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X A DRAMA IN THE NIGHT
At the door of the Krestowsky Rouletabille, who was in a hurry for a conveyance, jumped into an open carriage where la belle Onoto was already seated. The dancer caught him on her knees.
"To Eliaguine, fast as you can," cried the reporter for all explanation.
"Scan! Scan! (Quickly, quickly)" repeated Onoto.
She was accompanied by a vague sort of person to whom neither of them paid the least attention.
"What a supper! You waked up at last, did you?" quizzed the actress. But Rouletabille, standing up behind the enormous coachman, urged the horses and directed the route of the carriage. They bolted along through the night at a dizzy pace. At the corner of a bridge he ordered the horses stopped, thanked his companions and disappeared.
"What a country! What a country! Caramba!" said the Spanish artist.
The carriage waited a few minutes, then turned back toward the city.
Rouletabille got down the embankment and slowly, taking infinite precautions not to reveal his presence by making the least noise, made his way to where the river is widest. Seen through the blackness of the night the blacker mass of the Trebassof villa loomed like an enormous blot, he stopped. Then he glided like a snake through the reeds, the grass, the ferns. He was at the back of the villa, near the river, not far from the little path where he had discovered the passage of the assassin, thanks to the broken cobwebs. At that moment the moon rose and the birch-trees, which just before had been like great black staffs, now became white tapers which seemed to brighten that sinister solitude.
The reporter wished to profit at once by the sudden luminance to learn if his movements had been noticed and if the approaches to the villa on that side were guarded. He picked up a small pebble and threw it some distance from him along the path. At the unexpected noise three or four shadowy heads were outlined suddenly in the white light of the moon, but disappeared at once, lost again in the dark tufts of grass.
He had gained his information.
The reporter's acute ear caught a gliding in his direction, a slight swish of twigs; then all at once a shadow grew by his side and he felt the cold of a revolver barrel on his temple. He said "Koupriane," and at once a hand seized his and pressed it.
The night had become black again. He murmured: "How is it you are here in person?"
The Prefect of Police whispered in his ear:
"I have been informed that something will happen to-night. Natacha went to Krestowsky and exchanged some words with Annouchka there. Prince Galitch is involved, and it is an affair of State."
"Natacha has returned?" inquired Rouletabille.
"Yes, a long time ago. She ought to be in bed. In any case she is pretending to be abed. The light from her chamber, in the window over the garden, has been put out."
"Have you warned Matrena Petrovna?"
"Yes, I have let her know that she must keep on the sharp look-out to-night."
"That's a mistake. I shouldn't have told her anything. She will take such extra precautions that the others will be instantly warned."
"I have told her she should not go to the ground-floor at all this night, and that she must not leave the general's chamber."
"That is perfect, if she will obey you."
"You see I have profited by all your information. I have followed your instructions. The road from the Krestowsky is under surveillance."
"Perhaps too much. How are you planning?"
"We will let them enter. I don't know whom I have to deal with. I want to strike a sure blow. I shall take him in the act. No more doubt after this, you trust me."
"Where are you going?"
"To bed. I have paid my debt to my host. I have the right to some repose now. Good luck!"
But Koupriane had seized his hand.
With a little attention they detected a light stroke on the water. If a boat was moving at this time for this bank of the Neva and wished to remain hidden, the right moment had certainly been chosen. A great black cloud covered the moon; the wind was light. The boat would have time to get from one bank to the other without being discovered. Rouletabille waited no longer. On all-fours he ran like a beast, rapidly and silently, and rose behind the wall of the villa, where he made a turn, reached the gate, aroused the dvornicks and demanded Ermolai, who opened the gate for him.
"The Barinia?" he said.
Ermolai pointed his finger to the bedroom floor.
Rouletabille was already across the garden and had hoisted himself by his fingers to the window of Natacha's chamber, where he listened. He plainly heard Natacha walking about in the dark chamber. He fell back lightly onto his feet, mounted the veranda steps and opened the door, then closed it so lightly that Ermolai, who watched him from outside not two feet away, did not hear the slightest grinding of the hinges. Inside the villa Rouletabille advanced on tiptoe. He found the door of the drawing-room open. The door of the sitting-room had not been closed, or else had been reopened. He turned in his tracks, felt in the dark for a chair and sat down, with his hand on his revolver in his pocket, waiting for the events that would not delay long now. Above he heard distinctly from time to time the movements of Matrena Petrovna. And this would evidently give a sense of security to those who needed to have the ground-floor free this night. Rouletabille imagined that the doors of the rooms on the ground-floor had been left open so that it would be easier for those who would be below to hear what was happening upstairs. And perhaps he was not wrong.
Suddenly there was a vertical bar of pale light from the sitting-room that overlooked the Neva. He deduced two things: first, that the window was already slightly open, then that the moon was out from the clouds again. The bar of light died almost instantly, but Rouletabille's eyes, now used to the obscurity, still distinguished the open line of the window. There the shade was less deep. Suddenly he felt the blood pound at his temples, for the line of the open window grew larger, increased, and the shadow of a man gradually rose on the balcony. Rouletabille drew his revolver.
The man stood up immediately behind one of the shutters and struck a light blow on the glass. Placed as he was now he could be seen no more. His shadow mixed with the shadow of the shutter. At the noise on the glass Natacha's door had opened cautiously, and she entered the sitting-room. On tiptoe she went quickly to the window and opened it. The man entered. The little light that by now was commencing to dawn was enough to show Rouletabille that Natacha still wore the toilette in which he had seen her that same evening at Krestowsky. As for the man, he tried in vain to identify him; he was only a dark mass wrapped in a mantle. He leaned over and kissed Natacha's hand. She said only one word: "Scan!" (Quickly).
But she had no more than said it before, under a vigorous attack, the shutters and the two halves of the window were thrown wide, and silent shadows jumped rapidly onto the balcony and sprang into the villa. Natacha uttered a shrill cry in which Rouletabille believed still he heard more of despair than terror, and the shadows threw themselves on the man; but he, at the first alarm, had thrown himself upon the carpet and had slipped from them between their legs. He regained the balcony and jumped from it as the others turned toward him. At least, it was so that Rouletabille believed he saw the mysterious struggle go in the half-light, amid most impressive silence, after that frightened cry of Natacha's. The whole affair had lasted only a few seconds, and the man was still hanging over the balcony, when from the bottom of the hall a new person sprang. It was Matrena Petrovna.
Warned by Koupriane that something would happen that night, and foreseeing that it would happen on the ground-floor where she was forbidden to be, she had found nothing better to do than to make her faithful maid go secretly to the bedroom floor, with orders to walk about there all night, to make all think she herself was near the general, while she remained below, hidden in the dining-room.
Matrena Petrovna now threw herself out onto the balcony, crying in Russian, "Shoot! Shoot!" In just that moment the man was hesitating whether to risk the jump and perhaps break his neck, or descend less rapidly by the gutter-pipe. A policeman fired and missed him, and the man, after firing back and wounding the policeman, disappeared. It was still too far from dawn for them to see clearly what happened below, where the barking of Brownings alone was heard. And there could be nothing more sinister than the revolver-shots unaccompanied by cries in the mists of the morning. The man, before he disappeared, had had only time by a quick kick to throw down one of the two ladders which had been used by the police in climbing; down the other one all the police in a bunch, even to the wounded one, went sliding, falling, rising, running after the shadow which fled still, discharging the Browning steadily; other shadows rose from the river-bank, hovering in the mist. Suddenly Koupniane's voice was heard shouting orders, calling upon his agents to take the quarry alive or dead. From the balcony Matrena Petrovna cried out also, like a savage, and Rouletabille tried in vain to keep her quiet. She was delirious at the thought "The Other" might escape yet. She fired a revolver, she also, into the group, not knowing whom she might wound. Rouletabille grabbed her arm and as she turned on him angrily she observed Natacha, who, leaning until she almost fell over the balcony, her lips trembling with delirious utterance, followed as well as she could the progress of the struggle, trying to understand what happened below, under the trees, near the Neva, where the tumult by now extended. Matrena Petrovna pulled her back by the arms. Then she took her by the neck and threw her into the drawing-room in a heap. When she had almost strangled her step-daughter, Matrena Petrovna saw that the general was there. He appeared in the pale glimmerings of dawn like a specter. By what miracle had Feodor Feodorovitch been able to descend the stairs and reach there? How had it been brought about? She saw him tremble with anger or with wretchedness under the folds of the soldier's cape that floated about him. He demanded in a hoarse voice, "What is it?"
Matrena Petrovna threw herself at his feet, made the orthodox sign of the Cross, as if she wished to summon God to witness, and then, pointing to Natacha, she denounced his daughter to her husband as she would have pointed her out to a judge.
"The one, Feodor Feodorovitch, who has wished more than once to assassinate you, and who this night has opened the datcha to your assassin is your daughter."
The general held himself up by his two hands against the wall, and, looking at Matrena and Natacha, who now were both upon the floor before him like suppliants, he said to Matrena:
"It is you who assassinate me."
"Me! By the living God!" babbled Matrena Petrovna desperately. "If I had been able to keep this from you, Jesus would have been good! But I say no more to crucify you. Feodor Feodorovitch, question your daughter, and if what I have said is not true, kill me, kill me as a lying, evil beast. I will say thank you, thank you, and I will die happier than if what I have said was true. Ah, I long to be dead! I Kill me!"
Feodor Feodorovitch pushed her back with his stick as one would push a worm in his path. Without saying anything further, she rose from her knees and looked with her haggard eyes, with her crazed face, at Rouletabille, who grasped her arm. If she had had her hands still free she would not have hesitated a second in wreaking justice upon herself under this bitter fate of alienating Feodor. And it seemed frightful to Rouletabille that he should be present at one of those horrible family dramas the issue of which in the wild times of Peter the Great would have sent the general to the hangman either as a father or as a husband.
The general did not deign even to consider for any length of time Matrena's delirium. He said to his daughter, who shook with sobs on the floor, "Rise, Natacha Feodorovna." And Feodor's daughter understood that her father never would believe in her guilt. She drew herself up towards him and kissed his hands like a happy slave.
At this moment repeated blows shook the veranda door. Matrena, the watch-dog, anxious to die after Feodor's reproach, but still at her post, ran toward what she believed to be a new danger. But she recognized Koupriane's voice, which called on her to open. She let him in herself.
"What is it?" she implored.
"Well, he is dead."
A cry answered him. Natacha had heard.
"But who - who - who?" questioned Matrena breathlessly.
Koupriane went over to Feodor and grasped his hands.
"General," he said, "there was a man who had sworn your ruin and who was made an instrument by your enemies. We have just killed that man."
"Do I know him?" demanded Feodor.
"He is one of your friends, you have treated him like a son."
"Ask your daughter, General."
Feodor turned toward Natacha, who burned Koupriane with her gaze, trying to learn what this news was he brought - the truth or a ruse.
"You know the man who wished to kill me, Natacha?"
"No," she replied to her father, in accents of perfect fury. "No, I don't know any such man."
"Mademoiselle," said Koupriane, in a firm, terribly hostile voice, "you have yourself, with your own hands, opened that window to-night; and you have opened it to him many other times besides. While everyone else here does his duty and watches that no person shall be able to enter at night the house where sleeps General Trebassof, governor of Moscow, condemned to death by the Central Revolutionary Committee now reunited at Presnia, this is what you do; it is you who introduce the enemy into this place."
"Answer, Natacha; tell me, yes or no, whether you have let anybody into this house by night."
"Father, it is true."
Feodor roared like a lion:
"Monsieur will tell you himself," said Natacha, in a voice thick with terror, and she pointed to Koupriane. "Why does he not tell you himself the name of that person? He must know it, if the man is dead."
"And if the man is not dead," replied Feodor, who visibly held onto himself, "if that man, whom you helped to enter my house this night, has succeeded in escaping, as you seem to hope, will you tell us his name?"
"I could not tell it, Father."
"And if I prayed you to do so?"
Natacha desperately shook her head.
"And if I order you?"
"You can kill me, Father, but I will not pronounce that name."
He raised his stick toward her. Thus Ivan the Terrible had killed his son with a blow of his boar-spear.
But Natacha, instead of bowing her head beneath the blow that menaced her, turned toward Koupriane and threw at him in accents of triumph:
"He is not dead. If you bad succeeded in taking him, dead or alive, you would already have his name."
Koupriane took two steps toward her, put his hand on her shoulder and said:
"Michael Korsakoff!" cried the general.
Matrena Petrovna, as if revolted by that suggestion, stood upright to repeat:
The general could not believe his ears, and was about to protest when he noticed that his daughter had turned away and was trying to flee to her room. He stopped her with a terrible gesture.
"Natacha, you are going to tell us what Michael Korsakoff came here to do to-night."
"Feodor Feodorovitch, he came to poison you."
It was Matrena who spoke now and whom nothing could have kept silent, for she saw in Natacha's attempt at flight the most sinister confession. Like a vengeful fury she told over with cries and terrible gestures what she had experienced, as if once more stretched before her the hand armed with the poison, the mysterious hand above the pillow of her poor invalid, her dear, rigorous tyrant; she told them about the preceding night and all her terrors, and from her lips, by her voluble staccato utterance that ominous recital had grotesque emphasis. Finally she told all that she had done, she and the little Frenchman, in order not to betray their suspicions to The Other, in order to take finally in their own trap all those who for so many days and nights schemed for the death of Feodor Feodorovitch. As she ended she pointed out Rouletabille to Feodor and cried, "There is the one who has saved you."
Natacha, as she listened to this tragic recital, restrained herself several times in order not to interrupt, and Rouletabille, who was watching her closely, saw that she had to use almost superhuman efforts in order to achieve that. All the horror of what seemed to be to her as well as to Feodor a revelation of Michael's crime did not subdue her, but seemed, on the contrary, to restore to her in full force all the life that a few seconds earlier had fled from her. Matrena had hardly finished her cry, " There is the one who has saved you," before Natacha cried in her turn, facing the reporter with a look full of the most frightful hate, "There is the one who has heen the death of an innocent man!" She turned to her father. "Ah, papa, let me, let me say that Michael Nikolaievitch, who came here this evening, I admit, and whom, it is true, I let into the house, tbat Michael Nikolaievitch did not come here yesterday, and that the man who has tried to poison you is certainly someone else."
At these words Rouletabille turned pale, but he did not let himself lose self-control. He replied simply:
"No, mademoiselle, it was the same man."
And Koupriane felt compelled to add:
"Anyway, we have found the proof of Michael Nikolaievitch's relations with the revolutionaries."
"Where have you found that?" questioned the young girl, turning toward the Chief of Police a face ravished with anguish.
"At Krestowsky, mademoiselle."
She looked a long time at him as though she would penetrate to the bottom of his thoughts.
"What proofs?" she implored.
"A correspondence which we have placed under seal."
"Was it addressed to him? What kind of correspondence?"
"If it interests you, we will open it before you."
"My God! My God!" she gasped. "Where have you found this correspondence? Where? Tell me where!"
"I will tell you. `At the villa, in his chamber. We forced the lock of his bureau."
She seemed to breathe again, but her father took her brutally by the arm.
"Come, Natacha, you are going to tell us what that man was doing here to-night."
"In her chamber!" cried Matrena Petrovna.
Natacha turned toward Matrena:
"What do you believe, then? Tell me now."
"And I, what ought I to believe?" muttered Feodor. "You have not told me yet. You did not know that man had relations with my enemies. You are innocent of that, perhaps. I wish to think so. I wish it, in the name of Heaven I wish it. But why did you receive him? Why? Why did you bring him in here, as a robber or as a..."
"Oh, papa, you know that I love Boris, that I love him with all my heart, and that I would never belong to anyone but him."
"Then, then, then. - speak!"
The young girl had reached the crisis.
"Ah, Father, Father, do not question me! You, you above all, do not question me now. I can say nothing! There is nothing I can tell you. Excepting that I am sure - sure, you understand - that Michael Nikolaievitch did not come here last night."
"He did come," insisted Rouletabille in a slightly troubled voice.
"He came here with poison. He came here to poison your father, Natacha," moaned Matrena Petrovna, who twined her hands in gestures of sincere and naive tragedy.
"And I," replied the daughter of Feodor ardently, with an accent of conviction which made everyone there vibrate, and particularly Rouletabille, "and I, I tell you it was not he, that it was not he, that it could not possibly be he. I swear to you it was another, another."
"But then, this other, did you let him in as well?" said Koupriane.
"Ah, yes, yes. It was I. It was I. It was I who left the window and blinds open. Yes, it is I who did that. But I did not wait for the other, the other who came to assassinate. As to Michael Nikolaievitch, I swear to you, my father, by all that is most sacred in heaven and on earth, that he could not have committed the crime that you say. And now - kill me, for there is nothing more I can say."
"The poison," replied Koupriane coldly, "the poison that he poured into the general's potion was that arsenate of soda which was on the grapes the Marshal of the Court brought here. Those grapes were left by the Marshal, who warned Michael Nikolaievitch and Boris Alexandrovitch to wash them. The grapes disappeared. If Michael is innocent, do you accuse Boris?"
Natacha, who seemed to have suddenly lost all power for defending herself, moaned, begged, railed, seemed dying.
"No, no. Don't accuse Boris. He has nothing to do with it. Don't accuse Michael. Don't accuse anyone so long as you don't know. But these two are innocent. Believe me. Believe me. Ah, how shall I say it, how shall I persuade you! I am not able to say anything to you. And you have killed Michael. Ah, what have you done, what have you done!"
"We have suppressed a man," said the icy voice of Koupriane, "who was merely the agent for the base deeds of Nihilism."
She succeeded in recovering a new energy that in her depths of despair they would have supposed impossible. She shook her fists at Koupriane:
"It is not true, it is not true. These are slanders, infamies! The inventions of the police! Papers devised to incriminate him. There is nothing at all of what you said you found at his house. It is not possible. It is not true."
"Where are those papers?" demanded the curt voice of Feodor. "Bring them here at once, Koupriane; I wish to see them."
Koupriane was slightly troubled, and this did not escape Natacha, who cried:
"Yes, yes, let him give us them, let him bring them if he has them. But he hasn't," she clamored with a savage joy. "He has nothing. You can see, papa, that he has nothing. He would already have brought them out. He has nothing. I tell you he has nothing. Ah, he has nothing! He has nothing!"
And she threw herself on the floor, weeping, sobbing, "He has nothing, he has nothing!" She seemed to weep for joy.
"Is that true?" demanded Feodor Feodorovitch, with his most somber manner. "Is it true, Koupriane, that you have nothing?"
"It is true, General, that we have found nothing. Everything had already been carried away."
But Natacha uttered a veritable torrent of glee:
"He has found nothing! Yet he accuses him of being allied with the revolutionaries. Why? Why? Because I let him in? But I, am I a revolutionary? Tell me. Have I sworn to kill papa? I? I? Ah, he doesn't know what to say. You see for yourself, papa, he is silent. He has lied. He has lied."
"Why have you made this false statement, Koupriane?"
"Oh, we have suspected Michael for some time, and truly, after what has just happened, we cannot have any doubt."
"Yes, but you declared you had papers, and you have not. That is abominable procedure, Koupriane," replied Feodor sternly. "I have heard you condemn such expedients many times."
"General! We are sure, you hear, we are absolutely sure that the man who tried to poison you yesterday and the man to-day who is dead are one and the same."
"And what reason have you for being so sure? It is necessary to tell it," insisted the general, who trembled with distress and impatience.
"Yes, let him tell now."
"Ask monsieur," said Koupriane.
They all turned to Rouletabille.
The reporter replied, affecting a coolness that perhaps he did not entirely feel:
"I am able to state to you, as I already have before Monsieur the Prefect of Police, that one, and only one, person has left the traces of his various climbings on the wall and on the balcony."
"Idiot!" interrupted Natacha, with a passionate disdain for the young man. "And that satisfies you?"
The general roughly seized the reporter's wrist:
"Listen to me, monsieur. A man came here this night. That concerns only me. No one has any right to be astonished excepting myself. I make it my own affair, an affair between my daughter and me. But you, you have just told us that you are sure that man is an assassin. Then, you see, that calls for something else. Proofs are necessary, and I want the proofs at once. You speak of traces; very well, we will go and examine those traces together. And I wish for your sake, monsieur, that I shall be as convinced by them as you are."
Rouletabille quietly disengaged his wrist and replied with perfect calm:
"Now, monsieur, I am no longer able to prove anything to you."
"Because the ladders of the police agents have wiped out all my proofs, monsieur.
"So now there remains for us only your word, only your belief in yourself. And if you are mistaken?"
"He would never admit it, papa," cried Natacha. "Ah, it is he who deserves the fate Michael Nikolaievitch has met just now. Isn't it so? Don't you know it? And that will be your eternal remorse! Isn't there something that always keeps you from admitting that you are mistaken? You have had an innocent man killed. Now, you know well enough, you know well that I would not have admitted Michael Nikolaievitch here if I had believed he was capable of wishing to poison my father."
"Mademoiselle," replied Rouletabille, not lowering his eyes under Natacha's thunderous regard, "I am sure of that."
He said it in such a tone that Natacha continued to look at him with incomprehensible anguish in her eyes. Ah, the baffling of those two regards, the mute scene between those two young people, one of whom wished to make himself understood and the other afraid beyond all other things of being thoroughly understood. Natacha murmured:
"How he looks at me! See, he is the demon; yes, yes, the little domovoi, the little domovoi. But look out, poor wretch; you don't know what you have done."
She turned brusquely toward Koupriane:
"Where is the body of Michael Nikolaievitch?" said she. "I wish to see it. I must see it."
Feodor Feodorovitch had fallen, as though asleep, upon a chair. Matrena Petrovna dared not approach him. The giant appeared hurt to the death, disheartened forever. What neither bombs, nor bullets, nor poison had been able to do, the single idea of his daughter's co-operation in the work of horror plotted about him - or rather the impossibility he faced of understanding Natacha's attitude, her mysterious conduct, the chaos of her explanations, her insensate cries, her protestations of innocence, her accusations, her menaces, her prayers and all her disorder, the avowed fact of her share in that tragic nocturnal adventure where Michael Nikolaievitch found his death, had knocked over Feodor Feodorovitch like a straw. One instant he sought refuge in some vague hope that Koupriane was less assured than he pretended of the orderly's guilt. But that, after all, was only a detail of no importance in his eyes. What alone mattered was the significance of Natacha's act, and the unhappy girl seemed not to be concerned over what he would think of it. She was there to fight against Koupriane, Rouletabille and Matrena Petrovna, defending her Michael Nikolajevitch, while he, the father, after having failed to overawe her just now, was there in a corner suffering agonizedly.
Koupriane walked over to him and said:
"Listen to me carefully, Feodor Feodorovitch. He who speaks to you is Head of the Police by the will of the Tsar, and your friend by the grace of God. If you do not demand before us, who are acquainted with all that has happened and who know how to keep any necessary secret, if you do not demand of your daughter the reason for her conduct with Michael Nikolaievitch, and if she does not tell you in all sincerity, there is nothing more for me to do here. My men have already been ordered away from this house as unworthy to guard the most loyal subject of His Majesty; I have not protested, but now I in my turn ask you to prove to me that the most dangerous enemy you have had in your house is not your daughter."
These words, which summed up the horrible situation, came as a relief for Feodor. Yes, they must know. Koupriane was right. She must speak. He ordered his daughter to tell everything, everything.
Natacha fixed Koupriane again with her look of hatred to the death, turned from him and repeated in a firm voice:
"I have nothing to say."
"There is the accomplice of your assassins," growled Koupriane then, his arm extended.
Natacha uttered a cry like a wounded beast and fell at her father's feet. She gathered them within her supplicating arms. She pressed them to her breasts. She sobbed from the bottom of her heart. And he, not comprehending, let her lie there, distant, hostile, somber. Then she moaned, distractedly, and wept bitterly, and the dramatic atmosphere in which she thus suddenly enveloped Feodor made it all sound like those cries of an earlier time when the all-powerful, punishing father appeared in the women's apartments to punish the culpable ones.
"My father! Dear Father! Look at me! Look at me! Have pity on me, and do not require me to speak when I must be silent forever. And believe me! Do not believe these men! Do not believe Matrena Petrovna. And am I not your daughter? Your very own daughter! Your Natacha Feodorovna! I cannot make things dear to you. No, no, by the Holy Virgin Mother of Jesus I cannot explain. By the holy ikons, it is because I must not. By my mother, whom I have not known and whose place you have taken, oh, my father, ask me nothing more! Ask me nothing more! But take me in your arms as you did when I was little; embrace me, dear father; love me. I never have had such need to be loved. Love me! I am miserable. Unfortunate me, who cannot even kill myself before your eyes to prove my innocence and my love. Papa, Papa! What will your arms be for in the days left you to live, if you no longer wish to press me to your heart? Papa! Papa!"
She laid her head on Feodor's knees. Her hair had come down and hung about her in a magnificent disorderly mass of black.
"Look in my eyes! Look in my eyes! See how they love you, Batouchka! Batouchka! My dear Batouchka!"
Then Feodor wept. His great tears fell upon Natacha's tears. He raised her head and demanded simply in a broken voice:
"You can tell me nothing now? But when will you tell me?"
Natacha lifted her eyes to his, then her look went past him toward heaven, and from her lips came just one word, in a sob:
Matrena Petrovna, Koupriane and the reporter shuddered before the high and terrible thing that happened then. Feodor had taken his daughter's face between his hands. He looked long at those eyes raised toward heaven, the mouth which had just uttered the word "Never," then, slowly, his rude lips went to the tortured, quivering lips of the girl. He held her close. She raised her head wildly, triumphantly, and cried, with arm extended toward Matrena Petrovna:
"He believes me! He believes me! And you would have believed me also if you had been my real mother."
Her head fell back and she dropped unconscious to the floor. Feodor fell to his knees, tending her, deploring her, motioning the others out of the room.
"Go away! All of you, go! All! You, too, Matrena Petrovna. Go away!"
They disappeared, terrified by his savage gesture.
In the little datcha across the river at Krestowsky there was a body. Secret Service agents guarded it while they waited for their chief. Michael Nikolaievitch had come there to die, and the police had reached him just at his last breath. They were behind him as, with the death-rattle in his throat, he pulled himself into his chamber and fell in a heap. Katharina the Bohemian was there. She bent her quick-witted, puzzled head over his death agony. The police swarmed everywhere, ransacking, forcing locks, pulling drawers from the bureau and tables, emptying the cupboards. Their search took in everything, even to ripping the mattresses, and not respecting the rooms of Boris Mourazoff, who was away this night. They searched thoroughly, but they found absolutely nothing they were looking for in Michael's rooms. But they accumulated a multitude of publications that belonged to Boris: Western books, essays on political economy, a history of the French Revolution, and verses that a man ought to hang for. They put them all under seal. During the search Michael died in Katharina's arms. She had held him close, after opening his clothes over the chest, doubtless to make his last breaths easier. The unfortunate officer had received a bullet at the back of the head just after he had plunged into the Neva from the rear of the Trebassof datcha and started to swim across. It was a miracle that he had managed to keep going. Doubtless he hoped to die in peace if only he could reach his own house. He apparently had believed he could manage that once he had broken through his human bloodhounds. He did not know he was recognized and his place of retreat therefore known.
Now the police had gone from cellar to garret. Koupriane came from the Trebassof villa and joined them, Rouletabille followed him. The reporter could not stand the sight of that body, that still had a lingering warmth, of the great open eyes that seemed to stare at him, reproaching him for this violent death. He turned away in distaste, and perhaps a little in fright. Koupriane caught the movement.
"Regrets?" he queried.
"Yes," said Rouletabille. "A death always must be regretted. None the less, he was a criminal. But I'm sincerely sorry he died before he had been driven to confess, even though we are sure of it."
"Being in the pay of the Nihilists, you mean? That is still your opinion?" asked Koupriane.
"You know that nothing has been found here in his rooms. The only compromising papers that have been found belong to Boris Mourazoff."
"Why do you say that?"
"Oh - nothing."
Koupriane questioned his men further. They replied categorically. No, nothing had been found that directly incriminated anybody; and suddenly Rouletabille noted that the conversation of the police and their chief had grown more animated. Koupriane had become angry and was violently reproaching them. They excused themselves with vivid gesture and rapid speech.
Koupriane started away. Rouletabille followed him. What had happened?
As he came up behind Koupriane, he asked the question. In a few curt words, still hurrying on, Koupriane told the reporter he had just learned that the police had left the little Bohemian Katharina alone for a moment with the expiring officer. Katharina acted as housekeeper for Michael and Boris. She knew the secrets of them both. The first thing any novice should have known was to keep a constant eye upon her, and now no one knew where she was. She must be searched for and found at once, for she had opened Michael's shirt, and therein probably lay the reason that no papers were found on the corpse when the police searched it. The absence of papers, of a portfolio, was not natural.
The chase commenced in the rosy dawn of the isles. Already blood-like tints were on the horizon. Some of the police cried that they had the trail. They ran under the trees, because it was almost certain she had taken the narrow path leading to the bridge that joins Krestowsky to Kameny-Ostrow. Some indications discovered by the police who swarmed to right and left of the path confirmed this hypothesis. And no carriage in sight! They all ran on, Koupriane among the first. Rouletabille kept at his heels, but he did not pass him. Suddenly there were cries and calls among the police. One pointed out something below gliding upon the sloping descent. It was little Kathanna. She flew like the wind, but in a distracted course. She had reached Kameny-Ostrow on the west bank. "Oh, for a carriage, a horse!" clamored Koupriane, who had left his turn-out at Eliaguine. "The proof is there. It is the final proof of everything that is escaping us!"
Dawn was enough advanced now to show the ground clearly. Katharina was easily discernible as she reached the Eliaguine bridge. There she was in Eliaguine-Ostrow. What was she doing there? Was she going to the Trebassof villa? What would she have to say to them? No, she swerved to the right. The police raced behind her. She was still far ahead, and seemed untiring. Then she disappeared among the trees, in the thicket, keeping still to the right. Koupriane gave a cry of joy. Going that way she must be taken. He gave some breathless orders for the island to be barred. She could not escape now! She could not escape! But where was she going? Koupriane knew that island better than anybody. He took a short cut to reach the other side, toward which Katharina seemed to be heading, and all at once he nearly fell over the girl, who gave a squawk of surprise and rushed away, seeming all arms and legs.
"Stop, or I fire!" cried Koupriane, and he drew his revolver. But a hand grabbed it from him.
"Not that!" said Rouletabille, as be threw the revolver far from them. Koupriane swore at him and resumed the chase. His fury multiplied his strength, his agility; he almost reached Katharina, who was almost out of breath, but Rouletabille threw himself into the Chief's arms and they rolled together upon the grass. When Koupriane rose, it was to see Katharina mounting in mad haste the stairs that led to the Barque, the floating restaurant of the Strielka. Cursing Rouletabille, but believing his prey easily captured now, the Chief in his turn hurried to the Barque, into which Katharina had disappeared. He reached the bottom of the stairs. On the top step, about to descend from the festive place, the form of Prince Galltch appeared. Koupriane received the sight like a blow stopping him short in his ascent. Galitch had an exultant air which Koupriane did not mistake. Evidently he had arrived too late. He felt the certainty of it in profound discouragement. And this appearance of the prince on the Barque explained convincingly enough the reason for Katharina's flight here.
If the Bohemian had filched the papers or the portfolio from the dead, it was the prince now who had them in his pocket.
Koupriane, as he saw the prince about to pass him, trembled. The prince saluted him and ironically amused himself by inquiring:
"Well, well, how do you do, my dear Monsieur Koupriane. Your Excellency has risen in good time this morning, it seems to me. Or else it is I who start for bed too late."
"Prince," said Koupriane, "my men are in pursuit of a little Bohemian named Katharina, well known in the restaurants where she sings. We have seen her go into the Barque. Have you met her by any chance?"
"Good Lord, Monsieur Koupriane, I am not the concierge of the Barque, and I have not noticed anything at all, and nobody. Besides, I am naturally a little sleepy. Pardon me."
"Prince, it is not possible that you have not seen Katharina."
"Oh, Monsieur the Prefect of Police, if I had seen her I would not tell you about it, since you are pursuing her. Do you take me for one of your bloodhounds? They say you have them in all classes, but I insist that I haven't enlisted yet. You have made a mistake, Monsieur Koupriane."
The prince saluted again. But Koupriane still stood in his way.
"Prince, consider that this matter is very serious. Michael Nikolaievitch, General Trebassof's orderly, is dead, and this little girl has stolen his papers from his body. All persons who have spoken with Katharina will be under suspicion. This is an affair of State, monsieur, which may reach very far. Can you swear to me that you have not seen, that you have not spoken to Katharina?"
The prince looked at Koupriane so insolently that the Prefect turned pale with rage. Ah, if he were able - if he only dared! - but such men as this were beyond him. Galitch walked past him without a word of answer, and ordered the schwitzar to call him a carriage.
"Very well," said Koupriane, "I will make my report to the Tsar."
Galitch turned. He was as pale as Koupriane.
"In that case, monsieur," said he, "don't forget to add that I am His Majesty's most humble servant."
The carriage drew up. The prince stepped in. Koupriane watched him roll away, raging at heart and with his fists doubled. Just then his men came up.
"Go. Search," he said roughiy, pointing into the Barque.
They scattered through the establishment, entering all the rooms. Cries of irritation and of protest arose. Those lingering after the latest of late suppers were not pleased at this invasion of the police. Everybody had to rise while the police looked under the tables, the benches, the long table-cloths. They went into the pantries and down into the bold. No sign of Katharina. Suddenly Koupriane, who leaned against a netting and looked vaguely out upon the horizon, waiting for the outcome of the search, got a start. Yonder, far away on the other side of the river, between a little wood and the Staria Derevnia, a light boat drew to the shore, and a little black spot jumped from it like a flea. Koupriane recognized the little black spot as Kathanna. She was safe. Now he could not reach her. It would be useless to search the maze of the Bohemian quarter, where her country-people lived in full control, with customs and privileges that had never been infringed. The entire Bohemian population of the capital would have risen against him. It was Prince Galitch who had made him fail. One of his men came to him:
"No luck," said he. "We have not found Katharina, but she has been here nevertheless. She met Prince Galitch for just a minute, and gave him something, then went over the other side into a canoe."
"Very well," and the Prefect shrugged his shoulders. "I was sure of it."
He felt more and more, exasperated. He went down along the river edge and the first person he saw was Rouletabille, who waited for him without any impatience, seated philosophically on a bench.
"I was looking for you," cried the Prefect. "We have failed. By your fault! If you had not thrown yourself into my arms -"
"I did it on purpose," declared the reporter.
"What! What is that you say? You did it on purpose?"
Koupriane choked with rage.
"Your Excellency," said Rouletabille, taking him by the arm, "calm yourself. They are watching us. Come along and have a cup of tea at Cubat's place. Easy now, as though we were out for a walk."
"Will you explain to me?"
"No, no, Your Excellency. Remember that I have promised you General Trebassof's life in exchange for your prisoner's. Very well; by throwing myself in your arms and keeping you from reaching Katharina, I saved the general's life. It is very simple."
"Are you laughing at me? Do you think you can mock me?"
But the prefect saw quickly that Rouletabille was not fooling and had no mockery in his manner.
"Monsieur," he insisted, "since you speak seriously, I certainly wish to understand -"
"It is useless," said Rouletabille. "It is very necessary that you should not understand."
"But at least..."
"No, no, I can't tell you anything."
"When, then, will you tell me something to explain your unbelievable conduct?"
Rouletabille stopped in his tracks and declared solemnly:
"Monsieur Koupriane, recall what Natacha Feodorovna as she raised her lovely eyes to heaven, replied to her father, when he, also, wished to understand: 'Never.'"
Turn to the next chapter: XI THE POISON CONTINUES