The Secret of the Night by Gaston Leroux
VII. Arsenate of Soda
The mysterious hand held a phial and poured the entire contents into the potion. Then the hand withdrew as it had come, slowly, prudently, slyly, and the key turned in the lock and the bolt slipped back into place.
Like a wolf, Rouletabille, warning Matrena for a last time not to budge, gained the landing-place, bounded towards the stairs, slid down the banister right to the veranda, crossed the drawing-room like a flash, and reached the little sitting-room without having jostled a single piece of furniture. He noticed nothing, saw nothing. All around was undisturbed and silent.
The first light of dawn filtered through the blinds. He was able to make out that the only closed door was the one to Natacha's chamber. He stopped before that door, his heart beating, and listened. But no sound came to his ear. He had glided so lightly over the carpet that he was sure he had not been heard. Perhaps that door would open. He waited. In vain. It seemed to him there was nothing alive in that house except his heart. He was stifled with the horror that he glimpsed, that he almost touched, although that door remained closed. He felt along the wall in order to reach the window, and pulled aside the curtain. Window and blinds of the little room giving on the Neva were closed. The bar of iron inside was in its place. Then he went to the passage, mounted and descended the narrow servants' stairway, looked all about, in all the rooms, feeling everywhere with silent hands, assuring himself that no lock had been tampered with. On his return to the veranda, as he raised his head, he saw at the top of the main staircase a figure wan as death, a spectral apparition amid the shadows of the passing night, who leaned toward him. It was Matrena Petrovna. She came down, silent as a phantoms and he no longer recognized her voice when she demanded of him, "Where? I require that you tell me. Where?"
"I have looked everywhere," he said, so low that Matrena had to come nearer to understand his whisper. "Everything is shut tight. And there is no one about."
Matrena looked at Rouletabille with all the power of her eyes, as though she would discover his inmost thoughts, but his clear glance did not waver, and she saw there was nothing he wished to hide. Then Matrena pointed her finger at Natacha's chamber.
"You have not gone in there?" she inquired.
He replied, "It is not necessary to enter there."
"I will enter there, myself, nevertheless," said she, and she set her teeth.
He barred her way with his arms spread out.
"If you hold the life of someone dear," said he, "don't go a step farther."
"But the person is in that chamber. The person is there! It is there you will find out!" And she waved him aside with a gesture as though she were sleepwalking.
To recall her to the reality of what he had said to her and to make her understand what he desired, he had to grip her wrist in the vice of his nervous hand.
"The person is not there, perfhaps," he said his head. "Understand me now."
But she did not understand him. She said:
"Since the person is nowhere else, the person must be there."
But Rouletabille continued obstinately:
"No, no. Perhaps he is gone."
"Gone! And everything locked on the inside!"
"That is not a reason," he replied.
But she could not follow his thoughts any further. She wished absolutely to make her way into Natacha's chamber. The obsession of that was upon her.
"If you enter there," said he, "and if (as is most probable) you don't find what you seek there, all is lost! And as to me, I give up the whole thing."
She sank in a heap onto a chair.
"Don't despair," he murmured. "We don't know for sure yet."
She shook her poor old head dejectedly.
"We know that only she is here, since no one has been able to enter and since no one has been able to leave."
That, in truth, filled her brain, prevented her from discerning in any corner of her mind the thought of Rouletabille. Then the impossible dialogue resumed.
"I repeat that we do not know but that the person has gone," repeated the reporter, and demanded her keys.
"Foolish," she said. "What do you want them for?"
"To search outside as we have searched inside."
"Why, everything is locked on the inside!"
"Madame, once more, that is no reason that the person may not be outside."
He consumed five minutes opening the door of the veranda, so many were his precautions. She watched him impatiently.
He whispered to her:
"I am going out, but don't you lose sight of the little sitting-room. At the least movement call me; fire a revolver if you need to."
He slipped into the garden with the same precautions for silence. From the corner that she kept to, through the doors left open, Matrena could follow all the movements of the reporter and watch Natacha's chamber at the same time. The attitude of Rouletabille continued to confuse her beyond all expression. She watched what he did as if she thought him besotted. The dyernick on guard out in the roadway also watched the young man through the bars of the gate in consternation, as though he thought him a fool. Along the paths of beaten earth or cement which offered no chance for footprints Rouletabille hurried silently. Around him he noted that the grass of the lawn had not been trodden. And then he paid no more attention to his steps. He seemed to study attentively the rosy color in the east, breathing the delicacy of dawning morning in the Isles, amid the silence of the earth, which still slumbered.
Bare-headed, face thrown back, hands behind his back, eyes raised and fixed, he made a few steps, then suddenly stopped as if he had been given an electric shock. As soon as he seemed to have recovered from that shock he turned around and went a few steps back to another path, into which he advanced, straight ahead, his face high, with the same fixed look that he had had up to the time he so suddenly stopped, as if something or someone advised or warned him not to go further. He continually worked back toward the house, and thus he traversed all the paths that led from the villa, but in all these excursions he took pains not to place himself in the field of vision from Natacha's window, a restricted field because of its location just around an abutment of the building. To ascertain about this window he crept on all-fours up to the garden-edge that ran along the foot of the wall and had sufficient proof that no one had jumped out that way. Then he went to rejoin Matrena in the veranda.
" No one has come into the garden this morning," said he, "and no one has gone out of the villa into the garden. Now I am going to look outside the grounds. Wait here; I'll be back in five minutes."
He went away, knocked discreetly on the window of the lodge and waited some seconds. Ermolai came out and opened the gate for him. Matrena moved to the threshold of the little sitting-room and watched Natacha's door with horror. She felt her legs give under her, she could not stand up under the diabolic thought of such a crime. Ah, that arm, that arm! reaching out, making its way, with a little shining phial in its hand. Pains of Christ! What could there be in the damnable books over which Natacha and her companions pored that could make such abominable crimes possible? Ah, Natacha, Natacha! it was from her that she would have desired the answer, straining her almost to stifling on her rough bosom and strangling her with her own strong hand that she might not hear the response. Ah, Natacha, Natacha, whom she had loved so much! She sank to the floor, crept across the carpet to the door, and lay there, stretched like a beast, and buried her bead in her arms while she wept over her daughter. Natacha, Natacha, whom she had cherished as her own child, and who did not hear her. Ah, what use that the little fellow had gone to search outside when the whole truth lay behind this door? Thinking of him, she was embarrassed lest he should find her in that animalistic posture, and she rose to her knees and worked her way over to the window that looked out upon the Neva. The angle of the slanting blinds let her see well enough what passed. outside, and what she saw made her spring to her feet. Below her the reporter was going through the same incomprehensible maneuvers that she had seen him do in the garden. Three pathways led to the little road that ran along the wall of the villa by the bank of the Neva. The young man, still with his hands behind his back and with his face up, took them one after the other. In the first he stopped at the first step. He didn't take more than two steps in the second. In the third, which cut obliquely toward the right and seemed to run to the bank nearest Krestowsky Ostrow, she saw him advance slowly at first, then more quickly among the small trees and hedges. Once only he stopped and looked closely at the trunk of a tree against which he seemed to pick out something invisible, and then he continued to the bank. There he sat down on a stone and appeared to reflect, and then suddenly he cast off his jacket and trousers, picked out a certain place on the bank across from him, finished undressing and plunged into the stream. She saw at once that he swam like a porpoise, keeping beneath and showing his head from time to time, breathing, then diving below the surface again. He reached Krestowsky Ostrow in a clump of reeds. Then he disappeared. Below him, surrounded by trees, could be seen the red tiles of the villa which sheltered Boris and Michael. From that villa a person could see the window of the sitting-room in General Trebassof's residence, but not what might occur along the bank of the river just below its walls. An isvotchick drove along the distant route of Krestowsky, conveying in his carriage a company of young officers and young women who had been feasting and who sang as they rode; then deep silence ensued. Matrena's eyes searched for Rouletabille, but could not find him. How long was he going to stay hidden like that? She pressed her face against the chill window. What was she waiting for? She waited perhaps for someone to make a move on this side, for the door near her to open and the traitorous figure of The Other to appear.
A hand touched her carefully. She turned.
Rouletabille was there, his face all scarred by red scratches, without collar or neck-tie, having hastily resumed his clothes. He appeared furious as he surprised her in his disarray. She let him lead her as though she were a child. He drew her to his room and closed the door.
"Madame," he commenced, "it is impossible to work with you. Why in the world have you wept not two feet from your step-daughter's door? You and your Koupriane, you commence to make me regret the Faubourg Poissoniere, you know. Your step-daughter has certainly heard you. It is lucky that she attaches no importance at all to your nocturnal phantasmagorias, and that she has been used to them a long time. She has more sense than you, Mademoiselle Natacha has. She sleeps, or at least she pretends to sleep, which leaves everybody in peace. What reply will you give her if it happens that she asks you the reason to-day for your marching and counter-marching up and down the sitting-room and complains that you kept her from sleeping?"
Matrena only shook her old, old head.
"No, no, she has not heard me. I was there like a shadow, like a shadow of myself. She will never hear me. No one hears a shadow."
Rouletabille felt returning pity for her and spoke more gently.
"In any case, it is necessary, you must understand, that she should attach no more importance to what you have done to-night than to the things she knows of your doing other nights. It is not the first time, is it, that you have wandered in the sitting-room? You understand me? And to-morrow, madame, embrace her as you always have."
"No, not that," she moaned. "Never that. I could not."
Matrena did not reply. She wept. He took her in his arms like a child consoling its mother.
"Don't cry. Don't cry. All is not lost. Someone did leave the villa this morning."
"Oh, little domovoi! How is that? How is that? How did you find that out?"
"Since we didn't find anything inside, it was certainly necessary to find something outside."
"And you have found it?"
"The Virgin protect you!"
"SHE is with us. She will not desert us. I will even say that I believe she has a special guardianship over the Isles. She watches over them from evening to morning."
"What are you saying?"
"Certainly. You don't know what we call in France 'the watchers of the Virgin'?"
"Oh, yes, they are the webs that the dear little beasts of the good God spin between the trees and that..."
"Exactly. You understand me and you will understand further when you know that in the garden the first thing that struck me across the face as I went into it was these watchers of the Virgin spun by the dear little spiders of the good God. At first when I felt them on my face I said to myself, 'Hold on, no one has passed this way,' and so I went to search other places. The webs stopped me everywhere in the garden. But, outside the garden, they kept out of the way and let me pass undisturbed down a pathway which led to the Neva. So then I said to myself, 'Now, has the Virgin by accident overlooked her work in this pathway? Surely not. Someone has ruined it.' I found the shreds of them hanging to the bushes, and so I reached the river."
"And you threw yourself into the river, my dear angel. You swim like a little god."
"And I landed where the other landed. Yes, there were the reeds all freshly broken. And I slipped in among the bushes."
"Up to the Villa Krestowsky, madame - where they both live."
"Ah, it was from there someone came?"
There was a silence between them.
"Someone who came from the villa and who returned there. Boris or Michael, or another. They went and returned through the reeds. But in coming they used a boat; they returned by swimming."
Her customary agitation reasserted itself.
She demanded ardently:
"And you are sure that he came here and that he left here?"
"Yes, I am sure of it."
"By the sitting-room window."
"It is impossible, for we found it locked."
"It is possible, if someone closed it behind him."
She commenced to tremble again, and, falling back into her nightmarish horror, she no longer wasted fond expletives on her domovoi as on a dear little angel who had just rendered a service ten times more precious to her than life. While he listened patiently, she said brutally:
"Why did you keep me from throwing myself on him, from rushing upon him as he opened the door? Ah, I would have, I would have ... we would know."
"No. At the least noise he would have closed the door. A turn of the key and he would have escaped forever. And he would have been warned."
"Careless boy! Why then, if you knew he was going to come, didn't you leave me in the bedroom and you watch below yourself?"
"Because so long as I was below he would not have come. He only comes when there is no one downstairs."
"Ah, Saints Peter and Paul pity a poor woman. Who do you think it is, then? Who do you think it is? I can't think any more. Tell me, tell me that. You ought to know - you know everything. Come - who? I demand the truth. Who? Still some agent of the Committee, of the Central Committee? Still the Nihilists?"
"If it was only that!" said Rouletabille quietly.
"You have sworn to drive me mad! What do you mean by your 'if it was only that'?"
Rouletabille, imperturbable, did not reply.
"What have you done with the potion?" said he.
"The potion? The glass of the crime! I have locked it in my room, in the cupboard - safe, safe!"
"Ah, but, madame, it is necessary to replace it where you took it from."
"Yes, after having poured the poison into a phial, to wash the glass and fill it with another potion."
"You are right. You think of everything. If the general wakes and wants his potion, he must not be suspicious of anything, and he must be able to have his drink."
"It is not necessary that he should drink."
"Well, then, why have the drink there?"
"So that the person can be sure, madame, that if he has not drunk it is simply because he has not wished to. A pure chance, madame, that he is not poisoned. You understand me this time?"
"Yes, yes. 0 Christ! But how now, if the general wakes and wishes to drink his narcotic?"
"Tell him I forbid it. And here is another thing you must do. When - Someone - comes into the general's chamber, in the morning, you must quite openly and naturally throw out the potion, useless and vapid, you see, and so Someone will have no right to be astonished that the general continues to enjoy excellent health."
"Yes, yes, little one; you are wiser than King Solomon. And what will I do with the phial of poison?"
"Bring it to me."
She went for it and returned five minutes later.
"He is still asleep. I have put the glass on the table, out of his reach. He will have to call me."
"Very good. Then push the door to, close it; we have to talk things over."
"But if someone goes back up the servants' staircase?"
"Be easy about that. They think the general is poisoned already. It is the first care-free moment I have been able to enjoy in this house."
"When will you stop making me shake with horror, little demon! You keep your secret well, I must say. The general is sleeping better than if he really were poisoned. But what shall we do about Natacha? I dare ask you that - you and you alone."
"Nothing at all."
"How - nothing?"
"We will watch her..."
" Ah, yes, yes."
"Still, Matrena, you let me watch her by myself."
"Yes, yes, I promise you. I will not pay any attention to her. That is promised. That is promised. Do as you please. Why, just now, when I spoke of the Nihilists to you, did you say, 'If it were only that!'? You believe, then, that she is not a Nihilist? She reads such things - things like on the barricades..."
"Madame, madame, you think of nothing but Natacha. You have promised me not to watch her; promise me not to think about her."
"Why, why did you say, 'If it was only that!'?"
"Because, if there were only Nihilists in your affair, dear madame, it would be too simple, or, rather, it would have been more simple. Can you possibly believe, madame, that simply a Nihilist, a Nihilist who was only a Nihilist, would take pains that his bomb exploded from a vase of flowers? - that it would have mattered where, so long as it overwhelmed the general? Do you imagine that the bomb would have had less effect behind the door than in front of it? And the little cavity under the floor, do you believe that a genuine revolutionary, such as you have here in Russia, would amuse himself by penetrating to the villa only to draw out two nails from a board, when one happens to give him time between two visits to the dining-room? Do you suppose that a revolutionary who wished to avenge the dead of Moscow and who could succeed in getting so far as the door behind which General Trebassof slept would amuse himself by making a little hole with a pin in order to draw back the bolt and amuse himself by pouring poison into a glass? Why, in such a case, he would have thrown his bomb outright, whether it blew him up along with the villa, or he was arrested on the spot, or had to submit to the martyrdom of the dungeons in the Fortress of SS. Peter and Paul, or be hung at Schlusselburg. Isn't that what always happens? That is the way he would have done, and not have acted like a hotel-rat! Now, there is someone in your home (or who comes to your home) who acts like a hotel-rat because he does not wish to be seen, because he does not wish to be discovered, because he does not wish to be taken in the act. Now, the moment that he fears nothing so much as to be taken in the act, so that he plays all these tricks of legerdemain, it is certain that his object lies beyond the act itself, beyond the bomb, beyond the poison. Why all this necessity for bombs of deferred explosion, for clockwork placed where it will be confused with other things, and not on a bare staircase forbidden to everbody, though you visit it twenty times a day?"
"But this man comes in as he pleases by day and by night? You don't answer. You know who he is, perhaps?"
"I know him, perhaps, but I am not sure who it is yet."
"You are not curious, little domovoi doukh! A friend of the house, certainly, and who enters the house as he wishes, by night, because someone opens the window for him. And who comes from the Krestowsky Villa! Boris or Michael! Ah, poor miserable Matrena! Why don't they kill poor Matrena? Their general! Their general! And they are soldiers - soldiers who come at night to kill their general. Aided by - by whom? Do you believe that? You? Light of my eyes! you believe that! No, no, that is not possible! I want you to understand, monsieur le domovoi, that I am not able to believe anything so horrible. No, no, by Jesus Christ Who died on the Cross, and Who searches our hearts, I do not believe that Boris - who, however, has very advanced ideas, I admit - it is necessary not to forget that; very advanced; and who composes very advanced verses also, as I have always told him - I will not believe that Boris is capable of such a fearful crime. As to Michael, he is an honest man, and my daughter, my Natacha, is an honest girl. Everything looks very bad, truly, but I do not suspect either Michael or Boris or my pure and beloved Natacha (even though she has made a translation into French of very advanced verses, certainly most improper for the daughter of a general). That is what lies at the bottom of my mind, the bottom of my heart - you have understood me perfectly, little angel of paradise? Ah, it is you the general owes his life to, that Matrena owes her life. Without you this house would already be a coffin. How shall I ever reward you? You wish for nothing! I annoy you! You don't even listen to me! A coffin - we would all be in our coffins! Tell me what you desire. All that I have belongs to you!"
"I desire to smoke a pipe.
"Ah, a pipe! Do you want some yellow perfumed tobacco that I receive every month from Constantinople, a treat right from the harem? I will get enough for you, if you like it, to smoke ten thousand pipes full."
"I prefer caporal," replied Rouletabille. "But you are right. It is not wise to suspect anybody. See, watch, wait. There is always time, once the game is caught, to say whether it is a hare or a wild boar. Listen to me, then, my good mamma. We must know first what is in the phial. Where is it?"
" Here it is."
She drew it from her sleeve. He stowed it in his pocket.
"You wish the general a good appetite, for me. I am going out. I will be back in two hours at the latest. And, above all, don't let the general know anything. I am going to see one of my friends who lives in the Aptiekarski pereolek."*
* The little street of the apothecaries.
"Depend on me, and get back quickly for love of me. My blood clogs in my heart when you are not here, dear servant of God."
She mounted to the general's room and came down at least ten times to see if Rouletabille had not returned. Two hours later he was around the villa,, as he had promised. She could not keep herself from running to meet him, for which she was scolded.
"Be calm. Be calm. Do you know what was in the phial?"
"Arsenate of soda, enough to kill ten people."
"Be quiet. Go upstairs to the general."
Feodor Feodorovitch was in charming humor. It was his first good night since the death of the youth of Moscow. He attributed it to his not having touched the narcotic and resolved, once more, to give up the narcotic, a resolve Rouletabille and Matrena encouraged. During the conversation there was a knock at the door of Matrena's chamber. She ran to see who was there, and returned with Natacha, who wished to embrace her father. Her face showed traces of fatigue. Certainly she had not passed as good a night as her father, and the general reproached her for looking so downcast.
"It is true. I had dreadful dreams. But you, papa, did you sleep well? Did you take your narcotic?"
"No, no, I have not touched a drop of my potion."
"Yes, I see. Oh, well, that is all right; that is very good. Natural sleep must be coming back..."
Matrena, as though hypnotized by Rouletabille, had taken the glass from the table and ostentatiously carried it to the dressing-room to throw it out, and she delayed there to recover her self-possession.
"You will see, papa, that you will be able to live just like everyone else finally. The great thing was to clear away the police, the atrocious police; wasn't it, Monsieur Rouletabille?"
"I have always said, for myself, that I am entirely of Mademoiselle Natacha's mind. You can be entirely reassured now, and I shall leave you feeling reassured. Yes, I must think of getting my interviews done quickly, and departing. Ah well, I can only say what I think. Run things yourselves and you will not run any danger. Besides, the general gets much better, and soon I shall see you all in France, I hope. I must thank you now for your friendly hospitality."
"Ah, but you are not going? You are not going!" Matrena had already set herself to protest with all the strenuous torrent of words in her poor desolated heart, when a glance from the reporter cut short her despairing utterances.
"I shall have to remain a week still in the city. I have engaged a chamber at the Hotel de France. It is necessary. I have so many people to see and to receive. I will come to make you a little visit from time to time."
"You are then quite easy," demanded the general gravely, "at leaving me all alone?"
"Entirely easy. And, besides, I don't leave you all alone. I leave you with Madame Trebassof and Mademoiselle. I repeat: All three of you stay as I see you now. No more police, or, in any case, the fewest possible."
"He is right, he is right," repeated Natacha again.
At this moment there were fresh knocks at the door of Matrena's chamber. It was Ermolai, who announced that his Excellency the Marshal of the Court, Count Keltzof, wished to see the general, acting for His Majesty.
"Go and receive the Count, Natacha, and tell him that your father will be downstairs in a moment."
Natacha and Rouletabille went down and found the Count in the drawing-room. He was a magnificent specimen, handsome and big as one of the Swiss papal guard. He seemed watchful in all directions and all among the furniture, and was quite evidently disquieted. He advanced immediately to meet the young lady, inquiring the news.
"It is all good news," replied Natacha. "Everybody here is splendid. The general is quite gay. But what news have you, monsieur le marechal? You appear preoccupied."
The marshal had pressed Rouletabille's hand.
"And my grapes?" he demanded of Natacha.
"How, your grapes? What grapes?"
"If you have not touched them, so much the better. I arrived here very anxious. I brought you yesterday, from Krasnoie-Coelo, some of the Emperor's grapes that Feodor Feodorovitch enjoyed so much. Now this morning I learned that the eldest son of Doucet, the French head-gardener of the Imperial conservatories at Krasnoie, had died from eating those grapes, which he had taken from those gathered for me to bring here. Imagine my dismay. I knew, however, that at the general's table, grapes would not be eaten without having been washed, but I reproached myself for not having taken the precaution of leaving word that Doucet recommend that they be washed thoroughly. Still, I don't suppose it would matter. I couldn't see how my gift could be dangerous, but when I learned of little Doucet's death this morning, I jumped into the first train and came straight here."
"But, your Excellency," interrupted Natacha, "we have not seen your grapes."
"Ah, they have not been served yet? All the better. Thank goodness!"
"The Emperor's grapes are diseased, then?" interrogated Rouletabille. "Phylloxera pest has got into the conservatories?"
"Nothing can stop it, Doucet told me. So he didn't want me to leave last evening until he had washed the grapes. Unfortunately, I was pressed for time and I took them as they were, without any idea that the mixture they spray on the grapes to protect them was so deadly. It appears that in the vineyard country they have such accidents every year. They call it, I think, the ... the mixture ... "
"The Bordeaux mixture," was heard in Rouletabille's trembling voice "And do you know what it is, Your Excellency, this Bordeaux mixture?"
At this moment the general came down the stairs, clinging to the banister and supported by Matrena Petrovna.
"Well," continued Rouletabille, watching Natacha, "the Bordeaux mixture which covered the grapes you brought the general yesterday was nothing more nor less than arsenate of soda."
"Ah, God!" cried Natacha.
As for Matrena Petrovna, she uttered a low exclamation and let go the general, who almost fell down the staircase. Everybody rushed. The general laughed. Matrena, under the stringent look of Rouletabille, stammered that she had suddenly felt faint. At last they were all together in the veranda. The general settled back on his sofa and inquired:
"Well, now, were you just saying something, my dear marshal, about some grapes you have brought me?"
"Yes, indeed," said Natacha, quite frightened, "and what he said isn't pleasant at all. The son of Doucet, the court gardener, has just been poisoned by the same grapes that monsieur le marschal, it appears, brought you."
"Where was this? Grapes? What grapes? I haven't seen any grapes!" exclaimed Matrena. "I noticed you, yesterday, marshal, out in the garden, but you went away almost immediately, and I certainly was surprised that you did not come in. What is this story?"
"Well, we must clear this matter up. It is absolutely necessary that we know what happened to those grapes."
"Certainly," said Rouletabille, "they could cause a catastrophe."
"If it has not happened already," fretted the marshal.
"But how? Where are they? Whom did you give them to?"
"I carried them in a white cardboard box, the first one that came to hand in Doucet's place. I came here the first time and didn't find you. I returned again with the box, and the general was just lying down. I was pressed for my train and Michael Nikolaievitch and Boris Alexandrovitch were in the garden, so I asked them to execute my commission, and I laid the box down near them on the little garden table, telling them not to forget to tell you it was necessary to wash the grapes as Doucet expressly recommended."
"But it is unbelievable! It is terrible!" quavered Matrena. "Where can the grapes be? We must know."
"Absolutely," approved Rouletabille.
"We must ask Boris and Michael," said Natacha. "Good God! surely they have not eaten them! Perhaps they are sick."
"Here they are," said the general. All turned. Michael and Boris were coming up the steps. Rouletabille, who was in a shadowed corner under the main staircase, did not lose a single play of muscle on the two faces which for him were two problems to solve. Both faces were smiling; too smiling, perhaps.
"Michael! Boris! Come here," cried Feodor Feodorovitch. "What have you done with the grapes from monsieur le marechal?"
They both looked at him upon this brusque interrogation, seemed not to understand, and then, suddenly recalling, they declared very naturally that they had left them on the garden table and had not thought about them.
"You forgot my caution, then?" said Count Kaltzof severely.
"What caution?" said Boris. "Oh, yes, the washing of the grapes. Doucet's caution."
"Do you know what has happened to Doucet with those grapes? His eldest son is dead, poisoned. Do you understand now why we are anxious to know what has become of my grapes?"
"But they ought to be out there on the table," said Michael.
"No one can find them anywhere," declared Matrena, who, no less than Rouletabille, watched every change in the countenances of the two officers. "How did it happen that you went away yesterday evening without saying good-bye, without seeing us, without troubling yourselves whether or not the general might need you?"
"Madame," said Michael, coldly, in military fashion, as though he replied to his superior officer himself, "we have ample excuse to offer you and the general. It is necessary that we make an admission, and the general will pardon us, I am sure. Boris and I, daring the promenade, happened to quarrel. That quarrel was in full swing when we reached here and we were discussing the way to end it most promptly when monsieur le marechal entered the garden. We must make that our excuse for giving divided attention to what he had to say. As soon as he was gone we had only one thought, to get away from here to settle our difference with arms in our hands."
"Without speaking to me about it!" interrupted Trehassof. "I never will pardon that."
"You fight at such a time, when the general is threatened! It is as though you fought between yourselves in the face of the enemy. It is treason!" added Matrena.
"Madame," said Boris, "we did not fight. Someone pointed out our fault, and I offered my excuses to Michael Nikolaievitch, who generously accepted them. Is that not so, Michael Nikolaievitch?"
"And who is this that pointed out your fault?" demanded the marshal.
"Bravo, Natacha. Come, embrace me, my daughter."
The general pressed his daughter effusively to his broad chest.
"And I hope you will not have further disputing," he cried, looking over Natacha's shoulder.
"We promise you that, General," declared Boris. "Our lives belong to you."
"You did well, my love. Let us all do as well. I have passed an excellent night, messieurs. Real sleep! I have had just one long sleep."
"That is so," said Matrena slowly. "The general had no need of narcotic. He slept like a child and did not touch his potion."
"And my leg is almost well."
"All the same, it is singular that those grapes should have disappeared," insisted the marshal, following his fixed idea.
"Ermolai," called Matrena.
The old servant appeared.
"Yesterday evening, after these gentlemen had left the house, did you notice a small white box on the garden table?"
"And the servants? Have any of them been sick? The dvornicks? The schwitzar? In the kitchens? No one sick? No? Go and see; then come and tell me."
He returned, saying, "No one sick."
Like the marshal, Matrena Petrovna and Feodor Feodorovitch looked at one another, repeating in French, "No one sick! That is strange!"
Rouletabille came forward and gave the only explanation that was plausible - for the others.
"But, General, that is not strange at all. The grapes have been stolen and eaten by some domestic, and if the servant has not been sick it is simply that the grapes monsieur le marecha1 brought escaped the spraying of the Bordeaux mixture. That is the whole mystery."
"The little fellow must be right," cried the delighted marshal.
"He is always right, this little fellow," beamed Matrena, as proudly as though she had brought him into the world.
But "the little fellow," taking advantage of the greetings as Athanase Georgevitch and Ivan Petrovitch arrived, left the villa, gripping in his pocket the phial which held what is required to make grapes flourish or to kill a general who is in excellent health. When he had gone a few hundred steps toward the bridges one must cross to go into the city, he was overtaken by a panting dvornick, who brought him a letter that had just come by courier. The writing on the envelope was entirely unknown to him. He tore it open and read, in excellent French:
"Request to M. Joseph Rouletabille not to mix in matters that do not concern him. The second warning will be the last." It was signed: "The Central Revolutionary Committee."
"So, ho!" said Rouletabille, slipping the paper into his pocket, "that's the line it takes, is it! Happily I have nothing more to occupy myself with at all. It is Koupriane's turn now! Now to go to Koupriane's!"
On this date, Rouletabille's note-book: "Natacha to her father: 'But you, papa, have you had a good night? Did you take your narcotic?'
"Fearful, and (lest I confuse heaven and hell) I have no right to take any further notes."*
* As a matter of fact, after this day no more notes are found in Rouletabille's memorandum-book. The last one is that above, bizarre and romantic, and necessary, as Sainclair, the Paris advocate and friend of Rouletabille, indicates opposite it in the papers from which we have taken all the details of this story.