On leaving the restaurant we discovered that the temperature, which had scarcely risen above freezing all day, had dropped considerably and soft flakes of snow swirled around in the crisp night air. We scrambled gratefully into Secretary Pokrovsky’s waiting car, an enormous black boxy machine, and the driver set off at once. The journey was brief; it seemed no time at all before we were pulling up outside an enormous neo-classical building where the lights ablaze in the upper-storey windows dappled the icy canal opposite with reflected light.
Waiting for us on the pavement outside the Palace was a thin, mournful-looking man of indeterminate age carrying a large lamp. Despite wearing only a thin black jacket he stood without a shiver, giving not the slightest indication that he found the weather anything less than pleasantly balmy. As we got out of the car he registered the unexpected presence of Michael and I with just the merest raising of one eyebrow but he said nothing, waiting patiently for Secretary Pokrovsky to open proceedings.
“Well Grishka, what is it?” the Secretary demanded briskly. “I haven’t long. I am just on my way to treat my English friends here to a nightcap at the Imperial Hotel.”
“Very good Your Honour.” Grishka spoke in a tone of supreme resignation which gave the impression he was permanently in the midst of a never-ending sigh. “You may find yourself in need of a stiff drink by the end of tonight.”
“Whatever are you talking about?” barked Secretary Pokrovsky in return.
“His Highness issued the invitation to our holy friend to come round to tea,” said Grishka simply. “Rather, to all five of our holy friends.”
It seemed to take a moment or two before the meaning of this cryptic message became clear to Secretary Pokrovsky. When it did he responded with a frantic yelp. “What? He can’t! I told him this morning he was to wait for my instruction!”
“His Highness grew impatient,” responded Grishka. “He and Captain Sukhotin had been drinking all afternoon and decided to take matters into their own hands.”
“Why didn’t you stop them?” cried Secretary Pokrovsky.
“I? What could I do?” replied Grishka with an eloquent shrug. “I am only the butler. I have no say in affairs of state.”
“Still, you might at least have warned me,” complained Secretary Pokrovsky. “You could have sent word.”
“His Highness absolutely forbade it,” said Grishka. “He only let me call you in now because there has been a slight hitch.”
“A hitch? What kind of hitch?” cried Secretary Pokrovsky in alarm.
“You had better come in and see things for yourself,” said Grishka.
The stoical butler turned away from the main entrance and led us through a smaller door to the right which took us through a narrow passageway into a large open courtyard. We followed him as he began to cross the courtyard but stopped when we came upon what appeared at first sight to be an eccentrically situated speed bump lying across our path. It was only when Grishka swung his lantern over it that I realised that the speed bump was in fact the body of a man stretched out face down in the snow.
“This one lost his nerve and made a run for it,” remarked Grishka flatly. “As you can see he did not get very far.”
I peered uncertainly down into the shallow pool of light thrown by Grishka’s lamp, feeling somehow simultaneously both drawn to and repulsed by the unhappy sight. The man had one arm twisted beneath him but the other was flung out ahead as if still indicating the way he had wished to go. There were two ragged dark holes in the back of his thin brown shirt and blood had oozed out from beneath his midriff forming an uneven circle of pink snow around him. I found myself oddly absorbed by his shoes which, thanks to the way he lay, were displaying battered soles which were almost worn right through at several spots. All I could think of was the pain and discomfort of being obliged to walk around the icy streets of Petrograd in such flimsy shoes, though I supposed it wasn’t a point to trouble this chap any longer.
“Is that… Rasputin?” asked Michael, finally breaking the stunned silence.
“Ascetic Rasputin to be precise,” confirmed Grishka with a resigned nod. “You would have thought all that religion would have taught him to be a little more steadfast in the face of death.”
“Oh, this is wrong, this is all wrong,” murmured Secretary Pokrovsky unhappily. “How am I supposed to make this look heroic to the Russian people? I told Prince Yusupov to wait!”
There was an awkward pause before Grishka swung his lamp away with another of those fatalistic shrugs. Saying simply, “The others are inside,” he continued solemnly on his way, leading us back inside the Palace via a low door in the opposite corner of the courtyard. We traversed a sequence of corridors that began plain and narrow but soon opened out and became more lavishly decorated before finally bringing us out in front of an epically grand staircase.
“This one came a little late to the party,” announced Grishka, nodding casually to his right. “He was finished off almost before he’d stepped through the door.”
The foot of the staircase was guarded at either side by an oddly squat marble sphinx where the sculptor appeared to have chosen to meld the head of an extravagantly coiffured woman to a rather chubby dog in place of the more usual lion. Slumped over one of these statues was a large, heavily bearded man. He might have been mistaken for a drunk, sleeping off the worst effects of a heavy night out, were it not for the hilt of an ornamental dagger sticking rather prominently up from his back. Closer inspection revealed that there was another, plainer knife thrust beneath his armpit and a third plunged into his thigh.
“Oh no, no,” moaned Secretary Pokrovsky, peering closely at the body from all angles as though hopeful that there might still be a way of somehow stopping up all the holes and thus restoring the man to life. “This is not the way things are meant to happen!”
Grishka merely gazed sorrowfully at the thick pool of dark blood that had spilled out from the corpse and commented, “It will be a devil of a job to get that out of the carpet.”
Before anyone could respond to this all our attention was distracted by a shout from above. We looked up to see a head thrust over the bannister which I immediately recognised as belonging to the extraordinary young man we’d first encountered that morning in Secretary Pokrovsky’s office. A moment later he was standing, swaying a little, at the top of the stairs. He’d swapped his heavy fur coat for a long silk dressing gown which hung open, revealing a simple silk blouse and a pair of rather voluminous trousers beneath. In one hand he carried a bottle of champagne, in the other swung an ivory-handled pistol.
“Aha! Come to join the festivities at last, have you Pasha?” he called out cheerfully and began to make his way somewhat unsteadily down the stairs. He’d got about halfway down before he realised that Secretary Pokrovsky was not alone. He then pulled up so suddenly that he almost fell down onto his backside, before leaning so far forward, squinting suspiciously at Michael and I, that I was sure he must tip over and tumble head-first down the final few steps. But somehow, after swaying back and forth for a minute or two, he managed to maintain some sort of equilibrium. “Who have you got there with you Pasha?” he demanded.
“Excuse me Your Highness,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky, keeping a wary eye on the ivory-handled pistol. “These are two important visitors from England with whom I was dining when I got your call. May I introduce Mr Mikhail Redgrave and Miss Natasha Everingham? My friends, this is Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov.”
Enchanted by this introduction, Prince Felix stumbled down the rest of the stairs and flung his arms open before us. “Welcome to my humble home,” he announced with drunken cheer. “You are most fortunate, friends, to be here on such a special night to witness history in the making! Please, join the party, have a drink!” he added, casually waving his champagne bottle at us.
I declined the offer of a drink with a cautious smile. I wasn’t sure if the leering grin with which Prince Felix regarded us was directed primarily at me or at Michael or if the Prince even knew himself but either way the wisest policy seemed to be to keep a polite distance.
“Your Highness, what have you been doing?” interrupted Secretary Pokrovsky anxiously. “I told you quite clearly this morning that I would send word to you when the time was right. These moments must be judged very carefully. You were not authorised to act yet…”
“Authorisation, bah!” spat out Prince Felix. “You and your moments Pasha. You would wait until hell froze over for one of your moments. I tell you, I met a sailor in the Café Troika this afternoon who said to me most sincerely that it was about time someone took that Rasputin in hand.”
“The domestic policy of His Majesty’s Government is not dictated by the words of random sailors in the Café Troika,” retorted Secretary Pokrovsky hotly. “There were procedures in place…”
“Damn your procedures!” cried Prince Felix. “Action is what was required and action is what I took!”
“Action, I tell you! Did you see that one I nabbed in the courtyard?” asked Prince Felix eagerly. “A hundred paces away and in the dark but still I downed him with just two shots!” Prince Felix waved his pistol wildly by way of demonstration, causing Secretary Pokrovsky, Michael and I to all duck. Only Grishka stood motionless, apparently entirely unaffected by the pantomime. “Now there’s a man of action for you!” concluded Prince Felix triumphantly.
“That is fine shooting, I grant you Your Highness,” conceded Secretary Pokrovsky, somewhat sheepishly getting to his feet again as Prince Felix casually tucked his pistol into the waistband of his trousers. “But this is not the…”
“Come and see the others,” insisted Prince Felix suddenly. “We started in the basement.” And before anyone could make any further objection he stumbled past the fallen Rasputin and staggered off down the corridor.
We followed in a somewhat dazed procession, Secretary Pokrovsky first, then Michael and I, with Grishka phlegmatically bringing up the rear. Prince Felix turned down another smaller, less lavish staircase and plunged into a dizzying warren of broad brick-lined passageways. After a bewildering series of twists and turns we entered a grey, low-ceilinged room. Here, sitting at a large, round table heavily laden with food, we came upon what appeared to be Rasputins Three and Four. The first was a broad-shouldered man whose long hair and beard were heavily flecked with grey. He lay pitched forward on the table, face down in a puddle of tea and vomit. The second was a smaller man with glasses and a neatly trimmed moustache. He sat upright in his chair with his head thrown backwards. His hands still gripped tightly to the chair arms though his jaw hung slackly and his open eyes fixed sightlessly on the ceiling.
“I don’t normally hold with poison,” remarked Prince Felix casually whilst the rest of us were still coming to grips with the appalling scene. “It’s rather a woman’s way of killing, if you ask me. But Sergei Mikhailovich thought that, under the circumstances… And it certainly worked a treat, eh Sereshka?”
It was only through this last comment that I became aware that there was another figure in the room, a large fair-haired young man in uniform sprawled across a chair next to the fireplace. At first glance he might have been mistaken for another victim but at the mention of his name he jolted forward with an uncertain, “Eh? What? Who?”
“To the honour of the Romanovs!” cried Prince Felix, hoisting aloft his champagne bottle with such an extravagant swing that he managed to spill half of its contents.
“The Romanovs!” mumbled Sergei Mikhailovich in automatic response, lurching forward to grab a glass of wine from off the table.
In an instant Grishka had glided in from nowhere to sweep the glass from out of his grasp. “We drink nothing from the table, if you remember Captain,” he murmured respectfully, substituting instead a glass he had picked up from a sideboard.
Sergei Mikhailovich glared down in befuddlement at the fresh glass in his hand for a moment or two, apparently unable to comprehend precisely how it had got there. Then he shrugged, muttered “The Romanovs” again and took a hearty swig before collapsing back onto his chair in the corner.
Prince Felix laughed loudly. “Well, come on my friends, join the party!” he cried to the rest of us as he began to waltz joyfully around the table. “Have a drink! Grishka can tell you what is safe.”
Secretary Pokrovsky, who had been staring in a preoccupied manner at a plate of cakes on the table, finally looked up. “I’m afraid we must call a halt to the party for now Your Highness,” he said solemnly. “There are many matters to be organised, people to be informed…”
“Then let’s inform the people!” cried Prince Felix excitedly. “How shall we do this? Some sort of public announcement? Grishka, lay out my dress uniform, I will need to get changed.”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” insisted Secretary Pokrovsky hurriedly. “These things must be handled very carefully. Actually, I don’t think Your Highness should be present for any announcement. In fact, I think it might be best if Your Highness left Petrograd for a few days, just to allow the dust to settle…”
Prince Felix’s waltzing came to an abrupt halt. “Leave Petograd? What nonsense! The people will want to see the hero of the hour.”
“In time, yes,” Secretary Pokrovsky conceded. “But it must be properly stage-managed for the greatest effect. I was thinking that perhaps if you left now we could arrange a triumphant re-entry in a few days or so when things have calmed down.”
“Triumphant re-entry?” Prince Felix considered this idea for a moment. “No, that won’t do. I don’t want to leave Petrograd – it’s the only place in Russia anyone can have any fun these days. Besides, better to take the applause now before someone else tries to nip in and steal all the credit.”
“But who else could possibly steal the credit?” protested Secretary Pokrovsky. “The acclaim is undoubtedly all yours Your Highness. It is just that in the meantime there are a number of rather tiresome technical matters to be dealt with. Things I’m sure Your Highness will not want to be bothered with. For instance, all five of the bodies must be taken to…” Secretary Pokrovsky suddenly stopped and looked around. “Wait a minute, you have only shown us four bodies. Where is the fifth Rasputin?”
“Oh yes, I knew there was a reason I sent for you Pasha!” exclaimed Prince Felix cheerfully. “Lover Rasputin did not turn up.”
“What do you mean he didn’t turn up?” demanded Secretary Pokrovsky.
“I mean what I say – he didn’t turn up,” repeated Prince Felix obstinately. “What else could I possibly mean? I sent him an invitation but he has not come.”
“You mean he is still running around Petrograd somewhere?” said Secretary Pokrovsky, aghast. “But this is a disaster! He could blow the whole plan!”
“Why do you think I sent for you?” returned Prince Felix in a peculiarly drunken exasperation. “You’d better find him, hadn’t you?”
“Me? But I…”
“You find him, bring him here and I’ll kill him for you,” announced Prince Felix matter-of-factly. “That is all.” Clearly feeling that the matter was thereby resolved he resumed his waltzing around the table, pausing only to pick up a scone which he lobbed at his sleepy friend in the corner. “Come on Sereshka, get up and dance you lazy oaf!”
Secretary Pokrovsky turned unhappily away from the scene, shaking his head. “No, no, this is a disaster!” he softly moaned. “This is not how it was supposed to happen at all.” He retreated out of the way of the way of the waltzing Prince into a little alcove, beckoning Michael and I after him. There he looked up at us both with beseeching eyes. “What am I going to do? All my carefully laid plans are in ruins!”
Not knowing quite how to respond I simply tutted sympathetically.
“It certainly does seem to be a bit of a pickle,” agreed Michael with feeling.
Secretary Pokrovsky made an effort to pull himself together. “Okay, we can deal with this. I must get Prince Felix out of Petrograd, that’s the first thing,” he said. “In fact, it might even be best if we get him out of the country altogether just for the moment.”
I glanced over at the aristocrat who, humming a tune to match his erratic dance steps, had now pulled the barely conscious Sergei Mikhailovich up off his chair to join in the dance. “I’m not sure that will be easy,” I noted. “He doesn’t seem to be very keen to leave.”
“Maybe not, but these debauches of his always take their toll,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky knowingly, following my gaze. “He’s flagging already, I tell you. I give it no more than an hour or two and he’ll have crashed completely. At that point it shouldn’t be too difficult for Grishka and I to bundle him into a car and get him out of town.”
There was a crash as a stumble from the waltzing couple brought a dish of cakes crashing down from the table. “Music! Grishka, we need proper music to dance to!” demanded Prince Felix over his shoulder. “Fetch me the gramophone! And more champagne!” The butler nodded mournfully and slipped out of the room.
“What about the missing Rasputin?” Michael asked Secretary Pokrovsky.
“Well, naturally, he must be found and brought back here as soon as possible,” replied the Secretary. “If details of our deception were to get out it might bring down the whole government. It is essential we keep this operation as quiet as possible until we are quite ready to go public…” Secretary Pokrovsky drifted off for a moment, lost in thought. Then he suddenly looked up at us with an awkward smile.
“My friends! I hardly dare to ask but you can see how I’m fixed,” he said with pleading eyes. “If you would only consent to help me. You see, I dare not call in anyone else…”
“Oh well, I really don’t know what we can do,” demurred Michael awkwardly.
“Please, you must find the missing Rasputin for me,” begged Secretary Pokrovsky. “I’d go myself but somebody needs to stay and keep an eye on Prince Felix to prevent him causing any more trouble.”
“But we barely know Petrograd,” I protested. “I don’t see how we could possibly find anyone.”
“Olga Fyedorovna will help you,” said Secretary Pokrovsky, his eyes lighting up as the idea took shape in his head. “She is the only person I can trust and she knows the details of all the Rasputins. Between the three of you I’m sure you could track him down and bring him back here.”
“I’m sorry but I really don’t think…” Michael made a further effort at a regretful decline.
“Unless of course you’d rather stop here and watch Prince Felix while I go out,” interrupted Secretary Pokrovsky thoughtfully. “I don’t think he’ll be too difficult at this stage of the evening but you’ll need to keep an eye on him at all times. Don’t let him go out, don’t let him drink anything poisonous and, whatever you do, don’t let him play with the dead Rasputins. I’m going to need at least one respectable corpse to show the public.”
Just at this moment Grishka returned carrying several bottles of champagne with another servant following him, struggling underneath the weight of an unwieldy gramophone. Prince Felix twirled suddenly around to watch the servant setting the record player down on the sideboard and the violence of the move sent Sergei Mikhailovich spinning to the floor. Prince Felix gazed down for a second upon his helpless dance partner and then burst into hysterical laughter.
“We’ll go and look for the missing Rasputin,” I hurriedly told Secretary Pokrovsky. I didn’t even glance at Michael to see what he made of the decision, my mind was made up. If the thought of scouring the frozen streets of a strange city in search of an imposter monk was not exactly appealing it was at least a thousand times preferable to hanging about any longer in this House of Horrors trying to keep our deranged host in some sort of order.
“As you wish, as you wish,” declared Secretary Pokrovsky. “Thank-you, thank-you! I do not know how I will ever be able to repay you. Take my car – the driver knows the way to Olga Fyderovona’s apartment.”
He glanced surreptitiously across the room to check what Prince Felix was up to and found he was huddled over the newly arrived gramophone, rifling through a pile of records and grumbling at the fact that none of the music was quite suitable for his present mood. Sergei Mikhailovich still lay in a forgotten heap on the floor. Careful not to attract the Prince’s attention, Secretary Pokrovsky discreetly edged towards the entrance, beckoning Grishka over as he went.
“Grishka, can you see my friends out to my car please? They have urgent business to attend to.” At the doorway he grasped both of our hands and looked up at us with something approaching tears in his eyes. “Thank-you again my friends, thank-you,” he said earnestly. “I should have known that Russia can always depend upon her English allies. I do not know how I shall ever be able to repay you but, after all this is done, you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been instrumental in saving the Romanov cause.”
Neither Michael nor I found anything to say in reply to this but simply smiled and nodded before we slipped out of the room in the wake of the butler. After all, I told myself as we hurried away from the dank, death-filled basement, this was hardly the time to reveal to Secretary Pokrovsky that the cause of the Romanovs had been doomed long before we came on the scene.
To be continued…