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A SECRET MISSION.
CHAPTER XXXIV.-A DREAM.
"A thousand fantasies Begin to throng into my memory Of calling shapes and beckoning shadows dire."
ROMAN had a dream that night, one of those intensely vivid dreams which only come to us in fever. He was in a boat, the blue water dancing all round him in the reflected glory of the summer sky. Bright dragon-flies are hovering on the surface, and swift-winged swallows passing to and fro, then a branch of hawthorn, and now he is falling-falling-falling-into the water. Who will save him? Felicyan! Felicyan!
Then the scene changes: he is lying on the bank, safe, quite safe, and his brother is kneeling beside him, weeping tears of joy at his rescue, and calling him his little Roman. But how is this? It is Felicyan himself who is lying on the grass now, stiff and rigid, and beside him there kneels a blacksmith with a file. He has come to remove the irons; dead men do not require fetters. But no, he is not dead; he moves, the iron links rattle against each other. He rises to his feet, and now it is he who calls out, "Roman, save me! Roman, save me!" and the chains go on rattling-rattling.
Roman sat up in bed, bathed in cold perspiration. He is awake now, but how is it that he still seems to hear the rattling sound of iron chains in the room? Ah! it is only the wind shaking the casement. He had forgotten to close the shutter which swings backwards and forwards on its rusty hinge. It is still night, and he must go to sleep again.
Sleep! sleep is only for the innocent, the guiltless. Could Cain go to sleep after having killed his brother? And is he not his brother's murderer just as much as if he had stabbed him with a dagger? Felicyan is not asleep now, for in Siberia it is day, not night. He is working in the mines perhaps, and his chains rattle as he moves —those chains that have now become an actual part of his personality, as inseparable from him as his bones or flesh, never to be taken off, no more to be laid aside henceforth till the releaser Death shall come. Felicyan is yet in the prime of manhood, and in tentwenty-thirty years, perhaps, he will still be toiling in Siberia, still wearing those chains!
Is it not all a hideous nightmare? Can it indeed be possible that any man born of woman should be doomed to a fate so cruel, so inhuman? "And yet he too had a mother!" A mother who had brought him into the world with pain and suffering, who had been proud of her firstborn, had smiled at his first smile and wept at his first tear.
The mother is dead long since,she has been spared the anguish of knowing the fate of her child; but the wife that other woman who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh-she is alive. She is young and strong,-strong enough to feel with keen intensity every agonising detail in the tragedy of her life; young enough to drag on
for years the weight of this unnatural widowhood.
The wind was rising higher; the shutter creaking to and fro on its hinge made a grating sound intolerable to bear. In his overwrought nervous state it gave Roman a feeling almost of physical pain, akin to the touch of a rough hand on a raw flesh wound.
He got up and fastened the bolt securely. No more rattling now, but would he be able to sleep? Could he ever sleep again? Oh for a sleeping-draught that would give him oblivion, forgetfulness for a few hours at least! Yet what would that avail him? The waking must come again, and with the first dawn of consciousness he must resume the burden of remorse of which he would never more be free. Had he not his chains to wear as well as Felicyan? And were they not infinitely more unbearable than those, because they were of his own forging? Every one envied the handsome successful Captain Starowolski, yet he wondered whether, in the whole length and breadth of the German empire, there existed a more wretched man than himself.
He poured out a glass of water from a carafe, and drank it eagerly. Would this pain in the head ever cease?
His eye now fell upon a brown leather case that lay on the table near the water-carafe. His revolYes, here was the sleepingdraught close to his hand! He He
took out the weapon and ran his fingers along its cold bright muzzle of polished steel. How simple, how easy, what a natural solution of all doubts and difficulties! It required but a slight movement, a mere mechanical action of the fingers, and then all would be over,— forgetfulness-oblivion-peace.
Ay, but what then? What object would be gained by the sacrifice of his life? Biruta had been right in saying that the situation would be unaltered even were he to blow out his brains. Felicyan would still be in Siberia, Hala still broken-hearted. To kill himself would be the act of a selfish coward, affording relief to himself only.
With a sigh he laid down the weapon.
Was there, indeed, no way,out of this labyrinth of misery? Must he suffer remorse to the end of his days? And yet what other course was left to him? Could he have acted otherwise than he had done? No, certainly. His conscience, his common-sense told him that, as a German officer, he could not betray his Government. So long as he wore that uniform he was bound to make subservient to duty all private considerations.
One morning, about a fortnight after that visit to the picturegallery, Roman came out of the German war-office, in hand a large
So long as he wore that uniform. He repeated the words several times over, mechanically at first, then with dawning comprehension, as though discovering therein a new meaning-a hidden sense not previously apparent.
"A beast that wants discourse of reason."-Hamlet.
official-looking document. He was reading it over as he walked down the pavement, then having folded and securely placed it in the breast
pocket of his uniform coat, he hailed a passing droske.
The lines about his mouth were drawn and hard-set, and he looked like a man who has just passed through a mortal illness, but his voice was quite steady as he gave the order to drive to the hotel where Countess Massalowska lodged.
The hotel porter was not in his loge as Roman entered, and he passed in unnoticed and up the principal staircase. Here a confused hubbub of voices reached his ear, and he paused on the first landing on seeing a group of rather scared-looking individuals all talking in evident excitement, and pointing to something on the top of a high oak press that stood in the corridor. A waiter, napkin in hand, was engaged in stanching the blood that flowed from a wound in the right arm. A timor ous traveller peeped cautiously out from his rooms in order to see what it was all about, then hastily closed and bolted the door. There was a general sound of hurrying footsteps and a distant shrieking chorus of hysterical female voices. All ladies lodging in the same hotel, and not the ladies only, were terrified on learning that the savage-looking bear-cub belonging to the handsome Polish Countess had broken its chain, and was loose about the premises. It had severely bitten two men who had tried to capture it, and had now taken refuge on the top of a high wardrobe whence it defied its besiegers. A ladder had been fetched and placed against the wall alongside, but no one felt much inclined to ascend it. The formidable row of teeth which Gogo was freely disclosing did not make the prospect an inviting one.
It was at this juncture of affairs, and just as Roman had reached
the landing, that a door at the farther end of the passage was flung open, and the Countess herself, in a loose morning robe of dark-blue velvet, came out to investigate the cause of the tumult. It needed but a glance to take in the situation.
Why do you not catch him?” she asked imperiously of the assembled waiters.
No one answered, but the wounded man held out his bleeding arm.
Countess Massalowska looked at it with indifference.
"Gogo only bites people who are afraid of him," she said coldly. "Will no one fetch him down from there? Ten marks to the man who goes up the ladder."
Thus encouraged, the boots began to ascend, but the savage growl with which Gogo prepared to greet him ere he had mounted half the rungs caused him to beat a hasty retreat.
"Cowards!" exclaimed Biruta, in her clear ringing voice, that always reminded Roman of a silver clarion; "shame on you all to be afraid of a mere cub! He is as harmless and as playful as a kitten to any one who understands him."
Some audible grumbling from the German menials. They were not accustomed to be called cowards, nor were they used to play with such formidable kittens as this one.
Countess Massalowska, seeing that there was nothing to be done here, now addressed herself directly to the rebellious bear.
'Gogo," she said imperiously, come down this instant." The cub only growled and showed its teeth anew.
"Gogo!" she repeated in a louder key this time, keeping her large grey eyes immovably fixed on the animal.
Gogo stopped growling, and began to look sheepishly uncomfortable. He tried to avoid her eye, but could not manage to look away, compelled apparently by some magnetic force that he was powerless to resist.
When she had called him for the third time, the bear drooped his head utterly vanquished, and began slowly to descend, holding on with teeth and claws to the uneven surface of the wood, letting himself glide down one of the twisted columns that flanked the press on either side. In the next minute he had touched the floor, and crawled to her feet with an abject expression of fawning submission.
Countess Massalowska administered a careless box on the furry ears of her favourite by way of castigation; then laying hold of the dangling end of broken chain, she disappeared down the corridor dragging the sulky cub, while the
heavy blue velvet folds swept the ground behind her.
Biruta had not once glanced towards the staircase, whence Roman, screened by the group in front, had been spectator of the
Had she chanced to look around, the conclusion of this tale might even then have been a different one.
The year was drawing to a close, and nature had sunk into winter torpor. But the brightness gone from the earth has taken refuge elsewhere, and the genial warmth of the domestic hearth replaces the vanished sunshine. A pleasurable bustle animates each household at this season, for it wants but few days of Christmas. High and low prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the Saviour's birth. Not a Polish hovel but will have its tra
The waiters gaped and stared a little, then crestfallenly they wandered off to their respective employments. The wounded man betook himself to the nearest watertap to bathe his lacerated arm.
Roman remained standing alone at the head of the stairs in deep thought. He had made a movement as though to follow Biruta, then checked himself.
"Better not," he muttered bitterly; "if I see her again my resolve will melt away like moonshine. I should be forced to obey her as that cub did just now."
"Thus with the year
ditional national dish of blest cutia on Christmas Eve; not a housewife but is gravely absorbed in devising the menu of the Viglia supper.
At Stara-Wola only there are no such signs of joyful activity this year. Christmas here will come and go unnoticed and unfelt; or if remembered at all, its celebration will be but additional pain, from the contrast evoked with former happy years.
1 Polish Christmas dish composed of corn, honey, and poppy-seeds.
A death-like stillness has settled over the place; even the outward appearance of the house seems changed, weighed down as it were by a sense of brooding misfortune. No laughing children's faces appear at the window; the house door never opens to admit a visitor now; deep snow lies undisturbed up to the very threshold, for of the many gay sledges with tinkling bells that scour the country at this season, not one will venture into the gates of Stara-Wola. Rabowski himself knows that he has nothing here to expect, and heaves a regretful sigh for the good things of the past, as he drives past the low white house that, standing by the frozen river, resembles a gigantic coffin, watched over by the gaunt frowning spectres of bare oak-trees.
in some months, years perhaps, or perhaps never, the young girl sometimes feared with a sinking heart, as she watched her sister's fixed and stony face, and the unquiet way in which she wandered from room to room, as though seeking for rest everywhere, and finding it nowhere. Often, too, at night Hala would rise abruptly, and, exchanging her bed for the big saloon, pace up and down the floor till daybreak, with the feverish mechanical motion of a caged wild animal.
And inside the house there is scarcely more life than without. The servants go about their work in apathetic silence. The last fly has long since been gathered to its forefathers; the very dogs seem to have forgotten how to bark; the children shrink away from their mother, who never speaks to them now or smiles,-whose eyes have grown so large, so sad, so strangelooking.
The whole care of the household had now devolved upon Luba, and perhaps it was as well that a merciful Providence enabled her to drown her own sorrow in active employment. Seeing her sister a prey to grief that was threatening to unhinge her mind, Luba was forced to take upon herself the duties the other was incapable of fulfilling. She had long since relinquished all attempt at active consolation, recognising its futility. Resignation, softness, submission to the inevitable, and a healthy reawakened interest in her children, all that now remained to her-these might perhaps come in the future,
She is walking there just now, in the gathering twilight of the December afternoon. The sun has but lately gone down behind the pine-wood belt across the river, but within the room there is still sufficient light to distinguish the pictures on the wall, and the reflection of Hala's figure as she paces to and fro, casting her image into each of the two dingy mirrors alternately.
She is in deep mourning, as befits a widow; her dress is black, black as was her hair a little while ago.
The hair is no longer black, but grey, almost white,—in startling contrast to the dark eyes and straight jetty brows. Soon it will have lost all trace of its original colour, and never, never again will any one remark on the likeness between the sisters.
In the feeling of secure possession of calm conjugal happiness, Hala had never even contemplated the possibility of losing her husband. She had thought, as many another happy woman has done before her, that death was not for such perfectly healthy, perfectly happy people as herself and Felicyan. It was to her mind hardly even a remote contingency; at any rate, something which she need not begin to think of for many, many years to come.