"That is exactly my opinion," I said. "She has been brought here against her will."
"Most probably. This is not a cheerful place, as you see. We have five months of ice and snow, and for four months are practically cut off from civilization and see no new face."
"Terrible!" I gasped, glancing round at those dark stone walls that seemed to breathe an air of tragedy and mystery. The old castle had, I supposed, been turned into a convent, as many have been in Germany and Austria. Back in feudal times it no doubt had been a grand old place. "And have you been here long?" I asked.
"Seven years only. But I am leaving. Even I, used as I am to a solitary life, can stand it no longer. I feel that its cold silence and dreariness will drive me mad. In winter the place is like an ice-well."
The fact that the Baron was ruler of Finland amazed me, for I had half-expected him to be some clever adventurer. Yet as the events of the past flashed through my brain, I recollected that in Rannoch Wood had been found the miniature of the Russian Order of Saint Anne, a distinction which, in all probability, had been conferred upon him. If so, the coincidence, to say the least, was a remarkable one. I questioned my companion further regarding the Baron.
"Ah, m'sieur," she declared, "they call him 'The Strangler of the Finns,' It was he who ordered the peasants of Kasko to be flogged until four of them died—and the Czar gave him the Star of White Eagle for it—he who suppressed half the newspapers and put eighteen editors in prison for publishing a report of a meeting of the Swedes in Helsingfors; he who encourages corruption and bribery among the officials for the furtherance of Russian interests; he who has ordered Russian to be the official language, who has restricted public education, who has overtaxed and ground down the people until now the mine is laid, and Finland is ready for open revolt. The prisons are filled with the innocent; women are flogged; the poor are starving, and 'The Strangler,' as they call him, reports to the Czar that Finland is submissive and is Russianized!"
I had heard something of this abominable state of affairs from time to time from the English press, but had never taken notice of the name of the oppressor. So the uncle of Elma Heath was "The Strangler of Finland," the man who, in four years, had reduced a prosperous country to a state of ruin and revolt!
"Cannot I see her?" I asked, feeling that we had remained too long there. If my presence in that place was perilous the sooner I escaped from it the better.
"Yes, come," she said. "But silence! Walk softly," and holding up the old horn lantern to give me light, she led me out into the low stone corridor again, conducting me through a number of intricate passages, all bare and gloomy, the stones worn hollow by the feet of ages. On we crept noiselessly past a number of low arched doors studded with big nails in the style of generations ago, then turning suddenly at right angles, I saw that we were in a kind of cul de sac, before the door of which at the end she stopped and placed her finger upon her lips. Then, motioning me to remain there, she entered, closing the door after her, and leaving me in the pitch darkness.
I strained my ears, but could hear no sound save that of someone moving within. No word was uttered, or if so, it was whispered so low that it did not reach me. For nearly five minutes I waited in impatience outside that closed door, until again the handle turned and my conductress beckoned me in silence within.
I stepped into a small, square chamber, the floor of which was carpeted, and where, suspended high above, was a lamp that shed but a faint light over the barely-furnished place. It seemed to me to be a kind of sitting-room, with a plain deal table and a couple of chairs, but there was no stove, and the place looked chill and comfortless. Beyond was another smaller room into which the old nun disappeared for a moment; then she came forth leading a strange wan little figure in a gray gown, a figure whose face was the most perfect and most lovely I had ever seen. Her wealth of chestnut hair fell disheveled about her shoulders, and as her hands were clasped before her she looked straight at me in surprise as she was led towards me.
She walked but feebly, and her countenance was deathly pale. Her dress, as she came beneath the lamp, was, I saw, coarse, yet clean, and her beautiful, regular features, which in her photograph had held me in such fascination, were even more sweet and more matchless than I had believed them to be. I stood before her dumbfounded in admiration.
In silence she bowed gracefully, and then looked at me with astonishment, apparently wondering what I, a perfect stranger, required of her.
"Miss Elma Heath, I presume?" I exclaimed at last. "May I introduce myself to you? My name is Gordon Gregg, English by birth, cosmopolitan by instinct. I have come here to ask you a question—a question that concerns yourself. Lydia Moreton has sent me to you."
I noticed that her great brown eyes watched my lips and not my face.
Her own lips moved, but she looked at me with an inexpressible sadness. No sound escaped her.
I stood rigid before her as one turned to stone, for in that instant, in a flash indeed, I realized the awful truth.
She was both deaf and dumb!
She raised her clasped hands to me in silence, yet with tears welling in her splendid eyes.
I saw that upon her wrists were a pair of bright steel gyves.
"What is this place?" I demanded of the woman in the religious habit, when I recovered from the shock of the poor girl's terrible affliction. "Where am I?"
"This is the Castle of Kajana—the criminal lunatic asylum of Finland," was her answer. "The prisoner, as you see, has lost both speech and hearing."
"Deaf and dumb!" I cried, looking at the beautiful original of that destroyed photograph on board the Lola. "But she has surely not always been so!" I exclaimed.
"No. I think not always," replied the sister quietly. "But you said you intended to question her, and did I not tell you that to learn the truth was impossible?"
"But she can write responses to my questions?" I argued.
"Alas! no," was the old woman's whispered reply. "Her mind is affected. She is, unfortunately, a hopeless lunatic."
I looked straight into those sad, wide-open, yet unflinching brown eyes utterly confounded.
Those white wrists held in steel, that pale face and blanched lips, the inertness of her movements, all told their own tragic tale. And yet that letter I had read, dictated in secret most probably because her hands were not free, was certainly not the outpourings of a madwoman. She had spoken of death, it was true, yet was it not to be supposed that she was slowly being driven to suicide? She had kept her secret, and she wished the man Hornby—the man who was to marry Muriel Leithcourt—to know.
The room in which we stood was evidently an apartment set apart for her use, for beyond was the tiny bedchamber; yet the small, high-up window was closely barred, and the cold bareness of the prison was sufficient indeed to cause anyone confined there to prefer death to captivity.
Again I spoke to her slowly and kindly, but there was no response. That she was absolutely dumb was only too apparent. Yet surely she had not always been so! I had gone in search of her because the beauty of her portrait had magnetized me, and I had now found her to be even more lovely than her picture, yet, alas! suffering from an affliction that rendered her life a tragedy. The realization of the terrible truth staggered me. Such a perfect face as hers I had never before set eyes upon, so beautiful, so clear-cut, so refined, so eminently the countenance of one well-born, and yet so ineffably sad, so full of blank unutterable despair.
She placed her clasped hands to her mouth and made signs by shaking her head that she could neither understand nor respond. I therefore took my wallet from my pocket and wrote upon a piece of paper in a large hand the words: "I come from Lydia Moreton. My name is Gordon Gregg."
When her eager gaze fell upon the words she became instantly filled with excitement, and nodded quickly. Then holding her steel-clasped wrists towards me she looked wistfully at me, as though imploring me to release her from the awful bondage in that silent tomb.
Though the woman who had led me there endeavored to prevent it, I handed her the pencil, and placed the paper on the table for her to write.
The nun tried to snatch it up, but I held her arm gently and forcibly, saying in French:
"No. I wish to see if she is really insane. You will at least allow me this satisfaction."
And while we were in altercation, Elma, with the pencil in her fingers, tried to write, but by reason of her hands being bound so closely was unable. At length, however, after several attempts, she succeeded in printing in uneven capitals the response:
"I know you. You were on the yacht. I thought they killed you."
The thin-faced old woman saw her response—a reply that was surely rational enough—and her brows contracted with displeasure.
"Why are you here?" I wrote, not allowing the sister to get sight of my question.
In response, she wrote painfully and laboriously:
"I am condemned for a crime I did not commit. Take me from here, or I shall kill myself."
"Ah!" exclaimed the old woman. "You see, poor girl, she believes herself innocent! They all do."
"But why is she here?" I demanded fiercely.
"I do not know, m'sieur. It is not my duty to inquire the history of their crimes. When they are ill I nurse them; that is all."
"And who is the commandant of this fortress?"
"Colonel Smirnoff. If he knew that I had admitted you, you would never leave this place alive. This is the Schusselburg of Finland—the place of imprisonment for those who have conspired against the State."
"The prison of political conspirators, eh?"
"Alas, m'sieur, yes! The place in which some of the poor creatures are tortured in order to obtain confessions and information with as much cruelty as in the black days of the Inquisition. These walls are thick, and their cries are not heard from the oubliettes below the lake."
I had long ago heard of the horrors of Schusselburg. Indeed who has not heard of them who has traveled in Russia? The very mention of the modern Bastille on Lake Ladoga, where no prisoner has ever been known to come forth alive, is sufficient to cause any Russian to turn pale. And I was in the Schusselburg of Finland!
I turned over the sheet of paper and wrote the question—
"Did Baron Oberg send you here?"
In response, she printed the words—
"I believe so. I was arrested in Helsingfors. Tell Lydia where I am."
"Do you know Muriel Leithcourt?" I inquired by the same means, whereupon she replied that they were at school together.
"Did you see me on board the Lola?" I wrote.
"Yes. But I could not warn you, although I had overheard their intentions. They took me ashore when you had gone, to Siena. After three days I found myself deaf and dumb—I was made so."
Her allegation startled me. She had been purposely afflicted!
"Who did it?"
"A doctor, I suppose. They put me under chloroform."
"People who said they were my friends."
I turned to the woman in the religious habit, and cried—
"Do you see what she has written? She has been maimed by some friends who intended that the secret she holds should be kept. They feared to kill her, so they bribed a doctor to deliberately operate upon her so that she could neither speak nor hear. And now they are driving her to suicide!"
"M'sieur, I am astounded!" declared the nun. "I have always believed that she was not in her right mind, yet assuredly she seems to be as sane as I am, only willfully mutilated by some pretended friend who determined that no further word should pass her lips."
"A shameful mutilation has been committed upon this poor defenseless girl!" I cried in anger. "And I will make it my duty to discover and punish the perpetrators of it."
"Ah, m'sieur. Do not act rashly, I pray of you," the woman said seriously, placing her hand upon my arm. "Recollect you are in Finland—where the Baron Oberg is all-powerful."
"I do not fear the Baron Oberg," I exclaimed. "If necessary, I will appeal to the Czar himself. Mademoiselle is kept here for the reason that she is in possession of some secret. She must be released—I will take the responsibility."
"But you must not try to release her from here. It would mean death to you both. The Castle of Kajana tells no secrets of those who die within its walls, or of those cast headlong into its waters and forgotten."
Again I turned to Elma, who stood in anxious wonder of the subject of our conversation, and had suddenly taken the old nun's hand and kissed it affectionately, perhaps in order to show me that she trusted her.
Then upon the paper I wrote—
"Is the Baron Oberg your uncle?"
She shook her head in the negative, showing that the dreaded Governor-General of Finland had only acted a part towards her in which she had been compelled to concur.
"Who is Philip Hornby?" I inquired, writing rapidly.
"My friend—at least, I believe so."
Friend! And I had all along believed him to be an adventurer and an enemy!
"Why did he go to Leghorn?" I asked.
"For a secret purpose. There was a plot to kill you, only I managed to thwart them," were the words she printed with much labor.
"Then I owe my life to you," I wrote. "And in return I will do my utmost to rescue you from here, if you do not fear to place yourself in my hands."
And to this she replied—
"I shall be thankful, for I cannot bear this awful place longer. I believe they must torture the women here. They will torture me some day. Do your best to get me out of here and I will tell you everything. But," she wrote, "I fear you can never secure my release. I am confined here on a life sentence."
"But you are English, and if you have had no trial I can complain to our Ambassador."
"No, I am a Russian subject. I was born in Russia, and went to England when I was a girl."
That altered the case entirely. As a subject of the Czar in her own country she was amenable to that disgraceful blot upon civilization that allows a person to be consigned to prison at the will of a high official, without trial or without being afforded any opportunity of appeal. I therefore at once saw a difficulty.
Yet she promised to tell me the truth if I could but secure her release!
A flood of recollections of the amazing mystery swept through my mind. A thousand questions arose within me, all of which I desired to ask her, but there, in that noisome prison-house, it was impossible. As I stood there a woman's shrill scream of excruciating pain reached me, notwithstanding those cyclopean walls. Some unfortunate prisoner was, perhaps, being tortured and confession wrung from her lips. I shuddered at the unspeakable horrors of that grim fortress.
Could I allow this refined defenseless girl to remain an inmate of that Bastille, the terrors of which I had heard men in Russia hint at with bated breath? They had willfully maimed her and deprived her of both hearing and the power of speech, and now they intended that she should be driven mad by that silence and loneliness that must always end in insanity.
"I have decided," I said suddenly, turning to the woman who had conducted me there, and having now removed the steel bonds of the prisoner with a key she secretly carried, stood with folded hands in the calm attitude of the religious.
"You will not act with rashness?" she implored in quick apprehension. "Remember, your life is at stake, as well as my own."
"Her enemies intended that I, too, should die!" I answered, looking straight into those deep mysterious brown eyes which held me as beneath a spell. "They have drawn her into their power because she had no means of defense. But I will assume the position of her friend and protector."
"The man is awaiting me in the boat outside. I intend to take her with me."
"But, m'sieur, why that is impossible!" cried the old woman in a hoarse voice. "If you were discovered by the guards who patrol the lake both night and day they would shoot you both."
"I will risk it," I said, and without another word dashed into the tiny bed chamber and tore an old brown blanket from off the narrow truckle bed.
Then, linking my arm in that of the woman whose lovely countenance had verily become the sun of my existence, I made a sign, inviting her to accompany me.
The sister barred the door, urging me to reconsider my decision.
"Leave her alone in secret, and act as you will, appeal to the Baron, to the Czar, but do not attempt, m'sieur, to rescue a prisoner from here, for it is an impossibility. The man who brought you here from Abo will not dare to accept such responsibility."
"Come," I said to Elma, although, alas! she could not hear my voice. "Let us at least make a dash for freedom."
She recognized my intentions in a moment, and allowed herself to be conducted down the long intricate corridor, walking stealthily, and making no noise.
I had seized the old horn lantern, and as the nun held back, not daring to accompany us, we stole on alone, turning back along the stone corridor until I recognized the door of the room to which I had been first conducted. All was silent, and as we crept along on tiptoe I felt the girl's grip upon my arm, a grip that told me that she placed her faith in me as her deliverer.
I own that it was a rash and headstrong act, for even beyond the lake how could we ever hope to penetrate those interminable inhospitable forests, so far from any hiding-place. Yet I felt it my duty to attempt the rescue. And besides, had not her marvelous beauty enmeshed me; had I not felt by some unaccountable intuition at the first moment we had met that our lives were linked in the future? She clung to me as though fearful of discovery, as we went forward in silence along that dark, low corridor where I knew the strong door in the tower opened upon the lake. Once in the boat, and we could row back to where the horses awaited us, and then away. The woman had not arrested our progress or raised an alarm, after all. Once I had mistrusted her, but I now saw that her heart was really filled with pity for the poor girl now at my side.
Without a sound we crept forward until within a few yards from that unlocked door where the boat awaited us below, when, of a sudden, the uncertain light of the lantern fell upon something that shone and a deep voice cried out of the darkness in Russian—
"Halt! or I fire!"
And, startled, we found ourselves looking down the muzzle of a loaded carbine.
A huge sentry stood with his back to the secret exit, his dark eyes shining beneath his peaked cap, as he held his weapon to his shoulder within six feet of us.
The big, bearded fellow demanded fiercely who I was.
My heart sank within me. I had acted recklessly, and had fallen into the hands of his Excellency, the Baron Xavier Oberg, the unscrupulous Governor-General—fallen into a trap which, it seemed, had been very cleverly prepared for me.
I was a prisoner in the terrible fortress whence no single person save the guards had ever been known to emerge—the Bastille of "The Strangler of Finland!"
I saw I was lost.
The muzzle of the sentry's carbine was within two feet of my chest.
"Speak!" cried the fellow. "Who are you?"
At a glance I took in the peril of the situation, and without a second's hesitation made a dive for the man beneath his weapon. He lowered it, but it was too late, for I gripped him around the waist, rendering his gun useless. It was the work of an instant, for I knew that to close with him was my only chance.
Yet if the boat was not in waiting below that closed door? If my Finn driver was not there in readiness, then I was lost. The unfortunate girl whom I was there to rescue drew back in fright against the wall for a single second, then, seeing that I had closed with the hulking fellow, she sprang forward, and with both hands seized the gun and attempted to wrest it from him. His fingers had lost the trigger, and he was trying to regain it to fire and so raise the alarm. I saw this, and with an old trick learned at Uppingham I tripped him, so that he staggered and nearly fell.
An oath escaped him, yet in that moment Elma succeeded in twisting the gun from his sinewy hands, which I now held with a strength begotten of a knowledge of my imminent peril. My whole future, as well as hers, depended upon my success in that desperate encounter. He was huge and powerful, with a strength far exceeding my own, yet I had been reckoned a good wrestler at Uppingham, and now my knowledge of that most ancient form of combat held me in good stead.
The man shouted for help, his deep, hoarse voice sounding along the stone corridors. If heard by his comrades-in-arms, then the alarm would at once be given.
We struggled desperately, swaying to and fro, he trying to throw me, while I, at every turn, practiced upon him the tricks learned in my youth. It seemed an even match, however, for he kept his feet by sheer brute force, and his muscles seemed hard and unbending as steel.
Suddenly, however, as we were striving so vigorously and desperately, the English girl slipped past us with the carbine in her hand, and with a quick movement dragged open the heavy door that gave exit to the lake.
At that instant I unfortunately made a false move, and his hand closed upon my throat like a band of steel. I fought and struggled to loose myself, exerting every muscle, but alas! he gained the advantage. I heard a splash, and saw that Elma no longer held the sentry's weapon in her hands, having thrown it into the water.
Then at the same moment I heard a voice outside cry in a low tone: "Courage, Excellency! Courage! I will come and help you."
It was the faithful Finn, who had been awaiting me in the deep shadow, and with a few strokes pulled his boat up to the narrow rickety ledge outside the door.
"Take the lady!" I succeeded in gasping in Russian. "Never mind me," and I saw to my satisfaction that he guided Elma to step into the boat, which at that moment drifted past the little platform.
I struggled valiantly, but against such a man of brute strength I was powerless. He held my throat, causing me excruciating pain, and each moment I felt my chance of victory grow smaller. My strength was failing. While I held his arms at his sides, I could keep him secure without much effort, but now with his fingers pressing in my windpipe I could not breathe.
I was slowly being strangled.
To be vanquished meant imprisonment there, perhaps even death. Victory meant Elma's life, as well as my own. Mine was therefore a fight for life. A sudden idea flashed across my mind, and I continued to struggle, at the same time gradually forcing my enemy backward towards the door. He shouted for help, but was unheard. He cursed and swore and shouted until, with a sudden and almost superhuman effort, I tripped him, bringing his head into such violent contact with the stone lintel of the door that the sound could surely be heard a considerable distance. For a moment he was stunned, and in that brief second I released his grip from my throat and hurled him backwards beyond the door.
There was the sound of the crashing of wood as the rotten platform gave way, a loud splash, and next instant the dark waters closed over the big, bearded fellow who would have snatched Elma Heath from me, and have held me prisoner in that castle of terrors. He sank like a stone, for although I stood watching for him to rise, I could only distinguish the woodwork floating away with the current.
In a moment, however, even as I stood there in horror at my deed of self-defense, the place suddenly resounded with shouts of alarm, and in the tower above me the great old rusty bell began to swing, ringing its brazen note across the broad expanse of waters.
The fair-bearded Finn again shot the boat across to where I stood, crying—
"Jump, Excellency! For your life, jump! The guards will be upon us!"
Behind me in the passage I saw a light and the glitter of arms. A shot rang out, and a bullet whizzed past me, but I stood unharmed. Then I jumped, and nearly upset the boat, but taking an oar I began to row for life, and as we drew away from those grim, black walls the fire belched forth from three rifles.
"Row!" I shrieked, turning to see if my fair companion had been hit.
"Keep cool, Excellency," urged the Finn. "See, right away there in the shadow. We might trick them, for the patrol-boat will be at the head of the river waiting to cut us off."
Again the guards fired upon us, but in the darkness their aim was faulty. Lights appeared in the high windows of the castle, and we could see that the greatest commotion had been caused by the escape of the prisoner. The men at the door in the tower were shouting to the patrol-boats, which were nowhere to be seen, calling them to row us down and capture us, but by plying our oars rapidly we shot straight across the lake until we got under the deep shadow of the opposite shore, and then crept gradually along in the direction we had come.
"If we meet the boats, Excellency, we must run ashore and take to the woods," explained the Finn. "It is our only chance."
Scarcely had he spoken when out in the center of the lake we could just distinguish a long boat with three rowers going swiftly towards the entrance to the river, which we so desired to gain.
"Look!" cried our guide, backing water, and bringing the boat to a standstill. "They are in search of us! If we are discovered they will fire. It is their orders. No boat is allowed upon this lake."
Elma sat watching our pursuers, but still calm and silent. She seemed to intrust herself entirely to me.
The guards were rowing rapidly, the oars sounding in the rowlocks, evidently in the belief that we had made for the river. But the Finlander had apparently foreseen this, and for that reason we were lying safe from observation in the deep shadow of an overhanging tree.
A gray mist was slowly rising from the water, and the Finn, noticing it, hoped that it might favor us. In Finland in late autumn the mists are often as thick as our proverbial London fogs, only whiter, denser, and more frosty.
"If we disembark we shall be compelled to make a detour of fully four days in the forest, in order to pass the marshes," he pointed out in a low whisper. "But if we can enter the river we can go ashore anywhere and get by foot to some place where the lady can lie in hiding."
"What do you advise? We are entirely in your hands. The Chief of Police told me he could trust you."
"I think it will be best to risk it," he said in Russian after a brief pause. "We will tie up the boat, and I will go along the bank and see what the guards are doing. You will remain here, and I shall not be seen. The rushes and undergrowth are higher further along. But if there is danger while I am absent get out and go straight westward until you find the marsh, then keep along its banks due south," and drawing up the boat to the bank the shrewd, big-boned fellow disappeared into the dark undergrowth.
There were no signs yet of the break of day. Indeed, the stars were now hidden, and the great plane of water was every moment growing more indistinct as we both sat in silence. My ears were strained to catch the dipping of an oar or a voice, but beyond the lapping of the water beneath the boat there was no other sound. I took the hand of the fair-faced girl at my side and pressed it. In return she pressed mine.
It was the only means by which we could exchange confidences. She whom I had sought through all those months sat at my side, yet powerless to utter one single word.
Still holding her hands in both my own I gripped them to show her that I intended to be her champion, while she turned to me in confidence as though happy that it should be so. What, I wondered, was her history? What was the mystery surrounding her? What could be that secret which had caused her enemies to thus brutally maim and mutilate her, and afterwards send her to that grim, terrible fortress that still loomed up before us in the gloom? Surely her secret must affect some person very seriously, or such drastic means would never be employed to secure her silence.
Suddenly I heard a stealthy footstep approaching, and next moment a low voice spoke which I recognized as that of our friend, the Finn.
"There is danger, Excellency—a grave danger!" he said in a low half whisper. "Three boats are in search of us."
And scarcely had he uttered those words when there was the flash of a rifle from the haze, a loud report, and again a bullet whizzed past just behind my head. In an instant the truth became apparent, for I saw the dark shadow of a boat rapidly rowed, bearing full upon us. The shot had been fired as a signal that we had been sighted, and were pursued. Other shots rang out, mingled with the wild exultant shouts of the guards as they bore down full upon us, and then I knew that, notwithstanding our escape, we were now lost. They were too close upon us to admit of eluding them. The peril we had dreaded had fallen. The Finn's presence on the bank had evidently been detected by a boat drawn up at the shore, and he had been followed to where we had lain in what we had so foolishly believed to be a safe hiding-place. Nought else was to be done but to face the inevitable. Three times the red fire of a rifle belched angrily in our faces, and yet, by good fortune, neither of us was struck. Yet we knew too well that the intention of our pursuers was to kill us.
"Quick, Excellency! Fly! while there is yet time!" gasped the Finn, grasping my hand and half dragging me from the boat, while, I, in turn, placed Elma upon the bank.
"Hoida! This way! Swiftly!" cried our guide, and the three of us, heedless of the consequences, plunged forward into the impenetrable darkness, just as our fierce pursuers came alongside where we had only a moment ago been seated. They shouted wildly as they sprang to land after us, but our guide, who had been born and bred in these forests, knew well how to travel in a semi-circle, and how to conceal himself. It was a race for freedom—nay, for very life.
So dark that we could see before us hardly a foot, we were compelled to place our hands in front of us to avoid collision with the big tree trunks, while ever and anon we found ourselves entangled in the mass of dead creepers and vegetable parasites that formed the dense undergrowth. Around us on every side we heard the shouts and curses of our pursuers, while above the rest we heard an authoritative voice, evidently that of a sergeant of the guard, cry—
"Shoot the man, but spare the woman! The Colonel wants her back. Don't let her escape! We shall be well rewarded. So keep on, comrades! Mene edemmaeski!"
But the trembling girl beside me heard nothing, and perhaps indeed it was best that she could not hear. My only fear was that our pursuers, of whom there now seemed to be a dozen, had extended, with the intention of encircling us. They, no doubt, knew every inch of that giant forest with its numerous bogs and marshes, and if they could not discover us would no doubt drive us into one or other of the bogs, where escape was impossible.
Our gallant guide, on the other hand, seemed to utterly disregard the danger and kept on, every now and then stretching out his hand and helping along the afflicted girl we had rescued from that living tomb. Headlong we went in a straight line, until suddenly we began to feel our feet sinking into the soft ground, and then the Finlander turned to the left, at right angles, and we found ourselves in a denser undergrowth, where in the darkness our hands and faces became badly scratched.
Another gun was fired as signal, echoing through the wood, but the sound came from the opposite direction to that we were traveling; therefore we hoped that we had eluded those whose earnest desire it was to capture us for the reward. Suddenly, however, a second gun, an answering signal, was fired from straight before us, and that revealed the truth. We were actually between the two parties, and they were closing in upon us! They had already driven us to the edge of the bog. The Finlander recognized our peril as quickly as I did, and halted.
"Let us turn straight back," he urged breathlessly. "We may yet elude them."
And then we again turned off at right angles, traveling as quickly as we were able back towards the lake shore. It was an exciting chase in the darkness, for we knew not whither we were going, nor into what pitfall or ravine or treacherous marsh we might fall. Once we saw afar through the trees the light of a lantern held by a guard, and already the sweet-faced girl beside me seemed tired and terribly fatigued. But we hurried on and on, striving to make no noise, and yet the crackling of wood beneath our feet seemed to us to sound like the noise of thunder.
At last, breathless, we halted to listen. We were already in sight of the gray mist where lay the silent lake that held so many secrets. There was not a sound. The guards had gone straight on, believing they had driven us into that deadly bog wherein, if we had entered, we must have been slowly sucked down and engulfed. They were surrounding it, no doubt, feeling certain of their prey.
But we crept along the water's edge, until in the gray light we could distinguish two empty boats—that of the guards and our own. We were again at the spot where we had disembarked.
"Let us row to the head of the lake," suggested the Finn. "We may then land and escape them." And a moment later we were all three in the guards' boat, rowing with all our might under the deep shadow of the bank northward, in the opposite direction to the town of Nystad.
We kept a sharp look-out for any other boat, but saw none. The signals ashore had attracted all the guards to that spot to join in the search, and now, having doubled back and again embarked, we were every moment increasing the distance between ourselves and our pursuers. I think we must have rowed several miles, for ere we landed again, upon a low, flat and barren shore, the first gray streak of day was showing in the east.
Elma noticed it, and kept her great brown eyes fixed upon it thoughtfully. It was the dawn for her—the dawn of a new life. Our eyes met; she smiled at me, and then gazed again eastward, full of silent meaning.
Having landed, we drew the boat up and concealed it in the undergrowth so that the guards, on searching, should not know the direction we had taken, and then we went straight on northward across the low-lying lands, to where the forest showed dark against the morning gray. The mist had now somewhat cleared, but the air was keen and frosty.
This wood, we found, was of tall high pines, where walking was not difficult, a wide wilderness of trees which, hour after hour, we traversed in the vain endeavor to find the rough path which our guide told us led for a hundred miles from Alavo down to Tammerfors, the manufacturing center of the country. But to discover a path in a forest forty miles wide is a matter of considerable difficulty, and for hours we wandered on and on, but alas! always in vain.
Faint and hungry, yet we still kept courage. Fortunately we found a little spring, and all three of us drank eagerly with our hands. But of food we had nothing, save a small piece of hard rye bread which the Finn had in his pocket, the remains of his evening meal; and this we gave to Elma, who, half famished, ate it quickly. We knew quite well that it would be an easy matter to die of starvation in that great trackless forest, therefore we kept on undaunted, while the yellow autumn sun struggled through the dark pines, glinting on the straight gray trunks and reflecting a golden light in that dead unbroken silence.
How many miles we trudged I have no idea. It was a consolation to know that we now had no pursuers, yet what fate lay before us we knew not. If we could only find that forest-road we might come across some wood-cutter's hut, where we could obtain rough food of some sort, yet our guide, used as he was to those enormous woods of central Finland, was utterly out of his bearings, and no mark of civilization attracted his quick, experienced eye. The light above gradually faded, and over a sharp stone Elma stumbled and ripped her shoe.
I looked at my watch, and found that it was already five o'clock. In an hour it would be dark, the beginning of the long northern night. Elma, who was weary and footsore, asked by signs to be permitted to lay down and rest. Therefore we gathered a bed of dried leaves for her, and she lay down, and while we watched she was soon asleep. The Finn, who declared that he did not suffer from the cold, removed his coat and placed it tenderly upon her shoulders.
While there was still a ray of light I watched her white refined features as she slept, and was sorely tempted to bend and imprint a kiss upon that soft inviting cheek. Yet I had no right to do so—no right to take such an advantage.
The long cold night passed wearily, and the howling of the wolves caused me to grip my revolver, yet at daybreak we arose refreshed, and notwithstanding the terrible pangs of hunger now gnawing at our vitals, we were prepared to renew our desperate dash for liberty.
Although I had paper, I possessed no pencil with which to write, therefore I could only communicate by signs with the mysterious prisoner of Kajana, the beautiful dark-eyed girl who held me irrevocably beneath the spell of her beauty. All the little acts of homage I was able to perform she accepted with a quiet, calm dignity, while in her deep luminous eyes I read an unfathomable mystery.
The mist had not cleared, for it was soon after dawn when we again moved along, hungry, chill, and yet hopeful. At a spring we obtained some water, and then, in silent procession, pressed forward in search of the rough track of the woodcutters.
Elma's torn shoe gave her considerable trouble, and noticing her limping, I induced her to sit down while I took it off, hoping to be able to mend it, but, having unlaced it, I saw that upon her stocking was a large patch of congealed blood, where her foot itself had also been cut. I managed to beat the nails of the shoe with a stone, so that its sole should not be lost, and she readjusted it, allowing me to lace it up for her and smiling the while.
Forward we trudged, ever forward, across that enormous forest where the myriad treetrunks presented the same dismal scene everywhere, a forest untrodden save by wild, half-savage lumbermen. Throughout that dull gray day we marched onward, faint with hunger, yet suffering but little pain, for the first pangs were now past, and were succeeded by slight light-headedness. My only fear was that we should be compelled to spend another night without shelter, and what its effect might be upon the delicately-reared girl whose hand I held tenderly in mine. Surely my position was a strange one. Her terrible affliction seemed to cause her to be entirely dependent upon me.
Suddenly, just as the yellow sunlight overhead had begun to fade, the flat-faced Finn, whose name he had told me was Felix Estlander, cried joyfully—
"Polushaite! Look, Excellency! Ah! The road at last!"
And as we glanced before us we saw that his quick, well-trained eyes had detected away in the twilight, at some distance, a path traversing our vista among the gray-green tree-trunks. Then, hurrying along, we found ourselves upon a track, on which we turned to the right—a track, rough and deeply-rutted by the felled trunks that were dragged along it to the nearest river.
Elma made a gesture of renewed hope, and all three of us redoubled our pace, expecting every moment to come upon some log hut, the owner of which would surely give us hospitality for the night. But darkness came on quickly, and yet we still pushed forward. Poor Elma was limping, and I knew that her injured foot was paining her, even though she could tell me nothing.
At last, however, after walking for nearly four hours in the almost impenetrable forest gloom, always fearing lest we might miss the path, our hearts suddenly beat quickly by seeing before us a light shining in a window, and five minutes later Felix was knocking at the door, and asking in Finnish the occupant to give hospitality to a lady lost in the forest.
We heard a low growl like a muttered imprecation within, and when the door opened there stood upon the threshold a tall, bearded, muscular old fellow in a dirty red shirt, with a big revolver shining in his hand. A quick glance at us satisfied him that we were not thieves, and he invited us in while Felix explained that we had landed from the lake, and our boat having drifted away we had been compelled to take to the woods. The man heard the Finn's picturesque story, and then said something to me which Felix translated into Russian.
"Your Excellency is welcome to all the poor fare he has. He gives up his bed in the room yonder to the lady, so that she may rest. He is honored by your Excellency's presence."
And while he was making this explanation the herculean wood-cutter in the red shirt stirred the red embers whereon a big pot was simmering, and sending forth an appetizing odor, and in five minutes we were all three sitting down to a stew of capercailzie, with a foaming light beer as a fitting beverage. We finished the dish with such lightning rapidity that our host boiled us a number of eggs, which, I fear, denuded his larder.
The place was a poor one of two low rooms, built of rough log-pines, with double windows for the winter and a high brick stove. Cleanliness was not exactly its characteristic, nevertheless we all passed a very comfortable hour, and received a warm welcome from the lonely old fellow who passed his life so far beyond European civilization, and whose house, he told us, was often snowed up and cut off from all the world for three or four months at a time.
After we had finished our meal, I asked the sturdy old fellow for a pencil, but the nearest thing he possessed was a stick of thick charcoal, and with that it was surely difficult to communicate with our fair companion. Therefore she rose, gave me her hand, bowed smilingly, and then passed into the inner room and closed the door.
The old wood-cutter gave us some coarse tobacco, and after smoking and chatting for an hour we threw ourselves wearily upon the wooden benches and slept soundly.
Suddenly, however, at early dawn, we were startled by a loud banging at the door, the clattering of hoofs, and authoritative shouts in Russian. The old wood-cutter sprang up, and looking through a chink in the heavy shutters turned to us with blanched face, whispering breathlessly—
"The police! What can they want of me?"
"Open!" shouted the horsemen outside. "Open in the name of his Majesty!"
Felix and I sprang up facing each other.
"We are entrapped!"
In an instant our guide Felix made a dash for the door of the inner room where Elma had retired, but next second he reappeared, gasping in Russian—
"Excellency! Why, the door is open! The lady has gone!"
"Gone!" I cried, dismayed, rushing into the little room, where I found the truckle couch empty, and the door leading outside wide open. She had actually disappeared!
The police again battered at the opposite door, threatening loudly to break it in if it were not opened at once, whereupon the old wood-cutter drew the bolt and admitted them. Two big, hulking fellows in heavy riding-coats and swords strode in, while two others remained mounted outside, holding the horses.
"Your names?" demanded one of the fellows, glancing at us as we stood together in expectation.
Our host told them his name, and asked why they wished to enter.
"We are searching for a woman who has escaped from Kajana," was the reply. "Have you seen any woman here?"
"No," responded the wood-cutter. "We never see any woman out in these woods."
The police-officer strode into the inner room, glanced around to make certain that no one was concealed there, and then returning to me asked, "Who are you?"
"That is my own affair," I answered.
The mystery of Elma's disappearance while we had slept annoyed me. She seemed to have fled from me in secret. Yet could she have received some warning that the police were in search of her? She was deaf, therefore she could not have been alarmed by the banging on the door.
"Your identity is my affair," declared the man with the fair, bristly beard, an average type of the uncouth officer of police.
"Who is your chief?" I inquired, as a sudden thought occurred to me.
"Melnikoff, at Helsingfors."
"Then this is not in the district of Abo?"
"No. But what difference does it make? Who are you?"
"Gordon Gregg, British subject," I replied.
"And you are the drosky-driver from Abo," remarked the fellow, turning to Felix. "Exactly as I thought. You are the pair who bribed the nun at Kajana, and succeeded in releasing the Englishwoman. In the name of the Czar, I arrest you!"
The old wood-cutter turned pale as death. We certainly were in grave peril, for I foresaw the danger of falling into the hands of Baron Oberg, the Strangler of Finland. Yet we had a satisfaction in knowing that, be the mystery what it might, Elma had escaped.
"And on what charge, pray, do you presume to arrest me?" I inquired as coolly as I could.
"For aiding a prisoner to escape."
"Then I wish to say, first, that you have no power to arrest me; and, secondly, that if you wish me to give you satisfaction, I am perfectly willing to do so, providing you first accompany me down to Abo."
"It is outside my district," growled the fellow, but I saw that his hesitancy was due to his uncertainty as to whom I really might be.
"I desire you to take me to the Chief of Police Boranski, who will make all the explanation necessary. Until we have an interview with him, I refuse to give any information concerning myself," I said.
"But you have a passport?"
I drew it from my pocket, saying—
"It proves, I think, that my name is what I have told you."
The fellow, standing astride, read it, and handed it back to me.
"Where is the woman?" he demanded. "Tell me."
"I don't know," was my reply.
"Perhaps you will tell me," he said, turning to the old wood-cutter with a sinister expression upon his face. "Remember, these fugitives are found in your house, and you are liable to arrest."
"I don't know—indeed I don't!" protested the old fellow, trembling beneath the officer's threat. Like all his class, he feared the police, and held them in dread.
"Ah, you don't remember, I suppose!" he smiled. "Well, perhaps your memory will be refreshed by a month or two in prison. You are also arrested."
"But, your Excellency, I—"
"Enough!" blared the bristly officer. "You have given shelter to conspirators. You know the penalty in Finland for that, surely?"
"But these gentlemen are surely not conspirators!" the poor old man protested. "His Excellency is English, and the English do not plot."
"We shall see afterwards," he laughed. And then, turning to the agent of police at his side, he gave him orders to search the log-hut carefully, an investigation in which one of the men from the outside joined. They upset everything and pried everywhere.
"You may find papers or letters," said the officer. "Search thoroughly." And in every corner they rummaged, even to taking up a number of boards in the inner room which Elma had occupied. But they found nothing.
A dozen times was the old wood-cutter questioned, but he stubbornly refused to admit that he had ever set eyes upon Elma, while I insisted on my right to return to Abo and see Boranski. I knew, of course, by what we had overheard said by the prison-guards, that the Governor-General was extremely anxious to recapture the girl with whom, I frankly admit, I had now so utterly fallen in love. And it appeared that no effort was being spared to search for us. Indeed, the whole of the police in the provinces of Abo and of Helsingfors seemed to be actively making a house-to-house search.
But what could be the truth of Elma's disappearance? Had she fled of her own accord, or had she once more fallen a victim to some ingenious and dastardly plot. That gray dress of hers might, I recollected, betray her if she dared to venture near any town, while her affliction would, of itself, be plain evidence of identification. All I hoped was that she had gone and hidden herself in the forest somewhere in the vicinity to wait until the danger of recapture had passed.
For nearly half an hour I argued with the police officer whose intention it was to take me under arrest to Helsingfors. Once there, however, I knew too well that my liberty would be probably gone for ever. Whatever was the Baron's motive in holding the poor girl a prisoner, it would also be his motive to silence me. I knew too much for his liking.
"I refuse to go to Helsingfors," I said defiantly. "I am a British subject, and demand to be taken back to the port where my passport was vised." This argument I repeated time after time, until at length I succeeded in convincing him that I really had a right to be taken to Abo, and to seek the aid of the British Vice-Consul if necessary.
For as long as possible I succeeded in delaying our departure, but at length, just as the yellow sun began to struggle through the gray clouds, we were all three compelled to depart in sorrowful procession.
What, we wondered, had really happened to Elma? It was evident that she had not fallen into the hands of the police; nevertheless, the fact that the door of the inner room was open caused them to look upon the statement of the wood-cutter with distinct suspicion and disbelief.
Our captors seemed quite well aware of all the circumstances of our escape from Kajana, and were consequently filled with chagrin that Elma, the person they so much desired to recapture, had slipped through their fingers. While the police rode, we were compelled to walk before them, and after trudging ten miles or so through the forest we came across another small posse of police, who were apparently in search of us, for they expressed delight when they saw us under arrest.
"Where is the woman?" inquired one officer of the other.
"Still at liberty," replied the man who held us as prisoners. "In hiding twenty versts back, I think."
"Ah, we shall find her before long," he said confidently. "Within twelve hours we shall have searched the whole forest. She cannot escape us."
Our captors explained who we were, and then we were pushed forward again, skirting a great wide lake called the Nasjarvi, along the wooded shore of which we walked the whole day long until, at sundown, we came to a picturesque little log-built town facing the water, called Filppula. Here we obtained a hasty meal, and afterwards took the train down to Abo, where we arrived next morning, after a very uncomfortable and sleepless journey.
At nine o'clock I stood in the big bare office of Michael Boranski, where only a few days before we had had such a heated argument. As soon as the Chief of Police entered, he recognized me under arrest, and dismissed my guards with a wave of the hand—all save the officer who had brought me there. The Finnish driver and the old wood-cutter were in another room, therefore I stood alone with the police-officer of Helsingfors and the Chief of Police at Abo. The latter listened to the officer's story of my arrest without saying a word.
"The prisoner, your Excellency, desired to be brought here to you before being taken to Helsingfors. He said you would be aware of the facts."
"And so I am," remarked Boranski, with a smile. "There is no conspiracy. You must at once release this gentleman and the other two prisoners."
"But, Excellency, the Governor-General has issued orders for the prisoner's arrest and deportation to Helsingfors."
"That may be. But I am Chief of Police in Abo, and I release him."
The officer looked at me in such blank astonishment that I could not resist smiling.
"I am well aware of the reason of this Englishman's visit to the north," added Boranski. "More need not be said. Has the lady been arrested?"
"No, your Excellency. Every effort is being made to find her. Colonel Smirnoff has already been relieved of his post as Governor of Kajana, and many of the guards are under arrest for complicity in the plot to allow the woman to escape."
"Ah, yes. I see from the despatches that a reward is offered for her recapture."
"The Governor-General is determined that she shall not escape," remarked the other.
"She is probably hidden in the forest, somewhere or other."
"Of course. They are making a thorough search over every verst of it. If she is there, she will most certainly be found."
"No doubt," remarked Boranski, leaning back in his padded chair and looking at me meaningly across the littered table. "And now I wish to speak to this Englishman privately, so please leave us. Also inform the other two prisoners that they are at liberty."
"But your Excellency does this upon his own responsibility," he said anxiously. "Remember that I brought them to you under arrest."
"And I release them entirely at my own discretion," he said. "As Chief of Police of this province, I am permitted to use my jurisdiction, and I exercise it in this matter. You are liberty to report that at Helsingfors, if you so desire, but I should suggest that you say nothing unless absolutely obliged—you understand?"
The manner in which Boranski spoke apparently decided my captor, for after a moment's hesitation he said, saluting:
"If that is really your wish, then I will obey." And he left.
"Excellency!" exclaimed the Chief of Police, rising quickly and walking towards me as soon as the door was closed, and we were alone, "you have had a very narrow escape—very. I did my best to assist you. I succeeded in bribing the water-guards at Kajana in order that you might secure the lady's release. But it seems that just at the very moment when you were about to get away one of the guards turned informer and roused the governor of the castle, with the result that you all three nearly lost your lives. The whole matter has been reported to me officially, and," he added with a grim smile, "my men are now searching everywhere for you."
"But why is Baron Oberg so extremely anxious to recapture Miss Heath?" I asked earnestly.
"I have no idea," was his reply. "The secret orders from Helsingfors to me are to arrest her at all hazards—alive or dead."
"Which means that the Baron would not regret if she was dead," I remarked, in response to which he nodded in the affirmative.
I told him of the faithful services of Felix, the Finlander, whereupon he said simply:
"I told you that you might trust him implicitly."
"But now that you have shown yourself my friend," I said, "you will assist Miss Heath to escape this man, who desires to hold her prisoner in that awful place. They are driving her mad."
"I will do my best," he answered, but shaking his head dubiously. "But you must recollect that Baron Oberg is Governor-General of Finland, with all the powers of the Czar himself."
"And if Elma Heath again falls into his unscrupulous hands, she will die," I declared.
"Ah!" he sighed, looking me straight in the face, "I fear that what you say is only too true. She evidently holds some secret which he fears she will reveal. He wishes to rearrest her in order—well—" he added in a low tone, "in order to close her lips. It would not be the first time that persons have been silenced in secret at Kajana. Many fatal accidents take place in that fortress, you know."
Where was Elma? What was the cause of her inexplicable disappearance into the gloomy forest while we had slept?
I returned to the hotel where I had stayed on my arrival, a comfortable place called the Phoenix, and lunched there alone. Both Felix, the Finn, and my host, the wood-cutter, had received their douceurs and left, but to the last-named I had given instructions to return home at once and report by telegraph any news of my lost one.
A thousand conflicting thoughts arose within me as I sat in that crowded salle-a-manger filled with a gobbling crowd of the commercial men of Abo. I had, I recognized, now to deal with the most powerful man in that country, and I suffered a distinct disadvantage by being in ignorance of the reason he held that sweet English girl a prisoner. The tragedy of the dastardly manner in which she had been willfully maimed caused my blood to boil within me. I had never believed that in this civilized twentieth century such things could be.
Michael Boranski had given his pledge to assist me, yet he had most plainly explained to me his fears. The Baron was intent upon again getting Elma into his power. Was it at his orders, I wondered, that the sweet-faced girl had been deprived of speech and hearing? Had she fallen an innocent victim to his infamous scheming?
About me men were eating strange dishes and talking in Finnish, while others were smoking and drinking their vodka; but I was in no mood for observation. My only thought was of she who was now lost to me.
Why had she disappeared without warning I was at loss to imagine, yet I could only surmise that her flight had been compulsory. Some women possess a mysterious sense of intuition, a curious and indescribable faculty of knowing when evil threatens them, that presents a strange and puzzling problem to our scientists. It is unaccountable, and yet many women possess it in a very marked degree. Was it, therefore, possible that Elma had awakened, and being warned of her peril had fled without arousing us? The suggestion was possible, but I feared improbable.
Another very curious feature in the affair was the sudden manner in which Michael Boranski had exerted his power and influence in order to render me that service. He had actually bribed the guards of Kajana; he had instructed the faithful Felix, he had provided our boat, and he had ordered the nun to open the water-gate to me. Why?
There was, I felt convinced, some hidden motive in all that sudden and marked friendliness. That he really hated the English I had seen plainly when we had first met, and I had only compelled him to serve me by presenting the order signed by the Emperor, which made me his guest within the Russian dominions. Even that document did not account for the length he had gone to secure the release of the woman I now loved in secret. The more I thought it over, the more anxious did I become. I could discern no motive for his friendliness, and, truth to tell, I always distrust those who are too friendly. What straight and decided line of action should I take? Carefully I went over all the strange events that had happened in England, and while anxious to obtain some solution of the amazing problem, yet I could not bring myself to leave Finland, and allow Elma to fall into the clutches of that high official who so persistently sought her end. No. I would go to him and face him. I was anxious to see what manner of man was "The Strangler of Finland." Therefore, that same evening I left Abo, and traveled by rail up to the junction Toijala, whence, after a wait of six hours, I resumed by slow journey to Helsingfors. I put up at Kamp's, an elegant hotel on the long esplanade overlooking the port, and found the town, with its handsome streets and spacious squares, to be a much finer place than I had believed. When I inquired of the French director of my hotel for the residence of his Excellency, the Governor-General, he regarded me with some surprise, saying:
"The Baron lives up at the Palace, m'sieur—that great building opposite the Salutong. The driver of your drosky will point it out to you."
"Is his Excellency in Helsingfors at the present moment?" I asked.
"The Baron never leaves the Palace, m'sieur," responded the man. "This is a strange country, you know," he added, with a grin. "It is said that his Excellency is in hourly fear of assassination."
"Perhaps not without cause," I remarked in a low voice, at which he elevated his shoulders and smiled.
At noon I descended from a drosky before a long, gray, massive building, over the big doorway of which was a large escutcheon bearing the Russian arms emblazoned in gold, and on entering where a sentry stood on either side, a colossal concierge in livery of bright blue and gold came forward to meet me, asking in Russian:
"Whom do you wish to see?"
"His Excellency, the Governor-General."
"Have you an appointment?"
"His Excellency sees no one without an appointment," the man told me somewhat gruffly.
"I am not here on public business, but upon a private matter," I explained. "Perhaps I may see his Excellency's secretary?"
"If you wish, but I repeat that his Excellency sees no one without a previous appointment."
I knew this quite well, for the "Strangler of Finland," fearful of assassination, was as unapproachable as the Czar himself. Following the directions of the concierge, however, I crossed a great bare courtyard, and, ascending a wide stone staircase, was confronted by a servant, who, on hearing my inquiry took me into a waiting-room, and left with my card to Colonel Luganski, whom he informed me was the Baron's private secretary.
After ten minutes or so the man returned, saying:
"The Colonel will see you if you will please step this way," and following him he conducted me into the richly furnished private apartments of the Palace, across a great hall filled with fine paintings, and then up a long thickly-carpeted passage to a small, elegant room, where a tall bald-headed man in military uniform stood awaiting me.
"Your name is M'sieur Gregg," he exclaimed in very good French, "and I understand you desire audience of his Excellency, the Governor-General. I regret, however, that he never gives audience to strangers."
"The matter upon which I desire to see his Excellency is of a purely private and confidential nature," I said, for used as I was to the ways of foreign officialdom, I spoke with the same firm courtesy as himself.
"I am very sorry, m'sieur, but I fear it will be necessary in that case for you to write to his Excellency, and mark your letter 'personal.' It will then go into the Governor-General's own hands."
"What I have to say cannot be committed to writing," was my reply. "I must see Baron Oberg upon a matter which affects him personally, and which admits of no delay."
He glanced at me quickly, and then in a low voice inquired:
"Is it in regard to a—well, a conspiracy?"
His question instantly suggested to me a ruse, and I replied in the affirmative.
"Then you can place the facts before me without the slightest hesitation," he said, going to the door and slipping the bolt into its socket. "Anything spoken into my ear is as though it were spoken into that of his Excellency himself."
"I much regret, M'sieur the Colonel, that I must see the Baron in person."
"Has the plot assassination as its object—or revolt?" he asked pointedly.
"That I will explain to the Baron only."
"But I tell you he will not see you. We have so many persons here with secret information concerning Finnish conspiracies against our Russian rule. Why, if his Excellency saw everyone who desired to see him, he would be compelled to give audience the whole twenty-four hours round."
At a glance I saw that this elegant Colonel, who seemed to take the greatest pride over his exquisitely kept person and his spotless uniform, did not intend to allow me the satisfaction of an audience of that most hated official of the Czar. The latter was in fear of the dagger, the pistol, or the bomb, and consequently hedged himself in by persons of the Colonel's type—courteous, diplomatic, but utterly unbending. After some further argument, I said at last in a firm tone:
"I wish to impress upon you the extreme importance of the information I have to impart, and can only repeat that it is a matter concerning his Excellency privately. Will you therefore do me the favor to take my name to him?"
"His Excellency refuses to be troubled with the names of strangers," was his cold reply, as he turned over my card in his hand.
"But if I write upon it the nature of my business, and enclose it in an envelope, will you then take it to him?" I suggested.
He hesitated for a short time, twisting his mustache, and then replied with great reluctance:
"Well, if you are so determined, you may write your business upon your card."
I therefore took out one, and on the back wrote in French the words which I knew must have the effect of obtaining an audience for me:
"To give information regarding Miss Elma Heath."
This I enclosed in the envelope he handed to me, when, ringing a bell, he handed it to the footman who appeared, with orders to take it to his Excellency and await a reply. The response came in a few minutes.
"His Excellency will give audience to the English m'sieur."
Then I rose and followed the footman through several wide corridors filled with palms and flowers, which formed a kind of winter-garden, until we crossed a red-carpeted ante-room, where two statuesque sentries stood on guard, and the man conducting me rapped at the great polished mahogany doors of the room beyond.
A voice responded, the door was opened, and I found myself in a high, beautifully-painted room, with long windows hung with pastel-blue silk with heavy gilt fringe, a pastel-blue carpet, and upon the opposite wall a great canopy of rich purple velvet bearing the double-headed eagle embroidered in gold. The apartment was splendidly decorated, and in the center of the parquet floor, with his back to the light, was the thin, wiry figure of an elderly man in a funereal frock-coat, in the lapel of which showed the red and yellow ribbon of the Order of Saint Anne. His hands were behind his back, and he stood purposely in such a position that when I entered I could not at first see his face against the strong, gray light behind.
But when the footman had bowed and retired and we were alone, he turned slightly, and I then saw that his bony face, with high cheek-bones, slight gray side-whiskers, hard mouth and black eyes set closely together, was one that bore the mark of evil upon it—the keen, sinister countenance of one who could act without any compunction and without regret. Truly one would not be surprised at any cruel, dastardly action of a man with such a face—the face of an oppressor.
"Well?" he snapped in French in a high-pitched voice. "You want to see me concerning that mad English girl? What picturesque lies do you intend to tell me concerning her?"
"I have no intention of telling any untruths concerning her," was my quick response, as I faced him unflinchingly. "She has told me sufficient to—"
"She has told you something! Ah! I guessed as much. I expected this!" And I saw that his thin, crafty face went pale, while his eyes glanced evilly upon me. He believed that she had revealed to me her secret. He placed his hand upon the back of a chair wherein was concealed an electric button, and next instant a little stout man in shabby black appeared as though by magic through a secret door hidden in the dark paneling of the audience chamber—the man who was his personal guard against the plots for his assassination.
His Excellency spoke, and the words he uttered staggered me. I stood aghast.
"Seize that man!" he cried, pointing to me. "He is armed! He has just threatened to kill me! He is the man against whom we were recently warned—the Englishman!"
"Ah!" I cried, standing before the thin-faced official of the Czar, the unscrupulous man who had crushed Finland beneath the iron heel of Russia, and who, by his lying allegation, now held me in his power. "I see your object, Baron Oberg! You intend to arrest me as a conspirator!"
"Search the fellow. He has a revolver there in his hip-pocket," declared the Governor-General, and in an instant the short, ferret-eyed little man had run his hands down me and felt my weapon.
I drew it forth and handed it to him, saying:
"You are quite welcome to it if you fear that I am here with any sinister motive."
"He obtained admission by a clever ruse," the Baron explained to the police agent. "And then he threatened me."
"It's untrue," I protested hotly. "I have merely called to see you regarding the young English lady, Elma Heath—the unfortunate lady whom you consigned to the fortress of Kajana."
"The mad woman, you mean!" he laughed.
"She is not mad," I cried, "but as sane as you yourself. It is you who intended that the horrors of the castle should drive her insane, and thus your secret should be kept!"
"What do you suggest?" he demanded, stepping a few paces towards me.
"I mean, Xavier Oberg, that you would kill Elma Heath if you dared to do so," I answered plainly, as I faced him unflinchingly.
"You see?" he laughed, turning to the stout man at my side. "The fellow is insane. He does not know what he is talking about. Ah, my dear Malkoff, I've had a narrow escape! He came here intending to shoot me."
"I did not," I protested. "I am here to demand satisfaction on behalf of Miss Heath."
"Oh!—well, if the lady cares to come here herself, I will give her the satisfaction she desires," was his crafty reply.
"The lady has escaped you, and it is therefore hardly likely she will willingly return to Helsingfors," I said.
"It was you who succeeded, by throwing the guard into the water, in abducting her from the castle," he remarked. "But," he added sneeringly, with a sinister smile, "I presume your gallantry was prompted by affection—eh?"
"That is my own affair."
"A deaf and dumb woman is surely not a very cheerful companion!"
"And who caused her that affliction?" I cried hotly. "When she was at Chichester she possessed speech and hearing as other girls. Indeed, she was not afflicted when on board the Lola in Leghorn harbor only a few months ago. Perhaps you recollect the narrow escape the yacht had on the Meloria sands?"
His eyes met mine, and I saw by his drawn face and narrow brows that my words were causing him the utmost consternation. My object was to make him believe that I knew more than I really did—to hold him in fear, in fact.
"Perhaps the man whom some know as Hornby, or Woodroffe, could tell an interesting story," I went on. "He will, no doubt, when he meets Elma Heath, and finds the terrible affliction of which she has been the victim."
His thin, bony countenance was bloodless, his mouth twitched and his gray brows contracted quickly.
"I haven't the least idea what you mean, my dear sir," he stammered. "All that you say is entirely enigmatical to me. What have I to do with this mad Englishwoman's affairs?"
"Send out this man," I said, pointing to the detective Malkoff, who had appeared from behind the paneling of the audience-chamber. "Send him out, and I will tell you."
But the representative of the Czar, always as much in dread of assassination as his imperial master, refused. I saw that what I had said had upset him, and that he was not at all clear as to how much or how little of the true facts I knew.
The connection between the little miniature cross of the Order of St. Anne and that red and yellow ribbon in his button-hole struck me forcibly at that moment, and I said:
"I have no desire to make any statements before a second person. I came here to see you privately, and in private will I speak. I have certain information that will, I feel confident, be of the utmost interest to you—concerning another woman, Armida Santini."
His lips were pressed together, and I noticed how he started when I uttered the name of that woman whom I had found dead in Rannoch Wood, and whose body had so mysteriously disappeared.
"And what on earth can the woman concern me?" he asked, with a brave attempt to remain cool, still speaking in French.
"Only that you knew her," was my brief reply. Then, with my eyes still fixed upon his, I asked: "Will you not now request this gentleman to retire?"
He hesitated a moment, and then with a wave of his hand dismissed the man he had summoned to his aid. A moment later the "Strangler's" personal protector had disappeared through that secret door in the paneling by which he had entered.
"Well?" asked the Baron, turning quickly to me again, his dark, evil eyes trying to fathom my intentions.
"Well?" I asked. "And what, pray, can you profit by denouncing me as an assassin? Remember, Baron, that your secret is mine," I said in a clear voice full of meaning.
"And your intention is blackmail—eh?" he snapped, walking to the window and back again. "How much do you want?"
"My intention is nothing of the kind. My object is to avenge the outrageous injury to Elma Heath."
"Of course. That is only natural, m'sieur, if you have fallen in love with her," he said. "But are not your intentions somewhat ill-advised considering her position as a criminal lunatic?"
"She is neither," I protested quickly.
"Very well. You know better than myself," he laughed. "The offense for which she was condemned to confinement in a fortress was the attempted assassination of Madame Vakuroff, wife of the General commanding the Uleaborg Military Division."
"Assassination!" I cried. "Have you actually sent her to prison as a murderess?"
"I have not. The Criminal Court of Abo did so," he said dryly. "The offense has since been proved to have been the outcome of a political conspiracy, and the Minister of the Interior in Petersburg last week signed an order for the prisoner's transportation to the island of Saghalien."
"Ah!" I remarked with set teeth. "Because you fear lest she shall write down your secret."
"You are insulting! You evidently do not know what you are saying," he exclaimed resentfully.
"I know what I am saying quite well. You have requested her removal to Saghalien in order that the truth shall be never known. But Baron Oberg," I added with mock politeness, "you may do as you will, you may send Elma Heath to her grave, you may hold me prisoner if you dare, but there are still witnesses of your crime that will rise against you."
In an instant he went ghastly pale, and I knew that my blind shot had struck its mark. The man before me was guilty of some crime, but what it was only Elma herself could tell. That he had had her arrested for an attempted political assassination only showed how ingeniously and craftily the heartless ruler of that ruined country had laid his plans. He feared Elma, and therefore had conspired to have her sent out to that dismal penal island in the far-off Pacific.
"You do not fear arrest, m'sieur?" he asked, as though with some surprise.
"Not in the least—at least, not arrest by you. You may be the representative of the Emperor in Finland, but even here there is justice for the innocent."
A sinister smile played around the thin, gray lips of the man whose very name was hated through the great empire of the Czar, and was synonymous of oppression, injustice, and heartless tyranny.
"All I can repeat," he said, "is that if you bring the young Englishwoman here I shall be quite prepared to hear her appeal." And he laughed harshly.
"You ask that because you know it is impossible," I said, whereat he again laughed in my face—a laugh which made me wonder whether Elma had not already fallen into his hands. The uncertainty of her fate held me in terrible suspense.
"I merely wish to impress upon you the fact that I have not the slightest interest whatsoever in the person in question," he said coldly. "You seem to have formed some romantic attachment towards this young woman who attempted to poison Madame Vakuroff, and to have succeeded in rescuing her from Kajana. You afterwards disregard the fact that you are liable to a long term of imprisonment yourself, and actually have the audacity to seek audience of me and make all sorts of hints and suggestions that I have held the woman a prisoner for my own ends!"
"Not only do I repeat that, Baron Oberg," I said quickly. "But I also allege that it was at your instigation that in Siena an operation was performed upon the unfortunate girl which deprived her of speech and hearing."
"At my instigation?"
"Yes, at yours!"
He laughed again, but uneasily, a forced laugh, and leaned against the edge of the big writing-table near the window.
"Well, what next?" he inquired, pretending to be interested in my allegations. "What do you want of me?"
"I desire you to give the Mademoiselle Heath her complete freedom," I said.
"Is that all?"
"All—for the present."
"But her future is not in my hands. The Minister in Petersburg has decreed her removal to Saghalien as a person dangerous to the State."
"Which means that she will be ill-treated—knouted to death, perhaps."
"We do not use the knout in the Russian prisons nowadays," he said briefly. "His Majesty has decreed its abolition."
"But you adopt torture in Kajana and Schusselburg instead."
"My time is too limited to discuss our penal system, m'sieur," he exclaimed impatiently, while I could well see that he was anxious to escape before I made any further charges against him. I had already shown him that Elma had spoken, and he feared that she had told the truth. While this would embitter him against her and cause him to seek to silence her at all hazards, it was of course in my own interests that he should fear any revelations that I might make.
"You have posed in England as the uncle of Elma Heath, and yet you here hold her prisoner. For what reason?" I demanded.
"She is held prisoner by the State—for conspiracy against Russian rule—not by herself personally."
"Who enticed her here? Why you, yourself. Who conspired to throw the guilt of this attempted murder of the general's wife upon her? You—you, the man whom they call 'The Strangler of Finland'! But I will avenge the cruel and abominable affliction you have placed upon her. Her secret—your secret, Baron Oberg—shall be published to the world. You are her enemy—and therefore mine!"
"Very well," he growled between his teeth, advancing towards me threateningly, his fists clenched in his rage. "Recollect, m'sieur, that you have insulted me. Recollect that I am Governor-General of Finland."
"If you were Czar himself, I should not hesitate to denounce you as the tyrant and mutilator of a poor defenseless woman."
"And to whom, pray, will you tell this romantic story of yours?" he laughed hoarsely. "To your prison walls below the lake at Kajana? Yes, M'sieur Gregg, you will go there, and once within the fortress you shall never again see the light of day. You threaten me—the Governor-General of Finland!" he laughed in a strange, high-pitched key as he threw himself into a chair and scribbled something rapidly upon paper, appending his signature in his small crabbed handwriting.
"I do not threaten," I said in open defiance, "I shall act."
"And so shall I," he said with an evil grin upon his bony face as he blotted what he had written and took it up, adding: "In the darkness and silence of your living tomb, you can tell whatever strange stories you like concerning me. They are used to idiots where you are going," he added grimly.
"Oh! And where am I going?"
"Back to Kanaja. This order consigns you to confinement there as a dangerous political conspirator, as one who has threatened me—it consigns you to the cells below the lake—for life!"
I laughed aloud, and my hand sought my wallet wherein was that all-powerful document—the order of the Emperor which gave me, as an imperial guest, immunity from arrest. I would produce it as my trump-card.
Next second, however, I held my breath, and I think I must have turned pale. My pocket was empty! My wallet had been stolen! Entirely and helplessly I had fallen into the hands of the tyrant of the Czar.
His own personal interest would be to consign me to a living tomb in that grim fortress of Kajana, the horrors of which were unspeakable. I had seen enough during my inspection of the Russian prisons as a journalist to know that there, in strangled Finland, I should not be treated with the same consideration or humanity as in Petersburg or Warsaw. The Governor-General consigned me to Kajana as a "political," which was synonymous with a sentence of death in those damp, dark oubliettes beneath the water-dungeons every whit as awful as those of the Paris Bastile.
We faced each other, and I looked straight into his gray, bony face, and answered in a tone of defiance:
"You are Governor-General, it is true, but you will, I think, reflect before you consign me, an Englishman, to prison without trial. I know full well that the English are hated by Russia, yet I assure you that in London we entertain no love for your nation or its methods."
"Yes," he laughed, "you are quite right. Russia has no use for an effete ally such as England is."
"Effete or powerful, my country is still able to present an ultimatum when diplomacy requires it," I said. "Therefore I have no fear. Send me to prison, and I tell you that the responsibility rests upon yourself." And folding my arms I kept my eyes intently upon his, so that he should not see that I wavered.
"As for the responsibility, I certainly do not fear that, m'sieur," he said.
"But the exposure that will result—are you prepared to face that?" I asked. "Perhaps you are not aware that others beside myself—one other, indeed, who is a diplomatist—is aware of my journey here? If I do not return, your Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Petersburg will be pressed for a reason."
"Which they will not give."
"Then if they do not, the truth will be out," I said laughing harshly, for I saw how determined he had become to hold me prisoner. "Come, call up your myrmidon and send me to Kajana. It will be the first step towards your own downfall."
"We shall see," he growled.
"Ah! you surely do not think that I, after ten years' service in the British diplomatic service, would dare to come to Finland upon this quest—would dare to face the rotten and corrupt officialdom which Russia has placed within this country—without first taking some adequate precaution? No, Baron. Therefore I defy you, and I leave Helsingfors to-night."
"You will not. You are under arrest."
I laughed heartily and snapped my fingers, saying:
"Before you give me over to your police, first telegraph to your Minister of Finance, Monsieur de Witte, and inquire of him who and what I am."
"I don't understand you."
"You have merely to send my name and description to the Minister and ask for a reply," I said. "He will give you instructions—or, if you so desire, ask his Majesty yourself."
"And why, pray, does his Majesty concern himself about you?" he asked, at once puzzled.
"You will learn later, after I am confined in Kajana and your secret is known in Petersburg."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," I said, "I mean that I have taken all the necessary steps to be forearmed against you. The day I am incarcerated by your order, the whole truth will be known. I shall not be the sufferer—but you will."
My words, purposely enigmatical, misled him. He saw the drift of my argument, and being of course unaware of how much I knew, he was still in fear of me. My only uncertainty was of the actual fate of poor Elma. My wallet had been stolen—with a purpose, without a doubt—for the thief had deprived me of that most important of all documents, the open sesame to every closed door, the ukase of the Czar.
"You defy me!" he said hoarsely, turning back to the window with the written order for my imprisonment as a political still in his hand. "But we shall see."
"You rule Finland," I said in a hard tone, "but you have no power over Gordon Gregg."
"I have power, and intend to exert it."
"For your own ruin," I remarked with a self-confident smile. "You may give your torturers orders to kill me—orders that a fatal accident shall occur within the fortress—but I tell you frankly that my death will neither erase nor conceal your own offenses. There are others, away in England, who are aware of them, and who will, in order to avenge my death, speak the truth. Remember that although Elma Heath has been deprived of both hearing and of speech, she can still write down the true facts in black and white. The Czar may be your patron, and you his favorite, but his Majesty has no tolerance of officials who are guilty of what you are guilty of. You talk of arresting me!" I added with a smile. "Why, you ought rather to go on your knees and beg my silence."
He went white with rage at my cutting sarcasm. He literally boiled over, for he saw that I was quite cool and had no fear of him or of the terrible punishment to which he intended to consign me. Besides which, he was filled with wonder regarding the exact amount of information which Elma had imparted to me.
"There are certain persons," I went on, "to whom it would be of intense interest to know the true reason why the steam-yacht Lola put into Leghorn; why I was entertained on board her; why the safe in the British Consulate was rifled, and why the unfortunate girl, kept a prisoner on board, was taken on shore just before the hurried sailing of the vessel. And there are other mysteries which the English police are trying to solve, namely, the reason Armida Santini and a man disguised as her husband died in Scotland at the hand of an assassin. But surely I need say no more. It is surely sufficient to convince you that if the truth were spoken, the revelations would be distinctly awkward."
"For whom?" he asked, opening his eyes.
"For you. Come, Baron," I said, "can we not yet speak frankly?"
But he was silent for a moment, a fact which was in itself proof that my pointed argument had caused him to reconsider his intention of sending me under escort back to that castle of terror.
If my journey there was in order to meet my love, I would not have cared. It was the ignorance of her whereabouts or of her fate that held me in such deep, all-consuming anxiety. Each hour that passed increased my fond and tender affection for her. And yet what irony of circumstance! She had been cruelly snatched from me at the very moment that freedom had been ours.
I think it was well that I assumed that air of defiance with the man who had ground Finland beneath his heel. He was unused to it. No one dared to go against his will, or to utter taunt or threat to him. He was paramount, with all the powers of an emperor—the power, indeed, of life and death. Therefore he was not in the habit of being either thwarted or criticised, and I could see that my words had aroused within him a boiling tumult of resentment and of rage. I told him nothing of the loss of my wallet or of the precious document that it had contained. My defiance was merely upon principle.