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   Chapter 4 DAN DERRINGTON'S STORY

Princess Zara By Ross Beeckman Characters: 16345

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I had known Alexis Saberevski in St. Petersburg; I had known him again in Paris. I had, in fact, encountered him at one time or another in almost every capital of Europe, and I was therefore not greatly surprised when, having just left the dining table at my club in my own native city, New York, his card was given to me with the information that the gentleman was waiting in the reception room.

I had him up at once, with the courtesies of the club extended to him, and finding that he had dined, we ensconced ourselves in the depths of a pair of huge chairs which occupied one of the secluded corners of the library, each equally delighted to be again in the company of the other. We had never known each other intimately, and yet we were friends; friends after that fashion which sometimes comes between men of pronounced characteristics, and which finds its expression in the form of a silent confidence, and an undoubted pleasure in each other's company.

I knew Saberevski to be a particularly strong man. Strong in the highest and best acceptation and meaning of that word, for he was a giant in intellect and in character.

He was also a mystery, and this fact possibly rendered him all the more interesting to one whose business it had always been to solve mysteries. I do not mean by that that I had ever made any effort to delve into the secrets of Saberevski's past, or to read without his knowledge and consent, any portion of that history which he kept so carefully veiled; but the mere fact that an air of mystery did pervade his presence, imparted to him a certain fascinating quality which might not otherwise have been apparent.

I had not encountered him for several years, and our last parting had occurred in front of Browne's hotel, Piccadilly, standing near the entrance from Albemarle street. As I received his card from the club servant, the words he had uttered at that hour of parting returned to me, for I had made a mental note of them, at the time regarding them as being of much more import than was nakedly expressed, coming from such a man. He had said: "I shall probably never return to St. Petersburg or pass across the border of Russia again, Derrington; but I may, and probably will some day, find myself in New York; when I do, you shall know of it." That day when I received his card, the last words he had uttered to me recurred to my mind, and it was with unmixed pleasure that I presently greeted him. I knew that there had been a time when he was high in place at the court of his native city, St. Petersburg; I knew that he had been prominent in the favor of Czar Alexander, and I had no doubt that he was so still, notwithstanding the positive assertion once made by him that he would probably never pass the borders of Russia again. But this was only another phase of the mystery that surrounded him, and it belittled not at all my estimation of the man's character, and the power he could sway if he chose to do so. How deeply he was, even at that moment, in the confidence of the Russian emperor, I was one day to understand, although the moment of comprehension was many months distant from me then.

He had dined and so we had cigars served to us in that cozy corner where, with a table which held a box of them, together with some liquid refreshments and other conveniences, we settled ourselves for an uninterrupted chat.

"It is good to see you, old chap," he told me in his frank and hearty way; "good to be with you again; to feel the clasp of your hand and to hear your hearty laugh. I have been thinking about you considerably of late, and this morning when I found that my wandering life had dropped me down in your city, I determined to look you up at once. In my baggage I found your card which contained this club address; and here I am." His big, hearty, infectious laugh rang through the room.

There was no need to tell him of my own delight in his presence. My manner of greeting him had demonstrated that without any question of doubt. Presently he asked me:

"What is your particular avocation just now, Derrington? Are you still at the old game?"

"Still at the old game," I replied, nodding my head solemnly. "I suppose I will always be at it in one way or another."

"Your government won't let you go very far away from its reach," he said, with a quizzical smile.

"Oh, the government! I have cut it, Alexis."

"What? Left the service?"

"Temporarily," I replied, and he laughed again as loudly as before. There was reason for his levity, because placing my resignation in the hands of the secretary had become a habit with me. I was periodically depressed by the duties of a secret service agent and as often determined to leave the service for good. But as often, I had returned to it upon the request of one department or another of my government, when my services were required in the line of some particular duty which officialdom was pleased to assure me could not be so well accomplished by any other person of its acquaintance. That was why Alexis Saberevski laughed.

"Is your resignation still on file? Or is it only lying on the table awaiting action, Daniel?" he asked me, and there was just a touch of ironic suggestion in his manner, which nettled me.

"The resignation is a fact this time," I replied. "I have earned a period of rest, and I propose to take it."

"Going abroad, Derrington?"

"No."

"Prefer to undergo the process of dry rot, here in New York?"

"Yes; for a time at least."

"Is there nothing on the other side of the water, that attracts you?"

"Nothing at all."

He switched his right leg to his left knee and blew a cloud of smoke into the air.

"You're not a lazy chap, Dan," he remarked, as if he were deeply considering the verity of that statement. "One wouldn't pick you out as a blasé individual who is tired of everything the world has to offer. You are as filled with energy and nervous force as any chap I ever knew; and you are not yet thirty-five."

"Quite true," I admitted.

"Yet, like a craft that has fought its way through stormy seas around the world, you sit there and try to assure me that you are content to tie up against a rotting wharf, in an odorous slip, and pass the rest of your days in inaction. It isn't like you, Dan."

"It looks very enticing to me just now, however."

"The trouble is," he said, "that your American diplomacy and your amazing politics over here, offer no opportunities to a man of your talents. You should go against the pricks of European intrigue. You ought to butt in, as you fellows express it, upon French statecraft which leaves nothing to be desired in the way of double dealings. You should try Austrian lies, or German brutalities, or Italian and Spanish sophistry, or English stupidity. Believe me, one of these would offer many points of interest which should interest and engage your attention."

"Why not Russian cruelty?" I asked. "That seems to be the only important nationality you have omitted."

"Why not?" he repeated after me.

"You seem to have tired of it yourself, Saberevski."

He shrugged his shoulders, leaning back in his chair, and the suggestion of a shadow passed across his handsome face.

"Dan," he said with an entire change of tone that startled me into renewed interest, "I haven't any doubt that you have always regarded me as a queer sort of chap, more or less shrouded by a mystery you could not fathom. And you were right."

"I have never--" I began. But he raised a hand to arrest me.

"I know it," he said. "You do not need to assure me of that. You are too much of a man, and your character is too broad and deep, for you ever to attempt an intimacy which was not invited. But it is my pleasure just now, old man, to give you a little bit of my history. It may interest you. And it may lead to a change in your views; not regarding you, but in connection with myself. I am a much older man than you are; fifteen years and more, I should say. All my life, up to the time we last parted, has been passed in the personal service of his majesty, the czar. I have been as close to him as any man can ever obtain

, and I am probably the only one who has enjoyed his confidence to the extent of retaining it in the face of studied opposition on the part of the greatest nobles of the empire. But I have retained it, Dan, and to such an extent that I suppose myself to be the only man living to-day, against whom Alexander would not permit himself to be influenced. There is a reason for it and a good one, but I need not go into that."

"No," I said. "You need not tell me this at all, Alexis. I am quite glad enough to see you and to have you here, without explanation."

He made a gesture of impatience.

"As if I did not know that," he added; "but as I said a moment ago, it is my pleasure to recite some of these things to you, because since I came into this room and grasped your hand I have been impressed by the idea that there is a great work for you to do; a great duty for you to perform. A stupendous obstacle to human development exists in one part of Europe to-day, which I believe you could overcome and demolish, if only you could be convinced of it. I wonder, Dan, if you would give the subject any thought if I were to suggest it to you?"

"Try," I said.

"I wonder if you would seriously consider one of the greatest achievements that remains undone in Europe to-day," he added, meditatively.

"The obstacle to which you just now referred?" I asked.

"Yes."

"What is it?"

"Nihilism."

"Hell!" I replied with emphasis.

But he took me literally, and not even the suggestion of a smile showed in his face as he replied:

"That is the fitting word, Dan. It is hell. It is worse than that to hundreds of thousands of human beings, from the lowest mujik of the steppes, to the czar himself. It is a word which carries with it a certain magic which always spells the word death. It is death to those who antagonize it, and it is death to them that uphold it. It is death to the minister, the governor, the official, and it is death to the poor devil who plots in the dark, secretly with his fellows, against the powers that rule him. Nihilism is well named, for it means nothing and it ends in nothing. Nihilo nihil fit! Whoever named the revolutionists of Russia so, builded better than they knew."

I was watching Saberevski with some amazement. I had never heard him express himself in such terms before, and I had not supposed him capable, sympathetically, of doing so. I was not without a certain fund of knowledge regarding the subject he had introduced, for my professional duties had taken me more than once into Russia, and I had encountered much of the conditions he described. But I regarded them, as well as Saberevski himself, with the American idea and from an American standpoint. It had always seemed to me so unnecessary that conditions should exist as I had heard them described over there. I had always believed that if the government of Russia would only go about the work differently, it would be so easy to eradicate every phase of the so-called nihilism, and especially that branch of it practiced by those who are called extremists. Evidently Saberevski entertained something of this view himself, although from the standpoint of a Russian, for he ended a short silence between us by saying:

"I have not finished what I was going to tell you, Dan. I have served Alexander, the czar, many years, and served him faithfully. There are reasons now why I can serve him no longer, in the capacity and at the places where he needs me most. My life which is of small moment, and his who is my royal master, would not be worth the weight of a feather if I were to show my face at St. Petersburg again. There is nothing remaining for me to do save to sit down quietly in some far country of the world, and watch from a distance the passing of events which some day, near or far as the case may be, will end in his assassination. What my work has been and what it would still be if I could remain near to his imperial majesty, you can guess, and I need not give it a name. But Dan, if I could succeed in convincing you of the opportunity that would be yours if you should go there, and if I could know that you had gone, determined to offer your services where they are most needed, then that far corner of the world where I would wait and watch events, would become a peaceful spot to me, for I know that you could succeed where all others have failed."

Alexis Saberevski and I had many such conversations as that one, after that, in which we discussed pro and con the suggestion he had made.

It grew upon me and grew upon me until I became obsessed by the idea although I did not think that he guessed my eagerness.

He remained in New York, and virtually became my guest at the club, during more than two months, and we were as constantly together as was possible and convenient.

One afternoon while we were chatting as usual, I called his attention to a paragraph I had seen in the Herald of that morning which announced the arrival in New York of a Russian princess. The fact had not interested me, but recalling at the instant the idea that she was most likely known to my friend, I said:

"Saberevski, one of your countrywomen, a princess whose name escapes me for I did not notice it particularly, arrived in the city this morning, and is at one of the hotels. I mention it because you may not have seen the notice, and might like to pay your respects to her. You will find her name and a column or more of other information concerning her, in this morning's Herald."

"Thank you," he said, "I will look it up."

More than a week later while I was walking down Fifth avenue, a hansom cab stopped at the curb beside me, and Saberevski's face looked out.

"Jump in, Dan," he said. "I want you to take a ride with me;" and with no thought of hesitation, I complied. I did not even ask to be told our destination and was somewhat surprised when our conveyance stopped at one of the North river steamship piers.

"You are not leaving the country, are you, Alexis?" I asked, as we got down.

"No," he replied; "but someone I know is leaving. Will you walk to the end of the pier with me, or will you wait here?" I recalled, later, that even then he left the choice to me.

I accompanied him to the end of the pier. I asked no question concerning the person he had referred to, as sailing that day, and thought it rather strange that he seemed to seek no one, and expressed no desire to go aboard the vessel then about ready to steam away.

When it had swung into the stream I ran my glance along the decks of the vessel from stem to stern, seeking a waving hand or a gesture of farewell directed towards my friend. But I saw none to which he seemed to respond, until the ship was well into the current, when he suddenly raised his hand and waved it.

At the same instant he took me by the arm and we returned to our conveyance.

The following day at the club he came to me and placed a sealed envelope in my hand. It bore no address or superscription of any kind; but he said in giving it to me:

"Dan, I wish you would put this sealed envelope inside one of your pockets and carry it with you carefully until the time arrives to open it."

"When will that be?" I asked him.

"It will be when, some day in the future, you shall be about to depart from the city of St. Petersburg." And as I showed some astonishment in my face, he continued: "Fate, or inclination, will take you there again, sometime, and the day will naturally follow when you will leave it. Count this sealed envelope as one of the mysteries in which I delight to wrap myself. But remember what I have asked you to do."

"Repeat it," I said to him.

"When you are about to take your departure from the city of St. Petersburg, if you should go there again, break the seal of this envelope and read the contents of a message I have written; or if your business should detain you there continuously, read it anyhow after six months. That is all."

"And if I should not go there?" I asked him.

"In that case, keep the letter until you see me again, and return it unopened."

Some months later I was in St. Petersburg.

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