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Chapter 10 THE ABLEST MAN IN THE WORLD

  • ### I.
  • It may or may not be remembered that in 1878 General Ignatieff spent severa_eeks of July at the Badischer Hof in Baden. The public journals gave out tha_e visited the watering-place for the benefit of his health, said to be muc_roken by protracted anxiety and responsibility in the service of the Czar.
  • But everybody knew that Ignatieff was just then out of favor at St.
  • Petersburg, and that his absence from the centers of active statecraft at _ime when the peace of Europe fluttered like a shuttlecock in the air, betwee_alisbury and Shouvaloff, was nothing more or less than politely disguise_xile.
  • I am indebted for the following facts to my friend Fisher, of New York, wh_rrived at Baden on the day after Ignatieff, and was duly announced in th_fficial list of strangers as "Herr Doctor Professor Fischer, mit Frau Gatti_nd Bed. Nordamerika."
  • The scarcity of titles among the traveling aristocracy of North America is _tanding grievance with the ingenious person who compiles the official list.
  • Professional pride and the instincts of hospitality alike impel him to suppl_he lack whenever he can. He distributes governor, major-general, and docto_rofessor with tolerable impartiality, according as the arriving American_ear a distinguished, a martial, or a studious air. Fisher owed his title t_is spectacles.
  • It was still early in the season. The theatre had not yet opened. The hotel_ere hardly half full, the concerts in the kiosk at the Conversationshaus wer_eard by scattering audiences, and the shopkeepers of the bazaar had no bette_usiness than to spend their time in bewailing the degeneracy of Baden Bade_ince an end was put to the play. Few excursionists disturbed the meditation_f the shriveled old custodian of the tower on the Mercuriusberg. Fisher foun_he place very stupid—as stupid as Saratoga in June or Long Branch i_eptember. He was impatient to get to Switzerland, but his wife had contracte_ table d'hôte intimacy with a Polish countess, and she positively refused t_ake any step that would sever so advantageous a connection.
  • One afternoon Fisher was standing on one of the little bridges that span th_utter-wide Oosbach, idly gazing into the water and wondering whether a goo_ized Rangely trout could swim the stream without personal inconvenience, whe_he porter of the Badischer Hof came to him on the run.
  • "Herr Doctor Professorl" cried the porter, touching his cap. "I pray yo_ardon, but the highborn the Baron Savitch out of Moscow, of the Genera_gnatieff's suite, suffers himself in a terrible fit, and appears to die."
  • In vain Fisher assured the porter that it was a mistake to consider him _edical expert; that he professed no science save that of draw poker; that i_ false impression prevailed in the hotel it was through a blunder for whic_e was in no way responsible; and that, much as he regretted the unfortunat_ondition of the highborn the baron out of Moscow, he did not feel that hi_resence in the chamber of sickness would be of the slightest benefit. It wa_mpossible to eradicate the idea that possessed the porter's mind. Findin_imself fairly dragged toward the hotel, Fisher at length concluded to make _irtue of necessity and to render his explanations to the baron's friends.
  • The Russian's apartments were upon the second floor, not far from thos_ccupied by Fisher. A French valet, almost beside himself with terror, cam_urrying out of the room to meet the porter and the doctor professor. Fishe_gain attempted to explain, but to no purpose. The valet also had explanation_o make, and the superior fluency of his French enabled him to monopolize th_onversation. No, there was nobody there—nobody but himself, the faithfu_uguste of the baron. His Excellency, the General Ignatieff, His Highness, th_rince Koloff, Dr. Rapperschwyll, all the suite, all the world, had driven ou_hat morning to Gernsbach. The baron, meanwhile, had been seized by a_ffraying malady, and he, Auguste, was desolate with apprehension. H_ntreated Monsieur to lose no time in parley, but to hasten to the bedside o_he baron, who was already in the agonies of dissolution.
  • Fisher followed Auguste into the inner room. The Baron, in his boots, lay upo_he bed, his body bent almost double by the unrelenting gripe of a distressfu_ain. His teeth were tightly clenched, and the rigid muscles around the mout_istorted the natural expression of his face. Every few seconds a prolonge_roan escaped him. His fine eyes rolled piteously. Anon, he would press bot_ands upon his abdomen and shiver in every limb in the intensity of hi_uffering.
  • Fisher forgot his explanations. Had he been a doctor professor in fact, h_ould not have watched the symptoms of the baron's malady with greate_nterest.
  • "Can Monsieur preserve him?" whispered the terrified Auguste.
  • "Perhaps," said Monsieur, dryly.
  • Fisher scribbled a note to his wife on the back of a card and dispatched it i_he care of the hotel porter. That functionary returned with great promptness,
  • bringing a black bottle and a glass. The bottle had come in Fisher's trunk t_aden all the way from Liverpool, had crossed the sea to Liverpool from Ne_ork, and had journeyed to New York direct from Bourbon County, Kentucky.
  • Fisher seized it eagerly but reverently, and held it up against the light.
  • There were still three inches or three inches and a half in the bottom. H_ttered a grunt of pleasure.
  • "There is some hope of saving the Baron," he remarked to Auguste.
  • Fully one half of the precious liquid was poured into the glass an_dministered without delay to the groaning, writhing patient. In a few minute_isher had the satisfaction of seeing the baron sit up in bed. The muscle_round his mouth relaxed, and the agonized expression was superseded by a loo_f placid contentment.
  • Fisher now had an opportunity to observe the personal characteristics of th_ussian baron. He was a young man of about thirty-five, with exceedingl_andsome and clear-cut features, but a peculiar head. The peculiarity of hi_ead was that it seemed to be perfectly round on top-that is, its diamete_rom ear to ear appeared quite equal to its anterior and posterior diameter.
  • The curious effect of this unusual conformation was rendered more striking b_he absence of all hair. There was nothing on the baron's head but a tightl_itting skullcap of black silk. A very deceptive wig hung upon one of the be_osts.
  • Being sufficiently recovered to recognize the presence of a stranger, Savitc_ade a courteous bow.
  • "How do you find yourself now?" inquired Fisher, in bad French.
  • "Very much better, thanks to Monsieur," replied the baron, in excellen_nglish, spoken in a charming voice. "Very much better, though I feel _ertain dizziness here." And he pressed his hand to his forehead.
  • The valet withdrew at a sign from his master, and was followed by the porter.
  • Fisher advanced to the bedside and took the baron's wrist. Even hi_npractised touch told him that the pulse was alarmingly high. He was muc_uzzled, and not a little uneasy at the turn which the affair had taken. "Hav_ got myself and the Russian into an infernal scrape?" he thought. "Bu_o—he's well out of his teens, and half a tumbler of such whiskey as tha_ught not to go to a baby's head."
  • Nevertheless, the new symptoms developed themselves with a rapidity an_oignancy that made Fisher feel uncommonly anxious. Savitch's face became a_hite as marble—its paleness rendered startling by the sharp contrast of th_lack skull cap. His form reeled as he sat on the bed, and he clasped his hea_onvulsively with both hands, as if in terror lest it burst.
  • "I had better call your valet," said Fisher, nervously.
  • "No, no!" gasped the baron. "You are a medical man, and I shall have to trus_ou. There is something-wrong-here." With a spasmodic gesture he vaguel_ndicated the top of his head.
  • "But I am not-" stammered Fisher.
  • "No words!" exclaimed the Russian, imperiously. "Act at once—there must be n_elay. Unscrew the top of my headl"
  • Savitch tore off his skullcap and flung it aside. Fisher has no words t_escribe the bewilderment with which he beheld the actual fabric of th_aron's cranium. The skullcap had concealed the fact that the entire top o_avitch's head was a dome of polished silver.
  • "Unscrew it!" said Savitch again.
  • Fisher reluctantly placed both hands upon the silver skull and exerted _entle pressure toward the left. The top yielded, turning easily and truly i_ts threads.
  • "Faster!" said the baron, faintly. "I tell you no time must be lost." Then h_wooned.
  • At this instant there was a sound of voices in the outer room, and the doo_eading into the baron's bed-chamber was violently flung open and as violentl_losed. The newcomer was a short, spare man, of middle age, with a keen visag_nd piercing, deepset little gray eyes. He stood for a few second_crutinizing Fisher with a sharp, almost fiercely jealous regard.
  • The baron recovered his consciousness and opened his eyes.
  • "Dr. Rapperschwyll!" he exclaimed.
  • Dr. Rapperschwyll, with a few rapid strides, approached the bed and confronte_isher and Fisher's patient. "What is all this?" he angrily demanded.
  • Without waiting for a reply he laid his hand rudely upon Fisher's arm an_ulled him away from the baron. Fisher, more and more astonished, made n_esistance, but suffered himself to be led, or pushed, toward the door. Dr.
  • Rapperschwyll opened the door wide enough to give the American exit, and the_losed it with a vicious slam. A quick click informed Fisher that the key ha_een turned in the lock.