Read CHAPTER II of In Direst Peril , free online book, by David Christie Murray, on ReadCentral.com.

If I had never seen that pencilled scrap of paper, I should have had no belief in Brunow’s story.  But though he was a romancer to his finger tips, and as irresponsible as a baby, I had never known him to take the least trouble to bolster up any of his inventions, or to show the least shame when he was discovered in a lie.  I am told that people who suffer from kleptomania cannot be taught to be ashamed of stealing, though even a dog has grace enough to be abashed if you catch him in an act of dishonesty.  I have met in my lifetime two or three men like Brunow, who lie without temptation, and who do not feel disgraced when detected.

For once I could not help believing him, and his story stuck in my mind in a very disagreeable way, for Miss Rossano fairly haunted me, and anything which was associated with her had an importance in my eyes.  It was a hard thing to think that such a living tragedy should be so close to a creature so young and bright and happy.  I praised Brunow in my own mind for his sensible resolution to keep the secret of her father’s existence from her, but I was constantly thinking whether there might not be some possibility of setting the prisoner free.  If I had been a rich man I could see quite enough chance of adventure to tempt me to the enterprise.  I hated the Austrian rule with all my heart and soul, as at that time the Austrian rule deserved that every freeborn Englishman should hate it.  The thought of Italian independence set my blood on fire, and I would as soon have fought for that cause as for any in the world.

I don’t care to talk much about my own character, but I have often laughed to hear myself spoken of as a man whose life has been guided by romantic considerations.  If I know anything about myself at all it is that I am severely practical.  I could not even think of so far-away an enterprise as the attempted rescue of the count, a thing which, at the time, I was altogether unlikely and unable to attempt, without taking account of all the pros and cons, so, far as I could see them.  In my own mind I laid special stress on the friendly attendant mentioned in the count’s brief and pathetic letter.  I felt sure that if I only had money enough to make that fellow feel safe about his future, I could have got the prisoner away.  For in my own practical, hard-headed way I had got at the maps of the country and had studied the roads and had read up every line I could find.

If I try to explain what kept me a whole four weeks from accepting Miss Rossano’s invitation to call upon her at the house of her aunt, Lady Rollinson, I am not at all sure that I shall succeed; I can say quite truly that there was not a waking hour in all that time in which she did not occupy my mind.  Every morning I resolved that I would make the promised call, and every day dwindled into midnight without my having done it.  I need not say that I was by this time aware of the condition of my heart.  I ridiculed myself without avail, and tried to despise myself as a feather-headed fellow who had become a woman’s captive at a glance.  It was certainly not her wealth and my poverty which kept me away from her, for I never gave that matter a single thought-nor should I at any time in my life have regarded money as an inducement to marriage, or the want of it as a bar.  It was no exalted idea of her birth as compared with mine, for I am one of the Fyffes of Dumbartonshire, and there is as good blood in my veins as flows from the heart of any Italian that ever wore a head.  The plain fact, so far as I can make myself plain, is that I had already determined to win Miss Rossano for myself if I could, and that I felt that she deserved to be approached with delicacy and reserve.  I knew all the while that I might be wasting chances, and I endured a good deal of trouble on that account.  But four whole weeks went by before I ventured to obey her invitation to call, and by that time I was sore afraid that she had forgotten all about me.

It was Lady Rollinson herself who received me; a fat and comfortable lady of something more than fifty, as I should judge, though it is a perilous thing for a man to be meddling with guesses at a lady’s age.  She looked as if she could enjoy a good dinner, and as if she liked to have things soft and cosey about her; but in spite of that, she wore a countenance of pronounced kindliness, and received me, so to speak, with open arms.  Her son, Jack, had inspired her with all manner of absurd beliefs about me, and she praised me to my face about my courage until I felt inclined to prove it by running away from an old woman.  I assured her of what was actually the fact, that Jack’s rescue was a very ordinary business, and accompanied by very little danger to myself; but this set her praising my modesty (which has never been my strong point), and I thought it best to turn the conversation.  I ventured to hope that Miss Rossano was well.

“I am very sorry to tell you,” said Lady Rollinson, “that Miss Rossano is very unwell indeed.  She has been greatly upset this morning.  We have had the strangest news, and I don’t know whether we ought to believe it or not.  I don’t think I have ever been so flustered in my life; and as for Violet, poor dear, it’s no wonder that she’s disturbed by it, for she’s one of the tenderest-hearted girls in the world, and the idea that she has been happy all the time is quite enough to kill anybody, I am sure.”

Lady Rollinson rambled in this wise, and if I had had nothing to go on beforehand I should not have been able to make head or tail of her discourse; but Brunow’s story flashed into my mind in a second, and I was sure that in some fashion it had reached Miss Rossano’s ears.  She gave me no time to offer a question, even if I had been disposed to do it, but started off again at once, and put all chance of doubt to rest.

“Poor Violet doesn’t remember her father, for he has been supposed to be dead this twenty years; but he was the Conte di Rossano, a very handsome and charming young Italian gentleman, and I remember his courting Violet’s mother as if it were only yesterday.  The poor dear girl has the right to call herself the Contessa di Rossano; but that would be little use to her, for the Austrian government confiscated all her father’s estates, and she never saw a penny from them, and I don’t suppose she ever will.  But her father went to Italy before she was born, and now it turns out that in place of being killed there, as every one thought at the time, he was taken prisoner by the Austrians.  He’s alive still, it seems, and a hopeless prisoner.  Poor Violet only learned the truth last night, and she has done nothing but cry ever since.”

I said I had heard the story from Brunow, but that I understood he had bound himself to strict secrecy about it.

“He might as well have held his tongue,” cried her ladyship, “for all the good talking can do.  But I’ve known George Brunow all his life, Captain Fyffe, and of course the idea of his keeping a secret is absurd.  Mr. Brunow would talk a dog’s hind-leg off, and you can’t believe a quarter of the things he says.  Only in this case he got a letter from the count, and some busybody persuaded him to surrender it, and brought it to poor Violet, and she has compared the handwriting with some letters of her father’s which came to her from her poor dear mother, and she’s quite convinced that it’s the same, though twenty years is a long time, and a man’s writing changes very often in less than that.”

I heard a rustle in the room, and, turning, I saw Miss Rossano standing within a yard or two of us.  How much of our conversation she had heard I could not tell, but I was certain from her look that she knew its purport.

“Good-morning, Captain Fyffe,” she said, holding out her hand.  I rose and took it in my own, and found that it burned like fire.  Her eyelids were red and heavy, but her cheeks were almost colorless.  She told me long afterwards that the pity she saw in my looks almost broke her down, and, indeed, I remember well how I felt when I saw her beautiful mouth trembling with the pain and sorrow which lay at her heart.  She kept her self-possession, however, but by a sort of feminine instinct, I suppose, she sat down with her face away from the light, and when she spoke again no one who had not known the condition of affairs would have guessed, from the firm and even tones of her voice, that she suffered as she did.  I think very highly of courage, whether in a man or in a woman, and I have no words to say how I admired her self-control.

“My aunt has been telling you of my dreadful news,” she began, and I answered with a mere nod.  Her next words almost took my breath away.  “I am glad that you have called, and if you had not done so, I should have taken the liberty to send for you.  You are a man of courage and experience, Captain Fyffe, and I wish to ask your advice and help.”

I answered that I should be glad to render any service in my power, but I was afraid to show how eager I was to be of use to her, and I thought that my answer sounded grudging and reluctant.

“Thank you,” she said, simply.  I could see her great eyes shining from the dusk in which she sat, and they seemed never to leave my face for a moment.  “I heard you say just now that Mr. Brunow had told you the story.  Did he show you this?”

She drew a scrap of paper from the bosom of her dress, and I took it from her hand.  I told her I had seen it before, and returned it to her.

“Without this,” she went on, “I should have had no faith in Mr. Brunow’s statement; but I have compared it with old letters of my father’s, and I have no doubt that it was written by his hand.  Now, Captain Fyffe”-she did her hardest to be business-like and commonplace in manner through all this interview, and my honor and esteem rose higher every moment-“now, Captain Fyffe, I want to ask you if in your judgment there is anything which can be done.  I come to you-I tell you frankly-because you have already done my family one incalculable service.  It is a poor way of offering thanks to burden you with a new trouble.”

“If I have done anything to save you from grief or trouble, Miss Rossano,” I replied, “I can ask for no better reward than to be allowed to repeat my service.”

If she had been anybody but the woman she was she might have accepted my words, which I knew were spoken with coldness and restraint, as a mere surface compliment of no value.  But I never knew her yet mistaken’ in respect of that one virtue of sincerity.  It is especially her own, and it is the touchstone by which a true heart tests all others.

“Thank you,” she answered, simply.

I told her it was four weeks that day since I had first heard of the matter, and that I had since given it a good deal of practical consideration.  I drew for her a rough map of the country, showing the roads, marking the places where guards were posted, and so on, and I gave her what information I had been able to acquire about the rates of possible travel.  From Itzia I calculated we could, if well mounted, cross the frontier in about nine hours.  There were no telegraph wires in that region in those days, and I pointed out that with a start of a single hour escape was probable.  I laid stress on the value of the sympathetic attendant, and she hung with clasped hands and suspended breath on every word I spoke.

“You have thought of all this already?” she asked, when I had said all I then had to say.

“I have thought of little else,” I answered.  “But now I must tell you that all this will cost money.”

“We can see to that,” said Lady Rollinson, who was almost as interested as her niece.  She showed it another way; for while Miss Rossano had listened without a word, the old lady had been full of starts and ejaculations.

“I must be able to tell the man on whose aid I shall have to rely that the relatives of the count are wealthy, and that they will reward him handsomely.  I may even have to promise him an independence for life.”

“You may promise him anything it is in my power to give him,” cried Miss Rossano.  “If I could secure my father’s liberty I would surrender every penny I have in the world.”

“The man is a common soldier,” I responded.  “He has his rations and his clothes, and a few copper coins a day to find him a little beer and tobacco.  To such a man a pension of a pound a week would look like Paradise.  Much depends on his condition.  If he is a single man, I may secure him.  If he is married and has a family, I shall find greater difficulties in the way.  The great thing is not to hope too much.  I will try, if you will allow me, and I will leave no stone unturned.”

“Captain Fyffe, how shall I thank you?” cried Miss Rossano.

“I shall be repaid, madame,” I answered, “if I succeed.”  She did not understand me then, but I told her afterwards what my meaning had been.  I told her that I should have earned the right, if I brought her father back with me, to tell her I had earned the right to say that I knew no such pride as to live or die in her service.  And that was simply true, though I had as yet met her but twice.  I think that love at first sight must be a commoner thing than many people imagine.  If it was so real with a sober-sided, hard-headed fellow like myself, who had spent all the years of his manhood in rough-and-tumble warfare, what must it be with romantic and high-strung people who are more naturally prone to it.

“You will run great risks, Captain Fyffe,” said her ladyship.

“It has been the habit of my life,” I answered, “to run as few risks as possible.”

“I hardly know if we have the right to ask you to undertake such a hair-brained enterprise,” she said again.

“I have not waited to be asked, Lady Rollinson.  I am a volunteer.”

“Give us at least a hint of what you propose to do,” urged her ladyship.  “Let us be sure that you do not intend to run into danger.”

“It would be futile to plan until I am on the spot,” I answered; “and as for danger-I shall meet nothing I can avoid.”

“I shall trust Captain Fyffe entirely,” said Miss Rossano.  “As for money, Captain Fyffe,” she added, turning to me, “you must not be cramped in that respect.  Will you call and see my bankers to-morrow?”

“I should prefer,” I answered, “to start to-night.  I have ample funds for my immediate purposes, and I shall make my way, in the first place, to Vienna.  Tell me your banker’s name, and I will find out his agents there.  And now good-bye, Miss Rossano.  I cannot promise success, but I will do what I can.”

She answered that she was sure of that; and when she had given me the name of her bankers and I had made a note of it, we shook hands and parted.  For my own part I was glad that Lady Rollinson’s presence made our parting commonplace.

I hailed the first hackney carriage I met and drove to my rooms.  There I found my passport, and went with it to the Foreign Office, where, through the good offices of an old schoolfellow, I had it vised without loss of time, and then home again to pack.  Travelling was slower then than it is to-day, but we thought it mighty rapid, and scarcely to be improved upon, it differed so from the post-chaise and stage-coach crawl of a few years before.  There was no direct correspondence between Hamburgh and Vienna, but the journey was shorter by a day than it had been when I had last made it.  I reached the Austrian capital after an entirely adventureless journey, and felt that my enterprise was begun.

I called at the Embassy, and had my papers finally put in order.  I called on the Viennese agents of Miss Rossano’s bankers, and found that no less a sum than one thousand pounds had been placed to my credit.  Not only was this liberal provision made for contingencies, but I received a letter from Miss Rossano telling me that anything within her means was fully at my disposal.  I thought it not unlikely that with so persuasive a sum behind me I might be able to win over the kindly jailer to our side.  My thoughts were very often with this man, and I spent a good deal of useless time in speculating about him.  Was he married or single?  That was a point on which much depended, and I was half inclined to pray that he might prove to be a bachelor.  Marital responsibilities were all against my hopes.  Marital confidences might well upset the best-laid plans I could devise.

I was thinking thus as I paced the Ring Straße on the third day after my arrival in Vienna.  I lingered in the capital against the grain, for I was eager to be at work, but it was part of a policy which I had already settled.  Itzia was not the sort of place for which one would make a straight road, unless one had special business there, and it was the merest seeming of having any special business there which I was profoundly anxious to avoid.  So I lingered in Vienna, and on this third day, pacing the chief street, I felt a sudden hand clapped upon my shoulder, and, turning, faced Brunow.

“Here you are,” he cried, still keeping his hand upon my shoulder as I turned.  “I have been to the bank and to your hotel.  I have been hunting you, in point of fact, all day, and here at last I come upon you by chance.”

“What brings you in Vienna?” I asked him.  I did my best to be cordial, but I was sorry for his intrusion, and would willingly have known him to be a thousand miles away.

He glanced swiftly and warily about him, and, seeing nobody within ear-shot, answered in an easy tone: 

“I have come to assist in your enterprise, Fyffe, and I mean to see you through it.”

“I think,” I told him, “that I prefer to go through my enterprise alone.”

“My dear fellow,” said Brunow, “I couldn’t dream of allowing you to run any risk alone in such a cause.  And besides that, I have a little selfish reason of my own.  In addition, you don’t speak the language, and will be in a thousand corners.  I was bred here, and speak the language like a native.  I have already the entree to the place you desire to get into, and I can introduce you.  My sympathetic friend-” He broke off suddenly because a foot-passenger drew near.  “It is, as you say, a beastly journey, but, as you say again, it’s done with, and when you know Vienna as well as I do, you will say it pays for the trouble ten times over.  Vienna, my dear fellow, is the jolliest and the handsomest city in the world.”  The passenger went by, and he resumed at the dropped word.  “My sympathetic friend will recognize me, and at my return will be immediately on the qui vive.  Negotiations will be as good as opened the very minute of my arrival.  You’ll want an interpreter, and here am I sworn to the cause, and secret as the tomb.  In effect, I’m going, and I don’t see how the deuce you expected to get on without me.”

“I suppose,” I asked him, “you know what to expect if we fail and are caught?”

He took me by the arm and walked with me along the road, sinking his voice to a confidential murmur.

“You’re a son of Mars, Fyffe, and you ought to be able to understand my feelings.  You’ve met Miss Rossano, and I dare say you can understand the possibility of a man actually losing his head over a creature so charming and so well provided for.”  I could have struck him for the cynicism of his final words, but I restrained myself.  “Now I don’t mind telling you, Fyffe, that I’ve a little bit of a tendresse in that direction, and, between ourselves, I’m not at all sure that it isn’t returned.  Miss Rossano is convinced that this is a service of especial and particular danger.  So it might be for a headstrong old warrior like yourself if you were in it alone; but as I shall manage it there won’t be a hint of danger, and we shall get the credit without the risk.  And so, my dear Fyffe, I’m with you.  My motives I believe are as purely selfish as I should always wish them to be.  Yours of course are as purely unselfish as you would always desire.”

Of course I knew already the man’s complete want of responsibility.  Here almost in his first breath he couldn’t dream of allowing me to run the risk alone, and here in almost his last breath there was to be no risk at all.  I dreaded his companionship; and when I had taken time to think the matter over I told him so quite plainly.

“My dear Fyffe,” he answered, “you don’t know me.  You haven’t seen me under circumstances demanding discretion.  You tell me I’m a feather-head, and I’ve not the slightest doubt in the world that if you asked any of our common acquaintances you’d find the epithet endorsed.  It’s my way, my boy, but it’s only a little outside trick of mine, and it has nothing to do with the real man inside.  And besides that, Fyffe, you know you can’t prevent my going, and so-why argue about it?”

“There is risk in this business,” I said, “and grave risk.  Let us have no further folly on that theme.  I could prevent you from going, and I would if it were not for the fact that I think it more dangerous to leave you behind than to take you with me.  You would be hinting this to this man, and that to the other, and I should have a noose about my neck through that slack tongue of yours before I had been away a fortnight.  You shall go, but I warn you of the risk beforehand.”

“There’s no risk at all,” he said, pettishly.  “I’ve told you so already.”

“Pardon me,” I answered.  “I am going to show you the risk.  If this enterprise should fail by any folly of yours, if I am sacrificed by any indiscretion or stupidity on your part, I will shoot you.  I am going out with my life in my hand, and I mean to take care of it.  You can be useful to me, and I will use you.  But please understand the conditions, for so truly as you and I stand here, I mean to keep them.”

I knew enough of Brunow to be sure that he would treat this plain statement as if it were a jest, and I knew that he read me well enough to be sure that it was nothing of the sort.  The threat made him safe.  In an hour he was talking as if he had forgotten all about it, but I knew better.