|Site Map > Electronic Library > Gaston Leroux > The Secret of the Night > VI THE MYSTERIOUS HAND|
Listen to audiobooks at Litphonix
previous: V BY ROULETABILLE'S 0RDER THE GENERAL PROMENADES
VI THE MYSTERIOUS HAND
After the departure of Matrena, Rouletabille turned his attention to the garden. Neither the marshal of the court nor the officers were there any longer. The three men had disappeared. Rouletabille wished to know at once where they had gone. He went rapidly to the gate, named the officers and the marshal to Ermolai, and Ermolai made a sign that they had passed out. Even as he spoke he saw the marshal's carriage disappear around a corner of the road. As to the two officers, they were nowhere on the roadway. He was surprised that the marshal should have gone without seeing Matrena or the general or himself, and, above all, he was disquieted by the disappearance of the orderlies. He gathered from the gestures of Ermolai that they had passed before the lodge only a few minutes after the marshal's departure. They had gone together. Rouletabille set himself to follow them, traced their steps in the soft earth of the roadway and soon they crossed onto the grass. At this point the tracks through the massed ferns became very difficult to follow. He hurried along, bending close to the ground over such traces as he could see, which continually led him astray, but which conducted him finally to the thing that he sought. A noise of voices made him raise his head and then throw himself behind a tree. Not twenty steps from him Natacha and Boris were having an animated conversation. The young officer held himself erect directly in front of her, frowning and impatient. Under the uniform cloak that he had wrapped about him without having bothered to use the sleeves, which were tossed up over his chest, Boris had his arms crossed. His entire attitude indicated hauteur, coldness and disdain for what he was hearing. Natacha never appeared calmer or more mistress of herself. She talked to him rapidly and mostly in a low voice. Sometimes a word in Russian sounded, and then she resumed her care to speak low. Finally she ceased, and Boris, after a short silence, in which he had seemed to reflect deeply, pronounced distinctly these words in French, pronouncing them syllable by syllable, as though to give them additional force:
"You ask a frightful thing of me."
"It is necessary to grant it to me," said the young girl with singular energy. "You understand, Boris Alexandrovitch! It is necessary."
Her gaze, after she had glanced penetratingly all around her and discovered nothing suspicious, rested tenderly on the young officer, while she murmured, "My Boris!" The young man could not resist either the sweetness of that voice, nor the captivating charm of that glance. He took the hand she extended toward him and kissed it passionately. His eyes, fixed on Natacha, proclaimed that he granted everything that she wished and admitted himself vanquished. Then she said, always with that adorable gaze upon him, "This evening!" He replied, "Yes, yes. This evening! This evening!" upon which Natacha withdrew her hand and made a sign to the officer to leave, which he promptly obeyed. Natacha remained there still a long time, plunged in thought. Rouletabille had already taken the road back to the villa. Matrena Petrovna was watching for his return, seated on the first step of the landing on the great staircase which ran up from the veranda. When she saw him she ran to him. He had already reached the dining-room.
"Anyone in the house?" he asked.
"No one. Natacha has not returned, and ..."
"Your step-daughter is coming in now. Ask her where she has been, if she has seen the orderlies, and if they said they would return this evening, in case she answers that she has seen them."
"Very well, little domovoi doukh. The orderlies left without my seeing when they went."
"Ab," interrupted Rouletabille, "before she arrives, give me all her hat-pins."
"I say, all her hat-pins. Quickly!"
Matrena ran to Natacha's chamber and returned with three enormous hat-pins with beautifully-cut stones in them.
"These are all?"
"They are all I have found. I know she has two others. She has one on her head, or two, perhaps; I can't find them."
"Take these back where you found them," said the reporter, after glancing at them.
Matrena returned immediately, not understanding what he was doing.
"And now, your hat-pins. Yes, your hat-pins."
"Oh, I have only two, and here they are," said she, drawing them from the toque she had been wearing and had thrown on the sofa when she re-entered the house.
Rouletabille gave hers the same inspection.
"Thanks. Here is your step-daughter."
Natacha entered, flushed and smiling.
"Ah, well," said she, quite breathless, "you may boast that I had to search for you. I made the entire round, clear past the Barque. Has the promenade done papa good?"
"Yes, he is asleep," replied Matrena. "Have you met Boris and Michael?"
She appeared to hesitate a second, then replied:
"Yes, for an instant."
"Did they say whether they would return this evening?"
"No," she replied, slightly troubled. "Why all these questions?
She flushed still more.
"Because I thought it strange," parried Matrena, "that they went away as they did, without saying goodby, without a word, without inquiring if the general needed them. There is something stranger yet. Did you see Kaltsof with them, the grand-marshal of the court?"
"Kaltsof came for a moment, entered the garden and went away again without seeing us, without saying even a word to the general."
"Ab," said Natacha.
With apparent indifference, she raised her arms and drew out her hat-pins. Rouletabille watched the pin without a word. The young girl hardly seemed aware of their presence. Entirely absorbed in strange thoughts, she replaced the pin in her hat and went to hang it in the veranda, which served also as vestibule. Rouletabille never quitted her eyes. Matrena watched the reporter with a stupid glance. Natacha crossed the drawing-room and entered her chamber by passing through her little sitting-room, through which all entrance to her chamber had to be made. That little room, though, had three doors. One opened into Natacha's chamber, one into the drawing-room, and the third into the little passage in a corner of the house where was the stairway by which the servants passed from the kitchens to the ground-floor and the upper floor. This passage had also a door giving directly upon the drawing-room. It was certainly a poor arrangement for serving the dining-room, which was on the other side of the drawing-room and behind the veranda, such a chance laying-out of a house as one often sees in the off-hand planning of many places in the country.
Alone again with Rouletabille, Matrena noticed that he had not lost sight of the corner of the veranda where Natacha had hung her hat. Beside this hat there was a toque that Ermolai had brought in. The old servant had found it in some corner of the garden or the conservatory where he had been. A hat-pin stuck out of that toque also.
"Whose toque is that?" asked Rouletabille. "I haven't seen it on the head of anyone here."
"It is Natacha's," replied Matrena.
She moved toward it, but the young man held her back, went into the veranda himself, and, without touching it, standing on tiptoe, he examined the pin. He sank back on his heels and turned toward Matrena. She caught a glimpse of fleeting emotion on the face of her little friend.
"Explain to me," she said.
But be gave her a glance that frightened her, and said low:
"Go and give orders right away that dinner be served in the veranda. All through dinner it is absolutely necessary that the door of Natacha's sitting-room, and that of the stairway passage, and that of the veranda giving on the drawing-room remain open all the time. Do you understand me? As soon as you have given your orders go to the general's chamber and do not quit the general's bedside, keep it in view. Come down to dinner when it is announced, and do not bother yourself about anything further."
So saying, he filled his pipe, lighted it with a sort of sigh of relief, and, after a final order to Matrena, " Go," he went into the garden, puffing great clouds. Anyone would have said he hadn't smoked in a week. He appeared not to be thinking but just idly enjoying himself. In fact, he played like a child with Milinki, Matrena's pet cat, which he pursued behind the shrubs, up into the little kiosque which, raised on piles, lifted its steep thatched roof above the panorama of the isles that Rouletabille settled down to contemplate like an artist with ample leisure.
The dinner, where Matrena, Natacha and Rouletabille were together again, was lively. The young man having declared that he was more and more convinced that the mystery of the bomb in the bouquet was simply a play of the police, Natacha reinforced his opinion, and following that they found themselves in agreement on about everything else. For himself, the reporter during that conversation hid a real horror which had seized him at the cynical and inappropriate tranquillity with which the young lady received all suggestions that accused the police or that assumed the general no longer ran any immediate danger. In short, he worked, or at least believed he worked, to clear Natacha as he had cleared Matrena, so that there would develop the absolute necessity of assuming a third person's intervention in the facts disclosed so clearly by Koupriane where Matrena or Natacha seemed alone to be possible agents. As he listened to Natacha Rouletabille commenced to doubt and quake just as he had seen Matrena do. The more he looked into the nature of Natacha the dizzier he grew. What abysmal obscurities were there in her nature!
Nothing interesting happened during dinner. Several times, in spite of Rouletabille's obvious impatience with her for doing it, Matrena went up to the general. She returned saying, "He is quiet. He doesn't sleep. He doesn't wish anything. He has asked me to prepare his narcotic. It is too bad. He has tried in vain, he cannot get along without it."
"You, too, mamma, ought to take something to make you sleep. They say morphine is very good."
"As for me," said Rouletabille, whose head for some few minutes had been dropping now toward one shoulder and now toward another, "I have no need of any narcotic to make me sleep. If you will permit me, I will get to bed at once."
"Eh, my little domovoi doukh, I am going to carry you there in my arms."
Matrena extended her large round arms ready to take Rouletabille as though he had been a baby.
"No, no. I will get up there all right alone," said Rouletabille, rising stupidly and appearing ashamed of his excessive sleepiness.
"Oh, well, let us both accompany him to his chamber," said Natacha, "and I will wish papa good-night. I'm eager for bed myself. We will all make a good night of it. Ermolai and Gniagnia will watch with the schwitzar in the lodge. Things are reasonably arranged now."
They all ascended the stairs. Rouletabille did not even go to see the general, but threw himself on his bed. Natacha got onto the bed beside her father, embraced him a dozen times, and went downstairs again. Matrena followed behind her, closed doors and windows, went upstairs again to close the door of the landing-place and found Rouletabille seated on his bed, his arms crossed, not appearing to have any desire for sleep at all. His face was so strangely pensive also that the anxiety of Matrena, who had been able to make nothing out of his acts and looks all day, came back upon her instantly in greater force than ever. She touched his arm in order to be sure that he knew she was there.
"My little friend," she said, "will you tell me now?"
"Yes, madame," he replied at once. "Sit in that chair and listen to me. There are things you must know at once, because we have reached a dangerous hour."
"The hat-pins first. The hat-pins!"
Rouletabille rose lightly from the bed and, facing her, but watching something besides her, said:
"It is necessary you should know that someone almost immediately is going to renew the attempt of the bouquet."
Matrena sprang to her feet as quickly as though she had been told there was a bomb in the seat of her chair. She made herself sit down again, however, in obedience to Rouletabile's urgent look commanding absolute quiet.
"Renew the attempt of the bouquet!" she murmured in a stifled voice. "But there is not a flower in the general's chamber."
"Be calm, madame. Understand me and answer me: You heard the tick-tack from the bouquet while you were in your own chamber?"
"Yes, with the doors open, natural1y."
"You told me the persons who came to say good-night to the general. At that time there was no noise of tick-tack?"
"Do you think that if there had been any tick-tack then you would have heard it, with all those persons talking in the room?"
"I hear everything. I hear everything."
"Did you go downstairs at the same time those people did?"
"No, no; I remained near the general for some time, until he was sound asleep."
"And you heard nothing?"
"You closed the doors behind those persons?"
"Yes, the door to the great staircase. The door of the servants' stairway was condemned a long time ago; it has been locked by me, I alone have the key and on the inside of the door opening into the general's chamber there is also a bolt which is always shot. All the other doors of the chambers have been condemned by me. In order to enter any of the four rooms on this floor it is necessary now to pass by the door of my chamber, which gives on the main staircase."
"Perfect. Then, no one has been able to enter the apartment. No one had been in the apartment for at least two hours excepting you and the general, when you heard the clockwork. From that the only conclusion is that only the general and you could have started it going."
"What are you trying to say?" Matrena demanded, astounded.
"I wish to prove to you by this absurd conclusion, madame, that it is necessary never - never, you understand? Never - to reason solely upon even the most evident external evidence when those seemingly-conclusive appearances are in conflict with certain moral truths that also are clear as the light of day. The light of day for me, madame, is that the general does not desire to commit suicide and, above all, that he would not choose the strange method of suicide by clockwork. The light of day for me is that you adore your husband and that you are ready to sacrifice your life for his."
"Now! exclaimed Matrena, whose tears, always ready in emotional moments, flowed freely. "But, Holy Mary, why do you speak to me without looking at me? What is it? What is it?"
"Don't turn! Don't make a movement! You hear - not a move! And speak low, very low. And don't cry, for the love of God!"
"But you say at once ... the bouquet! Come to the general's room!"
"Not a move. And continue listening to me without interrupting," said he, still inclining his ear, and still without looking at her. "It is because these things were as the light of day to me that I say to myself, 'It is impossible that it should be impossible for a third person not to have placed the bomb in the bouquet. Someone is able to enter the general's chamber even when the general is watching and all the doors are locked."
"Oh, no. No one could possibly enter. I swear it to you."
As she swore it a little too loudly, Rouletabille seized her arm so that she almost cried out, but she understood instantly that it was to keep her quiet.
"I tell you not to interrupt me, once for all."
"But, then, tell me what you are looking at like that."
"I am watching the corner where someone is going to enter the general's chamber when everything is locked, madame. Do not move!"
Matrena, her teeth chattering, recalled that when she entered Rouletabille's chamber she had found all the doors open that communicated with the chain of rooms: the young man's chamber with hers, the dressing-room and the general's chamber. She tried, under Rouletabille's look, to keep calm, but in spite of all the reporter's exhortations she could not hold her tongue.
"But which way? Where will they enter?"
"By the door."
"That of the chamber giving on the servants' stair-way."
"Why, how? The key! The bolt!"
"They have made a key."
"But the bolt is drawn this side."
"They will draw it back from the other side."
"What! That is impossible."
Rouletabille laid his two hands on Matrena's strong shoulders and repeated, detaching each syllable, "They will draw it back from the other side."
"It is impossible. I repeat it."
"Madame, your Nihilists haven't invented anything. Iit is a trick much in vogue with sneak thieves in hotels. All it needs is a little hole the size of a pin bored in the panel of the door above the bolt."
"God!" quavered Matrena. "I don't understand what you mean by your little hole. Explain to me, little domovoi."
"Follow me carefully, then," continued Rouletabille, his eyes all the time fixed elsewhere. "The person who wishes to enter sticks through the hole a brass wire that he has already given the necessary curve to and which is fitted on its end with a light point of steel curved inward. With such an instrument it is child's play, if the hole has been made where it ought to be, to touch the bolt on the inside from the outside, pick the knob on it, withdraw it, and open the door if the bolt is like this one, a small door-bolt."
"Oh, oh, oh," moaned Matrena, who paled visibly. "And that hole?"
"You have discovered it?"
"Yes, the first hour I was here."
"Oh, domovoi! But how did you do that when you never entered the general's chamber until to-night?"
"Doubtless, but I went up that servants' staircase much earlier than that. And I will tell you why. When I was brought into the villa the first time, and you watched me, bidden behind the door, do you know what I was watching myself, while I appeared to be solely occupied digging out the caviare? The fresh print of boot-nails which left the carpet near the table, where someone had spilled beer (the beer was still running down the cloth). Someone had stepped in the beer. The boot-print was not clearly visible excepting there. But from there it went to the door of the servants' stairway and mounted the stairs. That boot was too fine to be mounting a stairway reserved to servants and that Koupriane told me had been condemned, and it was that made me notice it in a moment; but just then you entered."
"You never told me anything about it. Of course if I had known there was a boot-print..."
"I didn't tell you anything about it because I had my reasons for that, and, anyway, the trace dried while I was telling you about my journey."
"Ah, why not have told me later?"
"Because I didn't know you yet."
"Subtle devil! You will kill me. I can no longer... Let us go into the general's chamber. We will wake him."
"Remain here. Remain here. I have not told you anything. That boot-print preoccupied me, and later, when I could get away from the dining-room, I was not easy until I had climbed that stairway myself and gone to see that door, where I discovered what I have just told you and what I am going to tell you now."
"What? What? In all you have said there has been nothing about the hat-pins."
"We have come to them now."
"And the bouquet attack, which is going to happen again? Why? Why?"
"This is it. When this evening you let me go to the general's chamber, I examined the bolt of the door without your suspecting it. My opinion was confirmed. It was that way that the bomb was brought, and it is by that way that someone has prepared to return."
"But how? You are sure the little hole is the way someone came? But what makes you think that is how they mean to return? You know well enough that, not having succeeded in the general's chamber, they are at work in the dining-room."
"Madame, it is probable, it is certain that they have given up the work in the dining-room since they have commenced this very day working again in the general's chamber. Yes, someone returned, returned that way, and I was so sure of that, of the forthcoming return, that I removed the police in order to be able to study everything more at my ease. Do you understand now my confidence and why I have been able to assume so heavy a responsibility? It is because I knew I had only one thing to watch: one little hat-pin. It is not difficult, madame, to watch a single little hat-pin."
"A mistake," said Matrena, in a low voice. "Miserable little domovoi who told me nothing, me whom you let go to sleep on my mattress, in front of that door that might open any moment."
"No, madame. For I was behind it!"
"Ah, dear little holy angel! But what were you thinking of! That door has not been watched this afternoon. In our absence it could have been opened. If someone has placed a bomb during our absence!"
"That is why I sent you at once in to the dining-room on that search that I thought would be fruitless, dear madame. And that is why I hurried upstairs to the bedroom. I went to the stairway door instantly. I had prepared for proof positive if anyone had pushed it open even half a millimeter. No, no one had touched the door in our absence.
"Ah, dear heroic little friend of Jesus! But listen to me. Listen to me, my angel. Ah, I don't know where I am or what I say. My brain is no more than a flabby balloon punctured with pins, with little holes of hat-pins. Tell me about the hat-pins. Right off! No, at first, what is it that makes you believe - good God! - that someone will return by that door? How can you see that, all that, in a poor little hat-pin?"
"Madame, it is not a single hat-pin hole; there are two of them.
"Two hat-pin holes?"
"Yes, two. An old one and a new one. One quite new. Why this second hole? Because the old one was judged a little too narrow and they wished to enlarge it, and in enlarging it they broke off the point of a hat-pin in it. Madame, the point is there yet, filling up the little old hole and the piece of metal is very sharp and very bright."
now I understand the examination of the hat-pins. Then it is so easy as that to get through a door with a hat-pin?"
"Nothing easier, especially if the panel is of pine. Sometimes one happens to break the point of a pin in the first hole. Then of necessity one makes a second. In order to commence the second hole, the point of the pin being broken, they have used the point of a pen-knife, then have finished the hole with the hat-pin. The second hole is still nearer the bolt than the first one. Don't move like that, madame."
"But they are going to come! They are going to come!"
"I believe so."
"But I can't understand how you can remain so quiet with such a certainty. Great heavens! what proof have you that they have not been there already?"
"Just an ordinary pin, madame, not a hat-pin this time. Don't confuse the pins. I will show you in a little while."
"He will drive me distracted with his pins, dear light of my eyes! Bounty of Heaven! God's envoy! Dear little happiness-bearer!"
In her transport she tried to take him in her trembling arms, but he waved her back. She caught her breath and resumed:
"Did the examination of all the hat-pins tell you anything?"
"Yes. The fifth hat-pin of Mademoiselle Natacha's, the one in the toque out in the veranda, has the tip newly broken off."
"0 misery!" cried Matrena, crumpling in her chair.
Rouletabille raised her.
"What would you have? I have examined your own hat-pins. Do you think I would have suspected you if I had found one of them broken? I would simply have thought that someone had used your property for an abominable purpose, that is all."
"Oh, that is true, that is true. Pardon me. Mother of Christ, this boy crazes me! He consoles me and he horrifies me. He makes me think of such dreadful things, and then he reassures me. He does what he wishes with me. What should I become without him?"
And this time she succeeded in taking his head in her two hands and kissing him passionately. Rouletabille pushed her back roughly.
"You keep me from seeing," he said.
She was in tears over his rebuff. She understood now. Rouletabille during all this conversation had not ceased to watch through the open doors of Matrena's room and the dressing-room the farther fatal door whose brass bolt shone in the yellow light of the night-lamp.
At last he made her a sign and the reporter, followed by Matrena, advanced on tip-toe to the threshold of the general's chamber, keeping close to the wall. Feodor Feodorovitch slept. They heard his heavy breath, but he appeared to be enjoying peaceful sleep. The horrors of the night before had fled. Matrena was perhaps right in attributing the nightmares to the narcotic prepared for him each night, for the glass from which he drank it when he felt he could not sleep was still full and obviously had not been touched. The bed of the general was so placed that whoever occupied it, even if they were wide awake, could not see the door giving on the servants' stairway. The little table where the glass and various phials were placed and which had borne the dangerous bouquet, was placed near the bed, a little back of it, and nearer the door. Nothing would have been easier than for someone who could open the door to stretch an arm and place the infernal machine among the wild flowers, above all, as could easily be believed, if he had waited for that treachery until the heavy breathing of the general told them outside that he was fast asleep, and if, looking through the key-hole, he had made sure Matrena was occupied in her own chamber. Rouletabille, at the threshold, glided to one side, out of the line of view from the hole, and got down on all fours. He crawled toward the door. With his head to the floor he made sure that the little ordinary pin which he had placed on guard that evening, stuck in the floor against the door, was still erect, having thus additional proof that the door had not been moved. In any other case the pin would have lain flat on the floor. He crept back, rose to his feet, passed into the dressing-room and, in a corner, had a rapid conversation in a low voice with Matrena.
"You will go," said he, "and take your mattress into the corner of the dressing-room where you can still see the door but no one can see you by looking through the key-hole. Do that quite naturally, and then go to your rest. I will pass the night on the mattress, and I beg you to believe that I will be more comfortable there than on a bed of staircase wood where I spent the night last night, behind the door."
"Yes, but you will fall asleep. I don't wish that."
"What are you thinking, madame?"
"I don't wish it. I don't wish it. I don't wish to quit the door where the eye is. And since I'm not able to sleep, let me watch."
He did not insist, and they crouched together on the mattress. Rouletabille was squatted like a tailor at work; but Matrena remained on all-fours, her jaw out, her eyes fixed, like a bulldog ready to spring. The minutes passed by in profound silence, broken only by the irregular breathing and puffing of the general. His face stood out pallid and tragic on the pillow; his mouth was open and, at times, the lips moved. There was fear at any moment of nightmare or his awakening. Unconsciously he threw an arm over toward the table where the glass of narcotic stood. Then he lay still again and snored lightly. The night-lamp on the mantelpiece caught queer yellow reflections from the corners of the furniture, from the gilded frame of a picture on the wall and from the phials and glasses on the table. But in all the chamber Matrena Petrovna saw nothing, thought of nothing but the brass bolt which shone there on the door. Tired of being on her knees, she shifted, her chin in her hands, her gaze steadily fixed. As time passed and nothing happened she heaved a sigh. She could not have said whether she hoped for or dreaded the coming of that something new which Rouletabille had indicated. Rouletabille felt her shiver with anguish and impatience.
As for him, he had not hoped that anything would come to pass until toward dawn, the moment, as everyone knows, when deep sleep is most apt to vanquish all watchfulness and all insomnia. And as he waited for that moment he had not budged any more than a Chinese ape or the dear little porcelain domovoi doukh in the garden. Of course it might be that it was not to happen this night.
Suddenly Matrena's hand fell on Rouletabille's. His imprisoned hers so firmly that she understood she was forbidden to make the least movement. And both, with necks extended, ears erect, watched like beasts, like beasts on the scent.
Yes, yes, there had been a slight noise in the lock. A key turned, softly, softly, in the lock, and then - silence; and then another little noise, a grinding sound, a slight grating of wire, above, then on the bolt; upon the bolt which shone in the subdued glow of the night-lamp. The bolt softly, very softly, slipped slowly.
Then the door was pushed slowly, so slowly. It opened.
Through the opening the shadow of an arm stretched, an arm which held in its fingers something which shone. Rouletabille felt Matrena ready to bound. He encircled her, he pressed her in his arms, he restrained her in silence, and he had a horrible fear of hearing her suddenly shout, while the arm stretched out, almost touched the pillow on the bed where the general continued to sleep a sleep of peace such as he had not known for a long time.
Turn to the next chapter: VII ARSENATE OF SODA