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XI THE POISON CONTINUES
At ten o'clock that morning Rouletabille went to the Trebassof villa, which had its guard of secret agents again, a double guard, because Koupriane was sure the Nihilists would not delay in avenging Michael's death. Rouletabille was met by Ermolai, who would not allow him to enter. The faithful servant uttered some explanation in Russian, which the young man did not understand, or, rather, Rouletabille understood perfectly from his manner that henceforth the door of the villa was closed to him. In vain he insisted on seeing the general, Matrena Petrovna and Mademoiselle Natacha. Ermolai made no reply but "Niet, niet, niet." The reporter turned away without having seen anyone, and walked away deeply depressed. He went afoot clear into the city, a long promenade, during which his brain surged with the darkest forebodings. As he passed by the Department of Police he resolved to see Koupriane again. He went in, gave his name, and was ushered at once to the Chief of Police, whom he found bent over a long report that he was reading through with noticeable agitation.
"Gounsovski has sent me this," he said in a rough voice, pointing to the report. "Gounsovski, 'to do me a service,' desires me to know that he is fully aware of all that happened at the Trebassof datcha last night. He warns me that the revolutionaries have decided to get through with the general at once, and that two of them have been given the mission to enter the datcha in any way possible. They will have bombs upon their bodies and will blow the bombs and themselves up together as soon as they are beside the general. Who are the two victims designated for this horrible vengeance, and who have light-heartedly accepted such a death for themselves as well as for the general? That is what we don't know. That is what we would have known, perhaps, if you had not prevented me from seizing the papers that Prince Galitch has now," Koupriane finished, turning hostilely toward Rouletabille.
Rouletabille had turned pale.
"Don't regret what happened to the papers," he said. "It is I who tell you not to. But what you say doesn't surprise me. They must believe that Natacha has betrayed them."
"Ah, then you admit at last that she really is their accomplice?"
"I haven't said that and I don't admit it. But I know what I mean, and you, you can't. Only, know this one thing, that at the present moment I am the only person able to save you in this horrible situation. To do that I must see Natacha at once. Make her understand this, while I wait at my hotel for word. I'll not leave it."
Rouletabille saluted Koupriane and went out.
Two days passed, during which Rouletabille did not receive any word from either Natacha or Koupriane, and tried in vain to see them. He made a trip for a few hours to Finland, going as far as Pergalovo, an isolated town said to be frequented by the revolutionaries, then returned, much disturbed, to his hotel, after having written a last letter to Natacha imploring an interview. The minutes passed very slowly for him in the hotel's vestibule, where he had seemed to have taken up a definite residence.
Installed on a bench, he seemed to have become part of the hotel staff, and more than one traveler took him for an interpreter. Others thought he was an agent of the Secret Police appointed to study the faces of those arriving and departing. What was he waiting for, then? Was it for Annouchka to return for a luncheon or dinner in that place that she sometimes frequented? And did he at the same time keep watch upon Annouchka's apartments just across the way? If that was so, he could only bewail his luck, for Annouchka did not appear either at her apartments or the hotel, or at the Krestowsky establishment, which had been obliged to suppress her performance. Rouletabille naturally thought, in the latter connection, that some vengeance by Gounsovski lay back of this, since the head of the Secret Service could hardly forget the way he
had been treated. The reporter could see already the poor singer, in spite of all her safeguards and the favor of the Imperial family, on the road to the Siberian steppes or the dungeons of Schlusselbourg.
"My, what a country!" he murmured.
But his thoughts soon quit Annouchka and returned to the object of his main preoccupation. He waited for only one thing, and for that as soon as possible - to have a private interview with Natacha. He had written her ten letters in two days, but they all remained unanswered. It was an answer that he waited for so patiently in the vestibule of the hotel - so patiently, but so nervously, so feverishly.
When the postman entered, poor Rouletabille's heart beat rapidly. On that answer he waited for depended the formidable part he meant to play before quitting Russia. He had accomplished nothing up to now, unless he could play his part in this later development.
But the letter did not come. The postman left, and the schwitzar, after examining all the mail, made him a negative sign. Ah, the servants who entered, and the errand-boys, how he looked at them! But they never came for him. Finally, at six o'clock in the evening of the second day, a man in a frock-coat, with a false astrakhan collar, came in and handed the concierge a letter for Joseph Rouletabille. The reporter jumped up. Before the man was out the door he had torn open the letter and read it. The letter was not from Natacha. It was from Gounsovski. This is what it said:
"My dear Monsieur Joseph Rouletabille, if it will not inconvenience you, I wish you would oome and dine with me to-day. I will look for you within two hours. Madame Gounsovski will be pleased to make your acquaintance. Believe me your devoted Gounsovski."
Rouletabille considered, and decided:
"I will go. He ought to have wind of what is being plotted, and as for me, I don't know where Annoucbka has gone. I have more to learn from him than he has from me. Besides, as Athanase Georgevitch said, one may regret not accepting the Head of the Okrana's pleasant invitation."
>From six o'clock to seven he still waited vainly for Natacha's response. At seven o'clock, he decided to dress for the dinner. Just as he rose, a messenger arrived. There was still another letter for Joseph Rouletabille. This time it was from Natacha, who wrote him:
"General Trebassof and my step-mother will be very happy to have you come to dinner to-day. As for myself, monsieur, you will pardon me the order which has closed to you for a number of days a dwelling where you have rendered services which I shall not forget all my life."
The letter ended with a vague polite formula. With the letter in his hand the reporter sat in thought. He seemed to be asking himself, "Is it fish or flesh?" Was it a letter of thanks or of menace? That was what he could not decide. Well, he would soon know, for he had decided to accept that invitation. Anything that brought him and Natacha into communication at the moment was a thing of capital importance to him. Half-an-hour later he gave the address of the villa to an isvotchick, and soon he stepped out before the gate where Ermolai seemed to be waiting for him.
Rouletabille was so occupied by thought of the conversation he was going to have with Natacha that he had completely forgotten the excellent Monsieur Gounsovski and his invitation.
The reporter found Koupriane's agents making a close-linked chain around the grounds and each watching the other. Matrena had not wished any agent to be in house. He showed Koupriane's pass and entered.
Ermolai ushered Rouletabille in with shining face. He seemed glad to have him there again. He bowed low before him and uttered many compliments, of which the reporter did not understand a word. Rouletablle passed on, entered the garden and saw Matrena Petrovna there walking with her step-daughter. They seemed on the best of terms with each other. The grounds wore an air of tranquillity and the residents seemed to have totally forgotten the somber tragedy of the other night. Matrena and Natacha came smilingly up to the young man, who inquired after the general. They both turned and pointed out Feodor Feodorovitch, who waved to him from the height of the kiosk, where it seemed the table had been spread. They were going to dine out of doors this fine night.
"Everything goes very well, very well indeed, dear little domovoi," said Matrena. "How glad it is to see you and thank you. If you only knew how I suffered in your absence, I who know how unjust my daughter was to you. But dear Natacha knows now what she owes you. She doesn't doubt your word now, nor your clear intelligence, little angel. Michael Nikolaievitch was a monster and he was punished as he deserved. You know the police have proof now that he was one of the Central Revolutionary Committee's most dangerous agents. And he an officer! Whom can we trust now!"
"And Monsieur Boris Mourazoff, have you seen him since?" inquired Rouletabille.
"Boris called to see us to-day, to say good-by, but we did not receive him, under the orders of the police. Natacha has written to tell him of Koupriane's orders. We have received letters from him; he is quitting St. Petersburg.
"Well, after the frightful bloody scene in his little house, when he learned how Michael Nikolaievitch had found his death, and after he himself had undergone a severe grilling from the police, and when he learned the police had sacked his library and gone through his papers, he resigned, and has resolved to live from now on out in the country, without seeing anyone, like the philosopher and poet he is. So far as I am concerned, I think he is doing absolutely right. When a young man is a poet, it is useless to live like a soldier. Someone has said that, I don't know the name now, and when one has ideas that may upset other people, surely they ought to live in solitude."
Rouletabille looked at Natacha, who was as pale as her white gown, and who added no word to her mother's outburst. They had drawn near the kiosk. Rouletabille saluted the general, who called to him to come up and, when the young man extended his hand, he drew him abruptly nearer and embraced him. To show Rouletabille how active he was getting again, Feodor Feodorovitch marched up and down the kiosk with only the aid of a stick. He went and came with a sort of wild, furious gayety.
"They haven't got me yet, the dogs. They haven't got me! And one (he was thinking of Michael) who saw me every day was here just for that. Very well. I ask you where he is now. And yet here I am! An attack! I'm always here! But with a good eye; and I begin to have a good leg. We shall see. Why, I recollect how, when I was at Tiflis, there was an insurrection in the Caucasus. We fought. Several times I could feel the swish of bullets past my hair. My comrades fell around me like flies. But nothing happened to me, not a thing. And here now! They will not get me, they will not get me. You know how they plan now to come to me, as living bombs. Yes, they have decided on that. I can't press a friend's hand any more without the fear of seeing him explode. What do you think of that? But they won't get me. Come, drink my health. A small glass of vodka for an appetizer. You see, young man, we are going to have zakouskis here. What a marvelous panorama! You can see everything from here. If the enemy comes," he added with a singular loud laugh, "we can't fail to detect him."
Certainly the kiosk did rise high above the garden and was completely detached, no wall being near. They had a clear view. No branches of trees hung over the roof and no tree hid the view. The rustic table of rough wood was covered with a short cloth and was spread with zakouskis. It was a meal under the open sky, a seat and a glass in the clear azure. The evening could not have been softer and clearer. And, as the general felt so gay, the repast would have promised to be most agreeable, if Rouletabille had not noticed that Matrena Petrovna and Natacha were uneasy and downcast. The reporter soon saw, too, that all the general's joviality was a little excessive. Anyone would have said that Feodor Feodorovitch spoke to distract himself, to keep himself from thinking. There was sufilcient excuse for him after the outrageous drama of the other night. Rouletabille noticed further that the general never looked at his daughter, even when he spoke to her. There was too formidable a mystery lying between them for restraint not to increase day by day. Rouletabille involuntarily shook his head, saddened by all he saw. His movemerit was surprised by Matrena Petrovna, who pressed his hand in silence.
"Well, now," said the general, "well, now my children, where is the vodka?"
Among all the bottles which graced the table the general looked in vain for his flask of vodka. How in the world could he dine if he did not prepare for that important act by the rapid absorption of two or three little glasses of white wine, between two or three sandwiches of caviare!
"Ermolai must have left it in the wine-chest," said Matrena.
The wine-closet was in the dining-room. She rose to go there, but Natacha hurried before her down the little flight of steps, crying, "Stay there, mamma. I will go."
"Don't you bother, either. I know where it is," cried Rouletabille, and hurried after Natacha.
She did not stop. The two young people arrived in the dining-room at the same time. They were there alone, as Rouletabille had foreseen. He stopped Natacha and planted himself in front of her.
"Why, mademoiselle, did you not answer me earlier?"
"Because I don't wish to have any conversation with you."
"If that was so, you would not have come here, where you were sure I would follow."
She hesitated, with an emotion that would have been incomprehensible to all others perhaps, but was not to Rouletabille.
"Well, yes, I wished to say this to you: Don't write to me any more. Don't speak to me. Don't see me. Go away from here, monsieur; go away. They will have your life. And if you have found out anything, forget it. Ah, on the head of your mother, forget it, or you are lost. That is what I wished to tell you. And now, you go."
She grasped his hand in a quick sympathetic movement that she seemed instantly to regret.
"You go away," she repeated.
Rouletabille still held his place before her. She turned from him; she did not wish to hear anything further.
"Mademoiselle," said he, "you are watched closer than ever. Who will take Michael Nikolaievitch's place?"
"Madman, be silent! Hush!"
"I am here."
He said this with such simple bravery that tears sprang to her eyes.
"Dear man! Poor man! Dear brave man!" She did not know what to say. Her emotion checked all utterance. But it was necessary for her to enable him to understand that there was nothing he could do to help her in her sad straits.
"No. If they knew what you have just said, what you have proposed now, you would be dead to-morrow. Don't let them suspect. And above all, don't try to see me anywhere. Go back to papa at once. We have been here too long. What if they learn of it? - and they learn everything! They are everywhere, and have ears everywhere."
"Mademoiselle, just one word more, a single word. Do you doubt now that Michael tried to poison your father?"
"Ah, I wish to believe it. I wish to. I wish to believe it for your sake, my poor boy."
Rouletabille desired something besides "I wish to believe it for your sake, my poor boy." He was far from being satisfied. She saw him turn pale. She tried to reassure him while her trembling hands raised the lid of the wine-chest.
"What makes me think you are right is that I have decided myself that only one and the same person, as you said, climbed to the window of the little balcony. Yes, no one can doubt that, and you have reasoned well."
But he persisted still.
"And yet, in spite of that, you are not entirely sure, since you say, 'I wish to believe it, my poor boy.'"
"Monsieur Rouletabille, someone might have tried to poison my father, and not have come by way of the window."
"No, that is impossible."
"Nothing is impossible to them."
And she turned her head away again.
"Why, why," she said, with her voice entirely changed and quite indifferent, as if she wished to be merely 'the daughter of the house' in conversation with the young man, "the vodka is not in the wine chest, after all. What has Ermolai done with it, then?"
She ran over to the buffet and found the flask.
"Oh, here it is. Papa shan't be without it, after all."
Rouletabille was already into the garden again.
"If that is the only doubt she has," he said to himself, "I can reassure her. No one could come, excepting by the window. And only one came that way."
The young girl had rejoined him, bringing the flask. They crossed the garden together to the general, who was whiling away the time as he waited for his vodka explaining to Matrena Petrovna the nature of "the constitution." He had spilt a box of matches on the table and arranged them carefully.
"Here," he cried to Natacha and Rouletabille. "Come here and I will explain to you as well what this Constitution amounts to."
The young people leaned over his demonstration curiously and all eyes in the kiosk were intent on the matches.
"You see that match," said Feodor Feodorovitch. "It is the Emperor. And this other match is the Empress; this one is the Tsarevitch; and that one is the Grand-duke Alexander; and these are the other granddukes. Now, here are the ministers and there the principal governors, and then the generals; these here are the bishops."
The whole box of matches was used up, and each match was in its place, as is the way in an empire where proper etiquette prevails in government and the social order.
"Well," continued the general, "do you want to know, Matrena Petrovna, what a constitution is? There! That is the Constitution."
The general, with a swoop of his hand, mixed all the matches. Rouletabille laughed, but the good Matrena said:
"I don't understand, Feodor."
"Find the Emperor now."
Then Matrena understood. She laughed heartily, she laughed violently, and Natacha laughed also. Delighted with his success, Feodor Feodorovitch took up one of the little glasses that Natacha had filled with the vodka she brought.
"Listen, my children," said he. "We are going to commence the zakouskis. Koupriane ought to have been here before this."
Saying this, holding still the little glass in his hand, he felt in his pocket with the other for his watch, and drew out a magnificent large watch whose ticking was easily heard.
" Ah, the watch has come back from the repairer," Rouletabille remarked smilingly to Matrena Petrovna. "It looks like a splendid one."
"1t has very fine works," said the general. "It was bequeathed to me by my grandfather. It marks the seconds, and the phases of the moon, and sounds the hours and half-hours."
Rouletabille bent over the watch, admiring it.
"You expect M. Koupriane for dinner?" inquired the young man, still examining the watch.
"Yes, but since he is so late, we'll not delay any longer. Your healths, my children," said the general as Rouletabille handed him back the watch and he put it in his pocket.
"Your health, Feodor Feodorovitch," replied Matrena Petrovna, with her usual tenderness.
Rouletabille and Natacha only touched their lips to the vodka, but Feodor Feodorovitch and Matrena drank theirs in the Russian fashion, head back and all at a draught, draining it to the bottom and flinging the contents to the back of the throat. They had no more than performed this gesture when the general uttered an oath and tried to expel what he had drained so heartily. Matrena Petrovna spat violently also, looking with horror at her husband.
"What is it? What has someone put in the vodka?" cried Feodor.
"What has someone put in the vodka?" repeated Matrena Petrovna in a thick voice, her eyes almost starting from her head.
The two young people threw themselves upon the unfortunates. Feodor's face had an expression of atrocious suffering.
"We are poisoned," cried the general, in the midst of his chokings. "I am burning inside."
Almost mad, Natacha took her father's head in her hands. She cried to him:
"Vomit, papa; vomit!"
"We must find an emetic," cried Rauletabille, holding on to the general, who had almost slipped from his arms.
Matrena Petrovna, whose gagging noises were violent, hurried down the steps of the kiosk, crossed the garden as though wild-fire were behind her, and bounded into the veranda. During this time the general succeeded in easing himself, thanks to Rouletabille, who had thrust a spoon to the root of his tongue. Natacha could do nothing but cry, "My God, my God, my God!" Feodor held onto his stomach, still crying, "I'm burning, I'm burning!" The scene was frightfully tragic and funny at the same time. To add to the burlesque, the general's watch in his pocket struck eight o'clock. Feodor Feodorovitch stood up in a final supreme effort. "Oh, it is horrible!" Matrena Petrovna showed a red, almost violet face as she came back; she distorted it, she choked, her mouth twitched, but she brought something, a little packet that she waved, and from which, trembling frightenedly, she shook a powder into the first two empty glasses, which were on her side of the table and were those she and the general had drained. She still had strength to fill them with water, while Rouletabille was almost overcome by the general, whom he still had in his arms, and Natacha concerned herself with nothing but her father, leaning over him as though to follow the progress of the terrible poison, to read in his eyes if it was to be life or death. "Ipecac," cried Matrena Petrovna, and she made the general drink it. She did not drink until after him. The heroic woman must have exerted superhuman force to go herself to find the saving antidote in her medicine-chest, even while the agony pervaded her vitals.
Some minutes later both could be considered saved. The servants, Ermolai at their head, were clustered about. Most of them had been at the lodge and they had not, it appeared, heard the beginning of the affair, the cries of Natacha and Rouletabille. Koupriane arrived just then. It was he who worked with Natacha in getting the two to bed. Then he directed one of his agents to go for the nearest doctors they could find.
This done, the Prefect of Police went toward the kiosk where he had left Rouletabille. But Rouletabille was not to be found, and the flask of vodka and the glasses from which they had drunk were gone also. Ermolai was near-by, and he inquired of the servant for the young Frenchman. Ermolai replied that he had just gone away, carrying the flask and the glasses. Koupriane swore. He shook Ermolai and even started to give him a blow with the fist for permitting such a thing to happen before his eyes without making a protest.
Ermolai, who had his own haughtiness, dodged Koupriane's fist and replied that he had wished to prevent the young Frenchman, hut the reporter had shown him a police-paper on which Koupriane himself had declared in advance that the young Frenchman was to do anything he pleased.
Turn to the next chapter: XII PERE ALEXIS