― 9 ―

The Tragedy Behind the Curtain.

This is the tragedy my friend, a Nihilist, travelling under an assumed name, related to me on the Brisbane Schol of Arts' verandah one afternoon a few days before he left for Russia to participate in the recent revolutionary movement.

“It was the works of Stepniak that first opened my eyes to the wrongs of my countrymen. A subsequent study of Tarde, Henry George, Comte, Herbert Spencer, Marks, deepened my conviction regarding their rights. I am a Russian to the fingertips and worship my country. I would sacrifice my soul if I possess one for the emancipation of my countrymen. I have already lopped off the only personal strand that tethered me to earth in her service. You will condemn me for what I shall relate, but that matters nothing. You have read of fanatics and their inhuman actions for their souls' salvation. When I have finished you will think me a fanatic for my country's salvation.”

“To one of my temperament an insult is intolerable. My hereditary position as a landowner with a rent-roll

  ― 10 ―
of 2000 roubles a month had fostered my pride of race. When General Kortchakoff, therefore, slighted me in the hunting-field I had personal as well as humanitarian ground to execrate the power he represented. I little thought my settlement with him would demand the greatest sacrifice of my life.”

“I was forty years of age when I became an active revolutionist. I need not mention the immediate causes that led me to become a member of one of the ‘subsections.’ My life up to that time had been spent on my estates, hunting and shooting the elk and bear, ameliorating the condition of my peasants, and hard study. I rarely visited the capital. My brother Mark was at the university. I had no desire to marry. An old housekeeper, who had been a sort of family nurse in my father's time, tended my physical requirements.”

“After I became revolutionist I began to secretly forward large sums of money to a London banker under an assumed name. I thought it my duty towards my brother, since, as perhaps you are aware, my detection would lead to a confiscation of the family estates. My caution, seclusion, and position, however, combined to ward off suspicion. Besides, I had not yet advanced to the extreme views of many revolutionists and entered their intimidating societies.”

“When my brother returned home I at once perceived

  ― 11 ―
a change in his demeanour. From a frank, emotional stripling he had become an abstracted young man. He was fifteen years my junior and no two brothers could be more dissimilar. He had the flaxen locks and light blue eyes of our mother, and, like her, was of a highly devotional, almost hysterically poetic temperament. Indeed, when a mere boy he wrote verses. Slim and willowy, he offered a sharp contrast with myself. Our father was as dark as a gypsy and herculean. Like him in appearance I even surpassed him in strength, being, in fact, double-jointed. Of a docile, lovable nature, like our mother, Mark had ever been my favorite. The attraction of the unlike, I suppose. He was the youngest. Three sisters—whom I barely tolerated and was thankful when they married—descended in line of birth from me, the eldest of the family. He was, moreover, subject to epileptic fits when a boy that added weight to his call on my sympathy.”

“For some weeks Mark's abstracted air perplexed me. I first fancied it arose from some silly love affair moving amiss, but a random glance at the books he had brought with him and greatly favored undeceived me. The spiritual writings of Honmyakof, and such thinkers as Hegel, were not for a lover. It was with some astonishment I came across works on political administration that could not have passed the censor.

  ― 12 ―
The finding by chance an interdicted pamphlet deeply scored in its inflammatory passages of a revolutionary character led to my interrogating him. In brief, my brother, throwing all restraint aside when he detected my own revolutionary sympathies, confessed he was enrolled in the ‘Disorganising group’ of the ‘Navodovolstvo,’ whose object was to remove the heads of the Government and intimidate it into submission by acts of violence. Ere I had recovered from my surprise I had also learned he had drawn the scarlet lot in a ballot that deputed him to assassinate an obnoxious government official—no other, in truth, than General Kortchakoff. It was some days before I was composed enough to enter into details. My savage joy that the revolutionary forces were bent against my hated enemy was mingled with mortified pride, and an uneasy wonder that destiny should entrust such a commission to so delicately-souled an agent as my brother. My affection for him, and deep-rooted conviction that his lack of practical knowledge of the world, and his innate horror of everything antagonistical to his spiritual nature, would hurl him into an ignominious death, combined to awaken a trepidation I had never before experienced. Meanwhile, I began to be struck by the shrewd way he had already prepared his plans, that suggested unsuspected elements of business acumen lay beneath his devotional emotions that had carried him

  ― 13 ―
into the vortex of revolutionary reform. Inspired by his own effeminate appearance he had developed a feasible scheme of action to accomplish his object. Disguised as a woman, he would await at one of the convict halting stations, among the peasant saleswomen of provender to the convicts, in which Kortchakoff would pass the night on his official round of inspection, and assassinate him. To illustrate his artless sincerity of motive and lack of self-interest, even of self-preservation, I might mention he had left his subsequent means of escape to chance, or, as he put it, to the miraculous intervention of the Blessed Virgin. Such improvidence and reckless enthusiasm in a stranger would have received my contempt. It is evidence to you, however, of the martyr-like unselfishness of some members of the revolutionary movement. My brother Mark was by no means an exception.”

“When after much pondering I determined to accompany and abet him in his design you will at once see complicated motives actuated me. Had I not known the serious misdemeanor in the eyes of the revolutionary party of infringing on their decree I should have insisted on having the final role all to myself. The pleasure of destroying my enemy would be unique. Moreover, I had doubts as to Mark's capacity for dealing the clean death stroke. There must be no bungling at least in that. However, the exalted mood in

  ― 14 ―
which Mark contemplated ridding Russia of a tyrant partly reassured me. All through the preparations for the journey he was in a state of enthusiasm akin to that experienced by a fanatic heaven-inspired as he assents to some holy deed. His effervescence was contagious. I was conscious of a seethe in my blood. Nevertheless, my habitual caution and tact did not desert me—was rather increased at the rapidly defining perils we had to face.”

“Our plans completed, we set out for one of the convict halting stations on the route to Siberia. Disguised as a peasant, in a homespun coat and long strips of linen wound round the legs, I munched sunflower seeds in the railway car in moody silence, warily watchful of my companion. His indefatigable rehearsing of his part in his bed-chamber at the University had made him a consummate actor. Little thought that medley of Jews, working men, and factory hands in the car that the curly-headed, round-faced passenger in her sleeveless velveteen jacket, turkey-red shirt sleeves, and dark blue skirt, with her thick boots, was, in truth, a deadly emissary of the famous ‘Navodovolstvo.’ I had congratulated myself at starting that no women were in the car. At one of the stations, however, just as the third bell had rung, a young woman entered and seated herself opposite Mark and began to study him carefully. I was getting uneasy,

  ― 15 ―
since any suspicion might have led to fatal consequences. Besides, could an unsuspicious woman detect his disguise we should have little chance of eluding the scrutiny of lynx-eyed spies later on. However, my mind was set at ease when she smiled pleasantly, doubtlessly favorably impressed by my brother's prepossessing features and demure expression. Mark smiled back, and glanced at me, counterfeiting the apprehensive pride of a peasant maiden with her guardian. It was well done and my doubts vanished. Nevertheless, I was relieved when the woman alighted at the next station, from fear she might enter into conversation with my brother. His voice was musically-soft; I had yet to learn he could control its cultivated inflections and speak the peasant patois.”

“I need not relate further particulars of our journey. It was spring-time and therefore we had no inconvenience through bad weather. On our reaching our destination fortune favored us the first day. A gang of prisoners had just arrived, and moving among the saleswomen in the courtyard I noticed a lean, intelligent-looking young peasant, who accosted me. After some parries on either side I was emboldened to risk giving a secret sign of the revolutionists, which was immediately responded to. The movement has members in the most unsuspecting places who help each other without comment or curiosity. Their only fear is of

  ― 16 ―
spies, hence their reticence as to themselves. Through this man's assistance Mark was installed among the saleswomen with some buck-wheat, porridge, and beef for sale. I was well furnished with money and would have thrust on the man a liberal sum. He refused, however, to accept payment beyond the value of the commodities. He was a native of the district and contrived to escort me into the courtyard. The halting station was on the outskirts of a village, and consisted of two single-storied houses and one double-storied building, surrounded by a courtyard, with an outer fence of tall stakes. The house with barred windows was for prisoners, the other for the convoy, and the building for the officers, its upper chambers, in this instance, reserved for Kortchakoff, expected at any moment. I had no time to lose. One glance around sufficed. I returned to Mark, who had, meanwhile, disposed of most of his goods to the prisoners, who are permitted to purchase what they require of the vendors at each halting station, and in a low voice communicated to him my plan of campaign. I had at starting wound round my body a rope ladder. We had revolvers secreted about our persons; a keen-edged dagger in the folds of Mark's garments was for Kortchakoff. I made close enquiries of the man as to the whereabouts of his habitation. He demurred answering till I swore on his cross that I would bring no disaster on his head

  ― 17 ―
—I merely asked for accommodation for my sister if required. After hesitating, he pointed to a track in the forest, that conducted, he said, to his hut, but it was some miles away. I pushed up his cross and he kissed it, crossing himself at the same time nervously. Fearing I might have been noticed, since the yard was thronged with soldiers, I motioned him to accompany me, and we strode into the forest. I glanced back, and saw Mark had edged away from the women, and was following with apparent carelessness. At irregular distances along the track were piles of fuel, one of which was on a sleigh used for conveying such to their destination. Unperceived by my companion, I dropped my handkerchief against it, and hastened on a little till a curve of the track cut off the sleigh from sight. After some minutes' further tramp in silence, I abruptly turned on the man, and in the name of the revolutionists commanded him to convey a pile of fuel into the station yard. To my surprise, he made no objections, and we retraced our steps. One glance at the sleigh of fuel told me all was right. The handkerchief was gone. You, of course, guess what had occurred. Mark had secreted himself in the pile of fuel. The peasant's practised eye must have detected that the timber had been disturbed, since he stepped around it as though to investigate, when I peremptorily

  ― 18 ―
commanded him to at once drag the sleigh and I would push it from behind.”

“The sun was setting and soldiers were hanging about the courtyard. The prisoners had been bolted up in their house. As we entered a dandified officer hastened towards us and sharply demanded the meaning of bringing fuel at that hour of the day. ‘And this fellow, who is he?’ he exclaimed, pointing rudely in my direction. The peasant's wits must have been edged by so much friction, for he replied readily enough, ‘My brother, your honor. The wood is for his Excellency.’

‘But there's any amount inside. You only brought some yesterday.’

‘Ah, your honor, this is for his Excellency.’

‘You've become damned well thoughtful all at once, Ivan. Take it in, but you don't need that fellow with you.’

“At that moment another officer came running up and whispered hurriedly something about the General's near approach. Our interrogator hastened away, with the parting shot—

‘If you're not smart, I'll give you the whip.’

“We dragged the sleigh to the stack.”

‘Enough!’ I said sternly. ‘Get away at once. If you're caught without me you know your fate,’ and without further notice of him I concealed myself in the

  ― 19 ―
stack. The courtyard was not yet clear of soldiers, and how he managed to elude observation and get away I did not see. But our peasants are as cunning as foxes to avoid the whip.”

“Our plan of operation was simple in the extreme. To ascend under cover of darkness to Kortchakoff's room by means of the ladder, conceal ourselves, assassinate him when he entered, descend to the courtyard and remove the sentinel on guard at the entrance of the palisade, which would be easy enough, since he would have no suspicion of danger from the courtyard. It seemed as though fate were working with us, for the gate had been temporarily disabled. To redisguise ourselves, I as a gypsy, a character my dark-skinned countenance would well support, and Mark as a Government clerk, from our thoughtfully-equipped baggage concealed in the forest, and then separate, each taking a different route to the railway station with a portion of the baggage. To then burn everything foreign to our position as gentlemen and attire ourselves as such before entering the station to catch the first train to the capital, completed the programme.”

“About an hour after Kortchakoff's arrival with his guard of soldiers the station simmered down. Darkness set in and the windows of the houses lighted up. We should have to act as soon as moving lights in the

  ― 20 ―
courtyard warned me that Kortchakoff was inspecting the prisoners' quarters. After a whispered consultation with Mark in the fuel-heap I lay waiting in silence. When I again peeped from my concealment lamps were burning before the doors of the houses and along the walls of the courtyard that was now deserted. There was a continuous clatter of manacles from the prisoners' house, broken once by loud screams of a woman who was probably getting whipped. Now and again an officer would hurry across the courtyard, his gold-tasselled uniform momentarily kindling, as it seemed, when he passed the gleam of the lamps, his boots crunching the ground stubbornly. It was a lovely starry night, without a moon, the air sharply nipping and as bracing as champagne. Unlike fictitious characters one reads about, I didn't begin to ruminate and dive into my soul and flounder among memories. If I remember rightly, I was like a smouldering ember ere it burst to flame. I strained on the leashes, as it were, on a savage glow from head to foot. Suddenly Kortchakoff's window dimmed. The lamp-light had been partly shut off. Immediately the clatter of scabbards and tramp of feet sounded. A squad of troopers with lights marched off with Kortchakoff in their midst. I leaped to the fuel, noiselessly helped Mark, affixed the ladder, and in double quick

  ― 21 ―
time we were in Kortchakoff's room, that contained a table on which were a samovar and some sandwiches; a bed and two chairs; and was lighted by a hanging lamp. Without a moment's hesitation we slipped behind the heavy bed-curtains.”

‘Brother, art thou ready?’ I whispered.

“He gave no reply, but his hands moved, and the dagger pricked my thigh. It was like the spur touch to a fiery steed. With a great effort I crushed back a cry of exultation. In a few minutes I heard voices in the room below.”

‘Wait for his back and strike with all thy strength, brother. My hand will be on his throat to stop his squeals. Isn't it glorious!’

“I half turned to glance at him ere I moved into a favorable position to carry out my part in our little drama, and was startled. My brother was quivering like a reed. I drew aside the curtain; his face was livid and streaming with sweat. At the same moment the tramp of feet and then the grounding of arms sounded in the courtyard below the window. An officer's voice rang out, and I heard soldiers marching to positions. A cordon of sentinels was being put on guard around the building, doubtlessly on account of the disabled gate. We were trapped like rats!”

‘The Blessed Virgin intercede for us—we are murderers. Brother, it must not be done!’

  ― 22 ―

“Mark was clutching me, and his voice seemed to ring through my brain.”

‘Give me the blade.’ I caught his hand, but he held me tight.”

‘No! no! God help us no!’

“He reeled to and fro. I wrenched the dagger from him. There seemed a sulphurous smell in my nostrils. My brother a coward!”

‘Silence! brat. He's coming.’

“The voices had ceased in the chamber below, and footsteps were on the stairs. My brother whipped up his hands, froth ran from his lips, his eyes had an insane glare. He was on the edge of a fit. Capture was certain. And then—God Almighty! My brother put to the torture would confess all. The leaders of the ‘Navodovolstvo’ would be seized, priceless lives sacrificed, Russia hurled back a century at least. All lost! lost! The steps were drawing nearer. My brother was now struggling to escape my clutch. My bitten hand was being dragged from his mouth. Another second—his mother's face came before me as with shut eyes I pushed the blade home and the hot blood spurted against my throat. Conceive a tiger soul with the cold, bloodless cunning of a snake in a human body—that was I! I actually panted for Kortchakoff. With the dripping dagger I crawled from the curtains and crouched behind the door. I'd

  ― 23 ―
have one delirium of joy, and then—no torture would wring a murmur from me. It was all done in an instant. My blade smote and shivered on Kortchakoff's chest as he entered. The coward wore a concealed shirt of dagger-proof steel. A cry of horror escaped him ere I buried the jagged splinter of the blade into his face with such force that he fell with a crash and lay twitching. With foot trodden into his gullet I exulted at his writhing and waited for the next. There was a bounding of feet up the stairs, and one hand was on the throat of a gayly-dressed officer ere he could shout an alarm, while the other tore out his sword, lunged through my shoulder, and snapped it like a needle. He was a big man, but several such as he could not have worsted me at that moment. My brain was like ice, yet my blood seemed to hiss with heat. My fingers strained on his throat. A part of my mind must have worked without my guidance, for whilst slowly strangling the dog, my other hand must have turned up the lamp-light, since I next remember the blood blackening in his face and the stare of his jelly-like eyes. I even fancy I grimaced at him mockingly. Again the instinct of self-preservation must have moved, for I redoubled my grip to finish him. With a jerk back his neck gave a sharp crack. Still holding him at arms' length, I listened intently. In a little while I heard a sentinel on patrol. No suspicion had yet been

  ― 24 ―
awakened. There was a deep hush. With a final squeeze that dropped his jaw, I quickly stretched him on the bed, his mouth yawning like a cod's. Each incident had followed the other as though pre-arranged. Something within me seemed to guide my actions. Apart from the fervid heat of my blood, that kept me at a pitch of hilarious excitement, I was an actor playing a part automatically. One glance told me Kortchakoff was dead. His hand was fastened on the Order of the White Cross as though in death he prized the bauble. Had be been dying I would have dragged it from him. I bent over the choked officer and stripped him of his uniform and slipped into it. Throwing a cloak around me, I blew out the lamp and descended the stairs. The room below was empty. I scarce troubled to glance about me, and strode into the courtyard. I must have answered the challenge of the sentinel satisfactorily. Everything seemed afar off and unreal, except the fierce glow of triumph. I recollect turning on my heel and gazing at the red lights of the station as I entered the forest. The rest is very misty. I stripped off the uniform and hastened to the baggage. I knew the whole district would be scoured as soon as Kortchakoff's body was discovered. Though the uniform would have offered numerous facilities for escape had I continued to wear it, I had become heedless of danger. I held to my original plan.”

  ― 25 ―

“I need not trouble you with trivialities. The socities have means of smuggling away their valuable workers beyond reach of the Government. I, of course, never again saw my estates. My act is chronicled in the annals of Russian revolutionary history. Since that night I've travelled in many countries. Why I came to Australia you need not ask. Our members are everywhere—for an object. In a few months an explosion will shatter the Russian dynasty for ever or destroy Russia's patriots. Mark died in her service. I desire no nobler privilege than to die for her also.”