The Secret of the Night by Gaston Leroux
XIV. The Marshes
They ascertained the next day that there had been two explosions, almost simultaneous, one under each staircase. The two Nihilists, when they felt themselves discovered, and watched by Ermolai, had thrown themselves silently on him as he turned his back in passing them, and strangled him with a piece of twine. Then they separated each to watch one of the staircases, reasoning that Koupriane and General Trebassof would have to decide to descend.
The datcha des Iles was nothing now but a smoking ruin. But from the fact that the living bombs had exploded separately the destructive effect was diffused, and although there were numerous wounded, as in the case of the attack on the Stolypine datcha, at least no one was killed outright; that is, excepting the two Nihilists, of whom no trace could be found save a few rags.
Rouletabille had been hurled into the garden and he was glad enough to escape so, a little shaken, but without a scratch. The group composed of Feodor and his friends were strangely protected by the lightness of the datcha's construction. The iron staircase, which, so to speak, almost hung to the two floors, being barely attached at top and bottom, raised under them and then threw them off as it broke into a thousand pieces, but only after, by its very yielding, it had protected them from the first force of the bomb. They had risen from the ruins without mortal wounds. Koupriane had a hand badly burned, Athanase Georgevitch had his nose and cheeks seriously hurt, Ivan Petrovitch lost an ear; the most seriously injured was Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff, both of whose legs were broken. Extraordinarily enough, the first person who appeared, rising from the midst of the wreckage, was Matrena Petrovna, still holding Feodor in her arms. She had escaped with a few burns and the general, saved again by the luck of the soldier whom Death does not want, was absolutely uninjured. Feodor gave shouts of joy. They strove to quiet him, because, after all, around him some poor wretches had been badly hurt, as well as poor Ermolai, who lay there dead. The domestics in the basement had been more seriously wounded and burned because the main force of the explosion had gone downwards; which had probably saved the personages above.
Rouletabille had been taken with the other victims to a neighboring datcha; but as soon as he had shaken himself free of that terrible nightmare he escaped from the place. He really regretted that he was not dead. These successive waves of events had swamped him; and he accused himself alone of all this disaster. With acutest anxiety he had inquired about the condition of each of "his victims." Feodor had not been wounded, but now he was almost delirious, asking every other minute as the hours crept on for Natacha, who had not reappeared. That unhappy girl Rouletabille had steadily believed innocent. Was she a culprit? "Ah, if she had only chosen to! If she had had confidence," he cried, raising anguished hands towards heaven, 'none of all this need have happened. No one would have attacked and no one would ever again attack the life of Trebassof. For I was not wrong in claiming before Koupriane that the general's life was in my hand, and I had the right to say to him, 'Life for life! Give me Matiew's and I will give you the general's.' And now there has been one more fruitless attempt to kill Feodor Feodorovitch and it is Natacha's fault - that I swear, because she would not listen to me. And is Natacha implicated in it? 0 my God" Rouletabille asked this vain question of the Divinity, for he expected no more help in answering it on earth.
Natacha! Innocent or guilty, where was she? What was she doing? to know that! To know if one were right or wrong - and if one were wrong, to disappear, to die!
Thus the unhappy Rouletabille muttered as he walked along the bank of the Neva, not far from the ruins of the poor datcha, where the joyous friends of Feodor Feodorovitch would have no more good dinners, never; so he soliloquized, his head on fire.
And, all at once, he recovered trace of the young girl, that trace lost earlier, a trace left at her moment of flight, after the poisoning and before the explosion. And had he not in that a terrible coincidence? Because the poison might well have been only in preparation for the final attack, the pretext for the tragic arrival of the two false doctors. Natacha, Natacha, the living mystery surrounded already by so many dead!
Not far from the ruins of the datcha Rouletabille soon made sure that a group of people had been there the night before, coming from the woods near-by, and returning to them. He was able to be sure of this because the boundaries of the datcha had been guarded by troops and police as soon as the explosion took place, under orders to keep back the crowd that hurried to Eliaguine. He looked attentively at the grass, the ferns, the broken and trampled twigs. Certainly a struggle had occurred there. He could distinguish clearly in the soft earth of a narrow glade the prints of Natacha's two little boots among all the large footprints.
He continued his search with his heart heavier and heavier, he had a presentiment that he was on the point of discovering a new misfortune. The footprints passed steadily under the branches along the side of the Neva. From a bush he picked a shred of white cloth, and it seemed to him a veritable battle had taken place there. Torn branches strewed the grass. He went on. Very close to the bank he saw by examination of the soil, where there was no more trace of tiny heels and little soles, that the woman who had been found there was carried, and carried, into a boat, of which the place of fastening to the bank was still visible.
"They have carried off Natacha," he cried in a surge of anguish. " bungler that I am, that is my fault too - all my fault - all my fault! They wished to avenge Michael Nikolaievitch's death, for which they hold Natacha responsible, and they have kidnapped her."
His eyes searched the great arm of the river for a boat. The river was deserted. Not a sail, nothing visible on the dead waters! "What shall I do? What shall I do? I must save her."
He resumed his course along the river. Who could give him any useful information? He drew near a little shelter occupied by a guard. The guard was speaking to an officer. Perhaps he had noticed something during his watch that evening along the river. That branch of the river was almost always deserted after the day was over. A boat plying between these shores in the twilight would certainly attract attention. Rouletabille showed the guard the paper Koupriane had given him in the beginning, and with the officer (who turned out to be a police officer) as interpreter, he asked his questions. As a matter of fact the guard had been sufficiently puzzled by the doings and comings of a light boat which, after disappearing for an instant, around the bend of the river, had suddenly rowed swiftly out again and accosted a sailing-yacht which appeared at the opening of the gulf. It was one of those small but rapid and elegant sailing craft such as are seen in the Lachtka regattas.
Lachtka! "The Bay of Lachtka!"
The word was a ray of light for the reporter, who recalled now the counsel Gounsovski had given him. "Watch the Bay of Lachtka, and tell me then if you still believe Natacha is innocent!" Gounsovski must have known when he said this that Natacha had embarked in company with the Nihilists, but evidently he was ignorant that she had gone with them under compulsion, as their prisoner.
Was it too late to save Natacha? In any case, before he died, he would try in every way possible, so as at least to have kept her as much as he could from the disaster for which he held himself responsible. He ran to the Barque, near the Point.
His voice was firm as he hailed the canoe of the floating restaurant where, thanks to him, Koupriane had been thwarted in impotent anger. He had himself taken to just below Staria-Derevnia and jumped out at the spot where he saw little Katharina disappear a few days before. He landed in the mud and climbed on hands and knees up the slope of a roadway which followed the bank. This bank led to the Bay of Lachtka, not far from the frontier of Finland.
On Rouletabille's left lay the sea, the immense gulf with slight waves; to his right was the decaying stretch of the marsh. Stagnant water stretching to the horizon, coarse grass and reeds, an extraordinary tangle of water-plants, small ponds whose greenish scum did not stir under the stiff breeze, water that was heavy and dirty. Along this narrow strip of land thrust thus between the marsh, the sky and the sea, he hurried, with many stumblings, his eyes fixed on the deserted gulf. Suddenly he turned his head at a singular noise. At first he didn't see anything, but heard in the distance a vague clamoring while a sort of vapor commenced to rise from the marsh. And then he noticed, nearer him, the high marsh grasses undulating. Finally he saw a countless flock rising from the bed of the marshes. Beasts, groups of beasts, whose horns one saw like bayonets, jostled each other trying to keep to the firm land. Many of them swam and on the backs of some were naked men, stark naked, with hair falling to their shoulders and streaming behind them like manes. They shouted war-cries and waved their clubs. Rouletabille stopped short before this prehistoric invasion. He would never have imagined that a few miles from the Newsky Prospect he could have found himself in the midst of such a spectacle. These savages had not even a loin-cloth. Where did they come from with their herd? From what remote place in the world or in old and gone history had they emerged? What was this new invasion? What prodigious slaughter-house awaited these unruly herds? They made a noise like thunder in the marsh. Here were a thousand unkempt haunches undulating in the marsh like the ocean as a storm approaches. The stark-naked men jumped along the route, waving their clubs, crying gutturally in a way the beasts seemed to understand. They worked their way out from the marsh and turned toward the city, leaving behind, to swathe the view of them a while and then fade away, a pestilential haze that hung like an aura about the naked, long-haired men. It was terrible and magnificent. In order not to be shoved into the water, Rouletabille had climbed a small rock that stood beside the route, and had waited there as though petrified himself. When the barbarians had finally passed by he climbed down again, but the route had become a bog of trampled filth.
Happily, he heard the noise of a primitive conveyance behind him. It was a telega. Curiously primitive, the telega is four-wheeled, with two planks thrown crudely across the axle-trees. Rouletabille gave the man who was seated in it thee roubles, and jumped into the planks beside him, and the two little Finnish horses, whose manes hung clear to the mud, went like the wind. Such crude conveyances are necessary on such crude roads, but it requires a strong constitution to make a journey on them. Still, the reporter felt none of the jolting, he was so intent on the sea and the coast of Lachtka Bay. The vehicle finally reached a wooden bridge, across a murky creek. As the day commenced to fade colorlessly, Rouletabille jumped off onto the shore and his rustic equipage crossed to the Sestroriesk side. It was a corner of land black and somber as his thoughts that he surveyed now. "Watch the Bay of Lachtka!" The reporter knew that this desolate plain, this impenetrable marsh, this sea which offered the fugitive refuge in innumerable fords, had always been a useful retreat for Nihilistic adventurers. A hundred legends circulated in St. Petersburg about the mysteries of Lachtka marshes. And that gave him his last hope. Maybe he would be able to run across some revolutionaries to whom he could explain about Natacha, as prudently as possible; he might even see Natacha herself. Gounsovski could not have spoken vain words to him.
Between the Lachtkrinsky marsh and the strand he perceived on the edge of the forests which run as far as Sestroriesk a little wooden house whose walls were painted a reddish-brown, and its roof green. It was not the Russian isba, but the Finnish touba. However, a Russian sign announced it to be a restaurant. The young man had to take only a few steps to enter it. He was the only customer there. An old man, with glasses and a long gray beard, evidently the proprietor of the establishment, stood behind the counter, presiding over the zakouskis. Rouletabille chose some little sandwiches which he placed on a plate. He took a bottle of pivo and made the man understand that later, if it were possible, he would like a good hot supper. The other made a sign that he understood and showed him into an adjoining room which was used for diners. Rouletabille was quite ready enough to die in the face of his failures, but he did not wish to perish from hunger.
A table was placed beside a window looking out over the sea and over the entrance to the bay. It could not have been better and, with his eye now on the horizon, now on the estuary near-by, he commenced to eat with gloomy avidity. He was inclined to feel sorry for himself, to indulge in self-pity. "Just the same, two and two always make four," he said to himself; "but in my calculations perhaps I have forgotten the surd. "Ah, there was a time when I would not have overlooked anything. And even now I haven't overlooked anything, if Natacha is innocent!" Having literally scoured the plate, he struck the table a great blow with his fist and said: "She is!"
Just then the door opened. Rouletabille supposed the proprietor of the place was entering.
It was Koupriane.
He rose, startled. He could not imagine by what mystery the Prefect of Police had made his way there, but he rejoiced from the bottom of his heart, for if he was trying to rescue Natacha from the hands of the revolutionaries Koupriane would be a valuable ally. He clapped the Prefect on the shoulder.
"Well, well!" he said, almost joyfully. "I certainly did not expect you here. How is your wound?"
"Nitchevo! Not worth speaking about; it's nothing."
"And the general and -! Ah, that frightful night! And those two unfortunates who -?"
"And poor Ermolai!"
"Nitchevo! Nitchevo! It is nothing."
Rouletabille looked him over. The Prefect of Police had an arm in a sling, but he was bright and shining as a new ten-rouble piece, while he, poor Rouletabille, was so abominably soiled and depressed. Where did he come from? Koupriane understood his look and smiled.
"Well, I have just come from the Finland train; it is the best way."
"But what can you have come here to do, Excellency?"
"The same thing as you."
"Bah!" exclaimed Rouletabille, "do you mean to say that you have come here to save Natacha?"
"How - to save her! I come to capture her."
"To capture her?"
"Monsieur Rouletabille, I have a very fine little dungeon in Saints Peter and Paul fortress that is all ready for her."
"You are going to throw Natacha into a dungeon!"
"The Emperor's order, Monsieur Rouletabille. And if you see me here in person it is simply because His Majesty requires that the thing be done as respectfully and discreetly as possible."
"Natacha in prison!" cried the reporter, who saw in horror all obstacles rising before him at one and the same time. "For what reasons, pray?"
"The reason is simple enough. Natacha Feodorovna is the last word in wickedness and doesn't deserve anybody's pity. She is the accomplice of tbe revolutionaries and the instigator of all the crimes against her father."
"I am sure that you are mistaken, Excellency. But how have you been guided to her?"
"Simply by you."
"Yes, we lost all trace of Natacha. But, as you had disappeared also, I made up my mind that you could only be occupied in searching for her, and that by finding you I might have the chance to lay my hands on her."
"But I haven't seen any of your men?"
"Why, one of them brought you here."
"Yes, you. Didn't you climb onto a telega?"
"Ah, the driver."
"Exactly. I had arranged to have him meet me at the Sestroriesk station. He pointed out the place where you dropped off, and here I am."
The reporter bent his head, red with chagrin. Decidedly the sinister idea that he was responsible for the death of an innocent man and all the ills which had followed out of it had paralyzed his detective talents. He recognized it now. What was the use of struggling! If anyone had told him that he would be played with that way sometime, he, Rouletabille! he would have laughed heartily enough - then. But now, well, he wasn't capable of anything further. He was his own most cruel enemy. Not only was Natacha in the hands of the revolutionaries through his fault, by his abominable error, but worse yet, in the very moment when he wished to save her, he foolishly, naively, had conducted the police to the very spot where they should have been kept away. It was the depth of his humiliation; Koupriane really pitied the reporter.
"Come, don't blame yourself too much," said he. "We would have found Natacha without you; Gounsovski notified us that she was going to embark in the Bay of Lachtka this evening with Priemkof."
"Natacha with Priemkof!" exclaimed Rouletabille. "Natacha with the man who introduced the two living bombs into her father's house! If she is with him, Excellency, it is because she is his prisoner, and that alone will be sufficient to prove her innocence. I thank the Heaven that has sent you here."
Koupriane swallowed a glass of vodka, poured another after it, and finally deigned to translate his thought:
"Natacha is the friend of these precious men and we will see them disembark hand in hand."
"Your men, then, haven't studied the traces of the struggle that 'these precious men' have had on the banks of the Neva before they carried away Natacha?"
"Oh, they haven't been hoodwinked. As a matter of fact, the struggle was quite too visible not to have been done for appearances' sake. What a child you are! Can't you see that Natacha's presence in the datcha had become quite too dangerous for that charming young girl after the poisoning of her father and step-mother failed and at the moment when her comrades were preparing to send General Trebassof a pleasant little gift of dynamite? She arranged to get away and yet to appear kidnapped. It is too simple."
Rouletabille raised his head.
"There is something simpler still to imagine than the culpability of Natacha. It is that Priemkof schemed to pour the poison into the flask of vodka, saying to himself that if the poison didn't succeed at least it would make the occasion for introducing his dynamite into the house in the pockets of the 'doctors' that they would go to find."
Koupriane seized Rouletabille's wrist and threw some terrible words at him, looking into the depths of his eyes:
"It was not Priemkof who poured the poison, because there was no poison in the flask."
Rouletabille, as he heard this extraordinary declaration, rose, more startled than he had ever been in the course of this startling campaign.
If there was no poison in the flask, the poison must have been poured directly into the glasses by a person who was in the kiosk! Now, there were only four persons in the kiosk: the two who were poisoned and Natacha and himself, Rouletabille. And that kiosk was so perfectly isolated that it was impossible for any other persons than the four who were there to pour poison upon the table.
"But it is not possible!" he cried.
"It is so possible that it is so. Pere Alexis dedared that there is no poison in the flask, and I ought to tell you that an analysis I had made after his bears him out. There was no poison, either, in the small bottle you took to Pere Alexis and into which you yourself had poured the contents of Natacha's glass and yours; no trace of poison excepting in two of the four glasses, arsenate of soda was found only on the soiled napkins of Trebassof and his wife and in the two glasses they drank from."
"Oh, that is horrible," muttered the stupefied reporter; "that is horrible, for then the poisoner must be either Natacha or me."
"I have every confidence in you," declared Koupriane with a great laugh of satisfaction, striking him on the shoulder. "And I arrest Natacha, and you who love logic ought to be satisfied now."
Rouletabille hadn't a word more to say. He sat down again and let his head fall into his hands, like one sleep has seized.
"Ah, our young girls; you don't know them. They are terrible, terrible!" said Koupriane, lighting a big cigar. "Much more terrible than the boys. In good families the boys still enjoy themselves; but the girls - they read! It goes to their heads. They are ready for anything; they know neither father nor mother. Ah, you are a child, you cannot comprehend. Two lovely eyes, a melancholy air, a soft, low voice, and you are captured - you believe you have before you simply an inoffensive, good little girl. Well, Rouletabille, here is what I will tell you for your instruction. There was the time of the Tchipoff attack; the revolutionaries who were assigned to kill Tchipoff were disguised as coachmen and footmen. Everthing had been carefully prepared and it would seem that no one could have discovered the bombs in the place they had been stored. Well, do you know the place where those bombs were found? In the rooms of the governor, of Wladmir's daughter! Exactly, my little friend, just there! The rooms of the governor's daughter, Mademoiselle Alexeieiv. Ah, these young girls! Besides, it was this same Mademoiselle Alexeieiv who, so prettily, pierced the brain of an honest Swiss merchant who had the misfortune to resemble one of our ministers. If we had hanged that charming young girl earlier, my dear Monsieur Rouletabille, that last catastrophe might have been avoided. A good rope around the neck of all these little females - it is the only way, the only way!"
A man entered. Rouletabille recognized the driver of the telega. There were some rapid words between the Chief and the agent. The man closed the shutters of the room, but through the interstices they would be able to see what went on outside. Then the agent left; Koupriane, as he pushed aside the table that was near the window, said to the reporter:
"You had better come to the window; my man has just told me the boat is drawing near. You can watch an interesting sight. We are sure that Natacha is still aboard. The yacht, after the explosion at the datcha, took up two men who put off to it in a canoe, and since then it has simply sailed back and forth in the gulf. We have taken our precautions in Finland the same as here and it is here they are going to try to disembark. Keep an eye on them."
Koupriane was at his post of observation. Evening slowly fell. The sky was growing grayish-black, a tint that blended with the slate-colored sea. To those on the bank, the sound of the men about to die came softly across the water. There was a sail far out. Between the strand and the touba where Koupriane watched, was a ridge, a window, which, however, did not hide the shore or the bay from the prefect of police, because at the height where he was his glance passed at an angle above it. But from the sea this ridge entirely hid anyone who lay in ambush behind it. The reporter watched fifty moujiks flat on their stomachs crawling up the ridge, behind two of their number whose heads alone topped the ridge. In the line of gaze taken by those two heads was the white sail, looming much larger now. The yacht was heeled in the water and glided with real elegance, heading straight on. Suddenly, just when they supposed she was coming straight to shore, the sails fell and a canoe was dropped over the side. Four men got into it; then a woman jumped lightly down a little gangway into the canoe. It was Natacha. Koupriane had no difficulty in recognizing her through the gathering darkness.
"Ah, my dear Monsieur Rouletabille," said he, "see your prisoner of the Nihilists. Notice how she is bound. Her thongs certainly are causing her great pain. These revolutionaries surely are brutes!"
The truth was that Natacha had gone quite readily to the rudder and while the others rowed she steered the light boat to the place on the beach that had been pointed out to her. Soon the prow of the canoe touched the sands. There did not seem to be a soul about, and that was the conclusion the men in the canoe who stood up looking around, seemed to reach. They jumped out, and then it was Natacha's turn. She accepted the hand held out to her, talking pleasantly with the men all the time. She even turned to press the hand of one of them. The group came up across the beach. All this time the watchers in the little eating-house could see the false moujiks, who had wriggled on their stomachs to the very edge of the ridge, hold ing themselves ready to spring.
Behind his shutter, Koupriane could not restrain an exclamation of triumph; he gradually identified some of the figures in the group, and muttered:
"Eh! eh! There is Priemkof himself and the others. Gounsovski is right and he certainly is well-informed; his system is decidedly a good one. What a net-full!"
He hardly breathed as he watched the outcome. He could discern elsewhere, beside the bay, flat on the ground, concealed by the slightest elevation of the soil, other false moujiks. The wood of Sestroriesk was watched in the same way. The group of revolutionaries who strolled behind Natacha stopped to confer. In three - maybe two - minutes, they would be surrounded - cut off, taken in the trap. Suddenly a gunshot sounded in the night, and the group, with startled speed, turned in their tracks and made silently for the sea, while from all directions poured the concealed agents and threw themselves into the pursuit, jostling each other and crying after the fugitives. But the cries became cries of rage, for the group of revolutionaries gained the beach. They saw Natacha, who was held up by Priemkof himself, reject the aid of the Nihilist, who did not wish to abandon her, in order that he might save himself. She made him go and seeing that she was going to be taken, stopped short and waited for the enemy stoically, with folded arms. Meanwhile, her three companions succeeded in throwing themselves into the canoe and plied the oars hard while Koupriane's men, in the water up to their chests, discharged their revolvers at the fugitives. The men in the canoe, fearing to wound Natacha, made no reply to the firing. The yacht had sails up by the time they drew alongside, and made off like a bird toward the mysterious fords of Finland, audaciously hoisting the black flag of the Revolution.
Meantime, Koupriane's agents, trembling before his anger, gathered at the eating-house. The Prefect of Police let his fury loose on them and treated them like the most infamous of animals. The capture of Natacha was little comfort. He had planned for the whole bag, and his men's stupidity took away all his self-control. If he had had a whip at hand he would have found prompt solace for his mined hopes. Natacha, standing in a corner, with her face singularly calm, watched this extraordinary scene that was like a menagerie in which the tamer himself had become a wild beast. From another corner, Rouletabille kept his eyes fixed on Natacha who ignored him. Ah, that girl, sphinx to them all! Even to him who thought a while ago that he could read things invisible to other vulgar men in her features, in her eyes! The impassive face of that girl whose father they had tried to assassinate only a few hours before and who had just pressed the hand of Priemkof, the assassin! Once she turned her head slightly toward Rouletabille. The reporter then looked towards her with increased eagerness, his eyes burning, as though he would say: "Surely, Natacha, you are not the accomplice of your father's assassins; surely it was not you who poured the poison!"
But Natacha's glance passed the reporter coldly over. Ah, that mysterious, cold mask, the mouth with its bitter, impudent smile, an atrocious smile which seemed to say to the reporter: "If it is not I who poured the poison, then it is you!"
It was the visage common enough to the daughters whom Koupriane had spoken of a little while before, "the young girls who read" and, their reading done, set themselves to accomplish some terrible thing, some thing because of which, from time to time, they place stiff ropes around the necks of these young females.
Finally, Koupriane's frenzy wore itself out and he made a sign. The men filed out in dismal silence. Two of them remained to guard Natacha. From outside came the sounds of a carriage from Sestroriesk ready to convey the girl to the Dungeons of Sts. Peter and Paul. A final gesture from the Prefect of Police and the rough bands of the two guards seized the prisoner's frail wrists. They hustled her along, thrust her outside, jamming her against the doorway, venting thus their anger at the reproaches of their chief. A few seconds later the carriage departed, not to stop until the fortress was reached with the trickling tombs under the bed of theriver where young girls about to die are confined - who have read too much, without entirely understanding, as Monsieur Kropotkine says.
Koupriane prepared to leave in turn. Rouletabille stopped him.
"Excellency, I wish you to tell me why you have shown such anger to your men just now."
"They are brute beasts," cried the Chief of Police, quite beside himself again. "They have made me miss the biggest catch of my life. They threw themselves on the group two minutes too early. Some of them fired a gun that they took for the signal and that served to warn the Nihilists. But I will let them all rot in prison until I learn which one fired that shot."
"You needn't look far for that," said Rouletabille. "I did it."
"You! Then you must have gone outside the touba?"
"Yes, in order to warn them. But still I was a little late, since you did take Natacha."
Koupriane's eyes blazed.
"You are their accomplice in all this," he hurled at the reporter, "and I am going to the Tsar for permission to arrest you."
"Hurry, then, Excellency," replied the reporter coldly, "because the Nihilists, who also think they have a little account to settle with me, may reach me before you."
And he saluted.