The Ariel, in order to avoid being seen from the town, had made a wide circuit to the northward at a considerable elevation, and as soon as a suitable spot had been sought out by means of the field-glasses, she dropped suddenly and swiftly from the clouds into the depths of the dense forest through which the Tobolsk road runs from Tiumen to the banks of the Tobol.
From Tiumen to the Tobol is about twenty-five miles by road. The railway, which was then finished as far as Tomsk, ran to Tobolsk by a more northerly and direct route than the road, but convicts were still marched on foot along the great post road after the gangs had been divided at Tiumen according to their destinations.
The spot which had been selected for the resting-place of the Ariel was a little glade formed by the bend of a frozen stream about five miles east of the town, and at a safe distance from the road.
Painted a light whitish-grey all over, she would have been invisible even from a short distance as she lay amid the snow-laden trees, and Arnold gave strict orders that all the window-slides were to be kept closed, and no light shown on any account.
Every precaution possible was taken to obviate a discovery which should seriously endanger the success of the rescue, but, nevertheless, the fan-wheels were kept aloft, and everything was in readiness to rise into the air at a moment’s notice should any emergency require them to do so.
It was a little after three o’clock on the Thursday afternoon when the Ariel settled down in her resting-place, and half an hour later Colston and Ivan Petrovitch appeared on deck completely disguised, the former as a Russian fur trader, and the latter as his servant.
All the arrangements for the rescue had been once more gone over in every detail, and just before he swung himself over the side Colston shook hands for the last time with Arnold, saying as he did so —
“Well, good-bye again, old fellow! Ivan shall come back and bring you the news, if necessary; but if he doesn’t come, don’t be uneasy, but possess your soul in patience till you hear the whistle from the road in the morning. I expect the train will get in sometime during the night, and in that case we shall have everything ready to make the attempt soon after daybreak, if not before.
“If we can get as far as this without being pursued we shall come right on board. If not we must trust to our horses and our pistols to keep the Cossacks at a distance till you can help us. In any case, rest assured that once clear of Tiumen, we shall never be taken alive. Those are the Master’s orders, and I will shoot Natasha myself before she goes back to captivity.”
“Yes, do so,” replied Arnold. His lips quivered as he spoke, but there was no tremor in the hand with which he gripped Colston’s in farewell. “She will prefer death to slavery, and I shall prefer it for her. But if you have to do it you will at least have the consolation of knowing that within twelve hours of your death the Tsar shall be lying buried beneath the ruins of the Peterhof Palace. I will have his life for hers if only I live to take it.”
“I will tell her,” said Colston simply, “and if die she must, she will die content.”
So saying, he descended the little rope-ladder, followed by Ivan, and in a few moments the two were lost in the deep shadow of the trees, while Arnold went down into the saloon to await with what patience he might the moment that would decide the fate of the daughter of Natas and the man who had gone, as he would so gladly have done, to risk his life to restore her to liberty.
Rather more than half an hour’s tramp through the forest brought Colston and Ivan out on the road at a point a little less than five miles from Tiumen.
Colston was provided with passports and permits to travel for himself and Ivan. These, of course, were forged on genuine forms which the Terrorists had no difficulty in obtaining through their agents in high places, who were as implicitly trusted as the Princess Ornovski had been but a few months before.
So skilfully were they executed, however, that it would have been a very keen official eye that had discovered anything wrong with them. They described him as “Stepan Bakuinin, fur merchant of Nizhni Novgorod, travelling in pursuit of his business, with his servant, Peter Petrovitch, also of Nizhni Novgorod.”
Instead of going straight into the town by the main road they made a considerable detour and entered it by a lane that led them through a collection of miserable huts occupied by the poorest class of Siberian mujiks, half peasants, half townsfolk, who cultivate their patches of ground during the brief spring and summer, and struggle through the long dreary winter as best they can on their scanty savings and what work they can get to do from the Government or their richer neighbours.
Colston had never been in Tiumen before, but Ivan had, for ten years before he had voluntarily accompanied his father, who had been condemned to five years’ forced labour on the new railway works from Tiumen to Tobolsk, for giving a political fugitive shelter in his house. He had died of hard labour and hard usage, and that was one reason why Ivan was a member of the Outer Circle of the Terrorists.
He led his master through the squalid suburb to the business part of the town, which had considerably developed since the through line to Tobolsk and Tomsk had been constructed, and at length they stopped before a comfortable-looking house in the street that ends at the railway station.
They knocked, gave their names, and were at once admitted. The servant who opened the door to them led them to a room in which they found a man of about fifty in the uniform of a sub-commissioner of police. As Colston held out his hand to him he said —
“In the Master’s name!”
The official took his hand, and, bending over it, replied in a low tone —
“I am his servant. What is his will?”
“That Anna Ornovski and Fedora Darrel, the English girl who was taken with her, be released as soon as may be,” replied Colston. “Is the train from Ekaterinburg in yet?”
“Not yet. The snow is still deep between here and the mountains. The winter has been very severe and long. We have almost starved in Tiumen in spite of the railway. There has been a telegram from Ekaterinburg to say that the train descended the mountain safely, and one from Kannishlov to say that we expect it soon after ten to-night.”
“Good! That is sooner than we expected in London. We thought it would not reach here till tomorrow morning.”
“In London! What do you mean? You cannot have come from London, for there has been no train for two days.”
“Nevertheless I have come from London. I left England yesterday evening.”
“Yesterday evening! But, with all submission, that is impossible. If there were a railway the whole distance it could not be done.”
“To the Master there is nothing impossible. Look! I received that the evening I left London.”
As he spoke, Colston held out an envelope. The Russian examined it closely. It bore the Ludgate Hill post-mark, which was dated “March 7.”
Colston’s host bent over it with almost superstitious reverence, and handed it back, saying humbly —
“Forgive my doubts, Nobleness! It is a miracle! I ask no more. The Tsar himself could not have done it. The Master is all powerful, and I am proud to be his servant, even to the death.”
Although the twentieth century had dawned, the Siberian Russians were still inclined to look even upon the railway as a miracle. This man, although he occupied a post of very considerable responsibility and authority under the Russian Government, was only a member of the Outer Circle of the Terrorists, as most of the officials were, and therefore he knew nothing of the existence of the Ariel, and Colston purposely mystified him with the apparent miracle of his presence in Tiumen after so short an absence from London, in order to command his more complete obedience in the momentous work that was on hand.
He allowed the official a few moments to absorb the full wonder of the seeming marvel, and then he replied —
“Yes, we are all his servants to the death. At least I know of none who have even thought of treason to him and lived to put their thoughts into action. But tell me, are all the arrangements complete as far as you can make them? Much depends upon how you carry them out, you know, to say nothing of the two thousand roubles that I shall hand to you as soon as the two ladies are delivered into my charge.”
“All is arranged, Nobleness,” replied the official, bowing involuntarily at the mention of the money. “Such of the prisoners, that is to say the politicals, who can afford to pay for the privilege, may, by the new regulations, be lodged in the houses of approved persons during their sojourn in Tiumen, if it be only for a night, and so escape the common prison.
“We knew at the police bureau of the arrest of the Princess Ornovski some days ago, and I have obtained permission from the chief of police to lodge her Highness and her companion in misfortune — if they are prepared to pay what I shall ask. It has come to be looked upon as a sort of perquisite of diligent officials, and as I have been very diligent here I had no difficulty in getting the permission — which I shall have to pay for in due course.”
“Just so! Nothing for nothing in Russian official circles. Very good. Now listen. If this escape is successfully accomplished you will be degraded and probably punished into the bargain for letting the prisoners slip through your fingers. But that must not happen if it can be prevented.
“Now this has been foreseen, as everything is with the Master; and his orders are that you shall take this passport — which you will find in perfect order, save for the fact that the date has been slightly altered — from me as soon as I have got the ladies safely in the troika out on the Tobolsk road, put off the livery of the Tsar, disguise yourself as effectually as may be, and take the first train back to Perm and Nizhni Novgorod as Stepan Bakuinin, fur merchant.
“The servant you can leave behind on any excuse. From Novgorod you can travel viâ Moscow to Königsberg, and, if you will take my advice, you will get out of Russia as soon as the Fates will let you.”
“It shall be done, Nobleness. But how will the disappearance of Dmitri Soudeikin, sub-commissioner of police, be accounted for?”
“That also has been provided for. Before you go you will pin this with a dagger to your sitting-room table.”
The official took the little piece of paper which Colston held out to him as he spoke. It read thus —
Dmitri Soudeikin, sub-commissioner of police at Tiumen, has been removed for over-zeal in the service of the Tsar.
Soudeikin bowed almost to the ground as the dreaded name of the Master of the Terror met his eyes, and then he said, as he handed the paper back —
“It is so! The Master sees all, and cares for the least of his servants. My life shall be forfeited if the ladies are not released as I have said.”
“It probably will be,” returned Colston drily. “None of us expect to get out of this business alive if it does not succeed. Now that is all I have to say for the present. It is for you to bring the ladies here as your prisoners, to see us out of the town before daybreak, and to have the troika in readiness for us on the Tobolsk road. Then see to yourself and I will be responsible for the rest.”
As it still wanted more than two hours to the expected arrival of the train, Soudeikin had the samovar, or tea-urn, brought in, and Colston and Ivan made a hearty meal after their five-mile walk through the snow. Then they and their host lit their pipes, and smoked and chatted until a distant whistle warned Soudeikin that the train was at last approaching the station, and that it was time for him to be on duty to receive his convict-lodgers.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08