The Secret of the Night by Gaston Leroux
XII. Pere Alexis
Koupriane jumped into his carriage and hurried toward St. Petersburg. On the way he spoke to three agents who only he knew were posted in the neighborhood of Eliaguine. They told him the route Rouletabille had taken. The reporter had certainly returned into the city. He hurried toward Troitski Bridge. There, at the corner of the Naberjnaia, Koupriane saw the reporter in a hired conveyance. Rouletabille was pounding his coachman in the back, Russian fashion, to make him go faster, and was calling with all his strength one of the few words he had had time to learn, "Naleva, naleva" (to the left). The driver was forced to understand at last, for there was no other way to turn than to the left. If he had turned to the right (naprava) he would have driven into the river. The conveyance clattered over the pointed flints of a neighborhood that led to a little street, Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, at the corner of the Katharine canal. This "alley of the pharmacists" as a matter of fact contained no pharmacists, but there was a curious sign of a herbarium, where Rouletabille made the driver stop. As the carriage rolled under the arch Rouletabille recognized Koupriane. He did not wait, but cried to him, "Ah, here you are. All right; follow me." He still had the flask and the glasses in his hands. Koupriane couldn't help noticing how strange he looked. He passed through a court with him, and into a squalid shop.
"What," said Koupriane, "do you know Pere Alexis?"
They were in the midst of a curious litter. Clusters of dried herbs hung from the ceiling, and all among them were clumps of old boots, shriveled skins, battered pans, scrap-iron, sheep-skins, useless touloupes, and on the floor musty old clothes, moth-eaten furs, and sheep-skin coats that even a moujik of the swamps would not have deigned to wear. Here and there were old teeth, ragged finery, dilapidated hats, and jars of strange herbs ranged upon some rickety shelving. Between the set of scales on the counter and a heap of little blocks of wood used for figuring the accounts of this singular business were ungilded ikons, oxidized silver crosses, and Byzantine pictures representing scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Jars of alcohol with what seemed to be the skeletons of frogs swimming in them filled what space was left. In a corner of this large, murky room, under the vault of mossed stone, a small altar stood and the light burned in a hanging glass of oil before the holy images. A man was praying before the altar. He wore the costume of old Russia, the caftan of green cloth, buttoned at the shoulder and tucked in at the waist by a narrow belt. He had a bushy beard and his hair fell to his shoulders. When he had finished his prayer he rose, perceived Rouletabille and came over to take his hand. He spoke French to the reporter:
"Well, here you are again, lad. Do you bring poison again to-day? This will end by being found out, and the police..."
Just then he discerned Koupriane's form in the shadow, drew close to make out who it was, and fell to his knees as he saw who it was. Rouletabille tried to raise him, but he insisted on prostrating himself. He was sure the Prefect of Police had come to his house to hang him. Finally he was reassured by Rouletabile's positive assertions and the great chief's robust laugh. The Prefect wished to know how the young man came to be acquainted with the "alchemist" of the police. Rouletabille told him in a few words.
Maitre Alexis, in his youth, went to France afoot, to study pharmacy, because of his enthusiasm for chemistry. But he always remained countrified, very much a Russian peasant, a semi-Oriental bear, and did not achieve his degree. He took some certificates, but the examinations were too much for him. For fifty years he lived miserably as a pharmacist's assistant in the back of a disreputable shop in the Notre Dame quarter. The proprietor of the place was implicated in the famous affair of the gold ingots, which started Rouletabille's reputation, and was arrested along with his assistant, Alexis. It was Rouletabille who proved, clear as day, that poor Alexis was innocent, and that he had never been cognizant of his master's evil ways, being absorbed in the depths of his laboratory in trying to work out a naive alchemy which fascinated him, though the world of chemistry had passed it by centuries ago. At the trial Alexis was acquitted, but found himself in the street. He shed what tears remained in his body upon the neck of the reporter, assuring him of paradise if he got him back to his own country, because he desired only the one thing more of life, that he might see his birth-land before he died. Rouletabille advanced the necessary means and sent him to St. Petersburg. There he was picked up at the end of two days by the police, in a petty gambling-game, and thrown into prison, where he promptly had a chance to show his talents. He cured some of his companions in misery, and even some of the guards. A guard who had an injured leg, whose healing he had despaired of, was cured by Alexis. Then there was found to be no actual charge against him. They set him free and, moreover, they interested themselves in him. They found meager employment for him in the Stchoukine-dvor, an immense popular bazaar. He accumulated a few roubles and installed himself on his own account at the back of a court in the Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, where he gradually piled up a heap of old odds and ends that no one wanted even in the Stchoukine-dvor. But he was happy, because behind his shop he had installed a little laboratory where he continued for his pleasure his experiments in alchemy and his study of plants. He still proposed to write a book that he had already spoken of in France to Rouletabille, to prove the truth of "Empiric Treatment of Medicinal Herbs, the Science of Alchemy, and the Ancient Experiments in Sorcery." Between times he continued to cure anyone who applied to him, and the police in particular. The police guards protected him and used him. He had splendid plasters for them after "the scandal," as they called the October riots. So when the doctors of the quarter tried to prosecute him for illegal practice, a deputation of police-guards went to Koupriane, who took the responsibility and discontinued proceedings against him. They regarded him as under protection of the saints, and Alexis soon came to be regarded himself as something of a holy man. He never failed every Christmas and Easter to send his finest images to Rouletabille, wishing him all prosperity and saying that if ever he came to St. Petersburg he should be happy to receive him at Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, where he was established in honest labor. Pere Alexis, like all the true saints, was a modest man.
When Alexis had recovered a little from his emotion Rouletabille said to him:
"Pere Alexis, I do bring you poison again, but you have nothing to fear, for His Excellency the Chief of Police is with me. Here is what we want you to do. You must tell us what poison these four glasses have held, and what poison is still in this flask and this little phial."
"What is that little phial?" demanded Koupriane, as he saw Rouletabille pull a small, stoppered bottle out of his pocket.
The reporter replied, "I have put into this bottle the vodka that was poured into Natacha's glass and mine and that we barely touched."
"Someone has tried to poison you!" exclaimed Pere Alexis.
"No, not me," replied Rouletabille, in bored fashion. "Don't think about that. Simply do what I tell you. Then analyze these two napkins, as well."
And he drew from his coat two soiled napkins.
"Well," said Koupriane, "you have thought of everything."
"They are the napkins the general and his wife used."
"Yes, yes, I understand that," said the Chief of Police.
"And you, Alexis, do you understand?" asked the reporter. "When can we have the result of your analysis?
"In an hour, at the latest."
"Very well," said Koupriane. "Now I need not tell you to hold your tongue. I am going to leave one of my men here. You will write us a note that you will seal, and he will bring it to head-quarters. Sure you understand? In an hour?"
"In an hour, Excellency."
They went out, and Alexis followed them, bowing to the floor. Koupriane had Rouletabille get into his carriage. The young man did as he was told. One would have said he did not know where he was or what he did. He made no reply to the chief's questions.
"This Pere Alexander," resumed Koupriane, "is a character, really quite a figure. And a bit of a schemer, I should say. He has seen how Father John of Cronstadt succeeded, and he says to himself, 'Since the sailors had their Father John of Cronstadt, why shouldn't the police-guard have their Father Alexis of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok?'"
But Rouletabille did not reply at all, and Koupriane wound up by demanding what was the matter with him.
"The matter is," replied Rouletabille, unable longer to conceal his anguish, "that the poison continues."
"Does that astonish you?" returned Koupriane. "It doesn't me."
Rouletabille looked at him and shook his head. His lips trembled as he said, "I know what you think. It is abominable. But the thing I have done certainly is more abominable still."
"What have you done, then, Monsieur Rouletabille?"
"Perhaps I have caused the death of an innocent man."
"So long as you aren't sure of it, you would better not fret about it, my dear friend."
"It is enough that the doubt has arisen," said the reporter, "almost to kill me;" and he heaved so gloomy a sigh that the excellent Monsieur Koupriane felt pity for the lad. He tapped him on the knee.
"Come, come, young man, you ought to know one thing by this time - 'you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs,' as they say, I think, in Paris."
Rouletabille turned away from him with horror in his heart. If there should be another, someone besides Michael! If it was another hand than his that appeared to Matrena and him in the mysterious night! If Michael Nikolaievitch had been innocent! Well, he would kill himself, that was all. And those horrible words that he had exchanged with Natacha rose in his memory, singing in his ears as though they would deafen him.
"Do you doubt still?" he had asked her, "that Michael tried to poison your father?"
And Natacha had replied, "I wish to believe it! I wish to believe it, for your sake, my poor boy." And then he recalled her other words, still more frightful now! "Couldn't someone have tried to poison my father and not have come by the window?" He had faced such a hypothesis with assurance then - but now, now that the poison continued, continued within the house, where he believed himself so fully aware of all people and things - continued now that Michael Nikolaievitch was dead - ah, where did it come from, this poison? - and what was it? Pere Alexis would hurry hiss analysis if he had any regard for poor Rouletabille.
For Rouletabille to doubt, and in an affair where already there was one man dead through his agency, was torment worse than death.
When they arrived at police-headquarters, Rouletabille jumped from Koupriane's carriage and without saying a word hailed an empty isvotchick that was passing. He had himself driven back to Pere Alexis. His doubt mastered his will; he could not bear to wait away. Under the arch of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok he saw once more the man Koupriane had placed there with the order to bring him Alexis's message. The man looked at him in astonishment. Rouletabille crossed the court and entered the dingy old room once more. Pere Alexis was not there, naturally, engaged as he was in his laboratory. But a person whom he did not recognize at first sight attracted the reporter's attention. In the half-light of the shop a melancholy shadow leaned over the ikons on the counter. It was only when he straightened up, with a deep sigh, and a little light, deflected and yellow from passing through window-panes that had known no touch of cleaning since they were placed there, fell faintly on the face, that Rouletabille ascertained he was face to face with Boris Mourazoff. It was indeed he, the erstwhile brilliant officer whose elegance and charm the reporter had admired as he saw him at beautiful Natacha's feet in the datcha at Eliaguine. Now, no more in uniform, he had thrown over his bowed shoulders a wretched coat, whose sleeves swayed listlessly at his sides, in accord with his mood of languid desperation, a felt hat with the rim turned down hid a little the misery in his face in tnese few days, these not-many hours, how he was changed! But, even as he was, he still concerned Rouletabille. What was he doing there? Was he not going to go away, perhaps? He had picked up an ikon from the counter and carried it over to the window to examine its oxidized silver, giving such close attention to it that the reporter hoped he might reach the door of the laboratory without being noticed. He already had his hand on the knob of that door, which was behind the counter, when he heard his name called.
"It is you, Monsieur Rouletabille," said the low, sad voice of Boris. "What has brought you here, then?"
"Well, well, Monsieur Boris Mourazoff, unless I'm mistaken? I certainly didn't expect to find you here in Pere Alexis's place."
"Why not, Monsieur Rouletabille? One can find anything here in Pere Alexis's stock. See; here are two old ikons in wood, carved with sculptures, which came direct from Athos, and can't be equaled, I assure you, either at Gastini-Dvor nor even at Stchoukine-Dvor"
"Yes, yes, that is possible," said Rouletabille, impatiently. "Are you an amateur of such things?" he added, in order to say something.
"Oh, like anybody else. But I was going to tell you, Monsieur Rouletabille, I have resigned my commission. I have resolved to retire from the world; I am going on a long voyage." (Rouletabille thought: 'Why not have gone at once?') "And before going, I have come here to supply myself with some little gifts to send those of my friends I particularly care for, although now, my dear Monsieur Rouletabille, I don't care much for anything."
"You look desolate enough, monsieur."
Boris sighed like a child.
"How could it be otherwise?" he said. "I loved and believed myself beloved. But it proved to be - nothing, alas!"
"Sometimes one only imagines things," said Rouletabille, keeping his hand on the door.
"Oh, yes," said the other, growing more and more melancholy. "So a man suffers. He is his own tormentor; he himself makes the wheel on which, like his own executioner, he binds himself."
"It is not necessary, monsieur; it is not necessary," counseled the reporter.
"Listen," implored Boris in a voice that showed tears were not far away. "You are still a child, but still you can see things. Do you believe Natacha loves me?"
"I am sure of it, Monsieur Boris; I am sure of it."
"I am sure of it, too. But I don't know what to think now. She has let me go, without trying to detain me, without a word of hope."
"And where are you going like that?"
"I am returning to the Orel country, where I first saw her."
"That is good, very good, Monsieur Boris. At least there you are sure to see her again. She goes there every year with her parents for a few weeks. It is a detail you haven't overlooked, doubtless."
"Certainly I haven't. I will tell you that that prospect decided my place of retreat."
"God gives me nothing, but He opens His treasures, and each takes what he can."
"Yes, yes; and Mademoiselle Natacha, does she know it is to Orel you have decided to retire?"
"I have no reason for concealing it from her, Monsieur Rouletabille."
"So far so good. You needn't feel so desolate, my dear Monsieur Boris. All is not lost. I will say even that I see a future for you full of hope."
"Ah, if you are able to say that truthfully, I am happy indeed to have met you. I will never forget this rope you have flung me when all the waters seemed closing over my head. 'What do you advise, then?"
"I advise you to go to Orel, monsieur, and as quickly as possible."
"Very well. You must have reasons for saying that. I obey you, monsieur, and go."
As Boris started towards the entrance-arch, Rouletabille slipped into the laboratory. Old Alexis was bent over his retorts. A wretched lamp barely lighted his obscure work. He turned at the noise the reporter made.
"Oh, nothing so quick. Still, I have already analyzed the two napkins, you know."
"Yes? The stains? Tell me, for the love of God!"
"Well, my boy, it is arsenate of soda again."
Rouletabille, stricken to the heart, uttered a low cry and everything seemed to dance around him. Pere Alexis in the midst of all the strange laboratory instruments seemed Satan himself, and he repulsed the kindly arms stretched forth to sustain him; in the gloom, where danced here and there the little blue flames from the crucibles, lively as flickering tongues, he believed he saw Michael Nikolaievitch's ghost come to cry, "The arsenate of soda continues, and I am dead." He fell against the door, which swung open, and he rolled as far as the counter, and struck his face against it. The shock, that might well have been fatal, brought him out of his intense nightmare and made him instantly himself again. He rose, jumped over the heap of boots and fol-de-rols, and leaped to the court. There Boris grabbed him by his coat. Rouletabille turned, furious:
"What do you want? You haven't started for the Orel yet?"
"Monsieur, I am going, but I will be very grateful if you will take these things yourself to - to Natacha." He showed him, still with despairing mien, the two ikons from Mount Athos, and Rouletabille took them from him, thrust them in his pocket, and hurried on, crying, "I understand."
Outside, Rouletabille tried to get hold of himself, to recover his coolness a little. Was it possible that he had made a mortal error? Alas, alas, how could he doubt it now! The arsenate of soda continued. He made, a superhuman effort to ward off the horror of that, even momentarily - the death of innocent Michael Nikolaievitch - and to think of nothing except the immediate consequences, which must be carefully considered if he wished to avoid some new catastrophe. Ah, the assassin was not discouraged. And that time, what a piece of work he had tried! What a hecatomb if he had succeeded! The general, Matrena Petrovna, Natacha and Rouletabille himself (who almost regretted, so far as he was concerned, that it had not succeeded) - and Koupriane! Koupriane, who should have been there for luncheon. What a bag for the Nihilists! That was it, that was it. Rouletabille understood now why they had not hesitated to poison everybody at once: Koupriane was among them.
Michael Nikolaievitch would have been avenged!
The attempt had failed this time, but what might they not expect now! From the moment he believed Michael Nikolaievitch no longer guilty, as he had imagined, Rouletabille fell into a bottomless abyss.
Where should he go? After a few moments he made the circuit of the Rotunda, which serves as the market for this quarter and is the finest ornament of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok. He made the circuit without knowing it, without stopping for anything, without seeing or understanding anything. As a broken-winded horse makes its way in the treadmill, so he walked around with the thought that he also was lost in a treadmill that led him nowhere. Rouletabille was no longer Rouletabille.