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Title: One Blow for Russia
Author: Edgar Wallace
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1500651h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Jun 2015
Most recent update: Jun 2015

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One Blow for Russia

by

Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

Published in The Port Pirie Recorder, South Australia, April 1, 1905
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2015



BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE

This newly-discovered short story was presumably first printed in a British newspaper, possibly the Daily Mail, and subsequently syndicated for publication abroad. This PGA editon is based on the version that appeared in the The Port Pirie Recorder on April 1, 1905, a copy of which is available in the digital archive of the National Library of Australia. —RG



I.

TWO men sat at one of the little tables at Garriani's in Soho, London.

Garriani's spelt soiled tablecloths, vin ordinaire, and the smell of yesterday's cooking. If you ask at Garriani's for the daily paper, they will bring you the 'Petit Parisien,' and if you complain, Antonio, the head waiter, suave and unshaven, will apologise, and bring in exchange 'El Imparcial.'

But it was an English newspaper that was spread before the elder of the two men. It was the foreign page that lay under his impatiently drumming fingers, and heavy black headlines, that stood out from the sheet that overstood the matter that filled his mind.

Leonine of head, Paul Kressler had never been a handsome man. His was the face that men call 'striking.' He had the eyes of the dreamer, and the square jaw of the tyrant, as befits the Nihilist who seeks the idyllic through ways of violence. His companion, squat of figure, fat of face, puffy of eye, yet comfortable withal, was of the class that sees in Nihilism, Anarchism, Socialism, and any -ism that is opposed to established law and constitutional practice a means to personal end. Such men have no cause—they have only a purpose.

'You're mad, my friend,' he was saying; and his tone was almost jovial. 'There is nothing to be gained, unless you see in this a means of regaining your position.'

Paul Kressler gave a bitter laugh.

'Something for something, eh? That's your creed, Von Masteich.* Have I not given sufficient proof of my disinterestedness?'

[* Spelling conjectural. Poor quality of digital source makes name difficult to decipher.]

'Your pardon, baron. I did not mean—' muttered the other, averting his eyes.

'Five years ago, what was I?' continued Kressler. 'Captain of the Petroski, with an admiral's flag for the reaching. To-day I am what I am-exile, suspect, Anarchist, what you will!'

'You have made great sacrifices,' cooed the German, flicking the grey ash from his cigar.

'And you think, having made the surrender, I want to go back on the principles that are so dear to me—'

'To us,' corrected his companion comfortably.

'It is because I love Russia, as I hate its Government—because I love the land as I hate its lords!'

'But the Czar will never——'

Kressler waved an impatient hand.

'That remains to be seen; I can but try. Look at this—look at this!' He brought down his great fist with a crash on the table, and Antonio, dozing at the servery, woke with a jump. 'Can I read day by day such things as these? Can I see the glory of Russia pass away before my eyes, and never lift my hand to strike a blow?'

The German rose, and the other followed suit.

'Then you persist?'

There was a sneer in the question.

'Yes'—quietly. Then, with an outburst of that fiery passion that had made him at once the joy and terror of the Brotherhood, he cried: 'Not for the Czar, I tell you—not for the cursed bureaucracy—not for the cruel little devils that sit behind desks, and send innocents to damnation; but for Russia, the land, and the people-for the Fatherland!'

The German bit the end from a fresh cigar, and balanced a silver matchbox on two fingers.

'Some will call you patriotic,' he said slowly—'some may call you quixotic. As for me——'

'You think I am a fool,' rejoined the other quickly.

'Ach, Gott!' said the little man admiringly. 'You are the occult!'

They stepped out into the thin drizzle that fell on the London streets, and the German went to his club, and Paul to the dark little room on the third floor of a back street off the Tottenham Court Road.

* * * * *

A WEEK after this meeting, the Imperial Secretary at St. Petersburg sent a telephone message to the Grand Master of the Police, in response to which that high official came post haste to the palace.

'Who is Kressler?' asked the Secretary, without any preliminary.

'Paul Kressler—Naval officer; flag captain '88; author of the 'Torpedo Boat Tactics,' and,' added the chief of police, with a certain grim emphasis, 'a most excellent brochure, 'God and the Czar'; a member of the society known as the Little Brethren of Russia; a revolutionary of the most dangerous type. Present address——'

'I know—I know!' said the great Secretary, impatiently tapping an open letter that lay before him. 'But what plot, conspiracy, assassination if you like, was he associated with?'

The other shrugged his shoulders.

'None that I know about; but he is a dangerous man. He has even spoken against——'

And the head of the police lowered his voice to an awestruck whisper.

The Secretary bit the end of his pen thoughtfully.

'As a naval officer, what sort of a man was he?' he asked.

The police chief threw out protesting hands.

'I am no judge of a naval officer's abilities. If he was as thorough an officer as he is a revolutionist, he deserves to control the navy!'

The Secretary stretched back in his chair.

'If half he says is true,' he muttered, partly to himself, 'if he is sincere, such a man might work wonders. We want good men.'

His brows knit in a perplexed frown, and he sat for a moment silent; then he started forward, as though on some sudden impulse, and, seizing a pen, wrote a few words on a printed slip.

He read it over carefully, and fixed a tiny red seal to the corner of the document.

'Take this,' he said tersely.

The chief took the paper and glanced at it. He expressed no surprise, nor anything more than a casual interest.

'You understand, monsieur?' said the Secretary, pointing his remarks with a white forefinger. 'Paul Kressler is to be allowed to return to Russia. He is to go on his way unmolested. You will arrange that he is watched carefully?'

The policeman smiled, as at an unnecessary question.

'You intend that he should remain in Russia?' asked the official carelessly.

'I intend that he shall receive his commission as a naval captain, and leave immediately for Vladivostok,' was the quiet reply.

And even the policeman, hardened as he was to the eccentricities of his Government, raised his eyebrows as he left the room.


II.

SO it came about that when Paul Kressler called at the little shop to which his letters were directed, a square official envelope was handed to him.

He clutched it eagerly, and walked rapidly back to his lodging. He reached home, and with trembling hands struck a match and lit the tiny lamp. Eagerly he ripped open the flap of the envelope, and extracted two documents. He read the first in silence, but there was eloquence in the glow of his cheek and the dancing light in his eyes.

It was a formal notification of his liberty to return to Russia. It bore the official stamp of the Chief of Police, and the counter-seal of the Imperial Secretary. The other document he unfolded with a puzzled face. His bewilderment was only momentary, however, for he started up from his seat with a great cry of joy, as he read the words that gave him back his old rank and his old profession. A slip of paper fell to the ground. He picked it up.

'You will proceed by the shortest route to Dalny, and take over the command of the torpedo vessel Riga,' it ran briefly, and was followed by the signature of the Secretary to the Admiralty.

That night Captain Paul Kressler left Charing Cross by the nine o'clock mail train, travelling third-class, and carrying, carefully folded in a bundle by his side, a uniform which, according to no less than three distinct Admiralty orders, was obsolete of pattern.

* * * * *

IT was a tired-looking man that stepped down on to the platform at Vladivostok a month later. The train had brought him from Dalny, in response to an urgent telegram from the commandant of the naval port. A dapper young officer met him, and saluted, eyeing him curiously.

'Captain Kressler?' asked the officer, with his hand to his cap.

Kressler nodded awkwardly. Before the stripling, resplendent in his well-fitting uniform, he felt shabby and mean.

Something of his thoughts was reflected in the face of his junior.

'If it would please you,' said the young man urbanely,'you will come at once to the office of the commandant.'

Paul bowed, and followed his conductor.

In a large, bare room near the docks sat the naval chief of the ill-fated port.

A grey-haired man, sallow of face and stout of build, he sat at the side of, rather than behind, the table.

He rose as Paul entered, and adjusted a pair of pince-nez.

Without unnecessary introduction, he plunged into the subject that filled Paul's mind.

'The enemy's fleet are ten miles out,' he said, speaking rapidly; 'the destroyer Riga is laying in the inner harbour. You wrote to the Czar, saying you wished to strike a blow for our Holy Master——'

'For Russia,' corrected Kressler.

'It is the same,' said the commandant haughtily. 'For the Czar or for Russia, you are willing to take great risks—to make great sacrifices?'

'I have already made great sacrifices for Russia,' said Kressler, speaking slowly.

'The enemy is brave, with a reckless courage that is past all understanding. Officers and men deem it a delight to die in the service of their barbarous country. The damage our fleet has sustained is mainly due to the extraordinary disregard they have for their personal safety.

'I have not noticed,' he added, with some bitterness, 'the same qualities displayed amongst my officers.' He rose to his feet, and walked to where Kressler, who had also risen, was standing, and laid a big hand upon the other's shoulder. 'When a Japanese officer takes his torpedo-boats out,' he said, and he dropped his voice,' he does so with the full intention of never returning alive. You understand, my child?'

Paul nodded.

'He goes forth,' the admiral went on, 'with one desire, and that is to do as much damage as he can before he himself is killed. I make myself clear?'

'Perfectly, admiral,' said Paul quietly.

The admiral tightened his grip on Paul's shoulder.

'At ten o'clock to-night you will take the Riga out of harbour, and set a course for the enemy's fleet.'

And the elder man dropped his hand suddenly, and returned to his place by the table.

'You may go,' he said shortly.

Paul saluted and went to the door.

As he opened the door, he turned to the man at the table.

'I shall not return,' he said, with simple directness.

The admiral nodded.

'It will be better so,' he said gravely.

* * * * *

WHEN the stars were struggling through the mist that lay on the waters the Riga slipped from her mooring and, passing between two cruisers aflare with the naked lights of working engineers, glided silently to sea. As he felt the throb of the engines beneath his feet and swayed with the motion of the little vessel, a wild joy filled the heart of its captain.

The smell of the engine room, the scent of the sea, the taste of the first errant drop of the flying spray, filled him with a mad delight. There were no other officers on board but himself. His second-in-command was a petty officer, who, by the masked light of a lantern, was picking a course clear of the mine field that guarded the harbour's entrance. Under quarter speed the destroyer zig-zigged a path through the floating engines of death, until with a sigh of relief, the petty officer looked up.

'We are clear now, little Father,' he said.

Paul's hand was on the telegraph. He threw over the lever, and there was a muffled tinkle between his feet.

The thin steel hull of the destroyer trembled for a second; then came such a sudden leap ahead as to well-nigh throw the captain off his feet. From her three funnels poured a rain of red-hot cinders, sizzling down to her soddened decks. High-flung clouds of spray broke over her bows, and great waves smashed against her.

In the conning-tower Paul set his course. According to the instructions he had received, the enemy's fleet lay sixty miles off. In a little over two hours he could come up with his quarry at the speed he had set, but he knew that the last twenty miles must be run dead-slow, lest the flame from the funnels betray him.

Shuddering, trembling, leaping like a thing of life, the torpedo-boat threshed through the tumbled seas.

Paul looked at his watch.

'An hour and a half out,' he muttered, and laid his hand on the telegraph.

The pace of the Riga slackened; the convulsive shudders that had shaken the little ship died away to a tremble.

The second officer clutched his arms.

'Look-look!' he whispered, as though fearful that he would be overheard.

They had run out of the mist, and the night was perfect. The sky was all a smother of winking stars, and on the horizon blazed one bright comet. A comet, with a straight white tail stretched upward, that moved uneasily from left to right.


III.

PAUL'S hand sought the telegraph, and the boat stopped.

'They've got their searchlights working,' he said.

And his subordinate's perplexed face reminded him that unconsciously he was speaking in English,

'Go ahead dead slow!' he ordered in Russian.

And the destroyer crawled ahead.

And now, at various points on the horizon, other comets came into life, and soon the ocean's rim bristled with swaying spokes of white light.

Paul frowned.

'We shall never get near them—never get near them!' be said bitterly.

An hour passed in helpless contemplation of the foe. At the speed she was moving, and with a strong current running against her, the destroyer had progressed less than five miles.

With rage in his heart, Paul watched the wheeling searchlights play on the sea, lacing the black waters with a fret of silver. He had no fear of discovery. He was too far away to be observed.

'I shall not come back,' he repealed to himself. And the admiral's grave voice, 'It, will be better so,' rang in his ears.

It wanted an hour to the dawn, when the searchlights of the fleet grew strangely blurred. Each ray shone in a strange nimbus that softened and diffused the fierce white light.

The captain of the Riga took one long, eager observation through his glasses, and a smile broke the hard lines of his face.

'Half speed ahead!' he signalled; and the sea hissed under the stripped hull of the destroyer.

The searchlights were now but a white, steamy glow on the horizon.

'Sea fog!' said Paul, in fierce exultation. 'Every man to his post! Man the quickfirers; stand by to torpedo!'

The lights were now blotted out, and Paul threw over the indicator to full speed. Again the Riga leaped forward. Paul, peering ahead through the spray-washed outlook of the conning-tower, saw the white banks of of the sea fog rolling towards him. In a moment the ship had plunged into the mist.

For twenty minutes the little craft raced onward; then, out of the thinning mist, ahead loomed the huge hull of a battleship.

In a minute they were abreast. Paul pressed a button, and something white and long and slender leapt into the water abeam. Then came a burst of white flame, and a deafening roar, and the fog lifted. There was a flash of a searchlight. By its rays Paul saw a great vessel sinking astern of his milky wake.

'Hit!' he cried, dropping on his knees. 'Merciful Heaven, I thank thee!'

Then a dozen searchlights focussed fierce on the destroyer. It seemed that a regular inferno had been let loose round the gallant ship. Torn and racked with shell, Paul Kressler felt his ship sinking rapidly beneath him.

* * * * *

What Paul died without knowing was that the blow he had struck for Russia was at Russia herself. For the ships he had come upon in the mist belonged to the long waited Auxiliary Russian Fleet.


THE END

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