It was nearly eleven the next morning by the time Arnold and Colston had finished breakfast. This was mostly due to the fact that Arnold had passed an almost entirely sleepless night, and had only begun to doze off towards morning. The events of the previous evening kept on repeating themselves in various sequences time after time, until his brain reeled in the whirl of emotions that they gave rise to.
Although of a strongly mathematical and even mechanical turn of mind, the young engineer was also an enthusiast, and therefore there was a strong colouring of romance in his nature which lifted him far above the level upon which his mere intellect was accustomed to work.
Where intellect alone was concerned — as, for instance, in the working out of a problem in engineering or mechanics — he was cool, calculating, and absolutely unemotional. His highly-disciplined mind was capable of banishing every other subject from consideration save the one which claimed the attention of the hour, and of incorporating itself wholly with the work in hand until it was finished.
These qualities would have been quite sufficient to assure his success in life on conventional lines. They would have made him rich, and perhaps famous, but they would never have made him a great inventor; for no one can do anything really great who is not a dreamer as well as a worker.
It was because he was a dreamer that he had sacrificed everything to the working out of his ideal, and risked his life on the chance of success, and it was for just the same reason that the tremendous purposes of the Brotherhood had been able to fire his imagination with luridly brilliant dreams of a gigantic world-tragedy in which he, armed with almost supernatural powers, should play the central part.
This of itself would have been enough to make all other considerations of trivial moment in his eyes, and to bind him irrevocably to the Brotherhood. He saw, it is true, that a frightful amount of slaughter and suffering would be the price either of success or failure in so terrific a struggle; but he also knew that that struggle was inevitable in some form or other, and whether he took a part in it or not.
But since the last sun had set a new element had come into his life, and was working in line with both his imagination and his ambition. So far he had lived his life without any other human love than what was bound up with his recollections of his home and his boyhood. As a man he had never loved any human being. Science had been his only mistress, and had claimed his undivided devotion, engrossing his mind and intellect completely, but leaving his heart free.
And now, as it were in an instant, a new mistress had come forward out of the unknown. She had put her hand upon his heart, and, though no words of human speech had passed between them, save the merest commonplaces, her soul had said to his, “This is mine. I have called it into life, and for me it shall live until the end.”
He had heard this as plainly as though it had been said to him with the lips of flesh, and he had acquiesced in the imperious claim with a glad submission which had yet to be tinged with the hope that it might some day become a mastery.
Thus, as the silent, sleepless hours went by, did he review over and over again the position in which he found himself on the threshold of his strange new life, until at last physical exhaustion brought sleep to his eyes if not to his brain, and he found himself flying over the hills and vales of dreamland in his air-ship, with the roar of battle and the smoke of ruined towns far beneath him, and Natasha at his side, sharing with him the dominion of the air that his genius had won.
At length Colston came in to tell him that the breakfast was spoiling, and that it was high time to get up if they intended to be in time for their appointment at Chelsea. This brought him out of bed with effective suddenness, and he made a hasty toilet for breakfast, leaving more important preparations until afterwards.
During the meal their conversation naturally turned chiefly on the visit that they were to pay, and Colston took the opportunity of explaining one or two things that it was necessary for him to know with regard to the new acquaintance that he was about to make at Chelsea.
“So far as the outside world is concerned,” said he, “Natasha is the niece of the Princess Ornovski. She is the daughter of a sister of hers, who married an English gentleman, named Darrel, who was drowned with his wife about twelve years ago, when the Albania was wrecked off the coast of Portugal. The Princess had a sister, who was drowned with her husband in the Albania, and she left a daughter about Natasha’s then age, but who died of consumption shortly after in Nice.
“Under these circumstances, it was, of course, perfectly easy for the Princess to adopt Natasha, and introduce her into Society as her niece as soon as she reached the age of coming out.
“This has been of immense service to the Brotherhood, as the Princess is, as I told you, one of the most implicitly trusted allies of the Petersburg police. She is received at the Russian Court, and is therefore able to take Natasha into the best Russian Society, where her extraordinary beauty naturally enables her to break as many hearts as she likes, and to learn secrets which are of the greatest importance to the Brotherhood.
“Her Society name is Fedora Darrel, and it will scarcely be necessary to tell you that outside our own Circle no such being as Natasha has any existence.”
“I perfectly understand,” replied Arnold. “The name shall never pass my lips save in privacy, and indeed it is hardly likely that it will ever do so even then, for your habit of calling each other by your Christian names is too foreign to my British insularity.”
“It is a Russian habit, as you, of course, know, and added to that, we are, so far as the Cause is concerned, all brothers and sisters together, and so it comes natural to us. Anyhow, you will have to use it with Natasha, for in the Circle she has no other name, and to call her Miss Darrel there would be to produce something like an earthquake.”
“Oh, in that case, I daresay I shall be able to avoid the calamity, though there will seem to be a presumption about it that will not make me very comfortable at first.”
“Too much like addressing one’s sweetheart, eh?”
This brought the conversation to a sudden stop, for Arnold’s only reply to it was a quick flush, and a lapse into silence that was a good deal more eloquent than any verbal reply could have been. Colston noticed it with a smile, and got up and lit a pipe.
For the first time for a good few years Arnold took considerable pains with his toilet that morning. A new fit-out had just been delivered by a tailor who had promised the things within twenty-four hours, and had kept his word. The consequences were that he was able to array himself in perfect morning costume, from his hat to his boots, and that was what it had not been his to do since he left college.
Colston had recommended him in his easy friendly way to pay scrupulous attention to externals in the part that he would henceforth have to play before the world. He fully saw the wisdom of this advice, for he knew that, however well a part may be played, if it is not dressed to perfection, some sharp eyes will see that it is a part and not a reality.
The playing of his part was to begin that day, and he recognised that at least one of the purposes of his visit to Natasha was the determining of what that part was to be. He thus looked forward with no little curiosity to the events of the afternoon, quite apart from the supreme interest that centred in his hostess.
They started out nearly a couple of hours before they were due at Cheyne Walk, as they had several orders to give with regard to Arnold’s outfit for the journey that was before him; and this done, they reached the house about a quarter of an hour before lunch time.
They were received in the most delightful of sitting-rooms by a very handsome, aristocratic-looking woman, who might have been anywhere between forty and fifty. She shook hands very cordially with Arnold, saying as she did so —
“Welcome, Richard Arnold! The friends of the Cause are mine, and I have heard much about you already from Natasha, so that I already seem to know you. I am very sorry that I was not able to be at the Circle last night to see what you had to show. Natasha tells me that it is quite a miracle of genius.”
“She is too generous in her praise,” replied Arnold, speaking as quietly as he could in spite of the delight that the words gave him. “It is no miracle, but only the logical result of thought and work. Still, I hope that it will be found to realise its promise when the time of trial comes.”
“Of that I have no doubt, from all that I hear,” said the Princess. “Before long I shall hope to see it for myself. Ah, here is Natasha. Come, I must introduce you afresh, for you do not know her yet as the world knows her.”
Arnold heard the door open behind him as the Princess spoke, and, turning round, saw Natasha coming towards him with her hand outstretched and a smile of welcome on her beautiful face. Before their hands met the Princess moved quietly between them and said, half in jest and half in earnest —
“Fedora, permit me to present to you Mr. Richard Arnold, who is to accompany us to Russia to inspect the war-balloon offered to our Little Father the Tsar. Mr. Arnold, my niece, Fedora Darrel. There, now you know each other.”
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Arnold,” said Natasha, with mock gravity as they shook hands. “I have heard much already of your skill in connection with aërial navigation, and I have no doubt but that your advice will be of the greatest service to his Majesty.”
“That is as it may be,” answered Arnold, at once entering into the somewhat grim humour of the situation. “But if it is possible I should like to hear something a little definite as to this mission with which I have been, I fear, undeservingly honoured. I have been very greatly interested in the problem of aërial navigation for some years past, but I must confess that this is the first I have heard of these particular war-balloons.”
“It is for the purpose of enlightening you on that subject that this little party has been arranged,” said the Princess, turning for the moment away from Colston, with whom she was talking earnestly in a low tone. “Ha! There goes the lunch-bell. Mr. Colston, your arm. Fedora, will you show Mr. Arnold the way?”
Arnold opened the door for the Princess to go out, and then followed with Natasha on his arm. As they went out, she said in a low tone to him —
“I think, if you don’t mind, you had better begin at once to call me Miss Darrel, so as to get into the way of it. A slip might be serious, you know.”
“Your wishes are my laws, Miss Darrel,” replied he, the name slipping as easily off his tongue as if he had known her by it for months. It may have been only fancy on his part, he thought he felt just the lightest imaginable pressure on his arm as he spoke. At any rate, he was vain enough or audacious enough to take the impression for a reality, and walked the rest of the way to the dining-room on air.
The meal was dainty and perfectly served, but there were no servants present, for obvious reasons, and so they waited on themselves. Colston sat opposite the Princess and carved the partridges, while Arnold was vis-à-vis to Natasha, a fact which had a perceptible effect upon his appetite.
“Now,” said the Princess, as soon as every one was helped, “I will enlighten you, Mr. Arnold, as to your mission to Russia. One part of the business, I presume, you are already familiar with?”
Arnold bowed his assent, and she went on —
“Then the other is easily explained. Interested as you are in the question, I suppose there is no need to tell you that for several years past the Tsar has had an offer open to all the world of a million sterling for a vessel that will float in the air, and be capable of being directed in its course as a ship at sea can be directed.”
“Yes, I am well aware of the fact. Pray proceed.” As he said this Arnold glanced across the table at Natasha, and a swift smile and a flash from her suddenly unveiled eyes told him that she, too, was thinking of how the world’s history might have been altered had the Tsar’s million been paid for his invention. Then the Princess went on —
“Well, through a friend at the Russian Embassy, I have learnt that a French engineer has, as he says, perfected a balloon constructed on a new principle, which he claims will meet the conditions of the Tsar’s offer.
“My friend also told me that his Majesty had decided to take an entirely disinterested opinion with regard to this invention, and asked me if I could recommend any English engineer who had made a study of aërial navigation, and who would be willing to go to Russia, superintend the trials of the war-balloon, and report as to their success or otherwise.
“This happened a few days ago only, and as I had happened to read an article that you will remember you wrote about six months ago in the Nineteenth, or, as it is now called, the Twentieth Century, I thought of your name, and said I would try to find some one. Two days later I got news from the Circle of your invention — never mind how; you will learn that later on — and called at the Embassy to say I had found some one whose judgment could be absolutely relied upon. Now, wasn’t that kind of me, to give you such a testimonial as that to his Omnipotence the Tsar of All the Russias?”
Once more Arnold bowed his acknowledgments — this time somewhat ironically, and Natasha interrupted the narrative by saying with a spice of malice in her voice —
“No doubt the Little Father will duly recognise your kindness, Princess, when he gets quite to the bottom of the matter.”
“I hope he will,” replied the Princess, “but that is a matter of the future — and of considerable doubt as well.” Then, turning to Arnold again, she continued —
“You will now, of course, see the immense advantage there appeared to be in getting you to examine these war-balloons. They are evidently the only possible rivals to your own invention in the field, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that you should know their strength or their weakness, as the case may be.
“Well, that is all I have to say, so far. It has been decided that you shall go, if you are willing, with us to Petersburg the day after tomorrow to see the balloon, and make your report. All your expenses will be paid on the most liberal scale, for the Tsar is no niggard in spending either his own or other people’s money, and you will have a handsome fee into the bargain for your trouble.”
“So far as the work is concerned, of course, I undertake it willingly,” said Arnold, as the Princess stopped speaking. “But it hardly seems to me to be right that I should take even the Tsar’s money under such circumstances. To tell you the truth, it looks to me rather uncomfortably like false pretences.”
Again Natasha’s eyes flashed approval across the table, but nevertheless she said —
“You seem to forget, my friend, that we are at war with the Tsar, and all’s fair in-in love and war. Besides, if you have any scruples about keeping the fee for your professional services — which, after all, you will render as honestly as though it were the merest matter of business — you can put it into the treasury, and so ease your conscience. Remember, too,” she went on more seriously, “how the enormous wealth of this same Tsar has swollen by the confiscation of fortunes whose possessors had committed no other crime than becoming obnoxious to the corrupt bureaucracy.”
“I will take the fee if I fairly earn it, Miss Darrel,” replied Arnold, returning the glance as he spoke, “and it shall be my first contribution to the treasury of the Brotherhood.”
“Spoken like a sensible man,” chimed in the Princess. “After all, it is no worse than spoiling the Egyptians, and you have scriptural authority for that. However, you can do as you like with his Majesty’s money when you get it. The main fact is that you have the opportunity of going to earn it, and that Colonel Martinov is coming here to tea this afternoon to bring our passports, specially authorising us to travel without customs examination or any kind of questioning to any part of the Tsar’s dominions, and that, I can assure you, is a very exceptional honour indeed.”
“Who did you say? Martinov? Is that the Colonel Martinov who is the director of the secret police here?” asked Colston hurriedly.
“Yes,” replied the Princess, “the same. Why do you ask?”
“Because,” said Colston quietly, “he received the sentence of death nearly a month ago, and tomorrow night he will be executed, unless there is some accident. It was he who stood with the governor of Brovno in the prison-yard and watched Radna Michaelis flogged by the soldiers. I received news this morning that the arrangements are complete, and that the sentence will be carried out tomorrow night.”
“Yes, that is so,” added Natasha, as Colston ceased speaking. “Everything is settled. It is therefore well that he should do something useful before he meets his fate.”
“How curious that it should just happen so!” said the Princess calmly, as she rose from the table and moved towards the door followed by Natasha.
As soon as the ladies had left the room, Colston and Arnold lit their cigarettes and chatted while they smoked over their last glass of claret. Arnold would have liked to have asked more about the coming tragedy, but something in Colston’s manner restrained him; and so the conversation remained on the subject of the Russian journey until they returned to the sitting-room.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50