The Secret of the Night/Chapter 17
THE LAST CRAVAT
The gentleman of the Neva said to him: “If you have nothing further to say, we will go into the courtyard.”.
Rouletabille understood at last that hanging him in the room where judgment had been pronounced was rendered impossible by the violence of the prisoner just executed. Not only the rope and the ring-bolt had been torn away, but part of the beam had splintered.
“There is nothing more,” replied Rouletabille.
He was mistaken. Something occurred to him, an idea flashed so suddenly that he became white as his shirt, and had to lean on the arm of the gentleman of the Neva in order to accompany him.
The door was open. All the men who had voted his death filed out in gloomy silence. The gentleman of the Neva, who seemed charged with the last offices for the prisoner, pushed him gently out into the court.
It was vast, and surrounded by a high board wall; some small buildings, with closed doors, stood to right and left. A high chimney, partially demolished, rose from one corner. Rouletabille decided the whole place was part of some old abandoned mill. Above his head the sky was pale as a winding sheet. A thunderous, intermittent, rhythmical noise appraised him that he could not be far from the sea.
He had plenty of time to note all these things, for they had stopped the march to execution a moment and had made him sit down in the open courtyard on an old box. A few steps away from him under the shed where he certainly was going to be hanged, a man got upon a stool (the stool that would serve Rouletabille a few moments later) with his arm raised, and drove with a few blows of a mallet a great ring-bolt into a beam above his head.
The reporter’s eyes, which had not lost their habit of taking everything in, rested again on a coarse canvas sack that lay on the ground. The young man felt a slight tremor, for he saw quickly that the sack swathed a human form. He turned his head away, but only to confront another empty sack that was intended for him. Then he closed his eyes. The sound of music came from somewhere outside, notes of the balalaika. He said to himself, “Well, we certainly are in Finland”; for he knew that, if the guzla is Russian the balalaika certainly is Finnish. It is a kind of accordeon that the peasants pick plaintively in the doorways of their toubas. He had seen and heard them the afternoon that he went to Pergalovo, and also a little further away, on the Viborg line. He pictured to himself the ruined structure where he now found himself shut in with the revolutionary tribunal, as it must appear from the outside to passers-by; unsinister, like many others near it, sheltering under its decaying roof a few homes of humble workers, resting now as they played the balalaika at their thresholds, with the day’s labor over.
And suddenly from the ineffable peace of his last evening, while the balalaika mourned and the man overhead tested the solidity of his ring-bolt, a voice outside, the grave, deep voice of Annouchka, sang for the little Frenchman:
“For whom weave we now the crown
Of lilac, rose and thyme?
When my hand falls lingering down
Who then will bring your crown
Of lilac, rose and thyme?
O that someone among you would hear,
And come, and my lonely hand
Would press, and shed the friendly tear—
For alone at the end I stand.
Who now will bring the crown
Of lilac, rose and thyme?”
Rouletabille listened to the voice dying away with the last sob of the balalaika. “It is too sad,” he said, rising. “Let us go,” and he wavered a little.
They came to search him. All was ready above. They pushed him gently towards the shed. When he was under the ring-bolt, near the stool, they made him turn round and they read him something in Russian, doubtless less for him than for those there who did not understand French. Rouletabille had hard work to hold himself erect. The gentleman of the Neva said to him further:
“Monsieur, we now read you the final formula. It asks you to say whether, before you die, you have anything you wish to add to what we know concerning the sentence which has been passed upon you.”
Rouletabille thought that his saliva, which at that moment he had the greatest difficulty in swallowing, would not permit him to utter a word. But disdain of such a weakness, when he recalled the coolness of so many illustrious condemned people in their last moments, brought him the last strength needed to maintain his reputation.
“Why,” said he, “this sentence is not wrongly drawn up. I blame it only for being too short. Why has there been no mention of the crime I committed in contriving the tragic death of poor Michael Korsakoff?”
“Michael Korsakoff was a wretch,” pronounced the vindictive voice of the young man who had presided at the trial and who, at this supreme moment, happened to be face to face with Rouletabille. “Koupriane’s police, by killing that man, ridded us of a traitor.”
Rouletabille uttered a cry, a cry of joy, and while he had some reason for believing that at the point he had reached now of his too-short career only misfortune could befall him, yet here Providence, in his infinite grace, sent him before he died this ineffable consolation: the certainty that he had not been mistaken.
“Pardon, pardon,” he murmured, in an excess of joy which stifled him almost as much as the wretched rope would shortly do that they were getting ready behind him. “Pardon. One second yet, one little second. Then, messieurs, then, we are agreed in that, are we? This Michael, Michael Nikolaievitch was the—the last of traitors.”
“The first,” said the heavy voice.
“It is the same thing, my dear monsieur. A traitor, a wretched traitor,” continued Rouletabille.
“A poisoner,” replied the voice.
“A vulgar poisoner! Is that not so? But, tell me how—a vulgar poisoner who, under cover of Nihilism, worked for his own petty ends, worked for himself and betrayed you all!”
Now Rouletabille’s voice rose like a fanfare. Someone said:
“He did not deceive us long; our enemies themselves undertook his punishment.”
“It was I,” cried Rouletabille, radiant again. “It was I who wound up that career. I tell you that was managed right. It was I who rid you of him. Ah, I knew well enough, messieurs, in the bottom of my heart I knew that I could not be mistaken. Two and two make four always, don’t they? And Rouletabille is always Rouletabille. Messieurs, it is all right, after all.”
But it was probable that it was also all wrong, for the gentleman of the Neva came up to him hat in hand and said:
“Monsieur, you know now why the witnesses at your trial did not raise a fact against you that, on the contrary, was entirely in your favor. Now it only remains for us to execute the sentence which is entirely justified on other grounds.”
“Ah, but—wait a little. What the devil! Now that I am sure I have not been mistaken and that I have been myself, Rouletabille, all the time I cling to life a little—oh, very much!”
A hostile murmur showed the condemned man that the patience of his judges was getting near its limit.
“Monsieur,” interposed the president, “we know that you do not belong to the orthodox religion; nevertheless, we will bring a priest if you wish it.”
“Yes, yes, that is it, go for the priest,” cried Rouletabille.
And he said to himself, “It is so much time gained.”
One of the revolutionaries started over to a little cabin that had been transformed into a chapel, while the rest of them looked at the reporter with a good deal less sympathy than they had been showing. If his bravado had impressed them agreeably in the trial room, they were beginning to be rather disgusted by his cries, his protestations and all the maneuvers by which he so apparently was trying to hold off the hour of his death.
But all at once Rouletabille jumped up onto the fatal stool. They believed he had decided finally to make an end of the comedy and die with dignity; but he had mounted there only to give them a discourse.
“Messieurs, understand me now. If it is true that you are not suppressing me in order to avenge Michael Nikolaievitch, then why do you hang me? Why do you inflict this odious punishment on me? Because you accuse me of causing Natacha Féodorovna’s arrest? Truly I have been awkward. Of that, and that alone, I accuse myself.”
“It was you, with your revolver, who gave the signal to Koupriane’s agents! You have done the dirty work for the police.”
Rouletabille tried vainly to protest, to explain, to say that his revolver shot, on the contrary, had saved the revolutionaries. But no one cared to listen and no one believed him.
“Here is the priest, monsieur,” said the gentleman of the Neva.
“One second! These are my last words, and I swear to you that after this I will pass the rope about my neck myself! But listen to me! Listen to me closely! Natacha Féodorovna was the most precious recruit you had, was she not?”
“A veritable treasure,” declared the president, his voice more and more impatient.
“It was a terrible blow, then,” continued the reporter, “a terrible blow for you, this arrest?”
“Terrible,” some of them ejaculated.
“Do not interrupt me! Very well, then, I am going to say this to you: ‘If I ward off this blow—if, after having been the unintentional cause of Natacha’s arrest, I have the daughter of General Trébassof set at liberty, and that within twenty-four hours,—what do you say? Would you still hang me?’”
The president, he who had the Christ-like countenance, said:
“Messieurs, Natacha Féodorovna has fallen the victim of terrible machinations whose mystery we so far have not been able to penetrate. She is accused of trying to poison her father and her step-mother, and under such conditions that it seems impossible for human reason to demonstrate the contrary. Natacha Féodorovna herself, crushed by the tragic occurrence, was not able to answer her accusers at all, and her silence has been taken for a confession of guilt. Messieurs, Natacha Féodorovna will be started for Siberia to-morrow. We can do nothing for her. Natacha Féodorovna is lost to us.”
Then, with a gesture to those who surrounded Rouletabille:
“Do your duty, messieurs.”
“Pardon, pardon. But if I do prove the innocence of Natacha? Just wait, messieurs. There is only I who can prove that innocence! You lose Natacha by killing me!”
“If you had been able to prove that innocence, monsieur, the thing would already be done. You would not have waited.”
FIVE MINUTES! I DEMAND FIVE MINUTES OF YOU!"
“Pardon, pardon. It is only at this moment that I have become able to do it.”
“How is that?”
“It is because I was sick, you see—very seriously sick. That affair of Michael Nikolaievitch and the poison that still continued after he was dead simply robbed me of all my powers. Now that I am sure I have not been the means of killing an innocent man—I am Rouletabille again! It is not possible that I shall not find the way, that I shall not see through this mystery.”
The terrible voice of the Christ-like figure said monotonously:
“Do your duty, messieurs.”
“Pardon, pardon. This is of great importance to you—and the proof is that you have not yet hanged me. You were not so procrastinating with my predecessor, were you? You have listened to me because you have hoped! Very well, let me think, let me consider. Oh, the devil! I was there myself at the fatal luncheon, and I know better than anyone else all that happened there. Five minutes! I demand five minutes of you; it is not much. Five little minutes!”
These last words of the condemned man seemed to singularly influence the revolutionaries. They looked at one another in silence.
Then the president took out his watch and said:
“Five minutes. We grant them to you.”
“Put your watch here. Here on this nail. It is five minutes to seven, eh? You will give me until the hour?”
“Yes, until the hour. The watch itself will strike when the hour has come.”
“Ah, it strikes! Like the general’s watch, then. Very well, here we are.”
Then there was the curious spectacle of Rouletabille standing on the hangman’s stool, the fatal rope hanging above his head, his legs crossed, his elbow on his knees in that eternal attitude which Art has always given to human thought, his fists under his jaws, his eyes fixed—all around him, all those young men intent on his silence, not moving a muscle, turned into statues themselves that they might not disturb the statue which thought and thought.