The Secret of the Night/Chapter 5
BY ROULETABILLE'S ORDER THE GENERAL PROMENADES
“Good morning, my dear little familiar spirit. The general slept splendidly the latter part of the night. He did not touch his narcotic. I am sure it is that dreadful mixture that gives him such frightful dreams. And you, my dear little friend, you have not slept an instant. I know it. I felt you going everywhere about the house like a little mouse. Ah, it seems good, so good. I slept so peacefully, hearing the subdued movement of your little steps. Thanks for the sleep you have given me, little friend.”
Matrena talked on to Rouletabille, whom she had found the morning after the nightmare tranquilly smoking his pipe in the garden.
“Ah, ah, you smoke a pipe. Now you do certainly look exactly like a dear little domovoi-doukh. See how much you are alike. He smokes just like you. Nothing new, eh? You do not look very bright this morning. You are worn out. I have just arranged the little guest-chamber for you, the only one we have, just behind mine. Your bed is waiting for you. Is there anything you need? Tell me. Everything here is at your service.”
“I’m not in need of anything, madame,” said the young man smilingly, after this outpouring of words from the good, heroic dame.
“How can you say that, dear child? You will make yourself sick. I want you to understand that I wish you to rest. I want to be a mother to you, if you please, and you must obey me, my child. Have you had breakfast yet this morning? If you do not have breakfast promptly mornings, I will think you are annoyed. I am so annoyed that you have heard the secret of the night. I have been afraid that you would want to leave at once and for good, and that you would have mistaken ideas about the general. There is not a better man in the world than Féodor, and he must have a good, a very good conscience to dare, without fail, to perform such terrible duties as those at Moscow, when he is so good at heart. These things are easy enough for wicked people, but for good men, for good men who can reason it out, who know what they do and that they are condemned to death into the bargain, it is terrible, it is terrible! Why, I told him the moment things began to go wrong in Moscow, ‘You know what to expect, Féodor. Here is a dreadful time to get through—make out you are sick.’ I believed he was going to strike me, to kill me on the spot. ‘I! Betray the Emperor in such a moment! His Majesty, to whom I owe everything! What are you thinking of, Matrena Pétrovna!’ And he did not speak to me after that for two days. It was only when he saw I was growing very ill that he pardoned me, but he had to be plagued with my jeremiads and the appealing looks of Natacha without end in his own home each time we heard any shooting in the street. Natacha attended the lectures of the Faculty, you know. And she knew many of them, and even some of those who were being killed on the barricades. Ah, life was not easy for him in his own home, the poor general! Besides, there was also Boris, whom I love as well, for that matter, as my own child, because I shall be very happy to see him married to Natacha—there was poor Boris who always came home from the attacks paler than a corpse and who could not keep from moaning with us.”
“And Michael?” questioned Rouletabille.
“Oh, Michael only came towards the last. He is a new orderly to the general. The government at St. Petersburg sent him, because of course they couldn’t help learning that Boris rather lacked zeal in repressing the students and did not encourage the general in being as severe as was necessary for the safety of the Empire. But Michael, he has a heart of stone; he knows nothing but the countersign and massacres fathers and mothers, crying, ‘Vive le Tsar!’ Truly, it seems his heart can only be touched by the sight of Natacha. And that again has caused a good deal of anxiety to Féodor and me. It has caught us in a useless complication that we would have liked to end by the prompt marriage of Natacha and Boris. But Natacha, to our great surprise, has not wished it to be so. No, she has not wished it, saying that there is always time to think of her wedding and that she is in no hurry to leave us. Meantime she entertains herself with this Michael as if she did not fear his passion, and neither has Michael the desperate air of a man who knows the definite engagement of Natacha and Boris. And my step-daughter is not a coquette. No, no. No one can say she is a coquette. At least, no one had been able to say it up to the time that Michael arrived. Can it be that she is a coquette? They are mysterious, these young girls, very mysterious, above all when they have that calm and tranquil look that Natacha always has; a face, monsieur, as you have noticed perhaps, whose beauty is rather passive whatever one says and does, excepting when the volleys in the streets kill her young comrades of the schools. Then I have seen her almost faint, which proves she has a great heart under her tranquil beauty. Poor Natacha! I have seen her excited as I over the life of her father. My little friend, I have seen her searching in the middle of the night, with me, for infernal machines under the furniture, and then she has expressed the opinion that it is nervous, childish, unworthy of us to act like that, like timid beasts under the sofas, and she has left me to search by myself. True, she never quits the general. She is more reassured, and is reassuring to him, at his side. It has an excellent moral effect on him, while I walk about and search like a beast. And she has become as fatalistic as he, and now she sings verses to the guzla, like Boris, or talks in corners with Michael, which makes the two enraged each with the other. They are curious, the young women of St. Petersburg and Moscow, very curious. We were not like that in our time, at Orel. We did not try to enrage people. We would have received a box on the ears if we had.”
Natacha came in upon this conversation, happy, in white voile, fresh and smiling like a girl who had passed an excellent night. She asked after the health of the young man very prettily and embraced Matrena, in truth as one embraces a much-beloved mother. She complained again of Matrena’s night-watch.
“You have not stopped it, mamma; you have not stopped it, eh? You are not going to be a little reasonable at last? I beg of you! What has given me such a mother! Why don’t you sleep? Night is made for sleep. Koupriane has upset you. All the terrible things are over in Moscow. There is no occasion to think of them any more. That Koupriane makes himself important with his police-agents and obsesses us all. I am convinced that the affair of the bouquet was the work of his police.”
“Mademoiselle,” said Rouletabille, “I have just had them all sent away, all of them—because I think very much the same as you do.”
“Well, then, you will be my friend, Monsieur Rouletabille I promise you, since you have done that. Now that the police are gone we have nothing more to fear. Nothing. I tell you, mamma; you can believe me and not weep any more, mamma dear.”
“Yes, yes; kiss me. Kiss me again!” repeated Matrena, drying her eyes. “When you kiss me I forget everything. You love me like your own mother, don’t you?”
“Like my mother. Like my own mother.”
“You have nothing to hide from me?—tell me, Natacha.”
“Nothing to hide.”
“Then why do you make Boris suffer so? Why don’t you marry him?”
“Because I don’t wish to leave you, mamma dear.”
She escaped further parley by jumping up on the garden edge away from Khor, who had just been set free for the day.
“The dear child,” said Matrena; “the dear little one, she little knows how much pain she has caused us without being aware of it, by her ideas, her extravagant ideas. Her father said to me one day at Moscow, ‘Matrena Pétrovna, I’ll tell you what I think—Natacha is the victim of the wicked books that have turned the brains of all these poor rebellious students. Yes, yes; it would be better for her and for us if she did not know how to read, for there are moments—my word!—when she talks very wildly, and I have said to myself more than once that with such ideas her place is not in our salon hut behind a barricade. All the same,’ he added after reflection, ‘I prefer to find her in the salon where I can embrace her than behind a barricade where I would kill her like a mad dog.’ But my husband, dear little monsieur, did not say what he really thinks, for he loves his daughter more than all the rest of the world put together, and there are things that even a general, yes, even a governor-general, would not be able to do without violating both divine and human laws. He suspects Boris also of setting Natacha’s wits awry. We really have to consider that when they are married they will read everything they have a mind to. My husband has much more real respect for Michael Korsakoff because of his impregnable character and his granite conscience. More than once he has said, ‘Here is the aide I should have had in the worst days of Moscow. He would have spared me much of the individual pain.’ I can understand how that would please the general, but how such a tigerish nature succeeds in appealing to Natacha, how it succeeds in not actually revolting her, these young girls of the capital, one never can tell about them—they get away from all your notions of them.”
“Why did Boris say to Michael, ‘We will return together’? Do they live together?”
“Yes, in the small villa on the Krestowsky Ostrov, the isle across from ours, that you can see from the window of the sitting-room. Boris chose it because of that. The orderlies wished to have camp-beds prepared for them right here in the general’s house, by a natural devotion to him; but I opposed it, in order to keep them both from Natacha, in whom, of course, I have the most complete confidence, but one cannot be sure about the extravagance of men nowadays.”
Ermolai came to announce the petit-déjeuner. They found Natacha already at table and she poured them coffee and milk, eating away all the time at a sandwich of anchovies and caviare.
“Tell me, mamma, do you know what gives me such an appetite? It is the thought of the way poor Koupriane must have taken this dismissal of his men. I should like to go to see him.”
“If you see him,” said Rouletabille, “it is unnecessary to tell him that the general will go for a long promenade among the isles this afternoon, because without fail he would send us an escort of gendarmes.”
“Papa! A promenade among the islands? Truly? Oh, that is going to be lovely!”
Matrena Pétrovna sprang to her feet.
“Are you mad, my dear little domovoi, actually mad?”
“Why? Why? It is fine. I must run and tell papa.”
“Your father’s room is locked,” said Matrena brusquely.
“Yes, yes; he is locked in. You have the key. Locked away until death! You will kill him. It will be you who kills him.”
She left the table without waiting for a reply and went and shut herself also in her chamber.
Matrena looked at Rouletabille, who continued his breakfast as though nothing had happened.
“Is it possible that you speak seriously?” she demanded, coming over and sitting down beside him. “A promenade! Without the police, when we have received again this morning a letter saying now that before forty-eight hours the general will be dead!”
“Forty-eight hours,” said Rouletabille, soaking his bread in his chocolate, “forty-eight hours? It is possible. In any case, I know they will try something very soon.”
“My God, how is it that you believe that? You speak with assurance.”
“Madame, it is necessary to do everything I tell you, to the letter.”
“But to have the general go out, unless he is guarded—how can you take such a responsibility? When I think about it, when I really think about it, I ask myself how you have dared send away the police. But here, at least, I know what to do in order to feel a little safe, I know that downstairs with Gniagnia and Ermolai we have nothing to fear. No stranger can approach even the basement. The provisions are brought from the lodge by our dvornicks whom we have had sent from my mother’s home in the Orel country and who are as devoted to us as bull-dogs. Not a bottle of preserves is taken into the kitchens without having been previously opened outside. No package comes from any tradesman without being opened in the lodge. Here, within, we are able to feel a little safe, even without the police—but away from here—outside!”
“Madame, they are going to try to kill your husband within forty-eight hours. Do you desire me to save him perhaps for a long time—for good, perhaps?”
“Ah, listen to him! Listen to him, the dear little domovoi! But what will Koupriane say? He will not permit any venturing beyond the villa; none, at least for the moment. Ah, now, how he looks at me, the dear little domovoi! Oh, well, yes. There, I will do as you wish.”
“Very well, come into the garden with me.”
She accompanied him, leaning on his arm.
“Here’s the idea,” said Rouletabille. “This afternoon you will go with the general in his rolling-chair. Everybody will follow. Everyone, you understand, Madame—understand me thoroughly, I mean to say that everyone who wishes to come must be invited to. Only those who wish to remain behind will do so. And do not insist. Ah, now, I see, you understand me. Why do you tremble?”
“But who will guard the house?”
“No one. Simply tell the servant at the lodge to watch from the lodge those who enter the villa, but simply from the lodge, without interfering with them, and saying nothing to them, nothing.”
“I will do as you wish. Do you want me to announce our promenade beforehand?”
“Why, certainly. Don’t be uneasy; let everybody have the good news.”
“Oh, I will tell only the general and his friends, you may be sure.”
“Now, dear Madame, just one more word. Do not wait for me at luncheon.”
“What! You are going to leave us?” she cried instantly, breathless. “No, no. I do not wish it. I am willing to do without the police, but I am not willing to do without you. Everything might happen in your absence. Everything! Everything!” she repeated with singular energy. “Because, for me, I cannot feel sure as I should, perhaps. Ah, you make me say these things. Such things! But do not go.”
“Do not be afraid; I am not going to leave you, madame.”
“Ah, you are good! You are kind, kind! Caracho! (Very well.)”
“I will not leave you. But I must not be at luncheon. If anyone asks where I am, say that I have my business to look after, and have gone to interview political personages in the city.”
“There’s only one political personage in Russia,” replied Matrena Pétrovna bluntly; “that is the Tsar.”
“Very well; say I have gone to interview the Tsar.”
“But no one will believe that. And where will you be?”
“I do not know myself. But I will be about the house.”
“Very well, very well, dear little domovoi.”
She left him, not knowing what she thought about it all, nor what she should think—her head was all in a muddle.
In the course of the morning Athanase Georgevitch and Thaddeus Tchnitchnikof arrived. The general was already in the veranda. Michael and Boris arrived shortly after, and inquired in their turn how he had passed the night without the police. When they were told that Féodor was going for a promenade that afternoon they applauded his decision. “Bravo! A promenade à la strielka (to the head of the island) at the hour when all St. Petersburg is driving there. That is fine. We will all be there.” The general made them stay for luncheon. Natacha appeared for the meal, in rather melancholy mood. A little before luncheon she had held a double conversation in the garden with Michael and Boris. No one ever could have known what these three young people had said if some stenographic notes in Rouletabille’s memorandum-book did not give us a notion; the reporter had overheard, by accident surely, since all self-respecting reporters are quite incapable of eavesdropping.
The memorandum notes:
Natacha went into the garden with a book, which she gave to Boris, who pressed her hand lingeringly to his lips. “Here is your book; I return it to you. I don’t want any more of them, the ideas surge so in my brain. It makes my head ache. It is true, you are right, I don’t love novelties. I can satisfy myself with Pouchkine perfectly. The rest are all one to me. Did you pass a good night?”
Boris (good-looking young man, about thirty years old, blonde, a little effeminate, wistful. A curious appurtenance in the military household of so vigorous a general). “Natacha, there is not an hour that I can call truly good if I spend it away from you, dear, dear Natacha.”
“I ask you seriously if you have passed a good night?”
She touched his hand a moment and looked into his eyes, but he shook his head.
“What did you do last night after you reached home?” she demanded insistently. “Did you stay up?”
“I obeyed you; I only sat a half-hour by the window looking over here at the villa, and then I went to bed.”
“Yes, it is necessary you should get your rest. I wish it for you as for everyone else. This feverish life is impossible. Matrena Pétrovna is getting us all ill, and we shall be prostrated.”
“Yesterday,” said Boris, “I looked at the villa for a half-hour from my window. Dear, dear villa, dear night when I can feel you breathing, living near me. As if you had been against my heart. I could have wept because I could hear Michael snoring in his chamber. He seemed happy. At last, I heard nothing more, there was nothing more to hear but the double chorus of frogs in the pools of the island. Our pools, Natacha, are like the enchanted lakes of the Caucasus which are silent by day and sing at evening; there are innumerable throngs of frogs which sing on the same chord, some of them on a major and some on a minor. The chorus speaks from pool to pool, lamenting and moaning across the fields and gardens, and re-echoing like Æolian harps placed opposite one another.”
“Do Æolian harps make so much noise, Boris?”
“You laugh? I don’t find you yourself half the time. It is Michael who has changed you, and I am out of it. (Here they spoke in Russian.) I shall not be easy until I am your husband. I can’t understand your manner with Michael at all.”
(Here more Russian words which I do not understand.)
“Speak French; here is the gardener,” said Natacha.
“I do not like the way you are managing our lives. Why do you delay our marriage? Why?”
(Russian words from Natacha. Gesture of desperation from Boris.)
“How long? You say a long time? But that says nothing—a long time. How long? A year? Two years? Ten years? Tell me, or I will kill myself at your feet. No, no; speak or I will kill Michael. On my word! Like a dog!”
“I swear to you, by the dear head of your mother, Boris, that the date of our marriage does not depend on Michael.”
(Some words in Russian. Boris, a little consoled, holds her hand lingeringly to his lips.)
Conversation between Michael and Natacha in the garden:
“Well? Have you told him?”
“I ended at last by making him understand that there is not any hope. None. It is necessary to have patience. I have to have it myself.” “He is stupid and provoking.”
“Stupid, no. Provoking, yes, if you wish. But you also, you are provoking.”
(Here more Russian.) As Natacha started to leave, Michael placed his hand on her shoulder, stopped her and said, looking her direct in the eyes:
“There will be a letter from Annouchka this evening, by a messenger at five o’clock.” He made each syllable explicit. “Very important and requiring an immediate reply.”
These notes of Rouletabille’s are not followed by any commentary.
After luncheon the gentlemen played poker until half-past four, which is the “chic” hour for the promenade to the head of the island. Rouletabille had directed Matrena to start exactly at a quarter to five. He appeared in the meantime, announcing that he had just interviewed the mayor of St. Petersburg, which made Athanase laugh, who could not understand that anyone would come clear from Paris to talk with men like that. Natacha came from her chamber to join them for the promenade. Her father told her she looked too worried.
They left the villa. Rouletabille noted that the dvornicks were before the gate and that the schwitzar was at his post, from which he could detect everyone who might enter or leave the villa. Matrena pushed the rolling-chair herself. The general was radiant. He had Natacha at his right and at his left Athanase and Thaddeus. The two orderlies followed, talking with Rouletabille, who had monopolized them. The conversation turned on the devotion of Matrena Pétrovna, which they placed above the finest heroic traits in the women of antiquity, and also on Natacha’s love for her father. Rouletabille made them talk.
Boris Mourazoff explained that this exceptional love was accounted for by the fact that Natacha’s own mother, the general’s first wife, died in giving birth to their daughter, and accordingly Féodor Féodorovitch had been both father and mother to his daughter. He had raised her with the most touching care, not permitting anyone else, when she was sick, to have the care of passing the nights by her bedside.
Natacha was seven years old when Féodor Féodorovitch was appointed governor of Orel. In the country near Orel, during the summer, the general and his daughter lived on neighborly terms near the family of old Pétroff, one of the richest fur merchants in Russia. Old Pétroff had a daughter, Matrena, who was magnificent to see, like a beautiful field-flower. She was always in excellent humor, never spoke ill of anyone in the neighborhood, and not only had the fine manners of a city dame but a great, simple heart, which she lavished on the little Natacha.
The child returned the affection of the beautiful Matrena, and it was on seeing them always happy to find themselves together that Trébassof dreamed of reestablishing his fireside. The nuptials were quickly arranged, and the child, when she learned that her good Matrena was to wed her papa, danced with joy. Then misfortune came only a few weeks before the ceremony. Old Pétroff, who speculated on the Exchange for a long time without anyone knowing anything about it, was ruined from top to bottom. Matrena came one evening to apprise Féodor Féodorovitch of this sad news and return his pledge to him. For all response Féodor placed Natacha in Matrena’s arms. “Embrace your mother,” he said to the child, and to Matrena, “From to-day I consider you my wife, Matrena Pétrovna. You should obey me in all things. Take that reply to your father and tell him my purse is at his disposition.”
The general was already, at that time, even before he had inherited the Cheremaieff, immensely rich. He had lands behind Nijni as vast as a province, and it would have been difficult to count the number of moujiks who worked for him on his property. Old Pretroff gave his daughter and did not wish to accept anything in exchange. Féodor wished to settle a large allowance on his wife; her father opposed that, and Matrena sided with him in the matter against her husband, because of Natacha. “It all belongs to the little one,” she insisted. “I accept the position of her mother, but on the condition that she shall never lose a kopeck of her inheritance.”
“So that,” concluded Boris, “if the general died tomorrow she would be poorer than Job.”
“Then the general is Matrena’s sole resource,” reflected Rouletabille aloud.
“I can understand her hanging onto him,” said Michael Korsakoff, blowing the smoke of his yellow cigarette. “Look at her. She watches him like a treasure.”
“What do you mean, Michael Nikolaievitch?” said Boris, curtly. “You believe, do you, that the devotion of Matrena Pétrovna is not disinterested. You must know her very poorly to dare utter such a thought.”
“I have never had that thought, Boris Alexandrovitch,” replied the other in a tone curter still. “To be able to imagine that anyone who lives in the Trébassofs’ home could have such a thought needs an ass’s head, surely.”
“We will speak of it again, Michael Nikolaievitch.”
“At your pleasure, Boris Alexandrovitch.”
They had exchanged these latter words tranquilly continuing their walk and negligently smoking their yellow tobacco. Rouletabille was between them. He did not regard them; he paid no attention even to their quarrel; he had eyes only for Natacha, who just now quit her place beside her father’s wheel-chair and passed by them with a little nod of the head, seeming in haste to retrace the way back to the villa.
“Are you leaving us?” Boris demanded of her.
“Oh, I will rejoin you immediately. I have forgotten my umbrella.”
“But I will go and get it for you,” proposed Michael.
“No, no. I have to go to the villa; I will return right away.”
She was already past them. Rouletabille, during this, looked at Matrena Pétrovna, who looked at him also, turning toward the young man a visage pale as wax. But no one else noted the emotion of the good Matrena, who resumed pushing the general’s wheel-chair.
Rouletabille asked the officers, “Was this arrangement because the first wife of the general, Natacha’s mother, was rich?”
“No. The general, who always had his heart in his hand,” said Boris, “married her for her great beauty. She was a beautiful girl of the Caucasus, of excellent family besides, that Féodor Féodorovitch had known when he was in garrison at Tiflis.”
“In short,” said Rouletabille, “the day that General Trébassof dies Madame Trébassof, who now possesses everything, will have nothing, and the daughter, who now has nothing, will have everything.”
“Exactly that,” said Michael.
“That doesn’t keep Matrena Pétrovna and Natacha Féodorovna from deeply loving each other,” observed Boris.
The little party drew near the “Point.” So far the promenade had been along pleasant open country, among the low meadows traversed by fresh streams, across which tiny bridges had been built, among bright gardens guarded by porcelain dwarfs, or in the shade of small weeds from the feet of whose trees the newly-cut grass gave a seasonal fragrance. All was reflected in the pools—which lay like glass whereon a scene-painter had cut the green hearts of the pond-lily leaves. An adorable country glimpse which seemed to have been created centuries back for the amusement of a queen and preserved, immaculately trimmed and cleaned, from generation to generation, for the eternal charm of such an hour as this on the banks of the Gulf of Finland.
Now they had reached the bank of the Gulf, and the waves rippled to the prows of the light ships, which dipped gracefully like huge and rapid sea-gulls, under the pressure of their great white sails.
Along the roadway, broader now, glided, silently and at walking pace, the double file of luxurious equipages with impatient horses, the open carriages in which the great personages of the court saw the view and let themselves be seen. Enormous coachmen held the reins high. Lively young women, negligently reclining against the cushions, displayed their new Paris toilettes, and kept young officers on horseback busy with salutes. There were all kinds of uniforms. No talking was heard. Everyone was kept busy looking. There rang in the pure, thin air only the noise of the champing bits and the tintinnabulation of the bells attached to the hairy Finnish ponies’ collars. And all that, so beautiful, fresh, charming and clear, and silent, it all seemed more a dream than even that which hung in the pools, suspended between the crystal of the air and the crystal of the water. The transparence of the sky and the transparence of the gulf blended their two unrealities so that one could not note where the horizons met.
Rouletabille looked at the view and looked at the general, and in all his young vibrating soul there was a sense of infinite sadness, for he recalled those terrible words in the night: “They have gone into all the corners of the Russian land, and they have not found a single corner of that land where there are not moanings.” “Well,” thought he, “they have not come into this corner, apparently. I don’t know anything lovelier or happier in the world.” No, no, Rouletabille, they have not come here. In every country there is a corner of happy life, which the poor are ashamed to approach, which they know nothing of, and of which merely the sight would turn famished mothers enraged, with their thin bosoms, and, if it is not more beautiful than that, certainly no part of the earth is made so atrocious to live in for some, nor so happy for others as in this Scythian country, the boreal country of the world.
Meanwhile the little group about the general’s rolling-chair had attracted attention. Some passers-by saluted, and the news spread quickly that General Trébassof had come for a promenade to “the Point.” Heads turned as carriages passed; the general, noticing how much excitement his presence produced, begged Matrena Pétrovna to push his chair into an adjacent by-path, behind a shield of trees where he would be able to enjoy the spectacle in peace.
He was found, nevertheless, by Koupriane, the Chief of Police, who was looking for him. He had gone to the datcha and been told there that the general, accompanied by his friends and the young Frenchman, had gone for a turn along the gulf. Koupriane had left his carriage at the datcha, and taken the shortest route after them.
He was a fine man, large, solid, clear-eyed. His uniform showed his fine build to advantage. He was generally liked in St. Petersburg, where his martial bearing and his well-known bravery had given him a sort of popularity in society, which, on the other hand, had great disdain for Gounsovski, the head of the Secret Police, who was known to be capable of anything underhanded and had been accused of sometimes playing into the hands of the Nihilists, whom he disguised as agents-provocateurs, without anybody really doubting it, and he had to fight against these widespread political suspicions.
Well-informed men declared that the death of the previous “prime minister,” who had been blown up before Varsovie station when he was on his way to the Tsar at Peterhof, was Gounsovski’s work and that in this he was the instrument of the party at court which had sworn the death of the minister which inconvenienced it.  On the other hand, everyone regarded Koupriane as incapable of participating in any such horrors and that he contented himself with honest performance of his obvious duties, confining himself to ridding the streets of its troublesome elements, and sending to Siberia as many as he could of the hot-heads, without lowering himself to the compromises which, more than once, had given grounds for the enemies of the empire to maintain that it was difficult to say whether the chiefs of the Russian police played the part of the law or that of the revolutionary party, even that the police had been at the end of a certain time of such mixed procedure hardly able to decide themselves which they did.
This afternoon Koupriane appeared very nervous. He paid his compliments to the general, grumbled at his imprudence, praised him for his bravery, and then at once picked out Rouletabille, whom he took aside to talk to.
“You have sent my men back to me,” said he to the young reporter. “You understand that I do not allow that. They are furious, and quite rightly. You have given publicly as explanation of their departure—a departure which has naturally astonished, stupefied the general’s friends—the suspicion of their possible participation in the last attack. That is abominable, and I will not permit it. My men have not been trained in the methods of Gounsovski, and it does them a cruel injury, which I resent, for that matter, personally, to treat them this way. But let that go, as a matter of sentiment, and return to the simple fact itself, which proves your excessive imprudence, not to say more, and which involves you, you alone, in a responsibility of which you certainly have not measured the importance. All in all, I consider that you have strangely abused the complete authority that I gave you upon the Emperor’s orders. When I learned what you had done I went to find the Tsar, as was my duty, and told him the whole thing. He was more astonished than can be expressed. He directed me to go myself to find out just how things were and to furnish the general the guard you had removed. I arrive at the isles and not only find the villa open like a mill where anyone may enter, but I am informed, and then I see, that the general is promenading in the midst of the crowd, at the mercy of the first miserable venturer. Monsieur Rouletabille, I am not satisfied. The Tsar is not satisfied. And, within an hour, my men will return to assume their guard at the datcha.”
Rouletabille listened to the end. No one ever had spoken to him in that tone. He was red, and as ready to burst as a child’s balloon blown too hard. He said:
“And I will take the train this evening.”
“You will go?”
“Yes, and you can guard your general all alone. I have had enough of it. Ah, you are not satisfied! Ah, the Tsar is not satisfied! It is too bad. No more of it for me. Monsieur, I am not satisfied, and I say Good-evening to you. Only do not forget to send me from here every three or four days a letter which will keep me informed of the health of the general, whom I love dearly. I will offer up a little prayer for him.”
Thereupon he was silent, for he caught the glance of Matrena Pétrovna, a glance so desolated, so imploring, so desperate, that the poor woman inspired him anew with great pity. Natacha had not returned. What was the young girl doing at that moment? If Matrena really loved Natacha she must be suffering atrociously. Koupriane spoke; Rouletabille did not hear him, and he had already forgotten his own anger. His spirit was wrapped in the mystery.
“Monsieur,” Koupriane finished by saying, tugging his sleeve, “do you hear me? I pray you at least reply to me. I offer all possible excuses for speaking to you in that tone. I reiterate them. I ask your pardon. I pray you to explain your conduct, which appeared imprudent to me but which, after all, should have some reason. I have to explain to the Emperor. Will you tell me? What ought I to say to the Emperor?”
“Nothing at all,” said Rouletabille. “I have no explanation to give you or the Emperor, or to anyone. You can offer him my utmost homage and do me the kindness to visé my passport for this evening.”
And he sighed:
“It is too bad, for we were just about to see something interesting.”
Koupriane looked at him. Rouletabille had not quitted Matrena Pétrovna’s eyes, and her pallor struck Koupriane.
“Just a minute,” continued the young man. “I’m sure there is someone who will miss me—that brave woman there. Ask her which she prefers, all your police, or her dear little domovoi. We are good friends already. And—don’t forget to present my condolences to her when the terrible moment has come.”
It was Koupriane’s turn to be troubled.
He coughed and said:
“You believe, then, that the general runs a great immediate danger?”
“I do not only believe it, monsieur, I am sure of it. His death is a matter of hours for the poor dear man. Before I go I shall not fail to tell him, so that he can prepare himself comfortably for the great journey and ask pardon of the Lord for the rather heavy hand he has laid on these poor men of Presnia.”
“Monsieur Rouletabille, have you discovered something?”
“Good Lord, yes, I have discovered something, Monsieur Koupriane. You don’t suppose I have come so far to waste my time, do you?”
“Something no one else knows?”
“Yes, Monsieur Koupriane, otherwise I shouldn’t have troubled to feel concerned. Something I have not confided to anyone, not even to my note-book, because a note-book, you know, a note-book can always be lost. I just mention that in case you had any idea of having me searched before my departure.”
“Oh, Monsieur Rouletabille!”
“Eh, eh, like the way the police do in your country; in mine too, for that matter. Yes, that’s often enough seen. The police, furious because they can’t hit a clue in some case that interests them, arrest a reporter who knows more than they do, in order to make him talk. But—nothing of that sort with me, monsieur. You might have me taken to your famous ‘Terrible Section,’ I’d not open my mouth, not even in the famous rocking-chair, not even under the blows of clenched fists.”
“Monsieur Rouletabille, what do you take us for? You are the guest of the Tsar.”
“Ah, I have the word of an honest man. Very well, I will treat you as an honest man. I will tell you what I have discovered. I don’t wish through any false pride to keep you in darkness about something which may perhaps—I say perhaps—permit you to save the general.”
“Tell me. I am listening.”
“But it is perfectly understood that once I have told you this you will give me my passport and allow me to depart?”
“You feel that you couldn’t possibly,” inquired Koupriane, more and more troubled, and after a moment of hesitation, “you couldn’t possibly tell me that and yet remain?”
“No, monsieur. From the moment you place me under the necessity of explaining each of my movements and each of my acts, I prefer to go and leave to you that ‘responsibility’ of which you spoke just now, my dear Monsieur Koupriane.”
Astonished and disquieted by this long conversation between Rouletabille and the Head of Police, Matrena Pétrovna continually turned upon them her anguished glance, which always insensibly softened as it rested on Rouletabille. Koupriane read there all the hope that the brave woman had in the young reporter, and he read also in Rouletabille’s eye all the extraordinary confidence that the mere boy had in himself. As a last consideration had he not already something in hand in circumstances where all the police of the world had admitted themselves vanquished? Koupriane pressed Rouletabille’s hand and said just one word to him:
Having saluted the general and Matrena affectionately, and a group of friends in one courteous sweep, he departed, with thoughtful brow.
During all this time the general, enchanted with the promenade, told stories of the Caucasus to his friends, believing himself young again and re-living his nights as sub-lieutenant at Tills. As to Natacha, no one had seen her. They retraced the way to the villa along deserted by-paths. Koupriane’s call made occasion for Athanase Georgevitch and Thaddeus, and the two officers also, to say that he was the only honest man in all the Russian police, and that Matrena Pétrovna was a great woman to have dared rid herself of the entire clique of agents, who are often more revolutionary than the Nihilists themselves. Thus they arrived at the datcha.
The general inquired for Natacha, not understanding why she had left him thus during his first venture out. The schwitzar replied that the young mistress had returned to the house and had left again about a quarter of an hour later, taking the way that the party had gone on their promenade, and he had not seen her since.
Boris spoke up:
“She must have passed on the other side of the carriages while we were behind the trees, general, and not seeing us she has gone on her way, making the round of the island, over as far as the Barque.”
The explanation seemed the most plausible one.
“Has anyone else been here?” demanded Matrena, forcing her voice to be calm. Rouletabille saw her hand tremble on the handle of the rolling-chair, which she had not quitted for a second during all the promenade, refusing aid from the officers, the friends, and even from Rouletabille.
“First there came the Head of Police, who told me he would go and find you, Barinia, and right after, His Excellency the Marshal of the Court. His Excellency will return, although he is very pressed for time, before he takes the train at seven o’clock for Krasnoie-Coelo.”
All this had been said in Russian, naturally, but Matrena translated the words of the schwitzar into French in a low voice for Rouletabille, who was near her. The general during this time had taken Rouletabille’s hand and pressed it affectionately, as if, in that mute way, to thank him for all the young man had done for them. Féodor himself also had confidence, and he was grateful for the freer air that he was being allowed to breathe. It seemed to him that he was emerging from prison. Nevertheless, as the promenade had been a little fatiguing, Matrena ordered him to go and rest immediately. Athanase and Thaddeus took their leave. The two officers were already at the end of the garden, talking coldly, and almost confronting one another, like wooden soldiers. Without doubt they were arranging the conditions of an encounter to settle their little difference at once.
The schwitzar gathered the general into his great arms and carried him into the veranda. Féodor demanded five minutes’ respite before he was taken upstairs to his chamber. Matrena Pétrovna had a light luncheon brought at his request. In truth, the good woman trembled with impatience and hardly dared move without consulting Rouletabille’s face. While the general talked with Ermolai, who passed him his tea, Rouletabille made a sign to Matrena that she understood at once. She joined the young man in the drawing-room.
“Madame,” he said rapidly, in a low voice, “you must go at once to see what has happened there.”
He pointed to the dining-room.
It was pitiful to watch her.
“Go, madame, with courage.”
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“Because, madame, I have something to do elsewhere. Give me the keys of the next floor.”
“No, no. What for?”
“Not a second’s delay, for the love of Heaven. Do what I tell you on your side, and let me do mine. The keys! Come, the keys!”
He snatched them rather than took them, and pointed a last time to the dining-room with a gesture so commanding that she did not hesitate further. She entered the dining-room, shaking, while he bounded to the upper floor. He was not long. He took only time to open the doors, throw a glance into the general’s chamber, a single glance, and to return, letting a cry of joy escape him, borrowed from his new and very limited accomplishment of Russian, “Caracho!”
How Rouletabille, who had not spent half a second examining the general’s chamber, was able to be certain that all went well on that side, when it took Matrena—and that how many times a day!—at least a quarter of an hour of ferreting in all the corners each time she explored her house before she was even inadequately reassured, was a question. If that dear heroic woman had been with him during this “instant information” she would have received such a shock that, with all confidence gone, she would have sent for Koupriane immediately, and all his agents, reinforced by the personnel of the Okrana (Secret Police). Rouletabille at once rejoined the general, whistling. Féodor and Ermolai were deep in conversation about the Orel country. The young man did not disturb them. Then, soon, Matrena reappeared. He saw her come in quite radiant. He handed back her keys, and she took them mechanically. She was overjoyed and did not try to hide it. The general himself noticed it, and asked what had made her so.
“It is my happiness over our first promenade since we arrived at the datcha des Iles,” she explained. “And now you must go upstairs to bed, Féodor. You will pass a good night, I am sure.”
“I can sleep only if you sleep, Matrena.”
“I promise you. It is quite possible now that we have our dear little domovoi. You know, Féodor, that he smokes his pipe just like the dear little porcelain domovoi.”
“He does resemble him, he certainly does,” said Féodor. “That makes us feel happy, but I wish him to sleep also.”
“Yes, yes,” smiled Rouletabille, “everybody will sleep here. That is the countersign. We have watched enough. Since the police are gone we can all sleep, believe me, general.”
“Eh, eh, I believe you, on my word, easily enough. There were only they in the house capable of attempting that affair of the bouquet. I have thought that all out, and now I am at ease. And anyway, whatever happens, it is necessary to get sleep, isn’t it? The chances of war! Nichevo!” He pressed Rouletabille’s hand, and Matrena Pétrovna took, as was her habit, Féodor Féodorovitch on her back and lugged him to his chamber. In that also she refused aid from anyone. The general clung to his wife’s neck during the ascent and laughed like a child. Rouletabille remained in the hallway, watching the garden attentively. Ermolai walked out of the villa and crossed the garden, going to meet a personage in uniform whom the young man recognized immediately as the grand-marshal of the court, who had introduced him to the Tsar. Ermolai informed him that Madame Matrena was engaged in helping her husband retire, and the marshal remained at the end of the garden where he had found Michael and Boris talking in the kiosque. All three remained there for some time in conversation, standing by a table where General and Madame Trébassof sometimes dined when they had no guests. As they talked the marshal played with a box of white cardboard tied with a pink string. At this moment Matrena, who had not been able to resist the desire to talk for a moment with Rouletabille and tell him how happy she was, rejoined the young man.
“Little domovoi,” said she, laying her hand on his shoulder, “you have not watched on this side?”
She pointed in her turn to the dining-room.
“No, no. You have seen it, madame, and I am sufficiently informed.”
“Perfectly. There is nothing. No one has worked there! No one has touched the board. I knew it. I am sure of it. It is dreadful what we have thought about it! Oh, you do not know how relieved and happy I am. Ah, Natacha, Natacha, I have not loved you in vain. (She pronounced these words in accents of great beauty and tragic sincerity.) When I saw her leave us, my dear, ah, my legs sank under me. When she said, ‘I have forgotten something; I must hurry back,’ I felt I had not the strength to go a single step. But now I certainly am happy, that weight at least is off my heart, off my heart, dear little domovoi, because of you, because of you.”
She embraced him, and then ran away, like one possessed, to resume her post near the general.
Notes in Rouletabille’s memorandum-book: The affair of the little cavity under the floor not having been touched again proves nothing for or against Natacha (even though that excellent Matrena Pétrovna thinks so). Natacha could very well have been warned by the too great care with which Madame Matrena watched the floor. My opinion, since I saw Matrena lift the carpet the first time without any real precaution, is that they have definitely abandoned the preparation of that attack and are trying to account for the secret becoming known. What Matrena feels so sure of is that the trap I laid by the promenade to the Point was against Natacha particularly. I knew beforehand that Natacha would absent herself during the promenade. I’m not looking for anything new from Natacha, but what I did need was to be sure that Matrena didn’t detest Natacha, and that she had not faked the preparations for an attack under the floor in such a way as to throw almost certain suspicion on her step-daughter. I am sure about that now. Matrena is innocent of such a thing, the poor dear soul. If Matrena had been a monster the occasion was too good. Natacha’s absence, her solitary presence for a quarter of an hour in the empty villa, all would have urged Matrena, whom I sent alone to search under the carpet in the dining-room, to draw the last nails from the board if she was really guilty of having drawn the others. Natacha would have been lost then! Matrena returned sincerely, tragically happy at not having found anything new, and now I have the material proof that I needed. Morally and physically Matrena is removed from it. So I am going to speak to her about the hat-pin. I believe that the matter is urgent on that side rather than on the side of the nails in the floor.
- Rumored cause of Plehve’s assassination.