Mounting to one of the electrical railroads, we were soon at the house of the Prince. Passing around to the servants' entrance of the palace, Maximilian sent in his card to the Master of the Servants, who soon appeared, bowing deferentially to my friend. We were ushered into his private room. Maximilian first locked the door; he then examined the room carefully, to see if there was any one hidden behind the tapestry or furniture; for the room, like every part of the palace, was furnished in the most lavish and extravagant style. Satisfied with his search, he turned to Rudolph, as the Master of the Servants was called, and handed him the message he had received, which gave the history of Estella.
"Read it," he said.
Rudolph read it with a troubled countenance.
"Yes," he said, "I am familiar with most of the facts here stated, and believe them all to be true. What would you have me do?"
"First," said Maximilian, "we desire to know if Estella is still in ignorance of the purpose for which she was brought here."
"Yes," he replied; "Frederika is jealous of her, as I can see, and has contrived to keep her out of the Prince's sight. She has no desire to be supplanted by a younger and fairer woman."
"God be praised for that jealousy," exclaimed Maximilian. "We must see Estella; can you manage it for us?"
"Yes," he said, "I will bring her here. I know she is in the
palace. I saw her but a few moments since. Wait for Me." "Stop," said Maximilian, "have you the receipt for the $5,000 signed by Mrs. Plunkett?"
"No; but I can get it."
"Do so, pray; and when you bring her here introduce me to her as Mr. Martin, and my friend here as Mr. Henry. She may refuse our assistance, and we must provide against the revenge of the Prince."
"I will do as you command," replied Rudolph, who acted throughout as if he felt himself in the presence of a superior officer.
As we sat waiting his return I was in a state of considerable excitement. Delight, to know that she was still the pure angel I had worshiped in my dreams, contended with trepidation as I felt I must soon stand in her presence.
The door opened and Rudolph entered; behind him came the tall form of the beautiful girl I had seen in the carriage: she seemed to me fairer than ever. Her eyes first fell upon me; she started and blushed. It was evident she recognized me; and I fancied the recognition was not unpleasant to her. She then turned to Maximilian and then to Rudolph, who introduced us as we had requested. I offered her a chair. She sat down, evidently astonished at such an interview, and yet entirely mistress of herself. After a moment's pause,--for Maximilian, as he told me afterwards, was too bewildered with her splendid beauty to speak,--she said, in a sweet and gentle voice:
"Mr. Rudolph tells me that you desire to speak to me on matters of importance."
At a sign from Maximilian Rudolph closed and locked the door. She started, and it seemed to me that her eyes turned to me with more confidence than to either of the others.
"Miss Washington," said Maximilian, "it is true we desire to speak with you on matters of the greatest moment to yourself.
[paragraph continues] But we shall say things so surprising to you, so harsh and cruel, so utterly in conflict with your present opinions, that I scarce know how to begin."
She had grown paler during this speech, and I then said:
"Be assured that nothing but the profound respect we feel for you, and the greatest desire to serve you, and save you from ruin, could have induced us to intrude upon you."
Her face showed her increasing alarm; she placed her hand on her heart, as if to still its beatings, and then, with constrained dignity, replied:
"I do not understand you, gentlemen. I do not know what the dangers are to which you allude. Can you not speak plainly?"
"My friend here, Mr. Henry," said Maximilian, looking at me, "you have, I perceive, already recognized."
"Yes," she said, with another blush, "if I am not mistaken, he is the gentleman who saved the life of a poor beggar, some days since, and punished, as he deserved, our insolent driver. Miss Frederika, the Prince's niece, has, at my request, refused since that time to permit him to drive us when we go out together, as we often do. I am glad to thank you again," she said, with a charmingly ingenuous air, "for your noble act in saving that poor man's life."
"It was nothing," I said, "but if the service was of any value it has been a thousand times repaid by your kind words."
"You can easily imagine," said Maximilian, "that my friend here, after that interview, was naturally curious to find out something about you."
She blushed and cast down her eyes; and the thought flashed across my mind that perhaps she had been likewise curious to find out something about me.
"I am a member," said Maximilian, "of a secret society. We have a 'Bureau of Inquiry' whose business it is to collect information, for the use of the society, concerning every
person of any note. This information is carefully tabulated and preserved, and added to from day to day; so that at any moment it is subject to the call of our officers. When my friend desired to know something about you" (here the blue, wondering eyes were cast down again), "I sent a message to our Bureau of Inquiry, and received a reply which I have here. I fear to show it to you. The shock will be too great to learn in a moment the utter baseness of one in whom you have trusted. I fear you have not the courage to endure such a blow; and at the same time I know of no better way to communicate to your purity and innocence the shocking facts which it is my duty to disclose."
Estella smiled, and reached forth her hand for the paper with the dignity of conscious courage and high blood.
"Let me read it," she said; "I do not think it can tell me anything I cannot endure."
Maximilian delivered the paper into her hand. I watched her face as she read it. At first there was a look of wonder at the minuteness of the knowledge of her family which the paper revealed; then the interest became more intense; then the eyebrows began to rise and the blue eyes to dilate with horror; then an expression of scorn swept over her face; and as she read the last word she flung the paper from her as if it had been a serpent, and rising up, yes, towering, a splendid image of wrath, she turned upon us and cried out:
"This is a base falsehood! A cowardly trick to wound me! A shameful attempt to injure my dear aunt."
And, wheeling around on Rudolph, her eyes blazing, she said:
"Unlock that door! I shall reveal at once to the Prince this attack on his good name and Miss Frederika. How dare you bring these men here with such falsehoods?"
Rudolph, alarmed for himself, hung his head in silence. He was trembling violently.
"Rudolph," said Maximilian, solemnly, "I call upon you,
by the oath you have taken, to say to this lady whether or not the contents of that paper are true."
"I believe them to be true," responded Rudolph, in a low tone.
It was wonderful to see the fine indignation, the keen penetration that shone in Estella's eyes, as she looked first at Rudolph and then at Maximilian.
"Rudolph," said Maximilian, "by the oath you have taken, tell Miss Washington whether or not you paid $5,000 to her aunt, Maria Plunkett, for the purchase of her body, as set forth in that paper."
"It is true," replied Rudolph, in the same low tone.
"It is false!" cried Estella,--and yet I thought there was that in her tone which indicated that the hideous doubt had begun to enter her soul.
"Rudolph," said Maximilian, "tell this lady whether you took a receipt from her aunt for the money you paid for her."
"I did," replied Rudolph.
"Miss Washington," said Maximilian, like a lawyer who has reached his crucial question, for he was a trained attorney, "would you recognize your aunt's signature if you saw it?"
"You have often seen her write?"
"Yes; hundreds of times."
"Have you any reason to distrust this good man, Rudolph? Do you not know that in testifying to the truth he runs the risk of his own destruction?"
"Yes, yes," she said, and there was a wild and worried look in her eyes.
"Read the receipt, Rudolph," said Maximilian.
Rudolph read, in the same low and almost trembling tones, the following:
NEW YORK, August 5th, 1988.--Received of Matthew Rudolph,
for the Prince of Cabano, the sum of five thousand dollars, in consideration of which I have delivered to the said Prince of Cabano the body of my niece, Estella Washington; and I hereby agree, as the custodian of the said Estella Washington, never to demand any further payment, from the said Prince of Cabano, on account of my said niece, and never to reclaim her; and I also pledge myself never to reveal to any of the relatives of the said Estella Washington her place of residence.
(Signed) Maria Plunkett.
As he finished reading Estella seized the receipt quickly out of his hands, and fixed her eyes eagerly upon the signature. In a moment she became deadly pale, and would have fallen on the floor, but that I caught her in my arms--(oh, precious burden!)--and bore her to a sofa. Rudolph brought some water and bathed her face. In a few minutes she recovered consciousness. She looked at us curiously at first, and then, as memory returned to her, an agonized and distraught look passed over her features, and I feared she would faint again. I held some water to her lips. She looked at me with an intense look as I knelt at her side. Then hey eyes passed to Maximilian and Rudolph, who stood respectfully a little distance from her. The tears flowed down her face. Then a new thought seemed to strike her, and she rose to a sitting posture.
"It cannot be true. My aunt could not do it. You are strangers to me. It is a conspiracy. I will ask Frederika."
"No! no!" said Rudolph; "not Frederika; it would not be to her interest to tell you the truth. But is there any one of the servants in whom you have more confidence than all the others?"
"Yes," she said, "there is Mary Callaghan, an honest girl, if there is one anywhere. I think she loves me; and I do not believe she would deceive me."
"Then," said Rudolph, "you shall send for her to come here. None of us shall speak to her lest you might think we
did so to prompt her. We will hide behind the tapestry. Dry your tears; ring for a servant, and request Mary to come to you, and then ask her such questions as you choose."
This was done, and in a few moments Mary appeared--an honest, stout, rosy-cheeked Irish girl, with the frank blue eyes and kindly smile of her people.
"Mary," said Estella, "you have always been kind to me. Do you love me sufficiently to tell me the truth if I ask you some questions?"
"Sure, and you may do so, my dear," said Mary.
"Then, Mary, tell me, is Frederika the Prince of Cabano's niece?"
"Niver a drop's blood to him," replied Mary.
"What is she doing in his house, then?" asked Estella.
"Sure, it would be as much as my place is worth, ma'am, to answer that question; and hard enough it is for an honest girl to get a place now-a-days. If it hadn't been for Barney McGuiggan, who married my brother's sister-in-law, and who is own cousin to Mr. Flaherty, the butler's second assistant, I couldn't have got the place I have at all, at all. And if I said a word against Miss Frederika, out I would go, and where would I find another place?"
"But, Mary, if you speak the truth no harm shall follow to you. I shall never repeat what you say. I do not ask out of idle curiosity, but much depends on your answer."
"Indeed, ma'am," replied Mary, "if you weren't as innocent as ye're purty, you would have found out the answer to your own question long ago. Faith, an' don't everybody in the house know she's"--here she approached, and whispered solemnly in her ear--"she's the Prince's favorite mistress?"
Estella recoiled. After a pause she said:
"And, Mary, who are the other young ladies we call the Prince's cousins--Miss Lucy, Miss Julia and the rest?"
"Ivery one of them's the same. It's just as I told Hannah,
the cook's scullion; I didn't belave ye knew a word of what was going on in this house. And didn't I tell her that Miss Frederika was contriving to kape you out of the Prince's sight.; and that was the rason she took you out riding for hours ivery day, and made you sleep in a remote part of the palace; for if the Prince ever clapped his two ougly eyes upon you it would be all up wid Madame Frederika."
I could see from where I was hidden that Estella grasped the back of a chair for support, and she said in a low voice:
"You may go, Mary; I am much obliged to you for your friendship and honesty."
We found her sitting in the chair, with her hands over her face, sobbing convulsively. At last she looked around upon us and cried out:
"Oh my God! What shall I do? I am sold--sold--a helpless slave. Oh, it is horrible!"
"You will never be without friends while we live," I said, advancing to her side.
"But I must fly," she cried out, "and how--where?"
"My dear Miss Washington," said Maximilian, in his kindest tones, "I have a dear mother, who will be glad to welcome you as her own child; and in our quiet home you can remain, safe from the power of the Prince, until you have time to think out your future course of life; and if you conclude to remain with us forever you will be only the more welcome. Here is Rudolph, who will vouch for me that I am an honorable man, and that you can trust yourself to me with safety."
"Yes," said Rudolph; "Maximilian Petion is the soul of honor. His simple word is more than the oath of another."
"Then let us fly at once," said Estella.
"No," replied Rudolph, "that would not do; this house is guarded and full of spies. You would be followed and reclaimed."
"What, then, do you advise?" asked Maximilian.
"Let me see," replied the old man, thinking; "this is Thursday. On Monday night next the members of 'the government' have their meeting here. There will be a number of visitors present, and more or less confusion; more guards will be necessary also, and I can contrive to have one of the Brotherhood act as sentinel at the door which opens into a hall which connects with this room; for you see here is a special entrance which leads to a stairway and to the door I speak of. I will procure a gentleman's dress for Miss Estella; she is tall and will readily pass in the dark for a man. I will secure for you a permit for a carriage to enter the grounds. You will bring a close carriage and wait with the rest of the equipages, near at hand. But I must have some one who will accompany Miss Estella from this room to the carriage, for I must not show myself."
I stepped forward and said, "I will be here."
"But there is some danger in the task," said Rudolph, looking at me critically. "If detected, your life would pay the forfeit."
"I would the danger were ten times as great," I replied. Estella blushed and gave me a glance of gratitude.
"There is one difficulty I perceive," said Maximilian.
"What is that?" asked Rudolph.
"I hesitate about leaving Miss Washington exposed to the danger of remaining four days longer in this horrible house."
"I will look after that," replied Rudolph. "She had better pretend ill health, and keep her room during that time. It is on an upper floor, and if she remains there the danger will be very slight that the Prince will see her."
"Miss Washington," I said, handing her the dagger which Max had given me, "take this weapon. It is poisoned with the most deadly virus known to the art of man. A scratch from it is certain death. Use it to defend yourself if assailed."
"I know how I shall use it in the last extremity," she said, meaningly.
"Better," I replied, "purity in death than degradation in life."
She thanked me with her eyes, and took the dagger and hid it in her bosom.
"There is one other matter," said Rudolph to Max; "the meeting next Monday night is to be a very important one, I think, from certain indications. It is called to prepare for an expected outbreak of the people. It would be well that some reliable person should be present, as heretofore, who can report to you all that occurs. If you can send me a discreet man I can hide him where I have before hidden our brethren."
"Why could I not serve the purpose?" I said. "I will be here anyhow; and as I would have to remain until the gathering broke up, I might just as well witness the proceedings."
"He is not one of us," said Rudolph, doubtfully.
"No," replied Max; "but I will vouch for his fidelity with my life."
"Then be it so," said Rudolph. "Let Miss Washington withdraw by the farther door; and after a reasonable delay we will pass through into a communicating series of rooms, and I will then show your friend where he is to be concealed."