The Secret of the Night by Gaston Leroux
XVI. Before the Revolutionary Tribunal
Only, Rouletabille refused to be put into the basket. He would not let them disarm him until they promised to call a carriage. The Vehicle rolled into the court, and while Pere Alexis was kept back in his shop at the point of a revolver, Rouletabille quietly got in, smoking his pipe. The man who appeared to be the chief of the band (the gentleman of the Neva) got in too and sat down beside him. The carriage windows were shuttered, preventing all communication with the outside, and only a tiny lantern lighted the interior. They started. The carriage was driven by two men in brown coats trimmed with false astrakhan. The dvornicks saluted, believing it a police affair. The concierge made the sign of the cross.
The journey lasted several hours without other incidents than those brought about by the tremendous jolts, which threw the two passengers inside one on top of the other. This might have made an opening for conversation; and the "gentleman of the Neva" tried it; but in vain. Rouletabille would not respond. At one moment, indeed, the gentleman, who was growing bored, became so pressing that the reporter finally said in the curt tone he always used when he was irritated:
"I pray you, monsieur, let me smoke my pipe in peace."
Upon which the gentleman prudently occupied himself in lowering one of the windows, for it grew stifling.
Finally, after much jolting, there was a stop while the horses were changed and the gentleman asked Rouletabille to let himself be blindfolded. "The moment has come; they are going to hang me without any form of trial," thought the reporter, and when, blinded with the bandage, he felt himself lifted under the arms, there was revolt of his whole being, that being which, now that it was on the point of dying, did not wish to cease. Rouletabille would have believed himself stronger, more courageous, more stoical at least. But blind instinct swept all of this away, that instinct of conservation which had no concern with the minor bravadoes of the reporter, no concern with the fine heroic manner, of the determined pose to die finely, because the instinct of conservation, which is, as its rigid name indicates, essentially materialistic, demands only, thinks of nothing but, to live. And it was that instinct which made Rouletabille's last pipe die out unpuffed.
The young man was furious with himself, and he grew pale with the fear that he might not succeed in mastering this emotion, he took fierce hold of himself and his members, which had stiffened at the contact of seizure by rough hands, relaxed, and he allowed himself to be led. Truly, he was disgusted with his faintness and weakness. He had seen men die who knew they were going to die. His task as reporter had led him more than once to the foot of the guillotine. And the wretches he had seen there had died bravely. Extraordinarily enough, the most criminal had ordinarily met death most bravely. Of course, they had had leisure to prepare themselves, thinking a long time in advance of that supreme moment. But they affronted death, came to it almost negligently, found strength even to say banal or taunting things to those around them. He recalled above all a boy of eighteen years old who had cowardly murdered an old woman and two children in a back-country farm, and had walked to his death without a tremor, talking reassuringly to the priest and the police official, who walked almost sick with horror on either side of him. Could he, then, not be as brave as that child?
They made him mount some steps and he felt that he had entered the stuffy atmosphere of a closed room. Then someone removed the bandage. He was in a room of sinister aspect and in the midst of a rather large company.
Within these naked, neglected walls there were about thirty young men, some of them apparently quite as young as Rouletabille, with candid blue eyes and pale complexions. The others, older men, were of the physical type of Christs, not the animated Christs of Occidental painters, but those that are seen on the panels of the Byzantine school or fastened on the ikons, sculptures of silver or gold. Their long hair, deeply parted in the middle, fell upon their shoulders in curl-tipped golden masses. Some leant against the wall, erect, and motionless. Others were seated on the floor, their legs crossed. Most of them were in winter coats, bought in the bazaars. But there were also men from the country, with their skins of beasts, their sayons, their touloupes. One of them had his legs laced about with cords and was shod with twined willow twigs. The contrast afforded by various ones of these grave and attentive figures showed that representatives from the entire revolutionary party were present. At the back of the room, behind a table, three young men were seated, and the oldest of them was not more than twenty-five and had the benign beauty of Jesus on feast-days, canopied by consecrated palms.
In the center of the room a small table stood, quite bare and without any apparent purpose.
On the right was another table with paper, pens and ink-stands. It was there that Rouletabille was conducted and asked to be seated. Then he saw that another man was at his side, who was required to keep standing. His face was pale and desperate, very drawn. His eyes burned somberly, in spite of the panic that deformed his features Rouletabille recognized one of the unintroduced friends whom Gounsovski had brought with him to the supper at Krestowsky. Evidently since then the always-threatening misfortune had fallen upon him. They were proceeding with his trial. The one who seemed to preside over these strange sessions pronounced a name:
A door opened, and Annouchka appeared.
Rouletabille hardly recognized her, she was so strangely dressed, like the Russian poor, with her under-jacket of red-flannel and the handkerchief which, knotted under her chin, covered all her beautiful hair.
She immediately testified in Russian against the man, who protested until they compelled him to be silent. She drew from her pocket papers which were read aloud, and which appeared to crush the accused. He fell back onto his seat. He shivered. He hid his head in his hands, and Rouletabille saw the hands tremble. The man kept that position while the other witnesses were heard, their testimony arousing murmurs of indignation that were quickly checked. Annouchka had gone to take her place with the others against the wall, in the shadows which more and more invaded the room, at this ending of a lugubrious day. Two windows reaching to the floor let a wan light creep with difficulty through their dirty panes, making a vague twilight in the room. Soon nothing could be seen of the motionless figures against the wall, much as the faces fade in the frescoes from which the centuries have effaced the colors in the depths of orthodox convents.
Now someone from the depths of the shadow and the appalling silence read something; the verdict, doubtless.
The voice ceased.
Then some of the figures detached themselves from the wall and advanced.
The man who crouched near Rouletabille rose in a savage bound and cried out rapidly, wild words, supplicating words, menacing words.
And then - nothing more but strangling gasps. The figures that had moved out from the wall had clutched his throat.
The reporter said, "It is cowardly."
Annouchka's voice, low, from the depths of shadow, replied, "It is just."
But Rouletabille was satisfied with having said that, for he had proved to himself that he could still speak. His emotion had been such, since they had pushed him into the center of this sinister and expeditious revolutionary assembly of justice, that he thought of nothing but the terror of not being able to speak to them, to say something to them, no matter what, which would prove to them that he had no fear. Well, that was over. He had not failed to say, "That is cowardly."
And he crossed his arms. But he soon bad to turn away his head in order not to see the use the table was put to that stood in the center of the room, where it had seemed to serve no purpose.
They had lifted the man, still struggling, up onto the little table. They placed a rope about his neck. Then one of the "judges," one of the blond young men, who seemed no older than Rouletabille, climbed on the table and slipped the other end of the rope through a great ring-bolt that projected from a beam of the ceiling. During this time the man struggled futilely, and his death-rattle rose at last though the continued noise of his resistance and its overcoming. But his last breath came with so violent a shake of the body that the whole death-apparatus, rope and ring-bolt, separated from the ceiling, and rolled to the ground with the dead man.
Rouletabille uttered a cry of horror. "You are assassins!" he cried. But was the man surely dead? It was this that the pale figures with the yellow hair set themselves to make sure of. He was. Then they brought two sacks and the dead man was slipped into one of them.
Rouletabille said to them:
"You are braver when you kill by an explosion, you know."
He regretted bitterly that he had not died the night before in the explosion. He did not feel very brave. He talked to them bravely enough, but he trembled as his time approached. That death horrified him. He tried to keep from looking at the other sack. He took the two ikons, of Saint Luke and of the Virgin, from his pocket and prayed to them. He thought of the Lady in Black and wept.
A voice in the shadows said:
"He is crying, the poor little fellow."
It was Annouclika's voice.
Rouletabille dried his tears and said:
"Messieurs, one of you must have a mother."
But all the voices cried:
"No, no, we have mothers no more!"
"They have killed them," cried some. "They have sent them to Siberia," cried others.
"Well, I have a mother still," said the poor lad. "I will not have the opportunity to embrace her. It is a mother that I lost the day of my birth and that I have found again, but - I suppose it is to be said - on the day of my death. I shall not see her again. I have a friend; I shall not see him again either. I have two little ikons here for them, and I am going to write a letter to each of them, if you will permit it. Swear to me that you will see these reach them."
"I swear it," said, in French, the voice of Annouchka.
"Thanks, madame, you are kind. And now, messieurs, that is all I ask of you. I know I am here to reply to very grave accusations. Permit me to say to you at once that I admit them all to he well founded. Consequently, there need be no discussion between us. I have deserved death and I accept it. So permit me not to concern myself with what will be going on here. I ask of you simply, as a last favor, not to hasten your preparations too much, so that I may be able to finish my letters"
Upon which, satisfied with himself this time, he sat down again and commenced to write rapidly. They left him in peace, as he desired. He did not raise his head once, even at the moment when a murmur louder than usual showed that the hearers regarded Rouletabille's crimes with especial detestation. He had the happiness of having entirely completed his correspond once when they asked him to rise to hear judgment pronounced upon him. The supreme communion that he had just had with his friend Sainclair and with the dear Lady in Black restored all his spirit to him. He listened respectfully to the sentence which condcmned him to death, though he was busy sliding his tongue along the gummed edge of his envelope.
These were the counts on which he was to be hanged:
1. Because he had come to Russia and mixed in affairs that did not concern his nationality, and had done this in spite of warning to remain in France.
2. Because he had not kept the promises of neutrality he freely made to a representative of the Central Revolutionary Committee.
3. For trying to penetrate the mystery of the Trebassof datcha.
4. For having Comrade Matiew whipped and imprisoned by Koupriane.
5. For having denounced to Koupriane the identity of the two "doctors" who had been assigned to kill General Trebassof.
6. For having caused the arrest of Natacha Feodorovna.
It was a list longer than was needed for his doom. Rouletabille kissed his ikons and handed them to Annouchka along with the letters. Then he declared, with his lips trembling slightly, and a cold sweat on his forehead, that he was ready to submit to his fate.