Having relayed our instructions to Secretary Pokrovsky’s driver we soon found ourselves winging our way across the frozen city to a set of apartment buildings very like those we had spent the afternoon searching through. Here Olga Fyedorovna shared a fourth floor flat with a nursery school-mistress in an atmosphere of contented domesticity that only served to make Secretary Pokrovsky’s determination to find her a husband seem all the more misguided.
Olga Fyedorovna sat and patiently listened to our hurried explanation of the evening’s events with a resolute lack of surprise, contenting herself once we had done with the weary remark, “I warned Secretary Pokrovsky that Prince Felix had quite the wrong temperament for this sort of work.” Then, despite her companion’s misgivings about the dangers of Petrograd after dark, she stoically wrapped herself up as best she could and returned with us to the waiting car.
Having issued fresh instructions to the driver Olga Fyedorovna settled herself into a corner of the back seat and stared glumly straight ahead. She seemed to regard Michael and I with a distinct air of disapproval, though whether this was particularly inspired by us as individuals or merely stemmed from a general distrust of outsiders I couldn’t quite make out.
“Where in Petrograd does this Rasputin live?” asked Michael, feigning an interest in an effort to make conversation.
“We’re not going to Rasputin’s home,” returned Olga Fyedorovna flatly.
“Really? Why not?” I asked.
“Because we won’t find him there,” said Olga Fyedorovna. Then she very pointedly turned her head out of the window to discourage further questions. Michael and I shrugged at one another and gave up.
It was about twenty minutes later that the driver pulled up and we all clambered out of the car and into yet another apartment building. The stairway that we climbed here smelled a little less stale and the paint was brighter and less peeling, indicating that we had moved a rung or two up the Petrograd social ladder. Olga Fyedorovna stopped in front of one of two doors facing onto the second floor landing and hammered authoritatively upon it.
There was no answer.
She hammered again. Still no answer. She was just lifting her arm to try a third time when she was interrupted by the sound of the apartment door behind us opening.
We all turned to find a rather desiccated old woman wrapped from head to foot in a massive embroidered robe standing in the doorway. Thin strands of wispy grey hair escaped from a strange turban-like affair wrapped around her head. She glared suspiciously at us for a moment or two before indicating the unyielding door opposite with a nod of her head and rather redundantly announced, “She’s not in.”
“Do you know where she has gone?” asked Olga Fyedorovna eagerly.
The old woman bristled. “No. Why should I? It’s no concern of mine.”
“Could you at least tell us when she left?” Olga Fyedorovna tried again.
The query was met with an expressive shrug. “Do you suppose I’m the sort of woman who has nothing better to do than keep tabs on her neighbours all day?”
Olga Fyedorovna made an effort to draw herself up into an authoritative pose. “Now listen, I’m here on Ministry business,” she said officiously. “It’s very important we locate Marya Andreevna. She may be involved in the disappearance of a person we need to trace quite urgently.”
The old woman was entirely unimpressed. “Well maybe she is and maybe she isn’t but I can’t tell you what I don’t know, now can I?” she retorted. “And I tell you I’m no government spy neither.”
We seemed to have reached an impasse. The old woman made no effort to retreat back into her apartment but continued to stand her ground, glaring defiantly at us. There was something about her posture that suggested that perhaps she did have something to tell us, if only the right approach could be made. Olga Fyedorovna appeared baffled. It was Michael who, sensing that a frontal assault was likely to founder every time, thought to try a flanking manoeuvre instead.
“Rather cold to be out wandering at this time of night, isn’t it?” he remarked, leaning casually back against the wall.
“Cold? Pah, this is nothing,” retorted the old woman stoutly. “You clearly don’t know much about Petersburg winters if you think this is cold!”
Michael gave the old woman a wry smile. “Well, I’m from England so I suppose you have me there,” he conceded.
“England, ha!” exclaimed the old woman, appearing to take a great deal of unexplained satisfaction from this revelation.
“But still,” Michael went on, “I would imagine even a native like this, er, Marya Andreevna would think twice before heading out on a night like this.”
“Well, what some people get up to is more than I can say,” replied the old woman knowingly. “But she was at least wrapped up in her very best fur when she went out tonight.”
“So you did see her leave!” exclaimed Olga Fyedorovna. “When did she go?”
The old woman balked momentarily at the forthrightness of the question but now that the breach had been made she quickly gave up any pretence of maintaining resistance. “About half an hour or so ago,” she replied after brief consideration. “I tell you I wouldn’t have noticed anything if it wasn’t for the fuss he made on his arrival. Hammering on the door he was just like you were just now. Well, I couldn’t help but hear, now could I?”
“When you say him you mean…?” asked Olga Fyedorovna.
“Rasputin of course! Who else? Such a fuss he made! Normally he has at least the wit to be a bit more discreet about the whole thing.”
“Normally? So he comes here often, does he?” I asked, drawn into the discussion by simple curiosity.
“Oh, often isn’t the half of it!” declared the old woman. “Round at all hours he is. And her with her husband barely cold in the ground. I tell you, in my day a widow was expected to behave with a little more restraint. Three years of mourning I observed when my dear husband passed away. Now, it’s barely three minutes before they’ve set their cap at the next man! Oh, I know what they say – they’re young, there’s a war on, but really…”
The old woman took a confiding step forward. “And you can call me old-fashioned if you like but I still say it’s wrong for any young woman to be entertaining a man in her apartment unchaperoned. And I don’t care if he does call himself a priest. Anyway, it’s a funny sort of a priest that goes running around after every bit of skirt he sees. There’s nothing very holy in that, now is there?”
The old woman glared so fiercely at us that we all felt obliged to confirm that no, we didn’t see anything very holy in it either.
“And all this woman-chasing isn’t even the half of it as far as I can see!” the old woman went on. “You wouldn’t believe some of the other things they tell me down the market about that man. You wonder where he finds the time for it all! Somebody wants to do something about that Rasputin or he’ll be the ruin of all Russia, you mark my words!”
As I continued to nod sympathetically I couldn’t help but think how pleased Secretary Pokrovsky would be if he could be here to see the effect of his plan and wondered whether the old woman would be at all satisfied if she knew about the four dead Rasputins lying scattered around Prince Yusupov’s Palace.
“What time did Rasputin arrive tonight?” Olga Fyedorovna asked, taking advantage of a rare pause for breath on the part of the old woman.
“Hmmm, later than usual,” answered the old woman thoughtfully. “To be honest I’d almost given up on his coming because usually he’s as regular as clockwork. They say he’s quite thrown over all his other fancy women in favour of Marya Andreevna these days. I hear there are several Grand Duchesses and a couple of Princesses who are quite distraught that they haven’t been invited into his confessional lately, if you catch my meaning.”
“And he seemed quite agitated when he arrived you say?” pressed Olga Fyedorovna.
“Oh, I’ll say! He was banging away on the door like the hounds of hell were on his trail. That’s the only reason I paid any attention, you see, because there was clearly something wrong. I’m not the kind of woman who’s always poking her nose in where it’s not wanted – I prefer to mind my own business.”
The old woman left a pause so that we might nod to indicate our understanding of her customary discretion.
“But as I say, something was clearly very wrong tonight and so, I’ll admit, I kept my ear out. And sure enough, barely ten minutes later the pair of them had slipped out together, only this time as quiet as a couple of church mice. I tell you, if I hadn’t been on the alert they would have slipped right by me.”
“Do you know where they went?” asked Olga Fyedorovna.
The old woman threw up her hands in a gesture of genuine regret that this item of information was not in her possession. “I’ll tell you one thing though,” she said. “I’ll bet you ten kopecks to a rouble that they won’t be back any time soon. Not only was she wearing her best fur but the both of them were carrying suitcases.”
Despite further questioning it soon became clear that we had reached the limit of the old woman’s knowledge and so we offered her our thanks and she reluctantly returned to her apartment. Nothing more was said until we were on the pavement outside and Olga Fyedorovna paused with her hand on the car door. “I knew it!” she exclaimed. “He’s trying to make a run for it.”
“I don’t think you can entirely blame him for that,” I remarked, recalling the basement of the Yusupov Palace with a light shudder.
Olga Fyedorovna appeared lost in thought as we all clambered into the back of the car. “The question now is where,” she mused. “They can’t have got far yet but I still think we’ll have to move fast if we’re going to head them off.”
“Why don’t we just let them go?” suggested Michael after a moments pause. “Prince Yusupov has already bagged four Rasputins tonight, I don’t see that another one is going to make all that much difference.”
Olga Fyedorovna looked up sharply. “The information this Rasputin holds about Secretary Pokrovsky’s plans could be dynamite in the wrong hands,” she informed us sternly. “A word in the wrong ear could bring down the whole government.”
“But it doesn’t sound like he’s politically involved,” I returned, no keener than Michael to help Prince Yusupov add to his tally. “By all accounts he’s just run off to be with his girlfriend.”
“Still, Secretary Pokrovsky will not want any loose ends left lying around,” insisted Olga Fyedorovna. “And as I don’t particularly want to find myself out of a job right now I don’t intend to be responsible for any.”
“But I just think…” Michael began again but Olga Fyedorovna fixed him with a shrewd glare.
“And I wouldn’t go thinking that you have no personal stake in this,” she said. “Secretary Pokrovsky might seem friendly enough but he could still withdraw his letter of authorisation for your survey at any time. And then where will you be?”
Michael and I looked uneasily at one another.
“Or suppose we let this Rasputin escape and the plot to deceive the Russian public is somehow exposed,” continued Olga Fyedorovna, determined to press her point. “If Secretary Pokrovsky is dismissed from his post you might find him replaced with someone altogether less tolerant of interfering foreigners.”
“Alright, alright, you’ve made your point,” I conceded. “So where do you suppose Rasputin and his girlfriend might have got to?”
Olga Fyedorovna drummed her fingers thoughtfully on her knee. “There can’t be many options open to them at this time of night. What little transport there is leaving Petrograd will mostly be heading for the front… I suppose they might try and hire something but without papers they’re always liable to be stopped…” The drumming grew steadily more and more intense for a moment until she suddenly exclaimed, “Got it!” Then she leaned forward and rapped sharply on the glass partition dividing us from the driver. “Driver, the Finlyandsky Station!” she cried excitedly. “And step on it!”
To be continued…