Read CHAPTER XX - IN A LION’S DEN of Jack Archer, free online book, by G. A. Henty, on ReadCentral.com.

Upon one side of the lane which the fugitives had entered ran a high wall.  Upon the other was a very large mansion.  Its lower windows were five feet from the ground.  As the lads ran they saw an open window.  Without a moment’s hesitation they placed their hands on the sill, threw themselves into it, and flung down the window.  There was a scream as they entered, followed by an exclamation in English.  The boys looked round, and saw a young lady who had started back in terror to a corner of the room.

“Are you English?” Jack exclaimed in astonishment.  “We are English officers escaping from a Russian prison.  In heaven’s name do not betray us!”

As he spoke the Russian cavalry came along the lane at full gallop.

“I am English,” the young lady said, as she recovered from her astonishment, “I am governess to the younger daughters of the governor.  You are now in his palace.  But what has taken place?  I heard the firing and went to the window to listen.”

“We have been aiding in the rescue of a Polish leader who was to have been executed this morning,” Dick said.  “We succeeded in that, but were attacked and cut up afterwards, and had to scatter.  I fear that they will suspect we must have entered this place, for they were close behind us, and there was no other escape possible.  Can you conceal us?  It seems almost like a miracle finding an English lady here.”

“A great many of the Russian nobility have English tutors or governesses, and although some went back to England at the beginning of the war, the greater number have remained quietly at their work.  I fear that the whole palace will be searched if it is suspected that you have taken refuge here.  How imprudent of you to have mixed yourselves up in this rebellion!”

“We could hardly help ourselves,” Jack said, “but it is too late to discuss that now.  Will you look out of the window and see if the lane is empty?  If so, we had best make off without delay.”

The young lady went to the window.

“No,” she replied at once, “there is a soldier on horseback a few yards to the right.”

“Don’t open the window, then,” Jack said.  “They have evidently put a line of patrols along the lane.  We must not get you into trouble,” he continued, turning towards her.  “If you will show us the way, we will go at once and give ourselves up.”

“Oh, no,” the lady exclaimed.  “That must not be.  But where can I hide you?” and she stood for a minute or two thinking.  “I think the safest place of all,” she said at last, “the only place where you would have a chance of escaping, if a search is made, is in the general’s own writing-room.  It is very bare of furniture, but there are heavy curtains to the windows.  No one would think of searching that room, and the chances are that no one will go near the windows.”

The lads agreed that the plan was a good one, and the young lady hurried away to see if the room, which was not far from her own, was still empty.  She returned in a minute, and beckoned to them to follow her.  They soon arrived at a room which was simply furnished with a few chairs and an armchair placed at a table.  Across the two windows hung heavy curtains, and behind these the midshipmen took their places, the curtains extending far enough beyond the windows for them to stand between them and the walls; so that any one going to the windows would not necessarily see them.  Then leaving them with many injunctions to remain quiet, and with a promise to return at the end of the day and release them, she left, being, she said, due with her pupils at nine o’clock.

For half an hour the boys conversed in low tones with each other as to their chances of escape.  Then footsteps were heard, and the governor entered, followed by several officers.  He took his seat at the table.

“If,” he said to one of them, “your report, that you were so short a distance behind these men that it was impossible they could have reached the end of the lane before you entered it, be correct, it is clear they must have taken refuge here.  You did quite right to place a cordon all round the palace.  Write an order at once for the chief of police to send down twenty men to search the house thoroughly from top to bottom.  Let them visit every room, not excepting even the apartments of my wife and daughters.  You say that they were most conspicuous in the attack upon your cavalry, and I myself observed two very young men leading the attack upon the infantry.  Well, sir,” turning to another officer, “what is your report of the losses?”

“Two hundred and three of the cavalry have been killed, sir.  There are only ten wounded.  One hundred and sixty-three infantry killed, and 204 wounded.  We have found the bodies of 133 armed men, who were killed either in the square or in the pursuit, and 97 bodies, apparently those of town’s-people in the square.”

“Put them all down as insurgents,” the general said.  “They are traitors and rebels, the whole brood.  Let strong bodies of infantry patrol the streets.  Order all shops to be shut and the inhabitants to keep within doors, and let a body of troops be placed at the disposal of the chief of police for a search from house to house.  Some of these scoundrels may be hidden in the town.”

All day, officers, the bearers of reports, or who came to receive orders, entered and left the room, among them the chief of police, who reported that he had searched the palace from top to bottom, without the omission of a single room, and had failed altogether to find any traces of the fugitives.

“If they entered, they must be somewhere,” said the general.  “Let a close cordon be kept around the house all night, with orders to shoot down any one they may see leaving it.  To-morrow you will repeat your search of the house.  If they are here, they must be found.”

The hours seemed intolerably long to the lads, standing upright and motionless against the wall.  No one approached their hiding-place.  At four o’clock the general gave orders that his horse and escort should be at the door, and a few minutes afterwards he went out, and the room was left deserted.  The midshipmen were now able to stand in easier positions, but they did not venture to leave their hiding-places, in case any one should suddenly return.  The hours passed slowly on, and it was nine o’clock before the door opened.  It closed again, and a voice asked in low tones whether they were still there.

The lads joyfully replied that they were.

“Follow me, then,” she said, “as quietly as you can.  There is no one about.”

They were soon in the room where they had first entered.  The curtains were drawn, and candles burning on the table.

“You are safe here,” the lady said.  “I have just dined with my charges, and my duties are over for the day.  No one is likely to disturb us here.  This is my private sitting-room.  My bedroom is next door.  If any one is heard coming, you must hide there.  I will go in at once and change my dress for a dressing-gown, and I can then lock the door; so that if any one comes, there will be time for you to go in there, and when I open it, and say I am preparing for bed, it will account for the door being locked.”

She did as she had said, and then produced from a cupboard a box of biscuits and a decanter of wine, which she placed before them.

“You must be starving,” she said.  “I am sorry that I have nothing more to offer you, but it was impossible for me to get any food.  I have been thinking all day,” she went on, as the boys fell to at the biscuits, “how you are to be smuggled out; I can only think of one plan, and that is a fearfully dangerous one.  But I do not know that it is more so than your continued stay here.  The palace is to be searched to-morrow afternoon again, even more strictly than to-day, and that was strict enough.  They turned every room topsy-turvy, opened every closet, and not only looked under the beds, but pulled the beds to pieces, to assure themselves that nobody was hidden within them.  I hear that the general says that he is so convinced that you are here somewhere, that he will keep the soldiers round the house, and search it every day till you are found, if it is a month hence.  Consequently, great as is the risk of the plan I have thought of, it is scarcely as great as that of remaining here.”

The midshipmen expressed their willingness to try any plan, however desperate, rather than remain day after day standing in the governor’s room, with the risk of betrayal by a cough or other involuntary movement.

“This is my plan, then.  The governor’s eldest daughters are women as old as myself.  They are tall and stout, and as far as figure goes I think you might pass in their places.  They go out for a drive every morning.  I have this afternoon slipped into their rooms and have borrowed two of their dresses, mantles and bonnets.  Fortunately they usually wear veils.  They do not generally go to dress until the carriage is at the door, and I propose that you shall boldly walk down and take their places.  Of course, the risk is dreadful, but I really see no other chance for your escape.  What do you say?”

The midshipmen at once agreed to make the attempt, and were soon dressed in the clothes which their friend had brought them.  Walking about the room, she gave them lessons in carriage and manner, imitated herself the air with which the general’s daughters bowed to the officers as they saluted them as they passed, and even gave them instructions in the tone of voice in which they should order the driver to take the way to the public promenade.  At length she pronounced that they ought to pass muster at a casual inspection, and then, bidding them good-night, she retired to her own room, while the lads were soon asleep, the one on the couch, the other on the hearthrug.

At seven o’clock their friend, who had told them that her name was Agnes Sinclair, came into the room dressed, unlocked the door, and then led them into her bedroom, as she said that at half-past seven the servants would come to do up the sitting-room, light the fire, and prepare breakfast.

“I am my own mistress,” she said, “till nine o’clock, and as the servants do not go into my bedroom till I have gone to my pupils, you will be quite safe.  You must have some more biscuits for breakfast, for I am a very small eater, and it would not do were it noticed that a greater quantity of food than usual had disappeared.”

The boys were now again dressed in the clothes prepared for them, and this time put on gloves which Miss Sinclair had also brought, and into which it needed all the boys’ efforts to pass their hands.  Fortunately the bonnets of the time completely enveloped the head, concealing the back half, and coming well forward over the face, and when the veils were dropped Miss Sinclair said that unless she had known the truth, she should not have suspected the deception.

When the servant knocked at the door, and said that breakfast was ready, the governess left them, and presently returned, bringing them the biscuits.

“Now,” she said, “in a quarter of an hour the carriage will be at the door.  It always comes punctually at nine.  From the window of the opposite room I can see when it arrives.  Now, you quite understand?  You walk straight along this passage.  At the end is a wider one to the right, which will take you into the great hall.  Here there will be several servants, and perhaps some officers standing about.  All will bow as you pass through them.  You are to bow slightly as I have shown you.  If any of the officers come up to speak, as is possible, though not likely, for none of high enough rank to do so are likely to be there so early, answer only in a word or two in the voice you practised last night.  Two servants will show you into the carriage.  As you take your seats, you will say to the coachman, ‘To the promenade.’  After that you must do as you judge best.  There is one drawback, I forgot to tell you, an escort of two soldiers always rides fifty or sixty yards behind the carriage.”

“So that we once get through the town,” Jack said, “we shan’t care much for the two soldiers, for we still have our revolvers.  Now you promise, Miss Sinclair, that when you come to England you will let our people know.  We have given you the addresses.  They will want to thank you for our escape if we get away, and for your kindness even if the worst comes to the worst.  I do hope that there is no possibility of a suspicion falling upon you about the missing dresses.”

“Oh, no,” Miss Sinclair said, “I’m sure no one saw me go to their rooms, and it will be supposed that you were hidden somewhere there, and have taken them yourselves.  I shall make the things you have taken off into a bundle, slip into a room close to theirs, and throw them under a bed.  If it were known that you are English, it is possible that some suspicion might fall upon me.  As it is, there is no reason why I more than any one else should have been concerned in the matter.  Now, it is just nine o’clock.  I will go across into the other room, and look out.  Fortunately it is unoccupied.”

Three minutes later she returned.

“It is at the door,” she said.  “Wait two or three minutes.  I will go straight now, hide your clothes, and take my place with my pupils as usual.  I am always punctual to the minute.”

With another word or two of thanks the boys said good-bye to her, and Miss Sinclair at once went on her way with a final warning, “Be sure and be leisurely in your movements.  Do not show the least haste.  Peep out before you start, so as to be sure there’s no one in this passage, as otherwise you might be seen coming from this room.”

The boys waited another minute or two, and then, seeing that the passage was clear, moved along it, walking slowly and stiffly as they had been directed, with short steps and gliding movement.  Both had their pistols in their pockets ready to hand, as they were resolved to be killed rather than taken.  Fortunately there was no one in the next passage into which they turned, and they reached the grand hall unnoticed.  Here were a number of servants and officers, who bowed deeply on perceiving, as they supposed, the daughters of the governor.  Two servants threw open the grand door, and an official preceded them to the carriage.  The boys bowed slightly and passed on.  No one accosted them, and they took their seats in the carriage with the deliberation and dignity which had been impressed upon them.  The official spread a bear-skin rug over their knees, and demanded which way they would go.

Jack replied, “To the promenade.”  The carriage ­which was an open one ­proceeded on its way at a rapid pace, and the boys’ hopes rose higher and higher.  They had not gone far when they heard a horse’s hoofs behind them, and, turning round, saw an officer galloping rapidly.

“Keep steady, Jack,” Dick whispered.

When the officer reached the side of the carriage he reined in his horse, and took off his cap.  “Ladies,” he said, “his excellency the governor saw you drive away, and ordered me to ride after you, and tell you that he did not know you were going out, and that he considered it more prudent for you to remain at home for a day or two until the excitement of the late events has cooled down.”

“Thank you,” Dick said in his best Russian, and speaking in a feigned voice.  “Will you tell my father that we will return in a few minutes?  Drive on,” he said to the coachman.

The officer sat for a minute looking after them, for something in the accent with which Dick spoke seemed strange to him, but being fortunately unacquainted with the ladies of the general’s family, he suspected nothing wrong.  It was evident to the boys, however, that the coachman was struck with the sound of the voice, as he rapidly spoke to the man sitting next him, and the latter once or twice endeavored privately to glance back.

They had now reached the promenade, which, owing to the governor’s order that all inhabitants should keep their houses, was entirely deserted, except by a few Russian officers walking or riding.  These all saluted as the general’s carriage passed them.  On reaching the end of the drive the coachman was about to turn, when the lads jumped to their feet, and commanded him to stop.  The coachman looked round astonished, but at the sight of two pistols pointed at their heads, he and his fellow-servant, with a cry of alarm and astonishment, leaped from the box.  Jack in an instant scrambled over and seized the reins.  The soldiers had halted upon seeing the carriage stop, and remained stupefied with astonishment as they saw the two servants leap off, and one of the ladies climb into their seat.  Nor did they move until the servants, running up hastily, explained what had happened.  Then, putting the spurs into their horses, they galloped forward.  Dick, who was looking back, saw at the same moment several horsemen at full gallop appear at the other end of the promenade.

“The general has found out the trick, Jack,” he said.  “Keep them going steadily and steer straight.  I can answer for those fellows behind.  They can’t be sure yet what’s up.”

As the soldiers approached, Dick leaned his pistol on the back of the carriage and took a steady aim, and when they were within twenty yards, fired, aiming at the head of one of the horses.  In an instant there was a crash, and the horse and rider were on the ground.  The other soldier at once reined up his horse, bewildered at what had happened, and not knowing even now that the carriage was not occupied by the general’s daughters.

“That’s right, Jack,” Dick said.  “We have got nearly half a mile start of the others, and the forest is, Miss Sinclair said, scarce three miles away.  Let them go it, but be sure you steer straight.”

The horses were now tearing along at a furious gallop.  Presently another long, straight bit of road enabled them to see their pursuers again.  The horsemen had been increased in number by the officers who had been riding in the promenade, and were now some twenty in number.  Of these, at least half whose helmets glistening in the sun showed Dick that they were soldiers, had already fallen in the rear, the others had gained upon them considerably.  They were now, however, fully half way to the forest.

“That’s right, Jack, keep them going,” Dick said, as Jack flogged the animals to their highest speed.  “We shall have plenty of time to get away into the wood before they come up, only for goodness’ sake keep us straight.”

When they reached the forest their pursuers were still some hundreds of yards in the rear.  Checking the horses where the underwood was thickest, the midshipmen leaped out, gave a parting lash to the horses, which started them again at full speed, and then dashed into the thicket.

Any one who had seen them would have been astounded and amused at the spectacle of two fashionably-dressed ladies dashing recklessly through the thick brushwood.  After a quarter of an hour’s run they paused breathless.  Jack dashed his bonnet to the ground.

“For goodness’ sake, Dick!” he said, shaking off his mantle, “unhook the back of my dress, and let me get rid of the thing.  I used to laugh at my sisters for not running as fast as I could.  Now I wonder how on earth they manage to run at all.”

Their borrowed finery was soon got rid of, and in their shirts and trousers the boys proceeded.  Presently they came suddenly upon four peasants seated on the ground, who upon seeing them leaped to their feet and greeted them with signs of vehement joy, making signs to them to follow them, and presently led them to a spot where the remains of the insurgent band were gathered.  A shout greeted them as soon as they were recognized, and Count Stanislas, running forward, threw his arms round their necks and embraced them, while the other leaders crowded round.

“It is indeed happiness to see you again,” the count said.  “We feared you had fallen into the hands of the Russians.  I sent spies last night into the town, but they brought back word that the streets were absolutely deserted, and they dared not enter.  I resolved to wait for a day or two until we could hear with certainty what had befallen you.  Now tell us all that has happened.”

The midshipmen recounted their adventures, saying that they had remained concealed in the very writing-room of the governor, and giving full details of their escape dressed as his daughters; saving only the part which Miss Sinclair had played, for they thought that in case any of the band fell into the hands of the enemy, they might under the influence of the torture, which the Russians freely administered to their captives, reveal all that they had heard.  They then inquired what were the count’s intentions.

“I shall move farther west,” he said, “and after gathering my old band together, move to join some others, who I hear have been doing good work in that direction.  We shall not be far from the frontier; and, much as I shall regret to lose you, I will, if you wish it, lead a party to the frontier, and cut a way through the cordon of troops there for you.”

The boys gladly accepted the offer.  They had had more than enough of insurrectionary warfare, and longed to be back again with their comrades at Sebastopol.

Three days’ marching took the band back to the forest, where some 1500 men were assembled, awaiting anxiously the return of the party.

A day was given for rest, and then horses were harnessed to the two batteries of artillery, and moving by little-frequented roads through the forest, the small army marched west.

For ten days the march continued, for the roads were heavy and the horses unable to accomplish such marches as those of which the peasants were capable.  At last they effected a junction with the band which they had come to join, whose numbers amounted to nearly 4000 men.  Their arrival, and especially the advent of the artillery, was greeted with enthusiasm, and it was at once proposed to take the offensive.  Count Stanislas said, however, that his horses were completely knocked up with the fatigue they had undergone, and that a rest of two or three days was necessary in order to recruit.

“Now,” he said to the midshipmen, “I will redeem my promise.  The frontier is only fifty miles distant.  I will send on a man at once to ascertain some point at which there are boats on this side of the river.  I will march at daylight with 150 picked men, and no fear but with a sudden attack we shall break through the patrols.”

The plan was carried out.  The boys, inured to marching, made the fifty miles journey before nightfall.  They were met by the spy, who stated that the boats had almost all been removed, but that a number were gathered at a village which was occupied by 200 Russian infantry.

The midshipmen proposed that they should steal through and endeavor to get one of the boats, but their friend would not hear of their running such a risk, and after taking some hours of rest the party proceeded on their march.  It was an hour before daybreak when they entered the village.  Just as they reached it a sentry fired his musket, and with a rush the Poles charged forward.  It had been arranged that the count and the midshipmen with five men should run straight through the village down to the water-side, and that the rest of the force were to commence a furious attack upon the houses inhabited by the troops, who, believing that they were assailed by superior forces, would be some time before they took the offensive.