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Chapter 7

VII

ARSENATE OF SODA

The mysterious hand held a phial and poured the entire contents
into the potion. Then the hand withdrew as it had come, slowly,
prudently, slyly, and the key turned in the lock and the bolt
slipped back into place.

Like a wolf, Rouletabille, warning Matrena for a last time not to
budge, gained the landing-place, bounded towards the stairs, slid
down the banister right to the veranda, crossed the drawing-room
like a flash, and reached the little sitting-room without having
jostled a single piece of furniture. He noticed nothing, saw
nothing. All around was undisturbed and silent.

The first light of dawn filtered through the blinds. He was able
to make out that the only closed door was the one to Natacha's
chamber. He stopped before that door, his heart beating, and
listened. But no sound came to his ear. He had glided so lightly
over the carpet that he was sure he had not been heard. Perhaps
that door would open. He waited. In vain. It seemed to him there
was nothing alive in that house except his heart. He was stifled
with the horror that he glimpsed, that he almost touched, although
that door remained closed. He felt along the wall in order to
reach the window, and pulled aside the curtain. Window and blinds
of the little room giving on the Neva were closed. The bar of iron
inside was in its place. Then he went to the passage, mounted and
descended the narrow servants' stairway, looked all about, in all
the rooms, feeling everywhere with silent hands, assuring himself
that no lock had been tampered with. On his return to the veranda,
as he raised his head, he saw at the top of the main staircase a
figure wan as death, a spectral apparition amid the shadows of the
passing night, who leaned toward him. It was Matrena Petrovna.
She came down, silent as a phantoms and he no longer recognized her
voice when she demanded of him, "Where? I require that you tell me.
Where?"

"I have looked everywhere," he said, so low that Matrena had to
come nearer to understand his whisper. "Everything is shut tight.
And there is no one about."

Matrena looked at Rouletabille with all the power of her eyes, as
though she would discover his inmost thoughts, but his clear glance
did not waver, and she saw there was nothing he wished to hide.
Then Matrena pointed her finger at Natacha's chamber.

"You have not gone in there?" she inquired.

He replied, "It is not necessary to enter there."

"I will enter there, myself, nevertheless," said she, and she set
her teeth.

He barred her way with his arms spread out.

"If you hold the life of someone dear," said he, "don't go a step
farther."

"But the person is in that chamber. The person is there! It is
there you will find out!" And she waved him aside with a gesture
as though she were sleepwalking.

To recall her to the reality of what he had said to her and to make
her understand what he desired, he had to grip her wrist in the
vice of his nervous hand.

"The person is not there, perfhaps," he said his head.
"Understand me now."

But she did not understand him. She said:

"Since the person is nowhere else, the person must be there."

But Rouletabille continued obstinately:

"No, no. Perhaps he is gone."

"Gone! And everything locked on the inside!"

"That is not a reason," he replied.

But she could not follow his thoughts any further. She wished
absolutely to make her way into Natacha's chamber. The obsession
of that was upon her.

"If you enter there," said he, "and if (as is most probable) you
don't find what you seek there, all is lost! And as to me, I give
up the whole thing."

She sank in a heap onto a chair.

"Don't despair," he murmured. "We don't know for sure yet."

She shook her poor old head dejectedly.

"We know that only she is here, since no one has been able to enter
and since no one has been able to leave."

That, in truth, filled her brain, prevented her from discerning in
any corner of her mind the thought of Rouletabille. Then the
impossible dialogue resumed.

"I repeat that we do not know but that the person has gone," repeated
the reporter, and demanded her keys.

"Foolish," she said. "What do you want them for?"

"To search outside as we have searched inside."

"Why, everything is locked on the inside!"

"Madame, once more, that is no reason that the person may not be
outside."

He consumed five minutes opening the door of the veranda, so many
were his precautions. She watched him impatiently.

He whispered to her:

"I am going out, but don't you lose sight of the little sitting-room.
At the least movement call me; fire a revolver if you need to."

He slipped into the garden with the same precautions for silence.
>From the corner that she kept to, through the doors left open,
Matrena could follow all the movements of the reporter and watch
Natacha's chamber at the same time. The attitude of Rouletabille
continued to confuse her beyond all expression. She watched what
he did as if she thought him besotted. The dyernick on guard out
in the roadway also watched the young man through the bars of the
gate in consternation, as though he thought him a fool. Along the
paths of beaten earth or cement which offered no chance for
footprints Rouletabille hurried silently. Around him he noted that
the grass of the lawn had not been trodden. And then he paid no
more attention to his steps. He seemed to study attentively the
rosy color in the east, breathing the delicacy of dawning morning
in the Isles, amid the silence of the earth, which still slumbered.

Bare-headed, face thrown back, hands behind his back, eyes raised
and fixed, he made a few steps, then suddenly stopped as if he had
been given an electric shock. As soon as he seemed to have
recovered from that shock he turned around and went a few steps
back to another path, into which he advanced, straight ahead, his
face high, with the same fixed look that he had had up to the time
he so suddenly stopped, as if something or someone advised or warned
him not to go further. He continually worked back toward the house,
and thus he traversed all the paths that led from the villa, but in
all these excursions he took pains not to place himself in the field
of vision from Natacha's window, a restricted field because of its
location just around an abutment of the building. To ascertain
about this window he crept on all-fours up to the garden-edge that
ran along the foot of the wall and had sufficient proof that no one
had jumped out that way. Then he went to rejoin Matrena in the
veranda.

" No one has come into the garden this morning," said he, "and no
one has gone out of the villa into the garden. Now I am going to
look outside the grounds. Wait here; I'll be back in five minutes."

He went away, knocked discreetly on the window of the lodge and
waited some seconds. Ermolai came out and opened the gate for him.
Matrena moved to the threshold of the little sitting-room and
watched Natacha's door with horror. She felt her legs give under
her, she could not stand up under the diabolic thought of such a
crime. Ah, that arm, that arm! reaching out, making its way, with
a little shining phial in its hand. Pains of Christ! What could
there be in the damnable books over which Natacha and her companions
pored that could make such abominable crimes possible? Ah, Natacha,
Natacha! it was from her that she would have desired the answer,
straining her almost to stifling on her rough bosom and strangling
her with her own strong hand that she might not hear the response.
Ah, Natacha, Natacha, whom she had loved so much! She sank to the
floor, crept across the carpet to the door, and lay there, stretched
like a beast, and buried her bead in her arms while she wept over
her daughter. Natacha, Natacha, whom she had cherished as her own
child, and who did not hear her. Ah, what use that the little
fellow had gone to search outside when the whole truth lay behind
this door? Thinking of him, she was embarrassed lest he should
find her in that animalistic posture, and she rose to her knees and
worked her way over to the window that looked out upon the Neva.
The angle of the slanting blinds let her see well enough what
passed. outside, and what she saw made her spring to her feet.
Below her the reporter was going through the same incomprehensible
maneuvers that she had seen him do in the garden. Three pathways
led to the little road that ran along the wall of the villa by the
bank of the Neva. The young man, still with his hands behind his
back and with his face up, took them one after the other. In the
first he stopped at the first step. He didn't take more than two
steps in the second. In the third, which cut obliquely toward the
right and seemed to run to the bank nearest Krestowsky Ostrow, she
saw him advance slowly at first, then more quickly among the small
trees and hedges. Once only he stopped and looked closely at the
trunk of a tree against which he seemed to pick out something
invisible, and then he continued to the bank. There he sat down
on a stone and appeared to reflect, and then suddenly he cast off
his jacket and trousers, picked out a certain place on the bank
across from him, finished undressing and plunged into the stream.
She saw at once that he swam like a porpoise, keeping beneath and
showing his head from time to time, breathing, then diving below
the surface again. He reached Krestowsky Ostrow in a clump of reeds.
Then he disappeared. Below him, surrounded by trees, could be seen
the red tiles of the villa which sheltered Boris and Michael. From
that villa a person could see the window of the sitting-room in
General Trebassof's residence, but not what might occur along the
bank of the river just below its walls. An isvotchick drove along
the distant route of Krestowsky, conveying in his carriage a company
of young officers and young women who had been feasting and who sang
as they rode; then deep silence ensued. Matrena's eyes searched for
Rouletabille, but could not find him. How long was he going to stay
hidden like that? She pressed her face against the chill window.
What was she waiting for? She waited perhaps for someone to make a
move on this side, for the door near her to open and the traitorous
figure of The Other to appear.

A hand touched her carefully. She turned.

Rouletabille was there, his face all scarred by red scratches,
without collar or neck-tie, having hastily resumed his clothes. He
appeared furious as he surprised her in his disarray. She let him
lead her as though she were a child. He drew her to his room and
closed the door.

"Madame," he commenced, "it is impossible to work with you. Why
in the world have you wept not two feet from your step-daughter's
door? You and your Koupriane, you commence to make me regret the
Faubourg Poissoniere, you know. Your step-daughter has certainly
heard you. It is lucky that she attaches no importance at all to
your nocturnal phantasmagorias, and that she has been used to them
a long time. She has more sense than you, Mademoiselle Natacha has.
She sleeps, or at least she pretends to sleep, which leaves
everybody in peace. What reply will you give her if it happens
that she asks you the reason to-day for your marching and
counter-marching up and down the sitting-room and complains that
you kept her from sleeping?"

Matrena only shook her old, old head.

"No, no, she has not heard me. I was there like a shadow, like a
shadow of myself. She will never hear me. No one hears a shadow."

Rouletabille felt returning pity for her and spoke more gently.

"In any case, it is necessary, you must understand, that she
should attach no more importance to what you have done to-night
than to the things she knows of your doing other nights. It is not
the first time, is it, that you have wandered in the sitting-room?
You understand me? And to-morrow, madame, embrace her as you
always have."

"No, not that," she moaned. "Never that. I could not."

"Why not?"

Matrena did not reply. She wept. He took her in his arms like a
child consoling its mother.

"Don't cry. Don't cry. All is not lost. Someone did leave the
villa this morning."

"Oh, little domovoi! How is that? How is that? How did you find
that out?"

"Since we didn't find anything inside, it was certainly necessary to
find something outside."

"And you have found it?"

"Certainly."

"The Virgin protect you!"

"SHE is with us. She will not desert us. I will even say that I
believe she has a special guardianship over the Isles. She watches
over them from evening to morning."

"What are you saying?"

"Certainly. You don't know what we call in France 'the watchers of
the Virgin'?"

"Oh, yes, they are the webs that the dear little beasts of the good
God spin between the trees and that..."

"Exactly. You understand me and you will understand further when
you know that in the garden the first thing that struck me across
the face as I went into it was these watchers of the Virgin spun by
the dear little spiders of the good God. At first when I felt them
on my face I said to myself, 'Hold on, no one has passed this way,'
and so I went to search other places. The webs stopped me
everywhere in the garden. But, outside the garden, they kept out
of the way and let me pass undisturbed down a pathway which led to
the Neva. So then I said to myself, 'Now, has the Virgin by accident
overlooked her work in this pathway? Surely not. Someone has
ruined it.' I found the shreds of them hanging to the bushes, and
so I reached the river."

"And you threw yourself into the river, my dear angel. You swim
like a little god."

"And I landed where the other landed. Yes, there were the reeds all
freshly broken. And I slipped in among the bushes."

"Where to?"

"Up to the Villa Krestowsky, madame - where they both live."

"Ah, it was from there someone came?"

There was a silence between them.

She questioned:

"Boris?"

"Someone who came from the villa and who returned there. Boris or
Michael, or another. They went and returned through the reeds.
But in coming they used a boat; they returned by swimming."

Her customary agitation reasserted itself.

She demanded ardently:

"And you are sure that he came here and that he left here?"

"Yes, I am sure of it."

"How?"

"By the sitting-room window."

"It is impossible, for we found it locked."

"It is possible, if someone closed it behind him."

"Ah!"

She commenced to tremble again, and, falling back into her
nightmarish horror, she no longer wasted fond expletives on her
domovoi as on a dear little angel who had just rendered a service
ten times more precious to her than life. While he listened
patiently, she said brutally:

"Why did you keep me from throwing myself on him, from rushing upon
him as he opened the door? Ah, I would have, I would have ... we
would know."

"No. At the least noise he would have closed the door. A turn of
the key and he would have escaped forever. And he would have been
warned."

"Careless boy! Why then, if you knew he was going to come, didn't
you leave me in the bedroom and you watch below yourself?"

"Because so long as I was below he would not have come. He only
comes when there is no one downstairs."

"Ah, Saints Peter and Paul pity a poor woman. Who do you think it
is, then? Who do you think it is? I can't think any more. Tell
me, tell me that. You ought to know - you know everything. Come
- who? I demand the truth. Who? Still some agent of the Committee,
of the Central Committee? Still the Nihilists?"

"If it was only that!" said Rouletabille quietly.

"You have sworn to drive me mad! What do you mean by your 'if it
was only that'?"

Rouletabille, imperturbable, did not reply.

"What have you done with the potion?" said he.

"The potion? The glass of the crime! I have locked it in my room,
in the cupboard - safe, safe!"

"Ah, but, madame, it is necessary to replace it where you took
it from."

"What!"

"Yes, after having poured the poison into a phial, to wash the glass
and fill it with another potion."

"You are right. You think of everything. If the general wakes and
wants his potion, he must not be suspicious of anything, and he must
be able to have his drink."

"It is not necessary that he should drink."

"Well, then, why have the drink there?"

"So that the person can be sure, madame, that if he has not drunk
it is simply because he has not wished to. A pure chance, madame,
that he is not poisoned. You understand me this time?"

"Yes, yes. 0 Christ! But how now, if the general wakes and wishes
to drink his narcotic?"

"Tell him I forbid it. And here is another thing you must do.
When - Someone - comes into the general's chamber, in the morning,
you must quite openly and naturally throw out the potion, useless
and vapid, you see, and so Someone will have no right to be
astonished that the general continues to enjoy excellent health."

"Yes, yes, little one; you are wiser than King Solomon. And what
will I do with the phial of poison?"

"Bring it to me."

"Right away."

She went for it and returned five minutes later.

"He is still asleep. I have put the glass on the table, out of his
reach. He will have to call me."

"Very good. Then push the door to, close it; we have to talk
things over."

"But if someone goes back up the servants' staircase?"

"Be easy about that. They think the general is poisoned already.
It is the first care-free moment I have been able to enjoy in this
house."

"When will you stop making me shake with horror, little demon! You
keep your secret well, I must say. The general is sleeping better
than if he really were poisoned. But what shall we do about Natacha?
I dare ask you that - you and you alone."

"Nothing at all."

"How - nothing?"

"We will watch her..."

" Ah, yes, yes."

"Still, Matrena, you let me watch her by myself."

"Yes, yes, I promise you. I will not pay any attention to her.
That is promised. That is promised. Do as you please. Why, just
now, when I spoke of the Nihilists to you, did you say, 'If it were
only that!'? You believe, then, that she is not a Nihilist? She
reads such things - things like on the barricades..."

"Madame, madame, you think of nothing but Natacha. You have
promised me not to watch her; promise me not to think about her."

"Why, why did you say, 'If it was only that!'?"

"Because, if there were only Nihilists in your affair, dear madame,
it would be too simple, or, rather, it would have been more simple.
Can you possibly believe, madame, that simply a Nihilist, a Nihilist
who was only a Nihilist, would take pains that his bomb exploded
from a vase of flowers? - that it would have mattered where, so
long as it overwhelmed the general? Do you imagine that the bomb
would have had less effect behind the door than in front of it? And
the little cavity under the floor, do you believe that a genuine
revolutionary, such as you have here in Russia, would amuse himself
by penetrating to the villa only to draw out two nails from a board,
when one happens to give him time between two visits to the
dining-room? Do you suppose that a revolutionary who wished to
avenge the dead of Moscow and who could succeed in getting so far
as the door behind which General Trebassof slept would amuse himself
by making a little hole with a pin in order to draw back the bolt
and amuse himself by pouring poison into a glass? Why, in such a
case, he would have thrown his bomb outright, whether it blew him
up along with the villa, or he was arrested on the spot, or had to
submit to the martyrdom of the dungeons in the Fortress of SS. Peter
and Paul, or be hung at Schlusselburg. Isn't that what always
happens? That is the way he would have done, and not have acted
like a hotel-rat! Now, there is someone in your home (or who comes
to your home) who acts like a hotel-rat because he does not wish to
be seen, because he does not wish to be discovered, because he does
not wish to be taken in the act. Now, the moment that he fears
nothing so much as to be taken in the act, so that he plays all
these tricks of legerdemain, it is certain that his object lies
beyond the act itself, beyond the bomb, beyond the poison. Why all
this necessity for bombs of deferred explosion, for clockwork placed
where it will be confused with other things, and not on a bare
staircase forbidden to everbody, though you visit it twenty times
a day?"

"But this man comes in as he pleases by day and by night? You don't
answer. You know who he is, perhaps?"

"I know him, perhaps, but I am not sure who it is yet."

"You are not curious, little domovoi doukh! A friend of the house,
certainly, and who enters the house as he wishes, by night, because
someone opens the window for him. And who comes from the Krestowsky
Villa! Boris or Michael! Ah, poor miserable Matrena! Why don't
they kill poor Matrena? Their general! Their general! And they
are soldiers - soldiers who come at night to kill their general.
Aided by - by whom? Do you believe that? You? Light of my eyes!
you believe that! No, no, that is not possible! I want you to
understand, monsieur le domovoi, that I am not able to believe
anything so horrible. No, no, by Jesus Christ Who died on the
Cross, and Who searches our hearts, I do not believe that Boris
- who, however, has very advanced ideas, I admit - it is necessary
not to forget that; very advanced; and who composes very advanced
verses also, as I have always told him - I will not believe that
Boris is capable of such a fearful crime. As to Michael, he is an
honest man, and my daughter, my Natacha, is an honest girl.
Everything looks very bad, truly, but I do not suspect either Michael
or Boris or my pure and beloved Natacha (even though she has made
a translation into French of very advanced verses, certainly most
improper for the daughter of a general). That is what lies at the
bottom of my mind, the bottom of my heart - you have understood me
perfectly, little angel of paradise? Ah, it is you the general owes
his life to, that Matrena owes her life. Without you this house
would already be a coffin. How shall I ever reward you? You wish
for nothing! I annoy you! You don't even listen to me! A coffin
- we would all be in our coffins! Tell me what you desire. All
that I have belongs to you!"

"I desire to smoke a pipe.

"Ah, a pipe! Do you want some yellow perfumed tobacco that I
receive every month from Constantinople, a treat right from the
harem? I will get enough for you, if you like it, to smoke ten
thousand pipes full."

"I prefer caporal," replied Rouletabille. "But you are right. It
is not wise to suspect anybody. See, watch, wait. There is always
time, once the game is caught, to say whether it is a hare or a
wild boar. Listen to me, then, my good mamma. We must know first
what is in the phial. Where is it?"

" Here it is."

She drew it from her sleeve. He stowed it in his pocket.

"You wish the general a good appetite, for me. I am going out.
I will be back in two hours at the latest. And, above all, don't
let the general know anything. I am going to see one of my friends
who lives in the Aptiekarski pereolek."*
___________________________________________________________________

* The little street of the apothecaries.
___________________________________________________________________

"Depend on me, and get back quickly for love of me. My blood clogs
in my heart when you are not here, dear servant of God."

She mounted to the general's room and came down at least ten times
to see if Rouletabille had not returned. Two hours later he was
around the villa,, as he had promised. She could not keep herself
from running to meet him, for which she was scolded.

"Be calm. Be calm. Do you know what was in the phial?"

"No."

"Arsenate of soda, enough to kill ten people."

"Holy Mary!"

"Be quiet. Go upstairs to the general."

Feodor Feodorovitch was in charming humor. It was his first good
night since the death of the youth of Moscow. He attributed it to
his not having touched the narcotic and resolved, once more, to
give up the narcotic, a resolve Rouletabille and Matrena encouraged.
During the conversation there was a knock at the door of Matrena's
chamber. She ran to see who was there, and returned with Natacha,
who wished to embrace her father. Her face showed traces of
fatigue. Certainly she had not passed as good a night as her
father, and the general reproached her for looking so downcast.

"It is true. I had dreadful dreams. But you, papa, did you sleep
well? Did you take your narcotic?"

"No, no, I have not touched a drop of my potion."

"Yes, I see. Oh, well, that is all right; that is very good.
Natural sleep must be coming back..."

Matrena, as though hypnotized by Rouletabille, had taken the glass
from the table and ostentatiously carried it to the dressing-room
to throw it out, and she delayed there to recover her
self-possession.

Natacha continued:

"You will see, papa, that you will be able to live just like
everyone else finally. The great thing was to clear away the
police, the atrocious police; wasn't it, Monsieur Rouletabille?"

"I have always said, for myself, that I am entirely of Mademoiselle
Natacha's mind. You can be entirely reassured now, and I shall
leave you feeling reassured. Yes, I must think of getting my
interviews done quickly, and departing. Ah well, I can only say
what I think. Run things yourselves and you will not run any
danger. Besides, the general gets much better, and soon I shall
see you all in France, I hope. I must thank you now for your
friendly hospitality."

"Ah, but you are not going? You are not going!" Matrena had
already set herself to protest with all the strenuous torrent of
words in her poor desolated heart, when a glance from the reporter
cut short her despairing utterances.

"I shall have to remain a week still in the city. I have engaged a
chamber at the Hotel de France. It is necessary. I have so many
people to see and to receive. I will come to make you a little
visit from time to time."

"You are then quite easy," demanded the general gravely, "at leaving
me all alone?"

"Entirely easy. And, besides, I don't leave you all alone. I leave
you with Madame Trebassof and Mademoiselle. I repeat: All three of
you stay as I see you now. No more police, or, in any case, the
fewest possible."

"He is right, he is right," repeated Natacha again.

At this moment there were fresh knocks at the door of Matrena's
chamber. It was Ermolai, who announced that his Excellency the
Marshal of the Court, Count Keltzof, wished to see the general,
acting for His Majesty.

"Go and receive the Count, Natacha, and tell him that your father
will be downstairs in a moment."

Natacha and Rouletabille went down and found the Count in the
drawing-room. He was a magnificent specimen, handsome and big as
one of the Swiss papal guard. He seemed watchful in all directions
and all among the furniture, and was quite evidently disquieted.
He advanced immediately to meet the young lady, inquiring the news.

"It is all good news," replied Natacha. "Everybody here is splendid.
The general is quite gay. But what news have you, monsieur le
marechal? You appear preoccupied."

The marshal had pressed Rouletabille's hand.

"And my grapes?" he demanded of Natacha.

"How, your grapes? What grapes?"

"If you have not touched them, so much the better. I arrived here
very anxious. I brought you yesterday, from Krasnoie-Coelo, some
of the Emperor's grapes that Feodor Feodorovitch enjoyed so much.
Now this morning I learned that the eldest son of Doucet, the French
head-gardener of the Imperial conservatories at Krasnoie, had died
from eating those grapes, which he had taken from those gathered
for me to bring here. Imagine my dismay. I knew, however, that at
the general's table, grapes would not be eaten without having been
washed, but I reproached myself for not having taken the precaution
of leaving word that Doucet recommend that they be washed thoroughly.
Still, I don't suppose it would matter. I couldn't see how my gift
could be dangerous, but when I learned of little Doucet's death
this morning, I jumped into the first train and came straight here."

"But, your Excellency," interrupted Natacha, "we have not seen your
grapes."

"Ah, they have not been served yet? All the better. Thank
goodness!"

"The Emperor's grapes are diseased, then?" interrogated Rouletabille.
"Phylloxera pest has got into the conservatories?"

"Nothing can stop it, Doucet told me. So he didn't want me to leave
last evening until he had washed the grapes. Unfortunately, I was
pressed for time and I took them as they were, without any idea that
the mixture they spray on the grapes to protect them was so deadly.
It appears that in the vineyard country they have such accidents
every year. They call it, I think, the ... the mixture ... "

"The Bordeaux mixture," was heard in Rouletabille's trembling voice
"And do you know what it is, Your Excellency, this Bordeaux mixture?"

"Why, no."

At this moment the general came down the stairs, clinging to the
banister and supported by Matrena Petrovna.

"Well," continued Rouletabille, watching Natacha, "the Bordeaux
mixture which covered the grapes you brought the general yesterday
was nothing more nor less than arsenate of soda."

"Ah, God!" cried Natacha.

As for Matrena Petrovna, she uttered a low exclamation and let go
the general, who almost fell down the staircase. Everybody rushed.
The general laughed. Matrena, under the stringent look of
Rouletabille, stammered that she had suddenly felt faint. At last
they were all together in the veranda. The general settled back on
his sofa and inquired:

"Well, now, were you just saying something, my dear marshal, about
some grapes you have brought me?"

"Yes, indeed," said Natacha, quite frightened, "and what he said
isn't pleasant at all. The son of Doucet, the court gardener, has
just been poisoned by the same grapes that monsieur le marschal,
it appears, brought you."

"Where was this? Grapes? What grapes? I haven't seen any grapes!"
exclaimed Matrena. "I noticed you, yesterday, marshal, out in the
garden, but you went away almost immediately, and I certainly was
surprised that you did not come in. What is this story?"

"Well, we must clear this matter up. It is absolutely necessary
that we know what happened to those grapes."

"Certainly," said Rouletabille, "they could cause a catastrophe."

"If it has not happened already," fretted the marshal.

"But how? Where are they? Whom did you give them to?"

"I carried them in a white cardboard box, the first one that came
to hand in Doucet's place. I came here the first time and didn't
find you. I returned again with the box, and the general was just
lying down. I was pressed for my train and Michael Nikolaievitch
and Boris Alexandrovitch were in the garden, so I asked them to
execute my commission, and I laid the box down near them on the
little garden table, telling them not to forget to tell you it was
necessary to wash the grapes as Doucet expressly recommended."

"But it is unbelievable! It is terrible!" quavered Matrena. "Where
can the grapes be? We must know."

"Absolutely," approved Rouletabille.

"We must ask Boris and Michael," said Natacha. "Good God! surely
they have not eaten them! Perhaps they are sick."

"Here they are," said the general. All turned. Michael and Boris
were coming up the steps. Rouletabille, who was in a shadowed
corner under the main staircase, did not lose a single play of
muscle on the two faces which for him were two problems to solve.
Both faces were smiling; too smiling, perhaps.

"Michael! Boris! Come here," cried Feodor Feodorovitch. "What
have you done with the grapes from monsieur le marechal?"

They both looked at him upon this brusque interrogation, seemed not
to understand, and then, suddenly recalling, they declared very
naturally that they had left them on the garden table and had not
thought about them.

"You forgot my caution, then?" said Count Kaltzof severely.

"What caution?" said Boris. "Oh, yes, the washing of the grapes.
Doucet's caution."

"Do you know what has happened to Doucet with those grapes? His
eldest son is dead, poisoned. Do you understand now why we are
anxious to know what has become of my grapes?"

"But they ought to be out there on the table," said Michael.

"No one can find them anywhere," declared Matrena, who, no less than
Rouletabille, watched every change in the countenances of the two
officers. "How did it happen that you went away yesterday evening
without saying good-bye, without seeing us, without troubling
yourselves whether or not the general might need you?"

"Madame," said Michael, coldly, in military fashion, as though he
replied to his superior officer himself, "we have ample excuse to
offer you and the general. It is necessary that we make an
admission, and the general will pardon us, I am sure. Boris and I,
daring the promenade, happened to quarrel. That quarrel was in full
swing when we reached here and we were discussing the way to end it
most promptly when monsieur le marechal entered the garden. We must
make that our excuse for giving divided attention to what he had to
say. As soon as he was gone we had only one thought, to get away
from here to settle our difference with arms in our hands."

"Without speaking to me about it!" interrupted Trehassof. "I never
will pardon that."

"You fight at such a time, when the general is threatened! It is
as though you fought between yourselves in the face of the enemy.
It is treason!" added Matrena.

"Madame," said Boris, "we did not fight. Someone pointed out our
fault, and I offered my excuses to Michael Nikolaievitch, who
generously accepted them. Is that not so, Michael Nikolaievitch?"

"And who is this that pointed out your fault?" demanded the marshal.

"Natacha."

"Bravo, Natacha. Come, embrace me, my daughter."

The general pressed his daughter effusively to his broad chest.

"And I hope you will not have further disputing," he cried, looking
over Natacha's shoulder.

"We promise you that, General," declared Boris. "Our lives belong
to you."

"You did well, my love. Let us all do as well. I have passed an
excellent night, messieurs. Real sleep! I have had just one long
sleep."

"That is so," said Matrena slowly. "The general had no need of
narcotic. He slept like a child and did not touch his potion."

"And my leg is almost well."

"All the same, it is singular that those grapes should have
disappeared," insisted the marshal, following his fixed idea.

"Ermolai," called Matrena.

The old servant appeared.

"Yesterday evening, after these gentlemen had left the house, did
you notice a small white box on the garden table?"

"No, Barinia."

"And the servants? Have any of them been sick? The dvornicks?
The schwitzar? In the kitchens? No one sick? No? Go and see; then
come and tell me."

He returned, saying, "No one sick."

Like the marshal, Matrena Petrovna and Feodor Feodorovitch looked
at one another, repeating in French, "No one sick! That is strange!"

Rouletabille came forward and gave the only explanation that was
plausible - for the others.

"But, General, that is not strange at all. The grapes have been
stolen and eaten by some domestic, and if the servant has not been
sick it is simply that the grapes monsieur le marecha1 brought
escaped the spraying of the Bordeaux mixture. That is the whole
mystery."

"The little fellow must be right," cried the delighted marshal.

"He is always right, this little fellow," beamed Matrena, as proudly
as though she had brought him into the world.

But "the little fellow," taking advantage of the greetings as
Athanase Georgevitch and Ivan Petrovitch arrived, left the villa,
gripping in his pocket the phial which held what is required to make
grapes flourish or to kill a general who is in excellent health.
When he had gone a few hundred steps toward the bridges one must
cross to go into the city, he was overtaken by a panting dvornick,
who brought him a letter that had just come by courier. The writing
on the envelope was entirely unknown to him. He tore it open and
read, in excellent French:

"Request to M. Joseph Rouletabille not to mix in matters that do
not concern him. The second warning will be the last." It was
signed: "The Central Revolutionary Committee."

"So, ho!" said Rouletabille, slipping the paper into his pocket,
"that's the line it takes, is it! Happily I have nothing more to
occupy myself with at all. It is Koupriane's turn now! Now to go
to Koupriane's!"

On this date, Rouletabille's note-book: "Natacha to her father:
'But you, papa, have you had a good night? Did you take your
narcotic?'

"Fearful, and (lest I confuse heaven and hell) I have no right to
take any further notes."*
_____________________________________________________________________
*As a matter of fact, after this day no more notes are found in
Rouletabille's memorandum-book. The last one is that above, bizarre
and romantic, and necessary, as Sainclair, the Paris advocate and
friend of Rouletabille, indicates opposite it in the papers from
which we have taken all the details of this story.
_____________________________________________________________________

Gaston Leroux

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