"This time?" repeated the Count, as though not understanding. "Why do you say this time?"
"Because you have so often expected it before," returned the Cossack bluntly, but without malice.
"I do not remember ever saying so," said the other, evidently searching among his recollections.
"Every Tuesday," growled Dumnoff, sipping his peppery liquor. "Every Tuesday since I can remember."
"I think you must be mistaken," said the Count, politely.
Dumnoff grunted something quite incomprehensible, and which might have been taken for the clearing of his huge throat after the inflaming draught. The Cossack was silent, and his bright eyes looked pityingly at his companion.
"And you have begun to put together your parcels for the journey, I see," he observed after a time, when the Count had got his morsel of food and was beginning to eat it. His curiosity gave him no rest.
"Yes," answered the Count, mysteriously. "That is something which I shall probably take with me, as a remembrance of Munich."
"I should not have thought that you needed anything more than a cigarette to remind you of the place," remarked Dumnoff.
The Count smiled faintly, for, considering Dumnoff's natural dulness, the remark had a savour of wit in it.
"That is true," he said. "But there are other things which could remind me even more forcibly of my exile."
"Well, what is it? Tell us!" cried Dumnoff, impatiently enough, but somewhat softened by the Count's appreciation of his humour. At the same time he put out his broad red hand in the direction of the parcel as though he would see for himself.
"Let it be!" said Schmidt sharply, and Dumnoff withdrew his hand again. He had fallen into the habit of always doing what the Cossack told him to do, obeying mutely, like a well-trained dog, though he obeyed no one else. The descendant of freemen instinctively lorded it over the descendant of the serf, and the latter as instinctively submitted.
The Count's temper, however, was singularly changeable on this day, for he did not seem to resent Dumnoff's meditated attack upon the package, as he would certainly have done under ordinary circumstances.
"If you are so very curious to know what it is, I will tell you," he said. "You know the Wiener Gigerl?"
"Of course," answered both men together.
"Well, that is it, in that parcel."
"The Gigerl!" exclaimed the Cossack. Dumnoff only opened his small eyes in stupid amazement. Both knew something of the circumstances under which Fischelowitz had come into possession of the doll, and both knew what store the tobacconist set by it.
"Then you have paid the fifty marks?" asked Schmidt, whose curiosity was roused instead of satisfied.
"No. I shall pay the money to-morrow. I have promised to do so. As it chances, it will be convenient." The Count smiled to himself in a meaning way, as though already enjoying the triumph of laying the gold pieces upon the counter under Akulina's flat nose.
"And yet Fischelowitz has already given it to you! He must be very sure of you—" With his usual lack of tact, Schmidt had gone further than he meant to do, but the transaction savoured of the marvellous.
"To be strictly truthful," said the Count, who had a Quixotic fear of misleading in the smallest degree any one to whom he was speaking, "to be exactly honest, there is a circumstance which makes it less remarkable that Fischelowitz should have given me the doll at once."
"Of course, of course!" exclaimed the Cossack, anxious to appear credulous out of kindness. "Fischelowitz knows as well as you do yourself how safe you are to get the money to-morrow."
"Naturally," replied the Count, with great calmness. "But besides that, the Gigerl is broken—badly broken in the middle, and the musical box is spoiled too."
"Fischelowitz must have been very angry," observed Dumnoff.
"Not at all. It was his wife. Akulina knocked it from the counter into the farthest corner of the shop."
"Tell us all about it," said Schmidt, more interested than ever.
"Ah, that—that is quite another matter," answered the Count, reddening perceptibly as he remembered Akulina's furious abuse.
"If you do not, I have no doubt that she will," said Dumnoff, taking another sip. "She always gives the news of you, before you come in the morning, before we have made our first hundred."
The Count grew redder still, the angry colour mantling in his lean cheeks. He hesitated a moment, and then made up his mind.
"If that is likely to happen," he cried, "I had better tell you the truth myself, instead of giving her an opportunity of distorting it."
"Much better," said the Cossack, eagerly. "One can believe you better than her."
"That is true, at all events," chimed in Dumnoff, who was only brutal and never malicious.
"Well, it happened in this way. Fischelowitz and I were talking of to-morrow, I think, when she came in from the back shop, having overheard something we had been saying. Of course she immediately took advantage of my presence to exercise her wit upon me, a proceeding to which I have grown accustomed, seeing that she is only a woman. Then Fischelowitz told her to choose her language, and that started her afresh. It was rather a fine specimen of chosen language that she gave us, for she has a good command of our beautiful mother-tongue. She found very strong words, and she said among other things that it was my fault that her husband had got a Wiener Gigerl for fifty marks of good money. And then Fischelowitz, in his easy way and while she was talking, wound the doll up and set it before him on the counter and smiled at it. But she went on, worse than before, and called me everything under the sun. Of course I could do nothing but wait until she had finished, for I could not beat her, and I would not let her think that she could drive me away by mere talk, bad as it was."
"What did she call you?" asked Dumnoff, with a grin.
"She called me a good-for-nothing," said the Count, reddening with anger again, so that the veins stood out on his throat above his collar. "And she called me, I think, an adventurer."
"Is that all?" laughed Dumnoff. "I have been called by worse names than that in my time!"
"I have not," answered the Count, with sudden coolness. "However, between me and Fischelowitz and the Gigerl, she grew so angry that she struck the only one of us three against whom she dared lift hand. That member of the company chanced to be the unfortunate doll. And then I promised that to-morrow I would pay the money, and I made Fischelowitz give it to me in a piece of newspaper, and there it is."
"What a terrible smash there must have been in the shop!" said Dumnoff. "I would like to have seen the lady's face."
In their Russian speech, the difference between the original social standing of the three men who now worked as equals, was well defined by their way of speaking of Fischelowitz's wife. To Dumnoff, mujik by origin and by nature, she was "barina," the town "lady," to the Cossack she was "chosjaika," the "mistress," the wife of the "patron"—to the Count she was Akulina, and when he addressed her he called her Akulina Feodorovna, adding the derivative of her father's name in accordance with the universal Russian custom.
"Let us see the doll," said Schmidt, still curious. The Count, whose eating had been interrupted by the telling of his story, pushed the parcel towards the Cossack with one hand, while using his fork with the other.
Johann Schmidt carefully unwrapped the newspaper and exposed the unfortunate Gigerl to view. Then with both hands he set it up before him, raising the limp figure from the waist, and trying to put it into position, until it almost recovered something of its old look of insolence, though the eye-glass was broken and the little white hat sadly battered. The three men contemplated it in silence, and the other guests turned curious glances towards it. Dumnoff, as usual, laughed hoarsely.
"Rather the worse for wear," he observed.
"Kreuzmillionendonnerwetter! That is my Gigerl!" roared a deep German voice across the room.
The three Russians started and looked round quickly. One of the porters, a burly man with an angry scowl on his honest face, was already on his legs and was striding towards the table.
"That is my Gigerl!" he repeated, laying one heavy hand upon the board, and thrusting the forefinger of the other under the doll's nose.
Dumnoff stared at him with an expression which showed that he did not in the least understand what was happening. Johann Schmidt's keen black eyes looked wonderingly from the porter to the Count, while the latter leaned back in his chair, contemplating the angry man with a calm surprise which proved how little faith he placed in the assertion of possession.
"You are under a mistake," he said, with great politeness. "This doll is the property of Herr Fischelowitz, the well-known tobacconist, and has stood in the window of his shop nearly four months. These gentlemen"—he waved his hand towards his two companions—"are well aware of the fact and can vouch—"
"That is all the same to me," interrupted the porter. "This is the Gigerl which was stolen from me on New Year's eve—"
"I repeat," said the Count, with dignity, "that you are altogether mistaken. I will trouble you to leave us in peace and to make no more disturbance, where you are evidently in error."
His coolness exasperated the porter, who seemed very sure of what he asserted.
"That is what we shall see," he retorted in a menacing tone. "Meanwhile it does not occur to me to leave you in peace and to make no more trouble. I tell you that this Gigerl was stolen from me on New Year's eve. I know it well enough, for I had to pay for it."
"How can you prove that this is the one?" inquired the Cossack, who was beginning to lose his temper.
"You have nothing to say about it," said the porter, sharply. "I have to do with this man"—he pointed down at the Count—"who has brought the doll here, and pretends to know where it comes from."
"Kerl!" exclaimed the Count, angrily. "Fellow! I am not accustomed to being called 'man,' or to having my word doubted. You had better be civil."
"Then it is high time that you grew used to it," returned the porter, growing more and more excited. "The police do not overwhelm fellows of your kind with politeness."
"Fellows?" cried the Count, losing his self-control altogether at being called by the name he had just applied to the porter. Without a moment's hesitation, he sprang from his chair, upsetting it behind him, and took the burly German by the throat.
"Call a policeman, Anton!" shouted the latter to one of his companions, as he closed with his antagonist.
The two other porters had risen from their places as soon as the Count had laid his hands on their friend, and the one who answered to the name of Anton promptly trotted towards the door, his heavy tread making the whole room shake as he ran. The other came up quickly and attacked the Count from behind, when Dumnoff, aroused at last to the pleasant consciousness that a real fight was going on, brought down his clenched fist with such earnestness of purpose on the top of the second porter's crown that the latter reeled backwards and fell across the Count's chair in an attitude rendered highly uncomfortable by the fact that the said chair had been turned upside down at the beginning of the contest. Having satisfied himself that the blow had taken effect, Dumnoff proceeded to the other side of the field of battle, avoiding the quickly moving bodies of the Count and the porter as they wrestled with each other, and the mujik prepared to deal another sledge-hammer blow, in all respects comparable with the first. A pleasant smile beamed and spread over his broad, bony face as he lifted his fist, and it is comparatively certain that he would have put an effectual end to the struggle, had not Schmidt interfered with the execution of his amiable intentions by catching his arm in mid-air. Even the Cossack's wiry strength could not arrest the descent of the tremendous fist, but he succeeded at least in diverting it from its aim, so that it took effect in the middle of the porter's back, knocking most of the wind out of the man's body and causing a diversion favourable to the Count's security. Schmidt sprang in and separated the combatants.
"There has been enough dancing already," he said, coolly, as he faced the porter, who was gasping for breath. "But if you have not danced enough, I shall be happy to take a turn with you round the room."
The poor Count would, indeed, have been no match for his adversary without the assistance of his friends. He possessed that sort of courage which, when stung into activity by an insult, takes no account whatever of the consequences, and his thin frame was animated by very excitable nerves. But an exceedingly lean diet, and the habit of sitting during many hours in a close atmosphere, rolling tobacco with his fingers, did not constitute such a physical training as to make him a match for a rough fellow whose occupation consisted in tramping long distances and up and down long flights of stairs from morning till night, loaded with more or less heavy burdens. He was now very pale and his heart beat painfully as he endeavoured instinctively to smooth his long frock-coat, from which a button had been torn out by the roots in a very apparent place, and to settle his starched collar, which at the best of times owed its stability to the secret virtues of a pin, and which at present had made a quarter of a revolution upon itself, so that the stiffly-starched corners, the Count's chief coquetry and pride, had established themselves in an unseemly manner immediately below the left ear.
Meanwhile, the little restaurant was in an uproar. The host, a thin, pale man in an apron and a shabby embroidered cap, had suddenly appeared from the depths of the taproom, accompanied by his wife, a monstrous, red-faced creature clothed in a grey flannel frock. The porter whom Dumnoff had felled, and who was not altogether stunned, was kicking violently in the attempt to gain his feet among the fallen chairs, a dozen people had come in from the street at the noise of the fight and stood near the door, phlegmatically watching the proceedings, and the poor old woman from the country, who had been supping in the corner, had got her basket on her knees, holding its handle tightly in one hand and with the other grasping her half-finished glass of beer, in terror lest some accident should cause the precious liquid to be spilled, but not calm enough to put it in a place of safety by the simple process of swallowing.
"They are foreigners," remarked some one in the crowd at the door.
"They are probably Bohemian journeymen," said a tinman who stood in front of the others. "It serves them right for interfering with an honest porter." The Bohemian journeymen are detested in Munich on account of their willingness to work for low prices, which perhaps accounted for the tinman's readiness to consider the strangers as worsted in the contest.
"We Germans fear God, and nothing else in the world," observed a mealy-faced shoemaker, quoting Prince Bismarck's famous speech.
The man who had wrestled with the Count seemed to have resigned himself to the course of awaiting the police, and leaned back against the table behind him, with folded arms, glaring at the Cossack, while the Count was vainly attempting to recover possession of the pin which had fastened his collar, and which he evidently suspected of having slipped down his back, with the total depravity peculiar to all inanimate things when they are most needed. But the second porter, having broken the chair, upset a table covered with unused saucers for beer glasses, and otherwise materially contributing to swell the din and increase the already considerable havoc, had regained his feet and lost no time in making for Dumnoff. The Russian, enchanted at the prospect of a renewal of hostilities so unfortunately interrupted, met the newcomer half-way, and, each embracing the other with cheerful alacrity, the two heavy men began to stamp and turn round and round with each other like a couple of particularly awkward bears attempting to waltz together. They were very evenly matched for a wrestling bout, for although the German was by a couple of inches the taller of the two, the Russian had the advantage in breadth of shoulder and length of arm, as well as in the enormous strength of his back. The Cossack, having assured himself that there was to be fair-play, watched the proceedings with evident interest, while the pale-faced host shambled round and round the room, imploring the combatants to respect the reputation of his house and to desist, while keeping himself at a safe distance from possible collision with the bodies of the two, as they staggered and strained, and reeled and whirled about.
The Count at last abandoned the search of the lost pin, and having pulled the front of his collar into a more normal position trusted to luck to keep it there. The table at which the three had originally sat had miraculously escaped upsetting, and on it lay the poor Gigerl, stretched at full length on its back, calm and smiling in the midst of the noise and confusion, like the corpse at an Irish wake after the whisky has begun to take effect.
The Count now thought it necessary to justify the unfortunate situation in which he found himself, in the judgment of the spectators.
"Gentlemen," he began, very earnestly and with a dignified gesture, "I feel it necessary to explain the truth of this—" But he was interrupted by the arrival of a policeman, who pushed his way through the crowd.
"What is this row?" inquired the policeman in his official voice, as he marched into the room.
The man who was wrestling with Dumnoff was a German and a soldier. At the authoritative words he relaxed his hold and made an effort to free himself, a movement of which the Russian instantly took advantage by throwing his adversary heavily, upsetting another table and thereby bringing the confusion to its crisis. How far he would have gone if he had been left to himself is uncertain, for the sudden appearance of two more men in green coats, helmets and gold collars so emboldened the spectators of the fight that they advanced in a body just as Dumnoff threw himself upon the first policeman. The Russian's red face was wet with perspiration, his small eyes were gleaming ferociously and his thick hair hung in tangled locks over his forehead, producing with his fair beard the appearance of a wild animal's mane. But for the timely assistance of his colleagues, the representatives of the law, and, most likely the majority of the spectators would have found themselves in the street in an exceedingly short space of time. But Dumnoff yielded to the inevitable; a couple of well-planted blows delivered by the rescuing party on the sides of his thick skull made him shake his head as a cat does when its nose is sprinkled with water, and the mujik reluctantly relinquished the struggle. At the same time the porter who had claimed the doll came forward and touched his bare head with a military salute.
"What is your name?" asked the first policeman, anxious to get to business.
"Jacob Goggelmann, Dienstmann number 87, formerly private in the Fourth Artillery, lately messenger in the Thueringer Doll Manufactory."
"Very good," said the policeman, anxious to take the side of his countryman from the first, and certainly justified in doing so by the circumstances. "And what is your complaint?"
"That doll, there, on the table," said the porter, "was stolen from me on New Year's eve, and now that man"—he pointed to the Count, who stood stiffly looking on—"that man has got possession of it."
"And who stole it from you?" inquired the policeman with that acuteness in the art of cross-examination for which the police are in all countries so justly famous.
"Ja, Herr Wachtmeister, if I had known that—" suggested the porter.
"Of course, of course," interrupted the other. "That man stole the doll from you, you say?"
"Somebody stole it with my basket, as I stopped to drink a measure in the yard of the Hofbraeuhaus, and I had to pay for it out of my caution money, and I lost my place into the bargain, and there lies the accursed thing."
The policeman, apparently quite satisfied with the porter's story, turned upon the Count with a blustering and overbearing manner.
"Now, then," he said, roughly, "give an account of yourself. Who are you and what are you doing here? But that is a foolish question; I know already that you are a Bohemian and a journeyman tinker."
"A Bohemian? And a journeyman tinker?" repeated the Count, almost speechless with anger for a moment. "I am neither," he added, endeavouring to control himself, and settling his refractory collar with one hand. "I am a Russian gentleman."
"A gentleman—and a Russian," said the policeman, slowly, as though putting no faith in the first statement and very little in the second. "I think I can provide you with a lodging for the night," he added, facetiously.
"Slip past me, jump out of the window and run!" whispered the Cossack in the Count's ear, in Russian.
"What are you saying in your infernal language?" asked the official.
"My friend advised me to run away," said the Count, coolly sitting down, as though he were master of the situation. "Unfortunately for me, I was not taught to use my legs in that way when I was a boy."
"I was," said the Cossack. "Good-evening, Master Policeman." He took his hat from the peg on the wall where it had hung undisturbed throughout the confusion, and bowing gravely to the man in uniform made as though he would go out of the room.
"So, so, not quite so fast, my friend," said the policeman, putting himself in the way. "Heigh! heigh! Stop him! Don't let him go," he bawled, a second later.
Schmidt had paused a minute, watching his opportunity, then, taking a quick step backwards, he had vaulted through the open window with the agility of a cat, and was flying down the empty street at the speed only attainable by that deceptive domestic animal when pressed for time and anxious for its own safety.
"Sobaka!" growled Domnoff, disgusted at his companion's defection.
"Either talk in a language that human beings can understand, or do not talk at all," said one of the two men who guarded him.
Seeing that pursuit was useless, the spokesman of the police turned to the Count, twice as blustering and terrible as before.
"This settles the question," he said. "To the police station you go, you and your bear-man of an accomplice. Potzbombardendonnerwetter! You Sappermentskerls! I will teach you to resist the police, to steal dolls and to jump out of windows! Now then, right about face—march!"
The Count did not stir from his chair. Dumnoff looked at him as though to ask instructions of a superior.
"If you can manage one of them, I can take these two," he said in Russian. Suiting the action to the word, he suddenly bent down, slipped his arms round the legs of the two policemen, hurled them simultaneously head over heels and then charged the crowd, head downwards, upsetting every one who came in his way, and bursting into the street by sheer superior weight and impetus. An instant later, his shock head appeared at the window through which the Cossack had escaped.
"Come along!" he shouted to the Count, in his own language. "I have locked the street door and they cannot get out. Jump through the window."
"Go, my friend," answered the Count, calmly. "I will not run away."
"You had much better come," insisted Dumnoff, apparently indifferent to the noise of the crowd as it tried to force open the closed door, and shaking off two or three men who had made their way out into the street with him. He held the key in one hand, and his assailants had small chance of getting it away.
"You will not come?" he repeated. But the Count shook his head, within the room.
"Then I will not run away either," said Dumnoff, the good side of his dull nature showing itself at last. With the utmost indifference to consequences he returned to the door, unlocked it, and strode through the midst of the people, who made way readily enough before him, after their late painful experience of his manner of making way for himself.
"I have changed my mind," he said, in German, quietly placing himself between his late keepers, who were alternately rubbing themselves and brushing the dust off each other's clothes after their tumble.
In the astonished silence which succeeded Dumnoff's return, the Count's voice was heard again.
"I am both anxious and ready to explain everything, if you will do me the civility to listen," he said. "The doll is the property of Herr Fischelowitz, the well-known tobacconist—"
"We shall see presently what you have to say for yourself," interrupted the policeman. "We have had enough of these devilish fellows. Come, put them in handcuffs and off with them. And you three gentlemen," he added, turning to the three porters, "will have the goodness to accompany us to the station, in order to give your evidence."
"But my furniture and my beer saucers!" exclaimed the pallid host, suddenly remembering his losses. "Who is to pay for them?"
The Count answered the question for him.
"You, Master Host, who know us and have had our regular custom for years, but who have not dared to say a word in our defence throughout this disgraceful affair, you, I say, deserve to lose all that you have lost. Nevertheless, I can assure you that I will myself pay for what has been broken."
The host was not much consoled by this magnanimous promise, which was received with jeers by the crowd. There was no time, however, to discuss the question. Dumnoff had quietly submitted his two huge fists to the handcuffs and a second pair was produced, to fit the Count. At this indignity he drew himself up proudly.
"Have I resisted the authority, or attempted to run away?" he inquired with flashing eyes.
The policeman had nothing to say to this very just question.
"Then I advise you to consider what you are doing. In spite of my appearance, which, I admit, is at present somewhat disorderly, I am a Russian nobleman, as you will discover so soon as I am submitted to a properly conducted examination in the presence of your officers. I have not the least intention of running away, and if this doll was stolen, I was not connected in any way with the theft. Since I respect the authorities, I insist upon being respected by them, and if I am treated in a degrading manner in spite of my protests, there are those in Munich who will bring the case to proper notice in my own country. I am ready to accompany you quietly wherever you choose to show me the way."
Something in his manner impressed the officials with the possible truth of his words. They looked at each other and nodded.
"Very well," said the one who was conducting the arrest.
"Moreover," said the Count, "I crave permission to carry myself the object of contention, until the other claimant has established his right of possession."
So saying the Count took the broken Gigerl from the table where it lay, and carrying it upon his hands before him, like a baby, he solemnly walked in the direction of the door, thus heading the procession, which was accompanied into the street by the idlers who had collected inside.
"God be thanked," said the old woman in the corner devoutly, "I have yet my beer!"
"And to think that only one of them has paid for his supper," moaned the pale-faced innkeeper, sitting down upon a chair and contemplating the wreck of his belongings with a haggard eye. The "Gigerl-night" was remembered for many a long year in the "Green Wreath Inn."
At the police station the arresting party told their own story in their own way, very much to the disadvantage of the Russians and very much in favour of the porters and of the officials themselves. The latter, indeed, enlarged so much upon the atrocities perpetrated by Dumnoff as to weary the superior officer. The Cossack having escaped, the policemen did not mention him. The officer glanced at Dumnoff.
"Your name?" he inquired.
"Victor Ivanowitch Dumnoff."
"Cigarette-maker in the manufactory of Christian Fischelowitz."
"Lock him up," said the officer. "Resisting the police in the execution of an arrest," he added, speaking to the scribe at his elbow.
"Your name?" continued he, addressing the Count. "Boris Michaelovitch, Count Skariatine."
"Count?" repeated the officer. "We shall see. Occupation?"
"I have been occupied in the manufacture of cigarettes," answered the Count. "But as I was only engaged in this during a period of temporary embarrassment from which I shall be relieved to-morrow, I may be described as having no particular occupation."
The officer stared incredulously for a moment and then nodded to the scribe in token that he was to write down what was said.
"Charged with having stolen a doll, is that it?" He turned to the policeman in charge.
"Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann."
"May it please you, Herr Hauptmann, I did not say that," put in the porter, coming forward.
"Who are you?"
"The man from whom the doll was stolen. Jacob Goggelmann, Dienstmann number 87, formerly private in the Fourth Artillery, lately messenger in the Thueringer Doll Manufactory."
"When was the doll stolen?"
"Last New Year's eve," answered the porter.
"And you have not seen it until to-day?"
"No, Herr Hauptmann."
"Then how do you know it is the same one? I suppose it is not the only doll of its kind in Munich."
"I am sure of it. I was a messenger in the shop, Herr Hauptmann, and I knew everything there, just as though I had been one of the young ladies who serve the customers. Besides, you will find my name written in pencil under the pedestal."
"That is another matter," said the officer, taking the Gigerl and holding it upside down to the gaslight. The reversing of the thing's natural position produced some mysterious effect upon the musical box, and the tune which had been so rudely interrupted by Akulina's well-aimed blow, suddenly began again from the point at which it had stopped, continuing for a few bars and then coming to an end with a sharp twang and a little click. The policemen tittered audibly, and even the captain smiled faintly in his big yellow beard. Then he knit his brows as he deciphered something which was written on the pinewood under the base.
"You should have said so at once," he observed. "Your name is there, as you assert."
"It was written to show that I was to take it. I had it in a basket with other things. I put it down a moment in the yard of the Hofbraeuhaus, and when I came back the basket was gone."
"And what do you know about it?" The question was addressed to the Count.
"Seeing that the porter is evidently right," said the Count, covering with his hat the point from which the button had been torn, and holding the other hand rather nervously to his throat, as though trying to keep himself from falling to pieces, "I have nothing more to say. I will not be accused of inculpating any one in this disastrous affair. I will only say that the doll has stood since early in the year in the show window of Christian Fischelowitz, the tobacconist, who certainly had no knowledge of the way in which it was obtained by the person who brought it to him."
"He is an extremely respectable person," observed the officer. "If you can prove what you say, I will not detain you further. Have you any witness here?"
"There is Herr Dumnoff," said the Count. The officer smiled and perpetrated an official jest.
"Herr Dumnoff has given evidence of great strength, but owing to his peculiar situation at the present time, I cannot trust to the strength of his evidence."
The policemen laughed respectfully.
"Have you no one else?" asked the officer.
"Herr Fischelowitz will willingly vouch for what I say."
"At this hour, Herr Fischelowitz is doubtless asleep, and would certainly be justified in refusing to come here out of mere complaisance. I am afraid, Count Skariatine, that I must have the honour of being your host until morning."
"It is impossible to describe our relative positions with greater courtesy," answered the Count, gravely, and not taking the least notice of the officer's ironical tone. The latter looked at the speaker curiously and then suddenly changed his manner. He was convinced that he was speaking with a gentleman.
"I regret that I am obliged to put you to such inconvenience," he said, politely. "Treat the gentleman with every consideration," he added, addressing the policemen in a tone of authority, "and let me have no complaints of unnecessary rudeness either."
"I thank you, Herr Hauptmann," said the Count, simply.
Thus was the Count deprived of his liberty on the very eve of his return to all the brilliant advantages of wealth and social station. It was certainly a most unfortunate train of circumstances which had led him by such quick stages from his parting with Vjera to the wooden bench and the board pillow of the police-station. It looked as though the Gigerl were possessed of an evil spirit determined to work out the Count's destruction, as though the wretched adventurer who had first stolen it and palmed it off upon Fischelowitz had laid a curse upon it, whereby it was destined to breed dissension and strife wherever it remained and to the direct injury of whomsoever chanced to possess it for the time being. It had been the cause of serious disaster to the porter in the first instance, it had next represented to Fischelowitz a dead loss in money of fifty marks, it had become a thorn in the side to Akulina, it had led to one of the most violent quarrels she had ever engaged in with her husband, its limp and broken form had cost much broken crockery and some broken furniture to the host of the "Green Wreath Inn," had been the cause of several ponderous blows dealt and received by Dumnoff, had produced the violent fall, upon a hard board floor, of a porter and two policemen and had ultimately brought the Count to prison for the night. Its value had become very great, for it had been paid for twice over, once by the man from whom it had been stolen, by the forfeiture of his caution money, and once by Fischelowitz in the sum of fifty marks lent to an adventurer; furthermore, the Count had solemnly pledged his word as a gentleman to pay for it a third time on the morrow, he having in his worldly possession the sum of one silver mark and two German pennies at the time of entering into the engagement. The actual sum of money paid and promised to be paid on the body of the now ruined Gigerl, now amounted, with interest, to more than four times its original value, thus constituting one of those interesting problems in real and comparative value so interesting to the ingenuous political economist, who believes that all value can be traced to supply and demand. Now, although the Gigerl was but a single doll, the supply of him, so to speak, had been surprisingly abundant, and the demand, if represented by the desire of any one person concerned to possess him, may be represented by the smallest of zeros. The consideration of so intricate a question belongs neither to the inventor of fiction nor to the historian of facts, and may therefore be abandoned to the political economist, who may, perhaps, be said to partake of the nature of both while possessing the virtues of neither.
The Count was in prison, therefore, on the eve of his return to splendour, and his companion in captivity was Dumnoff the mujik. They found themselves in a well-ventilated room, having high grated windows, through which the stars were visible, and dimly lighted by a small gas flame which burned in a lantern of white ground glass. The place was abundantly, if not luxuriously, furnished with flat wooden pallets, each having at the head a slanting piece of board supposed to do duty for a pillow. Outside the open door a policeman paced the broad passage, a man taken from the mounted detachment and whose scabbard and spurs clattered and jingled, hour after hour, as he walked. The sound produced something half rhythmical, like a broken tune in search of itself, and the change of sentinels made no perceptible difference in the regular nature of the unceasing noise.
Dumnoff, relieved of his handcuffs, stretched himself upon the pallet assigned to him, clasped his hands under the back of his head, and stared at the ceiling. The Count sat upon the edge of his board, crossing one knee over the other and looking at his nails, or trying to look at them in the insufficient light. In some distant part of the building a door was occasionally opened and shut, and the slight concussion sent long echoes down the stone passages. The Count sighed audibly.
"It is not so bad, after all," remarked Dumnoff. "I did not expect to end the evening so comfortably."
"It is bad enough," said the Count. He produced a crumpled piece of newspaper which contained a little tobacco, and rolled a cigarette thoughtfully. "It is bad enough," he repeated as he began to smoke.
"It would have been very easy to get away, if you had done like that brute of a Schmidt who ran away and left us."
"I do not think Schmidt is a brute," observed the other, blowing a huge ring of white smoke out into the dusk.
"I did not think so either. But I had arranged it all very well for you to get away—only you would not. You see, by an accident, the key was outside the door, so I kicked the people back and locked it. It would have taken a quarter of an hour for them to open it, and if you had only jumped—"
He turned his head, and glanced at the Count's spare, sinewy figure.
"You are light, too," he continued, "and you could not have hurt yourself. I cannot understand why you stayed."
"Dumnoff, my friend," said the Count, gravely, "we look at things in a different way. It is my duty to tell you that I think you behaved in the most honourable manner, under the circumstances, and I am deeply indebted to you for the gallant way in which you came back to stand by me, when you were yourself free. In a nobler warfare, such an action would have been rewarded with a cross of honour, as it truly deserved. It is true, as well, that you were not so intimately connected with the main question at stake, as I was, since it was I who was suspected of being in possession of unlawfully gotten goods. You were consequently, I think, at liberty to take your freedom if you could get it, without consulting your conscience further. Now my position was, and is, very different. I do not speak of any personal prejudice against the mere act of running away, considered as an immediate means of escape from disagreeable circumstances, with the hope of ultimate immunity from all unpleasant consequences. That is a matter of early education."
"I had very little early education," observed Dumnoff. "And none at all afterwards."
"My friend, it is not for you and me to enter into the history of our misfortunes. We have met in the vat of poverty to be seethed alike in the brew of unhappiness. We have sat at the same daily labour, we have shared often the same fare, but there is that in each of us which we can keep sacred from the contamination of confidence, and which will withstand even the thrusts of poverty. I mean our individual selves, the better part of us, the nobler element which has suffered, as distinguished from the grosser, which may yet enjoy. But I am wandering a little. I am afraid I sometimes do. I return to the point. For me to take advantage of your generous attempt to free me would have been to act as though I had a moral cause for flight. In other words, it would have been to acknowledge that I had committed some dishonourable action."
"It seems to me that to get away would have been the best way out of it. They would not have caught you if you had trusted to me, and if they did not catch you they could not prove anything against you."
"The suspicion would have remained, and the disgrace in my own eyes," answered the Count. "The question of physical fear is very different. I have been told that it depends upon the nerves and the action of the heart, and that courage is greatly increased by the presence of nourishment in the stomach. The same cannot be said of moral bravery, which proceeds more from the fear of seeming contemptible in our own eyes than from the wish to seem honourable in the estimation of others."
"I daresay," said Dumnoff, who was growing sleepy and who understood very little of his companion's homily.
"Precisely," replied the latter. "And yet even the question of physical courage is very complicated in the present case. It cannot be said, for instance, that you ran away from physical fear, after giving proof of such astonishing physical superiority. Your deeds this evening make the labours of Hercules dwindle to the proportions of mere mountebank's tricks."
"Was anybody badly injured?" asked Dumnoff, suddenly aroused by the pleasing recollections of the contest.
"I believe not seriously; I think I saw everybody whom you upset get on his feet sooner or later."
"Well," said Dumnoff with a sigh, "it cannot be helped. I did my best."
"I should think that you would be glad," suggested the Count. "You showed your prowess without any fatal result."
"Anything for a change in this dull life," grumbled the peasant with an air of dissatisfaction.
"With such a prospect of immediate change before me, I suppose I ought not to blame your longing for excitement. Nevertheless I consider it fortunate that nothing worse happened."
"You might take me with you to Russia," said Dumnoff, with a short laugh. "That would be an excitement, at least."
"After the way in which you have stood by me this evening, I will not refuse you anything. If you wish it, I will take you with me. I take it for granted that you are not prevented by any especial reason from entering our country."
"Not that I am aware of," laughed Dumnoff. "Do you know how I got to Germany? A gentleman from our part of the country brought me with him as coachman. One day the horses ran away in Baden-Baden, and he turned me out of the house."
"That was very inconsiderate of him," observed the Count.
"It is true that both the horses were killed," said Dumnoff, thoughtfully. "And the prince broke his arm, and the carriage was in good condition for firewood, and possibly I was a little gay—just a little—though I was so much upset by the accident that I could not remember exactly what happened before. Still—"
"Your conduct on that particular day seems to have left much to be desired," remarked the Count with some austerity.
"It has been my bad luck to be in a great many accidents," said the other. "But that one was remarkable. As far as I can recollect, we drove into the Grand Duke's four-in-hand on one side and drove out of it on the other. I never drove through a Grand Duke's equipage on any other occasion. It was lucky that his Serenity did not happen to be in it just at the time. There you have my history in a nutshell. As you say you will take me with you, I thought you ought to know."
"Certainly, certainly," answered the Count, vaguely. "I will take you with me—but not as coachman, I think, Dumnoff. We may find some more favourable sphere for your great physical strength."
"Anything you like. It is a good joke to dream of such a journey, is it not? Especially when one is locked up for the night in the police-station."
"It is certainly a relief to contemplate the prospect of such a change to-morrow," said the Count, his expression brightening in the gloom.
For a few moments there was silence between the two men. Dumnoff's small eyes fixed themselves on the shadowy outlines of his companion's face, as though trying to solve a problem far too complicated for his dull intellect.
"I wonder whether you are really mad," he said slowly, after a prolonged mental effort.
The Count started slightly and stared at the ex-coachman with a frightened look.
"Mad?" he repeated, nervously. "Who says I am mad? Why do you ask the question?"
"Most people say so," replied the other, evidently without any intention of giving pain. "Everybody who works with us thinks so."
"Everybody? Everybody? I think you are dreaming, Dumnoff. What do you mean?"
"I mean that they think so because you have those queer fits of believing yourself a rich count every week, from Tuesday night till Thursday morning. Schmidt was saying only yesterday to poor Vjera—"
"Vjera? Does she believe it too?" asked the Count in an unsteady voice, not heeding the rest of the speech.
"Of course," said Dumnoff, carelessly. "Schmidt was saying to me only yesterday that you were going to have a worse attack of it than usual because you were so silent."
"Vjera, too!" repeated the Count in a low voice. "And no one ever told me—" He passed his hand over his eyes.
"Tell me"—Dumnoff began in the tone of jocular familiarity which he considered confidential—"tell me—the whole thing is just a joke of yours to amuse us all, is it not? You do not really believe that you are a count, any more than I really believe that you are mad, you know. You do not act like a madman, except when you let the police catch you and lock you up for the night, instead of running away like a sensible man."
The Count's face grew bright again all at once. In the present state of his hopes no form of doubt seemed able to take a permanent hold of him.
"No, I am not mad," he said. "But on the other hand, Dumnoff, it is my conviction that you are exceedingly drunk. No other hypothesis can account for your very singular remarks about me."
"Oh, I am drunk, am I?" laughed the peasant. "It is very likely, and in that case I had better go to sleep. Good-night, and do not forget that you are to take me with you to Russia."
"I will not forget," said the Count.
Dumnoff stretched his heavy limbs on the wooden pallet, rolled his great head once or twice from side to side until his fur-like hair made something like a cushion and then, in the course of three minutes, fell fast asleep.
The Count sat upright in his place, drumming with his fingers upon one knee.
"It is a wonder that I am not mad," he said to himself. "But Vjera never thought it of me—and that fellow is evidently the worse for liquor."
Johann Schmidt had not fled from the scene of action out of any consideration for his personal safety. He was, indeed, a braver man than Dumnoff, in proportion as he was more intelligent, and though of a very different temper, by no means averse to a fight if it came into his way. He had foreseen what was sure to happen, and had realised sooner than any one else that the only person who could set everything straight was Fischelowitz himself. So soon as he was clear of pursuit, therefore, he turned in the direction of the tobacconist's dwelling, walking as quickly as he could where there were many people and running at the top of his speed through such empty by-streets as lay in the direct line of his course. He rushed up the three flights of steps and rang sharply at the door.
Akulina's unmistakable step was heard in the passage a moment later. Schmidt would have preferred that Fischelowitz should have come himself, though he managed to live on very good terms with Akulina. Though far from tactful he guessed that in a matter concerning the Count, the tobacconist would prove more obliging than his wife.
"What is the matter?" inquired the mistress of the house, opening the door wide after she had recognised the Cossack in the feeble light of the staircase, by looking through the little hole in the panel.
"Good-evening, Frau Fischelowitz," said Schmidt, trying to appear as calm and collected as possible. "I would like to speak to your husband upon a little matter of business."
"He is not at home yet. I left him in the shop."
Almost before the words were out of her mouth, Schmidt had turned and was running down the stairs, two at a time. Akulina called him back.
"Wait a minute!" she cried, advancing to the hand-rail on the landing. "What in the world are you in such a hurry about?"
"Oh—nothing—nothing especial," answered the man, suddenly stopping and looking up.
Akulina set her fat hands on her hips and held her head a little on one side. She had plenty of curiosity in her composition.
"Well, I must say," she observed, "for a man who is not in a hurry about anything, you are uncommonly brisk with your feet. If it is only a matter of business, I daresay I will do as well as my husband."
"Oh, I daresay," admitted Schmidt, scratching his head. "But this is rather a personal matter of business, you see."
"And you mean that you want some money, I suppose," suggested Akulina, at a venture.
"No, no, not at all—no money at all. It is not a question of money." He hoped to satisfy her by a statement which was never without charm in her ears. But Akulina was not satisfied; on the contrary, she began to suspect that something serious might be the matter, for she could see Schmidt's face better now, as he looked up to her, facing the gaslight that burned above her own head. Having been violently angry not more than an hour or two earlier, her nerves were not altogether calmed, and the memory of the scene in the shop was still vividly present. There was no knowing what the Count might not have done, in retaliation for the verbal injuries she had heaped upon him, and her quick instinct connected Schmidt's unusually anxious appearance and evident haste to be off, with some new event in which the Count had played a part.
"Have you seen the Count?" she inquired, just as Schmidt was beginning to move again.
"Yes," answered the latter, trying to assume a doubtful tone of voice. "I believe—in fact, I did see him—for a moment—"
Akulina smiled to herself, proud of her own acuteness.
"I thought so," she said. "And he has made some trouble about that wretched doll—"
"How did you guess that?" asked Schmidt, turning and ascending a few steps. He was very much astonished.
"Oh, I know many things—many interesting things. And now you want to warn my husband of what the Count has done, do you not? It must be something serious, since you are in such a hurry. Come in, Herr Schmidt, and have a glass of tea. Fischelowitz will be at home in a few minutes, and you see I have guessed half your story, so you may as well tell me the other half and be done with it. It is of no use for you to go to the shop after him. He has shut up by this time, and you cannot tell which way he will come home, can you? Much better come in and have a glass of tea. The samovar is lighted and everything is ready, so that you need not stay long."
Schmidt lingered doubtfully a moment on the stairs. The closing hour was certainly past in early-closing Munich, and he might miss the tobacconist in the street. It seemed wiser to wait for him in his house, and so the Cossack reluctantly accepted the invitation, which, under ordinary circumstances, he would have regarded as a great honour. Akulina ushered him into the little sitting-room and prepared him a large glass of tea with a slice of lemon in it. She filled another for herself and sat down opposite to him at the table.
"The poor Count!" she exclaimed. "He is sure to get himself into trouble some day. I suppose people cannot help behaving oddly when they are mad, poor things. And the Count is certainly mad, Herr Schmidt."
"Quite mad, poor man. He has had one of his worst attacks to-day."
"Yes," assented the wily Akulina, "and if you could have seen him and heard him in the shop this evening—" She held up her hands and shook her head.
"What did he do and say?"
"Oh, such things, such things! Poor man, of course I am very sorry for him, and I am glad that my husband finds room to employ him, and keep him from starving. But really, this evening he quite made me lose my temper. I am afraid I was a little rough, considering that he is sensitive. But to hear the man talk about his money, and his titles, and his dignities, when he is only just able to keep body and soul together! It is enough to irritate the seven archangels, Herr Schmidt, indeed it is! And then at the same time there was that dreadful Gigerl, and my head was splitting—I am sure there will be a thunder-storm to-night—altogether, I could not bear it any longer, and I actually upset the Gigerl out of anger, and it rolled to the floor and was broken. Of course it is very foolish to lose one's temper in that way, but after all, I am only a weak woman, and I confess it was a relief to me when I saw the poor Count take the thing away. I hope I did not really hurt his feelings, for he is an excellent workman, in spite of his madness. What did he say, Herr Schmidt? I would so like to know how he took it. Of course he was very angry. Poor man, so mad, so completely mad on that one point!"
"To tell the truth," said Schmidt, who had listened attentively, "he did not like what you said to him at all."
"Well, really, was it my fault, Herr Schmidt? I am only a woman, and I suppose I may be excused if I lose my temper once in a year or so. It is very wearing on the nerves. Every Tuesday evening begins the same old song about the fortune and letters, and the journey to Russia. One gets very tired of it in the long-run. At first it used to amuse me."
"Do you think that Herr Fischelowitz can have gone anywhere else instead of coming home?" asked the Cossack, finishing the glass of tea, which he had swallowed burning hot out of sheer anxiety to get away.
"Oh no, indeed," cried Akulina in a tone of the most sincere conviction. "He always tells me where he is going. You have no idea what a good husband he is, and what a good man—though I daresay you know that after being with us so many years. Now, I am sure that if he had the least idea that anything had happened to the poor Count, he would run all the way home in order to hear it as soon as possible."
"No more tea, thank you, Frau Fischelowitz," said Schmidt, but she took his glass with a quiet smile and shredded a fresh piece of lemon into it and filled it up again, quite heedless of his protest. Schmidt resigned himself, and thanked her civilly.
"Of course," she said, presently, as she busied herself with the arrangements of the samovar, "of course it is nothing so very serious, is it? I daresay the Count has told you that he would not work any more for us, and you are anxious to arrange the matter? In that case, you need have no fear. I am always ready to forgive and forget, as they say, though I am only a weak woman."
"That is very kind of you," observed Schmidt, with a glitter in his eyes which Akulina did not observe.
"I guessed the truth, did I not?"
"Not exactly. The trouble is rather more serious than that. The fact is, as we were at supper, a man at another table saw the Gigerl in our hands and swore that it had been stolen from him some months ago."
"And what happened then?" asked Akulina with sudden interest.
"I suppose you may as well know," said Schmidt, regretfully. "There was a row, and the man made a great deal of trouble and at last the police were called in, and I came to get Herr Fischelowitz himself to come and prove that the Gigerl was his. You see why I am in such a hurry."
"Do you think they have arrested the Count?"
"I imagine that every one concerned would be taken to the police-station."
"And then, unless the affair is cleared up, they will be kept there all night."
"All night!" exclaimed Akulina, holding up her hands in real or affected horror. "Poor Count! He will be quite crazy, now, I fear—especially as this is Tuesday evening."
"But he must be got out at once!" cried Schmidt in a tone of decision. "Herr Fischelowitz will surely not allow—"
"No indeed! You have only to wait until he comes home, and then you can go together. Or better still, if he does not come back in a quarter of an hour, and if he has really shut up the shop as usual, you might look for him at the Cafe Luitpold, and if he is not there, it is just possible that he may have looked in at the Gaertner Platz Theatre, for which he often has free tickets, and if the performance is over—I fancy it is, by this time—he may be in the Cafe Maximilian, or he may have gone to drink a glass of beer in the Platzl, for he often goes there, and—well, if you do not find him in any of those places—"
"But, good Heavens, Frau Fischelowitz, you said you were quite sure he was coming home at once! Now I have lost all this time!"
Schmidt had risen quickly to his feet, in considerable anxiety and haste. Akulina smiled good-humouredly.
"You see," she said, "it is just possible that to-night, as he was a little annoyed with me for being sharp with the Count, he may have gone somewhere without telling me. But I really could not foresee it, because he is such a very good—"
"I know," interrupted the Cossack. "If I miss him, you will tell him, will you not? Thank you, and good-night, Frau Fischelowitz, I cannot afford to wait a moment longer."
So saying Johann Schmidt made for the door and got out of the house this time without any attempt on the part of his amiable hostess to detain him further. She had indeed omitted to tell him that her last speech was not merely founded on a supposition, since Fischelowitz had really been very much annoyed and had declared that he would not come home but would spend the evening with a friend of his who lived in the direction of Schwabing, one of the suburbs of Munich farthest removed from the places in which she advised Schmidt to make search.
The stout housewife disliked and even detested the Count for many reasons all good in her own eyes, among which the chief one was that she did dislike him. She felt for him one of those strong and invincible antipathies which trivial and cunning natures often feel for very honourable and simple ones. To the latter the Count belonged, and Akulina was a fine specimen of the former. If the Count had been literally starving and clothed in rags, he would have been incapable of a mean thought or of a dishonest action. Whatever his origin had been, he had that, at least, of a nobility undeniable in itself. That his character was simple in reality, may as yet seem less evident. He was regarded as mad, as has been seen, but his madness was methodical and did not overstep certain very narrow bounds. Beyond those limits within which others, at least, did not consider him responsible, his chief idea seemed to be to gain his living quietly, owing no man anything, nor refusing anything to any man who asked it. This last characteristic, more than any other, seemed to prove the possibility of his having been brought up in wealth and with the free use of money, for his generosity was not that of the vulgar spendthrift who throws away his possessions upon himself quite as freely as upon his companions. He earned enough money at his work to live decently well, at least, and he spent but the smallest sum upon his own wants. Nevertheless he never had anything to spare for his own comfort, for he was as ready to give a beggar in the street the piece of silver which represented a good part of the value of his day's work as most rich people are to part with a penny. He never inquired the reason for the request of help, but to all who asked of him he gave what he had, gravely, without question, as a matter of course. If Dumnoff's pockets were empty and his throat dry, he went to the Count and got what he wanted. Dumnoff might be brutal, rude, coarse; it made no difference. The Count did not care to know where the money went nor when it would be returned, if ever. If Schmidt's wife—for he had a wife—was ill, the Count lent all he had, if the children's shoes were worn out, he lent again, and when Schmidt, who was himself extremely conscientious in his odd way, brought the money back, the Count generally gave it to the first poor person whom he met. Akulina supposed that this habit belonged to his madness. Others, who understood him better, counted it to him for righteousness, and even Dumnoff, the rough peasant, showed at times a friendly interest in him, which is not usually felt by the unpunctual borrower towards the uncomplaining lender.
But Akulina could understand none of these things. She belongs by nature to the class of people whose first impulse on all occasions is to say: "Money is money." There can be no mutual attraction of intellectual sympathy between these, and those other persons who despise money in their hearts, and would rather not touch it with their hands. It has been seen also that the events connected with the Gigerl's first appearance in the shop had been of a nature to irritate Akulina still more. The dislike nourished in her stout bosom through long months and years now approached the completion of its development, and manifested itself as a form of active hatred. Akulina was delighted to learn that there was a prospect of the Count's spending the night in the police-station and she determined that Johann Schmidt should not find her husband before the next day, and that when the partner of her bliss returned—presumably pacified by the soothing converse of his friend—she would not disturb his peace of mind by any reference to the Count's adventures. It was therefore with small prospect of success that the Cossack began his search for Fischelowitz.
Only a man who has sought anxiously for another, all through the late evening, in a great city, knows how hopeless the attempt seems after the first hour. The rapid motion through many dusky streets, the looking in, from time to time, upon some merry company assembled in a warm room under a brilliant light, the anxious search among the guests for the familiar figure, the disappointment, as each fancied resemblance shows, on near approach, a face unknown to the searcher, the hurried exit and the quick passage through the dark night air to the next halting-place—all these impressions, following hurriedly upon each other, confuse the mind and at last discourage hope.
Schmidt did not realise how late it was, when, abandoning his search for his employer, he turned towards the police-station in the hope of still rendering some assistance to his friend. He could not gain admittance to the presence of the officer in charge, however, and was obliged to content himself with the assurance that the Count had been treated "with consideration," as the phrase was, and that there would be plenty of time for talking in the morning. The policemen in the guard-room were sleepy and not disposed to enter into conversation. Schmidt turned his steps in the direction of the tobacconist's house for the second time, in sheer despair. But he found the street door shut and the whole house was dark. Nevertheless, he pulled the little handle upon which, by the aid of a flickering match, he discovered a figure of three, corresponding to the floor occupied by Fischelowitz. Again and again he tugged vigorously at the brass knob until he could hear the bell tinkling far above. No other sound followed, however, in the silence of the night, though he strained his ears for the faintest echo of a distant footfall and the slightest noise indicating that a window or a door was about to be opened. He wondered whether Fischelowitz had come home. If he had, Akulina had surely told him the story of the evening, and he would have been heard of at the police-station, for it was incredible that he should let the night pass without making an effort to liberate the Count. Therefore the tobacconist had in all probability not yet returned. The night was fairly warm, and the Cossack sat down upon a doorstep, lighted a cigarette and waited. In spite of long years spent in the midst of German civilisation, it was still as natural to him to sit down in the open air at night and to watch the stars, as though he had never changed his own name for the plain German appellation of Johann Schmidt, nor laid aside the fur cap and the sheepskin coat of his tribe for the shabby jacket and the rusty black hat of higher social development.
There was no truth in Akulina's statement that a thunder-storm was approaching. The stars shone clear and bright, high above the narrow street, and the solitary man looked up at them, and remembered other days and a freer life and a broader horizon; days when he had been younger than he was now, a life full of a healthier labour, a horizon boundless as that of the little street was limited. He thought, as he often thought when alone in the night, of his long journeys on horseback, driving great flocks of bleating sheep over endless steppes and wolds and expanses of pasture and meadow; he remembered the reddening of the sheep's woolly coats in the evening sun, the quick change from gold to grey as the sun went down, the slow transition from twilight to night, the uncertain gait of his weary beast as the darkness closed in, the soft sound of the sheep huddling together, the bark of his dog, the sudden, leaping light of the camp-fire on the distant rising ground, the voices of greeting, the bubbling of the soup kettle, the grateful rest, the song of the wandering Tchumak—the pedlar and roving newsman of the Don. He remembered on holidays the wild racing and chasing and the sports in the saddle, the picking up of the tiny ten-kopek bit from the earth at a full gallop, the startling game in which a row of fearless Cossack girls join hands together, daring the best rider to break their rank with his plunging horse if he can, the mad laughter of the maidens, the snorting and rearing of the animal as he checks himself before the human wall that will not part to make way for him. All these things he recalled, the change of the seasons, the iron winter, the scorching summer, the glory of autumn and the freshness of spring. Born to such a liberty, he had fallen into the captivity of a common life; bred in the desert, he knew that his declining years would be spent in the eternal cutting of tobacco in the close air of a back shop; trained to the saddle, he spent his days seated motionless upon a wooden chair. The contrast was bitter enough, between the life he was meant to lead by nature, and the life he was made to lead by circumstances. And all this was the result in the first instant of a girl's caprice, of her fancy for another man, so little different from himself that a Western woman could hardly have told the two apart. For this, he had left the steppe, had wandered westward to the Dnieper and southward to Odessa, northward again to Kiew, to Moscow, to Nizni-Novgorod, back again to Poland, to Krakau, to Prague, to Munich at last. Who could remember his wanderings, or trace the route of his endless journeyings? Not he himself, surely, any more than he could explain the gradual steps by which he had been transformed from a Don Cossack to a German tobacco-cutter in a cigarette manufactory.
But his past life at least furnished him with memories, varied, changing, full of light and life and colour, wherewith to while away an hour's watching in the night. Still he sat upon his doorstep, watching star after star as it slowly culminated over the narrow street and set, for him, behind the nearest house-top. He might have sat there till morning had he not been at last aware that some one was walking upon the opposite pavement.
His quick ear caught the soft fall of an almost noiseless footstep and he could distinguish a shadow a little darker than the surrounding shade, moving quickly along the wall. He rose to his feet and crossed the street, not believing, indeed, that the newcomer could be the man he wanted, but anxious to be fully satisfied that he was not mistaken. He found himself face to face with a young girl, who stopped at the street door of the tobacconist's house, just as he reached it. Her head was muffled in something dark and he could not distinguish her features. She started on seeing him, hesitated and then laid her hand upon the same knob which Schmidt had pulled so often in vain.
"It is of no use to ring," he said, quietly. "I have given it up."
"Herr Schmidt!" exclaimed the girl in evident delight. It was Vjera.
"Yes—but, in Heaven's name, Vjera, what are you doing here at this hour of the night? You ought to be at home and asleep."
"Oh, you have not heard the dreadful news," cried poor Vjera in accents of distress. "Oh, if we cannot get in here, come with me, for the love of Heaven, and help me to get him out of that horrible place—oh, if you only knew what has happened!"
"I know all about it, Vjera," answered the Cossack. "That is the reason why I am here. I was with them when it happened and I ran off to get Fischelowitz. As ill luck would have it, he was out."
In a few words Schmidt explained the whole affair and told of his own efforts. Vjera was breathless with excitement and anxiety.
"What is to be done? Dear Herr Schmidt! What is to be done?" She wrung her hands together and fixed her tearful eyes on his.
"I am afraid that there is nothing to be done until morning—"
"But there must be something, there shall be something done! They will drive him mad in that dreadful place—he is so proud and so sensitive—you do not know—the mere idea of being in prison—"
"It is not so bad as that," answered Schmidt, trying to reassure her. "They assured me that he was treated with every consideration, you know. Of course that means that he was not locked up like a common prisoner."
"Do you think so?" Vjera's tone expressed no conviction in the matter.
"Certainly. And it shows that he is not really suspected of anything serious—only, because Fischelowitz could not be found—"
"But he is there—there in his house, asleep!" cried Vjera. "And we can wake him up—of course we can. He cannot be sleeping so soundly as not to hear if we ring hard. At least his wife will hear and look out of the window."
"I am afraid not. I have tried it."
But Vjera would not be discouraged and laid hold of the bell-handle again, pulling it out as far as it would come and letting it fly back again with a snap. The same results followed as when Schmidt had made the same attempt. There was a distant tinkling followed by total silence. Vjera repeated the operation.
"You cannot do more than I have done," said her companion, leaning his back against the door and watching her movements.
"I ought to do more."
"Because he is more to me than to you or to any of the rest," she answered in a low voice.
"Do you mean to say that you love the Count?" inquired Schmidt, surprised beyond measure by the girl's words and rendered thereby even more tactless than usual.
But Vjera said nothing, having been already led into saying more than she had wished to say. She pulled the bell again.
"I had never thought of that," remarked the Cossack in a musing tone. "But he is mad, Vjera, the poor Count is mad. It is a pity that you should love a madman—"
"O, don't, Herr Schmidt—please don't!" cried Vjera, imploring him to be silent as much with her eyes as with her voice.
"No, but really," continued the other, as though talking to himself, "there are things that go beyond all imagination in this world. Now, who would ever have thought of such a thing?"
This time Vjera did not make any answer, nor repeat her request. But as she tugged with all her might at the brass handle, the Cossack heard a quick sob, and then another.
"Poor Vjera!" he exclaimed kindly, and laying his hand on her shoulder. "Poor child! I am very sorry for you, poor Vjera—I would do anything to help you, indeed I would—if I only knew what it should be."
"Then help me to wake up Fischelowitz," answered the girl in a shaken voice. "I am sure he is at home at this time—"
"I have done all I can. If he will not wake, he will not. Or if he is awake he will not put his head out of the window, which is much the same thing so far as we are concerned. By the bye, Vjera, you have not told me how you came to hear of the row. It is queer that you should have heard of it—"
"Herr Homolka—you know, my landlord—had seen the Count go by with the Gigerl and the policemen. He asked some one in the crowd and learned the story. But it was late when he came home, and he told us—I was sitting up sewing with his wife—and then I ran here. But do please help me—we can do something, I am sure."
"I do not see what, short of climbing up the flat walls of the house. But I am not a lizard, you know."
"We might call. Perhaps they would hear our voices if we called together," suggested Vjera, drawing back into the middle of the street and looking up at the closed windows of the third story.
"Herr Fischelowitz!" she cried, in a shrill, weak tone that seemed to find no echo in the still air.
"Herr Fischelowitz, Fischelowitz, Fischelowitz!" bawled the Cossack, taking up the idea and putting it into very effective execution. His brazen voice, harsh and high, almost made the windows rattle.
"Somebody will hear that," he observed and cleared his throat for another effort.
A number of persons heard it, and at the first repetition of the yell, two or three windows were angrily opened. A head in a white nightcap looked out from the first story.
"What do you want at this hour of the night?" asked the owner of the nightcap, already in a rage.
"I want Herr Fischelowitz, who lives in this house," answered the Cossack, firmly.
"Do you live here? Are you shut out?"
"No—we only want—"
"Then go to the devil!" roared the infuriated German, shutting his window again with a vicious slam. A grunt of satisfaction from other directions was followed by the shutting of other windows, and presently all was silent again.
"I am afraid they sleep at the back of the house," said Vjera, growing despondent at last.
"I am afraid so, too," answered Johann Schmidt, proudly conscious that the noise he had made would have disturbed the slumbers of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.
"You had better let me take you home," said Schmidt, kindly, after the total failure of the last effort.
Vjera seemed to be stupefied by the sense of disappointment. She went back to the door of the tobacconist's house and put out her hand as though to ring the bell again then, realising how useless the attempt would be, she let her arms fall by her sides and leaned against the door-post, her muffled head bent forward and her whole attitude expressing her despair.
"Come, come, Vjera," said the Cossack in an encouraging tone, "it is not so bad after all. By this time the Count is fast asleep and is dreaming of his fortune, you know, so that it would be a cruelty to wake him up. In the morning we will all go with Fischelowitz and have him let out, and he will be none the worse."
"I am afraid he will be—very much the worse," said Vjera. "It is Wednesday to-morrow, and if he wakes up there—oh, I do not dare think of it. It will make him quite, quite mad. Can we do nothing more? Nothing?"
"I think we have done our best to wake up this quarter of the town, and yet Fischelowitz is still asleep. No one else can be of any use to us—therefore—" he stopped, for his conclusion seemed self-evident.
"I suppose so," said Vjera, regretfully. "Let us go, then."
She turned and with her noiseless step began to walk slowly away, Schmidt keeping close by her side. For some minutes neither spoke. The streets were deserted, dry and still.
"Do you think there is any truth at the bottom of the Count's story?" asked the Cossack at last.
"I do not know," Vjera answered, shaking her head. "I do not know what to think," she continued after a little pause. "He tells us all the same thing, he speaks of his letters, but he never shows them to anyone. I am afraid—" she sighed and stopped speaking.
"I will tell you this much," said her companion. "That man is honest to the backbone, honest as the good daylight on the hills, where there are no houses to darken it and make shadows."
"He is an angel of goodness and kindness," said Vjera softly.
"I know he is. Is he not always helping others when he is starving himself? Now what I say is this. No man who is as good and as honest as he is, can have become so mad about a mere piece of fancy—about an invented lie, to be plain. What there is in his story I do not know, but I am sure that there was truth in it once. It may have been a long time ago, but there was a time once, when he had some reason to expect the money and the titles he talks of every Tuesday evening."
"Do you really think that?" asked Vjera, eagerly. Her own understanding had never gone so far in its deduction.
"I am sure of it. I know nothing about mad people, but I am sure that no honest man ever invented a story out of nothing and then became crazy because it did not turn out true."
"But you, who have travelled so much, Herr Schmidt, have you ever heard the name before—have you ever heard of such a family?"
"I have a bad memory for names, but I believe I have. I cannot be sure. It makes no difference. It is a good Russian name, in any case, and a gentleman's name, I should think. Of course I only mean that I—that you should not think that because I—in fact," blundered out the good man, "you must not suppose that you will be a real countess, you know."
"I?" exclaimed Vjera, with a nervous, hysterical laugh, which the Cossack supposed to be genuine.
"That is all I wanted to say," he continued in a tone of relief, as though he felt that he had done his duty in warning the poor girl of a possible disappointment. "It may be true—of course, and I am sure that it once was, or something like it, but I do not believe he has any chance of getting his own after so long."
"I cannot think of it—in either way. If it is all an old forgotten tale which he believes in still-why then, he is mad. Is it not dreadful to see? So quiet and sensible all the week, and then, on Tuesday night, his farewell speech to us all—every Tuesday—and his disappointment the next day, and then a new week begun without any recollection of it all! It is breaking my heart, Herr Schmidt!"
"Indeed, poor Vjera, you look as though it were."
"And yet, and yet—I do not know. I think that if it were one day to turn out true—then my heart would be quite broken, for he would go away, and I should never see him again."
Accustomed as she was to daily association with the man who was walking by her side, knowing his good heart and feeling his sympathy, it is small wonder that the lonely girl should have felt impelled to unburden her soul of some of its bitterness. If her life had gone on as usual, undisturbed by anything from without, the confessions which now fell from her lips so easily would never have found words. But she had been unsettled by what had happened in the early evening, and unstrung by her great anxiety for the Count's safety. Her own words sounded in her ear before she knew that she was going to speak them.
"I am sure that something dreadful is going to happen," she continued after a moment's pause. "He will go mad in that horrible prison, raving mad, so that they will have to—to hold him—" she sobbed and then recovered herself by an effort. "Or else—he will fall ill and die, after it—" Here she broke down completely and stopping in the middle of the street began crying bitterly, clutching at Schmidt's arm as though to keep from falling.
"I should not wonder," he said, but she fortunately did not catch the words.
He was very sorry for the poor girl, and felt inclined to take her in his arms and carry her to her home, for he saw that she was weak and exhausted as well as overcome by her anxiety. Before resorting to such a measure, however, he thought it best to try to encourage her to walk on.
"Nothing that one expects, ever happens," he said confidently, and passing his arm through hers, as though to lead her away. "Come, you will be at home presently and then you will go to bed and in the morning, before you are at the shop, everything will have been set right, and I daresay the Count will be there before you, and looking as well as ever."
"How can you say that, when you know that he never comes on Wednesdays!" exclaimed Vjera through her tears. "I am sure something dreadful will happen to him. No, not that way—not that way!"
Schmidt was trying to guide her round a sharp corner, but she resisted him.
"But that is the way home," protested the Cossack.
"I know, but I cannot go home, until I have seen where he is. I must go—you must not prevent me!"
"To the police-station?" inquired Schmidt in considerable astonishment. "They will not let us go in, you know. You cannot possibly see him. What good can it do you to go and look at the place?"
"You do not understand, Herr Schmidt! You are good and kind, but you do not understand me. Pray, pray come with me, or let me go alone. I will go alone, if you do not want to come. I am not at all afraid—but I must go."
"Well, child," answered Schmidt, good-humouredly. "I will go with you, since you are so determined."
"Is this the way? Are you not misleading me? Oh, I am sure I shall never see him again—quick, let us walk quickly, Herr Schmidt! Only think what he may be suffering at this very moment!"
"I am sure he is asleep, my dear child. And when we are outside of the police-station we cannot know what is going on inside, whether our friend is asleep or awake, and it can do no good whatever to go. But since you really wish it so much, we are going there as fast as we can, and I promise to take you by the shortest way."
Her step grew more firm as they went on and he felt that there was more life in the hand that rested on his arm. The prospect of seeing the walls of the place in which the Count was unwillingly spending the night gave Vjera fresh strength and courage. The way was long, as distances are reckoned in Munich, and more than ten minutes elapsed before they reached the building. A sentry was pacing the pavement under the glare of the gaslight, his shadow lengthening, shortening, disappearing and lengthening again on the stone-way as he walked slowly up and down. Vjera and her companion stopped on the other side of the street. The sentinel paid no attention to them.
"You are quite sure it is there?" asked the girl, under her breath. Schmidt nodded instead of answering.
"Then I will pray that all may be well this night," she said.
She dropped the Cossack's arm and slipped away from him; then pausing at a little distance, in the deep shadow of an archway opposite the station, she knelt down upon the pavement, and taking some small object, which was indistinguishable in the darkness, from the bosom of her frock she clasped her hands together and looked upwards through the gloom at the black walls of the great building. The Cossack looked at her in a sort of half-stupid, half-awed surprise, scarcely understanding what she was doing at first, and feeling his heart singularly touched when he realised that she was praying out here in the street, kneeling on the common pavement of the city, as though upon the marble floor of a church, and actually saying prayers—he could hear low sounds of earnest tone escaping from her lips—prayers for the man she loved, because he was shut up for the night in the police-station like an ordinary disturber of the peace. He was touched, for the action, in its simplicity of faith, set in vibration the chords of a nature accustomed originally to simple things, simple hopes, simple beliefs. Instinctively, as he watched her, Johann Schmidt raised his hat from his round head for a moment, and if he had possessed any nearer acquaintance with praying in general or with any prayer in particular it is almost certain that his lips would have moved. As it was, he felt sorry for Vjera, he hoped that the Count would be none the worse for his adventure, and he took off his hat. Let it be counted to him for righteousness.
As for poor Vjera herself, she was so much in earnest that she altogether forgot where she was. For love, it has been found, is a great suggester of prayer, if not of meditation, and when the beloved one is in danger a little faith seems magnified to such dimensions as would certainly accept unhesitatingly a whole mountain of dogmas. Vjera's ideas were indeed confused, and she would have found it hard to define the result which she so confidently expected. But if that result were to be in any proportion to her earnestness of purpose and sincerity of heart, it could not take a less imposing shape than a direct intervention of Providence, at the very least; and as the poor Polish girl rose from her knees she would hardly have been surprised to see the green-coated sentinel thrust aside by legions of angelic beings, hastening to restore to her the only treasure her humble life knew of, or dreamed of, or cared for.
But as the visions which her prayers had called before her faded away into the night, she saw again the dingy walls of the hated building, the gilt spike on the helmet of the policeman and the shining blade that caught the light as he moved on his beat. For one moment Vjera stood quite still. Then with a passionate gesture she stretched out both arms before her, as though to draw out to herself, by sheer strength of longing, the man whose life she felt to be her own—and at last, wearied and exhausted, but no longer despairing altogether, she covered her face with her hands and repeated again and again the two words which made up the burden of her supplication.
"Save him, save him, save him!" she whispered to herself.
When she looked up, at last, Schmidt was by her side. There was something oddly respectful in his attitude and manner as he stood there awaiting her pleasure, ready to be guided by her whithersoever she pleased. It seemed to him that on this evening he had begun to see Vjera in a new light, and that she was by no means the poor, insignificant little shell-maker he had always supposed her to be. It seemed to him that she was transformed into a woman, and into a woman of strong affections and brave heart. And yet he knew every outline of her plain face, and had known every change of her expression for years, since she had first come to the shop, a mere girl not yet thirteen years of age. Nor had it been from lack of observation that he had misunderstood her, for like most men born and bred in the wilderness, he watched faces and tried to read them. The change had taken place in Vjera herself and it must be due, he thought, to her love for the poor madman. He smiled to himself in the dark, scarcely understanding why. It was strange to him perhaps that madness on the one side should bring into life such a world of love on the other.
Vjera turned towards him and once more laid her hand upon his arm.
"Thank you," she said. "I could not have slept if I had not come here first, and it was very good of you. I will go home, but do not come with me—you must be tired."
"I am never tired," he answered, and they began to walk away in the direction whence they had come.
For a long time neither spoke. At last Schmidt broke the silence.
"Vjera," he said, "I have been thinking about it all and I do not understand it. What kind of love is it that makes you act as you do?"
Vjera stood still, for they were close to her door, and there was a street lamp at hand so that she could see his face. She saw that he asked the question earnestly.
"It is something that I cannot explain—it is something holy," she answered.
Perhaps the forlorn little shell-maker had found the definition of true love.
She let herself in with her key and Schmidt once more found himself alone in the street. If he had followed his natural instinct he would have loitered about in one of the public squares until morning, making up for the loss of his night's rest by sleeping in the daytime. But he had taken upon himself the responsibilities of marriage as they are regarded west of the Dnieper, and his union had been blessed by the subsequent appearance of a number of olive-branches. It was therefore necessary that he should sleep at night in order to work by day, and he reluctantly turned his footsteps towards home. As he walked, he thought of all that had happened since five o'clock in the afternoon, and of all that he had learned in the course of the night. Vjera's story interested him and touched him, and her acts seemed to remind him of something which he nevertheless could not quite remember. Far down in his toughened nature the strings of a forgotten poetry vibrated softly as though they would make music if they dared. Far back in the chain of memories, the memory once best loved was almost awake once more, the link of once clasped hands was almost alive again, the tender pressure of fingers now perhaps long dead was again almost a reality able to thrill body and soul. And with all that, and with the certainty that those things were gone for ever, arose the great longing for one more breath of liberty, for one more ride over the boundless steppe, for one more draught of the sour kvass, of the camp brew of rye and malt.