance from one of the strange machines, which he set in motion by pressing on a lever. There followed a sharp and deafening hiss, and he could see now a tiny saw was cutting through the plate as fast as though it were a board of deal. This operation was often repeated, then came a filing process, exercised with marvellous care and attention to detail, and the divided plates gradually assumed uniform proportions. Cressingham watched the work, completely fascinated for a time, but the water, which had long ere this penetrated his bandages, commenced to pain and smart his bruised body, and he only awaited an opportunity to declare his presence.

Fate brought him a splendid chance. The boy Desiré while comparing two plates by transposition mused aloud: "I am glad that I did not meet that gentleman, Lord Cressingham. Miss Elliott is always saying what a splendid man he is. I should have been sure to want to help him to escape, and if I had, grandfather——" He paused, as if reflecting. "Well, I suppose he'd not have killed me, I'm too useful to him for that, but I'm sure he'd punish me by breaking his promise in the end."

Cressingham listened breathlessly, and at the last word sighed out his relief. The noise startled the boy. He dropped the plate and glanced furtively at the water. Cressingham pushed himself into the light. The boy turned deathly pale, and stood staring at the apparition shocked and rigid, for the man's face was indescribably ghastly seen under the white glare of the electricity.

"Boy," he whispered hoarsely, "I am Lord Francis Cressingham."

But Desiré, white to the lips, muttered out: "I never harmed you, sir; you know I never harmed you. Don't hurt me, sir. I'm a good Catholic, and when I get to England I shall have masses said for your soul."

Cressingham smiled wanly at the thought, and said: "I'm not a ghost, Desiré; I'm alive."

"But how did you come here, then?" demanded the boy, only half reassured.

"I swam here under water from the boat and under the door. I only pretended to stab myself."

"Good heavens, what a swimmer you must be!"

"I want you to help me, Desiré. Miss Elliott told me how good and kind you have been to her; she sent me to you." He swam to the platform as he spoke, and painfully dragged himself from the water.

The boy fell back a few steps, eyeing him in sheer affright. "Help you!" he stammered; "how can I?"

"I don't know yet; later we shall see. You can hide me here for a few days, can't you? You would not like to see me die, Desiré. A few days, is that much?"

"Ah!" (hesitatingly) "but you must soon be caught, and then my grandfather will know, and I shall suffer for it. You see," he added shamefacedly, "I've worked on this boat for two years now, day and night, day and night. When it is finished grandfather has promised to send me to England to the Cambridge University. But if I do anything to vex him in the meantime, he will not let me go."

"Then you would rather see a fellow creature murdered before your eyes than risk a little to try to save him?"

The boy cast down his eyes, and was silent for a time. He was wonderfully beautiful of face, this boy, and strangely like Madame Viyella in feature—but he differed just as strangely in expression. His eyes were heavy lidded, large, and marvellously kind; his mouth was soft and tremulous, and his lips quivered as the man observed him.

"I've so wanted to get away from this horrible island; I've always been here, you see," he muttered plaintively at last; "and you must be caught, my Lord. It's not like as if I could really serve you or help you to escape—only God could work such a miracle as that, and God never comes near this place."

"My boy," said Cressingham impressively, "God is everywhere, although He be not manifest. He fulfils Himself by divers means and ways we cannot always understand. It is God who has given you now charge of a fellow's life. Be sure that He reads into your heart and sees the selfish impulses at war there with the generous promptings of your better nature."

"You speak like my friend the Abbé who died here last summer," said the boy. "It was he who told me about God. Have you ever seen him?"

"Whom, the Abbé?"

"No; God!"

"No, Desiré; it is only when we die that we can look upon His face. That is why foolish men dare sometimes to be wicked and disobey His commands."

"One of His commands is to love all men, is it not?"

"Yes, my lad, it is."

"Then I have disobeyed that order," said the boy, "for I hate everybody on this island, even mother. Am I very wicked?"

"We are none of us perfect, Desiré. But say, will you help me, or give me up? I am entirely at your mercy, as you see."

"I won't tell on you, of course; you may stay here until you are discovered."

"Thank you, boy; let us shake hands on that."

Desiré came forward and offered both his hands. "I like you, my Lord," he said frankly. "I shall be so sorry when you are caught, but if you are careful you may live here for quite a long time, for I shall feed you, and grandfather seldom comes to work here lately, he is so old that he grows tired very soon. The only thing is—ha! I did not think of that——"

"What, Desiré?"

"The tunnel."

"What tunnel?"

He pointed to the rocky wall against which the boat-house was built, and Cressingham saw the outlines of an iron door cunningly let into the solid rock. "He sometimes comes that way," he muttered fearfully, "and spies on me as I work. If he came now he would catch you easily."

Cressingham shivered. "That door opens on a tunnel, then?"

"Yes, which leads to grandfather's bedroom. No one knows about it but grandfather and me, not even mother. The whole island is honeycombed with tunnels; if you once got in there, and didn't know your way, you might wander for days in the dark, and no matter how you cried out, no one would ever hear you."

"That would be horrible; but where could I sleep, Desiré, where I would be safe?"

Desiré pondered a while, then pointed delightedly to the silver boat that swung on its davits above their heads. "In there," he cried, "you would be perfectly safe, for we never let it down. It is quite finished, and only needs the engines, which I am busy making now. You had better get in it at once, in case of accidents," he continued presently, "for I have to work, and while I am working one can hear nothing."

Cressingham obeyed, and swung himself on board the boat, which he found to be very lightly but substantially constructed of some alloy of steel and aluminium. It was furnished fore and aft with water-tight compartments, and a large space in the centre waited for the engines that Desiré spoke of. Leaning over the side he watched the boy at his work, and marvelled at the patience and wonderful skill he employed in the labour that engrossed him. Four hours sped by, and then Desiré threw down his tools. "I must go to lunch now," he said; "I shall bring back something for you in my pockets."

"Will you see Miss Elliott?" asked Cressingham.

"Why, yes. She always has her meals with grandfather and me."

"Please try to let her know that I am safe; she will be dreadfully anxious."

"I shall try; good-bye, my Lord."

He was gone two hours, and on his return seemed very anxious and distressed. "I could not tell Miss Elliott," he said quickly, "for the Prince, my mother's husband, has arrived, and I could not see her alone; but I made a sign to her, and grandfather saw me. He was very angry and beat me cruelly. He pretends to think that I intend to run away with Miss Elliott in this boat as soon as the engines are finished, and he is coming soon to take away all the completed plates, so that I cannot do what he suspects. He is now perhaps on his way. Oh, if he should find you here!"

Cressingham found himself sharing the lad's fears, for although, if the Count came and found him, he succeeded in killing the monster, that would not help him to escape, but would probably precipitate Miss Elliott's ruin as well as his own. "Is there not some other hiding place?" he cried.

Desiré gasped out—"The tunnel!" and ran to the door which he opened with a key from his belt. "Come quickly!" he cried.

Cressingham followed the boy, who striking a match darted into a dark and dripping passage that led upwards like a staircase, but soon they left the main path and entered a cross passage that led into a spacious stalactited cavern. "Remain here!" said Desiré. "I shall come to you as soon as I can!" and thrusting some matches into the man's hands he hurried back like a sprite into the darkness, seeming to know his way by instinct.

Cressingham stood for a long hour in the pitchy blackness of the place listening to the ghostly, ceaseless splashing of the drops of water on the stones about him, a splashing that had lasted then for countless ages and would last perhaps until the end of time.

The horrid loneliness got on his nerves at last, he felt chilled all over to the bone, and sick too with anxiety and superstitious fears. Unable to bear it, he struck a match and glanced about him. In the centre of the chamber stood the ruined stem of a monstrous slab-shaped stalagmite which some upheaval of nature had overthrown perhaps centuries before. It was of dazzling whiteness, and looked like a sarcophagus. The cavern was dome-shaped, its ceiling hung with millions of glittering inverted spires and pinnacles, all of crystal brightness, while about the sides weird, fantastic columns reared up like so many cold and shrouded corpses frozen into stone.

The cavern seemed to have a dozen entrances, and Cressingham experienced a sudden chill of fear, for he had already utterly forgotten the direction he had come. He raised himself upon the sarcophagus and there, sitting in the dark, for matches were too precious now to waste, gave himself up to all manner of sad and gloomy speculations, and wondered with a thrill of horror how long he would be able to retain his sanity in that dreadful place. He was not a particularly superstitious man, but he was more imaginative than many, and his fancy peopled the darkness with strange phantom shapes, eyes that stared and mocked him from the shadows, lips that writhed in soundless but sardonic mirth.

He gave utterance to a wild, hysteric laugh, when of a sudden footsteps sounded in one of the corridors and he caught the far gleam of a lamp. It was Desiré, who carried in his arms a bundle of rugs, a lantern and a mass of food. Cressingham was struck dumb to learn that he had been five hours alone and that night reigned over the world without. It had not seemed to him a tithe as long, so intense had been his feelings and his fears; but the lamplight and his supper quickly changed all that.

Desiré told him while he ate that it would be better to take up his abode in the cavern for the present, as the Count, once inspired with an idea, was hard to satisfy, and he would probably pay frequent visits to the boat-house for many days. He had come as he had threatened and carried off all Desiré's completed handiwork and set the lad doubly heavy tasks to do. It appeared that there had been angry times at the castle, that Madame Viyella, who it transpired was Desiré's mother, had had a violent quarrel with her husband, and the Count d'Attala had taken sides with the Prince.

Miss Elliott had fallen ill and was confined to her room. Everything was upset and the whole place difficult to live in. One of the negro servants, moreover, had given the Prince some insolent reply, and he had been incontinently shot by the Count d'Attala. "Poor wretch," sighed the boy, "he was a brute, the negro, but he was always kind to me: I shall never forget his dying scream."

"Is Miss Elliott really ill?" demanded Cressingham.

"I think so, for grandfather visited her to see. He would never have allowed her to absent herself from dinner if she were not really sick. Grandfather hates to be alone, you know; he loves company better every day, that is why he was glad when Miss Elliott came here—he likes her, I think."

"Does your grandfather always live on the island, Desiré?"

"Oh, no; only during the winter months. He goes away each spring in his yacht, but where I do not know; he never tells me anything."

"He is expecting the visit of some Turk, is he not?"

"Oh, yes; that is my father."

"Your father?" gasped the man.

"Yes, have you ever seen him? Yussef el Jibaloff is his name?"

"No, never. What is he like?"

"He is a devil," cried the boy sharply; "a cursed devil! Every time he sees me he laughs horribly and tries to strike or kick me, unless mother is by, and then he says some hateful thing to her that makes her laugh. I hate her most when he is here. She is generally kind to me at other times."

"My poor boy," said Cressingham, "I pity you from the bottom of my heart. You must come away with me and Miss Elliott. We'll look after you. We'll make you forget all this; we'll be father and mother, brother and sister to you, and give your life a little of the love it has lacked so long."

The lad smiled sadly. "That is a pretty dream," he said. "Sometimes I think I shall never be able to leave this cursed island. But I must away for I have work to do. I shall leave you the lamp, it is full of oil and you need not fear to burn it. Grandfather never comes this way. Good-night, my Lord."

"Good-night, Desiré. Think of my words, lad; I meant them." But Desiré had vanished into the dark.


CHAPTER XV.—THE DOOM OF A MONARCH

IN spite of his terror, Lord Francis Cressingham slept in the dark that night. He had not been able to divest himself of a queer presentiment that he would be abandoned in the cavern and that he might later need every drop of the oil the lamp contained. When he awoke, it was of course pitch dark, but some inner consciousness told him that morning had come upon the earth. He lighted the lamp, and finding himself stiff and chill in spite of Desiré's rugs, sprang from the sarcophagus and smartly paced the floor. He breakfasted on the remains of his last night's supper, and then sat down to await the advent of Desiré with whatever patience he could gather. His watch had stopped, therefore time had lost meaning for him, and hours or moments passed with indifferent dulness. He discovered soon an anxiety to explore the place, to search and pry into those dark holes that opened on the chamber in which he was and whose secrets his lantern failed to penetrate for more than a paltry distance. But he simply dared not risk such an undertaking yet, fearing to get lost, and he determined to ask the lad on his next visit to obtain for him a ball of twine so that he might make some record of his journeyings and be able to return to his starting point at will.

It seemed to him that many hours had passed when Desiré at last arrived, but he experienced no surprise on being made aware that another whole day had unrolled its score; upon the book of time. The boy's news was sad. Miss Elliott was very ill, indeed so ill that the Count's physician was in constant attendance upon her. She had become delirious and was constantly raving, calling wildly on some one to save her father and "Frank." She no longer recognized anyone, and was in the midst of a sharp attack of brain fever.

Cressingham listened with misery unspeakable, but Desiré soon wandered off to other themes. His father had arrived at the chateau, and now two yachts lay at anchor in the bay. Madame Viyella had further incensed her husband by paying open court to her old lover, and it seemed that the Count d'Attala took a savage pleasure in assisting events and stirring up the passions of his guests.

The boy later on suggested that Cressingham should return with him to the boat-shed, for an hour or two, there being no fear of any interruption, as a conference had been arranged between the three Nihilist chiefs in the Count's rooms, which of necessity required the Count's presence.

Cressingham very gladly agreed, and it was with feelings of real satisfaction that he left the dreary cavern and found himself once again in the boat-house. Desiré no longer worked upon his metal plates; he was now engaged in preparing fresh alloy, and as that required only the paying of intermittent attention to two small bronze furnaces, he was at liberty to converse with his protege almost at his ease. Cressingham wandered about for a while peering into things and asking questions to which the boy returned short and guarded answers; but there was a method in his quest. He presently found a large twisted roll of twine and this, during one of Desiré's moments of occupation, he concealed beneath his waistcoat, for he did not want to ask Desiré to help him too much, as he feared the lad might prove to have scruples if he learned for what purpose he required the cord.

Cressingham took a seat at last and surveyed his companion critically. "So you are a Nihilist, Desiré?" he said abruptly.

The lad coloured a little and laughed constrainedly, "I wouldn't be if I could help it," he replied.

"Why not?"

"I don't like them or their ways."

"You don't like the idea of being cruel to people, of murdering creatures you have never seen and who have done you no wrong?"

"That is it." Desiré looked up with bright and fearless eyes. "Do you know, my Lord, when I get to England I intend to give it all up, to escape it if I can? Do you think I could? England is a big place, isn't it; not like this little island? Do you think I could hide so that they would not find me?"

"I think so," said Cressingham with a fleeting smile; "you must come and live with me, I shall protect you. I am a rich man, Desiré."

"So am I," said the lad. "Ah, you need not laugh. I showed the Abbé; he laughed too at first, but after he had seen, that is what he said."

"What did you show him?"

"My jewels. I took them from grandfather's chest. He had so many he could never miss them, indeed he has never missed them, but I did not know they were valuable at the time. I took them just to amuse myself with them, they are so beautiful."

"Show them to me, will you?"

The boy looked at him keenly.

"I won't rob you," laughed the man.

Desiré flushed hotly. "I was not thinking that," he cried: "I was thinking that perhaps I should return them. They are really grandfather's, you know."

Cressingham shook his head. "Your grandfather is not worthy such consideration, lad; he is one of the wickedest men on earth."

"Is it not wrong to take—to steal from the wicked, then?" The boy's words were without an afterthought; he asked the question simply, from the depths of an incomparable innocence. Cressingham met his pure inquiring eyes and felt quite a thrill as he looked. Answer he could find none for a moment, but then he said: "It is wrong to steal from anyone, Desiré."

"Then I shall put the jewels back to-morrow. I have them hidden in the house and cannot get them to-night."

"Do you always do what you think is right, Desiré?" asked the man, who felt amazed and a little shamed before the boy's strangely frank straightforwardness.

"I always try," said Desiré.

Cressingham felt in his heart a sudden glow of eager hope. "Listen, boy," he said; "listen attentively, for I am going to try to show you, make you understand, a great chance that has come into your life to do a great good to the world."

"Yes, my Lord."

"You know the objects which this terrible society to which you belong has in view?"

"Pardon me," interrupted the boy; "I know what you would say, I think, but the Abbé taught me all that. He wanted me to help him to kill my grandfather and afterwards escape with him. He told me that by doing so I should rid the world of a monster and earn the gratitude of nations and of kings."

"Ah!"

"I thought that he was right. I felt he was right in here"—(he pointed to his heart)—"and I tried to bring myself to do what he advised, but I could not, my Lord; I had not the power, I do not love grandfather, but somehow, even when he beats me, I could not even try to harm him."

Cressingham was silent, and the lad continued, speaking almost apologetically: "You see, my Lord, I have always lived with him, and sometimes he has been kind to me. Besides, I have never been able to harm anyone or anything. When grandfather has any of the negroes flogged, it hurts me almost as much, I am sure, as it does them, and their cries ring in my ears for days. I always have to run away."

In spite of his keen disappointment, Cressingham could not help feeling a sincere respect rise in his heart for this strange, sweet-natured boy, who had grown up pure and good amidst a festering mass of evil and of crime. "I should not have asked you to kill your grandfather, Desiré," he said quietly. "Only to help Miss Elliott and me to escape and to yourself accompany us. Then we should be able with your help to frustrate the Count's diabolic purposes, and perhaps, nay surely, save the lives of great and good men whom he hates because of their goodness and his own wickedness."

The boy shook his head. "I would love to escape," he said, "but that is not possible."

Cressingham pointed to the silver boat: "Not with the help of that? Even without engines, with oars and a sail we could manage."

Desiré blushed at this, and muttered in a low voice, his eyes on the floor: "I scarcely like to tell you, sir."

"Speak, Desiré."

"You may think me foolish and wicked."

"No, I promise not to."

"Well, ever since you spoke to me last night, I've been thinking of what you said. I know you are right and kind and good, and I am wrong and wicked, although I want terribly to do what you say, but I can't, because——"

"Well?"

"Because he trusts me."

"Trusts you, does he? Didn't he take the plates from you, then?"

Desiré gasped: "Yes, but I have the key of the portcullis; if he had really ceased to trust me, he'd have taken that first."

Cressingham almost groaned. "Have you given him your word?"

"No, I wouldn't mind so much if he had asked me for that. He just trusted me because he felt he could. I couldn't disappoint him, could I, sir?"

"You ought to, Desiré, if you really desired to do right. If, say, you had promised to kill a man, would you keep your word?"

"No, but that is not trust, not silent trust."

"If by keeping that trust my life is sacrificed, what then?"

The boy got slowly to his feet and answered gravely: "I should be sorry, my Lord——"

"Ah!"

"But if my own life were to be sacrificed as well as yours I would still do the same, because I could not do anything else."

"You are hard, my boy; hard and obstinate."

Desiré drew himself suddenly erect and walked immediately to the tunnel door, which he threw wide. "You had better return, sir, to the cavern," he said coldly; "you cannot miss it if you take the first turning to the right. Your lamp and food are there. I shall visit you to-morrow."

"Why this sudden change, Desiré?"

The boy's lips trembled, but he stared Cressingham straight in the eyes. "Look you, my Lord," he said; "I have spoken to you just as I used to speak to the Abbé, and told you all about myself just as I am, because you asked me. I cannot help myself, I am as I was made and cannot alter. But because I cannot bring myself to do what you want, you insulted me and called me names." At this he gave a great sob, and to Cressingham's utter amaze broke down and wept like a veritable girl.

The man was entirely nonplussed, and for a time could only stare silently at the boy's shaking figure. He watched his chest heave up and down with big choking sobs; he saw the tears trickle through his fingers and fall to the ground in a perfect stream. Quite unnerved by the sight, he tried to soothe him with muttered apologies, but Desiré seemed heart-broken and wept on unreservedly. Cressingham patted him on the shoulder with one hand and passed his free arm round the boy's slender body, marvelling to find how slight he was and lithe. Then with a sudden gasp of sheer astonishment he started back; in a flash of light a dozen mysteries having been explained to him. Desiré was a girl!

"Good God!" he cried sharply, "what is the meaning of this?"

His sudden start and cry shocked Desiré into self-control. She ceased her sobs and looked up through her tears. "What?" she muttered.

"You are a girl!" he cried.

Her face turned scarlet on the instant, and she watched him as if fascinated, her big shining eyes staring at him strangely.

"But are you sure?" she demanded breathlessly.

He eyed her with deep suspicion, wondering if such innocence could be all assumed. "You should know best," he said half-angrily.

"How could I know?" she cried. "I have suspected so for a great while, and once I asked grandfather, but he beat me cruelly for asking him the question, and I have never dared ask anybody else."

"Do you mean to say," asked Cressingham, feeling somehow his flesh begin to creep; "do you mean to say you don't know yourself?"

Desiré's lips trembled pitifully. "Please don't speak to me like that; I can't help it, my Lord. There has never been anybody to tell me things."

"What, not your mother?"

"She is never here, or almost never, and I have always been too ashamed to speak to her. It seemed so foolish too. If I am dressed like a boy, I must be a boy, mustn't I?"

Cressingham felt a burning indignation surge over him against the monstrous creatures who had parented this sweet, soft-hearted child. He had hated them all before, with the exception perhaps of Madame, but he now regarded them with feelings of utter loathing and abomination. Before, they had seemed devilishly inhuman, now they appeared to him entirely fiendish. He intently watched the girl who had for a moment forgotten his presence in a sudden, deep, rapt contemplation.

"My poor Desiré," he said, "you still doubt?"

She nodded, watching him breathlessly.

"Go," he said, "go quietly to your mother, tell her that you know. She will make you understand."

"But if I am really a boy?" she cried, paling suddenly; and the man revered her for the chaste and delicate thought that prompted her words.

"Come here, Desiré," he said softly.

The girl went shyly towards him and her face dyed slowly when she met his eyes. He put his hands upon her shoulders and slowly bent his face to hers.

She started back, her cheeks aflame: "What would you do?" she gasped.

"This," he answered; and with reverent gentleness he kissed her softly on the lips. "Poor little girl!" he muttered. There was no treachery to Francine in his act. It was as though he had caressed a child. He was touched to the heart with pity as every good man is at any child's distress.

She gave a low, quick sigh, then as he released her, hid her face in her hands. "Oh, I feel so strange, so lonely, so miserable," she panted.

"Depend upon it, you are a girl, Desiré," he said gently.

"I think I am," she muttered. "If I am, I shall never forgive them for not telling me—never, never."

"They have treated you vilely," said Cressingham; "they deserve at your hands nothing but hatred and aversion."

"If I am really a girl, I shall do what you—ah, what am I saying?"

"Speak on, Desiré, for what you say is right. You will do what I have asked you?"

"I—I—I cannot tell. You would be kind to me, my Lord?"

"Always, dear; you shall be my little sister."

"And never speak to me like you did a little while ago?"

"Never, dear; I thought you a boy then."

"Then I shall go now to my mother, for I should be able to see her now."

"Go then, dear; you need not accompany me to the cavern, I shall find my way."'

"Good-night, my Lord."

"Good-night, Desiré."

"My Lord?"

"Yes, dear."

"Do people often kiss each other in England?"

"Friends do, and relatives or sweethearts, dear; why?"

"Because I have never been kissed before."

"You poor little girl," said Cressingham.

He wandered through the cold and slimy darkness of the tunnel deep in thought, and in his fancy working out plans for the future. He resolved that if he ever escaped he would really prove a brother to Desiré.

Soon he reached the cavern, where for a while he forgot everything in making a hearty meal. That finished, he fastened one end of the ball of twine to a pillar, and lamp in hand strolled down the passage by which he had entered the cavern until he reached the cross-cut. There arrived he turned into the broader path and commenced the ascent of a sloping and exceedingly damp and dismal staircase hewn out of the mountain's solid matrix. He was often puzzled by cross-ways, cavern chambers and the branchings of the path, but at such times he closely examined the floor and always chose the road which seemed most trodden.

He judged he had traversed five hundred yards of steps and sloping passages when he came at last to a level cutting from which three separate roads divided. Here he had but little difficulty, for the ground was dry and worn only in one direction. He now proceeded with the utmost caution, for his cord was near expended and he guessed that he must be within the confines of the castle. He opened the lantern's slide and prepared at an instant's notice to "douse the glim."

The cord gave out entirely at the end of fifty feet, but the path, as far as he could see, showed no sign of branching, so he tied the cord to a stone and laid it on the ground. Another fifty feet showed him a blank wall through which there issued a faint medley of sounds.

Blowing out the lamp, he was surprised to find the darkness less dense than he had expected, for at the height of a man's shoulders from the ground two tiny eye-holes appeared in the wall, through which shone a subdued glow something like the light of a fire-fly. He approached these eye-holes and peering through discovered that he stood behind the wall of a large, old-fashioned chamber very near the ceiling, the floor of which was quite sixteen feet beneath his feet. He looked out immediately upon a brass-railed, narrow gallery that ran all round the apartment, whose outer walls were hidden behind huge oak bookshelves which contained many thousands of volumes. The railing of this gallery was hung with curtains, through one narrow slit of which Cressingham could catch a glimpse of the opposite side of the gallery, a patch of richly-carpeted floor and one corner of a table far below. The hum of voices reached him, but dim and undistinguishable.

Very cautiously he felt with his fingers over and about the eye-holes for some spring or latch which might enable him to find a door. His search was soon rewarded. His fingers encountered a small circular disc of metal which yielded to his pressure, and with noiseless ease a portion of the bookcase opened inwards on the tunnel. Instantly the voices grew louder, and he became aware that an excited disputation was in progress in the chamber.

The tunnel door was small and narrow, but pricked on by eager curiosity he crawled through, and lying at full length, his stomach upon the floor of the gallery, he looked cautiously down into the room, himself perfectly concealed by the curtains. Three persons were seated before a table littered with flasks and flagons: the Count d'Attala, the man whom he had first known as Prince Carlos, and another whom he had no difficulty in guessing was the Turk Yussef el Jibaloff, the father of Desiré and Madame Katherin's first lover.

At the sight, Cressingham was thrilled with a feeling of deep exultation that made him catch his breath. He alone, of all the world, had by a stroke of fate at last succeeded in witnessing the council of the three infernal heads of Nihilism. "Surely," he thought to himself, "Providence has not allowed such happening without purpose! Surely God will not desert me now?"

The first words that came to him were uttered in the French tongue by the Turk, a narrow-faced man whose deep-set eyes and eagle nose spoke of strength of mind and penetration, but whose oily smile and facile, mask-like visage denoted craftiness and abnormal powers of dissimulation and deceit.

"My master," he observed quietly, "is dissatisfied, your Highness, and I must say I personally share in some way his opinion. Enormous sums of his money have during the three past years found their way here——"

"Of which you have had your share," cried the Count, interrupting angrily.

"Quite so, but the bulk has always been entrusted to your charge, and for a certain purpose which has not yet been fulfilled, and which will need to be brought about very soon if not too late to work my master any good. To speak frankly, if the Czar or the Kaiser, or even the Queen of England, had been removed during the Armenian disturbances, we should have had a free hand to do what we pleased without fearing the interference of any cursed foreign meddlers. As it was——" (he shrugged his shoulders).

The Count d'Attala drummed with his fingers on the table. "What you say is quite true, my friend, but we did our best, we did our best. Not a copper have I retained in my own interests, all and more has been spent in the cause. But after all I cannot control fate. Many attempts have failed through the watchfulness of the police, more through the cursed cunning of that mysterious forcat Perigord. (Would that I had the fiend in my hands.) But what could be done was done. Faure only narrowly escaped the dynamite bomb. Wilhelm saved his life through an attack of cold which prevented him from going to the stag-hunt at Haunn, where all was prepared for his removal. The Czar is so surrounded that open attack is hopeless. Twice have my most trusted agents, including my own daughter, done their utmost to reach him by poison, and each time his life has been snatched from us by a miracle. It is not only you, my dear Yussef, who are dissatisfied. I myself am bitterly chagrined. Why, since Carnot's death we have accomplished nothing, except the ambassador Lavalovski (ah, bah! his death helped your master, if I mistake not) and Elizabeth of Austria. And this is not my only worry. I am constantly harassed with applications, prayers and all manner of thin-veiled threats. Our own people become each day more discontented. The fools grow impatient and resentful. Each lodge has a different requirement; France wishes anarchy restored, Italy a republic, Russia sighs for an impossibly speedy reform of the constitution on English standards, Austria demands the Emperor's death, only Germany and England give me any peace. But all, with no exception, cry for a victim; well, a victim they must have. They require a sacrifice in order to keep them quiet and put them in a better humour. Money comes in very stingily, however, and to move we require a great sum. I must confess that my store is almost depleted. Gods, to think that in my old age I see beggary stare me in the face!"

The Turk smiled sardonically. "Money can be had, your Excellency, money and to spare, but the Sultan requires a guarantee."

"He shall have one," cried the Count. "A bloody guarantee; but something must be paid us down!"

"I have only five thousand with me."

"'Twill suffice, so that it be gold."

"It is. My servants have orders to bring the parcel here by midnight, less of course my share."

Here Prince Carlos woke up. "What of my share?" he demanded.

"I shall pay you here!" said the Count.

"Understand," said Jibaloff quietly, "there must be no mistake this time. My master wishes a guarantee—well and good—but the death of a king, no petty princeling, mind."

"I shall satisfy him—and afterwards?"

"Afterwards I shall bring you myself one hundred thousand ounces of Russian gold; the remainder he will not part with until you have carried out your promise and England is publicly embroiled with Russia, for only then may the Sultan be at liberty to entirely crush these rich Armenian dogs to whom he looks to reimburse him for the vast sums he has so far fruitlessly expended."

"My plans are already almost ripe," replied the Count with a grim laugh; "it is more easy to embroil nations than to kill kings. One of my servants commands a Russian warship, now on its way to Chinese waters. He has amongst his officers one brother, amongst his sailors seventeen. On receipt of my message he is prepared to run amuck in the English fleet, and taking them by surprise he should sink three ships at least before he is himself destroyed. Do you not imagine that such a course might embroil England with Russia, taking into consideration the bitter rivalry that now exists between them with regard to Eastern boundaries?"

He spoke with such calm and brutal cynicism that Cressingham felt a cold shudder run through all his veins.

The Turk nodded and smiled his approval. "It is a good plan, your Excellency, and should precipitate war, for the English admiral commanding in Chinese waters has, I believe, discretionary powers, and he would undoubtedly retaliate and assail the remainder of the Russian fleet before awaiting orders from his government. Yes, your Highness, it is indeed a good plan and masterfully conceived!"

The Count allowed his face to assume an expression of gratified vanity. "For the rest," he said, "watch the papers for your guarantee. Let me see, this is July 20. I said five days just now, but give me nine, so as to allow for all contingencies. By the twenty-ninth, at latest, Humbert of Italy will have departed on a journey to the Lake of Tartarus. Gentlemen, charge your glasses; it is only fitting that we should drink his health and wish him bon voyage."

The three immediately filled their glasses from the flasks before them and got slowly to their feet—the Count saying in a thin piping voice as he arose: "Note the wine, my brothers, is it not meetly designated for our gentle toast 'Lachrymae Christi'—Tears of Christ? I thought it better than champagne, and more appropriate. Ha! ha! ha!"

The others echoed his frightful laughter, the grim jest moving the Prince almost to tears. They clinked glasses and repeated one after another this formula: "To Humbert! To Death! A pleasant journey!" They drained their tumblers to the dregs and resumed their seats.

Suddenly the Prince cleared his throat and spoke, his voice nervous and quavering. "It is time, I think, my brothers, that a little of your attention should be devoted to my requirements. My nephew lives on, in spite of your repeated assurances that he should be removed. I dwell in daily terror that a male heir will be born to him."

The Count d'Attala interrupted angrily: "You have already had my last word on this score, Prince, and Katherin has my oath. Openly acknowledge your wife, procure your nephew's ratification of the marriage and the week afterwards you shall stand in your nephew's shoes."

The Prince shook like a leaf with passion. "How is that possible while Perigord lives?" he demanded. "He has already damned her reputation; do you wish me to flaunt a murderess as my wife before the Courts of Europe? I tell you I shall see you!"

"Softly, Prince, softly!" said the Count quietly but with a frown of menace.

"Bah!" cried the Prince, making a violent effort at self-control, but failing lamentably. "You cannot frighten me; let me tell you I am not quite the fool or dupe you think me. Twice has my life been attempted. I have been saved each time by Perigord. True, it was agreed between us that such a comedy should be played out in order that I might the better gain his confidence. But each time the farce turned almost into tragedy, nor was I amply warned beforehand of what I might expect. At one time it might—it might, I say—have suited you to kill me. Do you hear me, sir?"

"Ay, and heed!" replied the Count. "You are mad, Prince, to bring against me such an accusation. Mad! mad! What could I gain by your death, or ever have gained?"

"Repose of mind," snapped the Prince, his eyes glaring like two lambent coals of fire, his face livid with rage.

"Ah, bah!" replied the Count, with a shrug and smile, each marvellously expressive of contempt. "If I had ever doubted you, you would be now rotting in the grave. If I could bring myself to doubt you now, you would not leave this room alive."

"You refuse to aid me, then?"

"You know my terms, your Highness. I never change my mind once it is made. On this matter I am firmly resolved. I would be a bad father if I assisted my daughter's husband to neglect my daughter's interests. Ha, ha, ha! What say you, Yussef?"

The Turk regarded for a moment the Prince, whose flaming temper had been reduced to smouldering ashes by the Count d'Attala's covert threat. He smiled, and answered satirically: "Your Highness has always been a tender parent!" and the two men laughed together as at some brilliant bon mot.

They were still laughing when a loud knock sounded on the door, and in answer to the Count's invitation there entered the room four negroes carrying between them two small but apparently very weighty carpet bags, which they laid upon the table, then instantly retired. The Count d'Attala with some difficulty emptied their contents on the board, and Cressingham watched him arrange in heaps of twenty and count out with all the care and avarice of a miser the sum of four thousand pounds, amidst a silence broken only by the chinking of the coins. When this was done, he pushed fifty of those glittering heaps over to the Prince, who took and placed them in his pockets until all were full to bulging, and then arose.

"I am at liberty to go?" he asked.

"Why certainly, dear Prince, our conference is finished; you are weary, perhaps?" The Count's voice was full of honeyed sweetness. He seemed to have completely banished from his mind the late dispute.

"Yes, I am tired. Good-night!" said the Prince curtly.

"Sleep well, my brother. By the way, you set out to-morrow?"

"I do."

The Turk also arose. "I too am weary," he said. "If you will allow me I shall sleep here to-night."

"My dear Yussef, you confer an honour upon me which makes me desolate in that I cannot properly repay your condescension. Everything I have is yours; you know the house, choose what chamber best pleases you. Ho there, without—Caesar, Buonaparte!"

Two smart-looking negroes made their appearance with the celerity of magic in answer to these eminent names.

"Attend upon his Highness the Pasha!" said the Count. "Good-night, Yussef, sweet dreams!"

"Good-night to you, dear Count. Sleep deeply, dream not, and may you wake each morn a decade younger." Smiling and bowing the Turk backed out of the room and left the Count alone.


CHAPTER XVI.—THE TREASURE-CHAMBER OF THE NIHILISTS

THE Chief of the Nihilists for the next few minutes appeared to experience great pleasure in fingering the gold, and he displayed himself in a new aspect to the unseen watcher. Cressingham smiled to observe the loving manner in which the old gentleman stroked and patted with his bony and wrinkled hands the yellow treasures piled before him, and later the tender care with which he replaced those heaps one by one within the carpet bags. When all was done, he stood up and gave an astonishing exhibition of physical strength. Without apparent effort he took up the bags one after another and hid them underneath the table. Sandow himself could not have accomplished the feat with greater ease than this centenarian. Panting heavily from the exertion he resumed his chair and drained a glass of wine, which appeared to restore his strength completely. He then gave three sharp raps on the table with a wine flask. A door almost opposite Cressingham opened a little at the signal, and Madame Katherin cautiously peeped through, but finding her father solitary she boldly entered the apartment, closely accompanied by the Count's dumb manacled attendants who immediately took up their accustomed positions.

The old man did not turn his head, but asked: "Is that you, Katherin?"

"Yes, father." She crossed the room and stood to face him.

"You heard?"

"Yes, I heard."

"The fool is obstinate; he is getting out of hand. You were wrong to arouse his jealousy with Yussef."

"Father, the scheme is hopeless; he loves me, but he will never admit the marriage. He has been all this evening painting the advantages of morganatic unions, and vows that he can do no more for me than that."

"Unsafe, my dear, utterly unsafe. The man is not to be trusted unless securely bound. He hates me like the devil, and would betray us to-morrow to Perigord only he wishes to handle his share of the Sultan's gold. Well, when he comes to claim that share of his——"

"Yes, father?"

"If in the meantime he has not acknowledged you——"

"Yes, father?"

The Count laughed grimly.

"Why then, my sweet daughter, we must introduce him to the place of graves."

Madame sighed.

"I suppose there is no other course possible. The fellow can still be made of use; with his help we shall despatch Perigord within the week, perhaps the very day of his return from Anarchos. Ha! ha! ha! A pretty goose-chase that."

When the door had clanged behind Madame, the Count got up and moved quietly around the room, barred and bolted every means of entrance to the chamber with the greatest care. Then he made some signs to his slaves, who dragged the bags of gold from underneath the table, and taking one between them carried it staggering slightly under the weight towards the staircase leading to the gallery.

Cressingham felt that it was time for him to go. Wriggling backwards he got into the tunnel and closed the door, then hurried as swiftly as possible towards where he had left the stone. Before he had traversed fifty paces, however, he heard the secret door open with a sharp click, and then a thud, as of some falling body, followed quickly by a smothered chinking sound. He stopped, and glanced backwards, but saw nothing. The slaves had evidently returned to fetch the second bag of coins.

Cressingham hastily struck a match and picked up the twine which was to guide him on his return journey to the cavern. Not daring to light his lantern, he felt his way through the darkness, following the string and rolling it up hand-over-hand as he proceeded. He was so fearful though of falling down the steps that his march was slow, and soon he heard far behind him the noise of heavy footfalls. Reaching at length the staircase, he saw that he must be caught if he followed the straight path, and the Count's slaves took that road too, for the steps were steep and dangerously echoed the slightest sound. Not daring to risk it, he chose the less of two evils, and pulled sharply at the cord. It snapped far down below him, and with the speed of thought he drew up the broken strands and hurried with outstretched hands into one of the three dark cross-roads.

A few seconds afterwards there followed him a faint gleam of light, and he realized that he had made a horrible mistake. The slaves had taken the path he had chosen as a refuge and were treading swiftly on his heels, but now puffing and panting like steam engines. For a wild second Cressingham thought of waiting for his enemies and risking everything in the hazard of a personal encounter, but he had no weapon, he was physically not a strong man, and the odds were at least two—perhaps three—to one. No doubt too the Count was armed with knife or revolver, in which case he would have no chance.

Judging discretion the better part of valour, he hurried in advance, following with difficulty the twistings and turnings of the tunnel. This went on for perhaps a hundred paces, when of a sudden he thankfully observed that he had distanced his pursuers and that the light was no longer visible. Halting abruptly he found he could still hear footfalls, and was about to recommence his flight, when they ceased. He waited still as death, his every sense strained to listen.

For ten seconds deep silence, then a voice cried angrily: "Sapristi! the catch is rusted!" and he heard the sound of rapid hammering of steel on steel.

Burning with curiosity, Cressingham crept backwards until the zone of light was reached. Peeping round an angle of the tunnel he beheld the Count d'Attala striking at the wall with the handle of his dagger. The slaves stood idly by regarding his movements. As he watched, the recalcitrant spring yielded, and a whole section of the stone swung on a pivot disclosing entrance to a hollow void beyond. The Count replaced the dagger in his pocket and the slaves at once dragged the first carpet-bag within the chamber; emerging presently they all retraced their steps leaving the door wide, but in five minutes returned with the second bag of gold and disappeared behind the pivot-door for the space of a full half-hour. Cressingham occasionally caught the faint chink of falling coins, and guessed that the old man must be engaged in counting and gloating over his money.

He was quite tired of waiting, and feeling chilled and damp besides, when the Count, looking very tired and weary and supported by the slaves, with many a backward glance, finally tore himself away from his treasure-house and carefully closed the door behind him. The young man deemed it prudent to wait a further twenty minutes after his enemies had gone before he kindled his own lantern, fearing that the Count might return. But with the uneventful passing of time, he grew bolder, and at length, emboldened by the silence, he struck a light and advancing to the spot which he had marked, searched carefully for the spring which might unbar for him the hidden wealth of the Nihilists.

He might indeed have searched uselessly for weeks had the Count used proper care an hour before, for the spring was small and hidden cunningly, but a piece of stone chipped off by the dagger-hilt gave him the secret after ten minutes anxious scrutiny. Pressing the spring the door fell back for him as it had done for his enemy, and his lanthorn showed him a small square chamber hewn out of the limestone probably centuries ago, for both walls and roof were crusted with tiny stalactites. Entering he found the floor arranged with wooden chests which bore a remarkable family resemblance to ordinary wine and spirit cases, indeed, on one he discerned the familiar name of "Hennessy."

These chests were not locked or protected in any way, and Cressingham found no difficulty in removing their lids. Three of the largest were filled with golden coins of every nation to the value of perhaps two hundred thousand pounds English; two more with bars of solid specie, and the sixth was a quarter full of English sovereigns. The last and smallest chest of all, which looked like a tobacco box, was lined with zinc and crammed with jewellery and precious stones worth perhaps as much as the contents of the other cases put together.

Cressingham felt a little dazed, and there flashed into his mind a recollection of Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo, and all the other stories of treasure trove that he had ever read or heard of. He surveyed the vast wealth about him for some time with a sentiment of absolute awe, but he belonged to a commercial race, and although a rich man himself, and heir to greater riches still, he appreciated the value of money too keenly to remain undecided for long. From the largest case he abstracted about a thousand pounds in gold, more he did not feel strong enough to carry, and from the jewel case he selected as well as he was able a score or two of rings and brooches, a splendid diamond necklace and about fifty of the best loose diamonds, emeralds and rubies that he could find. These he tied up in his handkerchief and secured within the bosom of his shirt. So great, however, was the store that remained that no one might tell the treasures had been tampered with.

It required a positive physical effort to draw himself away from the chamber, but conscious of the flight of time he rearranged the lids and removed all traces of his visit, then departing locked the door behind him. In another moment he was hurrying backwards to the staircase. Descending the steps as rapidly as possible, a close and careful search at last discovered for him the end of the twine which he had broken, and following the cord he soon found himself within his sleeping cavern once again, utterly wearied from his excitement and exertions. First hiding the gold and jewels, he doused the glim and wrapped himself closely in Desiré's rugs to sleep presently like the dead, although wishful to think of what he had seen and heard, and anxious to plan some course of action for escape.

Desiré woke him—a bashful, blushing Desiré now, no longer a pretty, self-confident boy, but a girl in boy's clothes, shy and shamefaced with resolutely downcast eyes.

Cressingham yawned, stretched himself and languidly arose.

"What's the time, Desiré?"

"Eleven o'clock, my Lord."

"Ah, so late! How is Miss Elliott?"

"Conscious now, but very weak and ill."

Cressingham stared at the girl and observed her altered manner with a rush of recollection.

"You have seen your mother, Desiré?" he muttered.

"I—I—yes, my Lord, I have seen her."

"Ah, and you are convinced?"

"Yes." Desiré's cheeks were burning.

"You will help me now then?" said the man joyfully.

She sighed. "I scarcely know, I cannot tell. Everything seems so strange yet. But I have brought your breakfast, my Lord." She took from her pockets a small flask of wine, some meat and bread, and laid them on the stone, also a bottle of oil for the lamp.

Cressingham watched her gravely as at last, all arranged, she stood before him nervous and ill at ease, unable to meet his eyes.

"Mother kissed me this morning," she whispered presently.

He frowned, trying vainly to fathom by guessing at the workings of her woman's heart. "Kissed you, did she?" he said coldly. "Rather unexpected on your part, wasn't it?"

"Yes, my Lord, it was."

"Did you kiss her too?"

"She—she is so beautiful," stammered Desiré apologetically.

The man gave a little groan.

"So you are ready to forgive her years of neglect for a single tardy kiss?" he sneered.

The girl glanced up at him half defiantly. "She is my mother!" she replied.

"Ah, your mother! you said that, Desiré, as though you loved her."

"She is my mother!" repeated Desiré tremulously. "I am sure she would love me if it wasn't for grandfather!"

"Great heavens!" cried Cressingham. "Do you mean to say you love her?"

"She is my mother!" said the girl a third time with a rebellious little sob.

"She has never been a mother to you, though."

"Wouldn't—wouldn't you—wouldn't you love your mother, no matter how she—how she treated you?" sobbed Desiré, who was now in tears.

But Cressingham was angry and desperate.

"I would not," he snapped, "not if she had treated me as yours has done."

"But gr—gr—gran'father made her—I'm sure he did; he's so cruel!" sobbed Desiré. "I'm sure mother loves me; her—her eyes are always kind."

"Why do you suppose then that she has allowed you to be brought up in this fashion like a boy?" growled Cressingham.

"P'r'aps—p'r'aps she didn't know!"

This absurd suggestion put the cap on the man's temper. With a muttered curse he strode up and down the cavern, stamping savagely on the floor, and Desiré, in very surprise, ceased crying to observe him.

He stopped after a moment and faced her.

"Tell me," he demanded, "does not all this mean that you have decided not to help us?"

"I d—don't know," she stammered, then eagerly: "There's plenty of time, my Lord; Miss Elliott cannot be moved for days and days. She's too ill; the doctor says she's not out of danger yet!"

"Ah!" A sharp pain struck at the man's heart, for he had suddenly remembered what he had heard the previous night, and he knew that in order to save King Humbert's life it was his bounden duty to escape from the island without delay. His duty warred strongly with his inclination, for it caused him agony to even think of leaving without his sweetheart, but Miss Elliott was ill and could not be moved. Further torture was contained in the reflection that her sickness might be unto death, that she might die, and he far away unable to aid or see her or comfort her last hours. With a groan he buried his face in his hands and gave himself up to bitter thoughts. For long he rested thus, and his reflections must have aged him, for when with mind at length resolved he again looked up, Desiré shuddered to see his face, so wan and lined it was.

"How sad you look!" she cried.

"I am sad, Desiré," he answered gravely, "sad as death, for I have a cruel task to do, and am helpless, almost hopeless."

"Not helpless," she whispered.

"You have refused to help me," he said.

She averted her face, and whispered:

"I would help you, my Lord, but—but I don't want to leave mother. You see," she went on quickly, "this morning mother was just beautiful to me. She said that as soon as father and the Prince have gone we will have a lovely time together, and she was so kind, so sweet, my Lord. I couldn't leave her, could I?"

Cressingham conceived a sudden hope. "But if I don't ask you to come with me. Desiré, would you help me to go away at once?"

She looked up at him eagerly. "Oh, yes, my Lord—but——"

"But what, dear?"

"You would promise me if you escape not ever to do anything to hurt mother, wouldn't you?"

The man smiled and prepared to lie. "My dear Desiré, certainly. You help me off, and I'll tell you what I shall do. I shall return secretly and take you, your mother, and Miss Elliott away with me. Then we shall all go to England and live there happily together."

"Oh, how lovely!" cried the girl; "if only it could be done."

"It could easily be done, Desiré," said Cressingham artfully, "but you would have to be very careful after I am gone, and say nothing to your mother of our plans. You see she might—indeed, I'm sure she would—tell your grandfather everything, for she is very frightened of him, and then all hope would be gone. What I shall do is this: I have a yacht, the Sea Hawk it is called; I'll bring my yacht near the island, but so that it can't be seen—then I'll steal into the bay in the dead of night, to your boat-house, in a little electric launch. I'll swim underneath the door and pin a piece of red cloth on to the platform. When you see that you will know that I have been, and the next night at midnight you must somehow get your mother and Miss Elliott down to the beach. I'll be there, and we'll make your mother come with us, and we'll all go quietly off to my yacht. Then we'll steam straight to England, and neither your grandfather nor anybody else will ever know what has become of you."

Desiré's eyes shone like stars at this proposal. "Ah, that would be perfect happiness!" she gasped.

"It is all so easy, so perfectly simple!" said the man.

"Except your escape," the girl sighed out, a sudden despairing cadence in her voice. "To do all you have said it would be necessary to fly from the island, for grandfather is so dreadfully wise. You see, if you were to take the silver boat or one of the other two big ones, he would know at once, and he would be alarmed. He has been often alarmed lately. He would send a cable for his yacht, and then long before you could return here he would have taken us all away to some other horrible island, perhaps a more horrible island than this."

Cressingham saw his fine chateau en Espagne fading into thin air. "Ah," he cried, "what a pity the Prince and your father leave to-day."

"But they don't; not till to-morrow morning," said the girl.

"What!" cried the man sharply, "how is that?"

"Well, father never intended to leave until to-morrow, and the Prince will not go until he does; he hates him very much, and he can't even bear to see mother talking to him."

"Oh, I see! Desiré, with a little luck and your help I shall be able to escape." Cressingham was shaking with excitement.

"But how, tell me quickly," cried the girl.

"You must try to steal a boat from one of the yachts. Arrange it so that it will appear as though the current had taken it to sea."

The girl stared at him wide-eyed. "The yachts' boats are so small," she said.

"All the better! Think, Desiré, think—think how it can be done."

His excitement communicated itself to her, and the girl's slender frame was presently quite a-tremble.

"I can't tell," she gasped, "they would see me; I couldn't do it."

"Think, Desiré."

"I might borrow a boat and pretend to go fishing. I sometimes go fishing quite alone."

"Yes, Desiré."

"And I might pull out to sea and land outside the bay. There is a little beach beyond the neck of land not half a mile from here. Then I could return and take you there in the dark, and you could escape in the boat; then I would come back and pretend to the sailors that I was too weary to row back into the bay and pretend I had left the boat moored to the beach, and when they went to fetch it they would think it had been washed from its moorings and carried out to sea."

"Desiré, you are a genius!"

"I am so glad you are pleased, my Lord."

"Pleased, my dear! I could kiss you I am so pleased," cried the man.

As he spoke the words there smote on their ears a loud clanging echo as of an iron door violently jarred. The girl turned pale as death and stared terror struck at Cressingham. "What is it?" he muttered.

"Grandfather!" The echo was repeated, and a voice faint with distance but unmistakably passionate cried: "Desiré, where are you? Desiré!"

The girl pointed quickly to a maze of columns that sloped upwards into a tiny narrow passage.

"Squeeze yourself in there," she whispered; "it looks small, but it is really quite roomy. He may find his way here," Scarcely waiting until the man had disappeared she caught up the light and hurried down the path, but a moment afterwards Cressingham heard her stop and a testy voice exclaim: "What the devil are you doing here, lazy dog, eh?"

"Nothing, grandfather."

"Oh, of course; back you go, you young imp. Lucky I saw your light; when nothing is urged as an excuse there is generally reason for investigation."

"Really, grandfather——"

"Back, I say!" The voice was now a shout. "How dare you bandy words with me!"

Cressingham heard the girl gasp and whimper as though she had received a blow, then the light grew brighter, and though he could not see he knew that both Desiré and her grandfather stood in the cavern. There was a short silence, occasionally broken by the sound of stamping feet. Then the Count's voice rang out loud and clear, its accents tinged with venemous satire:

"Ha, what is this? My dear Desiré, you astonish me! What luxury! A flask of my best wine, meat and bread, bed and blankets. So! I perceive now the reason that my engines build so slowly. Cursed little swine, lazy pig, this is what you do when I am from you: gorge and guzzle and sleep!"

"Indeed, grandfather——"

"Silence, you wicked brat, give me at once your key of the tunnel door."

Cressingham felt his blood run cold at that.

"Here it is, grandfather," whimpered the girl. Then followed the sound of a slap, and she uttered a cry of pain.

"Shut up!" cried the Count. "That is nothing; presently I shall beat you so that you will remember it, I can promise you. Pick up these things and follow me."

"I won't!" The words were Desiré's, and very sharply uttered too. Cressingham felt a thrill of admiration for her spirit.

"You won't, eh?" said the Count's voice, and he laughed. "Do what I tell you, little swine, or I'll cut your flesh from your body inch by inch, yes, by God, I will!"

"You will not," flashed Desiré. "Stop!" she shouted. "Listen to me! You must!"

"Listen to you? I must, must I? Little thief, you've been at my jewels, too. I've just been to the storehouse and found half of the best gone. By hell, I wonder I don't shoot you as you stand."

"Oh, don't shoot me, grandfather; put away your pistol, please! Oh, oh!"

"What have you done with them? Give them back to me."

"They are in the boat-house."

"I'm glad to hear it. Why did you take them?"

Desiré fell to whimpering again. "They looked so pretty; I meant to put them back, grandfather, really I did." Cressingham devoutly thanked Providence that he was not the only thief.

"Ha, ha! Of course! Little swine, they looked pretty, did they? One might take you for a girl!" It would be impossible adequately to describe by words the fiendish and malicious sneering of his voice.

But Desiré was stung by it to recklessness. "You know I am a girl!" she flashed hotly.

"In—deed?"

"Yes, and you can't deceive me any longer. I am a girl, and I shall be treated as a girl. I am going to make mother dress me like a girl, and I won't be beaten any more. If you touch me again, I shall kill myself, and then you can build your engines without me."

The Count spoke again after a moment's intense silence, but his voice had grown quite soft and almost caressing. "Who was it put this business into your head, Desiré?"

"No one."

"Don't lie to me!"

"I'm not lying. I—I—mother told me last night."

"My sweet pet, so the secret is out, is it? Yes, you are a girl, Desiré!"

"I knew it."

"I suppose you wonder why I've made you act the boy these years, eh?"

"I'll never forgive you for it, grandfather, never!"

"Bah! wait till you are asked."

"Why did you do it?" demanded Desiré.

"Ah, bah! women are all cursed, hateful creatures like you, lazy as pigs and brainless as blocks of wood."

"But you like mother, grandfather?"

"She is a little better than the rest, and has learned to do what she is bidden."

"Why do you hate me so much? I have always done what you have told me to do."

"Pschut! You could not understand if I were to tell you."

"I'm not the fool you pretend to think me, you know I am not."

"That touched you, did it? Ha, ha! Well, Desiré, I wanted your mother to be a boy; I put up with the disappointment I received on that occasion, hoping that she in time might give birth to a son. When you came it was too much! I have always wondered since why I didn't kill you on the spot. But you give me too much credit. I never wanted you to be dressed up like that; it was your mother. She turned you into a boy to spare my feelings I suppose, perhaps because she thought the device might save her cub's life. It is possible she was right. At any rate, if you are offended you must blame your mother for it."

"My mother!" The two words were uttered with such depth of wonder and affection that Cressingham was thrilled to hear them, and wished ardently that he might see Desiré's face, but he dared not move, he dared hardly breathe, for he knew the Count was armed, and that once he guessed the presence of an enemy his life would be forfeited on the instant.

"Yes, your mother!" said the Count. "But come, we waste time here. Sapristi! Ha, ha, ha!" He gave vent to a grim, cynical chuckle. "I have lost my servant now, I suppose. Well, leave the things there, they are not of any consequence. And see here, Desiré, I won't beat you again; you shall be treated henceforward as a woman, but on one condition, girl."

"What is that?"

"That you finish those engines for me. S'sh, not so fast, think before you speak, and understand if you refuse your hours are numbered. I'll not be balked for nothing by a whining girl."

"I'll do them, grandfather, but I want to dress like a woman."

"See your mother about that. I don't care, though I'd prefer you to continue as you are. Come on now and get me the jewels at once. Damnation, here's half a morning wasted and not a thing done. Ah, the lazy swine that women are!"

His voice became gradually thinner and fainter, and Cressingham realized that he was being abandoned in the cavern without a lamp and without chance of escape from his position, as Desiré had surrendered to the Count her key of the tunnel door, and he knew that he could never find his way through the maze of passages to the other exit without assistance, for his store of matches was almost gone. Scarcely a minute later he heard the distant clang of the iron door as it was shut and locked, barring him in a prison house of dreadful gloom. Reluctantly lighting one of his precious vestas he scrambled back into the cavern and stretching himself upon the sarcophagus fought as best he could against the despair that knocked tumultuously at the threshold of his soul, his one remaining hope being that Desiré would find a means of helping him. But hours passed, slow hours of agony, each one drawn out and twisted into an eternity of pain, each stealing from him a portion of his slender store of hope, until bankrupt at last he stared into the impenetrable darkness meditating ways and means of death.


CHAPTER XVII.—ESCAPE

LORD FRANCIS CRESSINGHAM was an Englishman, and he came of a stock which for ten successive generations had gallantly provided food for steel and powder in the service of England. He was not an exceptionally courageous man, as Englishmen go, and physically rather delicate and nervous than robust, but he had in his composition that essentially British characteristic which ever prevents its possessors from long giving way to despair, and which has earned for English soldiers the super-eminent distinction of being recognized by all other nations as tenacious as bull-dog adversaries who, though possibly beaten, fight on while life lasts; a characteristic from which probably originated that equally essentially English maxim: "While there is life there is hope!"

Cressingham having abandoned hope of outside assistance, for the space of an hour perhaps completely despaired, and even considered the advisability of taking his life at once rather than wait to have it dragged from him by the slower process of starvation.

Thereafter he remembered that he was an Englishman, and with a sharp revulsion of feeling bitterly chided himself for his unmanly inactivity. The English maxim occurred to him, and he sprang to the floor. Carefully counting his matches he found he possessed eleven. Well, he determined, and his jaws snapped together at the thought, to make those matches last him until he should have reached the other exit of the cursed mazes that imprisoned him. Then—well, he would leave the rest to fate, and so strongly had the phoenix hope sprung to life from the ashes of despair that his first care was to regain the jewels which he had abstracted from the Count d'Attala's strong-room. The gold he decided to abandon as being too weighty and cumbersome, but he put five-and-twenty sovereigns in his vest pockets all the same. Lighting number one match he discovered the proper exit and hurried through. Reaching the staircase he turned first to the left and made his way through the darkness to the tunnel door, not with the hope of finding it open, but so as to leave no means of escape untried. It was securely barred. Retracing his steps he kept on in the straight path until he reached the sloping staircase, which he commenced to ascend in the gloom. After fifty steps came a platform and four branching tunnels. Number two match was applied to an examination of the floor, and by its aid he discovered the proper path. Twenty more steps, then another platform and a divided road. Number three match was a failure; numbers four, five, and six were expended, and he still remained undecided, for here marks on the floor were few and faint, the ground being an inch deep in running water. He dared light no more, for he had still a quarter mile to go, so he plunged into the left-hand tunnel and for a hundred yards encountered no difficulty. Then came another maze. Number seven match enabled him to recognize the place from his previous visit.

With a little laugh of triumph he pressed on.

Number eight match gave him a further lease of hope.

Number nine he struck with the greatest caution, but it sputtered and went out.

The steps were almost dry here, and he sat down to think, not daring at first to light another. He had been holding the vestas in his hand, but suddenly fearing that they might get damp, and therefore useless, he put them in his pocket, bestowing at the same time a hearty malediction on Messrs. Bryant & May, or whoever the makers might be. "If the beggars only knew the responsibility that is on them!" he mused aloud, "they might give a little more care to the manufacture of the article." He drew at last another from his pocket, and found to his consternation it was headless. "Damn the man that made it!" he cried savagely. Then recognizing the futility of giving way to temper, he uttered a grim laugh and ate his words. "I'm afraid I was a bit rough, likely enough it's my own fault; anyway, the poor beggar that made it couldn't know where his bad workmanship would land me!"

He then decided to take the middle path without investigation and trust to luck. He did badly, for he had scarcely gone ten paces when he tripped, and instead of falling upon an ascending incline as he had anticipated, he toppled over a small stone coping and rolled headlong down a steep and slippery passage until he thought he should never stop. He did at last, however, and without mishap, although brought up rather sharply against a mound of mud.

Standing up he found that he could feel no wall or ceiling within reach of his arms, and was constrained to strike his last match. Seeking a dry patch of trousers, a desideratum that required an attentive quest, he drew the vesta across the tweed with a reckless laugh. "Might as well laugh as cry," he reflected.

The match flickered and sputtered fitfully, but to his joy caught, and he saw he stood within a vast circular cavern which seemed two hundred feet wide, its roof so high as to be invisible behind the dark. He lost himself in gazing, and the match burned his fingers and went out before he knew.

"I think I'll have a rest," he said aloud, and was surprised to hear how his voice reverberated through the chamber, filling it with a million hissing sounds that grew in volume instantly as though caught up by mocking sprites who clanged and hissed and crashed his words about and back at him with ghoulish glee. It was a horrid happening, and he thought the noise would never stop. It seemed to abate and then commence again, each time louder and louder. Suddenly something clattered with a hollow bang in the darkness opposite, and there followed pandemonium itself. So deafening grew the noises that he put up his hands to his ears in very pain and shut his eyes, all his nerves on edge; waiting until he thought the nuisance gone, he opened his eyes again to see with wild amaze the figure of a huge man, full ten feet high, standing in the centre of the cavern holding an enormous lantern in his hand.

Cressingham's heart leaped violently, then stood almost still, so great was the shock, and he observed with positive fear that the giant was approaching him. But with every step the monstrous creature and everything about him diminished in size, until ten paces off he recognised Desiré. The girl had seen him simultaneously. With the speed of thought she motioned him to silence, and beckoned him to go to her. He lost no time, but half mad with joy sprang forward to find that every step he took he sank ankle-deep in thick black slime.

Desiré took his arm and they hurried off together in the direction she had come. It took them, however, though straining every nerve, a full five minutes to cross the cavern, and not till they had penetrated the tunnel which they next entered for sixty yards, did the girl choose to break the silence. Then she stopped, and demanded: "How is it I found you there?"

"I got tired of waiting, Desiré, and tried to escape from this cursed place by myself."

"You were mad," cried the girl almost angrily, "you should have waited for me. It fills me with wonder how it happens that you are alive, or how you managed to reach the Devil's Bedroom. Why, my Lord, some of the tunnels end in frightful shafts and bottomless pits which are entirely unprotected and just as the old lead miners left them hundreds of years ago, because they could find no more ore. You are certainly the luckiest man in the whole world."

"What a horrible place that big cavern is, Desiré. It is full of dreadful noises, and when I first caught sight of you you looked a giant. I was quite afraid of you."

"It's called the Devil's Bedroom," said Desiré. "It is death to stay there long, for the air is full of poisonous mist. But let us get on, we have a long way to go."

"Did you get the boat, Desiré?"

"Yes."

Cressingham felt as glad and happy as a boy. "You darling!" he cried; "you are a perfect treasure!"

Desiré made no answer, but pressed on in advance.

"Where are we going?" asked the man presently.

"Out of this."

"But which way, though, the boat-house door is locked, isn't it?"

"By a way I discovered for myself last winter. No one else knows of it."

"You dear, clever girl!"

"Am I?"

"Desiré, are you angry with me?"

"Yes."

"For not waiting for you?"

"No, not that, although it was silly of you."

"What for, then, Desiré?"

"Never mind!"

Cressingham could not extract another word from her, although he essayed every blandishment he knew, but Desiré would not let him touch her, refused to speak, and showed herself so sullen that he finally desisted in despair and they marched on in silence. Ten minutes' sharp walking brought them to a place where the tunnel so contracted that they had to crawl for forty yards on hands and knees. Then the light suddenly disappeared; Desiré had extinguished it.

"Here we are," she said, and stood up. Cressingham pushing forward eagerly received a stinging blow in the face from the branches of a shrub, but forcing these aside, he got to his feet and joyfully filled his lungs with a deep draught of the pure air of heaven.

He found that he stood on a rocky mountain ledge behind the castle and outside the bay, which was hidden utterly from view. Two hundred feet almost vertically beneath the ledge the sea beat upon the mountain's feet. Desiré had already plunged into a narrow sideling path that skirted the precipice, and this she trod so swiftly and so fearlessly that the man for a second stood aghast. But marking her sure-footed skill he gathered up his courage and followed her. The dark was profound, but the path was white, and Desiré's figure sharply cut in silhouette against the frothing sea below, for a strong breeze was blowing and the Mediterranean had donned its lightest coloured garments.

Soon Desiré halted with the path's end, and grudgingly offering her hand to Cressingham, helped him from crag to crag with the strength and skill of a hardy mountaineer. The descent was very difficult at first, but each moment it grew easier, and before long they arrived as near to the sea as they dared go. It was then a matter of an hour's clambering along the coast and scrambling through the maquis until they reached the beach where the yacht's boat lay moored half in the water, half in the sand.

Cressingham found that the girl, in spite of her sudden inexplicable aversion to him, had provided for his comfort, for the boat was stocked with a beaker of water and a fair quantity of food; it was also furnished with sculls and a small lug sail.

He got everything prepared for his departure with all possible despatch, and then turned to the girl. "Don't let us part bad friends, Desiré," he pleaded.

"You had better start," she returned coldly. "It must be after ten, and if I don't soon make my appearance a search boat will be sent out after me."

"You appear to have taken a sudden dislike to me, I don't know why. Won't you at least tell me why?"

"You had better go."

"Please tell me, Desiré."

"Go, go quickly!"

"Very well, dear, since you wish it. But our bargain holds. I shall soon return, Desiré."

"Yes, return quickly, as quickly as possible."

"Perhaps you will be liking me again before then. Ah, Desiré, let me tell you how grateful I am to you for all you have done, what a sweet noble girl I think you."

"That is not true," cut in the girl. "You don't think me noble, you don't think me even good."

"My dear girl, you dream," cried Cressingham in amaze. "I think you are the best and noblest girl I know of."

"Then why did you kiss me?" very angrily.

The man gasped. "Why—why—what's the matter?"

"Ah!" cried the girl of a sudden, going very close to him and hissing the words in his ear: "I know why, you have no respect for me, that was it. You knew it was a wrong thing to do, but you didn't respect me, so you didn't care."

"Who told you all this?" he demanded in his turn, growing annoyed.

"Miss Elliott."

"What! You told her that I kissed you?" he cried.

"Why not, why should I not tell her? She knows that I am a girl. I told her you kissed me. I did not know it was a wrong thing to do. I did not do it, it was you."

"Phew, what did she say?"

"She told me it was wrong and mean of you; she told me that I should never allow any man to kiss me except the man whom I wished to marry, and not him even until he had asked me to marry him. She said that men only take liberties like that with girls whom they don't respect."

"By Gad!" reflected Cressingham; "she must have taken it badly to dose this baby with such rubbish." Aloud he said gravely: "My dear Desiré, you must pardon me, but you see I have all along regarded you as a child, and it's not wrong to kiss children. You ask Miss Elliott if it is. I never thought of you as a woman; had I done so I would never have dared attempt to kiss you."

"I'm not a child; I'm eighteen," said Desiré.

"Really, so old?"

"Yes," very shortly and much offended.

"It's those infernal boy's clothes," sighed Cressingham; "they make you look so young, and then your short hair."

Desiré seemed a little mollified. "If you really thought so," she murmured.

"Of course, I did, Miss er-er-Jibaloff," said Cressingham. "You see, if I'd known you were so old I'd never even have called you by your first name."

"Wouldn't you really? Then I forgive you," said the girl with magnificent condescension. "But please, that name you said now is not mine; my name is Desiré Gracci."

"Oh, ah—thanks, Miss Gracci. I'm so glad you've forgiven me."

"No, I don't like that; you may call me Desiré."

"Thank you so very much; but, Desiré, Miss Elliott is better, then?"

"She was, but she took a bad turn while we were talking, the doctor was very angry with me."

"Is the doctor a good-looking man, Desiré?"

"Why, he's a negro!"

"Oh, indeed!" Cressingham felt much relieved. "You will look after Miss Elliott all you can until I return for you, won't you, Desiré?"

"Of course I shall; I love her ever so much."

"Well, good-bye, Desiré." He held out his hand. She took it and pressed it warmly.

"Good-bye, my Lord. God keep you!" she said, and the earnestness in her low sweet voice touched him deeply.

Stepping into the boat he shipped the mast, but when just about to cast off he leaned over the gunwale and said: "Desiré, tell Miss Elliott everything as soon as she recovers, but your mother nothing—mind, nothing."

"Very well, my Lord!"

"And, Desiré?"

"Yes."

"Give Miss Elliott a message from me."

"Yes, what is it?"

"Three words in the English language; do you know English?"

"No, my Lord."

"Well, repeat them after me: 'I—love—you.'" Cressingham blushed in the dark.

"'I love you. I love you. I love you,'?" said Desiré.

"That is right. You won't forget them, will you?"

"No, my Lord, I shall learn them by heart. 'I love you. I love you.'"

Cressingham plucked up the little anchor and pushed off from the sand. "Good-bye, Desiré!" he called out.

"Good-bye, my Lord. 'I love you. I love you,'" and Desiré vanished into the darkness muttering the words over and over to herself like a refrain.

Cressingham did not put up his sail at once, fearing if he did that the boat might be capsized on departing from the shelter of the island under whose lee he was. Taking the sculls out he lost no time in pulling from the shore, and was luckily assisted by both wind and tide. Very soon he found himself in the open, and then shaking loose the tiny sail he steered a course as far as he could judge north-east. The wind was fairly strong but steady, and gusts were few and far between. The sea was choppy rather than rough, running in small foam-crested waves that made the boat dance and jump horribly.

But Cressingham was a skilful yachtsman, although a poor stomach sailor, and he managed his frail craft with great dexterity, a little over rashly perhaps in his anxiety to put as great a distance as possible between the island and himself. But he had of late run so many risks that he found himself quite oblivious of the perils of the ocean, and his only fear was that morning might discover him within the course of one or other of the yachts that lay at anchor in the tiny harbour of Attala.


CHAPTER XVIII.—THE CAUTION OF A KING

ALL night the breeze blew steadily, and Cressingham ran almost dead before it at a speed of about four or five knots. When morning broke he was out of sight of any land, and soon afterwards the wind died away to a calm, and the sea in sympathy soon grew almost smooth as glass save for a long gliding swell that rocked the boat as gently as a mother her baby's cradle.

Cressingham, half famished from a twenty hours' fast, let the sail go and made a hearty breakfast, then shipping the mast, for he still felt nervous of being seen by the Nihilists' yachts, got out the sculls and spent the morning rowing eastwards. The boat was very light and manageable, and he made such good progress that by the evening he guessed he was well within the track of steamers trading between Naples and Genoa.

All day the sea had continued calm, but at nightfall a gentle breeze sprang up blowing from the north. Cressingham, however, was by that time completely exhausted, and not daring to rig the sail he lay down in the bottom of the boat and soon fell asleep, allowing his frail bark to drift at the mercy of the elements. Providence was kind, however, and repaid him bravely for his confidence. Hour after hour sped by, and although two steamers passed by almost within hail Cressingham slept as sweetly as ever he had done on shore, lulled by the peaceful motion and by the balmy north wind. He awoke while it was still dark, and shipping the mast steered now south-east. An hour before dawn a great Nord Deutscher Lloyd crossed his bows within half a mile, running nor'-nor'-west, a blaze of lights from stem to truck of her vast bulk.

Cressingham sent up to heaven shout after shout for help, but he was far beyond hail and was compelled helplessly to watch her steam away into the darkness at fourteen knots an hour. That morning he breakfasted on water, for his provisions had run out, and for the next six hours he sailed slowly obliquely along towards the Italian coast. By noon he was very hungry and growing anxious, but in the early evening he descried with joy unspeakable the smoke of a steamer in his wake that seemed to follow him deliberately. He ran to his masthead a kerchief, the only coloured cloth in his possession (which Desiré had used as a wrap for his provisions), and putting about he waited for the rapidly-approaching steamer with heart in mouth. The look-out sighted him while yet a mile off, but Cressingham not knowing that and frantic with excitement, stood up and commenced to shout and yell and wave his handkerchief like a maniac. Nearer and nearer the steamer came until he could read the name upon her bows, Alessandria, and then she stopped.

Cressingham shipped his mast and rowed to her side with the speed of thought, then catching the rope which was thrown to him he climbed on board with the agility of a squirrel, to find himself in the midst of a lot of chattering Italians who plied him with a thousand questions. Meanwhile the vessel recommenced her journey, carelessly abandoning the boat which had served Cressingham so faithfully and well.

The captain of the Alessandria proved to be a Frenchman, who, immediately he was made aware that his guest was "gentilhomme" and wealthy to boot, became excessively solicitous for his comfort, and provided Cressingham not only with a cabin, but a very welcome change of clothing. Cressingham informed him that he had tried to cross from Elba to Piombino in an open boat in consequence of a wager, but had fallen asleep and so lost his bearings. This story the captain seemed to find no difficulty in crediting, for he merely shrugged his shoulders and murmured something in an undertone about the mad English.

In his turn he informed Cressingham that he was taking a cargo of general merchandise from Genoa to the island of Gozzo, and offered, for a consideration of ten pounds, to call in and land him at Trapani if he so desired. Cressingham offered him his whole store of ready money—twenty-five pounds—if he would proceed straight to Naples, but this Captain Frioche refused to do, and the young man dared not tempt him with jewels, for the man's face was not prepossessing, and his crew appeared as blackguardly a set of cut-throats as might be found in Europe. It was not that the Englishman valued so much the precious stones which he had stoled from Attala, but he thought that if the captain by any chance could learn that he possessed so great a treasure he might feel tempted to hurl him overboard, and the crew were all creatures who looked as though they might be bought body and soul for a few scudi.

He was compelled therefore to rest satisfied with Sicily, but he felt sure that from there he could make his way to Palermo and Naples in time to save the King of Italy, for it was yet only July 22, and he had still seven days of grace.

He landed safely at Trapani an hour after daylight on July 24, parting from the Alessandria without regret. Evening found him at Castellamare, and after a good dinner he pressed on by post horses (the mail having long gone) to Palermo, which city he reached a little before dawn on the morning of the 25th—the conveyances which of necessity he had been compelled to use having proved so wretched that it had taken him, including stoppages, twenty hours to traverse a distance in all of something under forty miles. Cressingham proceeded at once to the Hotel Benevento on the Piazza Corbone, a place he had often put up at in his younger days when yachting in the Mediterranean. There he learned that a steamer was scheduled to start for Napoli that evening at eight o'clock. He booked his passage and replenished his wardrobe, and was able to board the steamer dressed as a gentleman once more.

He arrived at Naples by eleven o'clock on the morning of the 26th, and driving to the Hotel d'Europe at once wrote and despatched by mounted messenger a letter to King Humbert, in which he covertly reminded His Majesty of the occasion when he had made his acquaintance under the auspices of Perigord, and begged for an immediate audience, stating also his intention to proceed to the royal palace at noon, as his business was vitally important.

Cressingham was of course prepared to be regarded with suspicion considering the fact that Prince Carlos had fastened on his shoulders the blame of abducting and eloping with Madame Viyella. However, he did not experience the least doubt but that he could speedily correct all false impressions, and it was with a light heart and elated bearing that he set out an hour afterwards from the hotel.

He was received at the door of the palace by a gaudily dressed officer, who gave an astonished start on learning the visitor's name, but he was very polite to Cressingham, and at once led him into an empty ante-room and begged him to wait. Cressingham took a chair beside a window that looked out on the gardens, and blithely hummed an air from "La Cigale" which he had heard a barrel organ murdering while passing through the streets of Naples on his journey to the palace.

He watched with some amusement the movements of a perky brown cock-sparrow on the paved courtyard below, when a hand was laid upon his shoulder and a soft Italian voice spoke whisperingly these words: "Sir, you are my prisoner. Put up your hands above your head, and do not make another movement, or you are a dead man."

Turning curiously he found the room blocked with men in uniform, and immediately before him an officer of the household guard, who held in his right hand a cocked revolver that was pointed unwaveringly at the Englishman's heart.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded indignantly.

The officer did not reply in words, but at a nod four men had secured Cressingham by arms, wrists and hands in such a manner that had he been a Hercules he would still have been powerless. They hurried him then with scant courtesy from the anteroom and up several flights of stairs to the top floor of the palace, where they brought him to a small room whose one barred window looked out upon the Campanian Hills. This apartment had evidently been at some time used as an asylum for a lunatic, for walls, floor and door were all thickly padded; furniture there was none, with the exception of a mattress and bedding spread in a far corner on the floor, above which a small steel ring-bolt with chain attached swung from a narrow embrasure in the wall.

The officer at once closed the door and proceeded with nervous caution to search his prisoner, perhaps expecting to discover a collection of dangerous bombs.

His surprise on finding the jewels was almost ludicrous: he uttered a cry of something like fear, and dropped the glittering treasures as though they had burned his fingers, while the men gathered round staring with wide eyes at the priceless baubles.

One stooped to recover them, but the officer reproved him sharply. "Do you want to lose your life, fool!" he cried; "they are no doubt poisonous to touch, since there are no bombs or other weapons to be found."

The man started back as though an adder had stung him, exclaiming incoherently.

Cressingham, who had been growing more and more angry by this, had nearly lost his temper. "You will pay for these indignities," he cried hotly; "I am an English nobleman, fools that you are one and all. I demand that you send immediately for the English Consul or the Minister, I don't care which, they are both friends of mine."

The officer bowed and smiled. "Certainly, my Lord, but in the meantime my orders are to take all precautions. Your Lordship will doubtless excuse me for I must obey my orders!" He bowed again and turned to his men. "Chieti, Malsamo, be so kind as to fasten my Lord Cressingham's wrists to the chain yonder and behind his back, but be careful not to injure or hurt my Lord in any way." Cressingham struggled violently, but vainly. In a moment he was handcuffed and chained, and could only stand glowering angrily at his captors.

The officer made a sign, and his men departed, saluting him one by one as they passed to the door. He then strolled over to the jewels and kicked them about with his feet until the floor was strewn and shining like the coat of a Persian king. "They are very beautiful, milord," he observed critically, "but deadly, are they not?"

"Give them to me," said Cressingham with a savage snarl, "and I'll eat a few to show you."

The officer smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. "It is possible that my Lord would prefer suicide to the rope," he suggested calmly.

"Have them tested by whom you please, only for God's sake be quick about it. You will find them harmless enough. You think me a Nihilist, but you are horribly mistaken. I came here to save your king's life, not to try and murder him."

"Ah, is that so?" The man spread his kerchief on the floor, and pushing the jewels on it with his boot gingerly gathered up the ends and knotted them, then lifting the bundle with the end of his scabbard held it from him at arm's length.

"If my Lord will excuse me, I shall take my departure," he said politely.

Cressingham with a great effort restrained his rage and answered: "Signor, I beg you to give my compliments to the King——"

"His Majesty is not at home," interrupted the officer.

"When will he return?"

"I am not so far in His Majesty's confidence."

"When he returns will you give him a message for me?"

"With pleasure."

"I thank you. Be so kind as to say to him these words: 'Lord Cressingham craves an audience in order to tell your Majesty of a plot which has been arranged by the Nihilists for your Majesty's assassination. Your Majesty's life is in immediate danger, and Lord Cressingham has undergone a thousand perils to carry you this warning.'"

"I shall remember," said the officer, "nay, more—I shall cause your message to be immediately transmitted to his Majesty. Is there more that I may do for you?"

"If you could tell me of the movements of a certain Mr. Perigord, a friend of the king, I should be obliged."

"Why, yes. Mr. Perigord returned to Naples this morning in his yacht from a voyage in which I myself was one of his companions. He has gone to Milano."

"Then I pray you send him a telegram informing him of my position. I am sure he will immediately accomplish my release."

The officer bowed. "Certainly, my Lord, it shall be done. Is that all?"

"Well, I have eaten nothing since early this morning."

"I shall send you some lunch immediately and a servant who will feed you. My orders forbid me releasing your Lordship's hands."

Cressingham sighed resignedly, and the officer, with a final sweeping reverence, took his leave, having created the impression of a remorseless but at the same time the most courteous gaoler in the world.

The remainder of that day passed quite uneventfully. On the following morning, a little before noon, the officer presented himself at the door and informed his prisoner that the King of Italy had received his message, but had not favourably replied to it. He did not stay a minute, and in spite of Cressingham's excited questions bowed himself away.

Another twenty-four hours passed by, hours of utter loneliness and misery, which the wretched man spent in alternately pacing the apartment with furious impatience or reclining on his pallet vainly trying to sleep. Servants came with his meals, but the men were soldiers who had evidently received their orders, for they refused to talk or be drawn into any converse. In answer to all his eager questions and demands they merely shook their heads or nodded like automatons, and he was at last constrained to keep silence and wait with what patience he could for the end.

In the afternoon of July 28 the officer again paid him a fleeting visit to say these words: "I have received a telegram from Mr. Perigord; he will be here early to-morrow morning."

Cressingham looked at the man imploringly. "Signor," he muttered, "persuade your king to see me at once. As truly as there is a God in Heaven his life is in deadly peril. I have much to tell him."

"Rest easy, my Lord," said the officer. "His Majesty is securely guarded. What you may have to say could not help him" (he drew himself erect and twirled his moustache with a gesture of pride and vanity). "The king is defended by the household guards, to which regiment I have the honour to belong."

"Nevertheless!" cried Cressingham despairingly. "I——"

But the officer cut in: "Pardon, my lord, what you ask is as impossible as it is unnecessary; the king is at Monza."

"Monza! Monza! where is that?"

"A few miles from Milano. A riverdici, my Lord," and with a low bow he strode from the room, brushing the floor with his trailing plumes as he departed.

Cressingham sat down rather suddenly upon the floor, his brain whirling with gloomy thoughts, but before long his reflections disentangled themselves, and he came to view the future with more of philosophic resignation and comfort than he had been able to command for many hours. "After all!" he soliloquized, "I have done my best, what man may do more?"

That night he fell asleep the moment that he laid head on pillow.


CHAPTER XIX.—EXPLANATION: ASSASSINATION

AT seven o'clock on the morning of July 29, Cressingham was still slumbering. He was not aroused even when the door opened and there entered the room Mr. Perigord, Ludwig von Oeltjen and the Italian guardsman.

Perigord made a gesture commanding silence and crossed the chamber on tip-toe. For several seconds he stood gazing down at the sleeping man, his keen eyes marking the recent scars that disfigured Cressingham's face and doubtless noting much else beside, for Perigord was a practised physiognomist and a skilful reader of men. He turned at length and beckoned to von Oeltjen, who at once came forward.

"What do you think of those bruises," he whispered.

Oeltjen after a sharp glance shrugged his shoulders. "A fall, I think, sir," he replied.

Perigord shook his head. "No, there are too many scars: there has been an encounter of some sort. It is not the face of a traitor, Oeltjen."

"I have always said so, sir."

"Mark the hair beside his temples. It was not grey when last we saw him."

"You are right, sir, it was not."

"He has much to tell us. Wake him, Oeltjen!"

The Count stooped and shook the sleeping man by the shoulder. Cressingham immediately uttered a loud cry and started up. "Murder!" he shouted wildly. "Stop him, arrest him!" Then he caught sight of the intruders and stared at them dazedly. "Ah!" he muttered: "Mr. Perigord, Oeltjen, you here! I was dreaming."

"What was your dream?" demanded Perigord, speaking in a loud, imperative voice. "Tell it me at once!"

"I dreamed—Heavens! a horrible vivid dream it was—I dreamed I saw a man shoot at King Humbert. I saw the king fall."

"Ah, and you saw the murderer! You shouted out as you awoke to stop and to arrest him. Describe him to me quickly before you forget."

Cressingham closed his eyes. "He seemed a young man—ah, but I cannot remember. I did not see his face. But this is nonsense, gentlemen!" He started to his feet. "We have realities to deal with, not dreams. Is King Humbert still alive?"

"Thank God, yes."

"Has any attempt been made to murder him?"

"None."

"Then lose no time and warn him, for this is the last day. With my own ears I heard him condemned by the three chiefs of Nihilism, and the pledge was given for his death to be accomplished by July 29 at latest. That is to-day!"

His three auditors stared at Cressingham in blank astonishment.

"You heard?" said Perigord.

"Yes, I heard! But, man, what are you waiting for? My story can wait. Go instantly and warn the king: telegraph to him at once!"

Perigord shook his head. "We already have heard of the danger," he said slowly, "and already every human precaution has been taken to safeguard his Majesty's life. Nevertheless, the detail of date is news to us, and the king had better be warned of that. Go, Oeltjen, and despatch a telegram in my name in the English language to his Majesty."

"Yes, sir, and afterwards?"

"Await me at the Hotel d'Europe."

Oeltjen appeared much disappointed, but he obeyed and at once departed.

Perigord then turned to the officer. "Do you by chance speak Russian, Lieutenant?" he asked quietly.

"I, good heavens, no Signor; it is no gentleman's language, Russian!"

"Well, kindly excuse me, for Lord Cressingham and I are about to converse privately in that tongue and I wish for the protection of your presence, so desperately do I fear this Englishman and so much do I respect his talents."

"Certainly, Signor."

Cressingham turned fiery red and said in Russian: "You have some motive for insulting me, Mr. Perigord."

"None whatever," answered the other coldly. "The explanation of my words is quite simple. Until I hear what you have to say I am compelled to regard you as a traitor to the order, a desperate and dangerous ruffian, the more worthy of fear because you are brave, intelligent and by birth a gentleman."

"Thank you kindly, sir," said the young man with satire.

Perigord frowned. "What have you done with Madame Viyella?" he demanded.

"Why nothing."

"Where have you left her?"

"Under the protection of her father."

"And where may that be?"

"Why, where but in her father's house?"

"You are flippant, my Lord. Who is her father, and where does he reside?"

"Her father is a gentleman of means and leisure. He resides anywhere but in the island of Anarchos, Mr. Perigord."

Perigord stamped his foot upon the floor and flushed with passion. "Have a care, my Lord," he muttered angrily; "you appear to forget your position. Clear your mind of all illusions, and immediately. Understand once and for all that you are my prisoner and in my power. Remember the fate of Klein! I tell you, we have worse punishments in reserve for traitors than for our enemies, especially traitors who are stubborn and recalcitrant when caught."

Cressingham gave him frown for frown and answered haughtily: "That is it, sir; you take me for a traitor!"

For the space of fifty seconds Perigord gazed into his eyes as though he would read the young man's soul; then he did a strange thing, a thing that showed himself to be a man of great and noble mind, capable of grand and generous actions. Turning to the officer he said in swift Italian: "Be kind enough. Lieutenant, at once to release Lord Francis Cressingham."

The Lieutenant evinced no surprise. "Certainly, Signor," he said, and taking a key from his pocket stepped forward. Next instant Cressingham was free.

Mr. Perigord said to him with grave but kindly dignity in Russian: "My Lord, I took you for a traitor because you disappeared from Italy the same moment as Madame Viyella. No doubt you will be able to give me good reasons for your wandering. If I have misjudged you, I hope you will forgive me; for my recent expressions, in that they have pricked your sensibilities, I unreservedly apologize."

Cressingham, who was rubbing his arms which were cramped from their long continued unnatural position, answered frankly: "I'm glad you've apologized, sir; more glad you've seen fit to release me before I told you my story. I suppose I'd better commence from the beginning and tell——"

"Excuse me, my Lord, I fancy neither of us have breakfasted. Had we not better postpone the story for a while?"

"Well, if you don't mind I'm sure I don't. To tell you the truth, I'm rather keen to try what feeding myself feels like after being trussed up in that fashion for so long."

"Come then, we'd better go to a hotel."

"Excuse me," said Cressingham, "there's a little matter I'd like to settle before we leave. This officer has a parcel of jewels belonging (at any rate temporarily) to me, which I'd like to recover possession of."

Perigord smiled. "I have them in my bag. Very fine stones they are too, most of them. I did not think you were a gem collector. I must congratulate you on your taste, my Lord. Well, if that is all?"

"Quite."

Perigord took the young man's arm and led him from the palace. He occupied the drive with an account of Colonel Elliott, whom Cressingham was delighted to learn had, in spite of the decrees of medical science, been restored in a measure to health and to full possession of his mental faculties. The old gentleman, it appears, had however lost the use of his lower limbs, and finding himself of no use to Perigord had returned to London, and was there anxiously awaiting news of his daughter whose deliverance his unhappy state compelled him to entrust entirely to others. Half an hour later they were seated with Oeltjen at breakfast in the dining hall of the Hotel d'Europe. Cressingham made a very good meal indeed, but the others ate little, and although they courteously endeavoured to converse on ordinary topics of the day it was patent to the Englishmen that both were expiring with curiosity and keenly anxious for him to make haste. With pardonable malice he disobliged their expectations and ate as slowly as possible. Finally Perigord seemed able to stand the suspense no longer.

"You said, my Lord, that you heard the Three, the Three, decree a certain thing?" he muttered.

"I did," replied Cressingham, filling his mouth with bread.

"You saw as well as heard?"

"Plainly."

"Then you know them; you would recognize them again?"

"Perfectly."

"You perhaps know where they are now?"

Cressingham slowly drank a glass of claret. "One for certain, the other two only vaguely."

"There is no one within hearing," said Perigord, "you might whisper names."

Cressingham leaned forward, and the others instantly drew up their chairs. "Have you ever heard of a man called Bosa Gracci, Conti d'Attala?" he whispered softly.

Perigord stared at him blankly and shook his head, but a second afterwards a gleam came into his eyes. "Stay, let me think!" he muttered. "Is he a very old man?"

"Yes, very old."

"I know him, then. I met him years ago in the Casino of Monte Carlo. He lost half a million francs, after three times breaking the bank with a system which he had invented. I marked him at the time as the best and most passionless gambler I had ever seen. He lost that vast sum without appearing to mind in the least, and gave a brilliant supper next evening on his yacht to which everyone of any consequence was invited. I was however unfortunately unable to attend, for I was called away suddenly to St. Petersburg."

"Pardon me," said Cressingham, "you said 'unfortunately.' In my opinion, you were very lucky for that accident probably saved your life, that is if you were at the time engaged in this—er—business. Were you?"

"I was."

"You may take your oath then that he had marked you and gave that supper simply on your account. That man is one of the cleverest on earth, and at the same time the most unscrupulous scoundrel I believe the world has ever mistaken for a gentleman. He it is."

"He it is? He it is? You mean?"

But Cressingham arose. "Take me where we may converse in perfect safety and I shall soon relieve your curiosity. Ha!" he gave a sudden little gasping cry and dropped as though he had been shot, pulling the table cloth and its contents over at the same time with a wild clatter to the floor. When he arose his face was smeared thickly with a black mass of treacle, behind which his features were absolutely unrecognizable. He then spluttered out hoarsely in fierce Italian to his companions' utter amaze: "Corpo di Baccho! My leg was asleep and gave way under my weight. Sapristi! this stuff is choking me. Quickly, signores, lead me to a bedroom. I am blind, I cannot see."

Everyone in the room stared and laughed in amused astonishment at the ludicrous figure he cut, but Cressingham seized with one hand the arm of Oeltjen, with the other the arm of Perigord, and gave to each an iron grip. "The Prince," he muttered, "he must not see me," then resumed his Italian oaths and dragged his companions swiftly from the room swearing like a trooper.

But Prince Carlos, who had just entered by another door accompanied by two Austrian naval officers, hurried after the trio and caught them in the passage. "Mr. Perigord, I want you," he cried.

"My dear Prince, kindly wait for me a moment," said Perigord. "My friend Signor Carrega has met with an unfortunate accident, and I really must attend to him."

The Prince nodded. "Very well, I shall be in the reading room."

As soon as Oeltjen's bedroom was reached, he wiped the sticky mess from his face with a sponge and turned to his companions, who stood watching his operations in expectant silence.

"That was a narrow escape," he remarked coolly. "The Prince is one of the three Nihilist chiefs. If he had recognized me, Heaven only knows what might have happened, for he knows I know, although he believes I was drowned a week ago. But go down to him, Mr. Perigord. Do not keep him waiting; he might get uneasy."

Perigord surveyed the young man with a glance of open admiration. "Really, my Lord," he said frankly, "you must return to the diplomatic service. England needs the services of men like yourself. Oeltjen, attend to your friend while I am gone. I shall not be long." From the door he made a peculiar sign to his secretary, which however Cressingham remarked.

For some minutes the two friends watched each other in silence, then Cressingham said: "What did that sign mean, Oeltjen?"

"Really, Cressingham, I can't tell you." The Count's face flushed and he looked a little ashamed.

"Nod if I guess it, will you?"

"Well—well—you see I——"

"Please! I'd do as much for you."

"I think I may. Indeed I shall."

"Good. It meant: Watch him carefully! on no account allow him a moment from your sight! Am I right?"

Oeltjen nodded.

Cressingham smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "He can't allow himself to trust anybody completely, that man. Strange, isn't it? Wonder what the true reason is. I fancy it's lack of breeding myself. He's a grand chap wonderfully brainy and all that sort of thing, but I don't think he had a grandfather, do you, Oeltjen?"

"One can't tell. He is as you say a wonderful, indeed an extraordinary man. But I have certainly noticed little things about him——"

"Cuts his bread," said Cressingham.

"He's a poor speller," said Oeltjen.

"Is he now. Well, I've once or twice found his grammar faulty for all the wonderful linguist that he undoubtedly is. What country do you guess he sprang from?"

"America, I think."

"H'm, I rather fancy he's a Frenchman."

"Permit me to assist you, if you are talking of me," said an ironic voice from the doorway. "I was born at Totna, on the Danube."

Perigord entered and locked the door behind him after giving some direction to a man in the passage without.

Cressingham and Oeltjen were cast in utter confusion by his sudden appearance and his words, but he turned to them presently with a good-humoured smile and said: "Some day I shall tell you all about myself, since you are interested enough to be curious concerning me. But for the present we have business on hand and I confess that I am anxious to play the listener myself. First, however, let us defend ourselves from eavesdroppers. I have men on guard, but that is no reason why we should not observe every possible precaution."

While yet speaking he advanced to the bed and unceremoniously gathering up quilt, sheets and blankets in his arms; he fixed them around and about the door so that any cunning person who might essay to listen without would find his trouble quite in vain. Satisfied with his arrangements, he drew the others to the farthest wall of the room and himself sitting on the unclothed bed motioned his companions to chairs beside him. "Now, my Lord," he said eagerly; "commence, please, and from the moment that I left you at the palace gate the night of the Council."

Cressingham nodded and began his story. It was then eleven o'clock a.m. At six p.m. he had finished, having spoken almost uninterruptedly for seven hours, and so engrossed had he been in his discourse and so rapt had been his auditors' attention that neither he nor they had given a solitary thought to lunch or any other thing outside the story that he had to tell.

A long silence followed his last word, a silence given up to anxious reflection; then Perigord said slowly: "I cannot forgive myself for having believed you a traitor, Lord Francis. Oeltjen was wiser than I; he maintained your good faith through everything."

Cressingham smiled and held out his hand to the Count. "Thank you, old chap," he said gratefully.

Oeltjen grasped his proffered hand and pressed it warmly, but made no reply.

"However," said Perigord, "I shall try to make amends. To you I shall entrust the task of rescuing Miss Elliott and your friend Miss Desiré, and of kidnapping Madame Viyella. I like the plan you have arranged for that, and we shall follow it. But tell us, my Lord, how many men has the Count about him?"

"About twenty, my lord, as near as I could count. There may be more."

"H'm, the place must be seized by a coup de main, then, for you have described it as almost impregnable. Did you observe any sign of artillery?"

"None whatever."

"All the better. By-the-by, you spoke of the Count d'Attala receiving telegrams. Did you observe any sign of a cable or cable house on the island?"

"None, sir; except the castle and the boat-house there are no buildings on the island."

"Ah, please excuse me for a moment, I must go to my room for a book!"

He departed and presently returned bearing with him a huge leather-bound volume containing innumerable sheets of manuscripts. "This," he said, "is a report just completed and furnished me by the Italian police of all houses and castles of importance on the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts whose demesnes abut upon the sea. It may be barely possible that the Count d'Attala is an Italian landholder." He turned over the leaves for the space of perhaps ten minutes, then suddenly uttered a cry of triumph. "Ha, it is as I thought!" he said. "How marvellously simple is the unravelling of the sublimest mystery once provided with a key. Here, listen please, gentlemen. 'Villa Franchia, nine miles south of Spezia; present owner, Bosa Gracci, Conti d'Attala, Corsican noble; purchased by him from Carlo, late Prince Visconti, apud 1861; large walled park and grounds covering complete frontline to small harbour and bay called locally Gulf of Sighs; owner possesses one large steam yacht, and two smaller vessels; keeps up a large establishment; his servants are mostly foreigners.'"

Perigord paused a moment and said: "That is all, gentlemen, but it is significant enough. There undoubtedly we shall discover a complete cable station. Mark, the place is only nine miles from the city of Spezia, a comparatively unimportant town which for centuries might escape the attention of the most acute investigators."

"Do you propose to attack the Villa before we set out for Attala?" asked Cressingham.

"I shall not set out for Attala," said Perigord. "That expedition I shall give into your charge, and your lieutenant shall be Oeltjen. My part shall be the capture of the Villa Franchia. If I were to depart on another voyage so soon, the news would be immediately telegraphed to the Count and he might grow anxious. Moreover, I have to throw dust into the eyes of Prince Carlos and prevent him from taking any alarm. To-night, soon after dark, Oeltjen will convey you secretly on board the Sea Hawk, where you will await instructions, but to prevent accidents you must immediately disguise yourself—we must run no further risks like that of this morning which you so cleverly evaded."

He plunged one hand into his breast pocket and drew forth a false black moustache and imperial. "Fix that on your face, my Lord, it will serve to alter your expression, and as you are supposed to be dead you will not be regarded very closely. Once you are on board the yacht, you will be quite safe from observation."

"And when shall I set out?" demanded the young man, as he took the things and proceeded to adorn himself before a mirror.

"As soon as possible. By three days at furthest. I shall myself set out for Milan this very evening to consult with King Humbert, for without his assistance we can do very little, as you will require more men to attack the island than I have at present on the yacht:"

"Nuisance!" cried Cressingham.

"I agree, but we cannot help ourselves. Oeltjen and you had better have your dinner in this room. I myself am pledged to dine with Cardinal Cornito and must leave you at once. After you have taken Lord Francis on the yacht you will return here, Oeltjen, and wait in the hotel for a telegram from me. I shall wire you from Milano, and you will then carefully arrange for the embarkation of Humbert's officers on board the yacht. Luckily you know them all already. I shall arrange to get Prince Carlos out of the way, so your work should be accomplished without detection by the Nihilists or other mishap. Give out that the yacht proceeds to England. I shall spread abroad the same story. Now, my Lord, as to you, I give you discretionary powers. You will assail and capture the island in the manner that appears best to you. I have no fear for the result; you have already shown me how capable you are. You will if possible take the Count d'Attala prisoner and bring him——"

Suddenly a sharp rap sounded on the door. Perigord frowned and called out loudly in French: "Who is there?"

"Dupassis, sir!" answered a faint voice.

Perigord crossed the room and opened the door. "Come in," he said coldly, then, when the man, a small consumptive looking Frenchman, whose face was very pale and nervous looking, had entered, "my orders were that I was not to be disturbed. Something of importance has of course occurred?"

"Yes, sir. I have waited very long, fearing to annoy you, but I dared not any longer. The King——" he paused, interrupted by a loud hollow cough that purpled his face.

"What of the King?" demanded Perigord.

EXPLANATION: ASSASSINATION 229

"Dead, sir," gasped the man, "shot and killed by a Nihilist this afternoon at Monza!"

"Where did you hear of this?"

Dupassis drew a paper from his pocket. "I didn't leave my post, sir," he muttered apologetically; "one of the servants brought it to me. Besides, they are crying out the news in the streets even now. If you listen you may hear for yourself."

In the silence that followed they could indistinctly catch the far-off shouts of an excited crowd, a confused babel of murmurs, from which occasionally single words arose and travelled clearly to the pallid listeners; such words as "Umberto—Death—Mercy and Revenge."

Perigord allowed the journal to slip to the floor unopened. "Have they caught the murderer, Dupassis?" he asked presently.

"Yes, Excellency."

"His name?"

"He says Bresci."

Perigord turned to Cressingham and muttered sadly: "Your dream has come true, my Lord." Then he shook his huge bulk like a Newfoundland dog that has just emerged from a bath, and set his ponderous jaws together with a snap. "It is lucky that Emanuel is one of us," he growled and strode to the door. "Follow my orders, gentlemen; it is better to be cautious, although excessive caution is no longer necessary since the dogs our enemies will all be hiding in their holes a week to come at least. You will soon hear from me. I go to Cardinal Cornito now, thence to the new king. The new king! Le roi est mort, vice le roi. Good-bye, gentlemen! If I do not again see you before you go to Attala, I shall write my full instructions. Ah, the villains, the cruel, cursed villains!"

He paused, his clenched hand unconsciously upraised on high, hesitated a second, then, with a sort of groan, passed out and vanished without a backward glance.


CHAPTER XX.—SIDE-LIGHTS AND SERMONS

"MEIN Gott!" said Oeltjen, "what a terrible confirmation of your story, my Lord."

Cressingham picked up the journal which Perigord had let fall, and read aloud the account and horrid details of King Humbert's assassination.

"Do you know, Oeltjen," he said afterwards, "from the very moment I heard the Count d'Attala so cold-bloodedly predict the fulfilment of his pledge, I somehow felt in my bones that Humbert was doomed, and that nothing in the power of man to do might save him. I do not feel at all surprised, for I expected this."

"I wonder if they will be able to extort any information from Bresci the murderer?"

"Be sure not. The Count knows how to choose his instruments too well for that. Remember Klein!"

"Ugh! I shall never forget that night. I often dream of the poor wretch's screams of pain."

"And yet in spite of that dreadful torture, he was obstinate and finally deceived us."

"Who do you suppose fired the bomb that night, my Lord?"

"Who but the Prince, or rather the Archduke. He arrived on the scene immediately after the explosion. I marked his face particularly and saw his eyes counting us over with an expression of utter disappointment. I am sure Perigord commenced to suspect him from that moment. I wonder what fate Perigord intends for him?"

"He is a Prince, you know, and heir to a throne."

"You think then——"

"That he is too highly placed to touch. Perigord will probably warn his royal nephew, and in that way draw his teeth. You see, once the Count d'Attala is killed or imprisoned, the inner circle will crumble to pieces and Nihilism will fade away for want of a leader, never to be revived in our generation at least."

"That is so, for it is the Count who holds all the strings. The Prince and the Turk are merely figure-heads."

"So it seems; but what infernal villains they are, worse in my opinion than the Count."

"Ah, you think that because you have not yet seen the Count! Wait a little."

"Do you believe we shall encounter much resistance on the island?"

"Very little, if we have any luck. I hope to surprise the place."

"No doubt we shall find records there of all the various Nihilist lodges and their individual members and provincial chiefs."

"I am sure of that, Oeltjen, for Attala has been the Count's head-quarters for a quarter century. With what we shall find there Perigord should be able to achieve his mission absolutely and abolish Nihilism as a concerted organization from the face of the earth."

"What a proud man he would be then!"

"Quite forgivably so, too. I can't help admiring the fellow, can you?"

"Well, my Lord, personally I more than admire. You see, for some weeks I have been his intimate companion, and, to some degree, he has given me his confidence and friendship. He is uncouth, and often does things which jar a little on one's nerves, but he is so big in every other way; such a giant physically and mentally, so liberal in his views for other people, although in his own life, a severe ascetic, so broad-minded, so charitable and generous. I could tell you a score of things he has done without ostentation and without a second thought—generous, dutiful things which would show you the man's true heart. Why, only last night as we came down from Milano in the train, a poor wretch (we were travelling second class) slipped into our carriage unnoticed by the guard at some small wayside station and besought us to allow him to hide beneath our seat as he wished to visit his wife whom he said was lying ill at Florence in order that he might see her before she died. I pitied the man, he looked so miserably in earnest, and would myself have assisted him, but had no money of my own. Perigord had no money of his own either, for he is quite poor personally, and although I had in my bag some hundreds of pounds belonging to his trust he would not permit himself to use a single farthing. But he took out his watch and the ring from his finger and thrust them into the beggar's hand, telling him in a harsh voice to go and sell them and then buy himself a ticket, but not to dare attempt to thieve a passage. Nor would he permit the fellow to give him a word of thanks. No, my Lord, I defy anyone to live with Perigord for long and entertain for him only admiration. He is rugged and rough, I grant you, but his heart is golden, and for myself I confess I love and am devoted to him."

"Indeed, I am not surprised since you tell me he is capable of such a noble action. I have never heard of a finer thing than that."

"Ah, you should see him among the poor as I have seen him, then you would understand the poor of London, of Paris, of Milano and Napoli. He has found a way to their hearts, one and all, I can tell you. He goes among them, the lowest of the low, and speaks to each poor wretch of his affairs as though old friends had met to chat, and although now so poor himself that he has nothing but words to give them, it needs but little penetration to remark how well beloved he is, how venerated and how lovingly esteemed."

"You fill me with surprise!"

"I can assure you he filled me with amaze; I used to watch him at first in speechless silence, perhaps in some filthy den when a miserable bedraggled crone would pour her vulgar troubles in his ears, and for an hour he would listen to and comfort her as though she had been a duchess, and he her spiritual adviser. Afterwards he would smile to me and say, 'These creatures are my best friends, they help me in my work.' But not all that he might say could make me credit that such was his only reason for so sacrificing himself. No, the man was happy at such times. One could see it in his face, in the kindly gleaming of his eyes, in the husky tones of his voice, in the shamefaced way he would offer the few pence he might have of his very own to give away; pence that were often refused with blessings for, strange to say, some of these creatures appeared to possess hearts too."

"My dear Oeltjen!"

"It is true, and more, much more; I could spend hours in telling you of his charity, his sweet, untiring goodness to those poor abandoned folk. I assure you, tears have often come into my eyes to watch him!"

"One thing I cannot understand. Why did he take you with him if it was not to publish to you his goodness?" said Cressingham in a doubting voice.

Oeltjen smiled. "Be sure I often asked myself the same question," he replied; "and I used to ask myself this question, too: 'If these creatures are his agents, from whom he acquires information as he tells me, why does he not help them from the vast funds at his command, a thing he would have a perfect right to do?' But he never did this, and one day I discovered the reason of his taking me about with him. He said to me quite quietly as we dined together 'You are a rich man, Ludwig, are you not?' I told him the amount of my income. He sighed and replied: 'Sometimes I catch myself agreeing with and pitying the Nihilists. It is surely a shame that some men are so rich and the vast majority so poor. If only all the rich were charitable and gave to the needy according to their means, why then we should have no Nihilists, for always, as Talleyrand once said—'Ragged clothing and empty bellies are the most terrible incitements to the plotting of murders and the planning of revolutions.' It was then I understood him, and grasped the full meaning of what had before been an annoying mystery."

"What did you do?"

"Not very much—the little that I could."

"He dispensed your favours?"

"You wrong him. He merely pointed out deserving objects. Unhappily their number was legion, and I could only help a few."

Cressingham's eyes were glistening. "My dear friend, I envy you your experience; it was money well expended. Did it not give you pleasure?"

"The greatest my life has known. Unfortunately all things have an end."

"Ah, you have beggared yourself?"

"For a year to come I shall have to be careful, that is all."

Cressingham cleared his throat once or twice before he would quite trust himself to speak, then he said: "We'll change all that, lad, once we get to the treasure chamber of Attala. By Gad! you've made me quite fall in love with Perigord; I had no idea he was such a brick. You're a dashed good sort yourself, old chap. I feel quite a useless, selfish brute by comparison. I'm afraid I've a lot to pull up."

"Ah, bah, my Lord! don't give me the credit, that belongs elsewhere. I never should have dreamed of doing what I have done, if it hadn't been for him. If you'd been in my place you'd have done exactly the same thing yourself, my Lord."

"Please don't 'my Lord' me any more, will you? I—I'd be glad if you'd use my first name; my pals all call me Frank."

Oeltjen smiled brightly; "Hein, that is good," he cried, "you know my first name, Frank?"

"I do, my boy, and it's just been tripped up on my tongue a score of times. Much more homely, isn't it? especially as we'll be so closely associated in our voyage. But what do you say to an early dinner, Ludwig—I'm simply starving?"

"I say yes. Ring the bell, will you?"

The friends dined in the bed-room, Cressingham pretending a sprained ankle in order to pacify the waiter. Their conversation drifted with liqueurs and cigarettes to the inevitable subject of women, and the Englishman unburdened himself of a long description of Francine Elliott's charms and virtues, also his fears regarding her health and safety. Oeltjen was sympathetic and encouraging; he listened for an hour without evincing the slightest signs of weariness, and then strove to comfort his friend by resolutely refusing to entertain any but the bright side of the situation.

In the end he artfully inquired of Madame Viyella. "Is she still eprise with you, Frank, do you think?" he asked.

Cressingham shook his head. "I don't know that she ever was really," he replied. "It was all in the game she was playing. Anyhow, it would be impossible to measure her sincerity. The woman is such a perfect actress that whatever she says or simulates she actually means for the time. I've studied her pretty thoroughly, and in my opinion she is incapable of any deep feeling. Besides, man, think of her age!"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, she has a daughter of eighteen!"

"Gott in Himmel! Is the girl so old?"

"Now there's a chance for you, Ludwig!" cried Cressingham laughing. "Desiré is exactly what her mother may once have been—a lovely, impressionable child, pure as an angel, and wonderfully intelligent and sweet. She resembles Katherin most wonderfully too, in fact I believe when her hair grows and she fills out a bit she will be a most beautiful woman."

Oeltjen's face assumed an expression of pain. "Please don't jest about that, will you, Frank?" he murmured.

"My dear fellow, you don't mean to say——"

"Nothing," interrupted the other, "except that my recovery is still recent; the scar still hurts at times, although I try to think it is entirely healed. For all that I can't quite help dreading to meet her again a little."

"Phew!" whistled Cressingham, "I'm sorry I spoke, old chap. I know perfectly what you mean; I've been there myself, as the saying is."

Oeltjen arose. "I think we'd better get aboard the Sea Hawk now, Frank."

"All right, I'm your man."

They found the streets of Naples in a strange ferment. Excited crowds thronged the thoroughfares. Soldiers were everywhere in evidence, forcing their way through the press in half companies and squads, acting the part of patrols, speaking not at all but occasionally using freely their scabbards and sword hilts to clear a passage. The populace seemed on the verge of doing something desperate. The air seemed full of silent menace. Often one might catch the gleam of naked steel. Strangers were constantly accosting each other and whispering and discussing the royal tragedy. Carriages there were none to be had, so the friends made their way towards the wharves immediately in the wake of a formidably strong patrol which proceeded in that direction. In the Via Scala, a bonfire had been erected and a mob of drunken fools were burning in effigy someone, whether the late king or his murderer it was impossible to tell. The officer in command of the detachment gave a sharp order, and the soldiers immediately charged the crowd, scattering them in all directions and taking a score of prisoners. They then stamped out the blaze, and wheeling turned at right angles into a maze of alleys, leaving the friends alone for they did not care to follow farther. Threading their way with infinite difficulty through the quickly reassembling mob, they got at last past the post office, but there a sudden surge of the crowd forced them into a by-path, and they were obliged to run for their lives helter-skelter down a dirty and ill-smelling street, surrounded by people who jabbered unceasingly. The wave receded soon, but they had been remarked by the creatures about them and found themselves objects of most unwelcome attention. The cry of "spies!" was raised, and knives flashed out like magic.

One woman bolder than the rest made a vicious lunge at Cressingham, but he caught her wrist and shouted out: "Fools, we are English!"

The word was like a talisman. The knives vanished as quickly as they had been drawn, and a storm of "Vivas" and "Viva Inglesi!" rent the air on instant. The woman, seized with remorse (a wrinkled hag she was) threw her arms round Cressingham and kissed him violently on both cheeks. He gasped and struggled, but quite in vain, and the beldam, quite satisfied with herself, presently hurried back the way she had come, yelling like a demon and fortunately taking the other devils with her.

"It looks like a revolution!" panted Oeltjen.

"No fear of that," said Cressingham, "the military are too strong, but the spirit of revolt is loose. There will be blood spilt to-night I think."

"Ay!" cried a hoarse, chuckling voice to their surprise in English; "There will be blood spilt to-night, signores," and a short, brutally ugly creature emerged from the shadow of an open doorway close at hand and barred their passage with a cocked revolver.

"Money, if it please you, signores, and all you have about you; your watches and rings besides. What luck to come to a poor man, what beautiful, heaven-sent luck!"

Oeltjen moved his hand to his pocket as though to comply, but the man gave a hollow laugh and covered him. "Not you, hands above your heads, please! Giuletta!" he shouted suddenly.

A second figure sprang from the darkness, the figure of a slender girl dressed in rags, but pretty as the man was ugly. "Search these gentlemen, Giuletta; don't be squeamish about it either, your father will protect you: every pocket, and the linings of their vests."

The friends, though savagely angry, were compelled to submit, and so cleverly the girl did her work, that in less than five minutes she had divested them of rings, scarf pins, watches and Oeltjen's revolver, and they were left without so much as a copper piece between them. The man counted the spoil before their eyes, putting the banknotes in his pocket and testing the gold coins with his teeth, mumbling all the while with glee. Then he calmly ordered his victims to walk backwards down the alley for the distance of fifty feet, and finally satisfied, addressed them in this fashion: "Signores, go home and sleep peacefully; you have done a noble deed to-night, for you have generously helped the poor and the motherless. Through your kindness I shall be able to drink your healths for a month to come at least, and Giuletta has to thank you for the new dress which to-morrow I shall buy her. Go, and God be with you, I cannot ever hope to repay you, but at least accept this little gift from me as a souvenir of the night." With a mocking laugh, he tossed his pistol towards them and disappeared into the shadows, a door clanging violently behind him.

Cressingham strode forward and picked up the weapon, which after a second he handed silently to Oeltjen. The Count gave vent to an angry German oath, but Cressingham clapped his hands to his sides and broke into a hearty roar of laughter in which his companion presently joined, though perhaps not with equal heartiness, for he had been robbed of over a hundred pounds of Perigord's money. The revolver was made of painted wood.

"It's all very well for us to laugh," said Oeltjen presently, "but the rascal has got away with a hundred and twenty pounds which belongs to Perigord."

"Let us pursue him then—come on."

"No, thanks; he has my revolver, which is loaded in every chamber."

"The police?"

"Hopeless, they are already over occupied. They would not listen to us."

"Let us then resign ourselves, since nothing can be done. By Jove, it was a clever rascal, Ludwig; he almost deserves his spoil, doesn't he?"

"H'm; Perigord will be angry."

"Bosh, man! I'll give him a cheque for the amount if he wants it. The laugh I had was worth twice the sum. Ha, ha, ha, ha! One doesn't often meet a humorous dog like that. I'd like to know the fellow."

An upstairs window of the house opposite which they stood opened at this moment, and a voice cried out, the voice of the thief: "Take a friendly hint from me, Count von Oeltjen, and get yourself as soon as possible out of harm's way."

"Who are you?" demanded Ludwig.

"What matters that? Do as I bid you; you are marked with the red cross, and a tiger is already after you."

"Thanks for the warning, but tell me a little more."

"Keep your thanks; one good turn deserves another. I can't tell you more than I have, but if you are wise do not walk the city after dark. Good night!" and the window was pulled down sharply.

"Seems we have stumbled on a nest of Nihilists," muttered Cressingham; "we'd better pad the hoof. By Gad! that fellow was not at all bad, after all. I thought he couldn't be; a man with his sense of humour is bound to have some good in him."

Oeltjen gave a little grunt of dissatisfaction, but he took the other's arm and they hastened from the spot as fast as they could walk. They soon reached a main street, and by dint of much pushing and struggling made their way at last to the wharves, which they found completely deserted. Boats there were in plenty, but no boatmen. They wandered up and down for half an hour, when there arrived a steam launch flying American colours, to the commander of which they made known their predicament. He proved to be the purser of the Yosemite, a large steamer at anchor in the bay, and a very obliging creature to boot, who immediately ordered his sailors to take the friends off to the Sea Hawk and return for him. Twenty minutes afterwards they stepped on board Mr. Perigord's yacht, and to their astonishment were greeted by Mr. Perigord himself, who it seemed had been for some time anxiously expecting them. He led them at once to the saloon, where they found Cardinal Carnito seated before a flask of Seltinger which he had already severely punished.

The Cardinal had insisted on visiting the yacht in order to hear Cressingham repeat the main points of his story in propria persona, and this the young man was obliged to do, and subsequently submit to a cross-examination which for rigour and detail would not have disgraced a leader of the bar.

The Cardinal was a big, fleshy man of fifty-five, but so marvellously well preserved that he appeared to be much younger. He possessed a most winning manner and complete control of a very charming smile. So well did he know how to bear himself that although his mind was cynical and it was patent that he found it hard to make himself believe all that he heard, no exception might be taken to his incisive phrases and doubting questions. His eyes were large and dark, but very cold and hard. He seemed to regard the whole world from the standpoint of suspicion, and his remarks were often full of sarcasm which he did not attempt to restrain, but which he half annulled by the confident and caressing suggestion of the smile which accompanied his words. He imparted the idea of a man who could not refrain from the utterance of bitter speeches, but who recoiled from their effect; a man wishful to give himself the pleasure of hurting others, but anxious to disarm the people he sought to hurt, fearing perhaps a return in kind. That he knew well the art of dealing with men was soon evident, for Cressingham's disposition was impatient and his perceptions keen, and yet the young man was always as a puppet in its master's hand. He felt his treatment and resented it, but he found it impossible to grasp a single definite cause of offence or display the least annoyance without becoming a fool for his pains.

The inquisition lasted hours, but at last the Cardinal was satisfied, and said so in a manner so friendly and with language so full of deftly chosen flatteries, that Cressingham was constrained to feel pleased in spite of himself and pay tribute, however grudgingly, to the peculiar talents of his inquisitor.

Oeltjen then related the history of the robbery on shore. The Cardinal listened with an amused smile, and at once promised to set about securing a restitution of their property. He recognized the robber from the description given, and informed them that the man was a stone worker, half Italian, half English, who had for many years lead a disreputable life, and who was probably a Nihilist. He declared, however, that the fellow was a good Catholic, and had many redeeming points about him, and he advised Oeltjen to pay strict attention to the warning which had been given him.

Perigord, who had been absent throughout the evening, at this moment entered the cabin, and placed in Cressingham's hands the jewels which he had brought from the island of Attala.

The young man regarded the treasures with much embarrassment. "They're really not mine, you know," he said.

The Cardinal smiled, eyeing him keenly. "Whose then are they?" he inquired, his voice soft as silk.

"They belong to the Count d'Attala, I suppose."

"Well?"

"Well, your Eminence." Cressingham resented the subtle smile with which he was regarded.

"What do you propose to do with them? Restore them to the Count?"

"Perhaps your Eminence would be so kind as to advise me?"

The Cardinal shrugged his shoulders. "I should prefer you to determine the matter for yourself."

Cressingham looked him straight in the eyes. "Very well, I give them to your Eminence to sell, and distribute the proceeds among the poor of Naples."

The Cardinal got to his feet and smiled again, but this time his smile was really kind and his eyes were soft and luminous. "Well said, my son," he murmured; "I shall accept the trust." He took the jewels. "The Count d'Attala is a man, and so must needs possess a soul, however black with sin it be; a soul perhaps that may be saved. If all his wealth is so expended, even though in spite of him, who shall say that his punishment hereafter may not be thereby softened in some way! At any rate, the gold of the wicked is accursed and can only be purged of the evil which it has occasioned when it is given to the poor, for thus out of evil arises good. All theologians have thought thus, and I think as they."

The man's face was transfigured as he said these words, and it was impossible to doubt his earnestness. He resumed presently, addressing himself to Cressingham and Oeltjen: "You, Count von Oeltjen, are a Catholic; listen then to me. You, my Lord Francis Cressingham, are of another faith, but what I am about to say should not offend you. You will presently set forth on a difficult and dangerous mission, a mission to which the Holy Mother Church accords its blessing because its object is entirely pure and good and noble, in that it seeks not only to save the lives of kings, who after all are men, and in the sight of God lowly as the lowliest, but it aims for the saving of men's souls from sin. Our Divine Redeemer when on earth gave to the disciples whom He loved a form and discipline of prayer which He taught them to use as the means whereby they might best approach the throne of the Most High when most in need of blessings. In that prayer He said these words: 'Leave us not in our temptation.' My children, behold then the part of your mission, which is chiefly blessed. The hearts of all men are weak and subject to temptation, therefore Jesus Christ in His divine wisdom taught us to beseech God to save us from temptation. If God prospers you, my children, you will be His humble instruments in saving countless hundreds of souls from the ways and opportunities of sin. I point out these things in order that you may approach your task, not in a spirit of adventure, not with feelings of hatred and vengeance in your hearts, but reverently, thankfully, devoutly and yet resolutely, as God's servants should always set about the accomplishment of the duties which they are given to perform. Above all, I exhort you to prepare yourselves, to cleanse by prayer and by sincere repentance your own hearts from sin before you set forth, for thus you will deserve success, and oftentimes to deserve success is to command it. There, my children, my little sermon is finished with the exception of my blessing, which I shall now give you."

Oeltjen at once fell on his knees before the prelate, and Cressingham, after a second's hesitation, followed suit, feeling in spite of himself that he was in presence of a man whose blessing could do him no harm and one whose mind was so lofty and spiritual that he could kneel to him without experiencing any loss of dignity.

The Cardinal made the sign of the cross above their heads, and murmured: "Benedicite, Benedicite! Dominus vobiscum!"

"Et cum spiritu tuo," answered Oeltjen.

His Eminence gravely motioned them to arise, and turned to Perigord. "Let us depart," he said.

Perigord drew from his pocket a letter which he gave to Cressingham. "Those are your instructions, my Lord; you will start at noon to-morrow."

"But the men, the officers——"

"Are all on board and asleep long ere this."

"In that case we could start at once."

"You will start at noon, to-morrow. Read now your instructions. Good-bye, my Lord."

Perigord and the Cardinal then shook him gravely by the hand, and taking Oeltjen with them left the cabin. Cressingham immediately tore open the letter and read as follows:—


"You will start at noon of July 30 from Naples, and proceed at half speed on the ordinary route of vessels proceeding to Gibralter until you pass Sardinia. You will then steam full speed due north, keeping Sardinia and Corsica at least fifty miles to starboard until the latter island is rounded, after which you will be at liberty to proceed as best you deem fit to Attala. The manner of attack on the objective point is left entirely at your own discretion. But having captured the place you will take prisoners all its inhabitants and secure them in the hold of the Sea Hawk. You will then carefully search the island and castle, and remove therefrom to the yacht all books, papers and documents whatsoever that may be found, also any treasure, specie or other valuables. You will demolish any printing presses or machinery which may be discovered, but carefully preserve and transport all blocks and letterpress in use. You will entirely destroy—by fire, if necessary—the cable station and all telegraphic instruments, but preserve all records of messages if any such exist. Should you be interrupted at your work by the arrival of enemies, you are given discretionary powers to act in such emergency in any way you may judge best. The Count's silver boat, engines and appliances you will remove to the yacht intact. After the castle has been ransacked you will destroy it by dynamite; you will also as far as possible wreck the tunnel opening on the stone boat-shed, and the boat-shed itself by the same means. After everything here detailed has been carefully effected you will return with your prisoners at full speed to Naples, where your arrival will be anxiously expected. God bless and prosper you.

"Perigord."

Cressingham conned this document over until he had got its contents by heart. Then it struck him that as he was in command of an important and possibly very dangerous expedition, he might as well avail himself of the perquisites of his position. He rang a bell and a steward entered the room on instant.

"A bottle of champagne, please; your best."

"Large or small, my Lord?"

"H'm, large, please. Where is my cabin?"

"Through that door, my Lord."

"Good: bring two glasses, please, and go find the Count von Oeltjen."

"He has gone ashore, my Lord."

"Oh! indeed!" This was news to Cressingham, but he did not cancel his order for all that; and when an hour afterwards he retired to sleep the champagne bottle was—well, a dead marine.


CHAPTER XXI.—A SUPPER PARTY

MISS FRANCINE ELLIOTT was upon the high road to recovery when Cressingham made his escape from the Island of Attala. She had been carefully attended during her illness by the Count's negro physician, who, although a person without university qualifications, proved to be the possessor of much skill in the practice of medicine. She found nothing to complain of in her treatment during the time of convalescence. The old Count seemed to have discovered a liking for her, and although he frequently showed himself impatient and crotchetty, he was on the whole kind, and paid her many little attentions.

Madame Viyella she never saw except at a distance, but Desiré came often to visit her, and at least one hour every evening was spent very pleasantly by the girl in trying on the various articles of Miss Elliott's wardrobe, a wardrobe which the Count had provided for her from Italy shortly after her arrival on the island. Desiré had grown very fond of her new friend, and was never tired of asking questions about that wonderful London which had so long been the El Dorado of her dreams, and which she now eagerly looked forward to visiting at no very distant date.

Each morning Desiré anxiously searched the boat-house for the red cloth which was to be the signal of Cressingham's return, but the days passed monotonously, and no sign came. Francine became well enough at last to walk unaided, and it was then her dearest pleasure to climb to the look-out and spend hours gazing out over the blue water, longing to be the first to discover sight of the vessel which might contain her lover and the hope of freedom. Many steamers and ships she saw pass across the horizon, but they all passed, and with each her hopes grew smaller and smaller. She remembered that a strong wind had blown on the night of Cressingham's departure, and Desiré had described to her the frail cockleshell which had borne him out to sea. It was hard to continue hoping on in such circumstances, but it was harder to resign all hope; and although in some moods she despaired, the very fact that so many steamers and other vessels so constantly passed the island inspired her with confidence that he might have after all been saved.

The hours of sunshine and balmy breezes that she devoted to the summit of the mountain meanwhile completed her recovery, and each day she grew more her old self, more established in health, and consequently more beautiful. The Count d'Attala watched her restoration with undisguised pleasure, and commenced to pay her many compliments on her altered appearance. It afforded him a species of cynical amusement to think that she expected deliverance, for her visits to the mountain top were interpreted by him correctly; but not aware of the full extent of her hopes and their foundation, he did not attempt to restrain her liberty, and indeed was once the companion of her excursion, having himself carried to the look-out in a palanquin.

On July 29 he invited her to supper with him, and in such a manner that she was constrained to accept the invitation. Madame Viyella and Desiré were of the party, and she found herself sitting on the Count's right hand, opposite her father's murderess. It was a quaint situation, full of horror to the girl, but it would have profited her nothing to rebel against the sending of the fates, and recognizing her helplessness, she forced herself to resignation.

Madame Katherin was superbly dressed in a low cut gown of heliotrope satin, covered with rich Maltese lace; Desiré, as usual, appeared in boy's clothes, but the Count d'Attala had discarded his usually magnificent apparel, and was clothed from head to heel in deep black, even his collar, silken shirt and ruffles being of that sombre colour. The old man's face, however, was at odds with his mourning costume, for his expression was excited and triumphant, and his first act on seating himself was to fill his glass and those of his guests with sparkling burgundy. Then, raising his flagon, he thus addressed them: "I wish you to join me in drinking the health of His Majesty Umberto I of Italy, and to wish him prosperity and bon voyage in the new career in which he has this afternoon embarked."

Madame Viyella made a peculiar gesture with her eyebrows, but she drank to the toast, and Francine and Desiré each sipped their wine.

"Is it over?" asked Madame, as she put down her glass.

"It is," replied the Count, his eyes beaming; "Umberto was shot this afternoon at Monza, shot dead!"

Francine experienced a thrill of horror, and stared at the old man with a sudden presentiment of what was to come. "You—you had no hand in his death," she gasped out.

He gave a low chuckle of appreciation. "No hand, my dear young lady—no, not I, I am not a vulgar assassin, I merely arranged the matter. I decreed—my servants carried out the work!"

"Then you are the actual murderer!" She gazed at him, her eyes dilated with terror, her bosom heaving, her cheeks ashen white.

The Count d'Attala was plainly flattered by the sensation he had created; he laughed out in extravagant delight, and glanced about the table with the air of a man who had abundant cause for self-gratulation. "I am not of those who are frightened of the world," he answered, still smiling, "not do I seek to escape, in my home-circle, at all events, the consequences of my acts. Katherin views the world much in the same fashion as myself, and is used to the traffic of death, for I have trained her. But Desiré is still child enough to feel affrighted. Ha! ha! ha! look at the child. Desiré, my dear, you appear to be quite out of love with your poor old grandfather; you stare at me with your heart in your eyes, and your heart is filled with dismay and detestation. Ha! ha! ha! Why even you, Miss Elliott, I dare swear stand this moment slightly in awe of me. But what need is there for emotion after all? A king is a man, and just as liable to death as the poorest contadina. He has lungs, stomach, and heart like yours or mine. It is only a question of reaching him, and then sufficiently disturbing one or other of those organs, and pouf! Death carries him off as easily as the sirocco a fluffy blossom on its bosom. You perceive then that not so very much credit is due to me. I plot and plan, but my real friend is Death. Death! who lurks an unseen phantom in the sunlight and the shade, who, omnipresent, universal and almost omnipotent, aids and abets my counsels, ever ready to extend his grisly hand, and recognizing me as a friend of his heart, preserves me alone that I may continue his ally in the campaign he wages with the world. I vow to you, Miss Elliott, that with every death which I accomplish I grow young again, and take a new lease of life."

"Monster!" cried the girl, "do you never think that Death will at last reach yourself?"

He laughed again. "Ha, ha, ha! Do you take me for a coward or a fool? I know that I must go at last, for all things have an end. But what do I care for that? At least while I live I shall enjoy myself. Besides, it is written in the stars that I shall die poor. Christobal himself read my horoscope when I was born, and since then every astrologer of note the world over. All have told me the same thing, and I believe it. I shall die poor and lonely, in rags, perhaps from starvation. Well, that day is still far off, for I am rich, rich. In your Bank of England a great sum stands to my credit. In the Bank of France there is more. Bah, did I land in Florence, in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, I can still hold up my head among the wealthiest inhabitants of those cities! You see, I have striven and done what I might to postpone the evil day. Only a world wide revolution, a political cataclysm of unparalleled dimensions could work my ruin, and until that day arrives why I shall live."

Francine felt as though she looked upon an incarnate fiend. "But you are old," she muttered.

"Old! oh—ay, as the world goes," he returned. "This is my hundred and third year of existence. But I am still young and vigorous; there are few men near my age who can handle sword, knife or pistol as well as I. You have seen me climb to the look-out assisted by my attendants, it is true, but I almost think I could just as easily have done without them. However, I am wise; life is sweet, so I take no chances, but care for my health as no man I verily believe before has ever done. Hence my choice of this island for a permanent abode during the past fifty years. It is true that the place is the ancient home of my family, but that idea influenced me nothing. I settled here because it was inhabited by a race of centenarians, poor fisher folk, who lived miserably but who lived long—they are all dead now, I saw to that. The last to go was my old nurse; she quarrelled with my doings, the hag, and sought—although twenty years my senior—to escape, and bring about my ruin. That was two years ago, but she was one hundred and fifteen years of age when my bullet found her heart."

"My God!" gasped Francine.

"A ripe old age, was it not?" said the Count, wilfully disregarding the true reason of the girl's exclamation.

"May I trouble you for the salt," said Madame Viyella.

Miss Elliott handed the article to the woman, and her fingers touched, as she thought, the fingers of her father's murderess. She gave a violent shudder, and sipped at her wine to hide her emotion, although the draught near choked her. Then she stammered out: "Why did you kill the King of Italy?"

"My dear Miss Elliott, you eat nothing," said the Count. "Eat, I beg of you; the food is not poisoned."

Francine tried to force herself to obey, for she was in deadly terror, and the words were a command, but with every mouthful a hysterical contraction of the throat caused her violent pain.

The Count resumed: "I arranged the death of Umberto for a cash consideration, and to satisfy my followers. My people are a stupid class, who imagine that by instilling into the hearts of kings the constant fear of death they will at length cause the abolition of monarchy. A mad idea that, which they continue to entertain only by reason of their profound and impenetrable ignorance. The lessons of the past have taught them nothing. At their bidding the lives of all reigning monarchs have been variously attempted for three-quarters of a century, and many have been slain. In spite of that no throne has been vacant long, but they nevertheless persist in their blind purpose, and in order to retain their confidence, in order to obtain their money, I am at intervals obliged to give them a victim. It is true that in the first instance my predecessor in office and I myself instilled this idea into their dull minds. Well, I suffer now in consequence, for my ingenuity is put constantly on strain to keep them satisfied."

Francine remembered at that moment the ambition and hopes of her lover, and was curious. "Supposing"—she hesitated—"supposing you were killed, would Nihilism then die out?"

He shook his head. "My people would not want a leader long; there exists a man who is most anxious to step into my shoes."

"Jibaloff," said Madame.

The Count nodded. "Yes, Jibaloff. Ah, bah! he would suit them too, for he is more bloodthirsty than I. He would arrange for wholesale executions."

"But," said Francine, "what if he too were killed?"

The Count sipped his wine and looked at her steadily. "In that case, my dear young lady, Nihilism as an institution, a settled organization, would revert to the position from which it was rescued by Baron Katusoff, the noble Pole, my predecessor and teacher, some hundred and three years ago, about the time that I was born."

Francine dissembled the eagerness which instantly possessed her, and observed as tranquilly as she could: "I suppose it was not a very perfect system then?"

"Parlons, parlons, Miss Elliott, a nihilism of nihilists. Lodges there were certainly, but their members had no esprit de corps, no cohesion, no organization. There was no recognized chief, no settled principle of action or leadership, very little secrecy. In fact, they were not dangerous, merely a collection of discontented bandits, whose movements were easily apprehended, and whose motives were readily frustrated. Alas! the world has no idea of the debt it owes to Katusoff and me!"

"Jibaloff should be here soon," observed Madame.

"He will not arrive until to-morrow, or I am much mistaken," said the Count; "his yacht was only seen off Napoli this morning."

"Do you think he will bring the treasure?"

"Why else should he come? Depend upon it, he has had it with him all along. In any case, not a step shall I move without it, and he understands that the division this time is mine. But I do not fear; he has too much to lose by failing in a jot of his obligations."

Desiré changed colour a little at this. "How long do you think he will stay, grandfather?" she asked.

"A few days. Why?"

"Oh, nothing."

"You had an object in asking the question; tell it me."

"I don't like him."

"Fie on you. Your own father! unnatural child that you are—ha! ha! ha!"

"Don't, don't!" pleaded the girl, recoiling from his jeering laughter.

"Poor little girl, the father is unkind to it, eh? Never mind; come to its old grandfather; he will protect it—ha! ha! ha!" His mirth was a more shuddersome thing than his anger, and even Madame shivered slightly to hear him.

"Jibaloff wants Desiré," she remarked.

The old man flew in a passion on instant. "The cursed swine dared to ask me for her!" he cried angrily; "he wants her as a present for the Sultan, an addition to his master's zenana, no doubt. Well, he shall not have her, not before my boat is finished at all events."

Desiré turned pale. "But then you will send me to England, grandfather, will you not?" she asked entreatingly.

"As a boy?"

"No, as a girl."

"You have my promise, my promise," he sneered; "are you not satisfied?"

But his voice was insincere, and Desiré's lips tightened. "Oh yes, I am satisfied," she answered, and flashed a meaning look at Francine.

Francine discovered a certain anxiety to know the Count's ultimate intentions with regard to herself, and she hastened to take advantage of his mood of garrulity. "Am I to stay on this island always?" she asked tremulously.

The old man surveyed her with a mocking smile, and answered presently: "Why no, not always—at least, I think not. To-morrow you will be presented to Jibaloff, and if he is satisfied with your appearance, and I with the price he offers, you will shortly change your state."

"What do you mean?" gasped Francine.

"I mean that you will become Jibaloff' s sixtieth or seventieth wife, I don't quite know the extent of his domestic arrangements. Perhaps, however, the rascal may reserve you for his master, in which case you will have a royal husband. Does not the prospect please you?"

"I would kill myself first!" cried the girl.

The Count laughed and answered brutally: "At least live until I have Jibaloft's money. I have no objection to your cheating the Turk of his bargain, but wait till then, if you love me, wait till then."

He made a sign at that moment, and his two dumb attendants at once hurried forward, and lifting the old man to his feet, guided him with the utmost care from the apartment. Francine immediately arose, and disdaining to glance at Madame also hastened from the room.

Madame turned to Desiré. "Well, girl, you look displeased. What is the matter with you?"

"I hate it all!" replied Desiré passionately. "How I would love to go away, and never see grandfather or father again; they are horrible."

Madame sighed. "My poor kitten, so should I. But what chance have we? Come and kiss me, Desiré."

The girl threw her arms around the woman and tenderly caressed her. "Why can't we, mother mine? why cannot we leave this dreadful place?"

Madame patted her daughter's head. "Because we haven't wings," she answered drearily, "and because no other part of Europe is safe for me just now; there are men who want my life."

"Mother, did you care for that Englishman, Lord Francis Cressingham?"

Madame arose and put the girl from her. "I liked him well enough," she said, "but he is dead."

"Did he care for you?"

"When I wished him to care, he cared."

"You tried to help him away, didn't you?"

"No; I knew he could not escape, but I did not want to see him die, so I pretended to assist him, knowing that your grandfather would shoot him immediately he was caught."

"Do you think he was drowned, mother?"

"I am sure of it, but why?"

"I dreamed last night that he came here in a yacht and took you and me and Miss Elliott away with him."

"A pretty dream, but a foolish one, my child."

"Oh, if it could come true!" sighed the girl.

"My dear, it cannot come true; we have realities to face, not dreams. I fear much that your only hope of escape is through your father. For myself when next he goes I shall try to induce him to take me with him, I believe. Under his protection life would not be so dull for us as here at all events, though I dare say it would be dull enough. I have never been in a zenana yet."

"But, mother—you surely would not——"

Madame interrupted her with a storm of passionate words. "I would do anything to escape this cursed island, where there is nothing to do for me but yawn. It is better for you, since you have work to do, and have known nothing else. But to me the life is absolutely insufferable, I who have since a girl been used to the world of fashion, of courts and fetes, of constant movement and amusement. Why, in a few months I would cut my throat to end the boredom of it all."

"Mother!"

"I would, I tell you. It is killing me. But you had better go to your work, or you will catch it from your grandfather." She kissed the girl, and forced her from the room, then alone, betook herself to Miss Elliott's bed-chamber, where arrived she knocked sharply on the door. Francine's voice bade her enter, but when Francine, who had expected Desiré, saw the person of her visitor, she started back in disgust.

"You!" she cried.

"Yes, it is I," said Madame. "I, Kate Viyella, and I can tell you, my lady, you had better be a little amiable if you want my help."

"Your help! I would rather die than accept your help."

"There are worse fates than death!" said Madame coolly, closing the door behind her as she spoke, and placing her back against it.

"What do you mean?"

"What I say. You need not assume airs and graces with me; there is no one by to admire your pretty disdain, my dear."

"I do not wish to speak to you. I shall be obliged if you will go."

"Would you, my angel? Well, that is not my intention. Je m'ennui, and I wish a little excitement, so I have come to you."

"You will be disappointed then." Miss Elliott shut her lips tightly.

"Oh, you'd maintain silence, would you? Well, do so. You must listen to me though, for you can't escape. I have the door, and the window is barred."

Francine sat down on a chair and took up a book, which she opened and pretended to read.

Madame laughed. "How would you like to escape?" she demanded.

The girl glanced up, unable to suppress a sudden interest.

"Ha, ha! I touched you there!" rippled Madame. "I repeat, how would you like to escape?"

"You know it is impossible."

"Bah, nothing is impossible. Listen to me."

"Well?"

"I am tired of the life I lead, and am just as anxious to be free as yourself. There is a way."

"What is it?"

"Rather, there are two ways. The first is to kill father—knife or poison him, I don't care which—then cable for his yacht, and get away in it with his gold; he has plenty of money hidden somewhere on the island, old fox that he is."

Francine eyed her in horror. "You can't mean it," she gasped.

"Why not? I am weary of the constant restraint he exercises over me. No matter where I may be, here or in St. Petersburg, he governs me as though I were a child. I hate being governed; I've stood it too long."

"But to poison your own father!"

"Bah, he'd think less of getting rid of me if it suited him."

"What is your other plan?"

"To go off with Jibaloff. You will be taken in any case, for father has determined to sell you to him. If we act together, we could kill him on the voyage quite easily, and get the captain to land us where we please. The fellow is an old flame of mine, and will do whatever I bid him, so long as I use him properly. What do you say?"

"I think—you are a devil!" gasped Miss Elliott.

"Pshaw! that is no answer."

"I shall tell the Count everything you have said to me, that is my answer."

Madame laughed mockingly. "You fool, do you think that such a course would help you? Father would probably believe you, he might shoot me on suspicion, but that wouldn't alter your fate."

"It will give me my revenge, though. You murdered my father—fiend that you are! Thank you for giving me such a chance."

Madame rippled with laughter and opened the door. "Go to him at once, my dear; do not wait. You will see how he will receive you."

"What do you mean?"

"Ah, bah! I have been amusing myself, that is all!" and Madame departed laughing so heartily that Miss Elliott was entirely deceived into thinking her words true. As a fact, Madame had been quite serious, and in a reckless mood would have tried to accomplish one or other other proposals if Francine had agreed to help her. Indeed, as it was she did not abandon her schemes completely, but she had felt the need of some companionship in her designs, and was so bitterly angry with the girl that she there and then determined to destroy her.

Within ten minutes a plate of fruit and a tray containing tea and fresh made coffee were taken to Francine' s room. Miss Elliott, however, was suspicious of such unwonted attentions, and touched nothing; she was wise, for the provisions had all been subtly poisoned by Madame.

That night and the next day passed without incident, but on the afternoon of July 31 there entered the harbour of Attala a yacht flying the Turkish ensign. Miss Elliott observed its arrival from the look-out, and watched for some hours a constant stream of boats ply between it and the shore, each evidently heavily laden on one trip at least, for although she could not see their cargo, they rode the water deeply, sunk almost to the gunwales. She kept her position until she saw Desiré emerge from the boat-house, and then with a feeling of keen trepidation descended to meet the girl. Desiré was engaged in earnest converse with some sailors when Francine reached the beach, but Miss Elliott, although a good linguist, failed even to recognize the tongue they spoke in. But the girl turned to her at last, and as they climbed the steps muttered: "I fear it is all up with us. Lord Francis must have been drowned, for his yacht which he spoke of—the Sea Hawk—was sighted late last evening going south-west towards Gibraltar, perhaps on its way to England."

Francine felt her heart turn cold and something of the bitterness of death came to her then.

But presently Desiré spoke again. "Of course, we can't absolutely tell from that. He may have taken such a route in order to put grandfather quite at ease. He is such a clever man, Lord Francis—isn't he?"

But Francine was very little comforted. She entered the dining-room half dazed, like a person who walks in her sleep, prepared to meet her fate and almost anxious for the moment to arrive when she might at last find rest in death, for she was determined upon suicide, and she carried with her in her bosom a sharp-pointed table knife which she had stolen and secreted the evening that the Count had made known his mind regarding her. She found, however, an unlooked-for respite. The Count was engaged in his own room with Jibaloff and Madame, and so she ate her dinner with Desiré, and afterwards was suffered to retire to her chamber undisturbed. Desiré, who feared her father more than anything on earth, more even than the Count, slept with her that evening for protection, and the two girls wept together until far into the night, for each was now despairing.


CHAPTER XXII.—A GAME OF DICE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

THE 1st of August, contrary to Miss Elliott's expectations, passed in absolute tranquillity. She saw neither the Count, nor Jibaloff, nor yet Madame. Desiré came to her in the evening, and they dined together in solitary state. The girl had done a hard day's work and was weary, but before the meal was over she was sent for by her grandfather, and Francine saw nothing of her until noon of the next day.

Then Desiré was able to inform her of the reason of the strange inactivity that prevailed at the chateau. The Count and Jibaloff were waiting with the gravest anxiety for the arrival of Madame's husband, the Prince. It seemed that a telegram had arrived saying that he had been suddenly taken ill, and although the Count had despatched a score of inquisitive cables no satisfactory reply had been yet received in answer to his eager questionings.

Desiré said that she had never known her grandfather to be so disquieted. He appeared to be expecting some catastrophe, and had just taken the extreme step of ordering his own yacht to be immediately despatched to the island. Meanwhile he passed the time in his library with Madame and Jibaloff gambling for high stakes with the Turk at cards and dice. He had been losing very heavily, and was very bad-tempered and upset. Two men were kept constantly on the look-out searching for the appearance of the Count's yacht, and every hour messages passed to and fro between the castle and the mountain top, messages which increased the old man's ill-humour.

The Turk also was uneasy and distrait. His yacht was kept under steam and was prepared at an instant's notice to depart, his men being all on board at their posts with the exception of a single boat's crew that waited on the beach ready to convey their master on board the moment that he wished.

Francine was very curious as to the cause of all this anxiety, but Desiré was not able to further enlighten her, although both guessed that the Count and Jibaloff were afraid that the Prince might have turned traitor and were preparing themselves to meet such a contingency.

Late in the afternoon, however, a change came o'er the spirit of the scene. Servants who had been before busily engaged in taking up carpets and hurriedly packing up the more valuable furniture of the chateau suddenly disappeared to re-appear after an interval and just as hurriedly undo their previous work. Like a swarm of bees they buzzed about putting everything again in order, and at the expiration of an hour the castle wore its old appearance of calm magnificence.

A message was soon afterwards brought to Francine commanding her array herself in her richest costume and dine with the Count in the old man's library that evening. She guessed by that that the Count's fears had been by some means allayed. She prepared to obey the summons, but her heart told her that the fatal moment of her life had almost arrived, and during her toilet she often fingered the knife which she had stolen, with a feeling of despairing consolation, recognizing it as a last friend whose assistance she must presently rely upon if she wished to save herself from indignity and outrage, worse to her mind a thousand times than death.

She had ceased to fear death itself, but she was a woman, and her soul stood appalled before the threshold of the tomb. The brutal means of death at her command terrified her instincts and made her woman's heart recoil in shuddersome dread. She wished ardently that she had been provided with some searching, painless poison. Such she would have readily taken without waiting for the compulsion of insult and ignominy, but the cold-bladed knife seemed too hideous, the pain it would bring before the end came too sure and certain. Finally she hid it in her bosom, her mind resolute to use it when the need arose, but shivering at the thought of the dreadful act itself and anxious to postpone that act as long as possible.

She donned an empire gown of pale blue silk that draped her graceful figure with the charm of a caress, and at length when the time came she glided from the room feeling hardly of earth and as though the dark portal had been already passed, for her steps were light as air, and in her fancy she seemed to float above the boards without sense of effort or motion like a disembodied spirit.

Dinner was already served when she entered the library. The host and guests were already seated, the Count at the head of the table, his two dumb attendants at usual one on each side his chair, the chain that joined them stretched at full extent behind the old man's back. Madame sat on his left hand, gorgeously arrayed, Jibaloff beside her, while Desiré was placed directly opposite her father, thus leaving a vacant chair on the Count's right hand. The old man was positively beaming, his eyes sparkled, his whole manner was extremely animated, and he was engaged in chaffing the Turk most genially.

Francine caught a fragment of his words. "When luck turns it turns. Yesterday and this morning all was against me, but with the Prince's message the goddess smiled upon me. This morning you were a mighty winner, now you owe me ten thousand pounds. To-night I shall beggar you, my friend."

Jibaloff replied with a forced laugh. "We shall see, sir, we shall see. Dame Fortune is ever a fickle mistress to depend upon."

At that moment they became conscious of Miss Elliott's presence and turned to look at her. The girl had never appeared so beautiful. Her large blue eyes stared straight before her, moist and glistening like stars; she appeared to be only half-conscious of her immediate environment, for her gaze was rapt, ecstatic and seer-like; her mouth was like a blazing scarlet flower, the lips parted to show her milk-white teeth. She formed a picture which both men appreciated with a sharply indrawn breath of admiration, but the Count's proprietorial instincts were soon excited by the contemplation of such loveliness and the impression which she had made upon the Turk.

"This," he said in French, recovering himself hastily, "is the lady whom I told you of. Sit down, Miss Elliott."

The Turk arose, and slipping round the table placed her chair. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Miss Elliott," he muttered in her ear.

The Count heard and chuckled softly to himself.

Francine threw back her head with the gesture of a queen, giving the Turk a glance which slightly disconcerted him. She replied with icy calm: "Do not trouble yourself to be polite, sir."

"But, mademoiselle——"

"I pray you resume your seat."

He bowed humbly, and at once fell back. The girl sat down and turned to the Count. "Is the bargain completed?" she demanded haughtily. "Am I already the chattel of that man?"

The old man chuckled. "Not yet, not yet. Perhaps you may not ever be, my dear. It will be hard for me to part with a creature so superb as you."

Madame gave utterance to a sudden rippling laugh. "Don't tell me that you intend to present Desiré with a new grand-mamma," she cried.

The Count broke into a roar of laughter, sinking back in his cushions to indulge his mirth; then, after a draught of wine, replied: "Stranger things have happened, Katherin; I have been too long a celibate—who knows?"

Francine shivered and turned pale. "I should make you a bad wife," she muttered.

The old man gave a sneer. "Who spoke of marriage?" he demanded coarsely. "But there, my dear, calm yourself, I would rather think of you at present as my daughter." He turned to the Turk: "It is strange, Jibaloff, no sign yet of the Argonaut; she should be here by now."

"Hardly, Excellency; you wired for her only this afternoon."

"But it is scarce an eight hours' run; her speed is fifteen knots."

"She might not have been under steam."

"Absurd, she is always ready '"

"Pardon, she should perhaps be always ready, but orders are sometimes disregarded."

"If she does not arrive before morning, someone shall suffer. We shall have an execution."

"Pour encourager les autres?"

"Precisely."

Madame held up a warning forefinger. "You will presently not have a qualified navigator left in your service, my father. It is not three months since Captain Chine caught the bullet fever."

"Ah, bah!" returned the Count; "the world is wide, it has many children."

The Turk laughed cynically. "True, Excellency! most true. If need arise I can give you a captain whom I can personally vouch for, a man young, enthusiastic and ardent, who is at present condemned to death for an indiscretion committed in the Sultan's seraglio. He would regard you as his saviour and would serve you faithfully."

"Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes," sneered the Count.

"Pardon, I do not know the tongue you speak in," said the Turk.

The old man smiled. "Then I shall translate my words, dear Yussef. I said that I should feel a monster to deprive you of so useful a servant, especially as the fact is I do not need his services."

Jibaloff, shrugging his shoulders, applied himself to the pleasures of the board, and thereafter silence reigned until the conclusion of the meal. When all was satisfied, servants carried the table bodily away and substituted a smaller one covered with green cloth and armed with cards and dice.

Francine would have departed, but the Count restrained her with a look, and at a nod from him negroes guarded the doors against escape. Both he and Jibaloff had drunk deeply during dinner, and their faces were flushed, their manner anxious and excited. Francine took a distant chair, but Madame and Desiré stood beside the table, eager to watch the play.

Jibaloff shuffled the cards. The Count cut, and turning his portion of the pack face downward took up the dice box. "What shall the stake be?" he demanded.

"Whatever sum you please."

"A thousand pounds rising from ace to six."

"Agreed! commence!"

"Then I say black."

"And I red; throw the dice!"

The Count threw, and the number uppermost was six. Slowly either man turned up a card, the Count that on the bottom of his pack, the Turk that on the top of his.

The Count's card was the ace of spades. "Six thousand pounds the limit," he observed calmly. "That makes in all sixteen that you owe me, my friend."

Jibaloff turned a little pale and his hands trembled as he gathered up the cards. The Count cut again, but this time his adversary called, growling out: "Red, red for my life!" and quickly threw the dice, which on settling showed the number five. He turned up his card—seven of hearts—and threw it on the table with a shout of triumph. "That reduces the score by five," he cried.

"Precisely," returned the Count, whose manner was growing more and more cold and businesslike as the game proceeded. "Shuffle the cards, my dear Jibaloff, a little more, will you?"

They played on for an hour in this fashion with varying luck, but at the expiration of that time fortune set with a steady tide in favour of the Turk, and for a period he continued to win every hand with most monotonous precision, the score mounting on his side until he had recorded the enormous gain of eighty thousand pounds. With his success he grew each moment more excited, more triumphant. He jeered at the Count with the coarsest vulgarity, deriding the old man's previous boast to beggar him, and savagely taunting his opponent to increase the stakes. The Count d'Attala listened calmly, a set half smile just turning the edges of his thin and pasty coloured lips, but his eyes, which he kept resolutely fixed upon the cards, were alight with the feverish fire of gaming and something else besides, perhaps malice, perhaps hate, but so well did he command himself that very little of his mind was manifest. He answered his adversary nothing, and although he plied the Turk with wine, keeping his glass constantly replenished, he drank but little himself, and was otherwise moveless and silent as an automatic figure.

"Increase the stakes—increase the stakes!" grated out the Turk for the twentieth time. "You owe me eighty thousand pounds. I am determined to break you, but let us get it over quickly. It is now eleven; at midnight the Prince will be with us, and I must then away. Indeed, I should have gone twelve hours ago, as well you know. Let us end the matter quickly."

The Count slightly shrugged his shoulders, and for the first time looked his opponent in the eyes. "Let us change the game; let us throw a single stake for eighty thousand pounds!"

"But if I win?"

"I have enough to pay you."

"And afterwards?"

"That is my affair, but I shall win, dear friend, I shall win."

"You lie! you shall not. Throw, throw!"

The Count smiled a grim, horrible smile, and obeyed,

"A million curses!" shouted the Turk. "Give me the dice!" The Count had thrown six. Jibaloff shook the dice for a moment, then crashed the box upon the table. The number uppermost was five. The Count laughed gently. "Ha, ha! said I not so? We are quits, dear friend."

"Let us resume," cried the Turk, his face livid with rage. "Let us throw each time for ten thousand!"

"No, I weary of the game; a little relaxation, I beg of you."

"Two more throws first, only two," urged the Turk.

"For high stakes, then?"

"As high as you please!"

"Fifty thousand pounds?"

"Yes!" The Count snatched up the dice, and quick as light threw five.

Jibaloff threw two. "Damnation!" he muttered.

The Count threw again, this time five.

Jibaloff pressed the box to his lips and kissed it passionately twice. "Little friend!" he said hoarsely, "little friend, do not betray me." Holding his hand on high he allowed the ivory to fall. Madame and Desiré started forward, watching the cast with bated breath. The Count leaned back and closed his eyes.

"Six!" cried Madame.

"Allah be praised!" said the Turk, sobered for a second by his narrow victory.

The Count opened his eyes and smiled. "Again we are quits, my friend, though I hoped to have earned a hundred thousand pounds," he said gently. "Well, now for a little rest, surely we have earned it. Miss Elliott."

Francine got to her feet and slowly came forward. "Yes?"

"Oblige me by standing there, a little to the right; no, a step forward—so! Now, Jibaloff——"

The Turk swung round and gazed at the girl embracingly. "A good face," he said. "What is your price?"

"Five thousand pounds."

"Too much, far too much."

Francine stared at her enemies with eyes aflame, her cheeks paling to the hue of milk. Slowly she drew up her right hand until it rested on the bosom of her gown, then inch by inch she fell back towards the wall. But the Count's penetration was superhuman.

While watching her with apparent calm he was signing rapidly with his hands to the dumb slaves behind his chair. These made a sudden dart and threw themselves upon the girl. She gave a wild scream and drawing the knife flashed it before their eyes. Next second it was wrested from her grasp, and she sank half beside herself to the floor, cowering and shuddering in an abandon of terror and despair.

"Cowards! cowards!" panted Miss Elliott; "unmanly, infernal cowards that you are!"

Desiré started forward. "Grandfather!" she cried, her face crimson with passion. "If you insult Miss Elliott, I shall kill you."

The Count glanced quizzically at Jibaloff. "Your daughter needs correction," he said.

"And she shall have it!" The Turk sprang at Desiré and, grasping her before she could elude him, dragged her roughly to the door, then kicked her with brutal force into the corridor without. He had resumed his chair, and returned the Count's smile of approbation before the girl's shrill screams of pain had died away.

Madame looked at him fixedly. "You will regret that, Jibaloff," she said.

Jibaloff, muttering a curse, approached Francine. The Englishwoman threw back her head with a gesture of magnificent disdain and looked him full in the eyes. She uttered no word, she was helpless in her gaolers' hands, but so great a power was in her glance that the brutal Turk encountering it, writhed, paused and faltered. He stood dubious and abashed, and presently his eyes fell before hers. Suddenly he did a graceful thing. He bowed reverently, almost humbly. "Mademoiselle," he said, "I beg a thousand pardons. You are beautiful. You shall be the queen of my harem."

He then swung on his heel and addressed the Count. "Monsieur!" said he, "I shall pay you your price."

The Count uttered a low sardonic chuckle. "'Tis the triumph of mind over matter," he said grimly, "and now the mind faints." He pointed to the girl.

Francine was swaying wildly to and fro. Suddenly she tottered and fell to the floor in a deep and merciful swoon, and there her gaolers permitted her to rest.

The Turk stared at her as if unable to wrest his glance from her graceful form. "I shall pay you your price!" he repeated.

"Pardon," smiled the old man; "I warned you what to expect, my friend. My price has advanced."

"What is it?"

"Ten thousand pounds."

"I agree."

The Count smiled. "It is almost midnight," he said; "let us resume our play."

"No, I am sick of it," cried Jibaloff.

"But I am not," returned the Count

"My dear Count, I must go! Hark! what is that?"

As he spoke there came to their ears a hollow, rumbling echo that seemed to issue from beneath their feet. The castle for a second trembled and vibrated and the library windows rattled as though shaken by a sudden gust of wind. The old man paled a little, and nervously clutched at the arms of his chair. But in a moment recovering himself he smiled. "It is nothing, my dear Yussef, or almost nothing. This house is built over old mines, as you know; the water trickling through the passages often eats away supports, and then follows a crash of stone. There is no danger though."

Jibaloff appeared uneasy in spite of this explanation, and he got to his feet. "Really," he said, "it is time for me to go."

"You shall not leave here until midnight," said the Count coldly, and he turned to one of the negroes who stood at the door on guard. "Go! find out if any steamer has been sighted from the look-out yet."

"Excellency!" returned the man; "a message has this second arrived, there is none."

"The more time for us to play," said the Count. "Come Jibaloff!"

"I tell you I am sick of it."

"Come."

"Well, then, let us fix a limit; I am sick to death of it. Let us say three throws for the same stakes we played for last."

"Ten throws."

"No, three. I'll dice no more."

"Well, three. You throw first."

The Turk threw six, the Count three.

Jibaloff drank a glass of wine, and took up the box again. "Six!" he cried. He was right.

The Count threw an ace.

"One hundred thousand pounds!" cried the Turk, for the third time taking up the box. "I shall win again, I cannot lose to-night!" But in spite of his confidence his hand trembled violently as he threw.

"Six!" The word was a yell of triumph.

The Count eyed him with an evil smile and scarcely rattling the dice threw. The number was again an ace.

Jibaloff sprang to his feet. "It is my lucky night," he muttered hoarsely. "I have bought a Sultana among women, a priceless pearl of beauty, and I have won a hundred thousand pounds."

He met the Count's eyes at the last word, and suddenly faltered, his face paling a little, for the gaze he encountered was full of menace.

But the Count drooped his eyes and smiled. "My dear friend, you are indeed fortunate," he drawled. "Shall I pay you now?"

"How?" Avarice struggled with the man's fears, for he feared the Count that moment like the devil. "How would you pay me?" he stammered.

"In gold or——"

"Or what?"

"Jewels."

The Turk's face lighted up. "Ah!" he cried; "you have told me often of your jewels."

"Would you care to see them?"

"Now?"

"Yes."

Jibaloff's fears flooded his soul again. "Oh, I can wait," he answered with an affectation of tranquillity; "there is no need of haste."

The old man shook his head. "I must insist, my dear Jibaloff, that you take your settlement at once. I never permit myself to allow a debt of honour to rest unsatisfied longer than the termination of the game."

Jibaloff was enticed by the other's earnestness into a feeling of security. "Well, if you insist," he said.

"Will you be so kind then as to get to your feet. Thanks; you see that rug, kick it aside. Many thanks!"

The Turk was surprised to find that where the rug had rested now appeared a patch of bare floor about four feet square.

"I am about to show you my treasure closet," said the Count. "Prepare to have your eyes dazzled, for very few men have ever been privileged to look upon so great a mass of splendid gems as I possess. I confess that I am sad to think that my treasures will presently be thinned—but it is the fortune of war, I must not repine. You will find, my dear friend, that the centre board is loose. Forgive me for troubling you so much, but you are a younger man than I. No, not that way, you must press the other end with your foot—so."

Jibaloff unsuspectingly commenced to cross the boards, but immediately his weight rested on the planks the Count pressed sharply upon a corner of the chair on which he sat.

As if by magic, the floor that supported the Turk gave way in the manner of a trap-door suddenly released, and Jibaloff, with a wild scream, was precipitated through the orifice thus disclosed, vanishing in an instant.

The Count at once reversed the action of his chair, and the trap-door resumed its place with the speed and precision of a machine. The old man fell back among his cushions laughing horribly.

But Madame came forward shivering and pallid as a corpse. "The yacht," she gasped. "What of the yacht?"

He sat erect at once. "Ha," he cried, "I forgot the yacht; it is here then?"

"No, I do not mean the Argonaut, but Jibaloff's. What will you say to his men?"

"What should I say? That he has met his death by accident."

"Father, you are stupid, they will not be satisfied with such an explanation. Jibaloff's men are more numerous than ours, and they are devoted to him. If he does not appear, they will bombard the castle; his yacht is an armed cruiser really, as you know. They will take the place and kill us all!"

"Oh no, they will not, I shall see to that."

He signed to his slaves who departed to swiftly re-appear with a palanquin. The Count gave a number of sharp orders to his other servants, and then stepping into the palanquin was carried from the chateau, Madame following at a distance in the rear of a score of heavily armed men.

The descent to the beach was made in absolute silence. The party proceeded to the yacht's boat which waited at the edge of the water, its crew of four men standing on the sand. These were instantly surrounded, the men submitting to the proceeding in wondering silence. Their unsuspiciousness cost them their lives, for next second all four were seized and dispatched by the negroes with the speed of lightning, not a single cry being raised to warn others of the horrid deed.

The yacht was lying at anchor about three hundred yards from the shore, her funnels belching out an intermittent shower of sparks, which showed how prepared she was to wing her flight to sea. The Count's palanquin led the way to a little rocky eminence at the foot of the chateau which towered above it three hundred feet in air.

Here ten minutes' labour was conducted swiftly with spade and shovel and presently, had there been light enough, a watcher would have seen a mound of earth and stones removed from the face of the knoll and a cunning door revealed which opened entrance to a cavern hewn out of the solid stone. Into this cavern the negroes plunged, but presently returned bearing amongst them two long, dark and coffin-shaped objects with which they staggered to the water's edge. The palanquin was now deposited, and the Count's faithful slaves helped him to emerge and tenderly assisted his steps to the narrow line of surf that marked the beach. There he occupied himself for some time stooping over and playing with the long dark coffins, always muttering vaguely to himself in a language which none of his companions could understand, for in the old man's excitement he had reverted to his mother tongue and spoke in Corsican.

At length he seemed satisfied, and at his word the mutes pushed the coffins into the sea, where they rested floating for a moment, their noses pointing to the yacht whose broadside was presented to the beach. Then with a slight whirring, bubbling sound they started forward of themselves like things of life, heading through the placid water of the bay straight for the unsuspecting vessel, but with an ever increasing speed. The old man uttered a sharp command and two negroes at once caught him in their arms and hurried, followed pell-mell by the rest, into the cavern from which they had recently abstracted the strange living coffins.

The last to enter pulled to the door, and they were thus shut in together as in a sepulchre. Madame only stayed without, but then the Count was not aware of her presence at all. She quietly moved towards the castle steps and commenced the ascent. But she did not go far, she was wondering too fearfully what those living coffins might do when they should reach the Turkish vessel's side.

She had not long to wait before she knew. The torpedoes must have struck the steamer almost simultaneously, for in a moment two terrific explosions that might well have been a single sound, so closely did one follow on the heels of the other, resounded from the bay. Madame saw in a gleam of intense white light that lasted scarce a second, the poor stricken yacht plunge and shudder throughout her length, in the same instant rise amidst a leaping cataract of water and burst into a thousand blazing fragments; then blackness, blackness more deep and horrible than any darkness she had ever known. The silence that followed was broken by the noise of dull and intermittent crashes, the sounds of falling wreck, of falling human bodies. A mass of iron, half a ton in weight, shocked almost at her feet, grinding a pair of steps to pieces, then rolling and rumbling to the sand. Nothing touched her, but with a gasp of horror she fled up the steps, up, up, never stopping until the zone of light was reached, for her soul was sick with terror and even her callous heart was seared with something of remorse, for she knew that her counsel had sent to instant death half a hundred human beings.

She hurried to the Count's library, anxious to drink and drown her fears with wine. There she found Francine who had just awakened from her swoon, and was dazedly looking about her. Scarcely regarding the girl she caught up a glass that rested fully charged upon the table and drained it to the dregs.

Sense and memory returned to Francine when she saw her enemy. Starting to her feet, with a cry of almost joy she caught up the knife which had failed of its mission before.

"Stop!" gasped Madame. "Stop, there has been death enough to-night!"

But Francine raised the knife on high. Madame shrieked out: "Stop, you fool; he is dead, dead!"

"Who is dead?" demanded the girl.

"Jibaloff and all his men!"

"My God!" Her hand fell to her side.

Madame hurried forward and seized her by the shoulder. "Come quickly with me," she cried. "Father will presently return and he will be dangerous, for he has tasted blood. Come, come, I say; there has been death enough to-night. Come, let us hide from him. He is mad at times like this."

Francine, sick and still half-fainting, permitted herself to be dragged from the room, entirely oblivious of the fact that she was supported on the arm of her bitterest enemy, her father's murderess.


CHAPTER XXIII.—THE INVASION OF ATTALA

WHEN Desiré had been so rudely expelled from the library by her father, the Pasha Jibaloff, sheer physical pain drove for the time all thought from her mind. She limped down the corridor uttering screams which her fortitude was unable to suppress, screams of agony. But when the pain had in a measure subsided, the spirit which she had unconsciously inherited from her maternal stock at last asserted itself, and the long dormant hate with which her father's constant brutal treatment had inspired her awoke to life and sudden vigour. She was a gentle and pure hearted girl, ordinarily of unusually soft and placid disposition, but deep at heart she possessed, in common with all human creatures, the natural instincts of the savage and a determination which once sufficiently aroused was as potent and remorseless as the Count's unnatural lust for blood.

Had Perigord or Cressingham discovered her in such a mood, they would have found a powerful instrument ready to their hands for the instant demolition of the inner circle of the Nihilists. The sweet and tender humour which had ever been her most distinguishing characteristic had entirely disappeared, and she was transformed into a being of fire and passion, no longer a girl, but a woman outraged beyond the bounds of resignation and all decency, her heart alight with anger and burning for revenge.

Desiré wandered through the castle, restless as a lost soul, searching feverishly for she knew not what. It is at such moments as this that the Fates delight in assisting the puppets whom their vagaries control. Desiré came upon a negro servant lying sleeping at his post. The sight gave her a thrill, and like a flash of lightning a long train of possibilities occurred to her, for the man's pistol had slipped from his belt and lay idly on the floor beside him.

She would take the pistol, make her way into the network of tunnels underneath the island, and thence proceed to the panel that opened on the gallery of books above the library of her grandfather. She knew the secret of the panel; well, she would open it and lying perdu on the floor deliberately shoot her dastard father, and thus avenge herself for the long series of insults which that night had crowned, and also save the friend she loved from shame, for Desiré had grown to love Miss Elliott with a passionate devotion.

Swiftly, noiselessly as a phantom, she approached the negro and caught up the pistol without disturbing him, then with the speed of thought she glided from the castle and approached the boat-house. Entering, she suddenly remembered that the tunnel door was locked and she no longer possessed a key to open it. But she had thrown prudence to the winds. She was a skilled chemist, and many explosives were in her charge. Choosing a bottle from her laboratory, she quickly and roughly manufactured an open bomb of nitro-glycerine. Placing this at the foot of the iron door, she balanced above it a heavy block of iron with a cord attached which she could release and precipitate its weight upon the fluid. Cautiously retiring for a distance without the shed she pulled the cord and instantly an explosion like the noise of a muffled gun sounded dully through the silence of the night. It was this noise which had startled the Count and Jibaloff as they were about to resume their play.

Careless of consequences, the excited girl hurried back to the boat-shed and slammed the door behind her. Striking a match, a scene of terrible wreckage met her eyes, but scarcely glancing at the ruin about her she gave a cry of triumph, for the tunnel door was torn and bent inwards like a crumpled sheet of paper and the dark pathway lay open to her desires. She was obliged to content herself with a supply of candles, for the lantern and almost everything else in the shed, including the electric appliances and the silver boat itself, had been rent to fragments by the nitro-glycerine.

Scarcely wasting a moment she entered the tunnel and had presently commenced to climb. The way was known to her, but in her perturbation she chose without noticing a wrong passage at the first parting of roads, and some minutes were wasted before she had discovered her mistake. Retracing her steps, she found at last the proper route and pressed on, already weary and panting with exertion, but remorseless as death.

She came at last to the final cavern chamber which she knew lay directly underneath the chateau. There her precautions commenced, for she knew that each slightest sound she made would become magnified by resounding echoes and might penetrate to the castle and thus warn her prospective victim. Holding the candle on high, she dimly saw two flights of steps leading spirally upwards from the opposite wall, and with the utmost care she prepared to cross the chamber. She was already almost in the centre of the cavern when a slight grating noise in the darkness far overhead arrested her attention. She glanced up, to catch suddenly a gleam of light a hundred feet above, to hear a man's wild shriek of mortal fear; two fateful seconds afterwards there crashed at her very feet a dark and dreadful substance, the rush of whose fall extinguished the light she carried.

There ensued a repetition of the queer grating sound she had heard at first, then a leaden silence and an awful gloom that weighed upon the senses like a pall.

Desiré felt by instinct that she was not alone, and a chill of terror held her spellbound and breathless for a long, frightful moment, during which icy fingers seemed to twine round her body like thin currents of coldest air, clutching at her heart and making her flesh creep, her very soul turn sick and shuddering.

With courage born of desperation, she struck a match at last, and the fitful gleaming of the vesta showed her the form of a mangled corpse lying on the rocky ground scarce a yard away, crushed and battered almost out of human semblance. Desiré became conscious of a sentiment of pity. Relighting her candle, she fell on her knees beside the body, and with trembling hands tried to feel if any spark of life remained. A moment's examination assured her that death had irrevocably claimed a victim, and the girl slowly turned to the man's face in order that she might ascertain whom the victim was.

She saw, and saw too that her hands and feet were stained and dabbled with her own father's blood. All thoughts of anger and revenge faded quickly from her soul, and with a sharp revulsion of feeling came horror and remorse. She had intended to kill her father, and had Providence allowed it another few minutes would have made her a parricide, but confronted with her father's corpse, she could only think of the hopelessness, the unutterable solemnity and terminality of death. This mangled, blood-bespangled, shapeless thing had no later than a minute since been a living, breathing man, a creature powerful for evil, who had robbed many better men of life and only half an hour ago brutally assaulted her.

Now, he was either nothing or elsewhere, for the patch of ensanguined bones and dust which his spirit had once tenanted was not her father—only a mass of matter inert and helpless, but matter before which life was constrained to pause in awestruck silence, and passion involuntarily halted in dismay.

Desiré had never fainted in her life and she knew nothing of hysteria, for the island of Attala was visited only by health-giving breezes, and she was strong almost as a man, but the horrid happenings of the past hour had overstrained her nerves, and it was with the utmost difficulty that she tore herself from the gloomy cavern. Her father's corpse was a thing of mystery whose ghostly stillness and horrible appearance attracted her with a species of compelling fascination.

She stumbled from the chamber, step by step, her glances ever fleeting back against her will, and when at last she reached the tunnel and the cave was left behind, she felt as though she had narrowly avoided some monstrous evil, that the thing she had deserted was full of power to work her harm, and that even yet she had not properly escaped. With a gasping cry full of terror, for panic had seized her, she ran like one pursued, springing recklessly down steps and over crags, until the sudden darkness warned her that she must pause for safety. Trembling in every limb, she lighted her candle, then hurried on again and soon had gained the boat-shed.

Even that old haunt of her working hours brought her no sense of security, for the explosion had smashed the electric lamps one and all, and by the dim light of the candle its ruin appeared to resemble in some way the broken body of her father. With a deep sob of relief she passed out into the night, whose mourning dome of black, leaden-coloured clouds, in spite of their sad colouring, had never seemed so friendly, and at that moment Desiré sorely needed friends.

She was about to return to the castle, when another fear beset her. She saw in silhouette against the sky a band of silent, black-robed figures stealing down the steps, her grandfather's palanquin in the van. Sinking behind a rock, she watched their subsequent proceedings, the murder of her father's boat's crew, the launching of the torpedoes, the destruction of the Turkish yacht. She saw her mother pass like a phantom upwards to the castle, she marked the Count and his black servants emerge from their hiding after the explosion, she heard her grandfather's wild laugh of triumph and the orders that he gave for the disposal of the wreckage, as soon as daylight came; she watched him depart, carried upwards in his palanquin by the two dumb slaves accompanied by the other servants.

Left lonely then, Desiré thought of what the Count's rage would be when he knew that his precious boat had been destroyed, the boat which he had helped to construct by long hours of painful toil, the boat that constituted his one ardent hobby, the only pleasure of his existence which was not evil. She asked herself the question, and its answer was in her heart. She knew that he would kill her as remorselessly as he would an offending slave, more still she feared, that he would torture her before she died in order to wreak on her a vengeance fit and proper in his estimation for her crime.

It was then that her eyes rested on the yacht's skiff which still idly floated beside the beach, its resting place marked by the bodies of the four slain sailors.

The Count's servants had vanished with the Count, forgetful in their excitement of the boat. Desiré, still possessed by the panic which had seized her in the cavern, ran like a sprite across the sands and leaping into the little craft pushed from the shore, only half conscious of her ultimate intention, but wildly anxious to fly the dreadful place where she had witnessed so many horrors and where death seemed to wait for her.

No one saw her flight, no one interrupted her. She reached the mouth of the harbour, working at the sculls like one pursued by furies. She gave no thought to wind or tide, and although a stiff breeze had sprung up and she was soon drenched with spray, it did not serve to arouse her from her abandon of terror. On rounding the nearest headland she steered straight out to sea, but just then a strange thing happened. She had not watched her course, thinking only of possible pursuit, and so gazing always with strained eyes at the fast receding coastline of the bay.

Suddenly she heard a man's voice sharply hailing her: "Steady there, my hearty. Drop your oars, and hands up, or you are a dead man."

In very consternation she obeyed. The darkness was profound, but at the distance of twelve feet she dimly discerned the outline of a large duck-shaped launch whose sides were studded with the figures of men. Next moment her own boat crashed into the stranger and the shock hurled her into the thwarts. Though half stunned, she felt herself seized by rough hands and lifted bodily on board the launch, then a voice said sternly: "What was the meaning of the thunderous explosion that we heard a while ago?"

Desiré listened dreamily, only half comprehending the question, for the voice appeared marvellously familiar to her ears, and she was wondering where it was she could have heard it before.

But her silence exasperated the questioner. "Is the fellow dumb?" he demanded, and shook her roughly by the shoulder.

"Lord Francis!" she gasped.

"What!" almost shouted the man; "who then are you?"

"Desiré!"

"My God, can it be!" He pressed his face close to hers and passed an arm around her. "It is!" he cried, excitedly. "What of Miss Elliott, is she well?"

"Yes, my Lord, but in dreadful trouble—at least, she was."

And then Desiré broke down utterly, and sobbed, and cried and laughed, in the manner that women the wide world over have always done and will always do under stress of circumstance. Cressingham did his best to comfort her, at last succeeding partially, and he extracted something of the story she had to tell in broken fragments from her tear-wet lips. He was content for the while with the more important incidents, for these had made him anxious to lose no more time than he could help.

While still conversing, he sent the launch at full speed towards the boat-house, where arrived, having first obtained from Desiré the key, he landed fifteen men and immediately despatched the little vessel back to the Sea Hawk, giving the girl in charge of an officer whom he also bade tell Oeltjen to bring the yacht to the harbour of Attala with all possible speed. He feared to take Desiré with him, for she was still nervous and intensely overwrought, and he imagined that he could do almost as well without her guidance.

Crouching on the sand, he watched the launch until it had passed from sight, then, accompanied by his silent company, noiselessly crept into the boat-house, carefully barring the door when all had entered.

Each man lighted the lantern with which he had been previously provided.

Cressingham fastened one end of a great ball of twine to a piece of timber and then shortly addressed his followers.

"Gentlemen!" he whispered. "It seems to me necessary to storm Attala to-night, for a lady stands in peril of her life, a lady who has already been inhumanly insulted. We shall try to take the place by stratagem, but if we fail in that we shall not in open assault, for though our enemies outnumber us we shall fight for the good of humanity and for the honour of a woman. I must again impress upon you the absolute necessity of silence and obedience. Fate has made me your leader, and although some of you are my superiors in official rank I rely upon you none the less to accord me frank and generous support. A word or an exclamation may suffice to warn our quarry, therefore I implore you to beware."

The lamplight showed the faces of fifteen gentlemen, men of breeding and refinement, some possibly of patrician caste. One and all were resolute and serious, they listened attentively and nodded in unbroken silence.

Cressingham appeared satisfied, he pointed to the tunnel door and muttered: "That is our way, follow me closely and without sound." Next instant the boat-house was again wrapped in silent gloom; the invasion of Attala had commenced.


CHAPTER XXIV.—THE CAPTURE OF ATTALA

WHEN the old Count d'Attala returned to the castle after his ruthless destruction of Jibaloff's yacht and the murder of the boat's crew and ship's company, he was weary and anxious for repose. Assisted by the chained slaves, he left the palanquin on reaching the library and entered one of the rooms adjoining, a large and airy bedchamber, whose furniture and fittings were of princely magnificence. The walls were entirely composed of huge plate-glass mirrors arranged in the manner of panels. The ceiling was painted by masters of craft with scenes from Dante's Inferno, each separate square being a priceless work of art wrought either by copyists of Gustave Dore or by Dore himself, and in such grim fashion that a single upward glance was sufficient to thrill the bosom of an ordinary observer with a sentiment of gloom or dread.

But the Count was not an ordinary observer. When he was disrobed and lifted by his attendants into the huge carved four-poster bed that rested on the centre of the richly carpeted floor, he lay quietly while the slaves massaged his limbs from head to heel and covered him with unguent, and gazed up at the realistically pictured horrors of hell; his lips parted with a smile of keen appreciation, an appreciation that for years had never wearied. It amused him to pass his leisure moments in reflecting upon the mysteries of time, space and eternity, for his iron soul had never been the subject of fear, and he was an atheist from the sincerest possible conviction.

In his belief nothing existed which his intelligence could not realize, or at least fathom. Neither God nor Satan had ever been made manifest to him; he had never known a dead man to return to life; therefore heaven, hell and the hereafter he regarded as merely bogies created by the imagination of softer-brained folk than himself. The superstitious terrors of others gave him food for pleasure and sarcastic contemplation, since he was himself incapable of similar weakness. It was for this reason that at great cost he had had his ceiling painted in such ghastly manner; but though a miser of money he had never regretted the expenditure, for thereby his sleeping and waking thoughts had always filled him with egotistical satisfaction, since they furnished him with an excuse to jibe and sneer at the world, whose enemy he was.

It may be inferred that he wasted no time in prayer. He was his own god, and there was little need to pray to himself; but his reflections were all self-adulative, self-reverent. He felt that he had done a good day's work. He had for ever rid himself of a dangerous rival, a man whose ambition had of late caused him grave uneasiness. He had saved his money, and would make more, for he fancied he would know well enough how to cajole Jibaloff's master into believing that the Pasha had perished at sea by some unknown peril of the deep.

He laughed aloud to think that there was no occasion to admit to the Sultan the receipt of any portion of the gold, and all the miser in him revelled and delighted in the idea of exacting a second payment for the nefarious contract he had in hand. There was still work for him to do. To-morrow at latest the Prince would arrive to claim his portion of the spoil, thinking fondly no doubt that he, the Count d'Attala, would be such a madman as lightly to part with so vast a sum as a hundred thousand pounds. The old man chuckled softly to himself. Well, to-morrow the Prince too would die; he had never been more than a figure-head, and his period of usefulness had passed; indeed, he was becoming troublesome, and had lately dared to voice a threat.

The Count's thin yellow hands clutched hungrily at the bedclothes then, for a further consideration had occurred to him. After the Prince's death there would never be need for another division of the gold that he loved so dearly. All, all would be his.

It would certainly be necessary to appoint substitutes in the places of the dead men in order to carry on the work of Nihilism, and reconstitute the infernal trio who had worked so long together. But he would this time take more care in their selection. Never again would he tie his hands by raising to his own rank men of birth or talent. It had been a mistake; such creatures were too greedy, too inquisitive of his methods, too hard to blind. He would henceforth choose fanatics, men who would serve the cause for love of it alone, content to starve that they might kill. It pleasured him to recall the names of many just such men, to know that fate had fashioned scores of fiends to suit his purpose, that he had but to pick puppets already moulded to his will.

He fell asleep with the smile still on his lips, and slumbered as gently as a babe. His countenance in such repose was beautiful to look upon. Though wrinkled and saffron-coloured with extreme old age, every feature was still regular and perfect, and the lingering smile might have come from some gentle dream. His wig removed, his thick white locks framed the face with a soft and venerable halo. His long lashes, still black as jet, lay on his cheeks caressingly, forming with his dark grey brows a wondrous contrast to the snowy masses of his hair. So little mark of crime had a life of unexampled evil put upon him that one to see might not feel otherwise than reverently admiring, and be constrained to mutter, beneath his breath, fearing humbly to disturb such gracious rest: "What a beautiful, what a good, what a sweet old man!"

The dumb slaves, on observing their master to be asleep, at once retired, and so arranged themselves that they presently reposed upon the mats, one on either side of the door, which was kept slightly ajar in order to permit the passing of the chain which bound them together. The lamps were all kept blazing, for the old man loved light of all things, and was unable to sleep in a darkened room.

It was thus that the Count had always protected his sleeping moments, and the plan was a good one, for his bedchamber had no other means of approach, and although one of the slaves was deaf, and both were dumb, no one could possibly enter the room without disturbing them.

This was the problem presented an hour later to Lord Francis Cressingham, who after successfully negotiating the tunnels undermining the mountain, had at last arrived at the sliding panel communicating with the gallery that traversed the library walls. Silently as ghosts his obedient company had one by one crept after him through the narrow gateway, and ensconced themselves behind the curtains of the gallery.

Cressingham made sure that the slaves were really slumbering, and then with utmost care tiptoed to the staircase and down it to the floor of the apartment.

A gesture, and just as noiselessly the soldiers followed him. Pausing a moment for consideration, he made up his mind, and proceeded to solve the problem straightway like a man of action.

With a smart, soundless rush the first slave was pinioned and bound before he was thoroughly awakened. The chain rattled against the door, but no warning was given. Cressingham forced the door open, and the slave before him into the bedchamber. The second slave started to his feet, uttering a sharp guttural cry.

Some one struck him over the head with the butt of a pistol, but Cressingham did not wait to observe results, for the Count d'Attala, though not entirely aroused, was stirring restlessly. The young man hurried to the bed and waited, cocking his revolver.

The Count thrust his knuckles in his eyes and half raised himself. "What is the matter?" he demanded testily; then seeing Cressingham, and marking too his attendants in the hands of such hostile numbers, his face slowly blanched, and he sat upright in bed. "What does this mean?" he stammered angrily.

"It means—you are my prisoner," said Cressingham. "Don't move, Count, and keep silence if you value your life. Orsini! Vincenzo! your assistance, please."

The two gentlemen named rapidly approached, each provided with a stout roll of cord.

"Bind the Count," continued Cressingham; "his hands behind his back—so! now his feet—ah, thanks! Now, if you please, Count, you will give your ordinary signal for summoning your servants."

The Count smiled, and shook his head. Cressingham eyed him sternly.

"You refuse?"

"Do you take me for a fool?"

Cressingham made a quick sign, and Orsini at once clapped his hand over the old man's mouth. Next moment he was so securely gagged that he could not have uttered the least sound had he been ever so disposed.

Cressingham searched the walls of the room, and presently discovered a bell rope, which he sharply pulled. Two minutes afterwards a knock sounded on the door, and a negro entered the room. He was instantly stunned by a blow from a club, bound and gagged.

Cressingham rang the bell again, and again repeated the process, until eleven of the Count's servants had been thus happily disposed of. Thereafter no answer was vouchsafed his summons.

Leaving the Count d'Attala in charge of two gentlemen, whom he gave strict orders to shoot the old man should any rescue be attempted, Cressingham then sallied forth at the head of his thirteen remaining comrades to explore the castle room by room. Every apartment on the ground floor was deserted. Ascending the staircase, they found a similar condition to prevail; no sign could they find of Madame or Miss Elliott, and Cressingham, in regard to the latter, became filled with the gravest anxiety. It became necessary to approach the basement, and after a little search they discovered a staircase leading downwards from the first floor. Daylight had already broken by this, and they were able to discard their lanterns as useless lumber. With straining eyes and cocked revolvers grasped in their right hands, they silently descended to the lower regions; but their caution was in vain; the place was utterly abandoned.

The basement was one huge open structure, taking up much space, but containing no separate rooms at all. One end was entirely occupied by a very extensive kitchen, replete with every detail of kitchen arrangements; two large steam stoves, three marble tables, several dressers filled with plate of all descriptions, and two dumb waiters leading to the rooms above. The remainder of the place was slung with hammocks, that swung between the iron columns which supported the castle; these hammocks appeared to have been lately occupied, but their tenants had vanished into air. The floor beneath was covered with Arabian matting; there were no chairs or other furniture in sight; all was scrupulously neat and clean.

Beyond the kitchen the basement opened upon a small square garden of flowers and vegetables, separated therefrom by open doors of glass. The garden was as deserted, however, as the rest of the establishment. A few moments sufficed to explore everything, and Cressingham was constrained to pause for the moment entirely baffled.

One of his companions, however, who had lingered among the flowers, called him suddenly, and pointed to a thin trail of smoke that issued from the rock below the sheer ledge upon which the garden jutted. Waiting there in silent speculation, all distinctly heard the muffled thud of engines, the faint whirr of machinery in motion, which seemed to arise from beneath their very feet.

Another search was immediately instituted, and this revealed presently a trap-door in the very centre of the basement, whose presence the matting had at first concealed from view. Opening this, the roar of machinery instantly grew louder, but the darkness below was intense.

Lamps were again brought into use, and soon they silently commenced the descent. Their caution was entirely needless. They found themselves in an immense apartment similar to the basement, only this was entirely shut in by the solid framework of the mountain, for it was nothing but a monstrous excavation in the rock. Their lamps showed them at one end a large dynamo and steam engine, both of which were in motion; at the other, a mass of different machinery and a telegraphist's operating table, upon which an instrument monotonously ticked. Against the central wall reposed a large printing press and long founts of type; also two typographical machines which would not have been out of place in the workroom of a London journal. The place was further occupied by quite a score of men, some white, some black. All were resting on the floor, half were asleep.

Those awake turned and glanced at the intruders, but with an indifference which was at first startling from its utter unexpectedness. But the reason was soon made manifest. Each movement that they made was accompanied by the clanking of iron, and a hasty examination informed Cressingham that they were one and all gyved and fettered with the most superlative care, their heavy chains in every case being riveted to ring-bolts in the floor. While the gentlemen stood then endeavouring to recover from their astonishment, two men got slowly to their feet, and after a careless glance into the furnace of the engine, unscrewed a tap and poured into a funnel-shaped opening a quantity of oil from cans which stood within their range of action.

Cressingham's first thought was that these men must all be suffering victims, unfortunate creatures whom the cruel Nihilists had possibly kidnapped from their homes, printers, telegraphists, engineers, perhaps of special ability, who had been stolen into such vile slavery, and thenceforth compelled to serve their inhuman taskmasters bitterly against their will. With this idea he started forward to examine them. The slaves did not in any way resent his action; they were too sullen, too indifferent to care; not one showed even a trace of curiosity on seeing so many strange faces so suddenly about him.

The young man was, however, soon disabused of his imaginings, and his kindly intention to immediately release them perished almost as soon as it was born. They possessed, without exception, countenances unmistakably vicious and criminal, and it needed no physiognomist to discern as desperate and abandoned a set of rogues and scoundrels as the gaols of Europe could readily produce in rivalry.

Ten minutes of vigorous and systematic search failed to discover any means of egress from the cavern except the door by which they had entered. Cressingham then gave the word to depart, and they mounted again to the basement, leaving for the time the slaves to their own devices.

There he held a short council of war, and it was arranged that the force should be divided: six should go and reinforce the Count's guard, two should proceed to the lookout, which commanded a complete prospect of the island, four should guard the main entrance to the Castle, and the remaining four, including Cressingham himself, should carefully re-examine the ground floor, with the view to discover an opening which might lead to some secret tunnel into which the Count's remaining servants had probably retreated in order to conceal themselves.

The disposition was immediately effected, and all proceeded to their allotted tasks. Cressingham first visited the Count's bedroom, but everything there was in the same condition that he had left it. The old man lay quietly on his side, trussed up like a fowl, and breathing heavily. Orsini stood beside him with revolver cocked, Vincenzo guarded the door and the bounden prostrate negroes, alert and anxious as a fox. Neither had been disturbed nor heard a single alarming sound.

Cressingham tapped heavily upon every panel of the bedroom and library walls, but with the single exception of the door which had admitted his comrades and himself to the apartment, all appeared solid, and resounded dully to his knocking. Leaving the library, he investigated in similar fashion the other sixteen rooms of that floor of the chateau, but no sign of hollow wall or hidden door rewarded his careful search.

By this time he had become horribly anxious for his sweetheart's safety, and commenced to despair of finding her alive. He was on the point of ascending to re-test the upper floor, when the two men whom he had despatched to the look-out suddenly returned, their eager faces showing they brought news.

"Well?" said Cressingham excitedly.

One replied: "There are a dozen negroes on the beach and scattered round the bay, my Lord, all hard at work engaged in collecting and burning wreckage."

Like a flash there occurred to the young man the true reason he had been unable to discover the remainder of the Count's attendants. They were no doubt covering up the traces of last night's destructive work.

But that did not explain the disappearance of Miss Elliott and Madame Viyella. He at once ordered his whole force to await the arrival of the negroes, concealing themselves, as well as they could, in the main hall, and secure them immediately on entrance. Then with renewed anxiety he betook himself to the upper floor and resumed his work. In ten minutes he was interrupted by a messenger with the information that one negro had returned as if on an errand to the castle, and been captured.

Cressingham had by that time seen the hopelessness of further search in that part of the castle, for the walls on the upper story were all above ground, and only one stone thick. It was ridiculous to suppose the existence of any secret passage possible. He suddenly determined to question this negro, and accompanied his comrade to the great hall, where he found the fellow cowering bound upon the floor, displaying the most craven terror. Cressingham ordered his gag to be removed, and standing over him with a cocked revolver, demanded in Italian: "Where are the two ladies who were in this house last night?"

The negro answered with chattering teeth: "Pardon, Excellency, I do not know."

"When did you see them last?"

"Excellency, last night at dinner; they dined with my master, the Prince."

"The Prince!"

"Yes, Excellency, the Prince of Attala."

"You are lying to me. You know where they are. Speak, or I shall kill you."

The fellow's black face became grey with fear. "Good, kind Excellency," he wailed, "I dare not tell your Excellency a lie. I know not where they are, I swear it."

The fellow evidently spoke the truth, and Cressingham was bitterly chagrined. After a moment's thought he said: "You came here with a message to your master, is it not so?"

"Yes, Excellency."

"Give it to me; I am your master now."

"Yes, Excellency, good, kind Excellency, I am glad that you are my master. Excellency, I——"

Cressingham cut his shivering protestations short. "The message!" he cried sternly.

"Excellency, the foreman Julius Octavius Anthony discovered that one of the boats is missing, and he ordered me to hasten to my master—pardon, Excellency, my late master—with the tidings; he feared——" The man hesitated.

"Feared what, fool?"

"Excellency, he feared that one or some of the Turks might have survived the explosion and escaped us while we slept."

"Ah! was not this boat secured as usual?"

"Excellency, I fastened it myself; the key has never since left my hands."

"How then could the boat have been taken by the Turk? Is the lock smashed?"

"N—no. Excellency."

"Has any one in the castle another key?"

"Yes, Excellency, the Prince and Signor Desiré each have a key."

Cressingham remembered that Desiré had the previous night been striving to escape the island in a boat, a boat which had been staved in and sunk after its collision with his launch. But a moment's reflection taught him that it could not have been the craft in question, for each of the Count d'Attala's boats was as strong and substantial as the launch itself, and, moreover, it could never have been propelled by a single person at the speed with which the girl had driven hers.

He questioned further at hazard, in order to verify his thought. "There was another boat on the beach last night?"

"Yes, Excellency, the Turkish yacht's skiff."

"What has become of it?"

The man trembled, and shrivelled up as though expecting annihilation, and whined out piteously; "Good, kind Excellency, I do not know."

"It is not on the beach now."

"No, Excellency."

Cressingham turned to his companions and spoke in French: "Gentlemen, if a complete examination of the island fails to reveal the presence of my fianceé, Miss Elliott, and Madame Viyella, we shall know that they have escaped the island in that boat——"

"Hist!" cried one of the men, interrupting suddenly.

In the silence that ensued a noise of footsteps and voices was heard on the path without the great door. Instantly all prepared themselves for a struggle, one man to save time stunning the negro with a violent blow from a revolver butt. Next moment the door opened, and the remaining servants of the Count, weary and dirty from their toil, trooped unsuspiciously into the hall, anxious probably for their breakfast. When all had entered, the gentlemen sprang from their hiding, and threw themselves upon the astonished negroes. Then followed a wild melee of oaths and blows and startled screams, but before many minutes had passed all were bound and helpless, many having surrendered without offering resistance.

"Gentlemen," cried Cressingham, rising, excited and panting from his exertions, "we have accomplished our mission, and bloodlessly—the island of Attala is ours."

Three ringing cheers greeted his words. Cressingham tore from his pocket a small flag, it was the Union Jack, and fastened it upon the scabbard of his sword.

"A volunteer!" he cried, "a volunteer to wave this from the look-out, so that the Sea Hawk may know and enter the harbour without fear."

A dozen hands were raised, but the nearest seized the trophy and hurried to the door. Next second he returned, and said: "My lord, the Sea Hawk is this moment rounding the point."

"Then," said Cressingham, "to work! Before we breakfast our prisoners must all be shipped, for that is our first duty, and only then can we eat in safety. The Count is now bound and gagged, but he is such a devil that until he is safe aboard the Sea Hawk I shall continue to fear him!"

Two hours afterwards every living creature on the island had been transported to the yacht; Attala was utterly abandoned, and Cressingham and his companions were feted in the cabin of the Sea Hawk, with a magnificent disregard to the cost of Perigord's champagne.


CHAPTER XXV.—THE LOVE OF OELTJEN

ONE of the Sea Hawk's company was a skilled telegraphic operator, and Cressingham's first care on returning to the island was to obtain this man to despatch a cable to the Count's station on the mainland of Italy to ascertain if Perigord had yet succeeded in capturing the place. After some thought he caused to be transmitted simply his own name.

Half an hour later a reply came equally laconic—"Perigord."

The young man, reassured by that, cabled a concise report of his capture of Attala, laying especial emphasis on the fact that Madame Viyella and Miss Elliott had disappeared, advancing his opinion that they had fled to sea in the missing boat. He begged Perigord to use all his influence to discover if they had been picked up by any passing steamer, and also to send out a vessel in search to the north of Corsica, for a strong south wind had blown all the previous night and was still raging.

Perigord's answer was satisfactory; he promised to do all that Cressingham desired, and commanded the young man to remain upon the island, carefully guarding the prisoners until he himself arrived, as circumstances had arisen which necessitated a change in his original intentions, and it was no longer his wish that the Count d'Attala should be transported to Naples.

The remainder of that day Cressingham devoted to a rigorous examination of the island, assisted by a score of anxious helpers, but although every nook and cranny capable of concealing a rabbit was carefully explored, no trace of the missing ladies was discovered. The next day the subterranean passages were submitted to a similar test, but with a like result. Not a single tunnel from end to end escaped their vigilant scrutiny, but unless a tragedy had occurred, and Madame Viyella had cast herself and Francine Elliott down one of the numerous bottomless pits which occurred in many of the disused workings, they were forced at last to the conclusion that their first idea was the correct one, and that the two women were then on the open sea, or had reached some more friendly shore than the coast of Attala.

Cressingham, remembering his own narrow escape, was tortured with the thought that his sweetheart had possibly been drowned, and a single glance at the weather sufficed to increase his fears, for the sea was running high, and the wind had been blowing half a gale ever since the previous day. Even in the protected harbour of Attala the waves were wild, the beach and coast were marked by a thick line of spray and driving foam, and the Sea Hawk strained at her anchors like a hound in leash, rising and tossing tumultuously.

With a dull feeling of despair he recognized how impossible it would be for an open boat to live in such a sea, and his only remaining hope was that the wanderers had been rescued in time by some passing steamer. He had been very loth to give up the idea that he should find Miss Elliott hiding somewhere on the island, for he knew that Francine regarded Madame as her father's murderess, and he could not understand how she could have brought herself to escape in such company, no matter how terrible the motive might have been urging her thereunto. He submitted all the negroes and the Count d'Attala to a rigid inquisition, but none knew aught of the missing ones, and with the progress of his own search he was compelled to abandon any other solution of the mystery.

Face to face at last with facts whose stubbornness refused him any further hope, he resolutely thrust disturbing thoughts behind him, and set to work with fiery energy to carry out Perigord's instructions regarding Attala. For two days he toiled with his companions like a common labourer, doing more than his share of the work. At the end of that time everything was completed. The Count's enormous treasure of gold, silver and jewels had been transferred to the shore and stored in the boat-house, together with all papers and documents existing on the island. The Castle itself had been ransacked from top to bottom. The printing presses, founts of type and typographical machines had been ruthlessly destroyed, and the more valuable furniture, pictures, books, statues, carpets, rugs, chairs, tables, etc., removed to the beach and stacked under canvas tents, ready for exportation immediately that the waves should have abated. The steam engine, dynamos and telegraphic instruments only were allowed to remain in statu quo awaiting the arrival of Perigord, but elsewise the whole chateau was dismantled and deserted.

That evening a cable arrived from Perigord: "Keep Count and Desiré with sufficient force of my own men, including Oeltjen, on island, and await me; despatch Sea Hawk with all other prisoners to Tunis, where have arranged everything for their reception; afterwards Sea Hawk will proceed to Naples, landing officers and other volunteers, and there remain until word from me. I set out for island to-morrow night. No news yet Madame or Miss Elliott; perhaps rescued by ocean steamer."

Such contradictory commands seemed unlike Perigord, but Cressingham had no choice except to obey. An hour afterwards the Sea Hawk steamed out of the harbour with its cargo of prisoners bound for Africa, leaving Desiré, Cressingham and Oeltjen standing on the beach of the bay waving their adieus. A tent had been erected to shelter the Count d'Attala, and within it the old man lay alone with his reflections, but securely guarded, for besides his shackles six armed sailors formed a cordon without the canvas.

Cressingham had decided to camp out with his whole party on the sand during their remaining sojourn on the island rather than take up quarters in the Castle, a course which would have entailed a great deal of useless toil.

The storm had broken during the day and gave promise of fine weather in the near future, for the gale had calmed down to a mild and balmy breeze which now blew from a different direction, so that no difficulty nor hardship was experienced in that regard.

Cressingham gave Oeltjen the first watch, for he was worn out and exhausted, and the German had taken no part in the ransacking of the island, having been detailed to the duty of guarding the Sea Hawk's prisoners, while Cressingham conducted operations ashore. But the young man found that he could not sleep in spite of his great weariness. Every muscle of his frame ached horribly from the incessant labour he had lately undergone; he was, moreover, harrassed with painful thoughts about Francine, for Perigord's message had sounded the knell of his hopes, and he scarcely dared to dream that his sweetheart could have been rescued, and no news thereof been gleaned during the days that had passed between. Lying stretched out on his mattress on the sand, a mattress upon which the Count d'Attala had often reposed, for it had formed part of the old man's bed, he tossed and turned for the space of an hour, vainly seeking a respite from his sad imaginings, vainly longing for the relief of slumber. At last, utterly tired of the struggle, he got to his feet and wandered along the beach away from the camp towards the nearest promontory, and after a while threw himself down in a sandy nook shaded by jagged rocks, which, however, did not shut out the sweet air of heaven nor the mild beaming of the planets.

The god he had wooed so long took pity on him there, and touched his heavy eyelids with the magic wand of dreams. How long Cressingham slept, he did not know. He was aroused by the sound of voices quite near to him, the soft-toned voices of a man and maid murmuring together underneath the canopy of stars.

He vaguely recognized that it was Desiré talking to Von Oeltjen, and for a while was drowsily indignant with his friend for quitting the post assigned to him without permission.

He heard the German say: "Yes, Desiré, astronomers all tell us that each tiny, twinkling lamp set in the sky above us is another world, or a sun, perhaps, larger and more glorious than ours. But for myself, I prefer to think otherwise. I love to dream that with the fall of dusk God draws a spangled curtain over us, through rifts in which His angels curiously peep to watch upon our doings. It is their eyes that lighten the gloom of our night, the ones that beam are the friends of lovers, for they are soft and kind; those that twinkle smile at our follies, as you may easily tell, while yon thick veil, misnamed the milky way, are the eyes of angels who weep for our sins—see how blurred and misty is their light; their tears form the rain which falls upon the earth at intervals. Flowers spring from those tears, Desiré, beautiful, sweet-scented flowers."

"It is a pretty thought," mused the girl. "But what do you think of the moon?"

Cressingham wondered how his friend would face this poser, but Oeltjen did not seem even momentarily puzzled.

"The moon, Desiré," he answered softly, "is part of Heaven itself, a tiny part which God only occasionally permits us to look upon, for none of us are worthy to regard it always. Is it not true that when the moon's golden splendour shines upon the world the hearts of all who walk and see are insensibly made mild and kind, inclined to love and be beloved? That is because it is the light of God's own House, and God is Love, Desiré."

"How beautiful your dreams are, my friend! Neither the Abbé nor Lord Francis ever spoke to me like that. I love to listen to such things."

"That is because you are at heart a poetess. Desiré."

Cressingham raised himself noiselessly to his elbow, undecided whether to interrupt such charming converse or to keep his presence unrevealed. He did not want to spy upon his friend, and yet he had distinguished something in the Count's voice that surprised him, a note of admiration, almost passion. Oeltjen was standing upon the sand, Desiré—dressed at last in the costume of a woman—beside him. They were holding each other's hands, and a very pretty picture they made—the man's strong, earnest figure, the girl's curved and tender outlines silhouetted softly against the moaning surf beyond. Cressingham decided not to reveal himself, for somehow he had conceived a positive affection and reverence for Desiré's character, and he had grown to look upon himself as her protector since she had no other, and besides he owed her a deep debt of gratitude. It was not exactly that he feared or distrusted the Count von Oeltjen's intentions, but he knew from his own experience how weak are all men before the breath of passion and the lure of opportunity; he knew moreover how utterly ignorant and unsuspicious was the girl.

He heard his friend say presently: "I wish to heaven that you were not your mother's daughter, dear."

"Why do you say that, signore? Is not my mother beautiful?"

"Yes, she is beautiful."

"Tell me then."

"I—I—please don't ask me, Desiré."

"How strange you are, my friend! You say to me a thing and then forbid me to speak upon it."

"I was foolish to say what I said at all; still, since you wish to know more, I shall tell it you. But not thus, sweetheart; with my arms about you—so. Will you not first kiss me though, Desiré?"

"Are you sure that it is a right thing to do, Ludwig? Somehow when I kiss you I feel as though I were stealing something and afraid to be caught."

"You sweet innocent! I am sure enough; are we not lovers?"

"That is true, and some day we shall marry; is it not so? Even Miss Elliott told me it was proper in such a case. Then I shall kiss you, Ludwig."

She put her arms about his neck, and did as she had said. Cressingham, feeling entirely relieved in mind by the latter portion of the converse, gave a sudden cough.

The lovers started guiltily apart. He stood up and said smilingly: "It is thus you interrupt my repose; you, Ludwig, who should be on guard, you, Desiré, who should be in your tent and fast asleep by this."

Oeltjen hung his head at the reproof, and stammered: "I can see the Count's tent quite easily from here, Frank."

"Oh, of course, and you were watching it! But there, I do not think any great harm is done in this instance. It is always thus, however; when love wakes, duty sleeps. Is it not so?"

"You heard?"

"Enough to convince me that you have much cause to be congratulated. I do so now with all my heart—and you too, Desiré; your future husband is one of the best men I have ever known."

"He is a beautiful man, Lord Francis," replied Desiré artlessly; "I love him very much."

"Thank you, my friend," muttered Oeltjen.

"Rather sudden though, isn't it?" whispered Cressingham with amiable satire.

"Hush!" replied the other; "she knows nothing." Aloud he said: "Sudden, Frank! I do not think so; we have already known each other four days, and we did not become affianced until this morning."

"I feel as though I had known Ludwig all my life," protested the girl.

Cressingham laughed, and waved his hand. "Well, old boy, I'll not disturb you further, but will take the rest of your watch. Relieve me as soon or as late as you please. A riverdici, Desiré."

"You are a brick," said the Count, using with much feeling a favourite expression of the Englishman.

"A riverdici, and thank you, my Lord," said the girl.

Cressingham swung off, laughing softly to himself; he was deeply pleased, since had he possessed the power of moulding Desiré's fate he could not have chosen a prospect more promiseful of happiness for her than marriage with his friend.


CHAPTER XXVI.—THE END OF BOSA GRACCI

AT three o'clock on the afternoon of the day following there entered the harbour of Attala a large grey yacht, flying Italian colours at her peak. Anchoring near the mouth of the bay, a boat was instantly lowered, and Perigord, taking his place in the stern sheets, was rowed swiftly to the beach. He was met by Cressingham and Oeltjen, who presented their reports with speed and brevity.

Perigord complimented them on all they had achieved, and then asked to see the prisoner, to whom he said he wished immediately to announce sentence of death, as it had been determined in council to execute the Count without delay and without trial. When the three gentlemen entered the Count's tent the old man sat up and stared fixedly at his enemies. He had just eaten his lunch, the remains of which rested on a tray beside his mattress; consequently he was still ungagged, and free to speak.

"You may not remember me, sir," said Perigord. "It is so many years since we have met. My name is Perigord."

"You deceive yourself," replied the Count; "I recollect you perfectly. Kindly ask your servants to leave us together. I have many things to say to you."

"Afterwards, sir, perhaps; I have come to inform you that to-morrow at daylight you, Bosa Gracci, Count——"

"Prince!" interjected the old man sharply.

Perigord shrugged his shoulders. "Count d'Attala, will be shot. Five Italian officers will be your executioners. I personally obtained this indulgence to be granted you in deference to your undoubted rank, so that you may die in the manner of a gentleman. You may look, however, for no other favours."

The Count d'Attala replied with the most perfect composure: "You have done?"

"Yes."

"Then please comply with my request, also of your charity furnish me with a glass of wine. Your servants have helped themselves liberally to my belongings, but have treated me with niggard meanness. For days past I have endured the tortures of Tantalus, listening thirstily to the popping of champagne corks."

Perigord turned to his companions. "I pray you leave us, gentlemen, and please send me a bottle of champagne."

Cressingham and Oeltjen at once departed, and a sailor next moment entered the tent with the Count's desideratum. Perigord filled a glass with the wine, then noticing how bound up the old man was gave him the freedom of his hands. The Count sighed gratefully and took a deep draught of the sparkling liquor, holding out eagerly thereafter his glass to be refilled. "Ah, that is good!" he cried; "it puts new life into my withered heart. Now I feel fit for anything."

"Death, Count?" asked Perigord's deep voice.

"Bah, I am not dead yet, though I daresay I soon shall be, for I am in your power, but I shall give you a little trouble first. Hum, hum, let me look at you, my son. Sapristi, how old you have grown in these past fifteen years! Old and sad-looking. You have had a hard time chasing me; is it not so, Valdemar?"

Perigord started up as abruptly as though he had been shot on mention of that name, and he stared at the old man with incredulous amaze.

"How comes it that you know my name?" he demanded.

The Count chuckled out: "Ha, ha! it surprises you. Hein! Oh, I know more of you than you think, my son!"

"Reserve such epithets for members of your family," said Perigord coldly, "thank God I am not your son!"

The old man smiled. "Your thanksgiving prayer is wasted, Valdemar—entirely thrown away. You may not relish the honour I paid you in creating you, but you cannot escape the fact, however much you choose to thank God." His voice and manner were so replete with insolent mockery that Perigord, strong willed and stolid as he was, involuntarily gave a shiver.

"You waste time," he retorted angrily; "you said you had much to tell me. Commence!"

"I have already. I have told you that you are my son."

"Liar that you are! My father has long been dead!"

"Your mother told you that on my direction. Sapristi, you do not credit me? Listen, then—nay, first tell me what you know about your parentage. I shall presently convince you."

Perigord gazed at his enemy, his eyes filled with disgust, and slowly shook his head. "Do you think I shall make of you a confessor?"

"Mule that you are!" cried the Count with a sudden flash of rage. "Heed me well. Your mother was a princess of the House of Austria, by name Theresia Isabella. You were born in the Castle of Fitzhammerhaus, near Totna on the Danube, on the eleventh day of May, 18—. You were brought up as the child of Maria Nekka, your mother's tiring woman; it was not until you were eighteen years of age that you learned the secret of your parentage—that was when Theresia visited Totna, she thought, to die, although she afterwards recovered. She was then the wife of the Grand Duke of——, and mother of Prince Frederick, who you no doubt know is my colleague and a member of the Three."

Perigord's face had turned slowly of an ashen hue. With a great effort he muttered: "You are acquainted with my family history, it seems."

The Count sneered. "No one has a better right; but you are still doubting my words; I shall go into details. I met your mother twelve months before your birth. I was then engaged upon a mission from my old master Katusoff, the Pole, whose second in command I was, whose object was to gather together the scattered threads of anarchy in Austria and Hungary with the view to the formation of a lodge which might further disseminate the seed we wished to sow. It was at Buda Pesth we met, at a State ball, for although an exile then I was well accredited and personable; I say it without vanity, few men were at that time more good to look upon than I. Well, Theresia fell in love with me. We met frequently, but always the eyes of the multitude were on us, for she was young, beautiful and sought in marriage by a king. You remember the old saw—'Love laughs at locksmiths.' Ha, ha, ha! Theresia found her way to get her wishes. She fell ill and was ordered by her doctors to Trieste for change of air. There I followed her and we were married."

"What?" thundered Perigord.

"We were married," repeated the Count coldly. "We were married by a Romish priest——"

"The proofs!" cried Perigord, "the proofs!"

"Bah!" said the Count with a cold smile; "they would benefit you nothing. The marriage of a princess is always illegal unless sanctioned by her State."

"Nevertheless, I demand the proofs!"

The old man took from his inner pocket a bulky leathern case, from which he extracted a paper. "I have kept this on my person since the first day that I knew you were upon my track," he said quietly. "No one can foretell the future, but a wise man always provides for it in the best manner that he can. You observe that my precaution has justified itself. Read!"

Perigord snatched from his hand the paper, which he found to be a properly attested marriage certificate between the princess, his mother, and the Count d'Attala. The date and everything about it corresponded perfectly with the old man's story. "My God—I thank Thee," he cried brokenly.

"For having found your father?" jeered the Count.

"No!" replied Perigord, his eyes shining like stars. "But for having at length discovered that I was not born in shame! For thirty years I have thought myself a bastard! At last the stain is removed!"

"Bah!" sneered the old man with a bitter chuckle. "Undeceive yourself, that paper is utterly valueless; you are a bastard, for your mother's marriage was illegal."

"Not in the sight of Heaven!" retorted Perigord, with a dignity that abashed the old man for a moment; but presently he rallied and muttered jeeringly: "Shall I go on with the story?"

"Yes."

"We left off at the marriage. Your mother was ill then, ha, ha! she remained ill for nine months, and so lost a king for a husband. You were born without scandal in her friend's house at Totna, and brought up as I have said. She subsequently returned to her father's protection, and shortly afterwards married the Grand Duke. I consented to the match, and we remained friends up to the very day of her death. It was I who provided you on her solicitation with the fortune which you subsequently wasted in endeavouring to destroy my work. It was she who first informed me of your mad enterprise, the secret of which you had fondly confided to her keeping. She told me of your change of name, and from time to time warned me of your doings. With one hand she pushed you on, helping you to power, and the friendship of those in power, with the other she wrote me long letters advising me in detail of your doings. I lost a good friend when she died, I can tell you, Valdemar. In order to replace her and keep a check on you, I was forced to seek out her second son." (He sneered bitterly.) "Ah, well, he was not hard to seduce; the fellow was already a gambler and a thief; he readily fell in with my suggestions; I married him to my daughter Katherin, with whom he had fallen madly in love, and created for him a vacancy in the inner circle. Thus for the past two years I have played off brother on brother—a pretty plan, was it not?"

"It was the conception of a Satan!" stammered Perigord.

The Count nodded and smiled as if a compliment had been addressed to him. "Ah, well, my son, in spite of everything, you have at last beaten me. In my old age you have bested me. The son of Bosa Gracci has conquered his father. The son of no other living man could have done it. I am proud of you, my son!" The words were uttered in a manner of such bombastic and fantastical conceit that they were really ludicrous, but Perigord shuddered at such praise.

"Evil man!" he muttered hoarsely; "why have you told me these dreadful things?"

"Is it cold? You are shivering. Can you not see, my son?"

"For God's sake call me anything but that! No, I see nothing."

The old man laughed grimly; then snarled out: "To think that I am beaten by such a blunt-witted creature! I who, at the age of a hundred and three years, have still a keener intellect than you, indeed than any living man," he added vaingloriously.

"Answer me!" said Perigord.

"I shall, since time passes swiftly, swiftly. Every second is precious to the aged, my son, precious as gold. I have told you what I have told you for two reasons: firstly, because I hoped that the news would hurt you—cursed dog that you are, fool that I was not to strangle you the day that you were born!" The Count's eyes glowed for a second with a fire of splenetic rage, as he spat out this sudden objurgation, but quickly calming himself resumed in a manner of superlative sweetness: "The second reason, my dear son, is that I wished you to arrange all the details of my escape from this scurvy gang of yours who have me by the heels. You see, I am old and feeble, so cannot help myself. I dislike troubling you, but after all, to whom should a man look for assistance if not to his own offspring?"

"You expect me to help you to escape?" said Perigord.

The Count's thin lips curled scornfully. "Be content with having ruined me; do you wish to make yourself a parricide?"

Perigord's face went livid, then ghastly white, from the various emotions that were raging in his bosom. "Not that," he muttered brokenly, "my God, not that!"

"I am rich," said the Count. "Assist me to escape, and I shall make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. The gold that you have taken from me I do not want. I know it is not for you; your council will claim it, greedy rogues that they are; kings are all greedy, and your share will be only small. But in Paris, in Vienna, Naples, Berlin, vast funds of mine are deposited. When I am free I shall share these with you—when I am free!"

"You will never be free—you are mad to expect it," groaned Perigord. "To-morrow at daylight you must die; even I cannot save you; it is decreed."

"Nonsense, boy, you must save me."

"Ah, let me think!" Perigord started abruptly to his feet, his hand pressed tightly to his side.

"Yes, think—think of the wealth that will be yours if you assist me. Only thus can it be yours, for without me you can get none of it. I vow I would rather benefit the banks and let them keep the gold for ever if you should prove so curst a son as to let me die. Think, Valdemar, it is your father who appeals to you, your father, boy."

"Your life has been too evil; you are not fit to live."

"I shall repent, for I am too old to engage in further wickedness. Assist me to escape, and in some secret corner of the world I shall spin out my few remaining days. Watch over me, guard me as you will, you will find that I shall do as I say, that my repentance shall be sincere. I swear to you, for a long while now I have felt remorseful of the past; you would not have me perish in my sins, unshriven, my son? Besides, if you are kind, when I die all that I have shall be yours."

The old man had assumed an expression of sorrow, of profound humility, but a mocking demon lurked in the eyes that watched Perigord so narrowly. He spoke slowly, choosing every word and marking its effect; he was playing upon his son's heart as a musician would upon the chords of an unfamiliar instrument. "Well, my son?" he muttered after a long pause.

Perigord looked at him, unable to conceal the anguish that he suffered. "I must fight this matter out alone," he cried, and hurried from the tent. Cressingham and Oeltjen waited for him upon the sand, but he passed them by unseeing, and they, noticing the agonized expression of his face, did not dare to interrupt him. Like one pursued by furies, he strode to the castle staircase, and anxious only for solitude sprang up the steps with the speed of a chamois. It was not until he reached the look-out that he paused; and then, casting himself face downwards upon the ground, he gave himself up to thoughts more torturing and bitterer than death.

His whole life passed in review before his mental vision with phantasmagoric rapidity, but with crystal clarity. It is said that the mind of a drowning man involuntarily condenses the whole of his existence into a fleeting moment, during which the past is lived again, its every incident and long forgotten happenings being reproduced and re-enacted with supernatural faithfulness.

Anguish wrought a similar miracle in the case of Perigord. He was born again; his sordid early youth droned through as a poor Hungarian farm labourer yielded up its days of drudgery, its nights of ambitious yearnings and vague dissatisfaction. Once again he was led to the bedside of his dying mother, to hear with secret exultation the story of his princely birth from her fever-parched and trembling lips. Then followed the ten years of study passed at different German universities, its joys, its trials, its fickle love affairs and more constant periods of ennui and ambitious dreams; then the unexpected advent of the fortune which his mother pretended was her own gift, but for which he now knew he was indebted to his father.

Later his world-wide travellings, his ten years of Russian military service as a volunteer against the Turk, the act of heroism which had won for him a colonelcy, the wound which had earned for him the honour of being despatched to head-quarters with tidings of a great victory.

His life in St. Petersburg, its flattery, adulation and tumultuous pleasures, during which his youth had uselessly passed by.

His meeting with the one great love of his life, the infamous Sofie Peroffskaya. His gradual drifting and abandon of ambition, until as a Nihilist he had finally become a traitor to his birth, a traitor to his salt.

The assassination of his benefactor, the Great Czar, in which he took no part, but which gained for him Siberia. His dreadful life in the mines, his despair and his gradual re-awakening and soul-sickness for the woman who had caused his ruin.

His final mental rehabilitation, and the covenant he had made with the Almighty. His miraculous delivery from slavery, and his years of toil and honest effort to fulfil his pledged word with God and bring about the dissolution and destruction of the Nihilists.

The work had always seemed so good to him, so noble, and so blessedly unselfish. It had been by dint of unexampled patience and almost superhuman diligence and perseverance at last crowned with success. He had accomplished his mission, redeemed his vow, and now on the dawn of the twelfth hour the cup of triumph was snatched from his lips and Providence presented in its place a draught of incomparable bitterness.

For a long tale of years he had been unconsciously plotting and planning the destruction of his own parent. His father was now his prisoner under sentence of death passed by the council which he had himself created. He himself was entrusted with the work of effecting the dread decree. He remembered the old world-famed story of the Spartan father who had condemned his own wicked son to death and remorselessly enforced the judgment. The relative positions were in this case reversed. He, the son, had procured his own father to be condemned.

He wondered miserably if he could find fortitude enough in his heart to carry his duty into execution. He had to combat no ties of natural affection, for he owed his parent nothing but contumely and hatred, but in spite of that and in spite of the complete and dreadful proof he possessed of the Count d'Attala's monstrous crimes, the heart of Perigord was so soft and prone to reverence that it appeared to him that notwithstanding what he might elect to do he stood upon the threshold of unescapable spiritual annihilation. He had the choice of two ways: either to keep faith with God and man, in which case he became a parricide, or to assist his father to escape, a course which would make him forsworn of God and a traitor to his fellows.

For long hours he wrestled with his soul, doubting, fearing, dreaming dreams so full of unspeakable agony that his physical frame was troubled and the sweat poured from him so freely as to mark the ground on which he lay. It seemed to him that the Almighty had imposed on him a burden too great for mortal man to bear. He had devoted his life to a mission which, from the moment of its conception, he had believed God-inspired and God-protected. For a moment he dared to dispute the issue and to rail at his Creator for so treacherously rewarding his years of service and self-sacrifice.

The moment passed, and he expiated the blasphemy with a prayer so heartfelt and entirely earnest that his spirit became at length filled with a species of ecstacy, and he rose to his feet peaceful and purposeful, believing that Heaven had thuswise sent its answer to his cry.

Twilight had already drawn its mantle round the earth, and he descended the steps in the gloaming marvelling to find how softly beautiful the world appeared, under its awning of awakening stars, whose western folds were still flushed faintly with a tender amber radiance, which shot in spiral streams across the sky and gently touched the east with gold.

He drew fresh comfort from the glory of the heavens, fresh purpose from the peace on sea and land. His first act on arriving at the beach was to seek out Cressingham and Oeltjen.

To the latter he said gently: "Go, my friend, to the yacht, and bring back with you the priest and five gentlemen whom you will find awaiting word from me."

When Oeltjen had gone, he said to Cressingham: "You, my Lord, I desire will take a message to our prisoner. Tell him that my plans are altered, and he must die within an hour. Should he ask for me, say that I shall not go. Tell him further that a priest is here who will confess him if he wills."

Cressingham departed, and presently entered the Count's tent. The old man was still seated before the now empty champagne bottle, and his face was flushed, his eyes glittered feverishly in the candle light.

"Ah!" he cried. "Where is Perigord?"

"He has sent me in his place to warn you to prepare yourself for death. In an hour you will be shot. I am further to inform you that a priest is in attendance, should you require his services."

"I must see Perigord. Beg him to visit me. I shall not detain him for a moment."

"He refuses to see you again, sir."

"Refuses! my son dares to refuse his father's last wish on earth! Tell him that I, Bosa Gracci, his father, command his immediate presence here! Don't stare, sir; go and do my bidding!" The old man's imperiousness was a sight magnificent to witness; Cressingham thought him raving, but nevertheless, much impressed, he bowed and conveyed the message word for word to Perigord, adding, however, apologetically: "He must have turned crazy, sir."

Perigord smiled sadly and answered: "Would that it were as you suppose. He is not crazy. I am the Count d'Attala's son. Until this day I knew nought of it, but he has crushingly convinced me."

"And yet—you—will kill him?" stammered Cressingham aghast.

"I shall do my duty," replied the other with calm and simple dignity. "Kindly return and say to the Count these words: 'Your son has made his peace with God. He implores you to do likewise, for in an hour you will die.'"

The Count's face on his comprehending this message became transfigured with venomous and reckless rage. He hurled at the young man a perfect storm of angry curses, refusingly utterly to credit the inexorability of Perigord's determination, and only became calm when Cressingham threatened to re-impose the gag. Then he fell to whining and miserably entreating his enemy to enlist in his favour and endeavour to soften his son's stubborn heart.

Cressingham listened for awhile, but becoming at last utterly disgusted and a little unmanned at the sight of a white head stooped so low, he retreated and sought out Perigord, that he might obtain permission to remove Desiré as far as possible from the scene of execution, so that she might not witness her grandfather's death.

Perigord at once consented, and immediately Oeltjen returned from the yacht he was bidden take Desiré to the castle on a pretended errand to the cable room, and to detain her there beyond the allotted time.

Six gentlemen followed Oeltjen ashore from the yacht. One was the Cardinal Carnito, and to him Perigord disclosed at once the relationship which existed between the Count and himself.

The Cardinal was deeply shocked, but after a few minutes' reflection he unreservedly commended his friend's determination, and expressed his own intention of at once approaching the Count with the pious idea of attempting to prepare his soul for death.

Five minutes after he had entered the old man's tent the watchers heard a scream of pain followed by wild peals of laughter. They rushed forward, but before they reached the place the Cardinal emerged, his face horribly cut and profusely bleeding.

The Count d'Attala, with fiendish cunning, had pretended to be grateful for the prelate's kindness, and lured him into unsuspecting close companionship; then when the Cardinal was completely off his guard he had attacked him with the champagne bottle, the only weapon he possessed, and the laughter which Perigord and Cressingham had heard was his paean of triumph at the success of his plan.

By the time the prelate's wounds had been attended to, the allotted hour had expired, and at Perigord's command the Count was carried forth to the open beach, and at once placed opposite the five Italian gentlemen who stood in line, their cocked revolvers in hand, awaiting the word.

The prevailing darkness concealed the victim's face; but to render the aim of the firers sure a lanthorn was placed behind his back upon the sand. There followed a long silence which the Cardinal was the first to break, for Perigord was again in the throes of spiritual agony, and he desperately fought for strength to utter the terrible command which was to hurl his father to perdition.

"Bosa Gracci," said the Cardinal in a low, trembling voice, "I implore you to confess your sins, to repent before you die."

The Count d'Attala chuckled, and jeered: "Ha, ha! there's a sweet Christian for you; I've already smacked both his cheeks, and he implores me."

The Cardinal fell upon his knees and cried out with a humility that touched Cressingham to the heart: "My son, I implore you to save your immortal soul while there is time. It is the eleventh hour, but even yet true repentance may prevail. Did not Christ pardon the thieves upon the Cross? My son, relent, relent. Trust to the divine mercy of the Redeemer, let your heart be touched by His supreme, eternal love. He lived and died to save you; will you let His work, His sacrifice, His sufferings for you go all in vain?" He paused.

The Count replied: "Signore, I could listen to you so much more comfortably with a cigarette between my lips. You perhaps have one about you?"

The Cardinal got slowly to his feet. "Foolish man, you dare to mock at me, about to die!"

"On the contrary," said the old man politely. "I admire you; I think though that you have mistaken your calling. What fame you might have achieved—upon the stage!" and he chuckled at the jibe.

Perigord started suddenly forward at this instant, his clenched hands pressed tightly to his sides. "Gentlemen!" he cried, "the time has come—make ready——"

"Stop!" shouted the Count, commandingly. "At least allow me to preside over my own funeral. I wish to say a few words first. Do not fear, however, I shall not curse you. Curses are the vainest waste of breath. I should of course dearly like to kill you all, but I am powerless. I am wise enough to recognize my position, philosopher enough to accept it with resignation. What I wish to speak of is my invention. You will find in a square steel box among my papers a set of plans and specifications describing a mechanism which has taken me thirty years to perfect; a mechanism which is destined by the solved problem of perpetual motion to provide the force of the future. You perhaps think that my boast is wild; but I assure you, gentlemen, that over thirty years ago I solved the problem of perpetual motion, and at that time constructed three machines which have worked of themselves ever since. They are all in the boat-house yonder, and a glance at them will verify my words. Now with regard to my discoveries it is my earnest wish, my dying wish, which as gentlemen I am sure you will respect, that they be placed as soon as possible in the possession of and at the exclusive service of the British Government for use in the English navy. England is the only country which I have any esteem for, and which I should like to benefit. I beg you to give me your assurance that you will do as I request."

Every one replied at once in the affirmative, for with no exception they believed him to be speaking wildly, perhaps dementedly, but they could discover no reason why he should not be pacified since after all he was expressing a last wish.

The Count nodded his thanks and swayed a little on his bound feet. Then in a voice of power and dignity he calmly said: "Valdemar, farewell! I go to dust, where one day you will follow me. Firing party, advance two steps! Ready! Present arms! Fire!"

The revolvers cracked out their discharge, two simultaneously, the others at desultory and sharply noticeable intervals of fragments of seconds. The Count d'Attala threw out his arms, and doubling up his body sank to the ground in a nerveless heap without a gasp or groan, three bullets in his heart. He was buried where he fell, deep beneath the still white sand of the island of his name. The tidal waters lapped the covering of his grave, and before an hour had passed no mound or other sign remained to mark his resting place.


CHAPTER XXVII.—FRANCINE

AS the old Count d'Attala had predicted, his capture and death were alone sufficient to cause Nihilism as a united and coherent organisation to be completely and immediately disrupted; for without the recognized leadership of one powerful chief and with no one ready or capable to assume the vacant office, the various scattered lodges composing the society were bound to assume independent action and administration, and thereby dwindle into separate insignificance.

But the Count had actually underrated the effects of the catastrophe which he had so jestingly referred to. A thorough examination of his books and papers resulted in the discovery of exhaustive registers of all Nihilists the world over who had at any time been enrolled as members of the society. So carefully had these volumes been compiled that not only were names and addresses faithfully recorded, but in each case an individual personal description accompanied the designation, together with a noted commentary on each member's business, profession, disposition and habits of life.

These registers formed a small but invaluable library, which Perigord subsequently distributed amongst the governments of Russia, France, Germany, England, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, so that in less than a month almost every Nihilist in Europe was presently known to the police of these different nations, who were thus provided with an infallible weapon to use, not only in frustrating their evil purposes, but to break up the different lodges and finally destroy the last remnant of their decading power.

Perigord did not remain on the island of Attala longer than was necessary to transport his late father's treasures and belongings on board the yacht, to cut the secret cable, and thereafter to blow up the castle with dynamite and gun-cotton.

When the work of annihilation was complete, he steamed to the Gulf of Sighs, near Spezzia, where a final assembly of his council had been convened to meet in the Count d'Attala's villa. On that occasion he redeemed as far as possible his promises to Cressingham and Oeltjen.

Cressingham was invested by the German Emperor with one of the most coveted orders of European distinction. The young King of Italy made him a Count of the Roman Empire, and three monarchs provided him with private letters of unqualified recommendations to the Prince of Wales and her Majesty the Queen of England, in which they expressed the great pleasure it would afford them to meet the young man on some future occasion as one of England's representatives.

Oeltjen was made a Count of the Church of Rome, he received a patent of Austrian nobility, and the Kaiser promised to reinstate him in a similar position to that which his carelessness had forfeited.

With regard to the vast treasures of the Count d'Attala, the council commanded them to be divided into three equal portions, one of which was to be placed at the disposal of Cardinal Carnito to be expended in charity, the second was conferred upon Perigord, together with the villa of Franchia, and a patent presented him by the King of Italy which created him and his heirs Counts of Attala—a title which he had of all the world the greatest right to bear. The third portion was handed over to Cressingham in trust for Desiré, the young man, at Perigord's request, having been appointed her guardian until her marriage with Ludwig von Oeltjen, which had been fixed to take place three months hence in Berlin, the Kaiser graciously consenting to the nuptials and promising to be present at the ceremony.

When the council had finished its deliberations, Perigord took leave of his friends, informing them that circumstances of a private nature had arisen which commanded his immediate presence in Hungary, but he promised that if he lived he would before long seek them out again.

No news had been gleaned by the most careful inquiries concerning Miss Elliott or Madame Viyella. The cables had flashed insistent messages to all the Mediterranean ports, but no steamer had seen the missing ones, nothing had been heard of them, and although Cressingham spent a month in Perigord's yacht (which the new Count d'Attala had kindly lent him), with Desiré and Oeltjen searching the coasts of Corsica, Elba, Pianosa, Sivaso and the other small islands thereabouts, he was forced at last to the conclusion that they had perished in the open sea and their boat had sunk with them to the depths of the ocean ooze.

It became his sad task to convey the intelligence of their expedition's hopeless failure to poor old Colonel Elliott, who was doubtless waiting word from him in pitiable anxiety. On reaching Nice he despatched to Francine's father a long letter of commiseration and condolence, and ordering the yacht to return to Spezzia he proceeded with Oeltjen and Desiré by easy stages across France to England. They spent a week in Paris in order to show the girl the wonders of that gay city, then arriving in London on September 14, Cressingham placed Desiré in the care of a favourite old aunt of his, who had been previously warned, and had cheerfully agreed to receive the girl and act as her chaperone and instructress.

It was with a feeling of strange unreality and deep heartfelt sorrow that the young man revisited his old rooms in Jermyn Street. Oeltjen accompanied him as his guest, and was a sympathetic and kind companion; but with his return to civilization and idleness, Cressingham had grown to realize his loss more and more keenly, and his old quiet aimless life, now about to be resumed after the whirl and excitement of a few stirring adventure-crowded weeks, appeared to him vain, empty and incomparably worthless. His old ambition had insensibly faded into forgetfulness, and he scarcely thought of presenting the royal letters which were designed to reinstate him in the diplomatic service of England. The ship of his existence no longer possessed a helm to steer by, he had no one to live for save himself. He certainly possessed some tried and faithful friends, and had grown to regard Oeltjen and Desiré with sincere affection, but he found friendship a meagre substitute for love, and his own heart told him that no substitute was possible to compensate him for the death of Francine.

He entered his old drawing room with the sense of one returned from the tomb of ages to find the world's landmarks unaltered but the faces of his compeers changed, and with a bitter heartache he recognized that from that moment a new, untried and desolate existence stretched out before him, robbed of the dearest dreams of other days and the joys he had once fondly thought might have been his, a future destitute of the hopes and ambitions which had formerly constituted the bravest and best part of his life.

Oeltjen respected for awhile the musing silence into which he had fallen, but at last saddened by his friend's grief he tried loyally to cheer him and rouse him from his melancholy mood. Laying his hand gently on Cressingham's shoulder he said softly: "Dear friend, I know what your thoughts must be, I know their unutterable sadness, but should you give way to them? The past is past, and in the march of destiny many hearts are bruised and broken. You have endured a bitter loss; but you are young, the world lies before you full of hope and promise. Please God that in the joys of the future you will forget the sorrows of the present!"

"Old chap!" said Cressingham brokenly, "you say you understand, but you can't, you can't, or you couldn't say such things. I've nothing to look forward to—nothing!"

"Nothing, Frank? Don't say that. Are you not to give to me my bride?"

"And happiness with her, Ludwig, I sincerely hope—constant happiness. You are right, it will always be a pleasure for me to think of that. You must try to forgive me for my selfishness, old boy, but somehow suddenly coming back to the old place, seeing the old things about me just as they used to be, I felt a bit outside of everything; you know, old chap, what I mean. Look, there is her photograph!" He pointed to a counterfeit presentment of Miss Elliott, whose sweet face smiled at them from the wall. With quivering lips which he bit savagely to control, he gazed at her a moment, then a blur came over his eyes, and he hurried abruptly to the inner room in order to conceal an emotion which he was powerless to subdue.

Oeltjen lingered, longing to go and comfort his friend, but delicately conscious that for awhile at least he had better be left alone. But the ensuing long and speechless silence frightened him. He had heard of men, the bravest men, who finding life worthless had straightway abandoned it. At the end of an hour he commenced to fear that Cressingham had taken poison, and at last, unable to bear the stillness any longer, he called out sharply, "Frank, there is a heap of telegrams and letters here awaiting you."

With a feeling of relief and joy, he heard the door open and Cressingham emerged from the bedroom, his face still melancholy indeed, but now calm and impassive as of old. "Telegrams for me!" he said; "from whom can they be? Perhaps my father is ill." He strode to the open bureau, and one after another tore them open.

They were all from Colonel Elliott, and all contained the one message: "I am bedridden. Please come and see me immediately on your receipt of this."

The young man handed them to his friend. "My tasks are not yet over," he muttered sadly. "I must go and see the poor old gentleman. You will excuse me, my friend?"

"Gladly; it is your duty, Frank."

"Ay, one that fills me with dread; but I shall get it over at once. Good-bye, Ludwig."

"Good-bye, my friend—I shall wait here for your return."

A few moments afterwards Cressingham rapped on Colonel Elliott's door, and was presently admitted and ushered into the library where he had spent of old many sweet hours with Francine.

The grief which he had found so hard to repress in his own house returned upon him in full flood then, but in acuter form. This was Francine's favourite room, and tokens of her were everywhere in evidence. Her tea-table rested in a corner, her work-box standing on it open, as though she had a moment ago been interrupted and called elsewhere. Upon the great armchair which she had used to occupy during many a quiet chat with him, there reposed a glove which he knew was hers, and it gave him a shock to think how much the Colonel must have loved his daughter to have preserved undisturbed the room which she had last quitted on the fatal evening which had been the prelude to her strange subsequent adventures and her death.

Inspired by a sudden sentiment of romantic reverence he stooped above the chair and silently pressed his lips to the velvet where her head had often rested, feeling as he did so, with aching heart and eyes that burned with the pain of unshed tears, that he was taking a last leave of the sweet and perfect dead woman whom he had loved.

He was startled by a softly-uttered exclamation and sprang erect, dashing his hands to his eyes, angry and ashamed that any one should witness his emotion.

"Frank!" said the voice of a woman, a voice that made his heart stand still with shock, with doubt and sharp unutterable fear, for it was a voice from the grave.

He turned to see Francine as of old confronting him, only more beautiful, more sweet, more kind, perhaps too a little more sad: Francine, with a smile on her lips, with tears trembling on the long black lashes of her eyes.

"My God—you, you!" he gasped hoarsely, not yet comprehending that she was more than a phantom of his own imagination.

She held out her arms for answer, and slowly, doubtfully he advanced towards her. But the real woman convinced him, and he had magnificent compensation for all his grief and sadness of the past few weeks, in drinking the sweetness of her lips, in holding her clasped to him in a close and passionate embrace.

She told him her story soon, and its simplicity amazed him. Madame Viyella, who, after the murder of Jibaloff and the ruthless destruction of the Turkish yacht, had been seized with a sudden terror of her father—a terror which had overwhelmed every other sense—in the abandon of her mad and unreasoning panic had determined to risk everything and fly from the accursed island, but nevertheless feared to depart alone.

Unable to find Desiré, who was then actually embarked upon a similar undertaking, she had forced Miss Elliott to be the companion of her enterprise. After stealing the Count's key of the boat, and also providing herself with a quantity of valuable jewels, she had half-led, half-dragged Francine, who was still dazed and stupid from her swoon, down from the castle to the beach, probably not many moments after Cressingham had himself landed there.

Embarking on the nearest of the boats she had hoisted the sail, and in spite of the rising gale, had fearlessly sailed out for the open sea, steering a course to the north-west.

The night had been a dreadful one, during which Francine had lain in the bottom of the tossing craft in all the horrors of sea-sickness, but Madame had managed the boat with the skill and courage of a man, and before evening of the next day they arrived without mishap safely in the bay of San Remo.

There Madame had supplied the girl with a few pounds of ready money and had herself departed, giving no hint of her destination. Francine had at once made her way to London, and there arrived found to her unutterable joy that her father had after all survived the effects of the poison administered to him by Madame, and was then residing in his own house, bedridden and still half paralyzed, but on a fair way to complete recovery. She had then heard for the first time of Cressingham's successful escape from the island, and the mission he had undertaken to procure her own release.

Cressingham listened in speechless surprise to the girl's story, lovingly holding her hands the while, and almost vainly endeavouring to realize the splendid fortune which had come to him so blessedly and unexpectedly. When all was told he was, in his turn, obliged to turn historian and relate to Francine every detail of what had occurred to him.

He asked smilingly at length: "Sweetheart, after my escape did you receive a message from me?"

"By Desiré?"

"Yes."

The girl of a sudden withdrew her hands from his grasp and arose to her feet. The hours had fled in their rapt converse, and the room was already almost dark. "Frank," she said slowly, "what were you doing when I came into this room and found you?"

The man flushed a little. "I'd rather not tell you," he muttered.

"You had better, if it was what I fancy, for I have a grievance against you, dear."

"What is your grievance, sweetheart?"

"Tell me what you were doing!"

"I thought you were dead," he whispered. "I was—kissing the place where your head had often rested. Now tell me your grievance, Francine."

The girl's eyes were luminous as she looked at him. "It is gone now," she murmured; "gone! that kiss of yours has washed its score away."

"It was not a great one then, sweetheart."

"Was it not? was it not? I vowed at one time never to speak to you, never to look at you again, because of it."

"Francine, how could you make such a vow?"

"As easily as I shall again, and keep it, too—if you should ever dare to be unfaithful to me so much as in a thought."

"You were jealous!" cried Cressingham, springing to his feet delightedly; "jealous because I kissed Desiré. Oh, you beautiful darling, how I love you for it!"

There was a catch in Francine's voice as she replied: "How could you do it, Frank? Ah! your love must be different from mine! If I were to do such a thing I would feel that I had committed the worst of crimes. Ah, but I could not, I could not!"

Cressingham caught her passionately in his arms and his lips on hers he whispered low: "Sweetheart, with this kiss I pledge my faith to you for now and evermore! Darling, my darling! again, with this—and this!"

Francine was satisfied; and Cressingham—since his kisses were returned.


THE END

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