“And,” said the lady, with the same faint smile, “and you are dying with curiosity to know how I suddenly made my appearance from a thicket in your forest. You say that you are the lord of Kostopchin; then you are Paul Sergevitch, and should surely know how the ruler of Holy Russia takes upon himself to interfere with the doings of his children?”
“You know me, then?” exclaimed Paul, in some surprise.
“Yes, I have lived in foreign lands, as you have, and have heard your name often. Did you not break the bank at Blankburg? Did you not carry off Isola Menuti, the dancer, from a host of competitors; and, as a last instance of my knowledge, shall I recall to your memory a certain morning, on a sandy shore, with two men facing each other pistol in hand, the one young, fair, and boyish-looking, hardly twenty-two years of age, the other —”
“Hush!” exclaimed Paul, hoarsely; “you evidently know me, but who in the fiend’s name are you?”
“Simply a woman who once moved in society and read the papers, and who is now a hunted fugitive.”
“A fugitive!” returned Paul, hotly; ‘who dare to persecute you?”
The lady moved a little closer to him, and then whispered in his ear: —
“The police!” repeated Paul, stepping back a pace or two. “The police!”
“Yes, Paul Sergevitch, the police,” returned the lady, “that body at the mention of which it is said the very Emperor trembles as he sits in his gilded chambers in the Winter Palace. Yes, I have had the imprudence to speak my mind too freely, and — well, you know what women have to dread who fall into the hands of the police in Holy Russia. To avoid such infamous degradations I fled, accompanied by a faithful domestic. I fled in hopes of gaining the frontier, but a few versts from here a body of mounted police rode up. My poor old servant had the imprudence to resist, and was shot dead. Half wild with terror I fled into the forest, and wandered about until I heard the noise your serfs made in the beating of the woods. I thought it was the police, who had organized a search for me, and I crept into the thicket for the purpose of concealment. The rest you know. And now, Paul Sergevitch, tell me whether you dare give shelter to a proscribed fugitive such as I am.”
“Madam,” returned Paul, gazing into the clear-cut features before him, glowing with the animation of the recital, “Kostopchin is ever open to misfortune — and beauty,” added he, with a bow.
“Ah!” cried the lady, with a laugh in which there was something sinister; “I expect that misfortune would knock at your door for a long time, if it was unaccompanied by beauty. However, I thank you, and will accept your hospitality; but if evil come upon you, remember that I am not to be blamed.”
“You will be safe enough at Kostopchin,” returned Paul. “The police won’t trouble their heads about me; they know that since the Emperor drove me to lead this hideous existence, politics have no charm for me, and that the brandy bottle is the only charm of my life.”
“Dear me,” answered the lady, eyeing him uneasily, “a morbid drunkard, are you? Well, as I am half perished with cold, suppose you take me to Kostopchin; you will be conferring a favor on me, and will get back all the sooner to your favorite brandy.”
She placed her hand upon Paul’s arm as she spoke, and mechanically he led the way to the great solitary white house. The few servants betrayed no astonishment at the appearance of the lady, for some of the serfs on their way back to the village had spread the report of the sudden appearance of the mysterious stranger; besides, they were not accustomed to question the acts of their somewhat arbitrary master.
Alexis and Katrina had gone to bed, and Paul and his guest sat down to a hastily improvised meal.
“I am no great eater,” remarked the lady, as she played with the food before her; and Paul noticed with surprise that scarcely a morsel passed her lips, though she more than once filled and emptied a goblet of the champagne which had been opened in honor of her arrival.
“So it seems,” remarked he; “and I do not wonder, for the food in this benighted hole is not what either you or I have been accustomed to.”
“Oh, it does well enough,” returned the lady, carelessly. “And now, if you have such a thing as a woman in the establishment, you can let her show me to my room, for I am nearly dead for want of sleep.”
Paul struck a hand bell that stood on the table beside him, and the stranger rose from her seat, and with a brief “Good night,” was moving towards the door, when the old man Michal suddenly made his appearance on the threshold. The aged intendant started backwards as though to avoid a heavy blow, and his fingers at once sought for the crucifix which he wore suspended round his neck, and on whose protection he relied to shield him from the powers of darkness.
“Blessed Virgin!” he exclaimed. “Holy Saint Radislas protect me, where have I seen her before?”
The lady took no notice of the old man’s evident terror, but passed away down the echoing corridor.
The old man now timidly approached his master, who, after swallowing a glass of brandy, had drawn his chair up to the stove, and was gazing moodily at its polished surface.
“My lord,” said Michal, venturing to touch his master’s shoulder, “is that the lady that you found in the forest?”
“Yes,” returned Paul, a smile breaking out over his face; “she is very beautiful, is she not?”
“Beautiful!” repeated Michal, crossing himself, “she may have beauty, but it is that of a demon. Where have I seen her before? — where have I seen those shining teeth and those cold eyes? She is not like any one here, and I have never been ten versts from Kostopchin in my life. I am utterly bewildered. Ah, I have it, the dying herdsman — save the mark! Gospodin, have a care. I tell you that the strange lady is the image of the white wolf.”
“You old fool,” returned his master, savagely, “let me ever hear you repeat such nonsense again, and I will have you skinned alive. The lady is highborn, and of good family; beware how you insult her. Nay, I give you further commands: see that during her sojourn here she is treated with the utmost respect. And communicate this to all the servants. Mind, no more tales about the vision that your addled brain conjured up of wolves in the marsh, and above all do not let me hear that you have been alarming little Katrina with your senseless babble.”
The old man bowed humbly, and, after a short pause, remarked: —
“The lad that was injured at the hunt to-day is dead, my lord.”
“Oh, dead is he, poor wretch!” returned Paul, to whom the death of a serf lad was not a matter of overweening importance. “But look here, Michal, remember that if any inquiries are made about the lady, that no one knows anything about her; that, in fact, no one has seen her at all.”
“Your lordship shall be obeyed,” answered the old man; and then, seeing that his master had relapsed into his former moody reverie, he left the room, crossing himself at every step he took.
Late into the night Paul sat up thinking over the occurrences of the day. He had told Michal that his guest was of noble family, but in reality he knew nothing more of her than she had condescended to tell him.”
“Why, I don’t even know her name,” muttered he; “and yet somehow or other it seems as if a new feature of my life was opening before me. However, I have made one step in advance by getting her here, and if she talks about leaving, why, all that I have to do is threaten her with the police.”
After his usual custom he smoked cigarette after cigarette, and poured out copious tumblers of brandy. The attendant serf replenished the stove from a small den which opened into the corridor, and after a time Paul slumbered heavily in his armchair. He was aroused by a light touch upon the shoulder, and, starting up, saw the stranger of the forest standing by his side.
“This is indeed kind of you,” said she, with her usual mocking smile. “You felt that I should be strange here, and you got up early to see to the horses, or can it really be, those ends of cigarettes, that empty bottle of brandy? Paul Sergevitch, you have not been to bed at all.”
Paul muttered a few indistinct words in reply, and then, ringing the bell furiously, ordered the servant to clear away the débris of last night’s orgy, and lay the table for breakfast; then, with a hasty apology, he left the room to make a fresh toilet, and in about half an hour returned with his appearance sensibly improved by his ablutions and change of dress.
“I dare say,” remarked the lady, as they were seated at the morning meal, for which she manifested the same indifference that she had for the dinner of the previous evening, “that you would like to know my name and who I am. Well, I don’t mind telling you my name. It is Ravina, but as to my family and who I am, it will perhaps be best for you to remain in ignorance. A matter of policy, my dear Paul Sergevitch, a mere matter of policy, you see. I leave you to judge from my manners and appearance whether I am of sufficiently good form to be invited to the honor of your table — ”
“None more worthy,” broke in Paul, whose bemuddled brain was fast succumbing to the charms of his guest; “and surely that is a question upon which I may be deemed a competent judge.”
“I do not know about that,” returned Ravina, ‘for from all accounts the company that you used to keep was not of the most select character.”
“No, but hear me,” began Paul, seizing her hand and endeavoring to carry it to his lips. But as he did so an unpleasant chill passed over him, for those slender fingers were icy cold.
“Do not be foolish,” said Ravina, drawing away her hand, after she had permitted it to rest for an instant in Paul’s grasp, “do you not hear someone coming?”
As she spoke the sound of tiny pattering feet was heard in the corridor, then the door was flung violently open, and with a shrill cry of delight, Katrina rushed into the room, followed more slowly by her brother Alexis.
“And are these your children?” asked Ravina, as Paul took up the little girl and placed her fondly upon his knee, whilst the boy stood a few paces from the door gazing with eyes of wonder upon the strange woman, for whose appearance he was utterly unable to account. “Come here, my little man,” continued she; “I suppose you are the heir of Kostopchin, though you do not resemble your father much.“
“He takes after his mother, I think,” returned Paul carelessly; “and how has my darling Katrina been?” he added, addressing his daughter.
“Quite well, papa dear,” answered the child; “but where is the fine white wolf skin that you promised me?”
“Your father did not find her,” answered Ravina, with a little laugh; “the white wolf was not so easy to catch as he fancied.”
Alexis had moved a few steps nearer to the lady, and was listening with grave attention to every word she uttered.
“Are white wolves so difficult to kill, then?” asked he.
“It seems so, my little man,” returned the lady, “since your father and all the serfs of Kostopchin were unable to do so.“
“I have got a pistol, that good old Michal has taught me to fire, and I am sure I could kill her if ever I got sight of her,” observed Alexis, boldly.
“There is a brave boy,” returned Ravina, with one of her shrill laughs; “and now, won’t you come and sit on my knee, for I am very fond of little boy?”
“No, I don’t like you,” answered Alexis, after a moment’s consideration, “for Michal says ——”
“Go to your room, you insolent young brat,” broke in the father, in a voice of thunder. “You spend so much of your time with Michal and the serfs that you have learned all their boorish habits.”
Two tiny tears rolled down the boy’s cheeks as in obedience to his father’s orders he turned about and quitted the room, whilst Ravina darted a strange look of dislike after him. As soon, however, as the door had closed, the fair woman addressed Katrina.