Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 9.

The Poisoned Knife

When we returned home, on Sunday evening, Max found the receptacle in the wall which communicated with the pneumatic-tube system standing open. In it he found a long communication in cipher. He read a few lines with a startled look and then said:

“Here is important news, Gabriel. It is written in one of the ciphers of the Brotherhood, which I will translate to you. The number is that of Rudolph — the number it is addressed to is my own. We know each other in the Brotherhood, not by our names, but by the numbers given us when we became members. Listen:

“From number 28,263 M 2, to No. 160,053 P 4. Dated this 7:9, from the house of the condemned, No. 826 B.”

“That,” said Maximilian, “means the Prince Cabano.” He continued to read:

“Startling events have occurred since I saw you. The former favorite mistress of 826 B, who was displaced by Frederika, is a French girl, Celestine d’Aublay. She resented her downfall bitterly, and she hates Frederika with the characteristic vehemence of her race. She learned from the talk of the servants that a new victim — Estella — had been brought into the house, a girl of great beauty; and that Frederika was trying to prevent 826 B from seeing her. A sudden thought took possession of her mind; she would overthrow Frederika just as she herself had been overthrown. Yesterday, Saturday afternoon, she watched for 826 B in the hallways and chambers. The snuffling old wretch has a fashion of prying around in all parts of the house, under the fear that he is being robbed by the servants; and it was not long until Celestine encountered him. She threw herself in his way.

“‘Well, little one,’ he said, chucking her under the chin, ‘how have you been? I have not seen your pretty face for a long time.’

“‘Indeed,’ said she, ‘you care very little now for my pretty face, or that of any one else, since you have your new toy, Estella.’

“‘Estella!’ he repeated, ‘who is Estella?’

“‘Come, come,’ she said laughing; ‘that will not do! Master Rudolph brings into the house a young girl of ravishing beauty, and weeks afterwards you ask me who she is! I am not to be deceived that way. I know you too well.’

“‘But really,’ he replied, ‘I have not seen her. This is the first I have ever heard of her. Who is she?’

“‘Her name is Estella Washington,’ replied Celestine; ‘she is about eighteen years old.’

“‘Estella Washington,’ he said respectfully; ‘that is a great name. What is she like?’

“‘I have told you already,’ was the reply, ‘that she is of magnificent beauty, tall, fair, stately, graceful and innocent.,

“‘Indeed, I must see her.’

“He hurried to his library and rang my bell.

“‘Rudolph,’ he said, when I appeared, ‘who is this Estella Washington that you brought into the house some weeks since? Celestine has been telling me about her. How comes it I have never seen her?’

“My heart came into my mouth with a great leap; but I controlled my excitement and replied:

“‘My lord, I reported to you the fact of the purchase some time since, and the payment of $5,000 to an aunt of Estella.’

“‘True,’ he said, ‘I remember it now; but I was much occupied at the time. How comes it, however, that she has been in the house and I have never seen her?’

“I determined not to betray Frederika, and so I replied:

“‘It must have been by accident, your lordship; and, moreover, Estella is of a very quiet, retiring disposition, and has kept her room a great part of the time since she came here.’

“‘Go to her and bring her here,’ he said.

“There was no help for it; so I proceeded to Estella’s room.

“‘Miss Washington,’ I said, ‘I have bad news for you. The Prince desires to see you!’

“She rose up, very pale.

”‘My God,’ she said, ‘what shall I do?’

“And then she began to fumble in the folds of her dress for the knife your friend gave her.

“‘Be calm and patient,’ I said; ‘do nothing desperate. On the night after next your friend will come for you. We must delay matters all we can. Keep your room, and I will tell the Prince that you are too sick to leave your bed, but hope to be well enough to pay your respects to him to-morrow afternoon. We will thus gain twenty-four hours’ delay, and we may be able to use the same device again to-morrow.’

“But she was very much excited, and paced the room with hurried steps, wringing her hands. To calm her I said:

“‘You are in no danger. You can lock your door. And see, come here,’ I said, and, advancing to one of the window sills, I lifted it up and disclosed, neatly coiled within it, a ladder of cords, with stout bamboo rounds. ‘As a last resort,’ I continued, ‘you can drop this out of the window and fly. All the rooms in this older part of the palace are furnished with similar fire-escapes. You see that yellow path below us; and there beyond the trees you may perceive a part of the wall of the gardens; that path terminates at a little gate, and here is a key that will unlock it. Study the ground well from your windows. Your escape would, however, have to be made by night; but as you would run some risk in crossing the grounds, and, when you passed the gate, would find yourself in the midst of a strange world, without a friend, you must only think of flight as your last resource in the most desperate extremity. We must resort to cunning, until your friends come for you, on Monday night. But be patient and courageous. Remember, I am your friend, and my life is pledged to your service.’

“She turned upon me, and her penetrating eyes seemed to read my very soul.

“‘How,’ she said, ‘can I trust you? You are a stranger to me. Worse than that, you are the hired instrument of that monster — that dealer in flesh and blood. You bought me and brought me here; and who are your friends? They too are strangers to me. Why should I believe in strangers when the one whom I loved, and in whom I placed unquestioning trust, has betrayed me, and sold me to the most dreadful fate?’

“I hung my head.

“‘It chances,’ I replied, humbly, ‘that the instruments of vice may sometimes loathe the work they do. The fearful executioner may, behind his mask, hide the traces of grief and pity. I do not blame you for your suspicions. I once had aspirations, perhaps as high, and purity of soul nearly as great as your own. But what are we? The creatures of fate; the victims of circumstances. We look upon the Medusa-head of destiny, with its serpent curls, and our wills, if not our souls, are turned into stone. God alone, who knows all, can judge the heart of man. But I am pledged, by ties the most awful, to a society which, however terrible its methods may be, is, in its grand conceptions, charitable and just. My life would not be worth a day’s purchase if I did not defend you. One of your friends stands high in that society.’

“‘Which one is that?’ she asked eagerly.

“‘The smaller and darker one,’ I replied.

“‘Can you tell me anything about the other?’ she asked, and a slight blush seemed to mantle her face, as if she were ashamed of the question.

“‘Very little,’ I replied; ‘he is not a member of our Brotherhood; but he is a brave man, and the friend of Mr. Maximilian can not be a bad man.’

“‘No,’ she said, thoughtfully; ‘he is of a good and noble nature, and it is in him I trust.’

“‘But,’ said I, ‘I must leave you, or the Prince will wonder at my long absence.’

“As I took my departure I heard her locking the door behind me. I reported to the Prince that Miss Washington was quite ill, and confined to her bed, but that she hoped to do herself the honor of calling upon him the next day. He looked glum, but assented. Upon leaving him, I called upon Frederika and requested her to come to my room. In a few moments she appeared. After seating her I said:

“‘Miss Frederika, will you pardon me if I ask you a few questions upon matters of importance to both of us?’

“‘Certainly,’ she replied.

“‘In the first place,’ I said, ‘you regard me as your friend, do you not? Have I not always shown a disposition to serve you?’

“She replied with some pleasant smiles and assurances of friendship.

“‘Now let me ask you another question,’ I continued. ‘Do you entertain friendly sentiments to Miss Estella?”

“‘Indeed I do,’ she replied; ‘she is a sweet-tempered, innocent and gentle girl.’

“‘I am glad to hear it,’ I said; ‘did you know that the Prince has discovered her, and has just sent me for her?’

“Her large black eyes fairly blazed.

“‘Who has told him of her?’ she asked, fiercely, and her voice rose high and shrill.

“‘Your enemy, Miss Celestine,’ I replied. ‘I suspected as much,’ she said.

“”I need not tell you,’ I said, ‘that Celestine’s motive was to supplant and humble you.’

“‘I understand that,’ she replied, and her hands twitched nervously, as if she would like to encounter her foe.

“‘Now let me ask you another question,’ I continued. ‘Would you not be glad to see Estella safely out of this house?’

“‘Indeed I would,’ she replied, eagerly.

“‘If I place my life in your hands, will you be true to me?’ I asked.

“She took me earnestly by the hand, and replied:

“‘Neither in life nor in death will I betray you.,

“‘Then,’ said I, ‘I will tell you that Estella has friends who are as anxious to get her away from this place as you are. They have arranged to come for her on Monday night next. You must help me to protect her from the Prince in the meantime, and to facilitate her escape when the time comes.’

“‘I will do so,’ she said; ‘tell me what I can do now?’

“‘Make yourself very entertaining to the Prince,’ I replied, ‘and keep his thoughts away from the stranger. Estella pleads sickness and keeps her room; and we may be able to protect her in that way until the fateful night arrives. And remember,’ I said, touching her upon the breast and looking earnestly into her eyes, for I have little faith in such natures, ‘that I am a member of a great secret society, and if any mishap were to happen to me, through your agency, your own life would pay the immediate forfeit.’

“She shrank back affrighted, and assured me again of her good faith. And as she desires to be quit of Estella, I think she will not betray us.”

“SUNDAY EVENING, seven o’clock.

“I resume my narrative. I have gone through dreadful scenes since I laid down my pen.

“This afternoon about five o’clock the Prince rang for me.

“‘Bring Estella,’ he said.

“I went at once to her room. I found her looking paler than usual. She had the appearance of one that had not slept.

“‘Estella,’ I said, ‘the Prince has again sent for you. I shall return and make the same excuse. Do not worry — all will be well. We are one day nearer your deliverance.’

“I returned and told the Prince that Estella was even worse than the day before; that she had a high fever; and that she apologized for not obeying his summons; but that she hoped by to-morrow to be well enough to pay her respects to him.

“He was in one of his sullen fits. I think Frederika had been overdoing her blandishments, and he had become suspicious; for he is one of the most cunning of men.

“‘Frederika is behind this business,’ he said.

“‘Behind what business, my lord?’ I asked.

“‘This sickness of Estella. Bring her to me, ill or well,’ he replied; ‘I want to see her.’

“He was in no humor to be trifled with; and so I returned to my room to think it over. I saw that Estella would have to barricade herself in her room. How could she support life in the meantime? The first requisite was, therefore, food. I went at once to Michael, the cook’s assistant, who is a trusty friend of mine, and secured from him, secretly and under a pledge of silence, food enough to last until the next night. I hurried to Estella, told her of her danger, and gave her the basket of provisions. I instructed her to lock her door.

“‘If they break it in,’ I said, ‘use your knife on the first man that touches you. If they send you food or drink, do not use them. If they attempt to chloroform you, stop up the pipe with soap. If the worst comes to the worst, use the rope-ladder. If you manage to get outside the garden gate, call a hack and drive to that address.’ Here I gave her your direction on a small piece of tissue paper. ‘If you are about to be seized, chew up the paper and swallow it. Do not in any event destroy yourself,’ I added, ‘until the last desperate extremity is reached; for you have a powerful organization behind you, and even if recaptured you will be rescued. Good-by.’

“She thanked me warmly, and as I left the room I heard her again lock the door.

“I returned to the Prince, and told him that Estella had said she was too ill to leave her room, and that she refused to obey his summons. Unaccustomed to contradiction, especially in his own house, he grew furious.

“‘Call the servants,’ he shouted; ‘we will see who is master here!’

“A few of the men came running; Frederika entered with them; some of the women followed. We proceeded up stairs to Estella’s door. The Prince shook it violently.

“‘Open the door,’ he cried, ‘or I will break it down.’

“I began to hope that he would rush to the doom he has so long deserved.

“The calm, steady voice of Estella was now heard from within the room; speaking in a high and ringing tone:

“‘I appeal to my country. I demand the right to leave this house. I am an American citizen. The Constitution of the United States forbids human slavery. My fathers helped to found this government. No one has the right to sell me into the most hideous bondage. I come of a great and noble race. I demand my release.’

“‘Come, come, open the door,’ cried the Prince, flinging himself against it until it quivered.

“The voice of Estella was heard again, in solemn tones:

“‘The man who enters here dies!’

“The cowardly brute recoiled at once, with terror on every feature of his face.

“‘Who will break down that door,’ he asked, ‘and bring out that woman?

“There was a dead silence for a moment; then Joachim, a broad-shouldered, superserviceable knave, who had always tried to ingratiate himself with the Prince by spying upon the rest of the servants and tattling, stepped forward, with an air of bravado, and said, ‘I will bring her out.’

“‘Go ahead,’ said the Prince, sullenly.

“Joachim made a rush at the door; it trembled and creaked, but did not yield; he moved farther back, drew his breath hard, and — strong as a bull — went at it with a furious rush; the lock gave way, the door flew open and Joachim sprawled upon the floor. I could see Estella standing back near the window, her right arm was raised, and I caught the glitter of something in her hand. In an instant Joachim was on his feet and approached her; I saw him grasp her; there was a slight scuffle, and the next moment Joachim rushed out of the room, pale as death, with his hand to his breast, crying out:

“‘Oh! my God! she has stabbed me.’

“He tore open his shirt bosom, and there upon his hairy breast was a bloody spot; but the knife had struck the breastbone and inflicted only a shallow flesh-wound. Joachim laughed, replaced his shirt, and said:

“‘Ah! I might have known a girl’s hand could not strike a deadly blow. I will bring her out, my lord. Get me a rope.’

“He turned toward me, as he spoke; but on the instant I saw a sharp spasm contract his features; he clapped his hand to his heart; a look of surprise and then of terror came over his face.

“‘Oh, my God!’ he cried, ‘I am poisoned.’

“The most awful shrieks I ever heard broke from him; and the next moment his limbs seemed to lose their strength, and he fell in a heap on the floor; then he rolled over and over; mighty convulsions swept through him; he groaned, cried, shrieked, foamed at the mouth; there was a sudden snorting sound, and he stiffened out and was dead.

“We fell back appalled. Then in the doorway appeared the figure of Estella, her blue eyes bright as stars, her long golden hair falling like a cloak to her waist, the red-tipped knife in her hand; she looked like a Gothic priestess — a Vala of Odin — with the reeking human sacrifice already at her feet. The blood of a long line of heroic ancestors thrilled in her veins. Stepping over the dead body, already beginning to swell and grow spotted with many colors, like a snake, she advanced toward the Prince, who stood in his dressing-gown, trembling, and nearly as bloated, pale and hideous as the wretched Joachim.

“‘Is it you,’ she said —‘you, the dealer in human flesh and blood, that has bought me? Come to me, and take possession of your bond-woman!’

“With a cry of terror the Prince turned his back and fled as fast as his legs would carry him, while all the rest of us followed pell-mell. At the end of the hall is a large iron door, used for protection in case of fire.

“‘Quick,’ shrieked the Prince, ‘lock the door! lock the door!’

“This was done, and he stopped to pant and blow in safety. When he had recovered his breath, he cried out:

“‘Send for the police! We will have her chloroformed.’

“I touched Frederika on the arm; — she followed me into an open room.

“‘Tell him,’ I whispered to her, quickly, ‘tell him that if he calls in the police there will have to be an inquest over the dead body of Joachim; there may be questions asked that will be hard to answer. The girl will have to be taken off to be tried for murder, and he will lose her. If he attempts to use chloroform she will stab herself with the poisoned knife. Tell him you will drug her food with narcotics; that hunger will eventually compel her to eat; and that when she sleeps she may be made a prisoner, and the knife taken away from her.’

“The quick-witted girl saw the force of these suggestions, and ran after her paramour. She succeeded in her mission. He fears the coming outbreak, whispers of which are now heard everywhere. He has recalled the order for the police. He stipulates, however — for he is suspicious of Frederika, and fears treachery — that he is to drug the food himself and see it placed in the room; and he has stationed two trusty guards at the door of Estella’s chamber, who are to be changed every eight hours, and who are instructed that, whenever they think she is asleep, one of them is to notify him; and carpenters will then quietly cut the door from its hinges, and they will enter, disarm her and make her a prisoner. Estella, I find, has barricaded her door with her bedstead and the rest of the furniture. If she sleeps she will wake with any attempt to enter the room; but she is not likely, in her present state of high-wrought excitement, to sleep at all; and she will not touch the drugged food sent in to her. I have arranged with Frederika, who has great authority in the house, that on Monday night the two watchmen shall be furnished with some refreshment containing morphine; and when they are sound asleep, and the Prince busy with his guests, she or I will go to the room, carrying Estella’s masculine disguise, and then bring her to my room, where she will join your friend.

“I do not think she is in any present danger. The poisoned knife is her safeguard. The whole household, after witnessing its terrible potency, fear it as they would the fangs of a rattlesnake. It was a lucky thought that left it with her.

“If your friend does not fail us, all will be well.

“Farewell.

28,263 M 2.”

I need not tell you, my dear Heinrich, that we both followed this narrative with the most rapt attention and the most intense feeling.

“Brave girl!” I cried, when Maximilian stopped reading, “she is worth dying for.” “Or living for,” said he, “which is better still. How she rose to the occasion!”

“Yes,” I said, “that was blood.”

“There is as good stuff in the ranks,” he replied, “as ever came out of them. The law of heredity is almost as unreliable as the law of variation. Everything rises out of the mud, and everything goes back into it.”

“Do you think,” I asked, after a pause, “that she will be safe until to-morrow night? Should I not go to her at once? Could I not see Rudolph and have her descend the rope-ladder, and I meet her and bring her here?”

“No,” he replied, it is now too late for that; it is midnight. You can place full faith in Rudolph; his penetration and foresight are extraordinary. He will not sleep until Estella is out of that house; and his busy brain will be full of schemes in the meantime. The best thing we can do now is to go to bed and prepare, by a good long sleep, for the excitements and dangers of to-morrow night. Do not fear for Estella. She has ceased to be a child. In an hour she has risen to the full majesty of her womanhood.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37