in which an account is rendered of a certain cynical escapade
On Monday the fifteenth of May in the year 1876, between the hours of two and three in the afternoon on a day that combined the freshness of spring with the warmth of summer, numerous individuals in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens unexpectedly found themselves eyewitnesses to the perpetration of an outrage that flagrantly transgressed the bounds of common decency.
The public strolling the alleyways between blossoming lilac bushes and flower beds ablaze with the flaming scarlet blooms of tulips was smartly decked out: ladies holding aloft lacework parasols (to avert the threat of freckles), nannies minding children in neat little sailor suits, and young men affecting an air of boredom in fashionable cheviot frock coats or jackets cut in the short English fashion. With noth- ing apparently portending any disagreeable turn of events, a lazy satisfaction and gratifying tedium suffused the atmosphere, mingling with the scents of a mature and confident spring season. The rays of the sun beat down in earnest, and every last one of the benches that happened to stand in the shade was occupied.
Seated on one of these benches located not far from the Grotto and facing the railings so as to afford a view of the beginning of Neglinnaya Street and the yellow wall of the Manège were two ladies. One of them, a very young lady (indeed, not really a lady at all, more of a girl), was reading a small morocco-bound volume and glancing about her from time to time with an air of distracted curiosity. Her much older companion, wearing a good-quality dark blue woolen dress and sensible lace-up ankle boots, rotated her needles in a regular rhythm as she concentrated on knitting some item in a poisonous pink, yet still found time to turn her head to the right and the left with a rapid glance so keen that there was certainly no way anything the least bit remarkable could possibly escape it.
The lady’s attention was caught immediately by the young man in narrow check trousers, a frock coat casually buttoned over a white waistcoat, and a round Swiss hat. He was walking along the alley in such a remarkably strange manner, stopping every now and again as he attempted to pick out somebody among the strollers, then taking a few abrupt steps before stopping yet again. Glancing suddenly in the direction of our ladies, this unbalanced individual seemed to resolve upon some course of action, and immediately set off toward them with broad, decisive strides. He halted in front of the bench and addressed the young girl, exclaiming in a clownish falsetto, “My lady! Has no one ever told you that your beauty is beyond all endurance?”
The girl, who was indeed quite wonderfully pretty, gaped at the impudent fellow in startled amazement, her strawberry-red lips parted slightly in fright. Even her mature companion seemed dumbfounded at such unheard-of familiarity.
“I am vanquished at first sight,” said the stranger, continuing with his tomfoolery. He was, in fact, a young man of perfectly presentable appearance, with hair trimmed fashionably short at the temples, a high, pale forehead, and brown eyes glinting in feverish excitement. “Pray allow me to impress upon your innocent brow an even more innocent, purely fraternal kiss!”
“Zir, you are kvite drunk!” said the lady with the knitting, recovering her wits and revealing that she spoke Russian with a distinct German accent.
“I am drunk on nothing but love,” the insolent fellow assured her, and in the same unnatural, whining voice he demanded: “Just one little kiss or I shall lay hands upon myself this instant!”
The girl cowered against the back of the bench and turned her pretty face toward her protectrice, who remained undismayed by the alarming nature of the situation and displayed perfect presence of mind. “Get avay from here zis instant! You are crayzee!” she cried, raising her voice and holding her knitting out in front of her with the needles protruding in bellicose fashion. “I call ze conshtable!”
Then something utterly fantastic happened.
“Ah! So I am rejected!” the young man squealed in counterfeit despair, covering his eyes theatrically with one hand and swiftly extracting from his inside pocket a small revolver of gleaming black steel. “What meaning has life for me after this? A single word from you and I live. A single word from you and I die where I stand!” he appealed to the young girl, who was sitting there herself more dead than alive. “You say nothing? Then farewell!”
The sight of a gentleman gesticulating with a gun could not fail to attract the attention of the promenading public. Several of those who happened to be close at hand—a stout lady holding a fan, a pompous gentleman with a cross of the Order of St. Anne hanging around his neck, two girls from boarding school in identical brown frocks with pelerines—froze on the spot, and some student or other even halted on the pavement on the far side of the railings. In short, there was reason to hope that the scandalous incident would rapidly be brought to a close.
What followed, however, occurred too rapidly for anyone to intervene.
“Here’s to luck!” cried the drunk—or, perhaps, the madman. Then he raised the hand holding the revolver high above his head, spun the cylinder, and set the muzzle to his temple.
“You clown! You motley buvfoon!” whispered the valiant German matron, demonstrating a quite respectable knowledge of colloquial Russian.
The young man’s face, already pale, turned gray and green by turns. He bit his lower lip and squeezed his eyes tight shut. The girl closed her eyes, too, just to be on the safe side.
It was as well she did so, for it spared her a horrendous sight. When the shot rang out, the suicide’s head was instantly jerked to one side and a thin fountain of red and white matter spurted from the exit wound just below his left ear.
The ensuing scene defies description. The German matron gazed around her indignantly as if calling on everyone to witness this unimaginable outrage, and then set up a bloodcurdling squealing, adding her voice to the screeching of the schoolgirls and the stout lady, who had been emitting piercing shrieks for several seconds. The young girl lay there in a dead swoon. She had half opened her eyes for barely an instant before immediately going limp. People came running up from every side, but it was all too much for the delicate nerves of the student who had been standing beyond the railings, and he took to his heels, fleeing across the roadway in the direction of Mokhovaya Street.
Xavier Feofilaktovich Grushin, detective superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police, sighed in relief as he set aside the summary report on the previous day’s serious crimes, adding it to the Out pile on his left. During the previous twenty-four hours nothing of any note that required the intervention of the Division had occurred in any of the twenty-four police precincts in this city of 600,000 inhabitants: there was one murder resulting from a drunken brawl between factory hands (the murderer was apprehended at the scene), two cabdrivers had been robbed (the local stations could take care of those), and 7,853 rubles had gone missing from the till at the Russo-Asian Bank (that was a matter for Anton Semyonovich at the commercial fraud department). Thank God they’d stopped sending Grushin’s department all those petty incidents of pickpocketing and maids who hanged themselves and abandoned infants; nowadays those all went into the Police Municipal Incidents Report that was distributed to the departments in the afternoons.
Xavier Grushin yawned comfortably and glanced over the top of his tortoiseshell pince-nez at Erast Petrovich Fandorin, clerk and civil servant fourteenth class, who was writing out the weekly report to His Excellency the chief of police for the third time. Never mind, thought Grushin. Let him get into neat habits early; he’ll be grateful for it later. The very idea of it—scraping away with a steel nib on a report for the top brass. Oh, no, my friend, you just take your time and do it the good old-fashioned way with a goose quill, with all the curlicues and flourishes. His Excellency was raised in Emperor Nicholas I’s day; he knows all about good order and respect for superiors.
Xavier Grushin genuinely wished the boy well and felt a fatherly concern for him, for there was no denying life had dealt hard with the novice clerk, leaving him an orphan at the tender age of nineteen years. He had known no mother since he was a young child, and his hothead of a father had squandered his entire estate on worthless projects and then given up the ghost. First he’d built up a fortune during the railway boom, and then he’d ruined himself in the banking boom. As soon as the commercial banks began going under the previous year, plenty of respectable people had found themselves out in the cold. The most reliable interest-bearing bonds were suddenly reduced to worthless trash, to nothing, and the retired Lieutenant Fandorin, who promptly departed this life under the blow, had left his only son nothing but a bundle of promissory notes. The boy should have finished his studies at the gymnasium and gone on to the university, but instead it was out of the parental halls and off into the streets with you to earn a crust of bread. Xavier Grushin snorted in commiseration. The orphan had passed the examination for collegiate registrar all right (that was no problem for such a well-brought-up lad), but what on earth could have made him want to join the police? He should have a post in the Office of Statistics or perhaps in the Department of Justice. His head was full of romantic nonsense and dreams of catching mysterious Caududals. But we don’t have any Caududals here, my dear chap. Xavier Grushin shook his head disapprovingly. We spend most of our time around here polishing the seats of our pants and writing reports about the petty bourgeois Pot- belly dispatching his lawful spouse and three little ones with an ax in a drunken fit.
The youthful Mr. Fandorin was only serving his third week in the Criminal Investigation Division, but as an experienced sleuth and a real old hand, Xavier Grushin could tell for certain that the boy would never make a go of it. He was too soft, too delicately raised. Once, during the first week, Grushin had taken him along to the scene of a crime (when the merchant’s wife Krupnova had her throat cut). Fandorin had taken one look at the dead woman, turned bright green, and gone creep- ing back all the way along the wall out into the yard. True enough, the merchant’s wife had not been a very appetizing sight—with her throat ripped open from ear to ear, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, and her eyes bulging out of her head—and then, of course, there was that pool of blood she was swimming in. Anyway, Xavier Grushin had been obliged to conduct the preliminary investigation and write the report himself. In all honesty, the case had proved simple enough. The caretaker Kuzykin’s eyes had been darting about so crazily in his head that Xavier Grushin had immediately ordered the constable to take him by the collar and stick him in the lockup. Kuzykin had been in there for two weeks now and he was still denying everything, but that was all right. He’d confess—there was no one else who could have slit the woman’s throat. In the thirty years he’d been working here Grushin had developed the nose of a bloodhound. And Fandorin would come in handy for the paperwork. He was conscientious; he wrote good Russian and knew foreign languages; he was quick on the uptake and pleasant company, unlike that wretched drunk Trofimov who’d been demoted last month from clerk to junior assistant police officer over at the Khitrovka slums—let him do his drinking and talk back to his superiors down there.
Grushin drummed his fingers in annoyance on the dreary standard-issue baize covering of his desk, took his watch out of his waistcoat pocket—oh, there was still a fair old spell to lunch!—and decisively pulled across the latest Moscow Gazette.
“Well now, what surprises have they got for us today?” he asked aloud, and the young clerk eagerly set aside his hateful goose-quill pen, knowing that the boss would start reading out the headlines and other bits and pieces and commenting on what he read. It was a little habit that Xavier Feofilaktovich Grushin had.
“Take a look at that now, young Mr. Fandorin, right up there on the front page, where you can’t possibly miss it!
The latest American corset
constructed from the most durable of whalebone
for a truly manly figure
An inch-thin waist and yard-wide shoulders!
“And yard-high letters to suit. And way down here in tiny little print we have:
The Emperor departs for Ems
“But of course, how could the person of the emperor possibly rival the importance of ‘Lord Byron’!”
Xavier Grushin’s entirely good-natured grousing produced a quite remarkable effect on the young clerk. He became inexplicably embarrassed; his cheeks flushed bright red, and his long, girlish eyelashes fluttered guiltily. While we are on the subject of eyelashes, it would seem appropriate at this point to describe Erast Fandorin’s appearance in somewhat greater detail, since he is destined to play a pivotal role in the astounding and terrible events that will shortly unfold. He was a most comely youth with black hair (in which he took a secret pride) and blue eyes (ah, if only they had also been black!), rather tall, with a pale complexion and a confounded, ineradicable ruddy bloom on his cheeks. We can also reveal the reason for the young collegiate registrar’s sudden discomfiture. Only two days previously he had expended a third of his first monthly salary on the very corset described in such vivid and glowing terms and was actually wearing his Lord Byron for the second day, enduring exquisite suffering in the name of beauty. Now he suspected—entirely without justification—that the perspicacious Xavier Grushin had divined the origin of his subordinate’s Herculean bearing and wished to make him an object of fun.
Grushin, however, was already continuing with his reading.
Turkish Bashi-Bazouk atrocities in Bulgaria
“Well, that’s not for reading just before lunch. . . .
Explosion in Ligovka
Our St. Petersburg correspondent informs us that yesterday at six-thirty in the morning a thunderous explosion occurred at the rental apartment house of Commercial Counselor Vartanov on Znamenskaya Street, completely devastating the apartment on the fourth floor. Upon arrival at the scene the police discovered the remains of a young man, mutilated beyond recognition. The apartment was rented by a certain Mr. P., a private lecturer at the university, and it was apparently his body that was discovered. To judge from the appearance of the lodgings, something in the nature of a secret chemical laboratory had been installed there. The officer in charge of the investigation, Counselor of State Brilling, conjectures that the apartment was being used to manufacture infernal devices for an organization of nihilist terrorists. The investigation is continuing.
“Well, now, thanks be to God our Moscow’s not Peter!”
Judging from the gleam in his eyes, the youthful Mr. Fandorin would have begged to differ on that score. Indeed, every aspect of his appearance was eloquently expressive of the idea that in the real capital people have serious work to do, tracking down terrorist bombers, not writing out ten times over papers which, if truth were told, contain nothing of the slightest interest in any case.
“Right, then,” said Xavier Grushin, rustling his newspaper. “Let’s see what we have on the city page.
First Moscow Astair House
The well-known English philanthropist Baroness Astair, through whose zealous and unremitting efforts the model refuges for boy orphans known as Astair Houses have been established in various countries of the world, has notified our correspondent that the first institution of such a type has now opened its doors in our own golden-domed city. Lady Astair, having commenced her activities in Russia only last year, and having already opened an Astair House in St. Petersburg, has decided to extend her support and assistance to the orphans of Moscow . . .
“Mmmm . . . ‘The heartfelt gratitude of all Muscovites . . .’ Where are our own Russian Owens and Astairs? . . . All right, enough of that. God bless all the orphans. . . . Now, what have we here?
A cynical escapade
“Hmm, this is curious:
Yesterday the Alexander Gardens were the scene of a sad in- cident only too distinctly typical of the cynical outlook and man- ners of modern youth, when Mr. N., a handsome young fellow of twenty-three, a student at Moscow University, and the sole heir to a fortune of millions, shot himself dead in full view of the promenading public.
According to the testimony of eyewitnesses, before committing this reckless act, N. swaggered and boasted to the onlookers, brandishing a revolver in the air. The eyewitnesses at first took his behavior for mere drunken bravado. N., however, was in earnest and he proceeded to shoot himself through the head, expiring on the spot. From a note of outrageously atheistic import which was discovered in the pocket of the suicide, it is apparent that N.’s action was not merely the outcome of some momentary impulse or a consequence of delirium tremens. It would appear that the fashionable epidemic of pointless suicides, which had thus far remained the scourge of Petropolis, has finally spread to the walls of Old Mother Moscow. O tempora, o mores! To what depths of unbelief and nihilism have our gilded youth descended if they would make a vulgar spectacle even of their own deaths? If our homegrown Brutuses adopt such an attitude to their own lives, then how can we be surprised if they care not a brass kopek for the lives of other, incomparably more worthy individuals? How apropos in this connection are the words of that most venerable of authors, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, in his new book published in May, A Writer’s Journal: “Dear, good, honest people (for all of this is within you!), what realm is this into which you are withdrawing? What has made the dark silence of the grave so dear to you? Look, the spring sun is bright in the sky, the trees have spread their leaves, but you are weary before your life has even begun.”
Xavier Grushin sniffed with feeling and cast a strict sideways glance at his young assistant in case he might have noticed, then continued speaking in a distinctly cooler voice. “Well, and so on and so forth. But the times really don’t have anything at all to do with it. There’s nothing new to all of this. We’ve had a saying for these types in the land of Rus since ancient times: ‘Just don’t know when they’re well off.’ A fortune of millions? Now who might that be? And see what scoundrels our precinct chiefs are—they put all sorts of rubbish in their reports, but they haven’t bothered to include this. So much for their summary of municipal incidents! But then I suppose it’s an open-and-shut case: he shot himself in front of witnesses. . . . All the same, it’s a curious business. The Alexander Gardens. That’ll be the City Precinct, second station. I’ll tell you what, young Mr. Fandorin, as a personal favor to me, get yourself smartly across there to Mokhovaya Street. Tell them it’s for purposes of observation and what have you. Find out who this N. was. And most important of all, my dear young fellow, be sure to make a copy of that farewell note. I’ll show it to my Yevdokia Andreevna this evening—she has a fondness for such sentimental stuff. And don’t you keep me waiting either—get yourself back here as quick as you can.”
Xavier Grushin’s final words were already addressed to the back of the young collegiate registrar, who was in such great haste to forsake his dreary oilcloth-covered desk that he nearly forgot his peaked cap.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin. Copyright © 2003 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.