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Title: Crossed Swords Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201981h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2012 Most recent update: June 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan from material provided by Endre Zsoldos Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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THE east wind had been blowing all day, and snow was falling in a fine powder. It was past twelve o'clock, and the streets in the West End were more than usually deserted. Here and there the snow had drifted in wreaths and eddies so that, though the pavement was swept, bare here in places, an little further on the white drifts of the snow were knee-deep, gleaming and sparkling in the lamplight. A wind cold and piercing seemed to strike Jameson like a blow us he turned into Rupert Street. He pulled his collar up closer about his throat, rejoicing in the fact that he had not far to go now to where a warm fire in his library awaited him. On the whole, the rising young physician had had rather a busy day. He was beginning to feel his feet now, and was ceasing to regret that he had given up a competency in the country for the more ambitious uncertainties of the West End practice.
To a certain extent the struggle was over now. He had managed to pay for the fitting out of his expensive house; the dread of the recurring quarter-days no longer disturbed his rest. Another year like this and he would be fairly round the corner.
He stopped on his own door-step and fumbled for his latchkey. The house stood at an angle of two roads and felt the full force of the searching wind. The snow in the doorstep was so deep that Jameson had literally to force his way to the door. The cold had brought the tears streaming to his eyes. He wiped them away now as a sudden fancy occurred to him. Surely there was something on the doorstep which was not altogether snow. The black object stood out clear and distinct here and there, and Jameson could see something that glittered like a diamond. Half idly he stooped to investigate, then he drew back with a startled cry.
There was nothing the matter with his nerves, but, at the same time, it was alarming to lay his bare hand upon a cold, frozen arm of a woman in evening dress. She might have been dead, for all Jameson knew to the contrary, for the arm was as cold as ice. He could see now the outline of a pale face in a fringe of jet black hair.
He threw the door open hastily and raised the unconscious form from the snowdrift. The warmth of the hall tingled in his veins gratefully. The lights were still left on, though the house was quiet enough as Jameson carried his burden into the library and laid the girl in an armchair by the side of the blazing fire. He could see now that she was dressed in some thin, black material which left her arms and gleaming neck bare. The dress was shabby enough, though it bore the impress of costliness and fashion; but altogether it seemed out of place in connection with the magnificent jewels which the stranger was wearing round her neck and in her hair. It was no time to fritter away over these details.
Just for a moment or two it seemed to Jameson that the unfortunate woman was past all assistance of his. He chafed the cold hands vigorously. He managed to coax a few drops of brandy between the blue lips. He could feel the feeble fluttering of the heart now. The long, fringed lashes were lifted, and a pair of eyes of the deepest blue unveiled themselves splendidly. They seemed to light up the whole face and render it doubly beautiful.
"You are feeling better now?" Jameson asked.
"I think so." the stranger said in a faint. whisper. "But where am I? And what am I doing here?"
The last word was hardly audible. The long, purple, fringed lashes dropped again, and the stranger seemed to sleep. Jameson stood there looking at her absolutely lost in bewildered astonishment. He could see now that he was not too late, and that youth and a vigorous constitution would do the rest. The blood was beginning to pulsate again over the temples; the stranger's breathing was no longer short and irregular. And yet Jameson stood there looking at her just as if he had never seen a woman before in her peculiar situation. He stole gently from the room and called quietly at the foot of the stairs. A moment later and a lady came down. Jameson had few secrets from his sister Violet, who acted as his companion and housekeeper. She looked at him questioningly now out of her pleasant, grey eyes.
"You look as if you seen a ghost," she said.
"I think I have, Vio1et," Jameson responded. "I have had quite an adventure. I found an unfortunate woman at the point of death on the doorstep, and very naturally I brought her into the house. Whether or not she was coming to see me is an open question, The fact remains that she is here—"
"Do you know who she is?" Miss Jameson asked eagerly.
"Well, yes, I do," Jameson replied. "That is the extraordinary part of it. You remember my telling you all about my adventures in Russia during the year I was there as assistant-surgeon to the British Embassy. You will recollect the romantic story of Princess Ida Stefanoff."
Violet Jameson nodded her head brightly.
"Well, I don't want to make a long story of it, but Princess Ida is here at the present moment under our roof, slowly recovering in the library. I don't suppose she knows me except by repute, hut. I recognised her instantly."
"It seems almost incredible!" Violet Jameson cried. "But I was under the impression that the Princess was dead. Didn't she disappear in a mysterious manner about a year ago? I think I remember reading something about it in the papers. Didn't her husband suspect that there was foul play, and wasn't he supposed to be searching Europe over for his wife?"
"Oh, that's all right," Jameson said somewhat impatiently. "And there was some scandal about a certain Count Glenstein who was some sort of relation of the Princess. I believe there was some diplomatic tangle at the bottom of it. Anyway, Prince Boris Stefanoff was banished from the Russian Court, and I don't think he has been heard of since. But, then, one never hopes to get to the bottom of these tangles, especially when the Russian police have the matter in hand. But I ought to be ashamed of myself for wasting time here like this. I want you to come and give me a helping hand with the Princess, and, above all things, I want you to be discreet and cautious. Please ask no questions, and don't let it he assumed for an instant that you know who the Princess really is."
Miss Jameson murmured something to the effect that her brother could rely on her, and together they returned to the library. The unfortunate stranger was sitting up in the chair now. A little colour had returned to her cheeks, her great blue eyes were shining like stars. She did not appear to recognise anything incongruous in the situation. She did not seem cognisant of the fact that her shabby evening dress was out of place with the bewildering jewels which she wore. She was just a little hazy and confused, too, just a little uncertain of her surroundings.
"I am so very sorry to trouble you," she said in excellent English. She spoke with the suspicion of an effort, as if she were battling against her weakness still. "You see, the fact is, I have not been very well lately. I have had a good deal of trouble, too. A little time ago I had to leave my lodgings hurriedly. I had just had a letter which compelled me to do so. Unfortunately I had no money, and so I had to walk. The wind blew my cloak away, and I was so dazed with the cold that I could not find it. I suppose I fainted on your doorstep. Really, I am very much ashamed of myself. I wonder if you would mind doing me a favour?"
"Certainly," the doctor replied; "anything you like, Please do not excite yourself. You are far from strong yet. And now tell me what I can do for you."
"I was looking for a Dr. Jameson," the stranger said. "I understand he lives somewhere near here. I am told that he is a man one can trust. He did a great service for a friend of mine once—"
"I am the man you are looking for," Jameson replied. "You can command my services. Tell me what you want."
The girl half rose to her feet with a joyous exclamation. Then she fell back again, and the blue eyes were hidden for a moment.
"Oh, this is great good luck!" she murmured; "far better luck than I deserve. I cannot tell you how thankful I am that Providence has guided me here to-night. If you can help me now, I think I can see my way to the end of my troubles. And here am I wasting time when every moment is precious. You are a brave man enough, Mr. Jameson—I know that. You proved the fact more than once when you were in St. Petersburg. And now I want you to trust me implicitly. I want you to take my word for everything without asking any name. Will you do this for me?"
The great melting blue eyes were turned imploringly towards Jameson's face. They moved him as he had never been moved before, and, in any case, he would have found it hard to deny the request.
"I will do anything you please," he said, "and I will do it as soon as you like. Now, what is it that is so troubling you? And is the matter so very urgent?"
"It is a matter of life and death," the stranger went on. "I want you to go round to Humber Street, off Leicester Square, and say that that are a doctor who has been sent to see Mr. Boris. I am afraid it is not a nice place nor a very desirable neighbourhood, but you will he quite safe. Will you do this? I am..."
The pleading voice trailed away in a whisper, the slim figure in the chair grew limp once more.
VIOLET JAMESON glanced anxiously at her brother.
"Oh, it is all right," he said cheerfully. "She will come round in a minute or two. She appears to be suffering in her mind as well as body, and when she finds I have gone off on her errand, she will pick up fast enough. You don't mind being left here alone with her, do you? I know you are as good as half-a-dozen doctors in a crisis like this. However, if on like—"
"No,no," Miss Jameson said hastily. "I am not in the least afraid. And I can manage perfectly well. You had better go at once. Goodness knows what harm it will do if you delay!"
Jameson laid a resolute hand upon his fur coat and buttoned it up tightly round his throat. He was chivalrous enough and kind-hearted enough, he was quite desperately anxious to serve the pathetic little beauty lying there in the armchair; but, all the same, the adventure was not exactly to his taste. This kind of thing had been all very well during his Russian experiences, when he was in a position of greater freedom and less responsibility. But it hardly befitted a rising young physician in Rupert Street who aspired to an aristocratic family practice. Still, there was something in the Princess which could not be resisted. She was a noted beauty with more or less of a European reputation. She had figured brilliantly in politics; moreover, she had married one of the handsomest and richest men in Russia. It was a pure love match, too, which made the mystery all the more alluring.
Then, with unexpected swiftness, the crash had come, without a word of warning the bolt had fallen from the blue. The Princess had mysteriously disappeared. It was whispered that she dare not show her face in Russia again. She had gone over to the Nihilist faction, it was said; she had abused her position shamefully. Anyway, she had vanished, leaving no trace behind, and for the best part of a year Prince Boris Stefanoff had been searching for her. It was rumoured that he also had fallen under the ban of the Emperor's displeasure, but as to that, no one outside the Court circle knew anything. It was all very well for the Society journalists to hint and nod their heads wisely, but they were just as ignorant as other people. And now the thing was nearly forgotten.
Jameson was turning these matters over in his mind as he strode in the direction of Humber Street. He had a fairly wide and extensive knowledge of London, and he knew pretty well where he was going. Unless he was greatly mistaken, the address which the Princess had given him was that of a foreign night-club, which more than once had come under the observation of the police. The establishment had the shadiest of reputations, and probably more than one crime of international magnitude had been hatched there. Besides the injury to his reputation if the matter became public, Jameson ran a considerable personal risk, as he very well knew. But with the glamour of that pleading voice and those blue eyes upon him he did not hesitate. Besides, the romance of the whole thing appealed to him. And he, too, was young.
He came to the house at 1ength—an old-fashioned, sombre-looking place, which appeared to be in total darkness, except for a feeble gleam of gas over the fanlight. But, then, as Jameson knew very well, this apparently respectable dullness was very little indication of what was taking place inside. He rapped qietly on the door, which presently opened an inch or two, and a vile, repulsive face looked out. It was a red and tattered face, belonging unmistakably to a broken-down pugilist, just the type of bully and plucky ruffian who usually acts as Cerberus to shady haunts of this character. In a surly tone of voice he asked Jameson's business.
"I have come to see Mr. Boris," Jameson said curtly. "Don't keep me standing here on the pavement all night."
The curtness and straightness of the reply seemed to have its effect, for the door was opened sufficiently wide to admit Jameson, then was closed to and bolted again. Beyond a pair of baize doors was a large, brilliantly lighted hall, and again beyond that a glittering-looking bar, where a score or two of foreigners were drinking and talking, and to the left of this another room, with shaded green lights over the tables, where a grim, silent company were indulging in the fascinations of roulette. Jameson saw the cicerone glancing at him eagerly askance as he took in these details. A devout prayer rose from his lips that the police would refrain from raiding the premises so long as he was there. Without a single word said on either side, the decayed pugilist conducted him upstairs and pointed with a dirty, knotted hand to a closed door.
"In there," he said. "And when you come out, knock with your heel three times on the floor. I'll put you out then."
Jameson tapped at the door, and a somewhat imperious voice bade him enter. He found himself in a long, low apartment, none too clean, and which was entirely devoid of furniture, save for a table and a couple of armchairs on either side of the fireplace. The windows were closely shattered and barred, the whole place was insufficiently lighted by one plain electric lamp which hung on its flex naked and unadorned from the ceiling. In one of the armchairs sat a man in evening dress—a tall, distinguished-looking man, whose bearing and the cut of whose hair were decidedly military. He had a trim moustache turned up at the corners. The hair on his temples was turning grey. He had discarded his dress-coat, which he had pitched carelessly on the door. He had in his hand a rapier which gleamed in the light of the lamp.
The other man in the opposite armchair was hardly less distinguished-looking, but his features were more sullen, and his eyes less clear and steadfast. He, too, had discarded his coat. He, too, had a duelling· sword in his hand. From the expression of the men's faces as they glanced at one another, it was evident that a bitter enmity existed between them. Just for a moment Jameson stood contemplating these dramatic ingredients of a high tragedy, then he ventured to introduce himself by name.
"I am glad to hear it," the man with the slight moustache said. "As a matter of fact, I sent for you, Dr. Jameson. You don't know who I am, but I know you perfectly well, which is much more to the point. Let us say that I am A and my friend yonder is B. Let it be assumed for a. moment that I have been looking for B for the pest twelve months, and that at length I have found him. He has done me the worst injury one man can do another, and now I am going to kill him. At least, that is my programme. Possibly he may kill me. But I am going to give him a chance for his life, which is more than he deserves. If, unfortunately, I shall get the worst of this encounter, I want you to bear witness that the fight was a fair one. In the probable event of it being a drawn battle, or one of us being severely wounded, I hope you will allow us to place ourselves in your hands, so that you may—"
"But the thing is absurd, your Highness—I mean sir," Jameson stammered. "Such things are not allowed in London."
The late speaker smiled grimly. As s matter of fact, the situation was somewhat extravagant. It was like some chapter from from one of Lever's* novels. The man with the slight moustache rose and crossed to the door. He turned the key in the lock and put it in his pocket. Then he smiled genially on Jameson.
[* Charles Lever (1806-1872): Anglo-Irish novelist, physician, and diplomat. The Victorian Web.]
"I quite understand your feelings," he said. "If I were a rising physician like yourself, I should take the same view exactly. But if anything serious happens, I will see that you are indemnified. Count, I am at your service."
The other man rose from his chair and raised his weapon. He looked more pale and less confident than his antagonist. There was something shifty and uneasy in his glance. But, then, before Jameson could interfere or protest, the two men fell upon one another with incredible fury, the clashing din of their swords filled the room.
In spite of himself, in spite of his prudence, Jameson stood there thrilled and fascinated. He was fond of fencing himself. He knew something of the art, but he had never witnessed swordsmanship like this before. It seemed to him as if those two lithe, glittering blades had been turned to water. Round and round they played in waving, liquid circles, blade crashed on blade, a little train of sparks shimmered in the uncertain light. It was a combat to the death between two masters. They played round one another, light of foot and quick of muscle. Jameson could see their faces moistening as if both had been sprinkled with water. And yet the play of the blades went on, the fierce thrust and parry, as if this had been part of some dazzling entertainment designed entirely for Jameson's benefit. He began to wonder, too, whether he would wake up in his bed and find that the whole thing been a vivid dream.
So closely was he following this outlet for hate and passion that for the moment or two he quite failed to hear the sudden din and commotion which arose from the rooms below. There was borne in on his ears now cries and yells and curses, and the sound of a shot, and then the quick splintering of smashing wood. Dimly Jameson began to comprehend that there was a raid on the premises just at the dramatic moment when he least desired it. He forgot his own danger now. He was conscious of a feeling of disappointment that he would not he permitted to see this duel through to its logical conclusion. Already someone was tapping imperiously on the door.
Then suddenly the light went out and the room was left in darkness. It seemed to make not the slightest effect to the combatants, for Jameson could still hear the clash of blades. He saw the little trail of sparks failing swiftly. Then a blade clattered, and there was a heavy thud upon the floor.
JAMESON was thrilling to his finger-tips now. He suddenly seemed to realise the peculiar horror of the situation. His practised ear told him what the heavy breathing of one of the combatants meant, He knew that a yard or two away in the velvet darkness the tragedy was being consummated. And still the hammering at the door went on gaining in force until the wood began to creak and the framework fell into the room with a crash. Almost at the same instant the electric bulb thickened to a tangle of flame, into a brilliant white light, and the room was flooded once more with illumination.
The man who has been alluded to as B lay at length on the floor, propping himself up on one arm and glaring with malignant fury at his antagonist, who stood swaying over him and his hand to his left aide, where a thin red thread had commenced to trickle over the white expanse of his shirt. Evidently the man on the floor was badly hurt, and, so far as Jameson could see, the victor had not escaped scot-free. Before he could interfere, a score of policemen were in the room, headed by a natty-looking inspector in plain clothes.
"You are our prisoners" the inspector said curtly. "Well, what is the meaning of this? Surely I know your face, sir. I am certain that we have met before."
The man with his hand of his side smiled.
"Your memory has not played you false," he said. "You are Inspector Ralli, and we have met before. The last time, I think, was in St. Petersburg."
The inspector's face dropped a little. Evidently was embarrassed and inclined to be apologetic.
"You are quite right," he said. "I came here to-night with my men to raid this house. The people here have been giving a good deal of trouble lately, and we have had them under observation for a long time. By the way, sir, are you not Dr. Jameson?"
"Oh, Heaven, yes!" Jameson said disconsolately. "I assure you that I am quite an innocent party in this matter, though I don't suppose you will believe me."
"I think he will," the tall duellist said, with a smile. "I fancy I shall be able to put matters right with Inspector Ralli. You see, he is a fellow-countrymen of mine, and he happens to know perfectly well who I am."
"I know your Imperial Highness," Balli replied. "almost—"
"Who speaks of Imperial Highness?" the tall man said coldly. "I think for the moment, at any rate, we had better leave that out of the question. I can assure you, Inspector. that we did not come here to gamble; in fact, my friend who is lying on the carpet here is for the present hiding in the house. To a certain extent he is mixed up with the mysterious disappearance of certain State papers and the subsequent mystery which ended in the retirement of Princes Stefanoff from society; in fact, as the agent, let us say, of the Prince, I have been fighting our friend here for the possession of certain papers. I don't think he will decline to tell me now where they are; indeed, I am sure he won't."
"They are in my coat pocket on the chair yonder," the man on the floor said sulkily. "What this gentleman has told you is quite right, Inspector. I am lodging in the house, though I am bound to confess that I was very foolish to come here, especially as I knew the character of the place. But, incidentally I may mention that I shall be glad of Dr. Jameson's services. I think I am rather more hurt than he supposes."
Meanwhile, the tall man had drawn Inspector Ralli on one side and was whispering to him in a corner of the room. Presently at a slight sign the police disappeared, the noise downstairs subsided, and the house grew still once more. It was an hour or so later before the injured man was in a condition to be moved, and before Jameson had skillfully bound up the slight but flesh wound in the right side of the other combatant. Inspector Ralli was still lingering on the pavement when they reached the street.
"Of course, I had to take your names and addresses," he said. "Believe me, gentlemen, it will be your own faults if you hear any more of this matter. No doubt his Imperial—I mean this gentleman here will call at the Russian Embassy to-morrow and explain matters. I will ask you to do this, sir, for my sake. A discreet silence on the subject, I am sure, will be appreciated. Perhaps I have said too much, but his Imperial— Well, good-night, gentlemen."
The inspector disappeared, whilst Jameson and his companion climbed into a cab.
"I don't think there is any reason to explain matters," the Russian said, "I am quite certain, Dr. Jameson, that you know everything that is essential."
"I think I do," Jameson said discreetly.
"Oh, well, in that case we will say no more about it. I am glad to know that a certain lady who shall be nameless—you know whom I mean—succeeded in finding you. I only knew where she was late this evening, when it was impossible to go round to her lodgings. I sent her a hurried telegram asking her to call upon you and enlist your services for our recent little encounter. You see, I have been on a wrong tack altogether. As the agent, let us say, of Prince Boris Stefanoff, I never guessed that that poisonous scoundrel whom I called B just now had behaved so badly in the matter of the Princess. Being a relation of hers, she never suspected anything. The Princess trusted him entirely, so that he had no difficult in getting hold of those paper. He managed to explain to the Princess that it was her husband who was the traitor, and when the poor lady really discovered what had taken place, she was half beside herself with grief, she hardly knew what to do. She made the mistake of running away from her husband instead of confessing everything to him. She left his house and changed her name and started for England with the wild idea of recovering possession of those documents. It never seemed to occur to her what a wild tangle she was leaving behind. Why, if it had not been for certain circumstances, I should have been—I mean, the Prince would have been sent to Siberia. He got on the track of his wife a day or two ago, then he discovered how nobly and foolishly she had been acting. But you are a wise man in our day and generation, Dr. Jameson, and I know you will want to ask no further questions. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me where the Princess is, so that I may—I mean, so that I can take her back to her husband."
"Certainly," Jameson said gravely. "She is in my house. How she got there and what adventures she went through first, she will tell you herself. It will be far better, I think, if you see her alone. She has been very much upset, and I am sure would prefer not to see either my sister or myself again—at least, not just for the present. We can keep the cab at my door till you are ready, and then, if later on she or you desire to see me again, I shall he very pleased to come and call upon you."
"Upon my word, that is very good of you!" he cried. "If you are not a distinguished doctor, I am sure that you would be an even more distinguished courtier. Evidently you were made for diplomacy. And now, doctor, I hope you will not be offended at what I am going to say. I- that is, his Imperial Highness has a good deal of influence with the wealthy Russians in London, and it will be no fault of his if he does not do his best to put a thing or two in your way. No thanks, I beg of you. All I ask is for you to be discreet and silent. Oh, is this the house? Perhaps you will be good enough to get out of the cab first."
* * * * *
As a matter of fact, Dr. Jameson was discreet and silent. And even Violet Jameson's intimate friends never heard the faintest suggestion of the strange adventure of the snowy night, and the fair stranger who had so nearly lost her life on the doctor's doorstep. But this did not prevent them talking the matter over between themselves, or from following with interest the subsequent career of Prince and Princess Stefanoff and their new and brilliant prospects at the Russian Court. Apparently the romantic couple had not forgotten their promise, for within a short time Jameson found himself with all the patients he could do with, drawn from the various rich Russian families who had settled in London. He was making a great reputation for himself now.
It was a year or two later, at a reception. at the Russian Embassy, that Jameson and his sister met their two distinguished friends again. They had remained discreet and silent in the background until Princess Stefanoff, leaning on her husband's arm, came forward to greet them.
"Do you remember us?" she asked.
"That is for your Imperial Highness to say," Jameson replied. "We are prepared to remember or forget, just as either of you choose. But I think that your features are familiar, though I don't imagine that my sister has ever seen the Prince before."
The Princess stooped and kissed Violet Jameson heartily on either cheek. Her smile was dazzling.
"You are a model couple," she said gaily, "and we are under a still deeper debt of gratitude than ever. And now there is one more favour I would ask of you. You must both come over to Russia and see us when the doctor take his holiday."
"I think we should enjoy it," Jameson said; "in fact, I am quite sure we should."
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