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- Caesar's Column - 10/54 -
"Rudolph," said Maximilian, solemnly, "I call upon you, by the oath you have taken, to say to this lady whether or not the contents of that paper are true."
"I believe them to be true," responded Rudolph, in a low tone.
It was wonderful to see the fine indignation, the keen penetration that shone in Estella's eyes, as she looked first at Rudolph and then at Maximilian.
"Rudolph," said Maximilian, "by the oath you have taken, tell Miss Washington whether or not you paid $5,000 to her aunt, Maria Plunkett, for the purchase of her body, as set forth in that paper."
"It is true," replied Rudolph, in the same low tone.
"It is false!" cried Estella,--and yet I thought there was that in her tone which indicated that the hideous doubt had begun to enter her soul.
"Rudolph," said Maximilian, "tell this lady whether you took a receipt from her aunt for the money you paid for her."
"I did," replied Rudolph.
"Miss Washington," said Maximilian, like a lawyer who has reached his crucial question, for he was a trained attorney, "would you recognize your aunt's signature if you saw it?"
"You have often seen her write?"
"Yes; hundreds of times."
"Have you any reason to distrust this good man, Rudolph? Do you not know that in testifying to the truth he runs the risk of his own destruction?"
"Yes, yes," she said, and there was a wild and worried look in her eyes.
"Read the receipt, Rudolph," said Maximilian.
Rudolph read, in the same low and almost trembling tones, the following:
NEW YORK, August 5th, 1988.--Received of Matthew Rudolph,
for the Prince of Cabano, the sum of five thousand dollars, in consideration of which I have delivered to the said Prince of Cabano the body of my niece, Estella Washington; and I hereby agree, as the custodian of the said Estella Washington, never to demand any further payment, from the said Prince of Cabano, on account of my said niece, and never to reclaim her; and I also pledge myself never to reveal to any of the relatives of the said Estella Washington her place of residence.
(Signed) Maria Plunkett.
As he finished reading Estella seized the receipt quickly out of his hands, and fixed her eyes eagerly upon the signature. In a moment she became deadly pale, and would have fallen on the floor, but that I caught her in my arms--(oh, precious burden!)--and bore her to a sofa. Rudolph brought some water and bathed her face. In a few minutes she recovered consciousness. She looked at us curiously at first, and then, as memory returned to her, an agonized and distraught look passed over her features, and I feared she would faint again. I held some water to her lips. She looked at me with an intense look as I knelt at her side. Then hey eyes passed to Maximilian and Rudolph, who stood respectfully a little distance from her. The tears flowed down her face. Then a new thought seemed to strike her, and she rose to a sitting posture.
"It cannot be true. My aunt could not do it. You are strangers to me. It is a conspiracy. I will ask Frederika."
"No! no!" said Rudolph; "not Frederika; it would not be to her interest to tell you the truth. But is there any one of the servants in whom you have more confidence than all the others?"
"Yes," she said, "there is Mary Callaghan, an honest girl, if there is one anywhere. I think she loves me; and I do not believe she would deceive me."
"Then," said Rudolph, "you shall send for her to come here. None of us shall speak to her lest you might think we did so to prompt her. We will hide behind the tapestry. Dry your tears; ring for a servant, and request Mary to come to you, and then ask her such questions as you choose."
This was done, and in a few moments Mary appeared--an honest, stout, rosy-cheeked Irish girl, with the frank blue eyes and kindly smile of her people.
"Mary," said Estella, "you have always been kind to me. Do you love me sufficiently to tell me the truth if I ask you some questions?"
"Sure, and you may do so, my dear," said Mary.
"Then, Mary, tell me, is Frederika the Prince of Cabano's niece?"
"Niver a drop's blood to him," replied Mary.
"What is she doing in his house, then?" asked Estella.
"Sure, it would be as much as my place is worth, ma'am, to answer that question; and hard enough it is for an honest girl to get a place now-a-days. If it hadn't been for Barney McGuiggan, who married my brother's sister-in-law, and who is own cousin to Mr. Flaherty, the butler's second assistant, I couldn't have got the place I have at all, at all. And if I said a word against Miss Frederika, out I would go, and where would I find another place?"
"But, Mary, if you speak the truth no harm shall follow to you. I shall never repeat what you say. I do not ask out of idle curiosity, but much depends on your answer."
"Indeed, ma'am," replied Mary, "if you weren't as innocent as ye're purty, you would have found out the answer to your own question long ago. Faith, an' don't everybody in the house know she's"--here she approached, and whispered solemnly in her ear--"she's the Prince's favorite mistress?"
Estella recoiled. After a pause she said:
"And, Mary, who are the other young ladies we call the Prince's cousins--Miss Lucy, Miss Julia and the rest?"
"Ivery one of them's the same. It's just as I told Hannah, the cook's scullion; I didn't belave ye knew a word of what was going on in this house. And didn't I tell her that Miss Frederika was contriving to kape you out of the Prince's sight.; and that was the rason she took you out riding for hours ivery day, and made you sleep in a remote part of the palace; for if the Prince ever clapped his two ougly eyes upon you it would be all up wid Madame Frederika."
I could see from where I was hidden that Estella grasped the back of a chair for support, and she said in a low voice:
"You may go, Mary; I am much obliged to you for your friendship and honesty."
We found her sitting in the chair, with her hands over her face, sobbing convulsively. At last she looked around upon us and cried out:
"Oh my God! What shall I do? I am sold--sold--a helpless slave. Oh, it is horrible!"
"You will never be without friends while we live," I said, advancing to her side.
"But I must fly," she cried out, "and how--where?"
"My dear Miss Washington," said Maximilian, in his kindest tones, "I have a dear mother, who will be glad to welcome you as her own child; and in our quiet home you can remain, safe from the power of the Prince, until you have time to think out your future course of life; and if you conclude to remain with us forever you will be only the more welcome. Here is Rudolph, who will vouch for me that I am an honorable man, and that you can trust yourself to me with safety."
"Yes," said Rudolph; "Maximilian Petion is the soul of honor. His simple word is more than the oath of another."
"Then let us fly at once," said Estella.
"No," replied Rudolph, "that would not do; this house is guarded and full of spies. You would be followed and reclaimed."
"What, then, do you advise?" asked Maximilian.
"Let me see," replied the old man, thinking; "this is Thursday. On Monday night next the members of 'the government' have their meeting here. There will be a number of visitors present, and more or less confusion; more guards will be necessary also, and I can contrive to have one of the Brotherhood act as sentinel at the door which opens into a hall which connects with this room; for you see here is a special entrance which leads to a stairway and to the door I speak of. I will procure a gentleman's dress for Miss Estella; she is tall and will readily pass in the dark for a man. I will secure for you a permit for a carriage to enter the grounds. You will bring a close carriage and wait with the rest of the equipages, near at hand. But I must have some one who will accompany Miss Estella from this room to the carriage, for I must not show myself."
I stepped forward and said, "I will be here."
"But there is some danger in the task," said Rudolph, looking at me critically. "If detected, your life would pay the forfeit."
"I would the danger were ten times as great," I replied. Estella blushed and gave me a glance of gratitude.
"There is one difficulty I perceive," said Maximilian.
"What is that?" asked Rudolph.
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