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Chapter 12

XII

PERE ALEXIS

Koupriane jumped into his carriage and hurried toward St. Petersburg.
On the way he spoke to three agents who only he knew were posted in
the neighborhood of Eliaguine. They told him the route Rouletabille
had taken. The reporter had certainly returned into the city. He
hurried toward Troitski Bridge. There, at the corner of the
Naberjnaia, Koupriane saw the reporter in a hired conveyance.
Rouletabille was pounding his coachman in the back, Russian fashion,
to make him go faster, and was calling with all his strength one of
the few words he had had time to learn, "Naleva, naleva" (to the
left). The driver was forced to understand at last, for there was
no other way to turn than to the left. If he had turned to the
right (naprava) he would have driven into the river. The
conveyance clattered over the pointed flints of a neighborhood that
led to a little street, Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, at the corner of the
Katharine canal. This "alley of the pharmacists" as a matter of
fact contained no pharmacists, but there was a curious sign of a
herbarium, where Rouletabille made the driver stop. As the carriage
rolled under the arch Rouletabille recognized Koupriane. He did
not wait, but cried to him, "Ah, here you are. All right; follow
me." He still had the flask and the glasses in his hands. Koupriane
couldn't help noticing how strange he looked. He passed through a
court with him, and into a squalid shop.

"What," said Koupriane, "do you know Pere Alexis?"

They were in the midst of a curious litter. Clusters of dried herbs
hung from the ceiling, and all among them were clumps of old boots,
shriveled skins, battered pans, scrap-iron, sheep-skins, useless
touloupes, and on the floor musty old clothes, moth-eaten furs, and
sheep-skin coats that even a moujik of the swamps would not have
deigned to wear. Here and there were old teeth, ragged finery,
dilapidated hats, and jars of strange herbs ranged upon some rickety
shelving. Between the set of scales on the counter and a heap of
little blocks of wood used for figuring the accounts of this singular
business were ungilded ikons, oxidized silver crosses, and Byzantine
pictures representing scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Jars
of alcohol with what seemed to be the skeletons of frogs swimming
in them filled what space was left. In a corner of this large,
murky room, under the vault of mossed stone, a small altar stood
and the light burned in a hanging glass of oil before the holy
images. A man was praying before the altar. He wore the costume
of old Russia, the caftan of green cloth, buttoned at the shoulder
and tucked in at the waist by a narrow belt. He had a bushy beard
and his hair fell to his shoulders. When he had finished his prayer
he rose, perceived Rouletabille and came over to take his hand. He
spoke French to the reporter:

"Well, here you are again, lad. Do you bring poison again to-day?
This will end by being found out, and the police..."

Just then he discerned Koupriane's form in the shadow, drew close
to make out who it was, and fell to his knees as he saw who it was.
Rouletabille tried to raise him, but he insisted on prostrating
himself. He was sure the Prefect of Police had come to his house
to hang him. Finally he was reassured by Rouletabile's positive
assertions and the great chief's robust laugh. The Prefect wished
to know how the young man came to be acquainted with the "alchemist"
of the police. Rouletabille told him in a few words.

Maitre Alexis, in his youth, went to France afoot, to study pharmacy,
because of his enthusiasm for chemistry. But he always remained
countrified, very much a Russian peasant, a semi-Oriental bear, and
did not achieve his degree. He took some certificates, but the
examinations were too much for him. For fifty years he lived
miserably as a pharmacist's assistant in the back of a disreputable
shop in the Notre Dame quarter. The proprietor of the place was
implicated in the famous affair of the gold ingots, which started
Rouletabille's reputation, and was arrested along with his assistant,
Alexis. It was Rouletabille who proved, clear as day, that poor
Alexis was innocent, and that he had never been cognizant of his
master's evil ways, being absorbed in the depths of his laboratory
in trying to work out a naive alchemy which fascinated him, though
the world of chemistry had passed it by centuries ago. At the
trial Alexis was acquitted, but found himself in the street. He
shed what tears remained in his body upon the neck of the reporter,
assuring him of paradise if he got him back to his own country,
because he desired only the one thing more of life, that he might
see his birth-land before he died. Rouletabille advanced the
necessary means and sent him to St. Petersburg. There he was picked
up at the end of two days by the police, in a petty gambling-game,
and thrown into prison, where he promptly had a chance to show his
talents. He cured some of his companions in misery, and even some
of the guards. A guard who had an injured leg, whose healing he
had despaired of, was cured by Alexis. Then there was found to be
no actual charge against him. They set him free and, moreover,
they interested themselves in him. They found meager employment
for him in the Stchoukine-dvor, an immense popular bazaar. He
accumulated a few roubles and installed himself on his own account
at the back of a court in the Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, where he
gradually piled up a heap of old odds and ends that no one wanted
even in the Stchoukine-dvor. But he was happy, because behind his
shop he had installed a little laboratory where he continued for
his pleasure his experiments in alchemy and his study of plants.
He still proposed to write a book that he had already spoken of in
France to Rouletabille, to prove the truth of "Empiric Treatment
of Medicinal Herbs, the Science of Alchemy, and the Ancient
Experiments in Sorcery." Between times he continued to cure anyone
who applied to him, and the police in particular. The police guards
protected him and used him. He had splendid plasters for them after
"the scandal," as they called the October riots. So when the
doctors of the quarter tried to prosecute him for illegal practice,
a deputation of police-guards went to Koupriane, who took the
responsibility and discontinued proceedings against him. They
regarded him as under protection of the saints, and Alexis soon
came to be regarded himself as something of a holy man. He never
failed every Christmas and Easter to send his finest images to
Rouletabille, wishing him all prosperity and saying that if ever
he came to St. Petersburg he should be happy to receive him at
Aptiekarski-Pereoulok, where he was established in honest labor.
Pere Alexis, like all the true saints, was a modest man.

When Alexis had recovered a little from his emotion Rouletabille
said to him:

"Pere Alexis, I do bring you poison again, but you have nothing to
fear, for His Excellency the Chief of Police is with me. Here is
what we want you to do. You must tell us what poison these four
glasses have held, and what poison is still in this flask and this
little phial."

"What is that little phial?" demanded Koupriane, as he saw
Rouletabille pull a small, stoppered bottle out of his pocket.

The reporter replied, "I have put into this bottle the vodka that
was poured into Natacha's glass and mine and that we barely touched."

"Someone has tried to poison you!" exclaimed Pere Alexis.

"No, not me," replied Rouletabille, in bored fashion. "Don't think
about that. Simply do what I tell you. Then analyze these two
napkins, as well."

And he drew from his coat two soiled napkins.

"Well," said Koupriane, "you have thought of everything."

"They are the napkins the general and his wife used."

"Yes, yes, I understand that," said the Chief of Police.

"And you, Alexis, do you understand?" asked the reporter. "When
can we have the result of your analysis?

"In an hour, at the latest."

"Very well," said Koupriane. "Now I need not tell you to hold your
tongue. I am going to leave one of my men here. You will write us
a note that you will seal, and he will bring it to head-quarters.
Sure you understand? In an hour?"

"In an hour, Excellency."

They went out, and Alexis followed them, bowing to the floor.
Koupriane had Rouletabille get into his carriage. The young man
did as he was told. One would have said he did not know where he
was or what he did. He made no reply to the chief's questions.

"This Pere Alexander," resumed Koupriane, "is a character, really
quite a figure. And a bit of a schemer, I should say. He has seen
how Father John of Cronstadt succeeded, and he says to himself,
'Since the sailors had their Father John of Cronstadt, why shouldn't
the police-guard have their Father Alexis of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok?'"

But Rouletabille did not reply at all, and Koupriane wound up by
demanding what was the matter with him.

"The matter is," replied Rouletabille, unable longer to conceal his
anguish, "that the poison continues."

"Does that astonish you?" returned Koupriane. "It doesn't me."

Rouletabille looked at him and shook his head. His lips trembled
as he said, "I know what you think. It is abominable. But the
thing I have done certainly is more abominable still."

"What have you done, then, Monsieur Rouletabille?"

"Perhaps I have caused the death of an innocent man."

"So long as you aren't sure of it, you would better not fret about
it, my dear friend."

"It is enough that the doubt has arisen," said the reporter, "almost
to kill me;" and he heaved so gloomy a sigh that the excellent
Monsieur Koupriane felt pity for the lad. He tapped him on the knee.

"Come, come, young man, you ought to know one thing by this time
- 'you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs,' as they say, I
think, in Paris."

Rouletabille turned away from him with horror in his heart. If
there should be another, someone besides Michael! If it was another
hand than his that appeared to Matrena and him in the mysterious
night! If Michael Nikolaievitch had been innocent! Well, he
would kill himself, that was all. And those horrible words that he
had exchanged with Natacha rose in his memory, singing in his ears
as though they would deafen him.

"Do you doubt still?" he had asked her, "that Michael tried to
poison your father?"

And Natacha had replied, "I wish to believe it! I wish to believe
it, for your sake, my poor boy." And then he recalled her other
words, still more frightful now! "Couldn't someone have tried to
poison my father and not have come by the window?" He had faced
such a hypothesis with assurance then - but now, now that the poison
continued, continued within the house, where he believed himself
so fully aware of all people and things - continued now that Michael
Nikolaievitch was dead - ah, where did it come from, this poison?
- and what was it? Pere Alexis would hurry hiss analysis if he had
any regard for poor Rouletabille.

For Rouletabille to doubt, and in an affair where already there was
one man dead through his agency, was torment worse than death.

When they arrived at police-headquarters, Rouletabille jumped from
Koupriane's carriage and without saying a word hailed an empty
isvotchick that was passing. He had himself driven back to Pere
Alexis. His doubt mastered his will; he could not bear to wait
away. Under the arch of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok he saw once more
the man Koupriane had placed there with the order to bring him
Alexis's message. The man looked at him in astonishment.
Rouletabille crossed the court and entered the dingy old room once
more. Pere Alexis was not there, naturally, engaged as he was
in his laboratory. But a person whom he did not recognize at first
sight attracted the reporter's attention. In the half-light of the
shop a melancholy shadow leaned over the ikons on the counter. It
was only when he straightened up, with a deep sigh, and a little
light, deflected and yellow from passing through window-panes that
had known no touch of cleaning since they were placed there, fell
faintly on the face, that Rouletabille ascertained he was face to
face with Boris Mourazoff. It was indeed he, the erstwhile
brilliant officer whose elegance and charm the reporter had admired
as he saw him at beautiful Natacha's feet in the datcha at Eliaguine.
Now, no more in uniform, he had thrown over his bowed shoulders a
wretched coat, whose sleeves swayed listlessly at his sides, in
accord with his mood of languid desperation, a felt hat with the
rim turned down hid a little the misery in his face in tnese few
days, these not-many hours, how he was changed! But, even as he
was, he still concerned Rouletabille. What was he doing there?
Was he not going to go away, perhaps? He had picked up an ikon
from the counter and carried it over to the window to examine its
oxidized silver, giving such close attention to it that the reporter
hoped he might reach the door of the laboratory without being
noticed. He already had his hand on the knob of that door, which
was behind the counter, when he heard his name called.

"It is you, Monsieur Rouletabille," said the low, sad voice of
Boris. "What has brought you here, then?"

"Well, well, Monsieur Boris Mourazoff, unless I'm mistaken? I
certainly didn't expect to find you here in Pere Alexis's place."

"Why not, Monsieur Rouletabille? One can find anything here in
Pere Alexis's stock. See; here are two old ikons in wood, carved
with sculptures, which came direct from Athos, and can't be equaled,
I assure you, either at Gastini-Dvor nor even at Stchoukine-Dvor"

"Yes, yes, that is possible," said Rouletabille, impatiently. "Are
you an amateur of such things?" he added, in order to say something.

"Oh, like anybody else. But I was going to tell you, Monsieur
Rouletabille, I have resigned my commission. I have resolved to
retire from the world; I am going on a long voyage." (Rouletabille
thought: 'Why not have gone at once?') "And before going, I have
come here to supply myself with some little gifts to send those of
my friends I particularly care for, although now, my dear Monsieur
Rouletabille, I don't care much for anything."

"You look desolate enough, monsieur."

Boris sighed like a child.

"How could it be otherwise?" he said. "I loved and believed myself
beloved. But it proved to be - nothing, alas!"

"Sometimes one only imagines things," said Rouletabille, keeping
his hand on the door.

"Oh, yes," said the other, growing more and more melancholy. "So
a man suffers. He is his own tormentor; he himself makes the wheel
on which, like his own executioner, he binds himself."

"It is not necessary, monsieur; it is not necessary," counseled the
reporter.

"Listen," implored Boris in a voice that showed tears were not far
away. "You are still a child, but still you can see things. Do
you believe Natacha loves me?"

"I am sure of it, Monsieur Boris; I am sure of it."

"I am sure of it, too. But I don't know what to think now. She
has let me go, without trying to detain me, without a word of hope."

"And where are you going like that?"

"I am returning to the Orel country, where I first saw her."

"That is good, very good, Monsieur Boris. At least there you are
sure to see her again. She goes there every year with her parents
for a few weeks. It is a detail you haven't overlooked, doubtless."

"Certainly I haven't. I will tell you that that prospect decided
my place of retreat."

" See!"

"God gives me nothing, but He opens His treasures, and each takes
what he can."

"Yes, yes; and Mademoiselle Natacha, does she know it is to Orel
you have decided to retire?"

"I have no reason for concealing it from her, Monsieur Rouletabille."

"So far so good. You needn't feel so desolate, my dear Monsieur
Boris. All is not lost. I will say even that I see a future for
you full of hope."

"Ah, if you are able to say that truthfully, I am happy indeed to
have met you. I will never forget this rope you have flung me when
all the waters seemed closing over my head. 'What do you advise,
then?"

"I advise you to go to Orel, monsieur, and as quickly as possible."

"Very well. You must have reasons for saying that. I obey you,
monsieur, and go."

As Boris started towards the entrance-arch, Rouletabille slipped
into the laboratory. Old Alexis was bent over his retorts. A
wretched lamp barely lighted his obscure work. He turned at the
noise the reporter made.

"Ah!-you, lad!"

"'Well?"

"Oh, nothing so quick. Still, I have already analyzed the two
napkins, you know."

"Yes? The stains? Tell me, for the love of God!"

"Well, my boy, it is arsenate of soda again."

Rouletabille, stricken to the heart, uttered a low cry and everything
seemed to dance around him. Pere Alexis in the midst of all the
strange laboratory instruments seemed Satan himself, and he repulsed
the kindly arms stretched forth to sustain him; in the gloom, where
danced here and there the little blue flames from the crucibles,
lively as flickering tongues, he believed he saw Michael
Nikolaievitch's ghost come to cry, "The arsenate of soda continues,
and I am dead." He fell against the door, which swung open, and he
rolled as far as the counter, and struck his face against it. The
shock, that might well have been fatal, brought him out of his
intense nightmare and made him instantly himself again. He rose,
jumped over the heap of boots and fol-de-rols, and leaped to the
court. There Boris grabbed him by his coat. Rouletabille turned,
furious:

"What do you want? You haven't started for the Orel yet?"

"Monsieur, I am going, but I will be very grateful if you will take
these things yourself to - to Natacha." He showed him, still with
despairing mien, the two ikons from Mount Athos, and Rouletabille
took them from him, thrust them in his pocket, and hurried on,
crying, "I understand."

Outside, Rouletabille tried to get hold of himself, to recover his
coolness a little. Was it possible that he had made a mortal error?
Alas, alas, how could he doubt it now! The arsenate of soda
continued. He made, a superhuman effort to ward off the horror of
that, even momentarily - the death of innocent Michael Nikolaievitch
- and to think of nothing except the immediate consequences, which
must be carefully considered if he wished to avoid some new
catastrophe. Ah, the assassin was not discouraged. And that time,
what a piece of work he had tried! What a hecatomb if he had
succeeded! The general, Matrena Petrovna, Natacha and Rouletabille
himself (who almost regretted, so far as he was concerned, that it
had not succeeded) - and Koupriane! Koupriane, who should have
been there for luncheon. What a bag for the Nihilists! That was
it, that was it. Rouletabille understood now why they had not
hesitated to poison everybody at once: Koupriane was among them.

Michael Nikolaievitch would have been avenged!

The attempt had failed this time, but what might they not expect
now! From the moment he believed Michael Nikolaievitch no longer
guilty, as he had imagined, Rouletabille fell into a bottomless
abyss.

Where should he go? After a few moments he made the circuit of the
Rotunda, which serves as the market for this quarter and is the
finest ornament of Aptiekarski-Pereoulok. He made the circuit
without knowing it, without stopping for anything, without seeing
or understanding anything. As a broken-winded horse makes its way
in the treadmill, so he walked around with the thought that he
also was lost in a treadmill that led him nowhere. Rouletabille
was no longer Rouletabille.


Gaston Leroux

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