The Toleration of Count Kinsky
AS soon as I heard the news that Isabel Somerset was engaged to Count Sergius Kinsky, I was eager to renew my acquaintance with her. Sir Edward Somerset had been a great friend of my father’s in the old days, and their property joined ours in Hampshire. I remembered Isabel then as a dark-eyed, pretty girl of twelve, who had looked upon me as a sort of elder brother. Her father had obtained an appointment as the First Secretary in the Russian Embassy at St. Petersburg, and after remaining there for seven years, had now just retired and returned home.
I was actually writing a note to Lady Somerset, when to my surprise I received one from Isabel herself.
"I have only just heard by chance that you are in London, and that you, of all people, have taken up the profession of a Chiromancist. Imagine my surprise. What have you done it for?
"When can you come to see us? If you are free to-morrow, mother wants you to come and dine here at eight. By the way, Count Kinsky, to whom I am engaged, wants particularly to see you, and was going to call on you to-morrow without knowing of our old friendship, so the meeting will be in every way lucky. He will be here to-morrow night, so come if you can.
"Yours very truly,
At the appointed hour on the following evening I found myself at the Somersets’ house, where a warm welcome awaited me. I certainly should not have recognized Isabel had I passed her in the street, but I should as surely have noticed her, for her face, pale and somewhat thin when she was a child, had now blossomed into the radiant beauty of a woman.
Amongst the guests were two Russian gentlemen, one, Count Kinsky the man to whom Isabel was engaged, a tall, very dark man, rather old, I thought, to be the husband of so young a girl, the other a short, beady-eyed, thin man, with a heavy, carefully waxed moustache. He was extremely affable in his manners, spoke excellent English, and was evidently a great friend of Count Kinsky’s. His name was M. Charkoff.
It was not until dinner was over that I had the chance of a quiet chat with Isabel in the conservatory.
"Well, Guy," she said, "this is like old times. Would you have known me?"
"Yes, and no," I answered. "You are in some ways improved out of recognition."
She blushed and looked down; presently she said in a gentle tone: "I am very happy, Guy. I think I am the happiest girl in the world. But I have so much to say to you. It is the oddest thing that Count Kinsky should be in England just now. I don't suppose you know, but he is one of the heads of the Haute Police, as it is called in Russia, and the chief of the section that guards the persons of the Royal House. Even I do not know what is the nature of his mission to England. He is anxious to have a talk with you later in the evening. I wonder what you will think of him."
She looked at me critically. "You are tremendously changed," she continued, "and it was odd of you to become a mere fortune-teller."
"I don't call myself that," I replied, in an annoyed tone. "It is true that I practice the art of the Palmist, or, in other words, the Chiromancist, because I have always found the subject of deepest interest to me; but I have money enough, and, although I confess that I sometimes accept fees, I never count on them; my work in itself is of sufficient interest to me, for I believe in it. I live with a friend, a person whom you would consider very curious. He is a Persian, although he has lived most of his life in England. He has made forensic medicine his special study, and he is called in as a specialist in many difficult poisoning cases. You shall see him some day. Celso Nevares and I understand each other, and what more can anyone want?"
"I can only repeat that you grow stranger each moment, Guy," was the girl's answer. "As though mere friendship could content anyone! And you to take up with a horrible Persian!"
"He is not horrible! He is a gentleman in the best sense of the word. He and I were school friends, first at Rugby, and we were at the same College at Oxford. No two men could be happier."
"And you both believe in the occult sciences? Oh, I hate that sort of thing."
"I am afraid we do believe in them," I replied, and I turned my eyes and glanced at her face.
I saw that she was sensitive and nervous beyond her wont; in fact, highly strung to the last degree.
"Love is a higher thing than friendship," she said, suddenly.
"Well, I disagree; but we won't discuss philosophy. Let us return to your affairs; you say Count Kinsky’s presence in London is a mystery, even to you?"
"Indeed it is," she answered, brightening up. "I don't dare to ask about it. He wants to consult you, too; I am very curious about that."
At that moment a deep voice sounded behind us, and, turning, we saw that Count Kinsky had come up.
"I am going to take the liberty to breaking up your tête-a-tête, Mr. Elphinstone," he said to me. "I know, Isabel, you won’t mind. May I have a few moments’ private conversation with you, Mr. Elphinstone? We shall, I believe, find the library unoccupied."
We moved away together.
"This coincidence of your knowing the Somersets, " he began, as soon as we found ourselves in the library, "is very lucky, and renders my business easier than if I had come to you as a stranger. I have heard from Isabel that you deal in the occult sciences, and more particularly in the study of the human hand. I have a friend who is so highly strung, and, alas! so sensitive and nervous, that he has implored me to get a professional to read his hand. You, without being exactly a professional, in the ordinary sense of the word, will exactly suit my case. Will you Come with me to see my friend? And will you do this act of kindness on certain conditions?"
"What are your conditions?" I asked.
He fixed his keen, bright blue eyes on my face.
"I act as agent to the gentleman in question," was his next remark.
"With regard to the conditions?"
"Yes. The terms are these. You accompany me to-night to a house somewhere in the suburbs of London,—where, I am not prepared to say. You will enter my brougham and drive with me to that house, and you will kindly submit to the fact that all the blinds will be down. You will not be able to see the face of your client. He will stand behind two curtains, and put out his hands for you to inspect. If you care to accept a fee of fifty guineas, you will be doing us a tremendous favor."
"I would prefer to go with you as a friend."
"Please yourself," he remarked, abruptly, "but remember that the concealment of all identity is the main object, and no compromise can be made to this condition. Do you accept it?"
"If I met you as a stranger, I should not; but, as you are betrothed to my old friend, Isabel Somerset, I have not the least hesitation in going with you. I am at your service."
The Count rose at once; we returned to the drawing-room, and took our leave.
At the door Count Kinsky’s brougham was waiting. The blinds were all down. As we drove, the Count hardly spoke, and I was left free to speculate on the identity of my forthcoming client.
By and by we entered an avenue through gates, and the carriage drew up at a large house. The Count alighted first, and pressed an electric bell. Almost immediately the door was opened by a tall African of herculean proportions. He nodded to the Count, and admitted us both into the hall, where the only light was one small gas jet, turned down to scarcely more than a minute point of blue flame.
"Now, Mr. Elphinstone," exclaimed the Count, "will you follow me?"
We went along the hall for some twenty steps in a straight line; here some bolts were drawn back and we descended a few steps; another bolted door was passed, and the next instant I found myself standing in a low-ceilinged, well-lighted room, handsomely furnished, the carpet being of thick pile as soft as grass. At the further end of the room hung a pair of drawn curtains of dark velvet. I was told to approach these and to seat myself in a chair, which was placed close to them. On either side of me, slightly in front, the Count and the negro placed themselves.
"You clearly understand our conditions?" said the Count, speaking gravely and in a low voice.
"I understand," was my answer.
He uttered some words in Russian which I could not follow, and immediately two hands were thrust out between the division of the curtains. I looked at them with curiosity; they were large, with knotted fingers, and were much stained, as though the owner were accustomed to developing photograph plates. But what they chiefly denoted was a character of powerful will, and they were beyond doubt, I saw at a glance, the hands of a scientist.
I at once commenced my horoscope of the fate of the invisible owner, and at several points of my analysis I could see the hands tremble, and now and then a quick-caught breath was audible.
Suddenly I ceased, for I caught my own breath. I had just observed a distinct and ominous mark. There was a fatal star on Mercury, pointing down and across the Heart line towards the Life line. It was a rare and sinister sign. The right hand corroborated the significance of the left, but just for a moment I hesitated to read its meaning.
"Well, is that all?" whispered the Count beside me.
"No, there is more to tell."
"Speak," said the Count, "we want the entire truth."
The hands were now held out firmly; the owner of them was evidently preparing himself for the worst.
"I see here, " I continued, "a terrible mark. It means, according to my experience, assassination, probably by poisoning."
If a bomb had been hurled into the room the effect could not have been more startling. The hands disappeared instantly; there was a cry from behind the curtains; Count Kinsky seized my shoulders, pushed me back into the chair and stared down into my face. On his own was an expression of horror. The negro passed swiftly behind the curtains; a small bell sounded twice, then, before I was aware, I was hurried from the room without a word.
A minute or two later I found myself in another room at some distance from that in which I had told the fortunes of the mysterious owner of the hands, and face to face with the count. He had, beyond doubt, received a shock of a severe character.
"Sit down for a moment, Mr. Elphinstone," he said. "You have startled me and my friend by your daring and extraordinary words. I told you to-night I did not believe in your art. I wish to God I could strengthen my skepticism. The whole thing is horribly uncanny; do you really mean that you saw that awful sign?"
"I read the hand according to the interpretations of its marks," I replied. "I am sorry, Count Kinsky, to have disturbed you, but I only did what you asked me to do."
He suddenly rose from the seat he had taken, knelt down beside me and held out his own hands.
"I cannot resist it," he said. "I must yield; it may be weak of me, but I cannot help it. Tell me what you see here."
I took his hands and looked at them.
"Speak as freely and openly as you have done before. Conceal nothing," he said.
"You, too, are in danger," I said as I bent over his open palms; "but there is no definite sign of any special catastrophe. You have enemies, but you will overcome them. Your future should be happy."
The strained and anxious expression immediately faded from his face.
"It is enough," he said with a sigh. "My skepticism for your art returns with your prophecy of my fate."
I looked at him in amazement.
"I cannot explain. I must only thank you for what you have done. And now I will see you home. You must again submit to the blinds being down in the brougham; you are not to attempt to penetrate further into the mystery in which you bore a part to-night."
On reaching home I found my friend Nevares sitting in an arm-chair and half asleep. He was a remarkable personality. He had all the beauty that the best of the East can produce, and all the refinement that can be gained by an English education of the highest order.
He roused himself sleepily as I drew a chair near, and I could not help relating to him my experience.
"You will get into trouble one of these fine days, Guy," was his final remark; "but I must confess that this is an interesting case. I expect your nervous friend has had a good scare in Russia and bolted to England. Still, it is very odd."
A few days later I met Isabel Somerset. She was full of curiosity to know the nature of my interview with Count Kinsky. I told her, however, that I could tell her nothing.
"I understand," she said, with a little shiver. "Guy, I have always given you my confidence. I wish these next few months would pass. Tell me this at least,—is he in danger?"
Again I had to plea the vow of secrecy, and I began to wish that I had never had anything to do with the case.
It was exactly four days after my interview with Isabel, and the time was two o'clock in the afternoon. Nevares was standing at one of the windows.
"By Jove! That was a near shave!" he cried, excitedly.
"What?" I said, hurrying across the room.
"That hansom. The horse came galloping through the Inn archway, and the rim of the wheel just grazed the curb stone. But look; he is pulling up here. Oh, it’s certainly one of your clients, someone you have been driving mad by your ominous prophecies."
I watched a tall figure leap from the cab, and saw at a glance that it was no other than Count Kinsky. The next moment he burst into the room, his face was livid with excitement, and his mouth twitched nervously.
"He is dead!" burst from his dry lips.
"My client?" I exclaimed.
"Yes; it happened this morning. He was poisoned. I have not come to see you, Mr. Elphinstone, I have come to see Mr. Nevares. I have been sent here by Anderson, from Scotland Yard; Anderson, the analyst. He asked me to come and fetch you to help him, Mr. Nevares; you will come at once. The case is absolutely inexplicable."
"Before I promise to come I must hear the details," said Nevares. "I already understand from my friend, Mr. Elphinstone, that the case is one of mystery. I presume the death you have spoken of will now allow that to be explained."
"Alas! it does," exclaimed the Count, looking keenly at the Persian.
I waited in breathless interest.
"You can do nothing, Mr. Nevares, without knowing as much as I can tell you. First of all, I must explain who I am. I am the Chief, or rather was, until this morning, of the Haute Police, in St. Petersburg. I came to London, a short time ago, charged by the Czar with an extremely delicate mission, in company with my colleague Charkoff. The mission was this: You are, of course, aware that there is little doubt that our nation will soon be in conflict with Japan, both by land and sea, and our secret agents have learned that a Japanese chemist has recently discovered a new and terrifically powerful explosive, for use not only in shells and torpedoes, but also for floating mines. The preparation is unknown in Europe. Long and carefully conducted inquiries elicited a certain amount of knowledge as to its composition, but not sufficient for our arsenals to work on, and the preparation of it, or rather the discovery of its ingredients, was entrusted to our greatest chemist, Professor Golonski. It was not long before the Japanese agents got wind of it, and, during the Professor's researches in St. Petersburg, no less than three attempts were made upon his life. The necessity for absolute secrecy in his work prevented our calling in any other chemists to aid him, and on him alone devolved the task on which such tremendous issues hung."
"You mean that it is Professor Golonski who is now dead?" I could not help interrupting.
"Yes, he died by poison; and his work is on the eve of completion. Now all is lost. So careful was he that he did not trust his secrets to paper, and there is nothing, therefore, for any other chemist to work on successfully. But, listen, now, both of you."
The Count’s excited manner left him, and his professional calm returned.
"By the Czar’s command Professor Golonski left Russia for England, under the care of Charkoff and myself. Our police communicated with yours, and, as a friendly nation, I will say, that their kindness and watchfulness have been more than praiseworthy. A house in St. John’s Wood was taken, and a laboratory fitted up according to Golonski’s orders. From the moment he entered that house, he has never left it, night or day, and all that time he has been under the special observation of not only myself and Charkoff, but also one of the most acute detectives of Scotland Yard.
"Now, I must tell you what this means to me. On the success of this one man, lay the fortunes of the whole Russian Empire. The Czar’s own words were these, and they admit of no misinterpretation or equivocation, especially as I am not viewed by him with favor, and never have been.
"‘Golonski will go to England to conclude his researches. Kinsky and Charkoff will hold themselves responsible for his life. If either or both fail in their trust, Siberia for life will be the penalty. If Golonski succeeds, not only he receives his immense reward, but his two guardians also, are liberally compensated for the dangers and anxieties they have run.’
"Need I say, that in view of such a ukase, all precautions were taken. Any possibility of personal violence was out of the question; for accident or disease, we could not be held responsible. Poison, in some secret form, was our only fear. Imagine, then, Mr. Elphinstone, what your strange words meant to him and to me. You will see now, how your reading of my hand relieved my apprehensions; for, if he died from poison, I, or at any rate Charkofl, must also have done so. Each morsel of food, or drop of drink, that passed his lips, was tasted first by either Charkoff or myself, and we took duty for this, week by week. This week, the duty was mine. This morning, therefore, as usual, I prepared his coffee for him to drink. Half of the coffee prepared for him, I also, drank; the remaining half was kept warm for an hour. I felt perfectly well, after my portion. He drank his cup as usual; in less than a minute he complained of feeling faint, and asked for brandy. Before I could get it, he fell from the chair to the floor, dead!"
Nevares, who, during the narration of this extraordinary story had remained motionless, his chin resting on his hand, his eyes fixed on Count Kinsky, now leaped to his feet. Under the ivory skin of his face glowed a dusky red tinge.
"Was he a healthy man in every way? Any heart disease?"
"Did he wash his hands after using his chemicals the previous night, or were his hands washed before taking his coffee?"
"He always observed the most scrupulous cleanliness."
"Were the windows of the room open?"
"Had he consulted a dentist lately?"
"Not for many years; I know for a fact."
"You brought him the coffee; did he drink it in your presence?"
"Have you any reason for supposing that he would wish to commit suicide?"
"You felt no ill effects after drinking your portion of the coffee and milk?"
"So that if poison is found in the coffee, it must have been put in after you had taken your tasting and protecting draught?"
"There can be no doubt about that," and as Count Kinsky spoke his lips were very white.
There was silence for a moment.
"I can only say I am very sorry for you, Count Kinsky; your case is apparently a bad one; but do not despair yet, until complete investigation is made. It is all incomprehensible; but come, come at once."
Kinsky turned and grasped my hand.
"You know, Elphinstone, what this means to me? I allude to—Isabel."
I returned the pressure.
"help you!" I muttered. "But I am thankful you have Nevares on your side. Trust him."
In another moment they had gone.
It was late that evening when Nevares returned. I could see by his face that the news was bad.
"Well?" I exclaimed.
"It is not well at all," was his low answer. "In both the coffee and the milk, and also in the stomach of the late chemist, we have found a powerful vegetable alkaloid poison. To-morrow I shall know what it is exactly. The amount is large. Had it been in the stuff when Kinsky took his share he would certainly have died as quickly as Golonski. It was therefore put in after Kinsky drank his part. Now the cup never left sight of Kinsky—so he says, and we have no reason to doubt his statement—and he swears it to be quite impossible for Golonski to have put anything into the cup, as he drank it directly it was brought to him. I have examined and cross-examined Kinsky to the most minute details, and I can only say, what any jury would say in such a case, that Kinsky put the poison into the milk before mixing the cup for Golonski. There is no escape; some heavy bribe, the deed done almost before he was aware, the fatal consequence. Anyhow Kinsky will have to return to Russia, and there, from his own account, he will meet with little mercy. He will never be seen again."
"Good God!" I cried. "It is impossible! You know his relation to Isabel Somerset. His innocence must be proved, and you, Celso, must do it."
"That, my dear Guy, is impossible," was his only answer.
I shall never forget the next few days. Events passed at intervals like phantoms of a hideous nightmare. First there was the inquest in camera, by the request of the Russian authorities; then there was the quiet arrest of Count Kinsky on suspicion, by the Czar’s request, and an order for his return to Russia. This latter, I learnt, the Russian Autocrat had no power to enforce, but Kinsky himself signified his intention of returning and facing the consequences, brave man that he was.
The last night came; he was to leave under escort of the English police for Paris at eight o'clock the next day. By special request, which was granted, Isabel was to go to the house in St. John’s Wood to see him and to bid him farewell.
That last night I went to my room at nine o’clock and tried to sleep, but only dozed at intervals. I could hear Nevares pacing up and down in the sitting-room.
Then I dozed again, but suddenly started erect, trembling in every limb, for my name rang through the room in Celso’s voice. I leaped up and rushed into the sitting-room. It was nearly three in the morning.
"Dress quickly; ring up a hansom, Guy," he shouted.
"But, why?" I cried, thinking he had gone mad.
"Obey!" he thundered. "I think I shall be able to save him."
He turned and thrust some bottles into a bag. Ten minutes later a hansom cab was taking us at a rapid gallop to St. John's Wood. Nevares never spoke a word. After some telegraphic messages to Scotland Yard, we were at last admitted to the room where Kinsky and Isabel were together, and were allowed a private interview.
The Persian's excitement now vanished into the dead past.
"Count Kinsky," he said, "I come to you to offer you a means of escape from your sorrow,—a sorrow past the power of words to lighten. I have considered your case night and day. The details, we all know; and, we also know, that treachery has been used to accomplish the death of Golonski by poisoning by Japaconitine, the most deadly alkaloid of Aconitum Fischeri grown in Japan. I do not believe you are guilty. Now let me explain.
"It is well known by all chemists, and all members of the medical profession, that if a person takes for some time a small and ever-increasing quantity of a poison, his system becomes what is called tolerated to that particular poison, and it ceases to have a toxic effect. Witness the result of alcohol, tobacco, morphine, cocaine, on their devotees. Hardened habitués to these poisons can, and do, take quantities sufficient to kill anyone not accustomed to them. My belief is, that you have been secretly given for a long time in your food, small but gradually increasing quantities of Japaconitine, and your system is so tolerated that you can take a quantity which, though it would have no effect on you, would kill a person not tolerated to it."
A cry started from Kinsky’s lips.
"Wait!" went on the Persian. "Listen yet a little. In order to prove your innocence, there is only one way. I put before you, therefore, two alternatives. One,— your leaving England in four hours’ time for Russia, to die, or to go to a living death, leaving all that makes life worth caring for, and also the woman you love, and this forever; the other alternative is to drink, now, in my presence, in the presence of Miss Somerset, and that of my friend, Guy Elphinstone, and, also, in the presence of the two detectives who have you in charge, a quantity of this poison, which, if you have been tolerated, will have no more effect than it had when you took your share of the dead man's coffee and milk, and will prove your innocence conclusively; but which, if my theory is wrong, will kill you immediately, as it killed Golonski."
He ceased, and for a few moments no one spoke. The ingenuity of the theory, the appalling consequences, if it should be wrong, the urgency of immediately putting such an awful theory to the test, the impossibility of any escape from one of the two alternatives had stunned us. Once more the Persian broke the silence.
"I offer you the means of proving your innocence at the risk of sudden death. I, in the event of being wrong, shall be sent to penal servitude for life. We stand together, you see, to win or lose all. You, are of the West; I, of the East; I should have no hesitation were I in your position. "
Here, for the first time, Isabel spoke.
"Take the draught, Sergius," she whispered.
"I will"; he answered. He took her in his arms and kissed her.
"Had you not better leave the room, Isabel?" I exclaimed.
"No," she answered. "I stay with Sergius; whatever happens, I shall be at his side."
Meanwhile, Nevares poured something into a phial, and then muttered a few words in Persian. Kinsky took the phial, and said a word of prayer. His face was like death; but, his hand was steady. He raised the glass to his lips, tossed the contents down his throat, reeled for a moment, and would have fallen against the sofa unless Nevares had caught him. His hand was upon Kinsky’s wrist. I uttered a cry of horror; Nevares was wrong. Kinsky was dead.
"He has only fainted," whispered Nevares. "Keep up your courage, Miss Somerset, his heart is beating well. He was tolerated. I was right."
In a few minutes time Kinsky opened his eyes to look upon the girl he loved, kneeling by his side.
The next day the full truth came out, in a startling manner. Charkoff, the man who had accompanied Kinsky in order to guard Golonski, committed suicide. He left behind him a full confession. He was bribed by Japanese Agents to tolerate Kinsky with small doses of Japaconitine, and then, to put a large dose in the milk to kill Golonski, and thus throw the blame on the Russian Minister.
The great explosive was never discovered; but Isabel and Count Kinsky were married before the latter returned to St. Petersburg, now fully restored to the favor of the Czar.