Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 17


XVII

THE LAST CRAVAT

The gentleman of the Neva said to him: "If you have nothing further
to say, we will go into the courtyard."

Rouletabille understood at last that hanging him in the room where
judgment had been pronounced was rendered impossible by the violence
of the prisoner just executed. Not only the rope and the ring-bolt
had been torn away, but part of the beam had splintered.

"There is nothing more," replied Rouletabille.

He was mistaken. Something occurred to him, an idea flashed so
suddenly that he became white as his shirt, and had to lean on the
arm of the gentleman of the Neva in order to accompany him.

The door was open. All the men who had voted his death filed out
in gloomy silence. The gentleman of the Neva, who seemed charged
with the last offices for the prisoner, pushed him gently out into
the court.

It was vast, and surrounded by a high board wall; some small
buildings, with closed doors, stood to right and left. A high
chimney, partially demolished, rose from one corner. Rouletabille
decided the whole place was part of some old abandoned mill. Above
his head the sky was pale as a winding sheet. A thunderous,
intermittent, rhythmical noise appraised him that he could not be
far from the sea.

He had plenty of time to note all these things, for they had stopped
the march to execution a moment and had made him sit down in the
open courtyard on an old box. A few steps away from him under the
shed where he certainly was going to be hanged, a man got upon a
stool (the stool that would serve Rouletabille a few moments later)
with his arm raised, and drove with a few blows of a mallet a great
ring-bolt into a beam above his head.

The reporter's eyes, which had not lost their habit of taking
everything in, rested again on a coarse canvas sack that lay on the
ground. The young man felt a slight tremor, for he saw quickly
that the sack swathed a human form. He turned his head away, but
only to confront another empty sack that was intended for him.
Then he closed his eyes. The sound of music came from somewhere
outside, notes of the balalaika. He said to himself, "Well, we
certainly are in Finland"; for he knew that, if the guzla is
Russian the balalaika certainly is Finnish. It is a kind of
accordeon that the peasants pick plaintively in the doorways of
their toubas. He had seen and heard them the afternoon that he
went to Pergalovo, and also a little further away, on the Viborg
line. He pictured to himself the ruined structure where he now
found himself shut in with the revolutionary tribunal, as it must
appear from the outside to passers-by; unsinister, like many others
near it, sheltering under its decaying roof a few homes of humble
workers, resting now as they played the balalaika at their
thresholds, with the day's labor over.

And suddenly from the ineffable peace of his last evening, while
the balalaika mourned and the man overhead tested the solidity of
his ring-bolt, a voice outside, the grave, deep voice of Annouchka,
sang for the little Frenchman:

"For whom weave we now the crown
Of lilac, rose and thyme?
When my hand falls lingering down
Who then will bring your crown
Of lilac, rose and thyme?

O that someone among you would hear,
And come, and my lonely hand
Would press, and shed the friendly tear -
For alone at the end I stand.

Who now will bring the crown
Of lilac, rose and thyme?"

Rouletabille listened to the voice dying away with the last sob of
the balalaika. "It is too sad," he said, rising. "Let us go,"
and he wavered a little.

They came to search him. All was ready above. They pushed him
gently towards the shed. When he was under the ring-bolt, near
the stool, they made him turn round and they read him something
in Russian, doubtless less for him than for those there who did
not understand French. Rouletabille had hard work to hold himself
erect.

The gentleman of the Neva said to him further:

"Monsieur, we now read you the final formula. It asks you to say
whether, before you die, you have anything you wish to add to what
we know concerning the sentence which has been passed upon you."

Rouletabille thought that his saliva, which at that moment he had
the greatest difficulty in swallowing, would not permit him to utter
a word. But disdain of such a weakness, when he recalled the
coolness of so many illustrious condemned people in their last
moments, brought him the last strength needed to maintain his
reputation.

"Why," said he, "this sentence is not wrongly drawn up. I blame
it only for being too short. Why has there been no mention of the
crime I committed in contriving the tragic death of poor Michael
Korsakoff?"

"Michael Korsakoff was a wretch," pronounced the vindictive voice
of the young man who had presided at the trial and who, at this
upreme moment, happened to be face to face with Rouletabille.
"Koupriane's police, by killing that man, ridded us of a traitor."

Rouletabille uttered a cry, a cry of joy, and while lie had some
reason for believing that at the point he had reached now of his
too-short career only misfortune could befall him, yet here
Providence, in his infinite grace, sent him before he died this
ineffable consolation: the certainty that he had not been mistaken.

"Pardon, pardon," he murmured, in an excess of joy which stifled
him almost as much as the wretched rope would shortly do that they
were getting ready behind him. "Pardon. One second yet, one little
second. Then, messieurs, then, we are agreed in that, are we?
This Michael, Michael Nikolaievitch was the the last of traitors."

"The first," said the heavy voice.

"It is the same thing, my dear monsieur. A traitor, a wretched
traitor," continued Rouletabille.

"A poisoner," replied the voice.

"A vulgar poisoner! Is that not so? But, tell me how - a vulgar
poisoner who, under cover of Nihilism, worked for his own petty
ends, worked for himself and betrayed you all!"

Now Rouletabille's voice rose like a fanfare. Someone said:

"He did not deceive us long; our enemies themselves undertook his
punishment."

"It was I," cried Rouletabille, radiant again. "It was I who wound
up that career. I tell you that was managed right. It was I who
rid you of him. Ah, I knew well enough, messieurs, in the bottom
of my heart I knew that I could not be mistaken. Two and two make
four always, don't they? And Rouletabille is always Rouletabille.
Messieurs, it is all right, after all."

But it was probable that it was also all wrong, for the gentleman
of the Neva came up to him hat in hand and said:

"Monsieur, you know now why the witnesses at your trial did not
raise a fact against you that, on the contrary, was entirely in
your favor. Now it only remains for us to execute the sentence
which is entirely justified on other grounds."

"Ah, but - wait a little. What the devil! Now that I am sure I
have not been mistaken and that I have been myself, Rouletabille,
all the time I cling to life a little - oh, very much!"

A hostile murmur showed the condemned man that the patience of his
judges was getting near its limit.

"Monsieur," interposed the president, "we know that you do not
belong to the orthodox religion; nevertheless, we will bring a
priest if you wish it."

"Yes, yes, that is it, go for the priest," cried Rouletabille.

And he said to himself, "It is so much time gained."

One of the revolutionaries started over to a little cabin that had
been transformed into a chapel, while the rest of them looked at
the reporter with a good deal less sympathy than they had been
showing. If his bravado had impressed them agreeably in the trial
room, they were beginning to be rather disgusted by his cries, his
protestations and all the maneuvers by which he so apparently was
trying to hold off the hour of his death.

But all at once Rouletabille jumped up onto the fatal stool. They
believed he had decided finally to make an end of the comedy and
die with dignity; but he had mounted there only to give them a
discourse.

"Messieurs, understand me now. If it is true that you are not
suppressing me in order to avenge Michael Nikolaievitch., then why
do you hang me? Why do you inflict this odious punishment on me?
Because you accuse me of causing Natacha Feodorovna's arrest? Truly
I have been awkward. Of that, and that alone, I accuse myself."

"It was you, with your revolver, who gave the signal to Koupriane's
agents! You have done the dirty work for the police."

Rouletabille tried vainly to protest, to explain, to say that his
revolver shot, on the contrary, had saved the revolutionaries. But
no one cared to listen and no one believed him.

"Here is the priest, monsieur," said the gentleman of the Neva.

"One second! These are my last words, and I swear to you that
after this I will pass the rope about my neck myself! But listen
to me! Listen to me closely! Natacha Feodorovna was the most
precious recruit you had, was she not?"

"A veritable treasure," declared the president, his voice more and
more impatient.

"It was a terrible blow, then," continued the reporter, "a terrible
blow for you, this arrest?"

"Terrible," some of them ejaculated.

"Do not interrupt me! Very well, then, I am going to say this to
you: 'If I ward off this blow - if, after having been the
unintentional cause of Natacha's arrest, I have the daughter of
General Trebassof set at liberty, and that within twenty-four
hours, - what do you say? Would you still hang me?'"

The president, he who had the Christ-like countenance, said:

"Messieurs, Natacha Feodorovna has fallen the victim of terrible
machinations whose mystery we so far have not been able to penetrate.
She is accused of trying to poison her father and her step-mother,
and under such conditions that it seems impossible for human reason
to demonstrate the contrary. Natacha Feodorovna herself, crushed
by the tragic occurrence, was not able to answer her accusers at
all, and her silence has been taken for a confession of guilt.
Messieurs, Natacha Feodorovna will be started for Siberia to-morrow.
We can do nothing for her. Natacha Feodorovna is lost to us."

Then, with a gesture to those who surrounded Rouletabille:

"Do your duty, messieurs."

"Pardon, pardon. But if I do prove the innocence of Natacha?
Just wait, messieurs. There is only I who can prove that innocence!
You lose Natacha by killing me!"

"If you had been able to prove that innocence, monsicur, the thing
would already be done. You would not have waited."

"Pardon, pardon. It is only at this moment that I have become able
to do it."

"How is that?"

"It is because I was sick, you see - very seriously sick. That
affair of Michael Nikolaievitch and the poison that still continued
after he was dead simply robbed me of all my powers. Now that I
am sure I have not been the means of killing an innocent man - I am
Rouletabille again! It is not possible that I shall not find the
way, that I shall not see through this mystery."

The terrible voice of the Christ-like figure said monotonously:

"Do your duty, messieurs."

"Pardon, pardon. This is of great importance to you - and the
proof is that you have not yet hanged me. You were not so
procrastinating with my predecessor, were you? You have listened
to me because you have hoped! Very well, let me think, let me
consider. Oh, the devil! I was there myself at the fatal luncheon,
and I know better than anyone else all that happened there. Five
minutes! I demand five minutes of you; it is not much. Five
little minutes!"

These last words of the condemned man seemed to singularly influence
the revolutionaries. They looked at one another in silence.

Then the president took out his watch and said:

"Five minutes. We grant them to you."

"Put your watch here. Here on this nail. It is five minutes to
seven, eh? You will give me until the hour?"

"Yes, until the hour. The watch itself will strike when the hour
has come."

"Ah, it strikes! Like the general's watch, then. Very well, here
we are."

Then there was the curious spectacle of Rouletabille standing on
the hangman's stool, the fatal rope hanging above his head, his
legs crossed, his elbow on his knees in that eternal attitude which
Art has always given to human thought, his fists under his jaws,
his eyes fixed - all around him, all those young men intent on his
silence, not moving a muscle, turned into statues themselves that
they might not disturb the statue which thought and thought.


Gaston Leroux

Sorry, no summary available yet.