Supper was over about eleven, and then the party adjourned to the drawing-room, where for an hour or so Arnold sat and listened to such music and singing as he had never heard in his life before. The songs seemed to be in every language in Europe, and he did not understand anything like half of them, so far, at least, as the words were concerned.
They were, however, so far removed from the average drawing-room medley of twaddle and rattle that the music interpreted the words into its own universal language, and made them almost superfluous.
For the most part they were sad and passionate, and once or twice, especially when Radna Michaelis was singing, Arnold saw tears well up into the eyes of the women, and the brows of the men contract and their hands clench with sudden passion at the recollection of some terrible scene or story that was recalled by the song.
At last, close on midnight, the President rose from his seat and asked Natasha to sing the “Hymn of Freedom.” She acknowledged the request with an inclination of her head, and then as Radna sat down to the piano, and she took her place beside it, all the rest rose to their feet like worshippers in a church.
The prelude was rather longer than usual, and as Radna played it Arnold heard running through it, as it were, echoes of all the patriotic songs of Europe from “Scots Wha Hae” and “The Shan van Voght” to the forbidden Polish National Hymn and the Swiss Republican song, which is known in England as “God Save the Queen.” The prelude ended with a few bars of the “Marseillaise,” and then Natasha began.
It was a marvellous performance. As the air changed from nation to nation the singer changed the language, and at the end of each verse the others took up the strain in perfect harmony, till it sounded like a chorus of the nations in miniature, each language coming in its turn until the last verse was reached.
Then there was silence for a moment, and then the opening chords of the “Marseillaise” rang out from the piano, slow and stately at first, and then quickening like the tread of an army going into battle.
Suddenly Natasha’s voice soared up, as it were, out of the music, and a moment later the Song of the Revolution rolled forth in a flood of triumphant melody, above which Natasha’s pure contralto thrilled sweet and strong, till to Arnold’s intoxicated senses it seemed like the voice of some angel singing from the sky in the ears of men, and it was not until the hymn had been ended for some moments that he was recalled to earth by the President saying to him —
“Some day, perhaps, you will be floating in the clouds, and you will hear that hymn rising from the throats of millions gathered together from the ends of the earth, and when you hear that you will know that our work is done, and that there is peace on earth at last.”
“I hope so,” replied the engineer quietly, “and, what is more, I believe that some day I shall hear it.”
“I believe so too,” suddenly interrupted Radna, turning round on her seat at the piano, “but there will be many a battle-song sung to the accompaniment of battle-music before that happens. I wish”—
“That all Russia were a haystack, and that you were beside it with a lighted torch,” said Natasha, half in jest and half in earnest.
“Yes, truly!” replied Radna, turning round and dashing fiercely into the “Marseillaise” again.
“I have no doubt of it. But, come, it is after midnight, and we have to get back to Cheyne Walk. The princess will think we have been arrested or something equally dreadful. Ah, Mr. Colston, we have a couple of seats to spare in the brougham. Will you and our Admiral of the Air condescend to accept a lift as far as Chelsea?”
“The condescension is in the offer, Natasha,” replied Colston, flushing with pleasure and glancing towards Radna the while. Radna answered with an almost imperceptible sign of consent, and Colston went on: “If it were in an utterly opposite direction”—
“You would not be asked to come, sir. So don’t try to pay compliments at the expense of common sense,” laughed Natasha before he could finish. “If you do you shall sit beside me instead of Radna all the way.”
There was a general smile at this retort, for Colston’s avowed devotion to Radna and the terrible circumstances out of which it had sprung was one of the romances of the Circle.
As for Arnold, he could scarcely believe his ears when he heard that he was to ride from Clapham Common to Chelsea sitting beside this radiantly beautiful girl, behind whose innocence and gaiety there lay the shadow of her mysterious and terrible parentage.
Lovely and gentle as she seemed, he knew even now how awful a power she held in the slender little hand whose nervous clasp he could still feel upon his own, and this knowledge seemed to raise an invisible yet impassable barrier between him and the possibility of looking upon her as under other circumstances it would have been natural for a man to look upon so fair a woman.
Natasha’s brougham was so far an improvement on those of the present day that it had two equally comfortable seats, and on these the four were cosily seated a few minutes after the party broke up. To Arnold, and, doubtless, to Colston also, the miles flew past at an unheard-of speed; but for all that, long before the carriage stopped at the house in Cheyne Walk, he had come to the conviction that, for good or evil, he was now bound to the Brotherhood by far stronger ties than any social or political opinions could have formed.
After they had said good-night at the door, and received an invitation to lunch for the next day to talk over the journey to Russia, he and Colston decided to walk to the Savoy, for it was a clear moonlit night, and each had a good deal to say to the other, which could be better and more safely said in the open air than in a cab. So they lit their cigars, buttoned up their coats, and started off eastward along the Embankment to Vauxhall.
“Well, my friend, tell me how you have enjoyed your evening, and what you think of the company,” said Colston, by way of opening the conversation.
“Until supper I had a very pleasant time of it. I enjoyed the business part of the proceedings intensely, as any other mechanical enthusiast would have done, I suppose. But I frankly confess that after that my mind is in a state of complete chaos, in the midst of which only one figure stands out at all distinctly.”
“And that figure is?”
“Natasha. Tell me — who is she?”
“I know no more as to her true identity than you do, or else I would answer you with pleasure.”
“What! Do you mean to say”—
“I mean to say just what I have said. Not only do I not know who she is, but I do not believe that more than two or three members of the Circle, at the outside, know any more than I do. Those are, probably, Nicholas Roburoff, the President of the Executive, and his wife, and Radna Michaelis.”
“Then, if Radna knows, how comes it that you do not know? You must forgive me if I am presuming on a too short acquaintance; but it certainly struck me to-night that you had very few secrets from each other.”
“There is no presumption about it, my dear fellow,” replied Colston, with a laugh. “It is no secret that Radna and I are lovers, and that she will be my wife when I have earned her.”
“Now you have raised my curiosity again,” interrupted Arnold, in an inquiring tone.
“And will very soon satisfy it. You saw that horrible picture in the Council-chamber? Yes. Well, I will tell you the whole story of that some day when we have more time; but for the present it will be enough for me to tell you that I have sworn not to ask Radna to come with me to the altar while a single person who was concerned in that nameless crime remains alive.
“There were five persons responsible for it to begin with — the governor of the prison, the prefect of police for the district, a spy, who informed against her, and the two soldiers who executed the infernal sentence. It happened nearly three years ago, and there are two of them alive still — the governor and the prefect of police.
“Of course the Brotherhood would have removed them long ago had it decided to do so; but I got the circumstances laid before Natas, by the help of Natasha, and received permission to execute the sentences myself. So far I have killed three with my own hand, and the other two have not much longer to live.
“The governor has been transferred to Siberia, and will probably be the last that I shall reach. The prefect is now in command of the Russian secret police in London, and unless an accident happens he will never leave England.”
Colston spoke in a cold, passionless, merciless tone, just as a lawyer might speak of a criminal condemned to die by the ordinary process of the law, and as Arnold heard him he shuddered. But at the same time the picture in the Council-chamber came up before his mental vision, and he was forced to confess that men who could so far forget their manhood as to lash a helpless woman up to a triangle and flog her till her flesh was cut to ribbons, were no longer men but wild beasts, whose very existence was a crime. So he merely said —
“They were justly slain. Now tell me more about Natasha.”
“There is very little more that I can tell you, I’m afraid. All I know is that the Brotherhood of the Terror is the conception and creation of a single man, and that that man is Natas, the father of Natasha, as she is known to us. His orders come to us either directly in writing through Natasha, or indirectly through him you have heard spoken of as the Chief.”
“Oh, then the Chief is not Natas?”
“No, we have all of us seen him. In fact, when he is in London he always presides at the Circle meetings. You would hardly believe it, but he is an English nobleman, and Secretary to the English Embassy at Petersburg.”
“Then he is Lord Alanmere, and an old college friend of mine!” exclaimed Arnold. “I saw his name in the paper the night before last. It was mentioned in the account of the murder”—
“We don’t call those murders, my friend,” drily interrupted Colston; “we call them what they really are — executions.”
“I beg your pardon; I was using the phraseology of the newspaper. What was his crime?”
“I don’t know. But the fact that the Chief was there when he died is quite enough for me. Well, as I was saying, the Chief, as we call him, is the visible and supreme head of the Brotherhood so far as we are concerned. We know that Natas exists, and that he and the Chief admit no one save Natasha to their councils.
“They control the treasury absolutely, and apart from the contributions of those of the members who can afford to make them, they appear to provide the whole of the funds. Of course, Lord Alanmere, as you know, is enormously wealthy, and probably Natas is also rich. At any rate, there is never any want of money where the work of the Brotherhood is concerned.
“The estimates are given to Natasha when the Chief is not present, and at the next meeting she brings the money in English gold and notes, or in foreign currency as may be required, and that is all we know about the finances.
“Perhaps I ought to tell you that there is also a very considerable mystery about the Chief himself. When he presides at the Council meetings he displays a perfectly marvellous knowledge of both the members and the working of the Brotherhood.
“It would seem that nothing, however trifling, is hidden from him; and yet when any of us happen to meet him, as we often do, in Society, he treats us all as the most perfect strangers, unless we have been regularly introduced to him as ordinary acquaintances. Even then he seems utterly ignorant of his connection with the Brotherhood.
“The first time I met him outside the Circle was at a ball at the Russian Embassy. I went and spoke to him, giving the sign of the Inner Circle as I did so. To my utter amazement, he stared at me without a sign of recognition, and calmly informed me, in the usual way, that I had the advantage of him.
“Of course I apologised, and he accepted the apology with perfect good humour, but as an utter stranger would have done. A little later Natasha came in with the Princess Ornovski, whom you are going to Russia with, and who is there one of the most trusted agents of the Petersburg police. I told her what had happened.
“She looked at me for a moment rather curiously with those wonderful eyes of hers; then she laughed softly, and said, ‘Come, I will set that at rest by introducing you; but mind, not a word about politics or those horrible secret societies, as you value my good opinion.’
“I understood from this that there was something behind which could not be explained there, where every other one you danced with might be a spy, and I was introduced to his Lordship, and we became very good friends in the ordinary social way; but I failed to gather the slightest hint from his conversation that he even knew of the existence of the Brotherhood.
“When we left I drove home with Natasha and the Princess to supper, and on the way Natasha told me that his Lordship found it necessary to lead two entirely distinct lives, and that he adhered so rigidly to this rule that he never broke it even with her. Since then I have been most careful to respect what, after all, is a very wise, if not an absolutely necessary, precaution on his part.”
“And, now,” said Arnold, speaking in a tone that betrayed not a little hesitation and embarrassment, “if you can do so, answer me one more question, and do so as shortly and directly as you can. Is Natasha in love with, or betrothed to, any member of the Brotherhood as far as you know?”
Colston stopped and looked at him with a laugh in his eyes. Then he put his hand on his shoulder and said —
“As I thought, and feared! You have not escaped the common lot of all heart-whole men upon whom those terrible eyes of hers have looked. The Angel of the Revolution, as we call her among ourselves, is peerless among the daughters of men. What more natural, then, that all the sons of men should fall speedy victims to her fatal charms? So far as I know, every man who has ever seen her is more or less in love with her — and mostly more!
“As for the rest, I am as much in the dark as you are, save for the fact that I know, on the authority of Radna, that she is not betrothed to any one, and, so far as she knows, still in the blissful state of maiden fancy-freedom.”
“Thank God for that!” said Arnold, with an audible sigh of relief. Then he went on in somewhat hurried confusion, “But there, of course, you think me a presumptuous ass, and so I am; wherefore”—
“There is no need for you to talk nonsense, my dear fellow. There never can be presumption in an honest man’s love, no matter how exalted the object of it may be. Besides, are you not now the central hope of the Revolution, and is not yours the hand that shall hurl destruction on its enemies?
“As for Natasha, peerless and all as she is, has not the poet of the ages said of just such as her —
She’s beautiful, and therefore to be woo’d;
She is a woman: therefore to be won?
“And who, too, has a better chance of winning her than you will have when you are commanding the aërial fleet of the Brotherhood, and, like a very Jove, hurling your destroying bolts from the clouds, and deciding the hazard of war when the nations of Europe are locked in the death-struggle? Why, you see such a prospect makes even me poetical.
“Seriously, though, you must not consider the distance between you too great. Remember that you are a very different person now to what you were a couple of days ago. Without any offence, I may say that you were then nameless, while now you have the chance of making a name that will go down to all time as that of the solver of the greatest problem of this or any other age.
“Added to this, remember that Natasha, after all, is a woman, and, more than that, a woman devoted heart and soul to a great cause, in which great deeds are soon to be done. Great deeds are still the shortest way to a woman’s heart, and that is the way you must take if you are to hope for success.”
“I will!” simply replied Arnold, and the tone in which the two words were said convinced Colston that he meant all that they implied to its fullest extent.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54