CHAPTER XIV HER HIGHNESS IS INQUISITIVE

Instantly the danger was apparent, and instead of driving back to the hotel, I called out to the man to take me to the Moscow railway station, in order to put the spy off the scent. I knew he would follow me, but as he was on foot, with no drosky in sight, I should be able to reach the station before he could, and there elude him.

Over the stones we rattled, leaving the lurking agent standing in the deep shadow, but on turning back I saw him dash across the road to a by-street, where, in all probability, he had a conveyance in waiting.

Then, after we had crossed the Neva, I countermanded my order to the man, saying-

“Don’t go right up to the station. Turn into the Liteinoi Prospect to the left, and put me down there. Drive quickly, and I’ll pay double fare.”

He whipped his horses, and we turned into that maze of dark, ill-lit, narrow streets that lies between the Vosnesenski and the Nevski, turning and winding until we emerged at last into the main thoroughfare again, and then at last we turned into the street I had indicated-a wide road of handsome buildings where I knew I was certain to be able to instantly get another drosky. I flung the man his money, alighted, and two minutes later was driving on towards the Alexander Bridge, traveling in a circle back to the hotel. Time after time I glanced behind, but saw nothing of the Baron’s spy, who had evidently gone to the station with all speed, expecting that I was leaving the capital.

I found Elma in her room, ready dressed to go out, wearing a long traveling-cloak, and in her hand was a small dressing-case. She was pale and full of anxiety until I showed her the slip of paper which Otto Kampf had given me with the address written upon it, and then together we hurried forth.

The house to which we drove was, we discovered, a large one facing the Fontanka Canal, one of the best quarters of the town, and on descending I asked the liveried dvornick for Madame Zurloff, the name which the “Red Priest” had written.

“You mean the Princess Zurloff,” remarked the man through his red beard. “Whom shall I say desires to see her?”

“Take that,” I said, handing to him the piece of paper which, beside the address, bore a curious cipher-mark like three triangles joined.

He closed the door, leaving us in the wide carpeted hall, the statuary in which showed us that it was a richly-furnished place, and when a few minutes later he returned, he conducted us upstairs to a fine gilded salon, where an elderly gray-haired lady in black stood gravely to receive us.

“Allow me to present Mademoiselle Elma Heath, Princess,” I said, speaking in French and bowing, and afterwards telling her my own name.

Our hostess welcomed my love in a graceful speech, but I said-

“Mademoiselle unfortunately suffers a terrible affliction. She is deaf and dumb.”

“Ah, how very, very sad!” she exclaimed sympathetically. “Poor girl! poor girl!” and she placed her hand tenderly upon Elma’s shoulder and looked into her eyes. Then, turning to me, she said: “So the Red Priest has sent you both to me! You are in danger of arrest, I suppose-you wish me to conceal you here?”

“I would only ask sanctuary for Mademoiselle,” was my reply. “For myself, I have no fear. I am English, and therefore not a member of the Party.”

“The Mademoiselle fears arrest?”

“There is an order signed for her banishment to Saghalein,” I said. “She was imprisoned at Kajana, the fortress away in Finland, but I succeeded in liberating her.”

“She has actually been in Kajana!” gasped the Princess. “Ah! we have all heard sufficient of the horrors of that place. And you liberated her! Why, she is the only person who has ever escaped from that living tomb to which Oberg sends his victims.”

“I believe so, Princess.”

“And may I take it, m’sieur, that the reason you risked your life for her is because you love her? Pardon me for suggesting this.”

“You have guessed correctly,” I answered. Then, knowing that Elma could not hear, I added: “I love her, but we are not lovers. I have not told her of my affection. Hers is a long and strange story, and she will perhaps tell you something of it in writing.”

“Well,” exclaimed the gray-haired lady smiling, leading my love across the luxurious room, the atmosphere of which was filled with the scent of flowers, and taking off her cloak with her own hands, “you are safe here, my poor child. If spies have not followed you, then you shall remain my guest as long as you desire.”

“I am sure it is very good of you, Princess,” I said gratefully. “Miss Heath is the victim of a vile and dastardly conspiracy. When I tell you that she has been afflicted as she is by her enemies-that an operation was performed upon her in Italy while she was unconscious-you will readily see in what deadly peril she is.”

“What!” she cried. “Have her enemies actually done this? Horrible!”

“She will perhaps tell you of the strange romance that surrounds her-a mystery which I have not yet been able to fathom. She is a Russian subject, although she has been educated in England. Baron Oberg himself is, I believe, her worst and most bitter enemy.”

“Ah! the Strangler!” she exclaimed with a quick flash in her dark eyes. “But his end is near. The Movement is active in Helsingfors. At any moment now we may strike our blow for freedom.”

She was an enthusiastic revolutionist, I could see, unsuspected, however, by the police on account of her high position in Petersburg society. It was she who, as I afterwards discovered, had furnished the large sums of money to Kampf for the continuation of the revolutionary propaganda, and indeed secretly devoted the greater part of her revenues from her vast estates in Samara and Kazan to the Nihilist cause. Her husband, himself an enthusiast of freedom, although of the high nobility, had been killed by a fall from his horse six years before, and since that time she had retired from society and lived there quietly, making the revolutionary movement her sole occupation. The authorities believed that her retirement was due to the painful loss she had sustained, and had no suspicion that it was her money that enabled the mysterious “Red Priest” to slowly but surely complete the plot for the general uprising.

She compelled me to remove my coat, and tea was served by a Tartar footman, whose family she explained had been serfs of the Zurloffs for three centuries, and then Elma exchanged confidences with her by means of paper and pencil.

“Who is this man Martin Woodroffe, of whom she speaks?” asked the Princess presently, turning to me.

“I have met him twice-only twice,” I replied, “and under strange circumstances.” Then, continuing, I told her something concerning the incidents of the yacht Lola.

“He may be in love with her, and desires to force her into marriage,” she suggested, expressing amazement at the curious narrative I had related.

“I think not, for several reasons. One is because I know she holds some secret concerning him, and another because he is engaged to an English girl named Muriel Leithcourt.”

“Leithcourt? Leithcourt?” repeated the Princess, knitting her brows with a puzzled air. “Do you happen to know her father’s name?”

“Philip Leithcourt.”

“And has he actually been living in Scotland?”

“Yes,” I answered in quick anxiety. “He rented a shoot called Rannoch, near Dumfries. A mysterious incident occurred on his estate-a double murder, or murder and suicide; which is not quite clear-but shortly afterwards there appeared one evening at the house a man named Chater, Hylton Chater, and the whole family at once fled and disappeared.”

Princess Zurloff sat with her lips pressed close together, looking straight at the silent girl before her. Elma had removed her hat and cloak, and now sat in a deep easy chair of yellow silk, with the lamplight shining on her chestnut hair, settled and calm as though already thoroughly at home. I smiled to myself as I thought of the chagrin of Woodroffe when he returned to find his victim missing.

“Your Highness evidently knows the Leithcourts,” I hazarded, after a brief silence.

“I have heard of them,” was her unsatisfactory reply. “I go to England sometimes. When the Prince was alive, we were often at Claridge’s for the season. The Prince was for five years military attachй at the Embassy under de Staal, you know. What I know of the Leithcourts is not to their credit. But you tell me that there was a mysterious incident before their flight. Explain it to me.”

At that moment the long white doors of the handsome salon were thrown open by the faithful Tartar servitor, and there entered a man whose hair fell over the collar of his heavy overcoat, but whom, in an instant, I recognized as Otto Kampf.

Both Elma and I sprang to our feet, while advancing to the Princess he bent and gallantly kissed the hand she held forth to him. Then he shook hands with Elma, and acknowledging my own greetings, took off his coat and threw it upon a chair with the air of an accustomed visitor.

“I come, Princess, in order to explain to you,” he said. “Mademoiselle fears rearrest, and the only house in Petersburg that the police never suspect is this. Therefore I send her to you, knowing that with your generosity you will help her in her distress.”

“It is all arranged,” was her Highness’s response. “She will remain here, poor girl, until it is safe for her to get out of Russia.” Then, after some further conversation, and after my well-beloved had made signs of heartfelt gratitude to the man known from end to end of the Russian empire as “The Red Priest,” the Princess turned to me, saying:

“I would much like to know what occurred before the Leithcourts left Scotland.”

“The Leithcourts!” exclaimed Kampf in utter surprise. “Do you know the Leithcourts-and the English officer Durnford?”

I looked into his eyes in abject amazement. What connection could Jack Durnford, of the Marines, have with the adventurer Philip Leithcourt? I, however, recollected Jack’s word, when I had described the visit of the Lola to Leghorn, and further I recollected that very shortly he would be back in London from his term of Mediterranean service.

“Well,” I said after a pause, “I happen to know Captain Durnford very well, but I had no idea that he was friendly with Leithcourt.”

The Red Priest smiled, stroking his white beard.

“Explain to her Highness what she desires to know, and I will tell you.”

My eyes met Elma’s, and I saw how intensely eager and interested she was, watching the movement of my lips and trying to make out what words I uttered.

“Well,” I said, “a mysterious tragedy occurred on the edge of a wood near the house rented by Leithcourt-a tragedy which has puzzled the police to this day. An Italian named Santini and his wife were found murdered.”

“Santini!” gasped Kampf, starting up. “But surely he is not dead?”

“No. That’s the curious part of the affair. The man who was killed was a man disguised to represent the Italian, while the woman was actually the waiter’s wife herself. I happen to know the man Santini well, for both he and his wife were for some years in my employ.”

The Princess and the director of the Russian revolutionary movement exchanged quick glances. It was as though her Highness implored Kampf to reveal to me the truth, while he, on his part, was averse to doing so.

“And upon whom does suspicion rest?” asked her Highness.

“As far as I can make out, the police have no clue whatever, except one. At the spot was found a tiny miniature cross of one of the Russian orders of chivalry-the Cross of Saint Anne.”

“There is no suspicion upon Leithcourt?” she asked with some undue anxiety I thought.

“No.”

“Did he entertain any guests at the shooting-box?”

“A good many.”

“No foreigners among them?”

“I never met any. They seemed all people from London-a smart set for the most part.”

“Then why did the Leithcourts disappear so suddenly?”

“Because of the appearance of the man Chater,” I replied. “It is evident that they feared him, for they took every precaution against being followed. In fact, they fled leaving a big party of friends in the house. The man Woodroffe, now at the Hotel de Paris, is a friend of Leithcourt as well as of Chater.”

“He was not a guest of Leithcourt when this man representing Santini was assassinated?” asked Kampf, again stroking his beard.

“No. As soon as Woodroffe recognized me as a visitor he left-for Hamburg.”

“He was afraid to face you because of the ransacking of the British Consul’s safe at Leghorn,” remarked the Princess, who, at the same moment, took Elma’s hand tenderly in her own and looked at her. Then, turning to me, she said: “What you have told us to-night, Mr. Gregg, throws a new light upon certain incidents that had hitherto puzzled us. The mystery of it all is a great and inscrutable one-the mystery of this poor unfortunate girl, greatest of all. But both of us will endeavor to help you to elucidate it; we will help poor Elma to crush her enemies-these cowardly villains who had maimed her.”

“Ah, Princess!” I cried. “If you will only help and protect her, you will be doing an act of mercy to a defenseless woman. I love her-I admit it. I have done my utmost: I have striven to solve the dark mystery, but up to the present I have been unsuccessful, and have only remained, even till to-day, the victim of circumstance.”

“Let her stay with me,” the kindly woman answered, smiling tenderly upon my love. “She will be safe here, and in the meantime we will endeavor to discover the real and actual truth.”

And in response I took the Princess’s hand and pressed it fervently. Although that striking, white-headed man and the rather stiff, formal woman in black were the leaders of the great and all-powerful movement in Russia known through the civilized world as “The Terror,” yet they were nevertheless our friends. They had pledged themselves to help us thwart our enemies.

I scribbled a few hasty words upon paper and handed it to Elma. And for answer she smiled contentedly, looking into my eyes with an expression of trust, devotion and love.

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