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first kiss me though, Desire ? "

" Are you sure that it is a right thing to do, Ludwig ?
Somehow when I kiss you I feel as though I were stealing
something and afraid to be caught."

" You sweet innocent ! I am sure enough ; are we not
lovers ? "

" That is true, and some day we shall marry ; is it not
so ? Even Miss Elliott told me it was proper in such a
case. Then I shall kiss you, Ludwig."

She put her arms about his neck, and did as she had said.
Cressingham, feeling entirely relieved in mind by the latter
portion of the converse, gave a sudden cough.

The lovers started guiltily apart. He stood up and said
smilingly : "It is thus you interrupt my repose ; you,
Ludwig, who should be on guard, you, Desire, who should
be in your tent and fast asleep by this."


Oeltjen hung his head at the reproof, and stammered :
"lean see the Count's tent quite easily from here, Frank."

" Oh, of course, and you were watching it ! But there,
I do not think any great harm is done in this instance.
It is always thus, however ; when love wakes, duty sleeps.
Is it not so ? "

" You heard ? "

" Enough to convince me that you have much cause to
be congratulated. I do so now with all my heart and
you too, Desire ; your future husband is one of the best
men I have ever known."

" He is a beautiful man, Lord Francis," replied
Desire 1 artlessly ; " I love him very much."

" Thank you, my friend," muttered Oeltjen.

" Rather sudden though, isn't it ? " whispered Cressing-
ham with amiable satire.

" Hush ! " replied the other ; " she knows nothing."
Aloud he said : " Sudden, Frank ! I do not think so ;
we have already known each other four days, and we did
not become affianced until this morning."

" I feel as though I had known Ludwig all my life,"
protested the girl.

Cressingham laughed, and waved his hand. " Well,
old boy, I'll not disturb you further, but will take the rest
of your watch. Relieve me as soon or as late as you please.
A riverdici, Desire."

" You are a brick," said the Count, using with much
feeling a favourite expression of the Englishman.

" A riverdici, and thank you, my Lord," said the girl.

Cressingham swung off, laughing softly to himself ; he
was deeply pleased, since had he possessed the power of
moulding Desire's fate he could not have chosen a prospect
more promiseful of happiness for her than marriage with
bis friend.



AT three o'clock on the afternoon of the day following
there entered the harbour of Attala a large grey
yacht, flying Italian colours at her peak. Anchoring near
the mouth of the bay, a boat was instantly lowered, and
Perigord, taking his place in the stern sheets, was rowed
swiftly to the beach. He was met by Cressingham and
Oeltjen, who presented their reports with speed and

Perigord complimented them on all they had achieved,
and then asked to see the prisoner, to whom he said he
wished immediately to announce sentence of death, as
it had been determined in council to execute the Count
wil&out delay and without trial. When the three gentle-
men entered the Count's tent the old man sat up and
stared fixedly at his enemies. He had just eaten his
lunch, the remains of which rested on a tray beside his
mattress ; consequently he was still ungagged, and free to

"You may not remember me, sir," said Perigord. "It
is so many years since we have met. My name is

" You deceive yourself," replied the Count ; " I recol-
lect you perfectly. Kindly ask your servants to leave
us together. I have many things to say to you."

" Afterwards, sir, perhaps ; I have come to inform you
that to-morrow at daylight you, Bosa Gracci, Count "

" Prince ! " interjected the old man sharply.

Perigord shrugged his shoulders. " Count d' Attala,
will be shot. Five Italian officers will be your executioners.
I personally obtained this indulgence to be granted you
in deference to your undoubted rank, so that you may die



in the manner of a gentleman. You may look, however,
for no other favours."

The Count d'Attala replied with the most perfect com-
posure : " You have done ? "

" Yes."

" Then please comply with my request, also of your
charity furnish me with a glass of wine. Your servants
have helped themselves liberally to my belongings, but
have treated me with niggard meanness. For days past
I have endured the tortures of Tantalus, listening thirstily
to the popping of champagne corks."

Perigord turned to his companions. " I pray you leave us,
gentlemen, and please send me a bottle of champagne."

Cressingham andOeltjen at once departed, and a sailor
next moment entered the tent with the Count's desider-
atum. Perigord filled a glass with the wine, then noticing
how bound up the old man was gave him the freedom of
his hands. The Count sighed gratefully and took a deep
draught of the sparkling liquor, holding out eagerly there-
after his glass to be refilled. " Ah, that is good ! " he
cried ; " it puts new life into my withered heart. Now
I feel fit for anything."

" Death, Count ? " asked Perigord's deep voice.

" Bah, I am not dead yet, though I daresay I soon shall
be, for I am in your power, but I shall give you a little
trouble first. Hum, hum, let me look at you, my son.
Saprisii, how old you have grown in these past fifteen
years ! Old and sad-looking. You have had a hard time
chasing me ; is it not so, Valdemar ? "

Perigord started up as abruptly as though he had been
shot on mention of that name, and he stared at the old
man with incredulous amaze.

" How comes it that you know my name ? " he de-

The Count chuckled out: % 'Ha, ha! it surprises you.
Hein ! Oh, I know more of you than you think, my son ! "

" Reserve such epithets for members of your family,"
said Perigord coldly, " thank God I am not your son ! "

The old man smiled. " Your thanksgiving prayer is
wasted, Valdemar entirely thrown away. You may not


relish the honour I paid you in creating you, but you cannot
escape the fact, however much you choose to thank God."
His voice and manner were so replete with insolent mockery
that Perigord, strong willed and stolid as he was, involun-
tarily gave a shiver.

" You waste time," he retorted angrily ; " you said you
had much to tell me. Commence ! "

" I have already. I have told you that you are my

" Liar that you are ! My father has long been dead ! "

" Your mother told you that on my direction. Sapristi,
you do not credit me ? Listen, then nay, first tell me
what you know about your parentage. I shall presently
convince you."

Perigord gazed at his enemy, his eyes filled with disgust,
and slowly shook his head. " Do you think I shall make
of you a confessor ? "

" Mule that you are ! " cried the Count with a sudden
flash of rage. " Heed me well. Your mother was a
princess of the House of Austria, by name Theresia
Isabella. You were born in the Castle of Fitzhammer-
haus, near Totna on the Danube, on the eleventh day of
May, 18 . You were brought up as the child of Maria
Nekka, your mother's tiring woman ; it was not until you
were eighteen years of age that you learned the secret of
your parentage that was when Theresia visited Totna,
she thought, to die, although she afterwards recovered.

She was then the wife of the Grand Duke of , and

mother of Prince Frederick, who you no doubt know
is my colleague and a member of the Three."

Perigord's face had turned slowly of an ashen hue.
With a great effort he muttered : " You are acquainted
with my family history, it seems."

The Count sneered. " No one has a better right ; but
you are still doubting my words ; I shall go into details.
I met your mother twelve months before your birth. I
was then engaged upon a mission from my old master
Katusoff, the Pole, whose second hi command I was,
whose object was to gather together the scattered threads
of anarchy in Austria and Hungary with the view to the


formation of a lodge which might further disseminate
the seed we wished to sow. It was at Buda Pesth we met,
at a State ball, for although an exile then I was well
accredited and personable ; I say it without vanity, few
men were at that time more good to look upon than I.
Well, Theresia fell in love with me. We met frequently,
but always the eyes of the multitude were on us, for she
was young, beautiful and sought in marriage by a king.
You remember the old saw ' Love laughs at locksmiths.'
Ha, ha, ha ! Theresia found her way to get her wishes.
She fell ill and was ordered by her doctors to Trieste for
change of air. There I followed her and we were married."

" What ? " thundered Perigord.

" We were married," repeated the Count coldly. " We
were married by a Romish priest "

" The proofs ! " cried Perigord, " the proofs ! "

" Bah ! " said the Count with a cold smile ; " they
would benefit you nothing. The marriage of a princess
is always illegal unless sanctioned by her State."

" Nevertheless, I demand the proofs ! "

The old man took from his inner pocket a bulky leathern
case, from which he extracted a paper. " I have kept
this on my person since the first day that I knew you were
upon my track," he said quietly. " No one can foretell
the future, but a wise man always provides for it in the
best manner that he can. You observe that my precaution
has justified itself. Read ! "

Perigord snatched from his hand the paper, which he
found to be a properly attested marriage certificate be-
tween the princess, his mother, and the Count d'Attala.
The date and everything about it corresponded perfectly
with the old man's story. " My God I thank Thee,"
he cried brokenly.

" For having found your father ? " jeered the Count.

" No ! " replied Perigord, his eyes shining like stars.
" But for having at length discovered that I was not born
in shame ! For thirty years I have thought myself a bas-
tard ! At last the stain is removed ! "

<: Bah ! " sneered the old man with a bitter chuckle.
" Undeceive yourself, that paper is utterly valueless ; you


are a bastard, for your mother's marriage was illegal."

" Not in the sight of Heaven ! " retorted Perigord,
with a dignity that abashed the old man for a moment ;
but presently he rallied and muttered jeeringly : " Shall
I go on with the story ? "

" Yes."

" We left off at the marriage. Your mother was ill
then, ha, ha ! she remained ill for nine months, and so
lost a king for a husband. You were born without scandal
in her friend's house at Totna, and brought up as I have
said. She subsequently returned to her father's pro-
tection, and shortly afterwards married the Grand Duke.
I consented to the match, and we remained friends up to
the very day of her death. It was I who provided you
on her solicitation with the fortune which you subse-
quently wasted in endeavouring to destroy my work.
It was she who first informed me of your mad enterprise,
the secret of which you had fondly confided to her keeping.
She told me of your change of name, and from time to
time warned me of your doings. With one hand she pushed
you on, helping you to power, and the friendship of those
in power, with the other she wrote me long letters advising
me in detail of your doings. I lost a good friend when she
died, I can tell you, Valdemar. In order to replace her
and keep a check on you, I was forced to seek out her
second son." (He sneered bitterly.) " Ah, well, he was
not hard to seduce ; the fellow was already a gambler and
a thief ; he readily fell in with my suggestions ; I married
him to my daughter Katherin, with whom he had fallen
madly in love, and created for him a vacancy in the inner
circle. Thus for the past two years I have played off
brother on brother a pretty plan, was it not ? "

" It was the conception of a Satan ! " stammered

The Count nodded and smiled as if a compliment had
been addressed to him. " Ah, well, my son, in spite of
everything, you have at last beaten me. In my old age
you have bested me. The son of Bosa Gracci has con-
quered his father. The son <of no other living man could
have done it. I am proud of you, my son ! " The words


were uttered in a manner of such bombastic and fantastical
conceit that they were really ludicrous, but Perigord
shuddered at such praise.

" Evil man ! " he muttered hoarsely ; " why have you
told me these dreadful things ? "

" Is it cold ? You are shivering. Can you not see, my
son ? "

" For God's sake call me anything but that ! No, I
see nothing."

The old man laughed grimly ; then snarled out : " To
think that I am beaten by such a blunt-witted creature !
I who, at the age of a hundred and three years, have still
a keener intellect than you, indeed than any living man,"
he added vaingloriously.

" Answer me ! " said Perigord.

" I shall, since time passes swiftly, swiftly. Every
second is precious to the aged, my son, precious as gold.
I have told you what I have told you for two reasons :
firstly, because I hoped that the news would hurt you
cursed dog that you are, fool that I was not to strangle you
the day that you were born ! " The Count's eyes glowed
for a second with a fire of splenetic rage, as he spat out this
sudden objurgation, but quickly calming himself resumed
in a manner of superlative sweetness : " The second
reason, my dear son, is that I wished you to arrange all
the details of my escape from this scurvy gang of yours
who have me by the heels. You see, I am old and feeble,
so cannot help myself. I dislike troubling you, but after
all, to whom should a man look for assistance if not to his
own offspring ? "

" You expect me to help you to escape ? " said Perigord.

The Count's thin lips curled scornfully. " Be content
with having ruined me ; do you wish to make yourself a
parricide ? "

Perigord's face went livid, then ghastly white, from the
various emotions that were raging in his bosom. " Not
that," he muttered brokenly, " my God, not that ! "

" I am rich," said the Count. " Assist me to escape,
and I shall make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.
The gold that you have taken from me I do not want.


I know it is not for you ; your council will claim it, greedy
rogues that they are ; kings are all greedy, and your share
will be only small. But in Paris, in Vienna, Naples, Berlin,
vast funds of mine are deposited. When I am free I shall
share these with you when I am free ! "

" You will never be free you are mad to expect it,"
groaned Perigord. " To-morrow at daylight you must die ;
even I cannot save you ; it is decreed."

" Nonsense, boy, you must save me."

" Ah, let me think ! " Perigord started abruptly to his
feet, his hand pressed tightly to his side.

" Yes, think think of the wealth that will be yours
if you assist me. Only thus can it be yours, for without
me you can get none of it. I vow I would rather benefit
the banks and let them keep the gold for ever if you should
prove so curst a son as to let me die. Think, Valdemar,
it is your father who appeals to you, your father, boy."

" Your life has been too evil ; you are not fit to live."

" I shall repent, for I am too old to engage in further
wickedness. Assist me to escape, and in some secret corner
of the world I shall spin out my few remaining days.
Watch over me, guard me as you will, you will find that I
shall do as I say, that my repentance shall be sincere.
I swear to you, for a long while now I have felt remorseful
of the past ; you would not have me perish in my sins,
unshriven, my son ? Besides, if you are kind, when I die
all that I have shall be yours."

The old man had assumed an expression of sorrow, of
profound humility, but a mocking demon lurked in the
eyes that watched Perigord so narrowly. He spoke slowly,
choosing every word and marking its effect ; he was
playing upon his son's heart as a musician would upon
the chords of an unfamiliar instrument. " Well, my
son ? " he muttered after a long pause.

Perigord looked at him, unable to conceal the anguish
that he suffered. " I must fight this matter out alone,"
he cried, and hurried from the tent. Cressingham and
Oeltjen waited for him upon the sand, but he passed them
by unseeing, and they, noticing the agonized expression
of his face, did not dare to interrupt him. Like one pur-



sued by furies, he strode to the castle staircase, and anxious
only for solitude sprang up the steps with the speed of a
chamois. It was not until he reached the look-out that he
paused ; and then, casting himself face downwards upon
the ground, he gave himself up to thoughts more torturing
and bitterer than death.

His whole life passed in review before his mental vision
with phantasmagoric rapidity, but with crystal clarity.
It is said that the mind of a drowning man involuntarily
condenses the whole of his existence into a fleeting moment,
during which the past is lived again, its every incident and
long forgotten happenings being reproduced and re-enacted
with supernatural faithfulness.

Anguish wrought a similar miracle in the case of Peri-
gord. He was born again ; his sordid early youth droned
through as a poor Hungarian farm labourer yielded up its
days of drudgery, its nights of ambitious yearnings and
vague dissatisfaction. Once again he was led to the bed-
side of his dying mother, to hear with secret exultation
the story of his princely birth from her fever-parched and
trembling lips. Then followed the ten years of study
passed at different German universities, its joys, its trials,
its fickle love affairs and more constant periods of ennui
and ambitious dreams ; then the unexpected advent of
the fortune which his mother pretended was her own gift,
but for which he now knew he was indebted to his father.

Later his world- wide travellings, his ten years of Russian
military service as a volunteer against the Turk, the act
of heroism which had won for him a colonelcy, the wound
which had earned for him the honour of being despatched
to headquarters with tidings of a great victory.

His life in St. Petersburg, its flattery, adulation and
tumultuous pleasures, during which his youth had use-
lessly passed by.

His meeting with the one great love of his life, the
infamous Sofie Peroffskaya. His gradual drifting and
abandon of ambition, until as a Nihilist he had finally
become a traitor to his birth, a traitor to his salt.

The assassination of his benefactor, the Great Czar, in
which he took no part, but which gained for him Siberia.


His dreadful life in the mines, his despair and his gradual
re-awakening and soul-sickness for the woman who had
caused his ruin.

His final mental rehabilitation, and the covenant he had
made with the Almighty. His miraculous delivery from
slavery, and his years of toil and honest effort to fulfil his
pledged word with God and bring about the dissolution
and destruction of the Nihilists.

The work had always seemed so good to him, so noble,
and so blessedly unselfish. It had been by dint of unex-
ampled patience and almost superhuman diligence and
perseverance at last crowned with success. He had
accomplished his mission, redeemed his vow, and now on
the dawn of the twelfth hour the cup of triumph was
snatched from his lips and Providence presented in its
place a draught of incomparable bitterness.

For a long tale of years he had been unconsciously
plotting and planning the destruction of his own parent.
His father was now his prisoner under sentence of death
passed by the council which he had himself created. He
himself was entrusted with the work of effecting the dread
decree. He remembered the old wcrld-famed story of
the Spartan father who had condemned his own wicked
son to death and remorselessly enforced the judgment.
The relative positions were in this case reversed. He, the
son, had procured his own father to be condemned.

He wondered miserably if he could find fortitude enough
in his heart to carry his duty into execution. He had to
combat no ties of natural affection, for he owed his parent
nothing but contumely and hatred, but in spite of that
and in spite of the complete and dreadful proof he possessed
of the Count d'Attala's monstrous crimes, the heart of
Perigord was so soft and prone to reverence that it appeared
to him that notwithstanding what he might elect to do
he stood upon the threshold of unescapable spiritual anni-
hilation. He had the choice of two ways : either to keep
faith with God and man, in which case he became a parri-
cide, or to assist his father to escape, a course which would
make him forsworn of God and a traitor to his fellows.

For long hours he wrestled with his soul, doubting,


fearing, dreaming dreams so full of unspeakable agony
that his physical frame was troubled and the sweat poured
from him so freely as to mark the ground on which he lay.
It seemed to him that the Almighty had imposed on him
a burden too great for mortal man to bear. He had
devoted his life to a mission which, from the moment of its
conception, he had believed God-inspired and God-pro-
tected. For a moment he dared to dispute the issue and
to rail at his Creator for so treacherously rewarding his
years of service and self-sacrifice.

The moment passed, and he expiated the blasphemy
with a prayer so heartfelt and entirely earnest that his
spirit became at length filled with a species of ecstacy,
and he rose to his feet peaceful and purposeful, believing
that Heaven had thuswise sent its answer to his cry.

Twilight had already drawn its mantle round the earth,
and he descended the steps in the gloaming marvelling to
find how softly beautiful the world appeared, under its
awning of awakening stars, whose western folds were still
flushed faintly with a tender amber radiance, which shot
in spiral streams across the sky and gently touched the
east with gold.

He drew fresh comfort from the glory of the heavens,
fresh purpose from the peace on sea and land. His first
act on arriving at the beach was to seek out Cressingham
and Oeltjen.

To the latter he said gently : " Go, my friend, to the
yacht, and bring back with you the priest and five gentle-
men whom you will find awaiting word from me."

When Oeltjen had gone, he said to Cressingham : " You,
my Lord, I desire will take a message to our prisoner.
Tell him that my plans are altered, and he must die within
an hour. Should he ask for me, say that I shall not go.
Tell him further that a priest is here who will confess him
if he wills."

Cressingham departed, and presently entered the Count's
tent. The old man was still seated before the now empty
champagne bottle, and his face was flushed, his eyes
glittered feverishly in the candle light.

" Ah ! " he cried. " Where is Perigord ? "


" He has sent me in his place to warn you to prepare
yourself for death. In an hour you will be shot. I am
further to inform you that a priest is in attendance, should
you require his services."

" I must see Perigord. Beg him to visit me. I shall
not detain him for a moment."

" He refuses to see you again, sir."

" Refuses ! my son dares to refuse his father's last wish
on earth ! Tell him that I, Bosa Gracci, his father, com-
mand his immediate presence here ! Don't stare, sir ;
go and do my bidding ! " The old man's imperiousness
was a sight magnificent to witness ; Cressingham thought
him raving, but nevertheless, much impressed, he bowed
and conveyed the message word for word to Perigord,
adding, however, apologetically : " He must have turned
crazy, sir."

Perigord smiled sadly and answered : " Would that it
were as you suppose. He is not crazy. I am the Count
d'Attala's son. Until this day I knew nought of it, but
he has crushingly convinced me."

" And yet you will kill him ? " stammered Cres-
singham aghast.

" I shall do my duty," replied the other with calm and
simple dignity. " Kindly return and say to the Count
these words : ' Your son has made his peace with God.
He implores you to do likewise, for in an hour you will die.' "

The Count's face on his comprehending this message
became transfigured with venomous and reckless rage.
He hurled at the young man a perfect storm of angry
curses, refusingly utterly to credit the inexorability of
Perigord's determination, and only became calm when
Cressingham threatened to re-impose the gag. Then he fell to
whining and miserably entreating his enemy to enlist in his

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Online LibraryAmbrose PrattThe counterstroke → online text (page 24 of 26)