The officers were no sooner gone, than a wild-looking, bearded churl made his appearance upon the threshold of the door and greeted the count with a grinning laugh.
“What know you of the murderous attack?” asked the count, in Italian.
“A friend of mine was charged with the affair,” said the bravo. “He is in the pay of the most holy Cardinal Albani. We served long together under the same chief, and I know him intimately. He carries the most skilful dagger in all Rome, and it is the greatest wonder that he missed on this occasion.”
“Was it done by order of the cardinal?”
“No! The lord cardinal had lent this bravo to the celebrated improvisatrice Corilla—the order came from her.”
“It is well!” said the count. “Do you know all the bravi in Rome?”
“All, your excellency. They are all my good friends.”
“Well, now listen to what I have to say to you. You must hold the life of the Princess Tartaroff as sacred as your own! Know that she is no moment unwatched; that wherever she appears she is surrounded by secret protectors. Whoever touches her is lost—my arm will reach him! Say that to your friends, and tell them that the Russian count keeps his word. Four thousand sequins are yours in four weeks, if until then the princess meets with no accident. Away with you, and forget not my words!”
“Ah, these words, your excellency, are worth four thousand sequins, and these one does not so easily forget!” said the bandit, leaving the room.
Again the count rang, and ordered his private secretary, Stephano, to be called.
“Stephano,” said the count to him, “the first step is taken toward the accomplishment of our object. The work must succeed; I have pledged my word for it to the empress, and who can say that Alexis Orloff ever failed to redeem his word? This princess is mine! Count Paulo Rasczinsky is just now leaving Rome, and she has no one to protect her!”
“But it is not yet to be said that she is already yours!” said Stephano, shrugging his shoulders. “As you will not employ force, your excellency, you must have recourse to stratagem. I have hit upon a plan, of which I think you will approve. They describe this so-called little princess as exceedingly innocent and confiding. Let us take advantage of her confiding innocence—that will be best! Now hear my plan.”
Stephano inclined himself closer to the ear of the count, and whispered long and earnestly; it seemed as if he feared that even the walls might listen to him and betray his plans; he whispered so low that even the count had some trouble in understanding him.
“You are right,” said the count, when Stephano had ended; “your plan must and will succeed. First of all, we must find some one who will incline her in our favor, and render her confiding.”
“Oh, for that we have our good Russian gold,” said Stephano, laughing.