At random — because now he could only act at random — he returned to the datcha. Great disorder reigned there. The guard had been doubled. The general’s friends, summoned by Trebassof, surrounded the two poisoned sufferers and filled the house with their bustling devotion and their protestations of affection. However, an insignificant doctor from the common quarter of the Vasili-Ostrow, brought by the police, reassured everybody. The police had not found the general’s household physician at home, but promised the immediate arrival of two specialists, whom they had found instead. In the meantime they had picked up on the way this little doctor, who was gay and talkative as a magpie. He had enough to do looking after Matrena Petrovna, who had been so sick that her husband, Feodor Feodorovitch, still trembled, “for the first time in his life,” as the excellent Ivan Petrovitch said.
The reporter was astonished at not finding Natacha either in Matrena’s apartment or Feodor’s. He asked Matrena where her step-daughter was. Matrena turned a frightened face toward him. When they were alone, she said:
“We do not know where she is. Almost as soon as you left she disappeared, and no one has seen her since. The general has asked for her several times. I have had to tell him Koupriane took her with him to learn the details from her of what happened.”
“She is not with Koupriane,” said Rouletabille.
“Where is she? This disappearance is more than strange at the moment we were dying, when her father — O God! Leave me, my child; I am stifling; I am stifling.”
Rouletabille called the temporary doctor and withdrew from the chamber. He had come with the idea of inspecting the house room by room, corner by corner, to make sure whether or not any possibility of entrance existed that he had not noticed before, an entrance would-be poisoners were continuing to use. But now a new fact confronted him and overshadowed everything: the disappearance of Natacha. How he lamented his ignorance of the Russian language — and not one of Koupriane’s men knew French. He might draw something out of Ermolai.
Ermolai said he had seen Natacha just outside the gate for a moment, looking up and down the road. Then he had been called to the general, and so knew nothing further.
That was all the reporter could gather from the gestures rather than the words of the old servant.
An additional difficulty now was that twilight drew on, and it was impossible for the reporter to discern Natacha’s foot-prints. Was it true that the young girl had fled at such a moment, immediately after the poisoning, before she knew whether her father and mother were entirely out of danger? If Natacha were innocent, as Rouletabille still wished to believe, such an attitude was simply incomprehensible. And the girl could not but be aware she would increase Koupriane’s suspicions. The reporter had a vital reason for seeing her immediately, a vital reason for all concerned, above all in this moment when the Nihilists were culminating their plans, a vital reason for her and for him, equally menaced with death, to talk with her and to renew the propositions he had made a few minutes before the poisoning and which she had not wished to hear him talk about, in fearful pity for him or in defiance of him. Where was Natacha? He thought maybe she was trying to rejoin Annouchka, and there were reasons for that, both if she were innocent and if she were guilty. But where was Annouchka? Who could say! Gounsovski perhaps. Rouletabille jumped into an isvo, returning from the Point empty, and gave Gounsovski’s address. He deigned then to recall that he had been invited that same day to dine with the Gounsovskis. They would no longer be expecting him. He blamed himself.
They received him, but they had long since finished dinner.
Monsieur and Madame Gounsovski were playing a game of draughts under the lamp. Rouletabille as he entered the drawing-room recognized the shining, fattish bald head of the terrible man. Gounsovski came to him, bowing, obsequious, his fat hands held out. He was presented to Madame Gounsovski, who was besprinkled with jewels over her black silk gown. She had a muddy skin and magnificent eyes. She also was tentatively effusive. “We waited for you, monsieur,” she said, smirking timidly, with the careful charm of a woman a little along in years who relies still on infantine graces. As the recreant young man offered his apologies, “Oh, we know you are much occupied, Monsieur Rouletabille. My husband said that to me only a moment ago. But he knew you would come finally. In the end one always accepts my husband’s invitation.” She said this with a fat smile of importance.
Rouletabille turned cold at this last phrase. He felt actual fear in the presence of these two figures, so atrociously commonplace, in their horrible, decent little drawing-room.
“But you have had rather a bad dinner already, through that dreadful affair at General Trebassof’s. Come into the dining-room.” “Ah, so someone has told you?” said Rouletabille. “No, no, thanks; I don’t need anything more. You know what has happened?”
“If you had come to dinner, perhaps nothing would have happened at all, you know,” said Gounsovski tranquilly, seating himself again on the cushions and considering his game of draughts through his glasses. “Anyway, congratulations to Koupriane for being away from there through his fear.”
For Gounsovski there was only Koupriane! The life or death of Trebassof did not occupy his mind. Only the acts and movements of the Prefect of Police had power to move him. He ordered a waiting-maid who glided into the apartment without making more noise than a shadow to bring a small stand loaded with zakouskis and bottles of champagne close to the game-table, and he moved one of his pawns, saying, “You will permit me? This move is mine. I don’t wish to lose it.”
Rouletabille ventured to lay his hand on the oily, hairy fist which extended from a dubious cuff.
“What is this you tell me? How could you have foreseen it?”
“It was easy to foresee everything,” replied Gounsovski, offering cigars, “to foresee everything from the moment Matiew’s place was filled by Priemkof.”
“Well?” questioned Rouletabille, recalling with some inquietude the sight of the whipping in the guards’ chapel.
“Well, this Priemkof, between ourselves,” (and he bent close to the reporter’s ear) “is no better, as a police-guard for Koupriane than Matiew himself. Very dangerous. So when I learned that he took Matiew’s place at the datcha des Iles, I thought there was sure to be some unfortunate happening. But it was no affair of mine, was it? Koupriane would have been able to say to me, ‘Mind your own business.’ I had gone far enough in warning him of the ‘living bombs.’ They had been denounced to us by the same agency that enabled us to seize the two living bombs (women, if you please!) who were going to the military tribunal at Cronstadt after the rebellion in the fleet. Let him recall that. That ought to make him reflect. I am a brave man. I know he speaks ill of me; but I don’t wish him any harm. The interests of the Empire before all else between us! I wouldn’t talk to you as I do if I didn’t know the Tsar honors you with his favor. Then I invited you to dinner. As one dines one talks. But you did not come. And, while you were dining down there and while Priemkof was on guard at the datcha, that annoying affair Madame Gounsovski has spoken about happened.”
Rouletabille had not sat down, in spite of Madame Gounsovski’s insistences. He took the box of cigars brusquely out of the hand of the Chief of the Secret Service, who had continued tendering them, for this detail of hospitality only annoyed his mood, which had been dark enough for hours and was now deepened by what the other had just said. He comprehended only one thing, that a man named Priemkof, whom he had never heard spoken of, as determined as Matiew to destroy the general, had been entrusted by Koupriane with the guard of the datcha des Iles. It was necessary to warn Koupriane instantly.
“How is it that you have not done so already, yourself, Monsieur Gounsovski? Why wait to speak about it to me? It is unimaginable.”
“Pardon, pardon,” said Gounsovski, smiling softly behind his goggles; “it is not the same thing.”
“No, no, it is not the same thing,” seconded the lady with the black silk, brilliant jewels and flabby chin. “We speak here to a friend in the course of dinner-talk, to a friend who is not of the police. We never denounce anybody.”
“We must tell you. But sit down now,” Gounsovski still insisted, lighting his cigar. “Be reasonable. They have just tried to poison him, so they will take time to breathe before they try something else. Then, too, this poison makes me think they may have given up the idea of living bombs. Then, after all, what is to be will be.”
“Yes, yes,” approved the ample dame. “The police never have been able to prevent what was bound to happen. But, speaking of this Priemkof, it remains between us, eh? Between just us?”
“Yes, we must tell you now,” Gounsovski slipped in softly, “that it will be much better not to let Koupriane know that you got the information from me. Because then, you understand, he would not believe you; or, rather, he would not believe me. That is why we take these precautions of dining and smoking a cigar. We speak of one thing and another and you do as you please with what we say. But, to make them useful, it is absolutely necessary, I repeat, to be silent about their source.” (As he said that, Gounsovski gave Rouletabille a piercing glance through his goggles, the first time Rouletabille had seen such a look in his eyes. He never would have suspected him capable of such fire.) “Priemkof,” continued Gounsovski in a low voice, using his handkerchief vigorously, “was employed here in my home and we separated on bad terms, through his fault, it is necessary to say. Then he got into Koupriane’s confidence by saying the worst he could of us, my dear little monsieur.”
“But what could he say? — servants’ stories! my dear little monsieur,” repeated the fat dame, and rolled her great magnificent black eyes furiously. “Stories that have been treated as they deserved at Court, certainly. Madame Daquin, the wife of His Majesty’s head-cook, whom you certainly know, and the nephew of the second Maid of Honor to the Empress, who stands very well with his aunt, have told us so; servants’ stories that might have ruined us but have not produced any effect on His Majesty, for whom we would give our lives, Christ knows. Well, you understand now that if you were to say to Koupriane, ‘Gaspadine Gounsovski has spoken ill to me of Priemkof,’ he would not care to hear a word further. Still, Priemkof is in the scheme for the living bombs, that is all I can tell you; at least, he was before the affair of the poisoning. That poisoning is certainly very astonishing, between us. It does not appear to have come from without, whereas the living bombs will have to come from without. And Priemkof is mixed up in it.”
“Yes, yes,” approved Madame Gounsovski again, “he is committed to it. There have been stories about him, too. Other people as well as he can tell tales; it isn’t hard to do. He has got to make some showing now if he is to keep in with Annouchka’s clique.”
“Koupriane, our dear Koupriane,” interrupted Gounsovski, slightly troubled at hearing his wife pronounce Annouchka’s name, “Koupriane ought to be able to understand that this time Priemkof must bring things off, or he is definitely ruined.”
“Priemkof knows it well enough,” replied Madame as she re-filled the glasses, “but Koupriane doesn’t know it; that is all we can tell you. Is it enough? All the rest is mere gossip.”
It certainly was enough for Rouletabille; he had had enough of it! This idle gossip and these living bombs! These pinchbecks, these whispering tale-tellers in their bourgeois, countrified setting; these politico-police combinations whose grotesque side was always uppermost; while the terrible side, the Siberian aspect, prisons, black holes, hangings, disappearances, exiles and deaths and martyrdoms remained so jealously hidden that no one ever spoke of them! All that weight of horror, between a good cigar and “a little glass of anisette, monsieur, if you won’t take champagne.” Still, he had to drink before he left, touch glasses in a health, promise to come again, whenever he wished — the house was open to him. Rouletabille knew it was open to anybody — anybody who had a tale to tell, something that would send some other person to prison or to death and oblivion. No guard at the entrance to check a visitor — men entered Gounsovski’s house as the house of a friend, and he was always ready to do you a service, certainly!
He accompanied the reporter to the stairs. Rouletabille was just about to risk speaking of Annouchka to him, in order to approach the subject of Natacha, when Gounsovski said suddenly, with a singular smile:
“By the way, do you still believe in Natacha Trebassof?”
“I shall believe in her until my death,” Rouletabille thrust back; “but I admit to you that at this moment I don’t know where she has gone.”
“Watch the Bay of Lachtka, and come to tell me to-morrow if you will believe in her always,” replied Gounsovski, confidentially, with a horrid sort of laugh that made the reporter hurry down the stairs.
And now here was Priemkof to look after! Priemkof after Matiew! It seemed to the young man that he had to contend against all the revolutionaries not only, but all the Russian police as well — and Gounsovski himself, and Koupriane! Everybody, everybody! But most urgent was Priemkof and his living bombs. What a strange and almost incomprehensible and harassing adventure this was between Nihilism and the Russian police. Koupriane and Gounsovski both employed a man they knew to be a revolutionary and the friend of revolutionaries. Nihilism, on its side, considered this man of the police force as one of its own agents. In his turn, this man, in order to maintain his perilous equilibrium, had to do work for both the police and the revolutionaries, and accept whatever either gave him to do as it came, because it was necessary he should give them assurances of his fidelity. Only imbeciles, like Gapone, let themselves be hanged or ended by being executed, like Azef, because of their awkward slips. But a Priemkof, playing both branches of the police, had a good chance of living a long time, and a Gounsovski would die tranquilly in his bed with all the solaces of religion.
However, the young hearts hot with sincerity, sheathed with dynamite, are mysteriously moved in the atrocious darkness of Holy Russia, and they do not know where they will be sent, and it is all one to them, because all they ask is to die in a mad spiritual delirium of hate and love — living bombs!*
* In the trial after the revolt at Cronstadt two young women were charged with wearing bombs as false bosoms.
At the corner of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok Rouletabille came in the way of Koupriane, who was leaving for Pere Alexis’s place and, seeing the reporter, stopped his carriage and called that he was going immediately to the datcha.
“You have seen Pere Alexis?”
“Yes,” said Koupriane. “And this time I have it on you. What I told you, what I foresaw, has happened. But have you any news of the sufferers? Apropos, rather a curious thing has happened. I met Kister on the Newsky just now.”
“Yes, one of Trebassof’s physicians whom I had sent an inspector to his house to fetch to the datcha, as well as his usual associate, Doctor Litchkof. Well, neither Litchkof nor he had been summoned. They didn’t know anything had happened at the datcha. They had not seen my inspector. I hope he has met some other doctor on the way and, in view of the urgency, has taken him to the datcha.”
“That is what has happened,” replied Rouletabille, who had turned very pale. “Still, it is strange these gentlemen had not been notified, because at the datcha the Trebassofs were told that the general’s usual doctors were not at home and so the police had summoned two others who would arrive at once.”
Koupriane jumped up in the carriage.
“But Kister and Litchkof had not left their houses. Kister, who had just met Litchkof, said so. What does this mean?”
“Can you tell me,” asked Rouletabille, ready now for the thunder-clap that his question invited, “the name of the inspector you ordered to bring them?”
“Priemkof, a man with my entire confidence.”
Koupriane’s carriage rushed toward the Isles. Late evening had come. Alone on the deserted route the horses seemed headed for the stars; the carriage behind seemed no drag upon them. The coachman bent above them, arms out, as though he would spring into the ether. Ah, the beautiful night, the lovely, peaceful night beside the Neva, marred by the wild gallop of these maddened horses!
“Priemkof! Priemkof! One of Gounsovski’s men! I should have suspected him,” railed Koupriane after Rouletabille’s explanations. “But now, shall we arrive in time?”
They stood up in the carriage, urging the coachman, exciting the horses: “Scan! Scan! Faster, douriak!” Could they arrive before the “living bombs”? Could they hear them before they arrived? Ah, there was Eliaguine!
They rushed from the one bank to the other as though there were no bridges in their insensate course. And their ears were strained for the explosion, for the abomination now to come, preparing slyly in the night so hypocritically soft under the cold glance of the stars. Suddenly, “Stop, stop!” Rouletabille cried to the coachman.
“Are you mad!” shouted Koupriane.
“We are mad if we arrive like madmen. That would make the catastrophe sure. There is still a chance. If we wish not to lose it, then we must arrive easily and calmly, like friends who know the general is out of danger.”
“Our only chance is to arrive before the bogus doctors. Either they aren’t there, or it already is all over. Priemkof must have been surprised at the affair of the poisoning, but he has seized the opportunity; fortunately he couldn’t find his accomplices immediately.”
“Here is the datcha, anyway. In the name of heaven, tell your driver to stop the horses here. If the ‘doctors’ are already there it is we who shall have killed the general.”
“You are right.”
Koupriane moderated his excitement and that of his driver and horses, and the carriage stopped noiselessly, not far from the datcha. Ermolai came toward them.
“Priemkof?” faltered Koupriane.
“He has gone again, Excellency.”
“How — gone again?”
“Yes, but he has brought the doctors.”
Koupriane crushed Rouletabille’s wrist. The doctors were there!
“Madame Trebassof is better,” continued Ermolai, who understood nothing of their emotion. “The general is going to meet them and take them to his wife himself.”
“Where are they?”
“They are waiting in the drawing-room.”
“Oh, Excellency, keep cool, keep cool, and all is not lost,” implored the reporter.
Rouletabille and Koupriane slipped carefully into the garden. Ermolai followed them.
“There?” inquired Koupriane.
“There,” Ermolai replied.
From the corner where they were, and looking through the veranda, they could see the “doctors” as they waited.
They were seated in chairs side by side, in a corner of the drawing-room from where they could see every-thing in the room and a part of the garden, which they faced, and could hear everything. A window of the first-floor was open above their heads, so that they could hear any noise from there. They could not be surprised from any side, and they held every door in view. They were talking softly and tranquilly, looking straight before them. They appeared young. One had a pleasant face, pale but smiling, with rather long, curly hair; the other was more angular, with haughty bearing and grave face, an eagle nose and glasses. Both wore long black coats buttoned over their calm chests.
Koupriane and the reporter, followed by Ermolai, advanced with the greatest precaution across the lawn. Screened by the wooden steps leading to the veranda and by the vine-clad balustrade, they got near enough to hear them. Koupriane gave eager ear to the words of these two young men, who might have been so rich in the many years of life that naturally belonged to them, and who were about to die so horrible a death in destroying all about them. They spoke of what time it was, of the softness of the night and the beauty of the sky; they spoke of the shadows under the birch-trees, of the gulf shining in the late evening’s fading golden light, of the river’s freshness and the sweetness of springtime in the North. That is what they talked about. Koupriane murmured, “The assassins!”
Now it was necessary to decide on action, and that necessity was horrible. A false movement, an awkwardness, and the “doctors” would be warned, and everything lost. They must have the bombs under their coats; there were certainly at least two “living bombs.” Their chests, as they breathed, must heave to and fro and their hearts beat against an impending explosion.
Above on the bedroom floor, they heard the rapid arranging of the room, steps on the floor and a confusion of voices; shadows passed across the window-space. Koupriane rapidly interrogated Ermolai and learned that all the general’s friends were there. The two doctors had arrived only a couple of minutes before the Prefect of Police and the reporter. The little doctor of Vassili-Ostrow had already gone, saying there was nothing more for him to do when two such celebrated specialists had arrived. However, in spite of their celebrity, no one had ever heard the names they gave. Koupriane believed the little doctor was an accomplice. The most necessary thing was to warn those in the room above. There was immediate danger that someone would come downstairs to find the doctors and take them to the general, or that the general would come down himself to meet them. Evidently that was what they were waiting for. They wished to die in his arms, to make sure that this time he did not escape them! Koupriane directed Ermolai to go into the veranda and speak in a commonplace way to them at the threshold of the drawing-room door, saying that he would go upstairs and see if he might now escort them to Madame Trebassof’s room. Once in the room above, he could warn the others not to do anything but wait for Koupriane; then Ermolai was to come down and say to the men, “In just a moment, if you please.”
Ermolai crept back as far as the lodge, and then came quite normally up the path, letting the gravel crunch under his countrified footsteps. He was an intelligent man, and grasped with extraordinary coolness the importance of the plan of campaign. Easily and naturally he mounted the veranda steps, paused at the threshold of the drawing-room, made the remark he had been told to make, and went upstairs. Koupriane and Rouletabille now watched the bedroom windows. The flitting shadows there suddenly became motionless. All moving about ceased; no more steps were heard, nothing. And that sudden silence made the two “doctors” raise their faces toward the ceiling. Then they exchanged an aroused glance. This change in the manner of things above was dangerous. Koupriane muttered, “The idiots!” It was such a blow for those upstairs to learn they walked over a mine ready to explode that it evidently had paralyzed their limbs. Happily Ermolai came down almost immediately and said to the “doctors” in his very best domestic manner:
“Just a second, messieurs, if you please.”
He did it still with utter naturalness. And he returned to the ledge before he rejoined Koupriane and Rouletabille by way of the lawn. Rouletabille, entirely cool, quite master of himself, as calm now as Koupriane was nervous, said to the Prefect of Police:
“We must act now, and quickly. They are commencing to be suspicious. Have you a plan?”
“Here is all I can see,” said Koupriane. “Have the general come down by the narrow servants’ stairway, and slip out of the house from the window of Natacha’s sitting-room, with the aid of a twisted sheet. Matrena Petrovna will come to speak to them during this time; that will keep them patient until the general is out of danger. As soon as Matrena has withdrawn into the garden, I will call my men, who will shoot them from a distance.”
“And the house itself? And the general’s friends?”
“Let them try to get away, too, by the servants’ stairway and jump from the window after the general. We must try something. Say that I have them at the muzzle of my revolver.”
“Your plan won’t work,” said Rouletabille, “unless the door of Natacha’s sitting-room that opens on the drawing-room is closed.”
“It is. I can see from here.”
“And unless the door of the little passage-way before that staircase that opens into the drawing-room is closed also, and you cannot see it from here.”
“That door is open,” said Ermolai.
Koupriane swore. But he recovered himself promptly.
“Madame Trebassof will close the door when she speaks to them.”
“It’s impracticable,” said the reporter. “That will arouse their suspicions more than ever. Leave it to me; I have a plan.”
“I have time to execute it, but not to tell you about it. They have already waited too long. I shall have to go upstairs, though. Ermolai will need to go with me, as with a friend of the family.”
“I’ll go too.”
“That would give the whole show away, if they saw you, the Prefect of Police.”
“Why, no. If they see me — and they know I ought to be there — as soon as I show myself to them they will conclude I don’t know anything about it.”
“You are wrong.”
“It is my duty. I should be near the general to defend him until the last.”
Rouletabille shrugged his shoulders before this dangerous heroism, but he did not stop to argue. He knew that his plan must succeed at once, or in five minutes at the latest there would be only ruins, the dead and the dying in the datcha des Iles.
Still he remained astonishingly calm. In principle he had admitted that he was going to die. The only hope of being saved which remained to them rested entirely upon their keeping perfectly cool and upon the patience of the living bombs. Would they still have three minutes’ patience?
Ermolai went ahead of Koupriane and Rouletabille. At the moment they reached the foot of the veranda steps the servant said loudly, repeating his lesson:
“Oh, the general is waiting for you, Excellency. He told me to have you come to him at once. He is entirely well and Madame Trebassof also.”
When they were in the veranda, he added:
“She is to see also, at once, these gentlemen, who will be able to tell her there is no more danger.”
And all three passed while Koupriane and Rodetabille vaguely saluted the two conspirators in the drawing-room. It was a decisive moment. Recognizing Koupriane, the two Nihilists might well believe themselves discovered, as the reporter had said, and precipitate the catastrophe. However, Ermolai, Koupriane and Rouletabille climbed the stairs to the bedroom like automatons, not daring to look behind them, and expecting the end each instant. But neither stirred. Ermolai went down again, by Rouletabille’s order, normally, naturally, tranquilly. They went into Matrena Petrovna’s chamber. Everybody was there. It was a gathering of ghosts.
Here was what had happened above. That the “doctors” still remained below, that they had not been received instantly, in brief, that the catastrophe had been delayed up to now was due to Matrena Petrovna, whose watchful love, like a watch-dog, was always ready to scent danger. These two “doctors” whose names she did not know, who arrived so late, and the precipitate departure of the little doctor of Vassili-Ostrow aroused her watchfulness. Before allowing them to come upstairs to the general she resolved to have a look at them herself downstairs. She arose from her bed for that; and now her presentiment was justified. When she saw Ermolai, sober and mysterious, enter with Koupriane’s message, she knew instinctively, before he spoke, that there were bombs in the house. When Ermolai did speak it was a blow for everybody. At first she, Matrena Perovna, had been a frightened, foolish figure in the big flowered dressing-gown belonging to Feodor that she had wrapped about her in her haste. When Ermolai left, the general, who knew she only trembled for him, tried to reassure her, and, in the midst of the frightened silence of all of them, said a few words recalling the failure of all the previous attempts. But she shook her head and trembled, shaking with fear for him, in agony at the thought that she could do nothing there above those living bombs but wait for them to burst. As to the friends, already their limbs were ruined, absolutely ruined, in very truth. For a moment they were quite incapable of moving. The jolly Councilor of Empire, Ivan Petrovitch, had no longer a lively tale to tell, and the abominable prospect of “this horrible mix-up” right at hand rendered him much less gay than in his best hours at Cubat’s place. And poor Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff was whiter than the snow that covers old Lithuania’s fields when the winter’s chase is on. Athanase Georgevitch himself was not brilliant, and his sanguine face had quite changed, as though he had difficulty in digesting his last masterpiece with knife and fork. But, in justice to them, that was the first instantaneous effect. No one could learn like that, all of a sudden, that they were about to die in an indiscriminate slaughter without the heart being stopped for a little. Ermolai’s words had turned these amiable loafers into waxen statues, but, little by little, their hearts commenced to beat again and each suggested some way of preventing the disaster — all of them sufficiently incoherent — while Matrena Petrovna invoked the Virgin and at the same time helped Feodor Feodorovitch adjust his sword and buckle his belt; for the general wished to die in uniform.
Athanase Georgevitch, his eyes sticking out of his head and his body bent as though he feared the Nihlists just below him might perceive his tall form — through the floor, no doubt — proposed that they should throw themselves out of the window, even at the cost of broken legs. The saddened Councilor of Empire declared that project simply idiotic, for as they fell they would be absolutely at the disposal of the Nihilists, who would be attracted by the noise and would make a handful of dust of them with a single gesture through the window. Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff, who couldn’t think of anything at all, blamed Koupriane and the rest of the police for not having devised something. Why hadn’t they already got rid of these Nihilists? After the frightened silence they had kept at first, now they all spoke at once, in low voices, hoarse and rapid, with shortened breath, making wild movements of the arms and head, and walked here and there in the chamber quite without motive, but very softly on tiptoe, going to the windows, returning, listening at the doors, peering through the key-holes, exchanging absurd suggestions, full of the wildest imaginings. “If we should . . . if . . . if,”— everybody speaking and everybody making signs for the others to be quiet. “Lower! If they hear us, we are lost.” And Koupriane, who did not come, and his police, who themselves had brought two assassins into the house, and were not able now to make them leave without having everybody jump! They were certainly lost. There was nothing left but to say their prayers. They turned to the general and Matrena Petrovna, who were wrapped in a close embrace. Feodor had taken the poor disheveled head of the good Matrena between his hands and pressed it upon his shoulders as he embraced her. He said, “Rest quietly against my heart, Matrena Petrovna. Nothing can happen to us except what God wills.”
At that sight and that remark the others grew ashamed of their confusion. The harmony of that couple embracing in the presence of death restored them to themselves, to their courage, and their “Nitchevo.” Athanase Georgevitch, Ivan Petrovitch and Thaddeus Tchitchnikoff repeated after Matrena Petrovna, “As God wills.” And then they said “Nitchevo! Nitchevo!* We will all die with you, Feodor Feodorovitch.” And they all kissed one another and clasped one another in their arms, their eyes dim with love one for another, as at the end of a great banquet when they had eaten and drunk heavily in honor of one another.
* “What does it matter!”
“Listen. Someone is coming up the stairs,” whispered Matrena, with her keen ear, and she slipped from the restraint of her husband.
Breathless, they all hurried to the door opening on the landing, but with steps as light “as though they walked on eggs.” All four of them were leaning over there close by the door, hardly daring to breathe. They heard two men on the stairs. Were they Koupriane and Rouletabille, or were they the others? They had revolvers in their hands and drew back a little when the footsteps sounded near the door. Behind them Trebassof was quietly seated in his chair. The door was opened and Koupriane and Rouletabille perceived these death-like figures, motionless and mute. No one dared to speak or make a movement until the door had been closed. But then:
“Well? Well? Save us! Where are they? Ah, my dear little domovoi-doukh, save the general, for the love of the Virgin!”
“Tsst! tsst! Silence.”
Rouletabille, very pale, but calm, spoke:
“The plan is simple. They are between the two staircases, watching the one and the other. I will go and find them and make them mount the one while you descend by the other.”
“Caracho! That is simple enough. Why didn’t we think of it sooner? Because everybody lost his head except the dear little domovoi-doukh!”
But here something happened Rouletabille had not counted on. The general rose and said, “You have forgotten one thing, my young friend; that is that General Trebassof will not descend by the servants’ stairway.”
His friends looked at him in stupefaction, and asked if he had gone mad.
“What is this you say, Feodor?” implored Matrena.
“I say,” insisted the general, “that I have had enough of this comedy, and that since Monsieur Koupriane has not been able to arrest these men, and since, on their side, they don’t seem to decide to do their duty, I shall go myself and put them out of my house.”
He started a few steps, but had not his cane and suddenly he tottered. Matrena Petrovna jumped to him and lifted him in her arms as though he were a feather.
“Not by the servants’ stairway, not by the servants’ stairway,” growled the obstinate general.
“You will go,” Matrena replied to him, “by the way I take you.”
And she carried him back into the apartment while she said quickly to Rouletabille:
“Go, little domovoi! And God protect us!”
Rouletabille disappeared at once through the door to the main staircase, and the group attended by Koupriane, passed through the dressing-room and the general’s chamber, Matrena Petrovna in the lead with her precious burden. Ivan Petrovitch had his hand already on the famous bolt which locked the door to the servants’ staircase when they all turned at the sound of a quick step behind them. Rouletabille had returned.
“They are no longer in the drawing-room.”
“Not in the drawing-room! Where are they, then?”
Rouletabille pointed to the door they were about to open.
“Perhaps behind that door. Take care!”
All drew back.
“But Ermolai ought to know where they are,” exclaimed Koupriane. “Perhaps they have gone, finding out they were discovered.”
“They have assassinated Ermolai.”
“I have seen his body lying in the middle of the drawing-room as I leaned over the top of the banister. But they were not in the room, and I was afraid you would run into them, for they may well be hidden in the servants’ stairway.”
“Then open the window, Koupriane, and call your men to deliver us.”
“I am quite willing,” replied Koupriane coldly, “but it is the signal for our deaths.”
“Well, why do they wait so to make us die?” muttered Feodor Feodorovitch. “I find them very tedious about it, for myself. What are you doing, Ivan Petrovitch?”
The spectral figure of Ivan Petrovitch, bent beside the door of the stairway, seemed to be hearing things the others could not catch, but which frightened them so that they fled from the general’s chamber in disorder. Ivan Petrovitch was close on them, his eyes almost sticking from his head, his mouth babbling:
“They are there! They are there!”
Athanase Georgevitch open a window wildly and said:
“I am going to jump.”
But Thaddeus Tchitchnikofl’ stopped him with a word. “For me, I shall not leave Feodor Feodorovitch.”
Athanase and Ivan both felt ashamed, and trembling, but brave, they gathered round the general and said, “We will die together, we will die together. We have lived with Feodor Feodorovitch, and we will die with him.”
“What are they waiting for? What are they waiting for?” grumbled the general.
Matrena Petrovna’s teeth chattered. “They are waiting for us to go down,” said Koupraine.
“Very well, let us do it. This thing must end,” said Feodor.
“Yes, yes,” they all said, for the situation was becoming intolerable; “enough of this. Go on down. Go on down. God, the Virgin and Saints Peter and Paul protect us. Let us go.”
The whole group, therefore, went to the main staircase, with the movements of drunken men, fantastic waving of the arms, mouths speaking all together, saying things no one but themselves understood. Rouletabille had already hurriedly preceded them, was down the staircase, had time to throw a glance into the drawing-room, stepped over Ermolai’s huge corpse, entered Natacha’s sitting-room and her chamber, found all these places deserted and bounded back into the veranda at the moment the others commenced to descend the steps around Feodor Feodorovitch. The reporter’s eyes searched all the dark corners and had perceived nothing suspicious when, in the veranda, he moved a chair. A shadow detached itself from it and glided under the staircase. Rouletabille cried to the group on the stairs.
“They are under the staircase!”
Then Rouletabille confronted a sight that he could never forget all his life.
At this cry, they all stopped, after an instinctive move to go back. Feodor Feodorovitch, who was still in Matrena Petrovna’s arms, cried:
“Vive le Tsar!”
And then, those whom the reporter half expected to see flee, distracted, one way and another, or to throw themselves madly from the height of the steps, abandoning Feodor and Matrena, gathered themselves instead by a spontaneous movement around the general, like a guard of honor, in battle, around the flag. Koupriane marched ahead. And they insisted also upon descending the terrible steps slowly, and sang the Bodje tsara Krani, the national anthem!
With an overwhelming roar, which shocked earth and sky and the ears of Rouletabille, the entire house seemed lifted in the air; the staircase rose amid flame and smoke, and the group which sang the Bodje tsara Krani disappeared in a horrible apotheosis.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11