No time had ever seemed so long to Colston as did the hour and a half which passed after the departure of Soudeikin until his return. He would have given anything to have accompanied him to the station, but it would have been so very unwise to have incurred the risk of being questioned, and perhaps obliged to show the passport that Soudeikin was to use, that he controlled his impatience as best he could, and let events take their course.
At length, when he had looked at his watch for the fiftieth time, and found that it indicated nearly half-past eleven, there was a heavy knock at the door. As it opened, Colston heard a rattle of arms and a clinking of chains. Then there was a sound of gruff guttural voices in the entrance-hall, and the next moment the door of the room was thrown open, and Soudeikin walked in, followed by a young man in the uniform of a lieutenant of the line, and after them came two soldiers, to one of whom was handcuffed the Princess Ornovski, and to the other Natasha.
Shocked as he was at the pitiable change that had taken place in the appearance of the two prisoners since he had last seen them in freedom, Colston was far too well trained in the school of conspiracy to let the slightest sign of surprise or recognition escape him.
He and Ivan rose as the party entered, greeted Soudeikin and saluted the officer, hardly glancing at the two pale, haggard women in their rough grey shapeless gowns and hoods as they stood beside the men to whom they were chained.
As the officer returned Colston’s salute he turned to Soudeikin and said civilly enough —
“I did not know you had another guest. I hope we shall not overcrowd you.”
“By no means,” replied the commissioner, waving his hand toward Colston as he spoke. “This is only my nephew, Ernst Vronski, who is staying with me for a day or two on his way through to Nizhni Novgorod with his furs, and that is his servant, Ivan Arkavitch. You need not be uneasy. I have plenty of rooms, as I live almost alone, and I have set apart one for the prisoners which I think will satisfy you in every way. Would it please you to come and see it?”
“Yes, we will go now and get them put in safety for the night, if you will lead the way.”
As the party left the room Colston caught one swift glance from Natasha which told him that she understood his presence in the house fully, and he felt that, despite her miserable position, he had an ally in her who could be depended upon.
The officer carefully examined the room which had been provided for the two prisoners, tried the heavy shutters with which the windows were closed, and took from Soudeikin the keys of the padlocks to the bars which ran across them. He then directed the prisoners to be released from their handcuffs and locked them in the room, stationing one of the soldiers at the door and sending the other to patrol the back of the house from which the two windows of the room looked out.
At the end of two hours the sentries were to change places, and in two hours more they were to be relieved by a detachment from the night patrol. This arrangement had been foreseen by Soudeikin, and it had been settled that the rescue was to be attempted as soon as the guard had been changed.
This would give the prisoners time to get a brief but much needed rest after their long and miserable journey from Perm, penned up like sheep in iron-barred cattle trucks, and it would leave the drowsiest part of the night, from four o’clock to sunrise, for the hazardous work in hand.
“That is a pretty girl you have there, captain,” said Colston, as the officer returned to the sitting-room. “Is she for the mines or Sakhalin?”
“For Sakhalin by sentence, but as a matter of fact for neither, as far as I can see.”
“You mean that the Little Father will pardon her or give her a lighter sentence, I suppose.”
The officer grinned meaningly as he replied —
“Nu vot! That is hardly likely. What I mean is that Captain Kharkov, who is in command of the convict train from here, has had instructions to convey her as comfortably as possible, and with no more fatigue than is necessary, to Tchit, in the Trans–Baikal, and that he is also charged with a letter from the Governor of Perm to the Governor of Tchit.
“You know these gentlemen like to do each other a good turn when they can, and so, putting two and two together, I should say that his Excellency of Perm has concluded that our pretty prisoner will serve to beguile the dulness of that Godforsaken hole in which his Excellency of Tchit is probably dying of ennui. She will be more comfortable there than at Sakhalin, and it is a lucky thing for her that she has found favour in his Excellency’s eyes.”
Colston could have shot the fellow where he sat leering across the table; but though his blood was at boiling point, he controlled himself sufficiently to make a reply after the same fashion, and soon after took his leave and retired for the night.
At four o’clock the guard was changed. The new officer, after taking the keys, unlocked the door of the room in which Natasha and the Princess were confined, and roused them up to satisfy himself that they were still in safe keeping. It was a brutal formality, but perfectly characteristic of Siberian officialism.
The man who had been on guard so far joined the patrol and returned to the barracks, while the new officer made himself comfortable with a bottle of brandy, with which Soudeikin had obligingly provided him, in the sitting-room. It was a bitterly cold night, and he drank a couple of glasses of it in quick succession. Ten minutes after he had swallowed the second he rolled backwards on the couch on which he was sitting and went fast asleep. A few moments later he had ceased to breathe.
Then the door opened softly and Soudeikin and Colston slipped into the room. The former shook him by the shoulder. His eyes remained half closed, his head lolled loosely from side to side, and his arms hung heavily downwards.
“He’s gone,” whispered Soudeikin; and, without another word, they set to work to strip the uniform off the lifeless body. Then Colston dressed himself in it and gave his own clothes to Soudeikin.
As soon as the change was effected, Colston took the keys and went to the door at which the sentry was keeping guard. The man was already half asleep, and blinked at him with drowsy eyes as he challenged him. For all answer the Terrorist levelled his pistol at his head and fired. There was a sharp crack that could hardly have been heard on the other side of the wall, and the man tumbled down with a bullet through his brain.
Colston stepped over the corpse, unlocked the door, and found Natasha and the Princess already dressed in male attire as two peasant boys, with sheepskin coats and shapkas, and wide trousers tucked into their half boots. These disguises had been provided beforehand by Soudeikin, and hidden in the bed in which they were to sleep.
Colston grasped their hands in silence, and the three left the room. In the passage they found Ivan and Soudeikin, the former dressed in the uniform of the soldier who had been on guard outside the house, and whose half-stripped corpse was now lying buried in the snow.
“Ready?” whispered Soudeikin.
“Have you finished in there?” asked Colston, jerking his thumb towards the sitting-room.
Soudeikin nodded in reply, and the five left the house by the back door.
It was then after half-past four. Fortunately it was a dark cloudy morning, and the streets of the town were utterly deserted. By ones and twos they stole through the by-streets and lanes without meeting a soul, until Soudeikin at length stopped at a house on the eastern edge of the town about a mile from the Tobolsk road.
He tapped at one of the windows. The door was softly opened by an invisible hand, and they entered and passed through a dark passage and out into a stable-yard behind the house. Under a shed they found a troika, or three-horse sleigh, with the horses ready harnessed, in charge of a man dressed as a mujik.
They got in without a word, all but Soudeikin, who went to the horses’ heads, while the other man went and opened the gates of the yard. The bells had been removed from the harness, and the horses’ feet made no sound as Soudeikin led them out through the gate. Ivan took the reins, and Colston held out his hand from the sleigh. There was a roll of notes in it, and as he gave it to Soudeikin he whispered —
“Farewell! If we succeed, the Master shall know how well you have done your part.”
Soudeikin took the money with a salute and a whispered farewell, and Ivan trotted his horses quietly down the lane and swung round into the road at the end of it.
So far all had gone well, but the supreme moment of peril had yet to come. A mile away down the road was the guard-house on the Tobolsk road leading out of the town, and this had to be passed before there was even a chance of safety.
As there was no hope of getting the sleigh past unobserved, Colston had determined to trust to a rush when the moment came. He had given Natasha and the Princess a magazine pistol apiece, and held a brace in his own hands; so among them they had a hundred shots.
Ivan kept his horses at an easy trot till they were within a hundred yards of the guard-house. Then, at a sign from Colston, he suddenly lashed them into a gallop, and the sleigh dashed forward at a headlong speed, swept round the curve past the guard-house, hurling one of the sentries on guard to the earth, and away out on to the Tobolsk road.
The next instant the notes of a bugle rang out clear and shrill just as another sounded from the other end of the town. Colston at once guessed what had happened. The inspector of the patrols, in going his rounds, had called at Soudeikin’s house to see if all was right, and had discovered the tragedy that had taken place. He looked back and saw a body of Cossacks galloping down the main street towards the guard-house, waving their lanterns and brandishing their spears above their heads.
“Whip up, Ivan, they will be on us in a couple of minutes!” he cried and Ivan swung his long whip out over his horses’ ears, and shouted at them till they put their heads down and tore over the smooth snow in gallant style.
By the time the race for life or death really began they had a good mile start, and as they had only four more to go Ivan did not spare his cattle, but plied whip and voice with a will till the trees whirled past in a continuous dark line, and the sleigh seemed to fly over the snow almost without touching it.
Still the Cossacks gained on them yard by yard, till at the end of the fourth mile they were less than three hundred yards behind. Then Colston leant over the back of the sleigh, and taking the best aim he could, sent half a dozen shots among them. He saw a couple of the flying figures reel and fall, but their comrades galloped heedlessly over them, yelling wildly at the tops of their voices, and every moment lessening the distance between themselves and the sleigh.
Colston fired a dozen more shots into them, and had the satisfaction of seeing three or four of them roll into the snow. At the same time he put a whistle to his lips, and blew a long shrill call that sounded high and clear above the hoarse yells of the Cossacks.
Their pursuers were now within a hundred yards of them, and Natasha, speaking for the first time since the race had begun, said —
“I think I can do something now.”
As she spoke she leaned out of the sleigh sideways, and began firing rapidly at the Cossacks. Shot after shot told either upon man or beast, for the daughter of Natas was one of the best shots in the Brotherhood; but before she had fired a dozen times a bright gleam of white light shot downwards over the trees, apparently from the clouds, full in the faces of their pursuers.
Involuntarily they reined up like one man, and their yells of fury changed in an instant into a general cry of terror. The Cossacks are as brave as any soldiers on earth, and they can fight any mortal foe like the fiends that they are, but here was an enemy they had never seen before, a strange, white, ghostly-looking thing that floated in the clouds and glared at them with a great blazing, blinding eye, dazzling them and making their horses plunge and rear like things possessed.
They were not long left in doubt as to the intentions of their new enemy. Something came rushing through the air and struck the ground almost at the feet of their first rank. Then there was a flash of green light, a stunning report, and men and horses were rent into fragments and hurled into the air like dead leaves before a hurricane.
Only three or four who had turned tail at once were left alive; and these, without daring to look behind them, drove their spurs into their horses’ flanks and galloped back to Tiumen, half mad with terror, to tell how a demon had come down from the skies, annihilated their comrades, and carried the fugitives away into the clouds upon its back.
When they reached the town it was a scene of the utmost panic. Soldiers were galloping and running hither and thither, bugles were sounding, and the whole population were turning out into the snow-covered streets. On every lip there were only two words —“Natas!” “The Terrorists!”
The death sentence on Soudeikin, the sub-commissioner of police, had been found pinned with a dagger to the table in the room in which lay the body of the lieutenant, with the bloody T on his forehead. Soudeikin had vanished utterly, leaving only his uniform behind him; so had the two prisoners for whom he had made himself responsible, and at the door of their room lay the corpse of the sentry with a bullet-hole clean through his head from front to back, while in the snow under one of the windows of the room lay the body of the other sentry, stabbed through the heart.
From the very midst of one of the strongholds of Russian tyranny in Siberia, two important prisoners and a police official had been spirited away as though by magic, and now upon the top of all the wonder and dismay came the fugitive Cossacks with their wild tale about the air-demon that had swooped down and destroyed their troop at a single blow. To crown all, half an hour later three horses, mad with fear, came galloping up the Tobolsk road, dragging behind them an empty sleigh, to one of the seats of which was pinned a scrap of paper on which was written —
“The daughter of Natas sends greeting to the Governor of Tiumen, and thanks him for his hospitality.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50