A STRUGGLE FOR LIFE
Count Preskoff’s old steward received his orders with scarce a look of surprise, singular though they must have seemed to him. A Russian is accustomed to unquestioning obedience to the orders of his superior, and although never before had Count Preskoff issued such strange and unaccountable commands to the steward, the thought never occurred to the latter of questioning them for a moment.
When he had left the room, the Count turned to the midshipmen, and his brow relaxed. “I cannot tell you,” he said, “under what obligation you have placed me and my family. Little did we think that any little kindness we might show to you, strangers and prisoners here, would be returned by a service of a hundredfold greater value. The danger which hangs over us may for the time be averted by your discovery. I know my enemy too well to suppose that it is more than postponed, but every delay is so much gained. I have news to-day that the Czar is alarmingly ill. Should Heaven take him, it would be the dawn of a better era for Russia. His son is a man of very different mould. He has fallen into disgrace with his father for his liberal ideas, and he is known to think, as I do, that serfdom is the curse of the empire.”
“But surely,” Dick Hawtry said, “if we draw out a document signed by us and Alexis, saying that we overheard the plot to obtain false evidence against you, the emperor would not believe other false accusations which your enemies might invent?”
“You little know Russia,” the count said. “I believe that Nicholas, tyrannical and absolute as he is, yet wishes to be just, and that were such a document placed in his hands, it would open his eyes to the truth. But my enemies would take care that it never reached him. They are so powerful that few would dare to brave their hostility by presenting it. Nor, indeed, surrounded as Nicholas is by creatures whose great object is to prevent him from learning the true wishes of his people, would it be easy to obtain an opportunity for laying such a document before him. Even were the attempt made, and that successfully, such doubts would be thrown upon it, that he might well be deceived. It would be said that the evidence of Alexis, a serf devoted to his master, was valueless, and that you, as strangers, very imperfectly acquainted with the language, might well have misunderstood the conversation. Count Smerskoff would swear that he was only repeating statements which Paul had previously made to him, and that he only promised money because Paul insisted that, as a first condition of his informing against me, he should receive funds to enable him to leave this part of the country, where his life would assuredly be unsafe. I will thankfully take such a document from you, my friends, for it may be useful, but I must not trust too much to it. Now come with me,” he continued, as the steward reappeared. “You have seen how a Russian noble can be kind to his serfs; you will now see how he punishes traitors.”