Chapter 15 | I Have Been Waiting For You | The Secret of the Night


At the hotel a note from Gounsovski: "Don't forget this time to come to-morrow to have luncheon with me. Warmest regards from Madame Gounsovski." Then a horrible, sleepless night, shaken with echoes of explosions and the clamor of the wounded; and the solemn shade of Pere Alexis, stretching out toward Rouletabille a phial of poison and saying, "Either Natacha or you!" Then, rising among the shades the bloody form of Michael Nikolaievitch the Innocent!

In the morning a note from the Marshal of the Court.

Monsieur le Marechal had no particular good news, evidently, for in terms quite without enthusiasm he invited the young man to luncheon for that same day, rather early, at midday, as he wished to see him once more before he left for France. "I see," said Rouletabille to himself; "Monsieur le Marechal pronounces my expulsion from the country"—and he forgot once more the Gounsovski luncheon. The meeting-place named was the great restaurant called the Bear. Rouletabille entered it promptly at noon. He asked the schwitzar if the Grand Marshal of the Court had arrived, and was told no one had seen him yet. They conducted him to the huge main hall, where, however, there was only one person. This man, standing before the table spread with zakouskis, was stuffing himself. At the sound of Rouletabille's step on the floor this sole famished patron turned and lifted his hands to heaven as he recognized the reporter. The latter would have given all the roubles in his pocket to have avoided the recognition. But he was already face to face with the advocate so celebrated for his table-feats, the amiable Athanase Georgevitch, his head swathed in bandages and dressings from the midst of which one could perceive distinctly only the eyes and, above all, the mouth.

"How goes it, little friend?"

"How are you?"

"Oh, I! There is nothing the matter. In a week we shall have forgotten it."

"What a terrible affair," said the reporter, "I certainly believed we were all dead men."

"No, no. It was nothing. Nitchevo!"

"And poor Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff with his two poor legs broken!"

"Eh! Nitchevo! He has plenty of good solid splints that will make him two good legs again. Nitchevo! Don't you think anything more about that! It is nothing. You have come here to dine? A very celebrated house this. Caracho!" He busied himself to do the honors. One would have said the restaurant belonged to him. He boasted of its architecture and the cuisine "a la Francaise."

"Do you know," he inquired confidently, "a finer restaurant room anywhere in the world?"

In fact, it seemed to Rouletabille as he looked up into the high glass arch that he was in a railway station decorated for some illustrious traveler, for there were flowers and plants everywhere. But the visitor whom the ball awaited was the Russian eater, the ogre who never failed to come to eat at The Bear. Pointing out the lines of tables shining with their white cloths and bright silver, Athanase Georgevitch, with his mouth full, said:

"Ah, my dear little French monsieur, you should see it at supper-time, with the women, and the jewels, and the music. There is nothing in France that can give you any idea of it, nothing! The gayety—the champagne—and the jewels, monsieur, worth millions and millions of roubles! Our women wear them all—everything they have. They are decked like sacred shrines! All the family jewels—from the very bottom of the caskets! it is magnificent, thoroughly Russian—Muscovite! What am I saying? It is Asiatic. Monsieur, in the evening, at a fete, we are Asiatic. Let me tell you something on the quiet. You notice that this enormous dining hall is surrounded by those windowed balconies. Each of those windows belongs to a separate private room. Well, you see that window there?—yes, there—that is the room of a grand duke—yes, he's the one I mean—a very gay grand duke. Do you know, one evening when there was a great crowd here—families, monsieur, family parties, high-born families—the window of that particular balcony was thrown open, and a woman stark naked, as naked as my hand, monsieur, was dropped into the dining-hall and ran across it full-speed. It was a wager, monsieur, a wager of the jolly grand duke's, and the demoiselle won it. But what a scandal! Ah, don't speak of it; that would be very bad form. But—sufficiently Asiatic, eh? Truly Asiatic. And—something much more unfortunate—you see that table? It happened the Russian New Year Eve, at supper. All the beauty, the whole capital, was here. Just at midnight the orchestra struck up the Bodje tsara krani* to inaugurate the joyful Russian New Year, and everybody stood up, according to custom, and listened in silence, as loyal subjects should. Well, at that table, accompanying his family, there was a young student, a fine fellow, very correct, and in uniform. This unhappy young student, who had risen like everybody else, to listen to the Bodje tsara krani, inadvertently placed his knee on a chair. Truly that is not a correct attitude, monsieur, but really it was no reason for killing him, was it now? Certainly not. Well, a brute in uniform, an officer quite immaculately gotten-up, drew a revolver from his pocket and discharged it at the student point-blank. You can imagine the scandal, for the student was dead! There were Paris journalists there, besides, who had never been there before, you see! Monsieur Gaston Leroux was at that very table. What a scandal! They had a regular battle. They broke carafes over the head of the assassin—for he was neither more nor less than an assassin, a drinker of blood—an Asiatic. They picked up the assassin, who was bleeding all over, and carried him off to look after him. As to the dead man, he lay stretched out there under a table-cloth, waiting for the police—and those at the tables went on with their drinking. Isn't that Asiatic enough for you? Here, a naked woman; there, a corpse! And the jewels—and the champagne! What do you say to that?"

     * The Russian national anthem.

"His Excellency the Grand Marshal of the Court is waiting for you, Monsieur."

Rouletabille shook hands with Athanase Georgevitch, who returned to his zakouskis, and followed the interpreter to the door of one of the private rooms. The high dignitary was there. With a charm in his politeness of which the high-born Russian possesses the secret over almost everybody else in the world, the Marshal intimated to Rouletabille that he had incurred imperial displeasure.

"You have been denounced by Koupriane, who holds you responsible for the checks he has suffered in this affair."

"Monsieur Koupriane is right," replied Rouletabille, "and His Majesty should believe him, since it is the truth. But don't fear anything from me, Monsieur le Grand Marechal, for I shall not inconvenience Monsieur Koupriane any further, nor anybody else. I shall disappear."

"I believe Koupriane is already directed to vise your passport."

"He is very good, and he does himself much harm."

"All that is a little your fault, Monsieur Rouletabille. We believed we could consider you as a friend, and you have never failed, it appears, on each occasion to give your help to our enemies.

"Who says that?"

"Koupriane. Oh, it is necessary to be one with us. And you are not one with us. And if you are not for us you are against us. You understand that, I think. That is the way it has to be. The Terrorists have returned to the methods of the Nihilists, who succeeded altogether too well against Alexander II. When I tell you that they succeeded in placing their messages even in the imperial palace..."

"Yes, yes," said Rouletabille, vaguely, as though he were already far removed from the contingencies of this world. "I know that Czar Alexander II sometimes found under his napkin a letter announcing his condemnation to death."

"Monsieur, at the Chateau yesterday morning something happened that is perhaps more alarming than the letter found by Alexander II under his napkin."

"What can it be? Have bombs been discovered?"

"No. It is a bizarre occurrence and almost unbelievable. The eider downs, all the eider down coverings belonging to the imperial family disappeared yesterday morning."*

     * Historically authentic.

"Surely not!"

"It is just as I say. And it was impossible to learn what had become of them—until yesterday evening, when they were found again in their proper places in the chambers. That is the new mystery!"

"Certainly. But how were they taken out?"

"Shall we ever know? All we found was two feathers, this morning, in the boudoir of the Empress, which leads us to think that the eider downs were taken out that way. I am taking the two feathers to Koupriane."

"Let me see them," asked the reporter.

Rouletabille looked them over and handed them back.

"And what do you think the whole affair means?"

"We are inclined to regard it as a threat by the revolutionaries. If they can carry away the eider downs, it would be quite as easy for them to carry away..."

"The Imperial family? No, I don't think it is that."

"What do you mean, then?"

"I? Nothing any more. Not only do I not think any more, but I don't wish to. Tell me, Monsieur le Grand Marechal, it is useless, I suppose, to try to see His Majesty before I go?"

"What good would it do, monsieur? We know everything now. This Natacha that you defended against Koupriane is proved the culprit. The last affair does not leave that in any reasonable doubt. And she is taken care of from this time on. His Majesty wishes never to hear Natacha spoken of again under any pretext."

"And what are you going to do with that young girl?"

"The Tsar has decided that there shall not be any trial and that the daughter of General Trebassof shall be sent, by administrative order, to Siberia. The Tsar, monsieur, is very good, for he might have had her hanged. She deserved it."

"Yes, yes, the Tsar is very good."

"You are very absorbed, Monsieur Rouletabille, and you are not eating."

"I have no appetite, Monsieur le Marechal. Tell me,—the Emperor must be rather bored at Tsarskoie-Coelo?"

"Oh, he has plenty of work. He rises at seven o'clock and has a light English luncheon—tea and toast. At eight o'clock he starts and works till ten. From ten to eleven he promenades."

"In the jail-yard?" asked Rouletabille innocently.

"What's that you say? Ah, you are an enfant terrible! Certainly we do well to send you away. Until eleven he promenades in a pathway of the park. From eleven to one he holds audience; luncheon at one; then he spends the time until half-past two with his family."

"What does he eat?"

"Soup. His Majesty is wonderfully fond of soup. He takes it at every meal. After luncheon he smokes, but never a cigar—always cigarettes, gifts of the Sultan; and he only drinks one liqueur, Maraschino. At half-past two he goes out again for a little air—always in his park; then he sets himself to work until eight o'clock. It is simply frightful work, with heaps of useless papers and numberless signatures. No secretary can spare him that ungrateful bureaucratic duty. He must sign, sign, sign, and read, read, read the reports. And it is work without any beginning or end; as soon as some reports go, others arrive. At eight o'clock, dinner, and then more signatures, working right up to eleven o'clock. At eleven o'clock he goes to bed."

"And he sleeps to the rhythmical tramp of the guards on patrol," added Rouletabille, bluntly.

"O young man, young man!"

"Pardon me, Monsieur le Grand Marechal," said the reporter, rising; "I am, indeed, a disturbing spirit and I know that I have nothing more to do in this country. You will not see me any more, Monsieur le Grand Marechal; but before leaving I ought to tell you how much I have been touched by the hospitality of your great nation. That hospitality is sometimes a little dangerous, but it is always magnificent. No other nation in the world knows like the Russians how to receive a man, Your Excellency. I speak as I feel; and that isn't affected by my manner of quitting you, for you know also how to put a man to the door. Adieu, then; without any rancor. My most respectful homage to His Majesty. Ah, just one word more! You will recall that Natacha Feodorovna was engaged to poor Boris Mourazoff, still another young man who has disappeared and who, before disappearing, charged me to deliver to General Trebassof's daughter this last token—these two little ikons. I entrust you with this mission, Monsieur le Grand Marechal. Your servant, Excellency."

Rouletabille re-descended the great Kaniouche. "Now," said he to himself, "it is my turn to buy farewell presents." And he made his way slowly across la Place des Grandes-Ecuries and the bridge of the Katharine canal. He entered Aptiekarski-Pereoulok and pushed open Pere Alexis's door, under the arch, at the back of the obscure court.

"Health and prosperity, Alexis Hutch!"

"Ah, you again, little man! Well? Koupriane has let you know the result of my analyses?"

"Yes, yes. Tell me, Alexis Hutch, you are sure you are not mistaken? You don't think you might be mistaken? Think carefully before you answer. It is a question of life or death."

"For whom?"

"For me."

"For you, good little friend! You want to make your old Pere lexis laugh—or weep!"

"Answer me."

"No, I couldn't be mistaken. The thing is as certain as that we two are here—arsenate of soda in the stains on the two napkins and traces of arsenate of soda in two of the four glasses; none in the carafe, none in the little bottle, none in the two glasses. I say it before you and before God."

"So it is really true. Thank you, Alexis Hutch. Koupriane has not tried to deceive me. There has been nothing of that sort. Well, do you know, Alexis Hutch, who has poured the poison? It is she or I. And as it is not I, it is she. And since it is she, well, I am going to die!"

"You love her, then?" inquired Pere Alexis.

"No," replied Rouletabille, with a self-mocking smile. "No, I don't love her. But if it is she who poured the poison, then it was not Michael Nikolaievitch, and it is I who had Michael Nikolaievitch killed. You can see now that therefore I must die. Show me your finest images.

"Ah, my little one, if you will permit your old Alexis to make you a gift, I would offer you these two poor ikons that are certainly from the convent of Troitza at its best period. See how beautiful they are, and old. Have you ever seen so beautiful a Mother of God? And this St. Luke, would you believe that the hand had been mended, eh? Two little masterpieces, little friend! If the old masters of Salonika returned to the world they would be satisfied with their pupils at Troitza. But you mustn't kill yourself at your age!"

"Come, bat ouclzka (little father), I accept your gift, and, if I meet the old Salonican masters on the road I am going to travel, I shan't fail to tell them there is no person here below who appreciates them like a certain pere of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, Alexis Hutch."

So saying Rouletabille wrapped up the two little ikons and put them in his pocket. The Saint Luke would be sure to appeal to his friend Sainclair. As to the Mother of God, that would be his dying gift to the Dame en noir.

"Ah, you are sad, little son; and your voice, as it sounds now, hurts me."

Rouletabille turned his head at the sound of two moujiks who entered, carrying a long basket.

"What do you want?" demanded Pere Alexis in Russian, "and what is that you are bringing in? Do you intend to fill that huge basket with my goods? In that case you are very welcome and I am your humble servant."

But the two chuckled.

"Yes, yes, we have come to rid your shop of a wretched piece of goods that litters it."

"What is this you say?" inquired the old man, anxiously, and drawing near Rouletabille. "Little friend, watch these men; I don't recognize their faces and I can't understand why they have come here."

Rouletabille looked at the new-comers, who drew near the counter, after depositing their long basket close to the door. There was a sarcastic and malicious mocking way about them that struck him from the first. But while they kept up their jabbering with Pere Alexis he filled his pipe and proceeded to light it. Just then the door was pushed open again and three men entered, simply dressed, like respectable small merchants. They also acted curiously and looked all around the shop. Pere Alexis grew more and more alarmed and the others pulled rudely at his beard.

"I believe these men here have come to rob me," he cried in French. "What do you say, my son?—Shall I call the police?"

"Hold on," replied Rouletabille impassively. "They are all armed; they have revolvers in their pockets."

Pere Alexis's teeth commenced to chatter. As he tried to get near the door he was roughly pushed back and a final personage entered, apparently a gentleman, and dressed as such, save that he wore a visored leather cap.

"Ah," said he at once in French, "why, it is the young French journalist of the Grand-Morskaia Hotel. Salutations and your good health! I see with pleasure that you also appreciate the counsels of our dear Pere Alexis."

"Don't listen to him, little friend; I don't know him," cried Alexis Hutch.

But the gentleman of the Neva went on:

"He is a man close to the first principles of science, and therefore not far from divine; he is a holy man, whom it is good to consult at moments when the future appears difficult. He knows how to read as no one else can—Father John of Cronstadt excepted, to be strictly accurate—on the sheets of bull-hide where the dark angels have traced mysterious signs of destiny."

Here the gentleman picked up an old pair of boots, which he threw on the counter in the midst of the ikons.

"Pere Alexis, perhaps these are not bull-hide, but good enough cow-hide. Don't you want to read on this cow-hide the future of this young man?"

But here Rouletabille advanced to the gentleman, and blew an enormous cloud of smoke full in his face.

"It is useless, monsieur," said Rouletabille, "to waste your time and your breath. I have been waiting for you."