A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter IX. In Russia
The next letter Dorothy received bore Russian stamps, and was dated at the black-smith's shop, Bolshoi Prospect, St. Petersburg. After a few preliminaries, which need not be set down here, Drummond continued:
"The day after Jack arrived in London, there being nothing whatever to detain him in England, we set off together for St. Petersburg, and are now domiciled above his blacksmith shop. We are not on the fashionable side of the river, but our street is wide, and a very short walk brings us to a bridge which, being crossed, allows us to wander among palaces if we are so disposed. We have been here only four days, yet a good deal has already been accomplished. The influence of the Prince has smoothed my path for me. Yesterday I had an audience with a very important personage in the Foreign Office, and to-day I have seen an officer of high rank in the navy. The Prince warns me to mention no names, because letters, even to a young lady, are sometimes opened before they reach the person to whom they are addressed. These officials who have been kind enough to receive me are gentlemen so polished that I feel quite uncouth in their presence. I am a little shaky in my French, and feared that my knowledge of that language might not carry me through, but both of these officials speak English much better than I do, and they seemed rather pleased I had voluntarily visited St. Petersburg to explain that no discourtesy was meant in the action I had so unfortunately taken on the Baltic, and they gave me their warmest assurances they would do what they could to ease the tension between our respective countries. It seems that my business here will be finished much sooner than I expected, and then I am off on the quickest steamer for New York, in the hope of seeing Niagara Falls. I have met with one disappointment, however. Jack says he cannot possibly accompany me to the United States. I have failed to arouse in him the faintest interest about the electric works at Niagara. He insists that he is on the verge of a most important discovery, the nature of which he does not confide in me. I think he is working too hard, for he is looking quite haggard and overdone, but that is always the way with him. He throws himself heart and soul into any difficulty that confronts him, and works practically night and day until he has solved it.
"Yesterday he gave the whole street a fright. I had just returned from the Foreign Office, and had gone upstairs to my room, when there occurred an explosion that shook the building from cellar to roof, and sent the windows of our blacksmith's shop rattling into the street. Jack had a most narrow escape, but is unhurt, although that fine beard of his was badly singed. He has had it shaved off, and now sports merely a mustache, looking quite like a man from New York. You wouldn't recognize him if you met him on Broadway. The carpenters and glaziers are at work to-day repairing the damage. I told Jack that if this sort of thing kept on I'd be compelled to patronize another hotel, but he says it won't happen again. It seems he was trying to combine two substances by adding a third, and, as I understood him, the mixing took place with unexpected suddenness. He has endeavored to explain to me the reaction, as he calls it, which occurred, but I seem to have no head for chemistry, and besides, if I am to be blown through the roof some of these days it will be no consolation to me when I come down upon the pavement outside to know accurately the different elements which contributed to my elevation. Jack is very patient in trying to instruct me, but he could not resist the temptation of making me ashamed by saying that your friend, Miss Katherine Kempt, would have known at once the full particulars of the reaction. Indeed, he says, she warned him of the disaster, by marking a passage in a book she gave him which foreshadowed this very thing. She must be a most remarkable young woman, and it shows how stupid I am that I did not in the least appreciate this fact when in her company."
The next letter was received a week later. He was getting on swimmingly, both at the Foreign Office and at the Russian Admiralty. All the officials he had met were most courteous and anxious to advance his interests. He wrote about the misapprehensions held in England regarding Russia, and expressed his resolve to do what he could when he returned to remove these false impressions.
"Of course," he went on, "no American or Englishman can support or justify the repressive measures so often carried out ruthlessly by the Russian police. Still, even these may be exaggerated, for the police have to deal with a people very much different from our own. It is rather curious that at this moment I am in vague trouble concerning the police. I am sure this place is watched, and I am also almost certain that my friend Jack is being shadowed. He dresses like a workman; his grimy blouse would delight the heart of his friend Tolstoi, but he is known to be a Prince, and I think the authorities imagine he is playing up to the laboring class, whom they despise. I lay it all to that unfortunate explosion, which gathered the police about us as if they had sprung from the ground. There was an official examination, of course, and Jack explained, apparently to everybody's satisfaction, exactly how he came to make the mistake that resulted in the loss of his beard and his windows. I don't know exactly how to describe the feeling of uneasiness which has come over me. At first sight this city did not strike me as so very much different from New York or London, and meeting, as I did, so many refined gentlemen in high places, I had come to think St. Petersburg was after all very much like Paris, or Berlin, or Rome. But it is different, and the difference makes itself subtly felt, just as the air in some coast towns of Britain is relaxing, and in others bracing. In these towns a man doesn't notice the effect at first, but later on he begins to feel it, and so it is here in St. Petersburg. Great numbers of workmen pass down our street. They all seem to know who the Prince is, and the first days we were here, they saluted him with a deference which I supposed was due to his rank, in spite of the greasy clothes he wore. Since the explosion an indefinable change has come over these workmen. They salute the Prince still when we meet them on the street, but there is in their attitude a certain sly sympathy, if I may so term it; a bond of camaraderie which is implied in their manner rather than expressed. Jack says this is all fancy on my part, but I don't think it is. These men imagine that Prince Ivan Lermontoff, who lives among them and dresses like them, is concocting some explosive which may yet rid them of the tyrants who make their lives so unsafe. All this would not matter, but what does matter is the chemical reaction, as I believe Jack would term it, which has taken place among the authorities. The authorities undoubtedly have their spies among the working-men, and know well what they are thinking about and talking about. I do not believe they were satisfied with the explanations Jack gave regarding the disaster. I have tried to impress upon Jack that he must be more careful in walking about the town, and I have tried to persuade him, after work, to dress like the gentleman he is, but he laughs at my fears, and assures me that I have gone from one extreme to the other in my opinion of St. Petersburg. First I thought it was like all other capitals; now I have swung too far in the other direction. He says the police of St. Petersburg would not dare arrest him, but I'm not so sure of that. A number of things occur to me, as usual, too late. Russia, with her perfect secret service system, must know that Prince Lermontoff has been serving in the British Navy. They know he returned to St. Petersburg, avoids all his old friends, and is brought to their notice by an inexplicable explosion, and they must be well aware, also, that he is in the company of the man who fired the shell at the rock in the Baltic, and that he himself served on the offending cruiser.
"As to my own affairs, I must say they are progressing slowly but satisfactorily; nevertheless, if Jack would leave St. Petersburg, and come with me to London or New York, where he could carry on his experiments quite as well, or even better than here, I should depart at once, even if I jeopardized my own prospects."
The next letter, some time later, began:
"Your two charming notes to me arrived here together. It is very kind of you to write to a poor exile and cheer him in his banishment. I should like to see that dell where you have swung your hammock. Beware of Hendrick Hudson's men, so delightfully written of by Washington Irving. If they offer you anything to drink, don't you take it. Think how disastrous it would be to all your friends if you went to sleep in that hammock for twenty years. It's the Catskills I want to see now rather than Niagara Falls. Your second letter containing the note from Captain Kempt to Jack was at once delivered to him. What on earth has the genial Captain written to effect such a transformation in my friend? He came to me that evening clothed in his right mind; in evening rig-out, with his decorations upon it, commanded me to get into my dinner togs, took me in a carriage across the river to the best restaurant St. Petersburg affords, and there we had a champagne dinner in which he drank to America and all things American. Whether it was the enthusiasm produced by Captain Kempt's communication, or the effect of the champagne, I do not know, but he has reconsidered his determination not to return to the United States, and very soon we set out together for the west.
"I shall be glad to get out of this place. We were followed to the restaurant, I am certain, and I am equally certain that at the next table two police spies were seated, and these two shadowed us in a cab until we reached our blacksmith's shop. It is a humiliating confession to make, but somehow the atmosphere of this place has got on my nerves, and I shall be glad to turn my back on it. Jack pooh-poohs the idea that he is in any danger. Even the Governor of St. Petersburg, he says, dare not lay a finger on him, and as for the Chief of Police, he pours scorn on that powerful official. He scouts the idea that he is being watched, and all-in-all is quite humorous at my expense, saying that my state of mind is more fitting for a schoolgirl than for a stalwart man over six feet in height. One consolation is that Jack now has become as keen for America as I am. I expect that the interview arranged for me to-morrow with a great government official will settle my own business finally one way or another. A while ago I was confident of success, but the repeated delays have made me less optimistic now, although the gentle courtesy of those in high places remains undiminished.
"Dear Miss Amhurst, I cannot afford to fall lower in your estimation than perhaps I deserve, so I must say that this fear which has overcome me is all on account of my friend, and not on my own behalf at all. I am perfectly safe in Russia, being a British subject. My cold and formal Cousin Thaxted is a member of the British Embassy here, and my cold and formal uncle is a Cabinet Minister in England, facts which must be well known to these spy-informed people of St. Petersburg; so I am immune. The worst they could do would be to order me out of the country, but even that is unthinkable. If any one attempted to interfere with me, I have only to act the hero of the penny novelette, draw myself up to my full height, which, as you know, is not that of a pigmy, fold my arms across my manly chest, cry, 'Ha, ha!' and sing 'Rule Britannia,' whereupon the villains would wilt and withdraw. But Jack has no such security. He is a Russian subject, and, prince or commoner, the authorities here could do what they liked with him. I always think of things when it is too late to act. I wish I had urged Jack ashore at Bar Harbor, and induced him to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. I spoke to him about that coming home in the carriage, and to my amazement he said he wished he had thought of it himself at the time we were over there.
"But enough of this. I daresay he is in no real danger after all. Nevertheless, I shall induce him to pack to-morrow, and we will make for London together, so my next letter will bear a British stamp, and I assure you the air of England will taste good to one benighted Britisher whose name is Alan Drummond."