The Secret of the Night by Gaston Leroux
"And now it's between us two, Natacha," murmured Rouletabille as soon as he was outside. He hailed the first carriage that passed and gave the address of the datcha des Iles. When he got in he held his head between his hands; his face burned, his jaws were set. But by a prodigious effort of his will he resumed almost instantly his calm, his self-control. As he went back across the Neva, across the bridge where he had felt so elated a little while before, and saw the isles again he sighed heavily. "I thought I had got it all over with, so far as I was concerned, and now I don't know where it will stop." His eyes grew dark for a moment with somber thoughts and the vision of the Lady in Black rose before him; then he shook his head, filled his pipe, lighted it, dried a tear that had been caused doubtless by a little smoke in his eye, and stopped sentimentalizing. A quarter of an hour later he gave a true Russian nobleman's fist-blow in the back to the coachman as an intimation that they had reached the Trebassof villa. A charming picture was before him. They were all lunching gayly in the garden, around the table in the summer-house. He was astonished, however, at not seeing Natacha with them. Boris Mourazoff and Michael Korsakoff were there. Rouletabille did not wish to be seen. He made a sign to Ermolai, who was passing through the garden and who hurried to meet him at the gate.
"The Barinia," said the reporter, in a low voice and with his finger to his lips to warn the faithful attendant to caution.
In two minutes Matrena Petrovna joined Rouletabille in the lodge.
"Well, where is Natacha?" he demanded hurriedly as she kissed his hands quite as though she had made an idol of him.
"She has gone away. Yes, out. Oh, I did not keep her. I did not try to hold her back. Her expression frightened me, you can understand, my little angel. My, you are impatient! What is it about? How do we stand? What have you decided? I am your slave. Command me. Command me. The keys of the villa?"
"Yes, give me a key to the veranda; you must have several. I must be able to get into the house to-night if it becomes necessary."
She drew a key from her gown, gave it to the young man and said a few words in Russian to Ermolai, to enforce upon him that he must obey the little domovoi-doukh in anything, day or night.
"Now tell me where Natacha has gone."
"Boris's parents came to see us a little while ago, to inquire after the general. They have taken Natacha away with them, as they often have done. Natacha went with them readily enough. Little domovoi, listen to me, listen to Matrena Petrovna - Anyone would have said she was expecting it!"
"Then she has gone to lunch at their house?"
"Doubtless, unless they have gone to a cafe. I don't know. Boris's father likes to have the family lunch at the Barque when it is fine. Calm yourself, little domovoi. What ails you? Bad news, eh? Any bad news?"
"No, no; everything is all right. Quick, the address of Boris's family."
"The house at the corner of La Place St. Isaac and la rue de la Poste."
"Good. Thank you. Adieu."
He started for the Place St. Isaac, and picked up an interpreter at the Grand Morskaia Hotel on the way. It might be useful to have him. At the Place St. Isaac he learned the Morazoffs and Natacha Trebassof had gone by train for luncheon at Bergalowe, one of the nearby stations in Finland.
"That is all," said he, and added apart to himself, "And perhaps that is not true."
He paid the coachman and the interpreter, and lunched at the Brasserie de Vienne nearby. He left there a half-hour later, much calmer. He took his way to the Grand Morskaia Hotel, went inside and asked the schwitzar:
"Can you give me the address of Mademoiselle Annouchka?"
"The singer of the Krestowsky?"
"That is who I mean."
"She had luncheon here. She has just gone away with the prince."
Without any curiosity as to which prince, Rouletabille cursed his luck and again asked for her address.
"Why, she lives in an apartment just across the way."
Rouletabille, feeling better, crossed the street, followed by the interpreter that he had engaged. Across the way he learned on the landing of the first floor that Mademoiselle Annouchka was away for the day. He descended, still followed by his interpreter, and recalling how someone had told him that in Russia it was always profitable to be generous, he gave five roubles to the interpreter and asked him for some information about Mademoiselle Annouchka's life in St. Petersburg. The interpreter whispered:
"She arrived a week ago, but has not spent a single night in her apartment over there.
He pointed to the house they had just left, and added:
"Merely her address for the police."
"Yes, yes," said Rouletabille, "I understand. She sings this evening, doesn't she?"
"Monsieur, it will be a wonderful debut."
"Yes, yes, I know. Thanks."
All these frustrations in the things he had undertaken that day instead of disheartening him plunged him deep into hard thinking. He returned, his hands in his pockets, whistling softly, to the Place St. Isaac, walked around the church, keeping an eye on the house at the corner, investigated the monument, went inside, examined all its details, came out marveling, and finally went once again to the residence of the Mourazoffs, was told that they had not yet returned from the Finland town, then went and shut himself in his room at the hotel, where he smoked a dozen pipes of tobacco. He emerged from his cloud of smoke at dinner-time.
At ten that evening he stepped out of his carriage before the Krestowsky. The establishment of Krestowsky, which looms among the Isles much as the Aquarium does, is neither a theater, nor a music-hall, nor a cafe-concert, nor a restaurant, nor a public garden; it is all of these and some other things besides. Summer theater, winter theater, open-air theater, hall for spectacles, scenic mountain, exercise-ground, diversions of all sorts, garden promenades, cafes, restaurants, private dining-rooms, everything is combined here that can amuse, charm, lead to the wildest orgies, or provide those who never think of sleep till toward three or four o'clock of a morning the means to await the dawn with patience. The most celebrated companies of the old and the new world play there amid an enthusiasm that is steadily maintained by the foresight of the managers: Russian and foreign dancers, and above all the French chanteuses, the little dolls of the cafes-concerts, so long as they are young, bright, and elegantly dressed, may meet their fortune there. If there is no such luck, they are sure at least to find every evening some old beau, and often some officer, who willingly pays twenty-five roubles for the sole pleasure of having a demoiselle born on the banks of the Seine for his companion at the supper-table. After their turn at the singing, these women display their graces and their eager smiles in the promenades of the garden or among the tables where the champagne-drinkers sit. The head-liners, naturally, are not driven to this wearying perambulation, but can go away to their rest if they are so inclined. However, the management is appreciative if they accept the invitation of some dignitary of the army, of administration, or of finance, who seeks the honor of hearing from the chanteuse, in a private room and with a company of friends not disposed to melancholy, the Bohemian songs of the Vieux Derevnia. They sing, they loll, they talk of Paris, and above all they drink. If sometimes the little fete ends rather roughly, it is the friendly and affectionate champagne that is to blame, but usually the orgies remain quite innocent, of a character that certainly might trouble the temperance societies but need not make M. le Senateur Berenger feel involved.
A war whose powder fumes reeked still, a revolution whose last defeated growls had not died away at the period of these events, had not at all diminished the nightly gayeties of Kretowsky. Many of the young men who displayed their uniforms that evening and called their "Nichevo" along the brilliantly lighted paths of the public gardens, or filled the open-air tables, or drank vodka at the buffets, or admired the figures of the wandering soubrettes, had come here on the eve of their departure for the war and had returned with the same child-like, enchanted smile, the same ideal of futile joy, and kissed their passing comrades as gayly as ever. Some of them had a sleeve lying limp now, or walked with a crutch, or even on a wooden leg, but it was, all the same, "Nichevo!"
The crowd this evening was denser than ordinarily, because there was the chance to hear Annouchka again for the first time since the somber days of Moscow. The students were ready to give her an ovation, and no one opposed it, because, after all, if she sang now it was because the police were willing at last. If the Tsar's government had granted her her life, it was not in order to compel her to die of hunger. Each earned a livelihood as was possible. Annouchka only knew how to sing and dance, and so she must sing and dance!
When Rouletabille entered the Krestowsky Gardens, Annouchka had commenced her number, which ended with a tremendous "Roussalka." Surrounded by a chorus of male and female dancers in the national dress and with red boots, striking tambourines with their fingers, then suddenly taking a rigid pose to let the young woman's voice, which was of rather ordinary register, come out, Annouchka had centered the attention of the immense audience upon herself. All the other parts of the establishment were deserted, the tables had been removed, and a panting crowd pressed about the open-air theater. Rouletabille stood up on his chair at the moment tumultuous "Bravos" sounded from a group of students. Annouchka bowed toward them, seeming to ignore the rest of the audience, which had not dared declare itself yet. She sang the old peasant songs arranged to present-day taste, and interspersed them with dances. They had an enormous success, because she gave her whole soul to them and sang with her voice sometimes caressing, sometimes menacing, and sometimes magnificently desperate, giving much significance to words which on paper had not aroused the suspicions of the censor. The taste of the day was obviously still a taste for the revolution, which retained its influence on the banks of the Neva. What she was doing was certainly very bold, and apparently she realized how audacious she was, because, with great adroitness, she would bring out immediately after some dangerous phrase a patriotic couplet which everybody was anxious to applaud. She succeeded by such means in appealing to all the divergent groups of her audience and secured a complete triumph for herself. The students, the revolutionaries, the radicals and the cadets acclaimed the singer, glorifying not only her art but also and beyond everything else the sister of the engineer Volkousky, who had been doomed to perish with her brother by the bullets of the Semenovsky regiment. The friends of the Court on their side could not forget that it was she who, in front of the Kremlin, had struck aside the arm of Constantin Kochkarof, ordered by the Central Revolutionary Committee to assassinate the Grand Duke Peter Alexandrovitch as he drove up to the governor's house in his sleigh. The bomb burst ten feet away, killing Constantin Kochkarof himself. It may be that before death came he had time to hear Annouchka cry to him, "Wretch! You were told to kill the prince, not to assassinate his children." As it happened, Peter Alexandrovitch held on his knees the two little princesses, seven and eight years old. The Court had wished to recompense her for that heroic act. Annouchka had spit at the envoy of the Chief of Police who called to speak to her of money. At the Hermitage in Moscow, where she sang then, some of her admirers had warned her of possible reprisals on the part of the revolutionaries. But the revolutionaries gave her assurance at once that she had nothing to fear. They approved her act and let her know that they now counted on her to kill the Grand Duke some time when he was alone; which had made Annouchka laugh. She was an enfant terrible, whose friends no one knew, who passed for very wise, and whose lines of intrigue were inscrutable. She enjoyed making her hosts in the private supper-rooms quake over their meal. One day she had said bluntly to one of the most powerful tchinovnicks of Moscow: "You, my old friend, you are president of the Black Hundred. Your fate is sealed. Yesterday you were condemned to death by the delegates of the Central Committee at Presnia. Say your prayers." The man reached for champagne. He never finished his glass. The dvornicks carried him out stricken with apoplexy. Since the time she saved the little grand-duchesses the police had orders to allow her to act and talk as she pleased. She had been mixed up in the deepest plots against the government. Those who lent the slightest countenance to such plottings and were not of the police simply disappeared. Their friends dared not even ask for news of them. The only thing not in doubt about them was that they were at hard labor somewhere in the mines of the Ural Mountains. At the moment of the revolution Annouchka had a brother who was an engineer on the Kasan-Moscow line. This Volkousky was one of the leaders on the Strike Committee. The authorities had an eye on him. The revolution started. He, with the help of his sister, accomplished one of those formidable acts which will carry their memory as heroes to the farthest posterity. Their work accomplished, they were taken by Trebassof's soldiers. Both were condemned to death. Volkousky was executed first, and the sister was taking her turn when an officer of the government arrived on horseback to stop the firing. The Tsar, informed of her intended fate, had sent a pardon by telegraph. After that she disappeared. She was supposed to have gone on some tour across Europe, as was her habit, for she spoke all the languages, like a true Bohemian. Now she had reappeared in all her joyous glory at Krestowsky. It was certain, however, that she had not forgotten her brother. Gossips said that if the government and the police showed themselves so long-enduring they found it to their interest to do so. The open, apparent life Annouclika led was less troublesome to them than her hidden activities would be. The lesser police who surrounded the Chief of the St. retersburg Secret Service, the famous Gounsovski, had meaning smiles when the matter was discussed. Among them Annouchka had the ignoble nickname, "Stool-pigeon."
Rouletabille must have been well aware of all these particulars concerning Annoucbka, for he betrayed no astonishment at the great interest and the strong emotion she aroused. From the corner where he was he could see only a bit of the stage, and he was standing on tiptoes to see the singer when he felt his coat pulled. He turned. It was the jolly advocate, well known for his gastronomic feats, Athanase Georgevitch, along with the jolly Imperial councilor, Ivan Petrovitch, who motioned him to climb down.
"Come with us; we have a box."
Rouletabille did not need urging, and he was soon installed in the front of a box where he could see the stage and the public both. Just then the curtain fell on the first part of Annouchka's performance. The friends were soon rejoined by Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff, the great timber-merchant, who came from behind the scenes.
"I have been to see the beautiful Onoto," announced the Lithuanian with a great satisfied laugh. "Tell me the news. All the girls are sulking over Annouchka's success."
"Who dragged you into the Onoto's dressing-room then? demanded Athanase.
"Oh, Gounsovski himself, my dear. He is very amateurish, you know."
"What! do you knock around with Gounsovski?"
"On my word, I tell you, dear friends, he isn't a bad acquaintance. He did me a little service at Bakou last year. A good acquaintance in these times of public trouble."
"You are in the oil business now, are you?"
"Oh, yes, a little of everything for a livelihood. I have a little well down Bakou way, nothing big; and a little house, a very small one for my small business."
"What a monopolist Thaddeus is," declared Athanase Georgevitch, hitting him a formidable slap on the thigh with his enormous hand. "Gounsovski has come himself to keep an eye on Annouchka's debut, eh? Only he goes into Onoto's dressing-room, the rogue."
"Oh, he doesn't trouble himself. Do you know who he is to have supper with? With Annouchka, my dears, and we are invited."
"How's that?" inquired the jovial councilor.
"It seems Gounsovski influenced the minister to permit Annouchka's performance by declaring he would be responsible for it all. He required from Annouchka solely that she have supper with him on the evening of her debut."
"And Annouchka consented?"
"That was the condition, it seems. For that matter, they say that Annouchka and Gounsovski don't. get along so badly together. Gounsovski has done Annouchka many a good turn. They say he is in love with her."
"He has the air of an umbrella merchant," snorted Athanase Georgevitch.
"Have you seen him at close range?" inquired Ivan.
"I have dined at his house, though it is nothing to boast of, on my word."
"That is what he said," replied Thaddeus. "When he knew we were here together, he said to me: 'Bring him, he is a charming fellow who plies a great fork; and bring that dear man Ivan Petrovitch, and all your friends.'"
"Oh, I only dined at his house," grumbled Athanase, "because there was a favor he was going to do me."
"He does services for everybody, that man," observed Ivan Petrovitch.
"Of course, of course; he ought to," retorted Athanase. "What is a chief of Secret Service for if not to do things for everybody? For everybody, my dear friends, and a little for himself besides. A chief of Secret Service has to be in with everybody, with everybody and his father, as La Fontaine says (if you know that author), if he wants to hold his place. You know what I mean."
Athanase laughed loudly, glad of the chance to show how French he could be in his allusions, and looked at Rouletabille to see if he had been able to catch the tone of the conversation; but Rouletabille was too much occupied in watching a profile wrapped in a mantilla of black lace, in the Spanish fashion, to repay Athanase's performance with a knowing smile.
"You certainly have naive notions. You think a chief of Secret Police should be an ogre," replied the advocate as he nodded here and there to his friends.
"Why, certainly not. He needs to be a sheep in a place like that, a thorough sheep. Gounsovski is soft as a sheep. The time I dined with him he had mutton streaked with fat. He is just like that. I am sure he is mainly layers of fat. When you shake hands you feel as though you had grabbed a piece of fat. My word! And when he eats he wags his jaw fattishly. His head is like that, too; bald, you know, with a cranium like fresh lard. He speaks softly and looks at you like a kid looking to its mother for a juicy meal."
"But - why - it is Natacha!" murmured the lips of the young man.
"Certainly it is Natacha, Natacha herself," exclaimed Ivan Petrovitch, who had used his glasses the better to see whom the young French journalist was looking at. "Ah, the dear child! she has wanted to see Annouchka for a long time."
"What, Natacha! So it is. So it is. Natacha! Natacha!" said the others. "And with Boris Mourazoff's parents."
"But Boris is not there," sniggered Thaddeus Tehitchnikoff.
"Oh, he can't be far away. If he was there we would see Michael Korsakoff too. They keep close on each other's heels."
"How has she happened to leave the general? She said she couldn't bear to be away from him."
"Except to see Annouchka," replied Ivan. "She wanted to see her, and talked so about it when I was there that even Feodor Feodorovitch was rather scandalized at her and Matrena Petrovna reproved her downright rudely. But what a girl wishes the gods bring about. That's the way."
"That's so, I know," put in Athanase. "Ivan Petrovitch is right. Natacha hasn't been able to hold herself in since she read that Annouchka was going to make her debut at Krestowsky. She said she wasn't going to die without having seen the great artist."
"Her father had almost drawn her away from that crowd," affirmed Ivan, "and that was as it should be. She must have fixed up this affair with Boris and his parents."
"Yes, Feodor certainly isn't aware that his daughter's idea was to applaud the heroine of Kasan station. She is certainly made of stern stuff, my word," said Athanase.
"Natacha, you must remember, is a student," said Thaddeus, shaking his head; "a true student. They have misfortunes like that now in so many families. I recall, apropos of what Ivan said just now, how today she asked Michael Korsakoff, before me, to let her know where Annouchka would sing. More yet, she said she wished to speak to that artist if it were possible. Michael frowned on that idea, even before me. But Michael couldn't refuse her, any more than the others. He can reach Annouchka easier than anyone else. You remember it was he who rode hard and arrived in time with the pardon for that beautiful witch; she ought not to forget him if she cared for her life."
"Anyone who knows Michael Nikolaievitch knows that he did his duty promptly," announced Athanase Georgevitch crisply. "But he would not have gone a step further to save Annouchka. Even now he won't compromise his career by being seen at the home of a woman who is never from under the eyes of Gounsovski's agents and who hasn't been nicknamed 'Stool-pigeon' for nothing."
"Then why do we go to supper tonight with Annouchka?" asked Ivan.
"That's not the same thing. We are invited by Gounsovski himself. Don't forget that, if stories concerning it drift about some day, my friends," said Thaddeus.
"For that matter, Thaddeus, I accept the invitation of the honorable chief of our admirable Secret Service because I don't wish to slight him. I have dined at his house already. By sitting opposite him at a public table here I feel that I return that politeness. What do you say to that?"
"Since you have dined with him, tell us what kind of a man he is aside from his fattish qualities," said the curious councilor. "So many things are said about him. He certainly seems to be a man it is better to stand in with than to fall out with, so I accept his invitation. How could you manage to refuse it, anyway?"
"When he first offered me hospitality," explained the advocate, "I didn't even know him. I never had been near him. One day a police agent came and invited me to dinner by command - or, at least, I understood it wasn't wise to refuse the invitation, as you said, Ivan Petrovitch. When I went to his house I thought I was entering a fortress, and inside I thought it must be an umbrella shop. There were umbrellas everywhere, and goloshes. True, it was a day of pouring rain. I was struck by there being no guard with a big revolver in the antechamber. He had a little, timid schwitzar there, who took my umbrella, murmuring 'barine' and bowing over and over again. He conducted me through very ordinary rooms quite unguarded to an average sitting-room of a common kind. We dined with Madame Gounsovski, who appeared fattish like her husband, and three or four men whom I had never seen anywhere. One servant waited on us. My word!
"At dessert Gounsovski took me aside and told me I was unwise to 'argue that way.' I asked him what he meant by that. He took my hands between his fat hands and repeated, 'No, no, it is not wise to argue like that.' I couldn't draw anything else out of him. For that matter, I understood him, and, you know, since that day I have cut out certain side passages unnecessary in my general law pleadings that had been giving me a reputation for rather too free opinions in the papers. None of that at my age! Ah, the great Gounsovski! Over our coffee I asked him if he didn't find the country in pretty strenuous times. He replied that he looked forward with impatience to the month of May, when he could go for a rest to a little property with a small garden that he had bought at Asnieres, near Paris. When he spoke of their house in the country Madame Gounsovski heaved a sigh of longing for those simple country joys. The month of May brought tears to her eyes. Husband and wife looked at one another with real tenderness. They had not the air of thinking for one second: to-morrow or the day after, before our country happiness comes, we may find ourselves stripped of everything. No! They were sure of their happy vacation and nothing seemed able to disquiet them under their fat. Gounsovski has done everybody so many services that no one really wishes him ill, poor man. Besides, have you noticed, my dear old friends, that no one ever tries to work harm to chiefs of Secret Police? One goes after heads of police, prefects of police, ministers, grand-dukes, and even higher, but the chiefs of Secret Police are never, never attacked. They can promenade tranquilly in the streets or in the gardens of Krestowsky or breathe the pure air of the Finland country or even the country around Paris. They have done so many little favors for this one and that, here and there, that no one wishes to do them the least injury. Each person always thinks, too, that others have been less well served than he. That is the secret of the thing, my friends, that is the secret. What do you say?"
The others said: "Ah, ah, the good Gounsovski. He knows. He knows. Certainly, accept his supper. With Annouchka it will be fun."
"Messieurs," asked Rouletabille, who continued to make discoveries in the audience, "do you know that officer who is seated at the end of a row down there in the orchestra seats? See, he is getting up."
"He? Why, that is Prince Galitch, who was one of the richest lords of the North Country. Now he is practically ruined."
"Thanks, gentlemen; certainly it is he. I know him," said Rouletabille, seating himself and mastering his emotion.
"They say he is a great admirer of Annouchka," hazarded Thaddeus. Then he walked away from the box.
"The prince has been ruined by women," said Athanase Georgevitch, who pretended to know the entire chronicle of gallantries in the empire.
"He also has been on good terms with Gounsovski," continued Thaddeus.
"He passes at court, though, for an unreliable. He once made a long visit to Tolstoi."
"Bah! Gounsovski must have rendered some signal service to that imprudent prince," concluded Athanase. "But for yourself, Thaddeus, you haven't said what you did with Gounsovski at Bakou."
(Rouletabille did not lose a word of what was being said around him, although he never lost sight of the profile hidden in the black mantle nor of Prince Galitch, his personal enemy,* who reappeared, it seemed to him, at a very critical moment.)
* as told in "The Lady In Black."
"I was returning from Balakani in a drojki," said Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff, "and I was drawing near Bakou after having seen the debris of my oil shafts that had been burned by the Tartars, when I met Gounsovski in the road, who, with two of his friends, found themselves badly off with one of the wheels of their carriage broken. I stopped. He explained to me that he had a Tartar coachman, and that this coachman having seen an Armenian on the road before him, could find nothing better to do than run full tilt into the Armenian's equipage. He had reached over and taken the reins from him, but a wheel of the carriage was broken." (Rouletabille quivered, because he caught a glance of communication between Prince Galitch and Natacha, who was leaning over the edge of her box.) "So I offered to take Gounsovski and his friends into my carriage, and we rode all together to Bakou after Gounsovski, who always wishes to do a service, as Athanase Georgevitch says, had warned his Tartar coachman not to finish the Armenian." (Prince Galitch, at the moment the orchestra commenced the introductory music for Annouchka's new number, took advantage of all eyes being turned toward the rising curtain to pass near Natacha's seat. This time he did not look at Natacha, but Rouletabille was sure that his lips had moved as he went by her.)
Thaddeus continued: "It is necessary to explain that at Bakou my little house is one of the first before you reach the quay. I had some Armenian employees there. When arrived, what do you suppose I saw? A file of soldiers with cannon, yes, with a cannon, on my word, turned against my house and an officer saying quietly, 'there it is. Fire!'" (Rouletabille made yet another discovery - two, three discoveries. Near by, standing back of Natacha's seat, was a figure not unknown to the young reporter, and there, in one of the orchestra chairs, were two other men whose faces he had seen that same morning in Koupriane's barracks. Here was where a memory for faces stood him in good stead. He saw that he was not the only person keeping close watch on Natacha.) "When I heard what the officer said," Thaddeus went on, "I nearly dropped out of the drojki. I hurried to the police commissioner. He explained the affair promptly, and I was quick to understand. During my absence one of my Armenian employees had fired at a Tartar who was passing. For that matter, he had killed him. The governor was informed and had ordered the house to be bombarded, for an example, as had been done with several others. I found Gounsovski and told him the trouble in two words. He said it wasn't necessary for him to interfere in the affair, that I had only to talk to the officer. 'Give him a good present, a hundred roubles, and he will leave your house. I went back to the officer and took him aside; he said he wanted to do anything that he could for me, but that the order was positive to bombard the house. I reported his answer to Gounsovski, who told me: 'Tell him then to turn the muzzle of the cannon the other way and bombard the building of the chemist across the way, then he can always say that he mistook which house was intended.' I did that, and he had them turn the cannon. They bombarded the chemist's place, and I got out of the whole thing for the hundred roubles. Gounsovski, the good fellow, may be a great lump of fat and be like an umbrella merchant, but I have always been grateful to him from the bottom of my heart, you can understand, Athanase Georgevitch."
"What reputation has Prince Galitch at the court?" inquired Rouletabille all at once.
"Oh, oh!" laughed the others. "Since he went so openly to visit Tolstoi he doesn't go to the court any more."
"And - his opinions? What are his opinions?"
"Oh, the opinions of everybody are so mixed nowadays, nobody knows."
Ivan Petrovitch said, "He passes among some people as very advanced and very much compromised."
"Yet they don't bother him?" inquired Rouletabille.
Pooh, pooh," replied the gay Councilor of Empire, "it is rather he who tries to mix with them."
Thaddeus stooped down and said, "They say that he can't be reached because of the hold he has over a certain great personage in the court, and it would be a scandal - a great scandal."
"Be quiet, Thaddeus," interrupted Athanase Georgevitch, roughly. "It is easy to see that you are lately from the provinces to speak so recklessly, but if you go on this way I shall leave."
"Athanase Georgevitch is right; hang onto your mouth, Thaddeus," counseled Ivan Petrovitch.
The talkers all grew silent, for the curtain was rising. In the audience there were mysterious allusions being made to this second number of Annouchka, but no one seemed able to say what it was to be, and it was, as a matter of fact, very simple. After the whirl-wind of dances and choruses and all the splendor with which she had been accompanied the first time, Annouchka appeared as a poor Russian peasant in a scene representing the barren steppes, and very simply she sank to her knees and recited her evening prayers. Annouchka was singularly beautiful. Her aquiline nose with sensitive nostrils, the clean-cut outline of her eyebrows, her look that now was almost tender, now menacing, always unusual, her pale rounded cheeks and the entire expression of her face showed clearly the strength of new ideas, spontaneity, deep resolution and, above all, passion. The prayer was passionate. She had an admirable contralto voice which affected the audience strangely from its very first notes. She asked God for daily bread for everyone in the immense Russian land, daily bread for the flesh and for the spirit, and she stirred the tears of everyone there, to which-ever party they belonged. And when, as her last note sped across the desolate steppe and she rose and walked toward the miserable hut, frantic bravos from a delirious audience told her the prodigious emotions she had aroused. Little Rouletabille, who, not understanding the words, nevertheless caught the spirit of that prayer, wept. Everybody wept. Ivan Petrovitcb, Atbanase Georgevitch, Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff were standing up, stamping their feet and clapping their hands like enthusiastic boys. The students, who could be easily distinguished by the uniform green edging they wore on their coats, uttered insensate cries. And suddenly there rose the first strains of the national hymn. There was hesitation at first, a wavering. But not for long. Those who had been dreading some counter-demonstration realized that no objection could possibly be raised to a prayer for the Tsar. All heads uncovered and the Bodje Taara Krari mounted, unanimously, toward the stars.
Through his tears the young reporter never gave up his close watch on Natacha. She had half risen, and, sinking back, leaned on the edge of the box. She called, time and time again, a name that Rouletabille could not hear in the uproar, but that he felt sure was "Annouchka! Annouchka!" "The reckless girl," murmured Rouletabille, and, profiting by the general excitement, he left the box without being noticed. He made his way through the crowd toward Natacha, whom he had sought futilely since morning. The audience, after clamoring in vain for a repetition of the prayer by Annouchka, commenced to disperse, and the reporter was swept along with them for a few moments. When he reached the range of boxes he saw that Natacha and the family she had been with were gone. He looked on all sides without seeing the object of his search and like a madman commenced to run through the passages, when a sudden idea struck his blood cold. He inquired where the exit for the artists was and as soon as it was pointed out, he hurried there. He was not mistaken. In the front line of the crowd that waited to see Annouchka come out he recognized Natacha, with her head enveloped in the black mantle so that none should see her face. Besides, this corner of the garden was in a half-gloom. The police barred the way; he could not approach as near Natacha as he wished. He set himself to slip like a serpent through the crowd. He was not separated from Natacha by more than four or five persons when a great jostling commenced. Annouchka was coming out. Cries rose: "Annouchka! Annouchka!" Rouletabille threw himself on his knees and on all-fours succeeded in sticking his head through into the way kept by the police for Annouchka's passage. There, wrapped in a great red mantle, his hat on his arm, was a man Rouletabille immediately recognized. It was Prince Galitch. They were hurrying to escape the impending pressure of the crowd. But Annouchka as she passed near Natacha stopped just a second - a movement that did not escape Rouletabille - and, turning toward her said just the one word, "Caracho." Then she passed on. Rouletabille got up and forced his way back, having once more lost Natacha. He searched for her. He ran to the carriage-way and arrived just in time to see her seated in a carriage with the Mourazoff family. The carriage started at once in the direction of the datcha des Iles. The young man remained standing there, thinking. He made a gesture as though he were ready now to let luck take its course. "In the end," said he, "it will be better so, perhaps," and then, to himself, "Now to supper, my boy."
He turned in his tracks and soon was established in the glaring light of the restaurant. Officers standing, glass in hand, were saluting from table to table and waving a thousand compliments with grace that was almost feminine.
He heard his name called joyously, and recognized the voice of Ivan Petrovitch. The three boon companions were seated over a bottle of champagne resting in its ice-bath and were being served with tiny pates while they waited for the supper-hour, which was now near.
Rouletabille yielded to their invitation readily enough, and accompanied them when the head-waiter informed Thaddeus that the gentlemen were desired in a private room. They went to the first floor and were ushered into a large apartment whose balcony opened on the hall of the winter-theater, empty now. But the apartment was already occupied. Before a table covered with a shining service Gounsovski did the honors.
He received them like a servant, with his head down, an obsequious smile, and his back bent, bowing several times as each of the guests were presented to him. Athanase had described him accurately enough, a mannikin in fat. Under the vast bent brow one could hardly see his eyes, behind the blue glasses that seemed always ready to fall as he inclined too far his fat head with its timid and yet all-powerful glance. When he spoke in his falsetto voice, his chin dropped in a fold over his collar, and he had a steady gesture with the thumb and index finger of his right hand to retain the glasses from sliding down his short, thick nose.
Behind him there was the fine, haughty silhouette of Prince Galitch. He had been invited by Annouchka, for she had consented to risk this supper only in company with three or four of her friends, officers who could not be further compromised by this affair, as they were already under the eye of the Okrana (Secret Police) despite their high birth. Gounsovski had seen them come with a sinister chuckle and had lavished upon them his marks of devotion.
He loved Annouchka. It would have sufficed to have surprised just once the jealous glance he sent from beneath his great blue glasses when he gazed at the singer to have understood the sentiments that actuated him in the presence of the beautiful daughter of the Black Land.
Annouchka was seated, or, rather, she lounged, Oriental fashion, on the sofa which ran along the wall behind the table. She paid attention to no one. Her attitude was forbidding, even hostile. She indifferently allowed her marvelous black hair that fell in two tresses over her shoulder to be caressed by the perfumed hands of the beautiful Onoto, who had heard her this evening for the first time and had thrown herself with enthusiasm into her arms after the last number. Onoto was an artist too, and the pique she felt at first over Annouchka's success could not last after the emotion aroused by the evening prayer before the hut. "Come to supper," Annouchka had said to her.
"With whom?" inquired the Spanish artist.
"Do come. You will help me pay my debt and perhaps he will be useful to you as well. He is useful to everybody."
Decidedly Onoto did not understand this country, where the worst enemies supped together.
Rouletabille had been monopolized at once by Prince Galitch, who took him into a corner and said:
"What are you doing here?"
"Do I inconvenience you?" asked the boy.
The other assumed the amused smile of the great lord.
"While there is still time," he said, "believe me, you ought to start, to quit this country. Haven't you had sufficient notice?"
"Yes," replied the reporter. "And you can dispense with any further notice from this time on."
He turned his back.
"Why, it is the little Frenchman from the Trebassof villa," commenced the falsetto voice of Gounsovski as he pushed a seat towards the young man and begged him to sit between him and Athanase Georgevitch, who was already busy with the hors-doeuvres.
"How do you do, monsieur?" said the beautiful, grave voice of Annouchka.
"I see that I am in a country of acquaintances," he said, without appearing disturbed.
He addressed a lively compliment to Annouchka, who threw him a kiss.
"Rouletabille!" cried la belle Onoto. "Why, then, he is the little fellow who solved the mystery of the Yellow Room."
"What are you doing here?"
"He came to save the life of General Trebassof," sniggered Gounsovski. "He is certainly a brave little young man."
"The police know everything," said Rouletabille coldly. And he asked for champagne, which he never drank.
The champagne commenced its work. While Thaddeus and the officers told each other stories of Bakou or paid compliments to the women, Gounsovski, who was through with raillery, leaned toward Rouletabille and gave that young man fatherly counsel with great unction.
"You have undertaken, young man, a noble task and one all the more difficult because General Trebassof is condemned not only by his enemies but still more by the ignorance of Koupriane. Understand me thoroughly: Koupriane is my friend and a man whom I esteem very highly. He is good, brave as a warrior, but I wouldn't give a kopeck for his police. He has mixed in our affairs lately by creating his own secret police, but I don't wish to meddle with that. It amuses us. It's the new style, anyway; everybody wants his secret police nowadays. And yourself, young man, what, after all, are you doing here? Reporting? No. Police work? That is our business and your business. I wish you good luck, but I don't expect it. Remember that if you need any help I will give it you willingly. I love to be of service. And I don't wish any harm to befall you."
"You are very kind, monsieur," was all Rouletabille replied, and he called again for champagne.
Several times Gounsovski addressed remarks to Annouchka, who concerned herself with her meal and had little answer for him.
"Do you know who applauded you the most this evening?"
"No," said Annouchka indifferently.
"The daughter of General Trebassof."
"Yes, that is true, on my word," cried Ivan Petrovitch.
"Yes, yes, Natacba was there," joined in the other friends from the datcha des Iles.
"For me, I saw her weep," said Rouletabille, looking at Annouchka fixedly.
But Annouchka replied in an icy tone:
"I do not know her."
"She is unlucky in having a father..." Prince Galitch commenced.
"Prince, no politics, or let me take my leave," clucked Gounsovski. "Your health, dear Annouchka."
"Your health, Gounsovski. But you have no worry about that."
"Why?" demanded Thaddeus Tchitcbnikoff in equivocal fashion.
"Because he is too useful to the government," cried Ivan Petrovitch.
"No," replied Annouchka; "to the revolutionaries."
All broke out laughing. Gounsovski recovered his slipping glasses by his usual quick movement and sniggered softly, insinuatingly, like fat boiling in the pot:
"So they say. And it is my strength."
"His system is excellent," said the prince. "As he is in with everybody, everybody is in with the police, without knowing it."
"They say ... ah,ah ... they say ..." (Athanase was choking over a little piece of toast that he had soaked in his soup) "they say that he has driven away all the hooligans and even all the beggars of the church of Kasan."
Thereupon they commenced to tell stories of the hooligans, street-thieves who since the recent political troubles had infested St. Petersburg and whom nobody, could get rid of without paying for it.
Athanase Georgevitch said:
"There are hooligans that ought to have existed even if they never have. One of them stopped a young girl before Varsovie station. The girl, frightened, immediately held out her purse to him, with two roubles and fifty kopecks in it. The hooligan took it all. 'Goodness,' cried she, 'I have nothing now to take my train with.' 'How much is it?' asked the hooligan. 'Sixty kopecks.' 'Sixty kopecks! Why didn't you say so?' And the bandit, hanging onto the two roules, returned the fifty-kopeck piece to the trembling child and added a ten-kopeck piece out of his own pocket."
"Something quite as funny happened to me two winters ago, at Moscow," said la belle Onoto. "I had just stepped out of the door when I was stopped by a hooligan. 'Give me twenty kopecks,' said the hooligan. I was so frightened that I couldn't get my purse open. 'Quicker,' said he. Finally I gave him twenty kopecks. 'Now,' said he then, 'kiss my hand.' And I had to kiss it, because he held his knife in the other."
"Oh, they are quick with their knives," said Thaddeus. "As I was leaving Gastinidvor once I was stopped by a hooligan who stuck a huge carving-knife under my nose. 'You can have it for a rouble and a half,' he said. You can believe that I bought it without any haggling. And it was a very good bargain. It was worth at least three roubles. Your health, belle Onoto."
"I always take my revolver when I go out," said Athanase. "It is more prudent. I say this before the police. But I would rather be arrested by the police than stabbed by the hooligans."
"There's no place any more to buy revolvers," dedared Ivan Petrovitch. "All such places are closed."
Gounsovski settled his glasses, rubbed his fat hands and said:
"There are some still at my locksmith's place. The proof is that to-day in the little Kaniouche my locksmith, whose name is Smith, when into the house of the grocer at the corner and wished to sell him a revolver. It was a Browning. 'An arm of the greatest reliability,' he said to him, 'which never misses fire and which works very easily.' Having pronounced these words, the locksmith tried his revolver and lodged a ball in the grocer's lung. The grocer is dead, but before he died he bought the revolver. 'You are right,' he said to the locksmith; 'it is a terrible weapon.' And then he died."
The others laughed heartily. They thought it very funny. Decidedly this great Gounsovski always had a funny story. Who would not like to be his friend? Annouchka had deigned to smile. Gounsovski, in recognition, extended his hand to her like a mendicant. The young woman touched it with the end of her fingers, as if she were placing a twenty-kopeck piece in the hand of a hooligan, and withdrew from it with disgust. Then the doors opened for the Bohemians. Their swarthy troupe soon filled the room. Every evening men and women in their native costumes came from old Derevnia, where they lived all together in a sort of ancient patriarchal community, with customs that had not changed for centuries; they scattered about in the places of pleasure, in the fashionable restaurants, where they gathered large sums, for it was a fashionable luxury to have them sing at the end of suppers, and everyone showered money on them in order not to be behind the others. They accompanied on guzlas, on castanets, on tambourines, and sang the old airs, doleful and languorous, or excitable and breathiess as the flight of the earliest nomads in the beginnings of the world.
When they had entered, those present made place for them, and Rouletabille, who for some moments had been showing marks of fatigue and of a giddiness natural enough in a young man who isn't in the habit of drinking the finest champagnes, profited by the diversion to get a corner of the sofa not far from Prince Galitch, who occupied the place at Annouchka's right.
"Look, Rouletabaille is asleep," remarked la belle Onoto.
"Poor boy!" said Annouchka.
And, turning toward Gounsovski:
"Aren't you soon going to get him out of our way? I heard some of our brethren the other day speaking in a way that would cause pain to those who care about his health."
"Oh, that," said Gounsovski, shaking his head, "is an affair I have nothing to do with. Apply to Koupriane. Your health, belle Annouchka."
But the Bohemians swept some opening chords for their songs, and the singers took everybody's attention, everybody excepting Prince Galitch and Annouchka, who, half turned toward one another, exchanged some words on the edge of all this musical uproar. As for Rouletabille, he certainly must have been sleeping soundly not to have been waked by all that noise, melodious as it was. It is true that be had - apparently - drunk a good deal and, as everyone knows, in Russia drink lays out those who can't stand it. When the Bohemians had sung three times Gounsovski made a sign that they might go to charm other ears, and slipped into the hands of the chief of the band a twenty-five rouble note. But Onoto wished to give her mite, and a regular collection commenced. Each one threw roubles into the plate held out by a little swarthy Bohemian girl with crow-black hair, carelessly combed, falling over her forehead, her eyes and her face, in so droll a fashion that one would have said the little thing was a weeping-willow soaked in ink. The plate reached Prince Galitch, who futilely searched his pockets.
"Bah!" said he, with a lordly air, "I have no money. But here is my pocket-book; I will give it to you for a souvenir of me, Katharina."
Thaddeus and Athanase exclaimed at the generosity of the prince, but Annouchka said:
"The prince does as he should, for my friends can never sufficiently repay the hospitality that that little thing gave me in her dirty hut when I was in hiding, while your famous department was deciding what to do about me, my dear Gounsovski."
"Eh," replied Gounsovski, "I let you know that all you had to do was to take a fine apartment in the city."
Annouchka spat on the ground like a teamster, and Gounsoyski from yellow turned green.
"But why did you hide yourself that way, Annouchka?" asked Onoto as she caressed the beautiful tresses of the singer.
"You know I had been condemned to death, and then pardoned. I had been able to leave Moscow, and I hadn't any desire to be re-taken here and sent to taste the joys of Siberia."
"But why were you condemned to death?"
"Why, she doesn't know anything! " exclaimed the others.
"Good Lord, I'm just back from London and Paris - how should I know anything! But to have been condemned to death! That must have been amusing."
"Very amusing," said Annouchka icily. "And if you have a brother whom you love, Onoto, think how mnch more amusing it must be to have him shot before you."
"Oh, my love, forgive me!"
"So you may know and not give any pain to your Annouchka in the future, I will tell you, madame, what happened to our dear friend," said Prince Galitch.
"We would do better to drive away such terrible memories," ventured Gounsovski, lifting his eyelashes behind his glasses, but he bent his head as Annouchka sent him a blazing glance.
The Prince did as she said.
"Annouchka had a brother, Vlassof, an engineer on the Kasan line, whom the Strike Committee had ordered to take out a train as the only means of escape for the leaders of the revolutionary troops when Trebassof's soldiers, aided by the Semenowsky regiment, had become masters of the city. The last resistance took place at the station. It was necessary to get started. All the ways were guarded by the military. There were soldiers everywhere! Vlassof said to his comrades, 'I will save you;' and his comrades saw him mount the engine with a woman. That woman was - well, there she sits. Viassof's fireman had been killed the evening before, on a barricade; it was Annouchka who took his place. They busied themselves and the train started like a shot. On that curved line, discovered at once, easy to attack, under a shower of bullets, Vlassof developed a speed of ninety versts an hour. He ran the indicator up to the explosion point. The lady over there continued to pile coal into the furnace. The danger came to be less from the military and more from an explosion at any moment. In the midst of the balls Vlassof kept his usual coolness. He sped not only with the firebox open but with the forced draught. It was a miracle that the engine was not smashed against the curve of the embankment. But they got past. Not a man was hurt. Only a woman was wounded. She got a ball in the chest."
"There!" cried Annouchka.
With a magnificent gesture she flung open her white and heaving chest, and put her finger on a scar that Gounsovski, whose fat began to melt in heavy drops of sweat about his temples, dared not look at.
"Fifteen days later," continued the prince, "Viassof entered an inn at Lubetszy. He didn't know it was full of soldiers. His face never altered. They searched him. They found a revolver and papers on him. They knew whom they had to do with. He was a good prize. Viassof was taken to Moscow and condemned to be shot. His sister, wounded as she was, learned of his arrest and joined him. 'I do not wish,' she said to him, 'to leave you to die alone.' She also was condemned. Before the execution the soldiers offered to bandage their eyes, but both refused, saying they preferred to meet death face to face. The orders were to shoot all the other condemned revolutionaries first, then Vlassof, then his sister. It was in vain that Vlassof asked to die last. Their comrades in execution sank to their knees, bleeding from their death wounds. Vlassof embraced his sister and walked to the place of death. There he addressed the soldiers: 'Now you have to carry out your duty according to the oath you have taken. Fulfill it honestly as I have fulfilled mine. Captain, give the order.' The volley sounded. Vlassof remained erect, his arms crossed on his breast, safe and sound. Not a ball had touched him. The soldiers did not wish to fire at him. He had to summon them again to fulfill their duty, and obey their chief. Then they fired again, and he fell. He looked at his sister with his eyes full of horrible suffering. Seeing that he lived, and wishing to appear charitable, the captain, upon Annouchka's prayers, approached and cut short his sufferings by firing a revolver into his ear. Now it was Annouchka's turn. She knelt by the body of her brother, kissed his bloody lips, rose and said, 'I am ready.' As the guns were raised, an officer came running, bearing the pardon of the Tsar. She did not wish it, and she whom they had not bound when she was to die had to be restrained when she learned she was to live."
Prince Galitch, amid the anguished silence of all there, started to add some words of comment to his sinister recital, but Annouchka interrupted:
"The story is ended," said she. "Not a word, Prince. If I asked you to tell it in all its horror, if I wished you to bring back to us the atrocious moment of my brother's death, it is so that monsieur" (her fingers pointed to Gounsovski) "shall know well, once for all, that if I have submitted for some hours now to this promiscuous company that has been imposed upon me, now that I have paid the debt by accepting this abominable supper, I have nothing more to do with this purveyor of bagnios and of hangman's ropes who is here."
"She is mad," he muttered. "She is mad. What has come over her? What has happened? Only to-day she was so, so amiable."
And he stuttered, desolately, with an embarrassed laugh:
"Ah, the women, the women! Now what have I done to her?"
"What have you done to me, wretch? Where are Belachof, Bartowsky and Strassof? And Pierre Slutch? All the comrades who swore with me to revenge my brother? Where are they? On what gallows did you have them hung? What mine have you buried them in? And still you follow your slavish task. And my friends, my other friends, the poor comrades of my artist life, the inoffensive young men who have not committed any other crime than to come to see me too often when I was lively, and who believed they could talk freely in my dressing-room - where are they? Why have they left me, one by one? Why have they disappeared? It is you, wretch, who watched them, who spied on them, making me, I haven't any doubt, your horrible accomplice, mixing me up in your beastly work, you dog! You knew what they call me. You have known it for a long time, and you may well laugh over it. But I, I never knew until this evening; I never learned until this evening all I owe to you. 'Stool pigeon! Stool pigeon!' I! Horror! Ah, you dog, you dog! Your mother, when you were brought into the world, your mother ..." Here she hurled at him the most offensive insult that a Russian can offer a man of that race.
She trembled and sobbed with rage, spat in fury, and stood up ready to go, wrapped in her mantle like a great red flag. She was the statue of hate and vengeance. She was horrible and terrible. She was beautiful. At the final supreme insult, Gounsovski started and rose to his feet as though he had received an actual blow in the face. He did not look at Annouchka, but fixed his eyes on Prince Galitch. His finger pointed him out:
"There is the man," he hissed, "who has told you all these fine things."
"Yes, it is I," said the Prince, tranquilly.
"Caracho!" barked Gounsovski, instantaneously regaining his coolness.
"Ah, yes, but you'll not touch him," clamored the spirited girl of the Black Land; "you are not strong enough for that."
"I know that monsieur has many friends at court," agreed the chief of the Secret Service with an ominous calm. "I 'don't wish ill to monsieur. You speak, madame, of the way some of your friends have had to be sacrificed. I hope that some day you will be better informed, and that you will understand I saved all of them I could."
"Let us go," muttered Annouchka. "I shall spit in his face."
"Yes, all I could," replied the other, with his habitual gesture of hanging on to his glasses. "And I shall continue to do so. I promise you not to say anything more disagreeable to the prince than as regards his little friend the Bohemian Katharina, whom he has treated so generously just now, doubtless because Boris Mourazoff pays her too little for the errands she runs each morning to the villa of Krestowsky Ostrow."
At these words the Prince and Annouchka both changed countenance. Their anger rose. Annouchka turned her head as though to arrange the folds of her cloak. Galitch contented himself with shrugging his shoulders impatiently and murmuring:
"Still some other abomination that you are concocting, monsieur, and that we don't know how to reply to."
After which he bowed to the supper-party, took Annouchka's arm and had her move before him. Gounsovski bowed, almost bent in two. When he rose he saw before him the three astounded and horrified figures of Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff, Ivan Petrovitch and Athanase Georgevitch.
"Messieurs," he said to them, in a colorless voice which seemed not to belong to him, "the time has come for us to part. I need not say that we have supped as friends and that, if you wish it to be so, we can forget everything that has been said here.
The three others, frightened, at once protested their discretion. He added, roughly this time, "Service of the Tsar," and the three stammered, "God save the Tsar!" After which he saw them to the door. When the door had closed after them, he said, "My little Annouchka, you mustn't reckon without me." He hurried toward the sofa, where Rouletabille was lying forgotten, and gave him a tap on the shoulder.
"Come, get up. Don't act as though you were asleep. Not an instant to lose. They are going to carry through the Trebassof affair this evening.
Rouletabille was already on his legs.
"Oh, monsieur," said he, "I didn't want you to tell me that. Thanks all the same, and good evening."
He went out.
Gounsovski rang. A servant appeared.
"Tell them they may now open all the rooms on this corridor; I'll not hold them any longer." Thus had Gounsovski kept himself protected.
Left alone, the head of the Secret Service wiped his brow and drank a great glass of iced water which he emptied at a draught. Then he said:
"Koupriane will have his work cut out for him this evening; I wish him good luck. As to them, whatever happens, I wash my hands of them."
And he rubbed his hands.