As we left the Finlyandsky Station my emotions comprised about three parts warm glow of satisfaction at having saved the last Rasputin from his unhappy fate to one part anxiety over Secretary Pokrovsky’s likely response to our action. By the time the car turned down the Moyka Embankment towards the Yusupov Palace this ratio had pretty much entirely reversed itself. It was all very well embracing the noble gesture in the heat of the moment, with two big pairs of pleading brown eyes in front of you and any possible repercussions far away in a dimly grasped future. But it was quite another thing to remain confident and cheerful once the big brown eyes had been spirited far away and only the sharply disapproving eyes of Secretary Pokrovsky loomed up ahead.
My growing anxiety was not improved as we approached the Yusupov Palace by the sight of two officious-looking men in thick greatcoats and peaked caps pacing the street outside. The two men paused by the railings separating the street from the canal as the car pulled up outside the front entrance and watched us keenly as we disembarked, though they made no attempt to speak to us. The Palace door, fortunately, was opened promptly and I was relieved when a grey-haired, bent-backed old porter beckoned us inside whilst he went to fetch Grishka, shutting the door on the silent watchers outside.
The phlegmatic butler, when he finally came forward to greet us, made no comment upon our obvious lack of any Rasputin. “You had better come through,” he advised. “I will inform Secretary Pokrovsky of your arrival.”
“Who are those two men outside?” asked Olga Fyedorovna as we followed Grishka down a dazzling hallway flanked by gilded mirrors.
“An inspector of police and his associate,” replied Grishka. “It would seem that someone heard shots from within the palace and made a report.”
“The police!” exclaimed Michael. “But that’ll mean trouble, won’t it?”
Grishka offered up one of his signature dispassionate shrugs. “Perhaps,” he said. “The police have no authority to enter the palace without the Prince’s permission. However the inspector is showing a rather unfortunate obstinacy about clearing the matter up.”
“Does Secretary Pokrovsky know they’re here?” I asked.
“The Secretary has been informed of their presence,” confirmed Grishka. “Now, if you will please wait here, I will inform him of your return.”
We were left at the foot of the grand staircase whilst Grishka ascended alone. I was glad to note that the body of Drunk Rasputin had been removed from its resting place draped across the chubby Sphinx but the dark stain remained on the carpet as testimony to recent gruesome events. Distant strains of warbling gramophone music drifted towards us from somewhere up above but otherwise the palace seemed eerily calm. It felt like a long, anxious wait, Olga Fyedorovna, Michael and I shuffling uncomfortably around the hallway, before the sound of footsteps finally heralded Secretary Pokrovsky’s approach.
“Well? Have you got him? Where is he?” he demanded eagerly as he hurried down the stairs towards us.
Once he reached the bottom there was an awkward pause during which Olga Fyedorovna looked expectantly at Michael, Michael looked expectantly at me and I fixed my gaze upon the nearest statue. Finally Michael took a deep breath and admitted, “I’m very sorry Secretary Pokrovsky but it would appear that the missing Rasputin has got away.”
Secretary Pokrovsky responded with a sharp exclamation of dismay.
“Our information is that the man has left Petrograd altogether,” explained Olga Fyedorovna ruefully.
“It seems he was just too quick for us,” I added in a tone of deep regret.
“Oh Holy Mother of Smolensk!” moaned Secretary Pokrovsky, sinking down onto the bottom step in despair. “This is a total disaster! All my plans are in ruins!”
“Not necessarily,” said Michael, trying to adopt an upbeat air. “You’ve still got the other four dead Rasputins, haven’t you? And the public will be only expecting one corpse, after all.”
“But how can I present a dead Rasputin to the Russian public when there is still a live one running about the country somewhere?” protested Secretary Pokrovsky. “He may return at any moment and give the whole game away.”
“I don’t think that’s very likely,” I returned reassuringly. “I very much doubt your missing Rasputin will show up any time soon. If, in fact, at all.”
“All the intelligence we have is that he plans to get as far away as possible,” added Olga Fyedorovna. “In fact, I’d be willing to wager a week’s vodka ration that he’s out of the country already. Just think, what would he have to gain by coming back?”
But Secretary Pokrovsky was not to be consoled. “No, no, you do not understand the tenacity of the underground press once they sniff a scandal. It would take no more than a word dropped in the wrong ear and they would be onto his trail like a pack of bloodhounds!” He shook his head thoughtfully, considering his own prognosis with mounting horror for a moment, then suddenly stood up with a decisive air. “No, we must do all we can to track down and eliminate this Rasputin immediately. Call out the militia! Issue an alert to all ports and stations! Send for the Preobrazhensky Guard!”
Michael made an effort to lay a soothing hand on the agitated minister. “Now let’s think about this for just a moment Secretary,” he urged soothingly. “You don’t want to make things worse by acting too hastily.”
“I think our English colleague is right,” said Olga Fyedorovna, nodding fervently. “Alerting the ports and calling out the guards is surely the most certain way to let the cat out of the bag. Do you really think you can trust the militia with something this sensitive? You bring them into the operation and every bar and café in Petrograd will be humming with the details of your personal business by morning!”
“Better I would have thought to let sleeping Rasputins lie,” I counselled.
“Hmmm, there is perhaps something in what you all say,” conceded Secretary Pokrvosky. “But what of Prince Felix? He is not a man easily persuaded to let anything lie.”
“I think it’s probably best to keep Prince Felix out of matters as far as possible,” suggested Michael. “Maybe if you were to stick to the plan of getting him right out of Petrograd as soon as possible. At least until things blow over.”
“But you don’t understand. He is upstairs right now, expecting a fifth Rasputin to be delivered to him any moment,” complained Secretary Pokrovsky. “What am I supposed to tell him?”
“Need you tell him anything?” I asked. “You said yourself that these debauches of his usually tire him out eventually. Surely he must be pretty near crashing by now.”
“Exactly!” agreed Olga Fyedorovna enthusiastically. “We just wait for him to fall asleep, bundle him into a car and pack him off to Moscow, or Minsk perhaps… or Outer Mongolia!”
“It’s a nice idea…” began Secretary Pokrovsky.
“What sort of state was he in when you left him just now?” asked Michael eagerly. “Pretty washed out, was he?”
“Well…” Secretary Pokrovsky hesitated and then, as if right on cue, a sudden cry drew all our eyes to the top of the stairs.
There stood Prince Felix, his arms thrown out wide in an exuberant gesture. It took only the briefest of glances to see that the Prince was in no way tired. A touch unsteady perhaps, almost giddy in fact, but most certainly not tired. In fact, as he bounded eagerly down the stairs towards us, I think it would be pretty fair to say that he was more or less fizzing with energy.
“Pasha! What are you hiding down here for?” he demanded as he stumbled towards us. “It’s time we got this party started again! Let’s call the Horse Guards Barracks and the Mariensky Theatre, invite some people over. I know, we’ll get that gypsy band that plays at the Café Troika! Let’s put some life into this place!”
We could only stand and watch his approach with dismay, providing what ought to have appeared as a pretty dejected reception party, if only the Prince had been able to focus his eyes sufficiently to notice. Instead he threw his arms up in another excited gesture as he finally managed to fix his volatile gaze in one place long enough to recognise Michael and I.
“Aha! My English friends!” he cried. “How good to see you! Have you brought me the final Rasputin to add to my collection?”
“Er…” Both Michael and I shuffled nervously, not knowing quite how to reply.
“Well, come on. Where is he?” demanded the Prince impatiently. “I’m ready for him, as you can see.” And with this he tapped the pistol that was still tucked into the waistband of his trousers so vigorously that for a moment I was afraid he might accidentally shoot his own bollocks off. “Let’s get this damn killing over and done with and then we can start the celebrations properly.”
After another awkward pause Secretary Pokrovsky finally stepped forward to relieve Michael and I from our impossible situation. “The last Rasputin is not here Your Highness,” he announced solemnly
“What? Where is he then?” challenged the Prince.
“I’m afraid there has been a slight… issue.”
“Issue? What kind of issue? Don’t tell me you’ve lost the damned rogue?” complained Prince Felix.
“Not exactly Your Highness…” began Secretary Pokrovsky uncertainly.
“Curses! Ah well, I suppose Sereshka and me will have to go and dig him out ourselves,” cried Prince Felix cheerfully. “Don’t worry, you can rely on us. We’ll get our man, even if we have to turn over every dive in Petersburg to find him!”
Secretary Pokrovsky recoiled in horror from Prince Felix’s attempt at a consoling pat on the back. “No! You can’t!” he exclaimed with a startled yelp.
Prince Felix glared at him.
“What I mean to say is, there’s really no need,” explained Secretary Pokrovsky hastily. “Please, don’t trouble yourself Your Highness.”
“But the scoundrel must be found,” objected Prince Felix. “The honour of the Romanovs demands it.”
“But he is found. He’s on his way, I assure you,” Secretary Pokrovsky blustered. “I merely intended to warn you of a slight delay. Nothing to get worked up about.”
“Are you sure?” said Prince Felix, making a determined effort to fix his jittery gaze upon the Secretary. Somewhere in that befuddled aristocratic head lay the sensation that the wool was somehow or other being pulled over his eyes but a day spent drinking prodigiously rendered the details of that concept, or indeed any concept, difficult to grasp.
“Of course Your Highness,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky. “The last Rasputin will be at the palace very soon. I am quite certain of this. I apologise if my careless remarks caused any alarm.”
Prince Felix’s eyes flickered suspiciously across each of us in turn before he finally gave up the futile struggle for insight with a cheerful gesture. “Very well, let’s get back to the party then. I’m sure we can keep ourselves entertained until Rasputin gets here.” He leaned unsteadily towards Michael and I. “Tell the truth, with or without a Rasputin, I’m glad you’ve returned,” he told us in what I suspect was meant to be a confidential tone but which could in all probability have been heard in Finland. “This party is desperately in need of new blood. Old Pasha here tries his best but half the time he walks around with a face like an old washerwoman who lost a rouble and found a kopeck!”
And with a hearty pat on the back for each of us he turned to get back to the fun. “Grishka!” he cried excitedly as he bounced back up the stairs. “More champagne for our guests!”
The rest of us remained rooted to the foot of the stairs in mournful silence.
“Well, so much for the Prince getting tired,” Michael sighed regretfully as soon as he was out of sight.
“It looks like you seriously under-estimated his capacity for a good time,” I noted regretfully to Secretary Pokrovsky.
“But he was getting tired,” protested Secretary Pokrovsky. “Not long before you returned he could barely keep his eyes open. But then he disappeared into his dressing room and two minutes later he comes out like that.” Secretary Pokrovsky sank sorrowfully back down onto the bottom step. “Grishka tells me that he keeps a box of powder in there.”
“Oh Secretary!” Olga Fyedorovna cried in a muted sigh of complaint.
“Well, I can’t be expected to watch him every minute!” objected Secretary Pokrovsky. “You would need eyes in the back of your head. And I have a lot on my plate right now.”
“Also, I’m not sure it was a good idea to tell him Rasputin was on his way,” Michael pointed out. “That’s hardly likely to calm him down.”
“What would you have me say? I couldn’t let him go wandering off all over Petrograd in that state,” grumbled Secretary Pokrovsky. “I may as well throw a stick of dynamite into the Winter Palace while I’m at it and be done with it! The effect on the government would be much the same.”
“Never mind. What’s done is done,” put in Olga Fyedorovna briskly. “But perhaps things are not quite as bad as they seem. Whatever kind of powder Prince Felix keeps in his dressing room I doubt the effects will last all that long. The drugs they sell under the counter these days – even to someone like His Highness – are like the flour you get on the black market; mostly sawdust and sand with barely a pinch of the real stuff.”
“You seem remarkably well informed about such matters Olga Fyedorovna,” observed Secretary Pokrovsky, looking up at his typist with narrowed eyes.
“I find it pays to keep one’s eyes open,” she retorted defensively. “Anyway, the point is that our plan to get Prince Felix out of Petrograd may not be entirely useless. He’s still bound to crash sooner or later and when he does he’ll probably go out like a light. We just have to watch and wait, that’s all.”
“And make sure he makes no more unsupervised visits to his dressing room in the meantime,” I added pointedly.
“I hope you’re right,” sighed Secretary Pokrovsky as he slowly got to his feet.
Just then the gramophone music which had been floating down from above came to a sudden scratchy halt. There followed a series of bangs and crashes and then the Prince’s voice could be heard yelling, “Grishka, whatever happened to my balalaika? I need it at once.”
“Ah, the things I do for Mother Russia,” murmured Secretary Pokrovsky as we all began the weary trek up the stairs to join the party.
To be continued…