This story was published in the Western Mail
Of medium height, slight build, clear, healthy complexion, beautiful dark eyes, and black hair that curled in bewitching waves over the fine brow. The possessor of regular, intellectual features; small, delicately-shaped hands, and feet, and a moustache so perfect in its size, its shape, its neatness, and its glossy blackness, that it was the admiration of the one sex and the envy of the other.
Such was Feodor Plotnitzky, a young gentleman who taught German, French, and Spanish to quite a host of pupils and who, to do him justice, was thoroughly able to do all he undertook. He claimed to be the scion of a noble house, compelled to seek safety in a foreign land, and thus escape political persecution.
His manners were perfect, and quite, justified a belief in the respectability and training of Count Feodor Plotnitzky, who, however, would modestly and sadly disclaim all desire of being addressed by the title which was his by right, saying that London had proved such a haven of refuge to him and his that he felt honoured by being addressed by the simple prefix. “Mr.”
This was all very well, but it seemed impossible for anyone to know him without admiring and respecting him.
This was certainly the case with Miss Mabel Grant, the daughter of a well-known banker, a lovely girl of seventeen, who for six months had been one of his pupils, to whom he was teaching the Spanish language.
Without the slightest demonstration affection on his part, she had fallen in love with her teacher. Her desire to be in his society, and her frequent complimentary allusions to the Count, aroused the suspicions of her father, and Mr. Geoffrey Grant determined to ascertain if the Count were worthy of his daughter’s regard, or merely an adventurer.
He engaged a private detective to shadow the Count, and that gentleman was soon in position to learn something about the affable young teacher of languages.
Mr. Harkins, the detective, discovered that the Count boarded with a lady named Hales, and he thus described how he went about his work in the interest of Banker Grant:-
“I called at the house of Mrs. Hales, informed her that I was in quest of board at a quiet house, and asked if she could accommodate me.
“To my great delight, when I presented my references, she informed me that she had a vacant room at my disposal. I represented myself as a literary gentleman who was studying up a special subject, and wished to live apart from my too numerous circle of acquaintances until I had completed the work in hand.
“The next morning I made the acquaintance of my fellow-boarders at breakfast. Upon the whole, they were rather a nice lot —some dozen in all – but I felt little special interest in any of them except my young professor and his mother. Yes, although I had not heard of this lady before, it was none the less a fact that Mrs. Hales numbered among her boarders a lady known as Mrs. Plotnisky.
“‘You know, sir,’ said the landlady to me, ‘Mrs. Plotnisk, or madame as we call her, is really a countess. But she is, like her son, very modest, and insists upon dropping the title. She says that now she has lost all her fortune, it is absurd to use a title. But anyone can see the moment he looks at her that she is an aristocrat. And so beautiful she is too! No wonder her son, who dotes on her, is so handsome and so clever, and so—’
“Here followed, if possible, a more enthusiastic panegyric of Professor Plotnitzky’s amiabilities and virtues than I had even heard of before, and I was forced to the conclusion that Mrs. Hales must also be included among the professor’s worshipers.
“By the time I had been in the house 24 hours I was no longer surprised at the unbounded fascination which the irresistible Feodor exercised over all with whom he came in contact, for I could not withstand his influence myself. Not that I was particularly desirous of doing so, for I had sought his acquaintance armed with a vague distrust of my man. But ordinary prejudices were of no power here, and I positively delighted in such share as I could procure of this man’s society.
“There was only one thing, if possible, while I stayed with Mrs. Arles that I preferred to a chat with Feodor, and that was the privilege of a little conversation with madame his mother. How perfectly beautiful and charming she was! What a world of resignation, dwelt in the expressive eyes! And, what inimitable dignity lurked in every detail of her appearance, from her silver white hair down to the small, daintily-shod foot, which protruded from beneath the handsome dresses in which her devoted son loved to clothe her! What – But there! I am turning just as enthusiastically rhapsodical as everyone else who came across these people, and to this day I do not know which I was the most in love with—the mother or the son.
“It was touching to see the perfect affection and concord in which the two lived, and, but for one thing, I should have gone to assure Mr Grant that there was not the least rift within the lute in this case, and that he need not hesitate to give the young professor any encouragement. That would be likely to induce him to marry .Miss Mabel Grant.
“I was slightly puzzled to note that madame’s eyes, however cheerful they might look in his immediate presence, always followed the departing figure of her son with a wistful sadness and anxiety hard to account for under the circumstances. For it must be remembered that, although he was not more than 26 years of age, his prospects were of the brightest, and he was evidently gifted with perfect health. He had now the chance of more pupils than he could accept. Certainly he was banished from his native land, besides being shorn of his estate by despotic usurpers; but he had so many compensative blessings that I could not conceive of any ordinary reason for anxiety on madame’s part. When I explained everything to Mr. Grant, he was strongly of the opinion that all was not so fair and above board with the professor as it might, be, and that something detrimental to the good opinion everybody held of him would yet turn up.
“This nettled me a little, and I felt it quite as much a matter of love as of duty to ferret out all I could about the antecedents of the Plotnitzkys and prove that was nothing of the impostor about them.
“But my cautious inquiries produced no useful information. Mrs. Hales confessed that she knew naught of her two boarders beyond what they had told her, which was nothing more nor less than that the two were dependent upon the son’s exertions for a livelihood; that they were of aristocratic birth, and that they had been deprived of their possessions by unjust persecution.
“When I adroitly tried to learn something of her antecedents by careful conversation with madame, I met with no more satisfactory solution of the mystery. I had read up the history of Poland, and dwelt when in conversation the gentle old lady at great length upon outrages penetrated by Russia, Austria and Prussia upon her native land. But, if I expected to rouse madame’s dormant national enthusiasm, I was mistaken, for she completely lost that air of high-bred calmness and distinction which so well became her, being decidedly nervous and anxious to change the subject.
“I eventually asked her in as unconcerned a manner as possible, what part of Poland she came from, but she simply replied that she never cared to speak of her native place, as to do so only served to awaken painful memories. Then, rising, she left the room upon the plea, that she did not feel well.
“Now, although I had obtained no positive information, when I came to ponder upon the negative aspects of the case, I found much to think about and make me feel apprehensive lest all my high opinions of this fascinating pair were going to be ‘unshipped’ — I use a nautical phase.
“Evidently, madame had strong reasons for the silence .which she maintained concerning the past of her son and herself. I wanted to be able to show Mr. Grant that they really were the aristocrats they seemed to be. But one thing puzzled me: Why was Madame so secretive? It was while pondering this question that a certain doubt entered, my head for the first time.
“It was one of the many recommendations of this mother and son that they spoke excellent English. Could it be that they were not Poles after all? The supposition was startling. For if proved to be imposters in one direction, it was natural to suppose that all was not well with them in other ways.
“I had been nearly a week masquerading as a literary gentleman, without having made any tactual or definite discoveries when our handsome young friend came home one day, looking very ill, indeed, and complaining of frightful pains in his head. Every mother is alarmed when her only child is smitten with sudden illness, but I never saw anything to equal madame’s terror and prostration. We soon had a doctor on the spot, who found the mother almost as helpless as the son, who, after lying down on his bed, dressed as he had come home, seemed incapable of further effort or movement.
“‘He must be got to bed at once,’ said the doctor. ‘He has been overworked, and I should fancy he has had a great deal of worry, with the result that he has broken down. It will be a case of brain fever, I expect. I will call again in about an hour, by which time you will have him as comfortable as possible.’
“I was the only man in the house at the time, and Mrs. Hales was very thankful that I should be at hand to render assistance in undressing poor Feodor, who was at this time quite unconscious. But when I offered to commence this necessary duty at once, madame became terribly excited, and implored both Mrs Hales and myself to leave the room, saying that she could manage very well herself.
“As this was clearly an impossibility, for the old lady was very fragile, I gently resisted her importunities and said that I would leave the room after seeing our patient safely in bed.
“But madame became so excited and so distressed that we hardly knew what to do until Mrs. Hales Whispered, ‘I am afraid the poor old lady will be laid up too, if we do not humour her. Just go into the next room while I try to persuade her. I will come for you directly.
“In two minutes she followed me – not however to urge me to return, but, because madame had fiercely refused to allow her to remain, and had then, locked the door behind her to prevent intrusion on our part.
“We listened anxiously at the door, determined to break it open if necessary. It was just as we expected. We heard the old lady panting with exertion for a few moments, and then a smothered shriek told us that something was amiss.
“In another second I had put my back to the wall and my foot to the door, forcing the latter from its hinges with very little trouble.
“A singular spectacle met our gaze. Madame had fallen fainting to the floor, while Feodor had sprung from the bed and was wildly pacing the room, uttering unintelligible sentences, probably in some language, which we did not understand. I promptly raised madame and carried her into the adjoining room, placing her upon couch. Then I hurried back to Feodor’s assistance. He had already collapsed again, and Mrs. Hales was applying restoratives.
“Together we placed him upon the bed, having previously turned the covers down ready to receive him. Then we rapidly proceeded to divest him of his upper clothing. No sooner, however, had we removed the vest than we made startling discovery, which fully accounted for madame’s reluctance to permit us to remain in the room:
“A dramatic situation is none the less dramatic because it is announced in common-place language, and Mrs. Hales’s horrified exclamation – ‘Oh, my goodness gracious a woman!’ – was just as much of a surprise to me as if her discovery had been announced in classical phraseology.
“A woman! Well, this was a complication I had never thought of. But I judged it best to leave Mrs. Hales in possession while I attended to Madame’s wants, and held myself prepared to render immediate help, should it be necessary. However, my aid was not needed, as the patient remained quiet for a while. Not so madame.
“On recovering from her swoon, she looked into my face, and reading there that her secret was betrayed, she gave way to an out-burst of grief which made the feel very sorry for her, saying that her darling Feodor was now ruined.
“I used my best endeavour to console her, but had not made much progress in this direction when the doctor appeared. He was considerably surprised to find that his patient was a woman who had been masquerading in man’s clothes; but he was discreet, and promised to keep the secret until the mother could be induced to give her reasons for taking part in so strange a deception.
A few hours later our interesting patient was in the care of a competent nurse, who had been summoned after all traces of Feodor’s assumption of masculinity, even to the smart little false moustache, had been removed, and we had persuaded madame of the advisability of being perfectly open and candid, now that there was no longer any possibility of concealing Feodor’s true sex.
“This, in brief, was the lady’s story: She and her daughter were not Poles, as I had begun to suspect. But madame was really the widow of a wealthy manufacturer, and her daughter, whose real name was Feodore, had been born and brought up under the happiest auspices.
“About a year previous to his death, Mr. Lionel Bryant, madame’s husband, had invested most of his capital in a new electrical device, which promised to revolutionise the telephone business and make a fortune for him and his associates in the enterprise.
“Before this new business could be placed upon a paying basis, Mr. Bryant, while endeavouring, to cross the street in advance of an approaching trolley car, was run over and crushed by this modern Juggernaut.
“Shortly after his funeral it was discovered that nearly all his capital had been risked in the enterprise; that the mechanical device proved a mere chimera, the scheme of tricksters; and that the entire of Mr Bryan was hopelessly involved by the debts of the company. In one sentence—the widow and her daughter were penniless!
“For Mrs. Bryant to think of throwing herself upon the charity of erstwhile friends was impossible as it was for her to attempt to earn her own livelihood at her age. But Feodore proved equal to the burdens laid upon her brave young shoulders. After a good deal of anxious thought she announced her plan of campaign to her mother, but it was sometime before she could induce her to agree to it, though the reasons she urged were cogent enough.
“I shalt never have the same chance of earning a livelihood by appearing as my natural self that I should have I posed as an interesting male foreign refugee,” she had said, and the sequel proved that she was right.
“A certain gentleman of influence, a resident of London, was taken into confidence, and his recommendations soon procured employment for the professor in the metropolis. Her own abilities and personal qualities did the rest.
“All things considered, I saw no reason why the brave girl’s secret should be made public, and, as the doctor and Mrs. Hales were also of my opinion, Mrs. Bryant might have figured again as a Polish professor after her recovery but, for one thing. I urged Mrs. Bryant to permit me to explain the real state of affairs to Mr. Grant, since his daughter was so much in love with Feodor that it would require a strong remedy to cure her—nothing short of the truth, in fact.
“Mrs. Bryant was not so reluctant as might have been imagined, for she had a friend who was well acquainted with Mr. Grant, and had often heard him spoken of as a generous, kind-hearted gentleman, who would very likely respect the confidence placed in him.
“But she scarcely anticipated the actual result of this confidence. I made it my business to see Mr. Grant at once and explain the whole affair to him; and he, in his turn, told his daughter, that she had bestowed her maiden affections upon a woman. So far from producing any ill-effect upon the girl, she said that there was now nothing which need prevent her from visiting her dear friend. Her father agreed with her, and even accompanied her to pay his respects to Mrs. Bryant.
“Matters were kept very quiet for a time, but as soon as Miss Bryant was convalescent, she and her mother were taken to Mr. Grant’s country seat, to pay a long visit to him and his daughter.
“The last time I heard of them, Miss Feodor Bryant had become Mrs. Grant. Her mother was comfortably established in the home of her son-in-law, and Mrs. Grant was perfectly idolised by her step-daughter, Mabel.