The Secret of the Night/Chapter 3
She went out to caution the servants to a strict watch, armed to the teeth, before the gate all night long, and she crossed the deserted garden. Under the veranda the schwitzar was spreading a mattress for Ermolai. She asked him if he had seen the young Frenchman anywhere, and after the answer, could only say to herself, “Where is he, then?” Where had Rouletabille gone? The general, whom she had carried up to his room on her back, without any help, and had helped into bed without assistance, was disturbed by this singular disappearance. Had someone already carried off “their” Rouletabille? Their friends were gone and the orderlies had taken leave without being able to say where this boy of a journalist had gone. But it would be foolish to worry about the disappearance of a Journalist, they had said. That kind of man—these journalists—came, went, arrived when one least expected them, and quitted their company—even the highest society—without formality. It was what they called in France “leaving English fashion.” However, it appeared it was not meant to be impolite. Perhaps he had gone to telegraph. A journalist had to keep in touch with the telegraph at all hours. Poor Matrena Pétrovna roamed the solitary garden in tumult of heart. There was the light in the general’s window on the first floor. There were lights in the basement from the kitchens. There was a light on the ground-floor near the sitting-room, from Natacha’s chamber window. Ah, the night was hard to bear. And this night the shadows weighed heavier than ever on the valiant breast of Matrena. As she breathed she felt as though she lifted all the weight of the threatening night. She examined everything—everything. All was shut tight, was perfectly secure, and there was no one within excepting people she was absolutely sure of—but whom, all the same, she did not allow to go anywhere in the house excepting where their work called them. Each in his place. That made things surer. She wished each one could remain fixed like the porcelain statues of men out on the lawn. Even as she thought it, here at her feet, right at her very feet, a shadow of one of the porcelain men moved, stretched itself out, rose to its knees, grasped her skirt and spoke in the voice of Rouletabille. Ah, good! it was Rouletabille. “Himself, dear madame; himself.”
“Why is Ermolai in the veranda? Send him back to the kitchens and tell the schwitzar to go to bed. The servants are enough for an ordinary guard outside. Then you go in at once, shut the door, and don’t concern yourself about me, dear madame. Good-night.”
Rouletabille had resumed, in the shadows, among the other porcelain figures, his pose of a porcelain man.
Matrena Pétrovna did as she was told, returned to the house, spoke to the schwitzar, who removed to the lodge with Ermolai, and their mistress closed the outside door. She had closed long before the door of the kitchen stair which allowed the domestics to enter the villa from below. Down there each night the devoted gniagnia and the faithful Ermolai watched in turn.
Within the villa, now closed, there were on the ground-floor only Matrena herself and her step-daughter Natacha, who slept in the chamber off the sitting-room, and, above on the first floor, the general asleep, or who ought to be asleep if he had taken his potion. Matrena remained in the darkness of the drawing-room, her dark-lantern in her hand. All her nights passed thus, gliding from door to door, from chamber to chamber, watching over the watch of the police, not daring to stop her stealthy promenade even to throw herself on the mattress that she had placed across the doorway of her husband’s chamber. Did she ever sleep? She herself could hardly say. Who else could, then? A tag of sleep here and there, over the arm of a chair, or leaning against the wall, waked always by some noise that she heard or dreamed, some warning, perhaps, that she alone had heard. And to-night, to-night there is Rouletabille’s alert guard to help her, and she feels a little less the aching terror of watchfulness, until there surges back into her mind the recollection that the police are no longer there. Was he right, this young man? Certainly she could not deny that some way she feels more confidence now that the police are gone. She does not have to spend her time watching their shadows in the shadows, searching the darkness, the arm-chairs, the sofas, to rouse them, to appeal in low tones to all they held binding, by their own name and the name of their father, to promise them a bonus that would amount to something if they watched well, to count them in order to know where they all were, and, suddenly, to throw full in their face the ray of light from her little dark-lantern in order to be sure, absolutely sure, that she was face to face with them, one of the police, and not with some other, some other with an infernal machine under his arm. Yes, she surely had less work now that she had no longer to watch the police. And she had less fear!
She thanked the young reporter for that. Where was he? Did he remain in the pose of a porcelain statue all this time out there on the lawn? She peered through the lattice of the veranda shutters and looked anxiously out into the darkened garden. Where could he be? Was that he, down yonder, that crouching black heap with an unlighted pipe in his mouth? No, no. That, she knew well, was the dwarf she genuinely loved, her little domovoi-doukh, the familiar spirit of the house, who watched with her over the general’s life and thanks to whom serious injury had not yet befallen Féodor Féodorovitch—one could not regard a mangled leg that seriously. Ordinarily in her own country (she was from the Orel district) one did not care to see the domovoi-doukh appear in flesh and blood. When she was little she was always afraid that she would come upon him around a turn of the path in her father’s garden. She always thought of him as no higher than that, seated back on his haunches and smoking his pipe. Then, after she was married, she had suddenly run across him at a turning in the bazaar at Moscow. He was just as she had imagined him, and she had immediately bought him, carried him home herself and placed him, with many precautions, for he was of very delicate porcelain, in the vestibule of the palace. And in leaving Moscow she had been careful not to leave him there. She had carried him herself in a case and had placed him herself on the lawn of the datcha des Iles, that he might continue to watch over her happiness and over the life of her Féodor. And in order that he should not be bored, eternally smoking his pipe all alone, she had surrounded him with a group of little porcelain genii, after the fashion of the Jardins des Iles. Lord! how that young Frenchman had frightened her, rising suddenly like that, without warning, on the lawn. She had believed for a moment that it was the domovoi-doukh himself rising to stretch his legs. Happily he had spoken at once and she had recognized his voice. And besides, her domovoi surely would not speak French. Ah! Matrena Pétrovna breathed freely now. It seemed to her, this night, that there were two little familiar genii watching over the house. And that was worth more than all the police in the world, surely. How wily that little fellow was to order all those men away. There was something it was necessary to know; it was necessary therefore that nothing should be in the way of learning it. As things were now, the mystery could operate without suspicion or interference. Only one man watched it, and he had not the air of watching. Certainly Rouletabille had not the air of constantly watching anything. He had the manner, out in the night, of an easy little man in porcelain, neither more nor less, yet he could see everything—if anything were there to see—and he could hear everything—if there were anything to hear. One passed beside him without suspecting him, and men might talk to each other without an idea that he heard them, and even talk to themselves according to the habit people have sometimes when they think themselves quite alone. All the guests had departed thus, passing close by him, almost brushing him, had exchanged their “Adieus,” their “Au revoirs,” and all their final, drawn-out farewells. That dear little living domovoi certainly was a rogue! Oh, that dear little domovoi who had been so affected by the tears of Matrena Pétrovna! The good, fat, sentimental, heroic woman longed to hear, just then, his reassuring voice.
“It is I. Here I am,” said the voice of her little living familiar spirit at that instant, and she felt her skirt grasped. She waited for what he should say. She felt no fear. Yet she had supposed he was outside the house. Still, after all, she was not too astonished that he was within. He was so adroit! He had entered behind her, in the shadow of her skirts, on all-fours, and had slipped away without anyone noticing him, while she was speaking to her enormous, majestic schwitzar.
“So you were here?” she said, taking his hand and pressing it nervously in hers.
“Yes, yes. I have watched you closing the house. It is a task well-done, certainly. You have not forgotten anything.”
“But where were you, dear little demon? I have been into all the corners, and my hands did not touch you.”
“I was under the table set with hors-d’oeuvres in the sitting-room.”
“Ah, under the table of zakouskis! I have forbidden them before now to spread a long hanging cloth there, which obliges me to kick my foot underneath casually in order to be sure there is no one beneath. It is imprudent, very imprudent, such table-cloths. And under the table of zakouskis have you been able to see or hear anything?”
“Madame, do you think that anyone could possibly see or hear anything in the villa when you are watching it alone, when the general is asleep and your step-daughter is preparing for bed?”
“No. No. I do not believe so. I do not. No, oh, Christ!”
They talked thus very low in the dark, both seated in a corner of the sofa, Rouletabille’s hand held tightly in the burning hands of Matrena Pétrovna.
She sighed anxiously. “And in the garden—have you heard anything?”
“I heard the officer Boris say to the officer Michael, in French, ‘Shall we return at once to the villa?’ The other replied in Russian in a way I could see was a refusal. Then they had a discussion in Russian which I, naturally, could not understand. But from the way they talked I gathered that they disagreed and that no love was lost between them.”
“No, they do not love each other. They both love Natacha.”
“And she, which one of them does she love? It is necessary to tell me.”
“She pretends that she loves Boris, and I believe she does, and yet she is very friendly with Michael and often she goes into nooks and corners to chat with him, which makes Boris mad with jealousy. She has forbidden Boris to speak to her father about their marriage, on the pretext that she does not wish to leave her father now, while each day, each minute the general’s life is in danger.”
“And you, madame—do you love your step-daughter?” brutally inquired the reporter.
“Yes—sincerely,” replied Matrena Pétrovna, withdrawing her hand from those of Rouletabille.
“And she—does she love you?”
“I believe so, monsieur, I believe so sincerely. Yes, she loves me, and there is not any reason why she should not love me. I believe—understand me thoroughly, because it comes from my heart—that we all here in this house love one another. Our friends are old proved friends. Boris has been orderly to my husband for a very long time. We do not share any of his too-modern ideas, and there were many discussions on the duty of soldiers at the time of the massacres. I reproached him with being as womanish as we were in going down on his knees to the general behind Natacha and me, when it became necessary to kill all those poor moujiks of Presnia. It was not his rôle. A soldier is a soldier. My husband raised him roughly and ordered him, for his pains, to march at the head of the troops. It was right. What else could he do? The general already had enough to fight against, with the whole revolution, with his conscience, with the natural pity in his heart of a brave man, and with the tears and insupportable moanings, at such a moment, of his daughter and his wife. Boris understood and obeyed him, but, after the death of the poor students, he behaved again like a woman in composing those verses on the heroes of the barricades; don’t you think so? Verses that Natacha and he learned by heart, working together, when they were surprised at it by the general. There was a terrible scene. It was before the next-to-the-last attack. The general then had the use of both legs. He stamped his feet and fairly shook the house.”
“Madame,” said Rouletabille, “à propos of the attacks, you must tell me about the third.”
As he said this, leaning toward her, Matrena Pétrovna ejaculated a “Listen!” that made him rigid in the night with ear alert. What had she heard? For him, he had heard nothing.
“You hear nothing?” she whispered to him with an effort. “A tick-tack?”
“No, I hear nothing.”
“You know—like the tick-tack of a clock. Listen.”
“How can you hear the tick-tack? I’ve noticed that no clocks are running here.”
“Don’t you understand? It is so that we shall be able to hear the tick-tack better.”
“Oh, yes, I understand. But I do not hear anything.”
“For myself, I think I hear the tick-tack all the time since the last attempt. It haunts my ears, it is frightful, to say to one’s self: There is clockwork somewhere, just about to reach the death-tick—and not to know where, not to know where! When the police were here I made them all listen, and I was not sure even when they had all listened and said there was no tick-tack. It is terrible to hear it in my ear any moment when I least expect it. Tick-tack! Tick-tack! It is the blood beating in my ear, for instance, hard, as if it struck on a sounding-board. Why, here are drops of perspiration on my hands! Listen!”
“Ah, this time someone is talking—is crying,” said the young man.
“Sh-h-h!” And Rouletabille felt the rigid hand of Matrena Pétrovna on his arm. “It is the general. The general is dreaming!”
She drew him into the dining-room, into a corner where they could no longer hear the moanings. But all the doors that communicated with the dining-room, the drawing-room and the sitting-room remained open behind him, by the secret precaution of Rouletabille.
He waited while Matrena, whose breath he heard come hard, was a little behind. In a moment, quite talkative, and as though she wished to distract Rouletabille’s attention from the sounds above, the broken words and sighs, she continued:
“See, you speak of clocks. My husband has a watch which strikes. Well, I have stopped his watch because more than once I have been startled by hearing the tick-tack of his watch in his waistcoat-pocket. Koupriane gave me that advice one day when he was here and had pricked his ears at the noise of the pendulums, to stop all my watches and clocks so that there would be no chance of confusing them with the tick-tack that might come from an infernal machine planted in some corner. He spoke from experience, my dear little monsieur, and it was by his order that all the clocks at the Ministry, on the Naberjnaia, were stopped, my dear little friend. The Nihilists, he told me, often use clockworks to set off their machines at the time they decide on. No one can guess all the inventions that they have, those brigands. In the same way, Koupriane advised me to take away all the draught-boards from the fireplaces. By that precaution they were enabled to avoid a terrible disaster at the Ministry near the Pont-des-chantres, you know, petit demovoi? They saw a bomb just as it was being lowered into the fire-place of the minister’s cabinet. The Nihilists held it by a cord and were up on the roof letting it down the chimney. One of them was caught, taken to Schlusselbourg and hanged. Here you can see that all the draught-boards of the fireplaces are cleared away.”
“Madame,” interrupted Rouletabille (Matrena Pétrovna did not know that no one ever succeeded in distracting Rouletabille’s attention), “madame, someone moans still, upstairs.”
“Oh, that is nothing, my little friend. It is the general, who has bad nights. He cannot sleep without a narcotic, and that gives him a fever. I am going to tell you now how the third attack came about. And then you will understand, by the Virgin Mary, how it is I have yet, always have, the tick-tack in my ears.
“One evening when the general had got to sleep and I was in my own room, I heard distinctly the tick-tack of clockwork operating. All the clocks had been stopped, as Koupriane advised, and I had made an excuse to send Féodor’s great watch to the repairer. You can understand how I felt when I heard that tick-tack. I was frenzied. I turned my head in all directions, and decided that the sound came from my husband’s chamber. I ran there. He still slept, man that he is! The tick-tack was there. But where? I turned here and there like a fool. The chamber was in darkness and it seemed absolutely impossible for me to light a lamp because I thought I could not take the time for fear the infernal machine would go off in those few seconds. I threw myself on the floor and listened under the bed. The noise came from above. But where? I sprang to the fireplace, hoping that, against my orders, someone had started the mantel-clock. No, it was not that! It seemed to me now that the tick-tack came from the bed itself, that the machine was in the bed. The general awaked just then and cried to me, ‘What is it, Matrena? What are you doing?’ And he raised himself in bed, while I cried, ‘Listen! Hear the tick-tack. Don’t you hear the tick-tack?’ I threw myself upon him and gathered him up in my arms to carry him, but I trembled too much, was too weak from fear, and fell back with him onto the bed, crying, ‘Help!’ He thrust me away and said roughly, ‘Listen.’ The frightful tick-tack was behind us now, on the table. But there was nothing on the table, only the night-light, the glass with the potion in it, and a gold vase where I had placed with my own hands that morning a cluster of grasses and wild flowers that Ermolai had brought that morning on his return from the Orel country. With one bound I was on the table and at the flowers. I struck my fingers among the grasses and the flowers, and felt a resistance. The tick-tack was in the bouquet! I took the bouquet in both hands, opened the window and threw it as far as I could into the garden. At the same moment the bomb burst with a terrible noise, giving me quite a deep wound in the hand. Truly, my dear little domovoi, that day we had been very near death, but God and the Little Father watched over us.”
And Matrena Pétrovna made the sign of the cross.
“All the windows of the house were broken. In all, we escaped with the fright and a visit from the glazier, my little friend, but I certainly believed that all was over.”
“And Mademoiselle Natacha?” inquired Rouletabille. “She must also have been terribly frightened, because the whole house must have rocked.”
“Surely. But Natacha was not here that night. It was a Saturday. She had been invited to the soirée du ‘Michel’ by the parents of Boris Nikolaievitch, and she slept at their house, after supper at the Ours, as had been planned. The next day, when she learned the danger the general had escaped, she trembled in every limb. She threw herself in her father’s arms, weeping, which was natural enough, and declared that she never would go away from him again. The general told her how I had managed. Then she pressed me to her heart, saying that she never would forget such an action, and that she loved me more than if I were truly her mother. It was all in vain that during the days following we sought to understand how the infernal machine had been placed in the bouquet of wild flowers. Only the general’s friends that you saw this evening, Natacha and I had entered the general’s chamber during the day or in the evening. No servant, no chamber-maid, had been on that floor. In the day-time as well as all night long that entire floor is closed and I have the keys. The door of the servants’ staircase which opens onto that floor, directly into the general’s chamber, is always locked and barred on the inside with iron. Natacha and I do the chamber work. There is no way of taking greater precautions. Three police agents watched over us night and day. The night of the bouquet two had spent their time watching around the house, and the third lay on the sofa in the veranda. Then, too, we found all the doors and windows of the villa shut tight. In such circumstances you can judge whether my anguish was not deeper than any I had known hitherto. Because to whom, henceforth, could we trust ourselves? what and whom could we believe? what and whom could we watch? From that day, no other person but Natacha and me have the right to go to the first floor. The general’s chamber was forbidden to his friends. Anyway, the general improved, and soon had the pleasure of receiving them himself at his table. I carry the general down and take him to his room again on my back. I do not wish anyone to help. I am strong enough for that. I feel that I could carry him to the end of the world if that would save him. Instead of three police, we had ten; five outside, five inside. The days went well enough, but the nights were frightful, because the shadows of the police that I encountered always made me fear that I was face to face with the Nihilists. One night I almost strangled one with my hand. It was after that incident that we arranged with Koupriane that the agents who watched at night, inside, should stay placed in the veranda, after having, at the end of the evening, made complete examination of everything. They were not to leave the veranda unless they heard a suspicious noise or I called to them. And it was after that arrangement that the incident of the floor happened, that has puzzled so both Koupriane and me.”
“Pardon, madame,” interrupted Rouletabille, “but the agents, during the examination of everything, never went to the bedroom floor?”
“No, my child, there is only myself and Natacha, I repeat, who, since the bouquet, go there.”
“Well, madame, it is necessary to take me there at once.”
“Yes, into the general’s chamber.”
“But he is sleeping, my child. Let me tell you exactly how the affair of the floor happened, and you will know as much of it as I and as Koupriane.”
“To the general’s chamber at once.”
She took both his hands and pressed them nervously. “Little friend! Little friend! One hears there sometimes things which are the secret of the night! You understand me?”
“To the general’s chamber, at once, madame.”
Abruptly she decided to take him there, agitated, upset as she was by ideas and sentiments which held her without respite between the wildest inquietude and the most imprudent audacity.
- Actual attack on Witte.