Stolen Souls - William Le Queux - ebook
Opis

Wrapped in furs until only my nose and eyes were visible, I was walking along the Nevski Prospekt in St. Petersburg one winter’s evening, and almost involuntarily turned into the Dominique, that fashionable restaurant which, garish in its blaze of electricity, is situated in the most frequented part of the long, broad thoroughfare. It was the dining-hour, and the place, heated by high, grotesquely-ornamented stoves, was filled with officers, ladies, and cigarette smoke, while the savoury smell of national dishes mingled judiciously with those of foreign lands.

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Contents

I. THE SOUL OF PRINCESS TCHIKHATZOFF

II. THE GOLDEN HAND

III. THE MASKED CIRCE

IV. THE MAN WITH THE FATAL FINGER

V. SANTINA

VI. THE WOMAN WITH A BLEMISH

VII. THE SYLPH OF THE TERROR

VIII. ONE WOMAN'S SIN

IX. VOGUE LA GALÈRE!

X. FORTUNE'S FOOL

XI. DEATH-KISSES

XII. THE CITY IN THE SKY

XIII. THE BLOOD-RED BAND

XIV. A CHILD OF THE SUN

I. THE SOUL OF PRINCESS TCHIKHATZOFF.

WRAPPED in furs until only my nose and eyes were visible, I was walking along the Nevski Prospekt in St. Petersburg one winter’s evening, and almost involuntarily turned into the Dominique, that fashionable restaurant which, garish in its blaze of electricity, is situated in the most frequented part of the long, broad thoroughfare. It was the dining-hour, and the place, heated by high, grotesquely-ornamented stoves, was filled with officers, ladies, and cigarette smoke, while the savoury smell of national dishes mingled judiciously with those of foreign lands.

At the table next the one at which I seated myself were two persons, a man and a woman.

The former, who was about fifty, had a military bearing, a pair of keen black eyes, closely-cropped iron-grey hair, and a well-trimmed bushy beard. The woman was young, fair haired, and pretty. Her eyes were clear and blue, her face oval and flawless in its beauty, and she was attired in a style that showed her to be a patrician, wearing over her low-cut evening dress a velvet shuba, lined with Siberian fox; her soft velvet cap was edged with costly otter, and the bashlyk she had removed from her head was of Orenberg goat-wool. On her slim white fingers some fine diamonds flashed, and in the bodice of her dress was a splendid ornament of the same glittering gems, in the shape of a large double heart.

As our eyes met, there appeared something about her gaze that struck me as strange. Her delicately-moulded face was utterly devoid of animation; her eyes had a stony stare–that fixed, unwavering glance that one sees in the glazed eyes of the dead.

Having poured out a glass of the Brauneberger I had ordered, and taken a slight draught, I caught sight of a man I knew who was just leaving, and, jumping up, rushed after him. We remained chatting a few moments in the vestibule, and on returning, I sat down to my soup.

My neighbours were an incongruous pair. The man, who spoke the dialect of the South, was uttering words in a low, earnest tone with a curious, intense look in his eyes, and an expression on his dark, sinister features that filled me with surprise and repulsion. Notwithstanding his excited manner, his fair vis-à-vis remained perfectly calm, gazing at him wonderingly, and answering his questions wearily, in abrupt monosyllables.

Once she turned to me with what I thought was a glance of mute appeal. At last they finished their dessert, and when the man had paid the bill, he rose, exclaiming–

“Come, Agafia, we must be moving!”

“You–you must go alone,” she said quickly, passing her hand wearily across her brow. “I have that strange sensation again, as if my brain is benumbed. My forehead seems on fire, and I can think of nothing except–except the enormity of my terrible crime.”

And she shuddered.

“Fool! some one will overhear you,” he whispered, with an imprecation. “You are only faint. The drive will revive you.”

As she rose mechanically, he fastened her shuba, then, taking her roughly by the arm, led her out.

Finishing my meal leisurely, I afterwards sat for a long time over my tea and cigar, until I gradually became aware that my mind was wandering strangely, and a curious, apprehensive feeling was oppressing me, causing me considerable uneasiness. Tossing the cigar away, I pulled myself together, rose, and went out.

The thermometer was below zero, and in the keen night air my head felt better, yet as I walked along my senses seemed dulled. The one vivid impression, however, that remained on my mind was the calm, beautiful face of the girl who, by a slip of the tongue, had confessed to some mysterious crime. Walking on under the dark walls of the palace of Sergiei Alexandrovitch, embellished with its highly-coloured saints and heads of seraphim, I was suddenly amazed at seeing her standing before me. But a moment later I laughed heartily, when I saw that her form was a mere vagary of the imagination. The face, however, seemed so distorted by passion and indignation as to appear hideous, and in vain I endeavoured to account for its appearance.

On the Anitchkoff Bridge I paused, and as I leaned over to watch the skating carnival in progress, there was a movement behind me, and I heard words uttered in a low half-whisper–

“To-night. On the table!”

I turned quickly, but the unknown messenger was already some distance away, walking as quickly as his clumsy sheepskin would allow.

It was a summons from the Party of Political Right–the so-called Nihilists! On one occasion, during my residence in the Russian capital, as correspondent of a London daily newspaper, I had been able to render the Terrorists an important service, and being in sympathy with their attempt to free their country from the terrible yoke of Tzardom, I sometimes attended their secret meetings.

The message I had received prompted me to take a drosky to an unfashionable little tea-shop a few doors from the entrance to the Gostinny Dvor Bazaar. Having seated myself, and ordered a cup of tea and a cigarette, I leaned my arms on the little round marble table, and, without attracting notice, proceeded to examine it minutely.

Strange as it may seem, this table was the private notice-board of the Nihilists. The proprietor was a member of the Circle, and this was considered one of the safest means of communication. In a few moments I discovered what I sought; a line in English, very faintly traced with a lead pencil, which read, “Come at eleven to-night, certain.” For nearly an hour I remained smoking and chatting with the genial proprietor, then, after rubbing out the message, bade him adieu and left.

Shortly before eleven I strolled down one of the narrow, squalid streets that led to the Neva, halted before a little bakery, and having rapped three times at a side door, was admitted. Passing to the end of a long, dark passage, I bent, groped about until I found an iron ring in the floor, and pulled up a large flap, from beneath which came a flood of light. Then I descended the ladder, and, walking into an underground kitchen, found myself in the presence of the Revolutionary Executive Committee.

As I glanced round quickly, I saw a stranger–a woman, with her back turned towards me, and holding in her hand a bright, keen knife. She stood looking up at the ikon upon the wall. The president from his seat at the head of the table had apparently been addressing her.

“I agree to the conditions,” she was replying, in Russian, in harsh, strained tones. “I bind myself irrevocably, by my solemn oath before this holy picture, to strike any such blow for liberty as the Circle may direct.”

There was something in her form that struck me as curious, and as she slowly raised the knife to her lips, and kissed the thin, double-edged blade, I rushed across and looked into her face.

It was the woman I had noticed in the Dominique! She had taken an oath to commit murder at the bidding of the Revolutionists! There was the same fixed look in her eyes, the same blank, expressionless countenance, and as she turned and faced the council of desperate conspirators, her teeth were firmly set and her bejewelled hands tightly-clenched.

As her eyes met mine, I fancied she started, but the words of the president attracted her attention.

“It is enough,” he said solemnly. “To-morrow you will receive instructions. You have joined us, therefore never forget that the punishment inflicted on those who divulge our secret is always swift and decisive–death!”

A shudder ran through her, the knife fell from her grasp, and she reeled and would have fallen, had not an elderly, grey-haired woman jumped up from her seat and caught her.

In a few moments, however, she recovered, and the pair walked slowly out.

When they had left, I inquired the name of the mysterious stranger, but all information was refused. Secrecy is one of the chief tenets of the Nihilistic creed, and frequently members of the same Circle do not know one another. The Terrorist organisations are most elaborate and far-reaching, and the more I have known of their operations, the more wonderful they have always seemed. The business of the Executive with me was unimportant–merely to give me some information which I might send to London, and which, when published in my journal, would be calculated to take the police off the scent of a fugitive conspirator who was being diligently sought for by the ubiquitous members of the Third Section of the Ministry of the Interior.

When I left, half an hour later, I went straight to my bachelor lodgings in a tall and rather gloomy house on the other side of the Moika. Lighting a cigarette, and drawing my armchair close to the stove, I sat for a long time in my dimly-lighted sitting-room, pondering over the events of the evening. How long I sat there I have no idea, but I was aroused by distinctly hearing a woman’s shrill scream. At the same time, I felt a tight pressure on my right wrist, as if it were being held by bony fingers, and on my throat I felt a strange, cold sensation, as if a knife had been drawn across it.

Again I was mystified on discovering that I was alone; that it was nothing but a weird sensation! Yet, on removing the green shade from my reading-lamp, and going over to the mirror, I saw upon my throat a thin red line, while upon my wrist were three red marks that had apparently been left by unseen fingers!

During the weeks that followed, I seemed filled with a terrible dread of some utterly vague danger, and before my eyes came frequent visions of the pale, handsome face of the beautiful woman who had allied herself with the most dangerous group of the Narodnaya Volya. Was there, I wondered, some mysterious affinity between us? So puzzled was I to account for the strange phenomena, and the fact that the curious marks upon my wrist still remained, that I began to fear that the periodical fits of passion and despair were precursory of madness.

Lounging aimlessly along the streets in the hope of meeting her, I was walking one afternoon along the English Quay, when a drosky drove swiftly past, and pulled up before one of the great palaces that face the Neva. A woman, wrapped in costly furs, alighted, and in a moment I recognised her. As I approached, she halted, with her eyes fixed upon me, her mouth slightly open, and the same curiously blank expression on her countenance. At first I was prompted to stop and speak, but the tall man-servant in livery who had thrown open the great door looked down upon me with suspicion, therefore I hesitated, and walked on.

As I brushed past her, I thought I heard a long sigh, and, turning, I was just in time to see her enter the palace, saluted by the gigantic dvornik.

Stumbling blindly on for a few hundred paces, I met a man I knew, and, pointing out the house, asked him who lived there.

“The woman has enmeshed you, eh?” he suggested, laughing. “Well, you are not the first who has been smitten by her extraordinary charms.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Flirtation is a dangerous pastime here, in Petersburg,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders ominously. “Especially so if one’s idol is Agafia Ivanovna, the Princess Tchikhatzoff.”

“Princess?” I echoed, in surprise.

Then, linking my arm in his, I begged him to tell me what he knew of her. But he only replied–

“I really cannot tell you anything, mon cher, except her name. Ugly rumours were once afloat, but perhaps the least said of her the better.”

And, waving his hand and wishing me a hurried adieu, he went on.

A month later, having received instructions from London to proceed to the cholera-infected districts of Vologda, in order to describe the hospitals, I had obtained the necessary permit from the Ministry of the Interior, and one evening had taken my seat in the mail train for Moscow. Scarcely had I arranged my traps and prepared for the long night journey, when a rather shabbily-attired female appeared at the carriage door.

“M’sieur,” she exclaimed in a soft, musical voice. “It is M’sieur Wentworth that I address, is it not?”

Replying in the affirmative I alighted.

“You are going to Pavlova, in Vologda?” she said in broken English. “I–I am in a great difficulty–a great danger threatens me. If you would only render me a service, I should indeed owe my life to you.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“I have here a message to a–a friend who is lying ill of cholera in the hospital at Pavlova;” and she drew forth a letter from under her faded shawl.

“You wish me to deliver it?”

“Yes,” she replied anxiously. “Were I able to travel, I would not ask this favour; but only the journalists are allowed to pass the cordon, and the post is suspended for fear of infection.”

I took the letter slowly from her hand, and as I did so, was amazed to discover that on her slim white wrist there were three red marks, exactly similar to those I bore!

“I shall be pleased to act as your messenger,” I said, placing the letter in my pocket; “you may rest assured it will be delivered safely, Princess.”

“You recognise me, then?” she cried, starting back. “I–”

But her sentence remained unfinished, for the train was moving off slowly, and I had barely time to scramble in without bidding her adieu.

The mid-winter journey by sleigh through the remote, plague-stricken district, where poverty, disease, and death were rife on every hand, was a terrible experience. The distress and suffering I witnessed is photographed indelibly on the tablets of my memory. Not without difficulty, I one night found Nikanor Baranovitch, the addressee of the letter, who was lying on the point of death in the filthy log-built hospital. He was young, dark-haired, emaciated, but still conscious. When I handed him the missive, he tore it open eagerly and read it by the aid of the guttering candle I held.

Suddenly his face was convulsed by anger, and, crying, “Agafia–Agafia!” he uttered fearful imprecations in Russian. Then, crushing the letter in his hand, he thrust it into the flame of the candle, and in a moment the flimsy paper was consumed.

Gasping a word of thanks to me, and crying for the vengeance of heaven to descend upon some person he did not name, he sank wearily back upon the dirty straw pallet, and a few moments later had passed to the land that lies beyond human ken.

*     *

*

TWO years had gone by. I was back again in England, writing descriptions of events at home, and holding myself in readiness to journey to any quarter of the globe, should occasion arise.

Frequently in my day-dreams the countenance of the Princess Agafia Ivanovna passed before me, always serious, always haggard, always intense.

When, after my journey through Vologda, I returned to the capital, the Tchikhatzoff Palace was closed, and the only information the burly dvornik would vouchsafe was that the Princess had gone abroad.

I longed to penetrate the mystery surrounding her, and obtain some explanation of the extraordinary coincidence of the marks upon her wrist and mine. I had never been entirely myself since first seeing her. Some strange, occult spell seemed to enthrall me, for the phenomena I had experienced were remarkable, while the varied mental sensations were utterly mystifying.

Horribly morbid thoughts constantly oppressed me. Sometimes they were of murder, which I felt impelled to commit, even though the very suggestion was repugnant. At others, in moments of blank despair, I contemplated the easiest modes of suicide; while through all, I cherished a deadly hatred towards some person of whose identity I had not the remotest notion.

In the months that had elapsed after returning to England, I had gradually grown callous to mental anguish; yet the bodily pain I frequently experienced in the wrists and across the forehead was remarkably strange, inasmuch as livid marks would sometimes appear on my arms without any apparent cause, and disappear as suddenly as they came.

Through the hot August days I was idling in that part of Norfolk that is justly termed Poppyland, making my headquarters at a farmhouse near Cromer. I had been unusually perturbed regarding Agafia Ivanovna, and such an intense longing to see her had seized me, that I even contemplated returning to Petersburg.

One very hot afternoon, while sitting on the bench outside the house calmly smoking, some unknown force prompted me to rise and set out for a long walk along the cliffs. I had no motive for doing this, yet a lichen-covered stile, nearly five miles in the direction of Yarmouth, was fixed in my mind as my destination, and I felt myself compelled to reach it.

The sun blazed down mercilessly, notwithstanding the cool breeze that had sprung up, and sparkling waves were breaking with sad music on the shingly beach. Engrossed in my own thoughts, I had sped on, and was just approaching the stile, when the rustle of a woman’s dress startled me, and I saw a graceful form clad in cream-coloured serge, with a bright ribbon at the waist, standing before me.

I recognised her features. It was Agafia!

“You, Princess?” I cried in astonishment, grasping her hand.

But she uttered a low scream, and, twisting her fingers from mine, dashed swiftly away. I was unable to overtake her, for, taking a desperate leap, she alighted on a projecting rock, and, scrambling down among the bushes, descended the precipitous face of the cliff and disappeared.

Not daring to follow, I remained breathless and bewildered for about half an hour, and at length turned my heavy steps again towards Cromer.

*     *

*

WHILE walking in London’s al fresco pleasure exchange, the Row, one bright spring afternoon, exchanging salutes with those I knew, a brilliantly-varnished carriage, drawn by a magnificent pair of bays, suddenly passed me. Notwithstanding the rapid pace at which it was driven, I caught a glimpse of the tip of a tiny bronze shoe stretched against the cushion of the front seat, the fold of a light fawn dress, and under a lace-fringed sunshade a fair face–the face of Agafia Ivanovna, Princess Tchikhatzoff.

Until the equipage turned out of the Park, I kept it in sight; then I jumped into a hansom, and followed, until I watched her alight and enter one of the largest houses in Queen’s Gate. On inquiry, I ascertained that the house had been taken furnished for the season by a young foreign lady, whose name nobody seemed to know.

That evening, after dining at the club, I sat in the smoking-room, shrinking with horror from some terrible deed that I seemed forced to commit. Then gradually there crept over me that strange attraction that drew me irresistibly towards her; until at last, unable to remain, I put on my hat and drove to the house.

“I wish to see the Princess,” I said, giving my card to the grave, elderly man-servant who opened the door.

Bowing, he ushered me into a small, well-furnished room and disappeared. The moment he had gone, I heard voices speaking rapidly in Russian in the next apartment. Agafia was addressing some man, and I thought I heard her utter my name, and refuse to see me. The rooms communicated by means of folding-doors, and, determined to speak with her, I turned the handle and entered.

The scene that met my gaze was only momentary, but it was one of tragedy. In a low lounge chair a young man was sitting, calmly smoking a cigarette. He had blonde hair, but his face was turned from me. Stealthily Agafia crept up behind him, her face distorted by the same terrible look of vengeance that I had sometimes seen in my weird day-dreams. In her uplifted hand something gleamed in the lace-shaded lamplight. It was the knife upon which she had taken the ikon oath in Petersburg.

“Princess! At last!” I cried, rushing forward in an endeavour to prevent her from striking the deadly blow at her unsuspecting visitor.

At that moment, however, I felt my hands gripped tightly, and a man flung himself before me. With an imprecation, I tried to push him aside, for I had instantly recognised him as the man who had dined with the Princess at the Dominique.

My senses seemed paralysed. With one hand he held me, and with the thumb and finger of the other he pressed my temples so tightly that I became dazed. For a moment I was conscious of his sinister face peering into mine, and of a peal of harsh, demoniacal laughter that rang through the room. Then I knew no more.

When I recovered consciousness, I found myself lying in bed in a long hospital ward, with the kind face of my friend, Dr. Ferguson, a specialist in mental diseases, looking down upon me.

I had, he told me, been found by the police early one morning lying in a back street in Kensington in a state of collapse, owing to injuries I had received on the head. For a week I had been delirious, and no hope had been entertained for my recovery; but at last I had rallied, and was now gaining strength.

He questioned me, apparently in order to ascertain if my brain had been affected; but it was remarkable that my mind was much clearer than hitherto.

It was many days before I was able to rise, but at last, when I was allowed to go out, I related to him all the circumstances surrounding the mysterious Princess.

Being much interested, he consented to accompany me to the house, and late that evening I placed my revolver in my pocket, and together we took a cab to the corner of Queen’s Gate.

Dismissing the man, we walked together to the house, only to find the shutters up and the place deserted. Our knocks and rings having been unanswered, we descended to the area, and after considerable difficulty entered by the kitchen window. By the aid of a candle we had brought with us, we searched the house, which we found still furnished, although unoccupied, and on the carpet of the room in which I had seen Agafia was a great dark stain–the stain of blood. Was it mine, or that of the unknown victim?

Ascending to the floor above, we opened the door of the drawing-room, and on glancing round the great, handsome apartment, our eyes fell upon an object that caused us both to start back in amazement.

Attired in a long, loose gown, and chained by her wrists to one of the polished granite columns, was Agafia!

With her hair unbound, she had sunk at the base of the pillar, and was apparently dead. Evidently she was a prisoner, for the empty jug and plate standing near told their own tale.

As in a moment of passion I bent to kiss her, Ferguson, who had placed his hand upon her breast, took out a lancet and made a slight incision in her arm.

“There is yet life,” he said.

“Thank heaven!” I cried. “We must save her.”

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