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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.