"I hear that Alexis, Bishop of Kazan, has turned your enemy, and has written to the Holy Synod regarding your questionable monastery at Pokrovsky," remarked Theophanus. "It is very regrettable."
"Bah! my dear friend. I have no fear," declared the man whose vanity was so overweening. "Soon you will see that Nicholas himself will do my bidding. I shall play the tune, and he will dance. All appointments will, ere long, be in my hands, and I will place one of our friends as Procurator of the Holy Synod."
At the moment I was inclined to laugh at such bombastic assertion. Little, indeed, did I dream that within twelve months his prophecy would be fulfilled, and that the ex-horse-stealer, whose secretary I had become, would actually rule Russia through the lethargic weakling who sat upon the throne as Tsar Nicholas II.
A week later I accompanied the Starets to have his first audience with His Majesty the Emperor at the Palace of Peterhof, that wonderful Imperial residence where the great Samson Fountain in gilded bronze throws up from the lion's jaws a thick jet seventy feet high, in imitation of Versailles, and where nearly six hundred servants were employed in various capacities. We passed the Marly Pond, where the carp were called by the ringing of a bell, and the Marly Cascade, where water runs over twenty gilded marble steps. Truly, the beauties of Peterhof were a revelation to the Starets and myself. On the previous day he had had audience of the Empress at Tsarskoe-Selo, but I had not been present, therefore I remained in ignorance of what had transpired. All I know is that he returned home and drank a whole bottle of champagne to himself, in full satisfaction—not that he cared for the wine, for his peasant taste favoured the fiery vodka.
On entering Peterhof we were met by the valet Tchernoff, who greeted Rasputin very warmly with some meaning words, and said:
"His Majesty is in his private cabinet expecting you. Come."
Another valet took our hats and overcoats, and then Tchernoff led us up a great flight of marble stairs, and on through nearly a dozen panelled rooms with historic portraits, much like those I had once passed through at Fontainebleau, until he entered the blue drawing-room, a great, old-fashioned, eighteenth-century apartment adorned by a number of magnificent pictures by Saltzmann.
Your British public have never truly realised the gorgeousness of the Palace at Peterhof, or the fact that in the Imperial service at the various residences there were no fewer than four thousand domestics, most of them useless and all uniformed. The "Arabys," imported especially from Abyssinia, and who wore fantastically embroidered blue and gold uniforms with a great crimson sash, and a kind of turban upon their heads, were simply well-paid puppets, who added pomp to the gorgeous salons, the doors of which they guarded.
As we passed through the great rooms on our way to the Tsar's private cabinet, a hundred servants and officials bowed to us, but Rasputin remained quite unimpressed. He was possessed of a most astounding intuition, and he knew that by his mystical practices, his mock piety, and by apparently ignoring the Imperial pair that success was assured.
At last we stood before the door of the autocrat's room, which Tchernoff threw open unceremoniously, when we were confronted by His Majesty, who wore a rough tweed shooting-suit, presenting anything but an Imperial figure. I had expected to see him in uniform, like the thousand and one pictures which purport to represent him, instead of which I found a very ordinary-looking, bearded man, with deep-set eyes, a wan countenance, and rather lank hair. He was square-built, a trifle below the medium height, and a man whom, had you passed him in the Nevski, you might have taken for a Jew tailor or a small tradesman. But the room itself was a beautiful one, like all the apartments in Peterhof, semicircular in shape, with a great bay window looking out upon the wonderful fountains, all of which were throwing up their jets, with a great vista of greenery beyond.
The Tsar bowed as the Starets, crossing himself, bestowed his blessing upon him. The owner of twenty palaces and seven hundred million acres of land turned his eyes to the carpet humbly as the mock saint uttered those words of incomprehensible jargon which half Russia believed to be inspired by the Divine will.
When Rasputin spoke His Majesty seemed cowed and thoughtful. Over his whole frame was written fear and exhaustion. His voice was hollow when he replied, and his glance was full of anticipation. At every gesture of the Starets he seemed startled.
Was it any wonder when one recollected, so many were the plots against the dynasty, that at the moment he had removed from Tsarskoe-Selo, where a gang of a thousand men were engaged in digging deep trenches around the palace because the Okhrana had got wind of a desperate plot to tunnel beneath the Imperial residence and blow it up together with its Imperial occupiers.
His Majesty addressed the Starets as "thee" and "thou."
"I know, Father, that thou art our guide and saviour," said the autocrat, when together we were seated in the window, Rasputin explaining that he always took me with him in order that I might take mental notes of conversations and decisions.
"Feodor is mute," he added. "And he is part of myself."
Then His Majesty referred to Rasputin's "miracles" which he had performed in Warsaw, Kiev, and other places, mere conjuring tricks which had held the peasants speechless in amazement.
"Theophanus has told us of them. Thou hast healed the sick and cured the lame," said His Majesty. "Truly, thou art greater in Russia than myself."
"Pardon, your Majesty," replied the impostor humbly, "I am but God's messenger, but thou art Tsar. It is not for me to exert authority, only to pray unceasingly for the Empire and for the well-being of its Imperial House. Theophanus hath, I hope, told thee that I seek no emoluments, no advancement, no favour, no honour; I am but the humble Starets—a pilgrim who hopes one day to see Mount Athos, there to retire in devotion."
"Theophanus has told me much," said the Emperor. "He has told me how at spiritualistic seances thou canst work thy will with our departed, and how at the house of our dear Stuermer not long ago thou didst obtain communication with the spirit of my dear father Alexander. Truly, thy powers are great, and we have need of thee. Why didst thou refuse to come to us even though the Empress sent thee so many commands?"
"Because, as I have replied to Her Majesty, I am no courtier. My work lies in the homes of the poor, not in the palaces."
"Ah, no," laughed the autocrat with good humour. "Thou art truly sent to us to save Russia. Thy place is here, in our own home."
I drew a long breath when I heard the Tsar pronounce those words, for they showed quite plainly the strong, invincible grip the impostor had, by posing with unconcern, already obtained upon the Imperial family and the Court.
The Starets crossed himself, and again bowed. I was amazed to witness the crass ignorance and astounding superstition displayed by the Emperor of Russia, whom all Europe believed to be a progressive, wideawake monarch. That he possessed a spiritualistic kink, as did also his German wife, was quite apparent. Any bogus medium or charlatan could easily impose upon him. A dozen men and women who, by their vagaries and pretended powers, had brought psychic studies into ridicule, had given seances before the Emperor, and had told him things which his crafty entourage had already paid them to "reveal."
On the night of the declaration of war with Japan, Kouropatkine brought to Peterhof the French medium Jules Verrier, who received a handsome fee for pretending to get into touch with the spirit of Peter the Great, who declared that Russia, in declaring war, had carried out his wishes. And Nicholas was at once in high glee, and mightily enthusiastic to know that his historic ancestor approved of his action.
The Imperial Court was full of frauds, traitors, and sycophants. In all of them Nicholas had the fullest confidence, while his wife was possessed of certain knowledge which sometimes caused her to discriminate.
The commonplace-looking man in tweeds, who was the entire reverse of one's idea of an Emperor, grew confidential, and it was plain that he was quite as much impressed by Grichka as the Empress had been, for throughout the audience the monk had used to the full his inexplicable hypnotic power.
"Our good Theophanus and Helidor favour us with their counsel, but, Father, thou hast our most complete confidence. I beg of thee to grant the Empress another interview to-morrow, for she is daily longing for counsel from thee. I will fix the audience. So, as our friend, please keep the appointment. But before we part I wish to grant to thee any request that thou mayest desire—any appointment or advancement of any friend. Speak, and thy wish shall be at once granted."
The monk reflected. It was, indeed, the moment of his first triumph.
"I have a young and extremely able friend named Protopopoff in the Ministry of the Interior," he replied. "He is a loyal son of Russia, and a pious believer. Cannot he be advanced?"
"He shall be. I will make a note of the name," and turning to his desk, he scribbled it upon the blotting-pad with a stubby pencil, repeating the words:
"Protopopoff—in the Ministry of the Interior."
And such was the manner in which the man who was the most audacious spy that Germany employed in Russia was placed in the path of advancement, subsequently in 1915 becoming Minister in his own Department, and betraying his country for German gold.
Truly, the Potsdam plot was rapidly maturing, and its amazing ramifications I intend to disclose.
THE MURDER OF STOLYPIN
WITHIN a fortnight of the mock monk's audience of the Tsar he found himself installed in a fine suite of rooms in the Palace at Tsarskoe-Selo, one apartment being assigned to myself as his secretary.
Rasputin's ascendancy over the Imperial couple became daily more marked. I was the onlooker of a very curious and clever game. Spiritualistic seances were held frequently, at which the Emperor and Empress assisted. In Petrograd the monk also continued the weekly receptions of his "disciples," chief among them being Madame Golovine and the Princess Paley. The Empress fell more and more beneath the evil influence of the Starets, for she felt convinced that his prayer had been answered by the birth of an heir.
To one man—even though of the Germanophile party—the intrusion of Rasputin into the Court circle caused great annoyance. That was Count Fredericks.
Madame Vyrubova one day told me that the count had that afternoon, in her presence, inquired of the Emperor:
"Who is this new Starets of whom everybody is talking?"
"Oh! merely a simple mujik whose prayers carry right to Heaven," was His Majesty's answer. "He is endowed with most sublime faith."
The count then warned the Tsar of the displeasure which Rasputin's presence at Court was creating on every hand, adding:
"There are rumours that he is a mere drunken libertine. Make inquiries for yourself of his doings in Petrograd."
"Well, my dear Count," laughed the Emperor carelessly, "better one Starets than ten hysterics."
This seemed to me to prove that Rasputin's presence often saved the Emperor from the hysterical outbursts of his wife.
Indeed, only the previous day the monk put about a story in Petrograd to account for the Empress's hysterical state. He started a rumour that Her Majesty was, against the advice of the Court physicians, following a system of German Entfettungscur, or cure for obesity, the result having been a complete breakdown of the nervous system.
Thus, by slow degrees, the artful monk ingratiated himself with the Imperial family, just as years ago, when a mere cabdriver, in his pre-saintly days, he happened to ingratiate himself with Alexis, Bishop of Kazan, who became greatly struck with him, and later pushed him forward as a holy man, yet for his trouble afterwards found himself swept away, and his successor appointed by Rasputin's own hand. The monk was relentless, overbearing, suspicious of any persons who did him a favour, and at the same time ready to lick the boots of Germany's War Lord.
The "Dark Forces" were now strenuously at work. Little did I enjoy the quiet of my own rooms in Petrograd. My "saintly" master was ever active holding conferences, often hourly, with Ministers of State, councillors, and the "disciples" of his own secret cult.
Very soon I noted that his closest friend was Stolypin, a good-looking man with beard and curled moustache, who was President of the Council of Ministers.
At that period Stolypin and the Emperor were inseparable. His Majesty gave him daily audiences, and sometimes, through Mademoiselle Zeneide Kamensky, the Empress's chief confidante, he had audience of Her Majesty.
I met Stolypin often. His Excellency was a bluff but elegant bureaucrat, who had succeeded Count Witte, a man of refinement, belonging to a very old boyar family. He was an excellent talker, and with his soft, engaging manners he could, when he wished, exercise a personal charm that always had a great effect upon his hearers. His Excellency's great virtue in the Emperor's eyes was that he never wearied him, and that was much in his favour; he always curtailed his business. Whatever he had to report to the Emperor was done quickly, without unnecessary comment, and the conference ended, they smoked together on terms of almost equality.
I beg the reader's pardon if I here digress for a moment. After Stolypin we had a well-meaning statesman as Prime Minister in Kokovtsov, who endeavoured to follow the same lines as his master. He was a talented and eloquent man, whom I often met, and who at first impressed the Tsar by his crystallised reports. But Emperor and Prime Minister had no personal attraction towards each other, as they should have if an empire is to progress. Nicholas never gave him his confidence.
Perhaps I may be permitted to reveal here a scene historic in the history of the Empire, being present with my master Rasputin in the Tsar's private cabinet. It was a very curious incident, and revealed much concerning the attitude of Nicholas towards the nation.
Kokovtsov, who had allowed Akimoff to be present—the latter, I believe, in eager anticipation of a triumph—read to the Emperor his new project for enlarging the Government monopoly system for the sale of vodka. This would have greatly increased the Government's exchequer, but would inevitably have ruined the people.
In the room Rasputin sat in his black robe and his big jewelled cross suspended by its chain, while I stood beside him.
The Emperor, with a cigarette in his mouth, sat in a big arm-chair at his desk, tracing circles and squares upon a sheet of paper, his habit when distracted. Now and then he scratched his head. He was attentive to the report, still drawing his circles, but making no comment, except that his lips relaxed in a faint smile.
Suddenly he turned to Rasputin and asked: "Well Father, what do you understand in all this?"
Kokovtsov ceased reading his project, and stood in wonder. Not a single item of the project had been criticised, no comment had been offered, therefore His Excellency naturally believed that his efforts were receiving approbation. Rasputin was silent.
Suddenly the Tsar rose from his chair with a sigh of weariness, and slowly selected a fresh cigarette from the big golden box upon his writing-table. Then he shook hands with Kokovtsov as a sign that the audience was at an end, and said:
"Really, my dear Excellency, I do not agree with your project at all. It is all utter rubbish, and will only lead the Empire into further difficulties. Surely Russia has sufficient alcohol!"
I watched the scene with wide-open eyes.
Poor Kokovtsov, so well meaning, bowed in assent and crumpled up before the Tsar of all the Russias. The blow was quite unexpected. When I left the Emperor's presence with Rasputin, the latter said:
"Well, my dear Feodor. The day of Kokovtsov is ended. One may be thankful for it, because it will mean less friction between the Emperor and the Empress."
Three days later His Majesty dismissed his Prime Minister, but gave him the title of Count. He had no son, therefore the distinction was a mere empty one.
With this digression, for which I hope I may be pardoned, I will return to Stolypin. The mystery of his assassination has always been carefully hushed-up by the Secret Police, but I here intend to lift the veil, and, at the risk of producing certain damning evidence, disclose the whole of the amazing and dastardly plot.
Few people know of it. Rasputin knew it, I know it, the Empress knows it, and a certain woman living in seclusion in London to-day knows it. But to the world the truth which I here write will, I venture to believe, come as a great surprise.
The cry "Land and Liberty" was being heard on every hand in the Empire. Peter Arkadievitch Stolypin, son of an aide-de-camp general of Alexander II., was in the zenith of his popularity. He had become a vermentchik, the traditional appellation applied to the favourite of the Emperor, and as such he loomed largely in the eyes of Europe. He had entered the public service as a youth, and had later on become governor of the province of Samara, where he had attracted the notice of Count Witte because of the drastic way in which he had suppressed some serious riots there. In due course he was called to Petrograd, where he was introduced to the Emperor, and later on the mantle of Count Witte had fallen upon him.
Though in high favour with the Emperor he was clever enough to court the good graces of Rasputin, knowing full well what supreme influence he wielded over the Imperial couple. For that reason I frequently had conversation with him both at Court and at the Poltavskaya. He was a man of complex nature. A lady-killer of the most elegant type, refined and determined, yet lurking in the corners of his nature was a tyrannical trait and a hardness of heart.
In Samara he had distinguished himself by various injustices to the population, and hundreds of innocent persons had, because they had been denounced by the agents-provocateurs of the secret police, been sent to prison or to Siberia by administrative order. At first there was a rivalry between him and General Trepoff in the Tsar's good graces, but Trepoff died, leaving Stolypin master of the situation.
Though Rasputin behaved graciously towards him and often dined at his table, he was in secret his enemy. So cleverly did the monk form and carry out his plot that to the last he never believed but that the holy man, who prayed so fervently for his success in the guidance of Russia, was his most devoted friend.
Many crimes have been committed in Russia beneath the shadow of the Black Wings, but perhaps none more ingenious than the one under notice.
The first I knew of the deep conspiracy was in the spring of 1911, by the visit one night to Rasputin's house in the Poltavskaya of a tall, fair-haired man named Hardt, whom I knew as a frequent visitor to the monk. He was a merchant in Petrograd and a man of considerable means, but, as I afterwards discovered, was an agent of Potsdam specially sent to Russia as the secret factotum of the Tsaritza. He was ever at her beck and call, and was the instrument by which she exchanged confidential correspondence with the Kaiser and other persons in Germany.
On that evening when Hardt called quite half-a-dozen of the sister-disciples were taking tea with the saint and gossiping, for each Thursday he would hold informal receptions, and with horrible blasphemy bestow upon the society women who attended his accursed blessing. The ladies there on that night were all of the most exclusive circle in Petrograd.
On Hardt's arrival the reception was cut short after he had whispered some words to the Starets, who made excuse that he had to leave to return to the palace.
Indeed, he went to the telephone at the farther end of the room and held a conversation with the Tsaritza's confidante, Mademoiselle Kamensky. None knew, however, that that private telephone by which the charlatan so impressed his visitors was merely a fake one, its wires not extending farther than the end of the garden.
Grichka sometimes when alone rehearsed those conversations, until he succeeded in producing a perfect series of answers which would strike the hearer as a most intimate conversation concerning either Emperor or Empress.
From the chatter upon the mock telephone the assembly concluded that his presence was required at the palace immediately, therefore they rose and retired, leaving the mysterious Hardt alone with us.
Instead of going to Tsarskoe-Selo we retired to the saint's little den, where we opened a bottle of champagne, of which we all three drank.
"Well, my friend Hardt?" asked the monk, flinging himself carelessly into his easy chair and unbuttoning his long black coat for comfort. "What has happened? You can, as you know, speak before our faithful Feodor," he added.
"I have waiting outside a young woman whom I want you to see," replied the German agent.
"Does she wish to enter our circle?" inquired the monk, adding with his usual avariciousness: "Has she money?"
"No—neither," was Hardt's reply. "She does not want to become one of your disciples; indeed, the less you say on that matter the better!"
"Then why should I trouble to see her?"
"I will tell you all after you have chatted with her. May Feodor invite her in? She is sitting in a droshky outside."
"If you wish," growled Rasputin. "But why all this mystery? I have much to do. I am due at Countess Ignatieff's—and am already late."
"Remain patient, I beg of you, Father," urged the German suavely. "I am acting upon instructions—from Number Seventy."
"From Number Seventy!" echoed the monk, instantly realising that Hardt, an agent of the German Secret Service, was carrying out some well-concealed and ingenious project. "Very well," he said. "I rely upon you not to delay me longer than necessary. Feodor," he added, turning to me with that lofty air which his low mujik mind sometimes conceived to be superiority, "go and find this mysterious young person."
A few minutes later I conducted into the saint's presence a dark-haired, extremely handsome young woman of about thirty, who spoke with considerable refinement and whose arrival mystified me greatly.
Hardt introduced her to the holy man, saying:
"This is Mademoiselle Vera Baltz, of Stavropol, a friend of His Excellency Peter Stolypin."
"Ah! Welcome, my dear mademoiselle," exclaimed the monk affably. "So you are a friend of His Excellency—when he was Governor of Samara, I suppose?"
"Yes. I have come here because I crave your assistance. Monsieur Hardt knows all the circumstances, and will explain."
The saint turned to the fair-haired man seated opposite him, Mademoiselle Baltz having been given an easy-chair close by Rasputin's table. It was a writing-table, but the scoundrel never wrote. Sometimes he pretended to do so, but the truth was that it was a long and painful procedure with him. He preferred to scrawl his initials to any typewritten letter which I prepared.
"The explanation is briefly this, Father," said Hardt in his businesslike way. "Mademoiselle has been the dupe of His Excellency, who, while Governor, often went to Stavropol, where he stayed at an hotel under another name. Mademoiselle never knew his identity until a year ago, when she saw his photograph in the papers as Prime Minister. She never knew that he was married—though I have here a letter in which he proposes marriage to her."
And he produced from his pocket a note, bearing the heading of the Centralnaya Hotel at Samara, which Rasputin read through.
"Well?" asked the Starets, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke from his bearded lips.
"Mademoiselle is anxious to meet His Excellency."
"Ah! I see," exclaimed the monk, whose mind at once turned to blackmail, a course which he himself was actively pursuing. "Mademoiselle wishes for money—eh?"
"No, Father," replied the young woman stoutly. "Not money—only justice! Peter Stolypin misled me, as you see according to his letter. I am but one of his many victims, and I desire to expose him."
"H'm!" grunted Rasputin, who, having ascertained that no monetary consideration was forthcoming, was not particularly interested in the affair. He never did anything without reward. Those who could pay him well obtained through his influence at Court high office and big emoluments. Within my own knowledge in at least twenty cases he was already receiving heavy percentages upon the salaries, including those of two bishops and three under-secretaries, who had been dug out from nowhere and pitchforked into office by him.
By his influence with Nicholas the rascal ruled Russia with a relentless recklessness unparalleled in all history.
"Mademoiselle has already had audience of Her Majesty, who has sent her here to interview you," Hardt explained. "I am placing her case in the hands of our friend Altschiller."
The latter was a well-known lawyer, who, by the way, was afterwards proved to be a spy of Austria.
"What do you desire of me, my dear young lady?" asked Rasputin in the paternal manner he so often assumed towards the fair sex who hung about the hem of his ragged robe, and knelt so constantly before him for his blessing.
"You, Father, are all-powerful in Russia," replied Vera Baltz. "Her Majesty told me that you would help me to—to destroy Stolypin," she said with a fierce expression in her black eyes.
Rasputin exchanged glances with the secret agent of Potsdam who, I knew, did so much dirty work on the Empress's behalf.
"What Her Majesty desires, I am here to obey," was the monk's quiet response. "I pray that no injustice be done," the blasphemer added, piously crossing himself.
"Injustice!" cried the girl angrily. "He deceived me, and left me to starve when he received his advancement and came here to Petrograd. He became the Tsar's favourite because of his cruel and harsh treatment of our poor people of Samara, and has climbed to office over the bodies of those shot down in the streets at his orders. Injustice! There is assuredly no injustice to drag the ghastly truth concerning him into the light of day."
"Not at all! I quite agree," said Rasputin, rising and shaking her hand. "You can tell your lawyer from me that you have my assistance, but in strictest secrecy, of course. Not a soul must know of it, remember!" he added, looking straight at her with that strange hypnotic glance of his, a gaze beneath which she quivered visibly.
"I shall remain silent," she promised.
"If the truth leaks out that you have seen either Her Majesty or myself, then I shall instantly become your enemy, and not your friend," the monk declared.
"Only Monsieur Hardt knows," the girl said. "It was he who took me to Peterhof."
"You may rely upon the silence of both my friends," Rasputin assured her, and a moment later I conducted her downstairs and out into the street.
When I returned to where Rasputin was still seated with his visitor, the latter was, I found, making explanation how he had, after considerable difficulty, traced the woman Baltz at the Empress's orders and taken her to the Palace, first, however, prompting her to seek revenge upon the Prime Minister.
"I cannot understand it at all," Hardt added.
"I do. Cannot you see that Stolypin is violently anti-German and openly disapproves of the Germanophile party at Court?"
"But he is closeted daily with the Emperor, I understand. And the Empress grants him frequent audiences."
"Because she is endeavouring to ascertain the true extent of His Excellency's knowledge of her own dealings with our friends in Berlin," was the monk's reply. "Alix pretends to be most gracious to him, yet she is distinctly antagonistic, more from fear than anything else. To-day he is a favourite at Court, to-morrow——"
And Grichka made a wide sweep with his dirty knotted hand without concluding his sentence.
"Has Her Majesty spoken to you concerning her fears that Stolypin has discovered something?" asked the man Hardt eagerly.
The monk grinned meaningly.
"Her Majesty is taking precautions," he replied evasively. "Possibly Stolypin has discovered the reason you travelled to Berlin a month ago. I have an idea that you were watched by the Okhrana."
"Do you really think so?" gasped the German in quick apprehension. "Why do you suspect?"
"From something whispered to me a week ago."
"Then Stolypin may know that Alexandra Feodorovna is behind the traitorous dealings of Colonel Miassoyedeff on the frontier—eh?"
Rasputin, his eyes fixed upon his visitor, slowly nodded in the affirmative.
"That means ruin—perhaps imprisonment for me!" Hardt gasped, his face pale and anxious.
"I might say the same thing," remarked the saint, stroking his long, untrimmed beard. "But I do not. We are both strong enough to resist all attacks. Any suspicion against Miassoyedeff must be removed. I will see that the Emperor promotes him to-morrow. Our one stumbling-block is Peter Stolypin."
"One that, I take it, must be removed?"
"Yes—at all costs. That is why the Empress has sought out this woman Baltz, who, if my estimate of her sex is correct, is a wild firebrand."
"She certainly is viciously vindictive."
"One thing is certain, our friend Stolypin has no idea that he is seated on the edge of a volcano," remarked the monk. "He lives extremely happily with his wife and children in that beautiful villa over on the Islands of the Apothecaries, and has no suspicion of the coming storm. I promised his wife to go to her salon to-morrow night."
"And will you go?"
"Of course. There must be no suspicion. Are we not, all of us, his best friends?" asked the monk, grinning evilly.
"I am returning to Berlin by way of Stockholm on Thursday," Hardt said, for he gave as the reason for his frequent visits to Germany and Scandinavia that he bought leather in those countries. "Have you anything to report?"
"Yes. One or two things," replied the Starets, who ordered me to write at his dictation as follows:
"FROM GREGORY TO NUMBER SEVENTY.
"Have acted upon your instructions regarding the Kahovsky affair. Some important correspondence was seized by the police at his arrest, and for two days matters looked extremely unpromising. I paid T. twenty thousand roubles to close his lips, and induced the Emperor to release Kahovsky and restore his papers. I suggest that he should be recalled from Russia and sent to London, where, being unknown, he might be extremely useful to you.
"Madame Zlobine is at the Adlon Hotel in your city. She has quarrelled with the General, and strict watch should be kept upon her. She has been heard to express very decided views against Her Majesty. It may be found that she is in communication with J. If so, it is in the interests of Stolypin's anti-German campaign!
"Hardt will explain verbally the position of the latter, and the discovery of the woman Baltz. Meanwhile His Excellency is unsuspicious that we are aware of his hostile intentions towards us.
"Please do me the favour to assure His Majesty the Emperor of my continued efforts in the service of Alexandra Feodorovna, even though matters are daily growing more complicated. Anna [Madame Vyrubova], moreover, is more difficult to please.
"Both Stuermer and Protopopoff are under my protection, and I have already contrived to advance them. Kokovtsov is growing in favour and will be a force to be reckoned with in the immediate future. Urge Miassoyedeff, from your side, to exercise the greatest caution. There are whispers, but I have endeavoured to stifle them by contriving his advancement through the Emperor, who yesterday decorated him.
"The Imperial pair will shortly visit the Danish and Swedish Courts, and probably go for a cruise in Norwegian waters, though there is, as yet, no announcement.
"I am still working upon the project you set out when we met in Helsingfors two months ago regarding the reduction and weakening of the army. I have already initiated the matter through ladies whose husbands are in the Ministry of War. It will mean the expenditure of a considerable sum of your money, but I know it will be a mere bagatelle if your object is accomplished.
"I have to acknowledge a payment of one hundred thousand roubles into the Azof Bank from an unknown source. Please remember that S. in Paris and J. in Rome are making big claims upon me, and that next month I must receive a similar sum.
"Hardt has told me that matters are progressing well at Carlton House Terrace, and also in Paris. Of that I am glad to hear. Let our next meeting be at the Phoenix Hotel in Abo, where I am unknown, and which you can reach without notice. At present I dare not leave Russia, as Her Majesty will not hear of it.
"It would be as well to make the next payment through the Aktiebank in Abo. They would not suspect.
"Do not fail to impress upon both Sukhomlinoff and Miassoyedeff the necessity for the utmost caution. Till we meet."
When I had typed this at his dictation I handed it to him, and he managed painfully to append his illiterate signature.
Then I placed the sheets in an envelope and gave them to Hardt to convey in secret to the headquarters of the German Secret Service in the Koeniggraetzerstrasse in Berlin.
"And, friend Hardt," Rasputin said, as the Kaiser's emissary placed the letter carefully in his wallet, "please impress upon Number Seventy what I have said about money. All this costs much. Tell him that sometimes when inordinate demands are made upon me—as you know they are often are—I have to use my own funds in order to satisfy them. Smith in London receives unlimited funds through the Deutsche Bank, I know, so please tell our friend from me that I expect similar treatment in future."
The Starets was one of the most far-seeing and mercenary scoundrels. He had accounts in different names in half-a-dozen banks in Petrograd and Moscow, into which he constantly made payments as the result of his widespread campaign of espionage and the blackmailing of silly women who fell beneath his uncanny spell.
When Hardt had left, the saint opened another bottle of champagne and drank it all from a tumbler, afterwards consuming half a bottle of brandy. I was busy with three days' accumulation of letters, and did not notice it until, an hour later, I found him dead asleep on the floor of the dining-room—a pretty spectacle if presented to the millions of our patriotic Russians who believed in the Tsar as their "Father" and in the divinity of the "holy man" who directed the Empire's affairs.
The saint filled me with increasing disgust, yet I confess I had become fascinated by the widespread and desperate conspiracies which he either engineered himself or of which he pulled the most important strings.
In the plot against Stolypin, though none dreamed of it, he had been the most active agent. Stolypin, a purely honest and loyal Russian, who, on taking office as Prime Minister, was actuated by a firm determination to do his level best for the Empire, was an unwanted statesman. He was too honest, and, therefore, dangerous to the Court camarilla set up and paid by Potsdam.
As the days passed the monk frequently referred to him as a thorn in the side of the Empress.
"The fellow must be got rid of!" he declared to me more than once. "He suspects a lot, and he knows too much. He is dangerous to us, Feodor—very dangerous!"
One night, when we were together in his room at Tsarskoe-Selo, after he had been dining en famille with the Imperial family, he remarked:
"Things are going well. I saw the lawyer Altschiller to-day. All is prepared for the coup against Stolypin, who is still ignorant that Vera Baltz is in Petrograd."
I knew Altschiller, who often called at the Poltavskaya. He was a close friend of Monsieur Raeff, whom Rasputin, when all-powerful a little later on, actually appointed as Procurator of the Holy Synod, having placed the appointment upon the Emperor's desk to sign!
The law case was, however, delayed. Hardt was on one of his frequent absences—in Germany, no doubt—and matters did not move so rapidly as to satisfy the Empress. The whole plot was to keep the Prime Minister in the dark until the moment when the skeleton of his past should be dragged from its cupboard.
As announced by Rasputin, the Emperor and Empress had visited Denmark and Norway on board the Standart, and were back again at Peterhof, when one day Rasputin received his friend Boris Stuermer, the bureaucrat, at that time struggling strenuously for advancement. In the monk's den Stuermer, chatting about Stolypin and the vindictive woman who had come to Petrograd to destroy him—for he was one of the paid servants of Potsdam, and in consequence knew most of the secrets—said:
"Have you, Father, ever met a Jew named Bagrov?"
"Never to my knowledge. Why?"
"Because I know from my friend Venikoff, one of the assistant-directors of Secret Police, that the man, a discharged agent-provocateur and incensed at the way he has been treated by Stolypin, has joined forces with some mysterious young woman named Baltz. There is a whisper that between them they are engineering a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister!"
Rasputin's strange eyes met mine. Both of us knew more than this struggling sycophant.
"Bagrov?" the saint repeated. "Who is he?"
"Oh! A fellow who was assistant to Azeff in some disgraceful matters in Warsaw—an agent-provocateur who lived afterwards for some time in Paris and on the Riviera. He attributes his downfall to Stolypin, and hence is most bitter against him. He has, I hear, fallen in love with the woman Baltz, who hails from Samara."
"Well?" asked the saint.
"Well?—nothing," laughed the man with the goat-beard. "I simply tell you what I know. There is a plot—that is all! And as far as I can discern the swifter Stolypin leaves the Court, the easier it will be for Her Majesty and ourselves—eh? While Stolypin is daily with the Emperor there is hourly danger for us."
"In that I certainly agree," declared Rasputin. "We must be watchful—very watchful."
We remained alert—all of us. That same night Rasputin informed the Empress of the secret plot of the black-haired Vera and her lover Bagrov.
The Court left for the Crimea next day, and Rasputin travelled with the Imperial family. Stolypin, in ignorance of what was in progress, was of the party, I being left in Petrograd to follow three days later.
On arrival at Kiev, where the Emperor had arranged to review the troops, a gala performance was held in the theatre that night. Opposite the Imperial box sat Stolypin, with two other high officials of the Court, when, during the entr'acte, a man dashed in, and in full view of the Emperor and Empress fired a revolver at the Prime Minister.
The confusion this caused was terrible. Her Majesty fainted and was dragged out of the box by Mademoiselle Kamensky, while the Tsar swiftly jumped to his feet and regarded the scene calmly.
"I'm done!" gasped the patriotic and honest Stolypin, as those present seized the assassin, who was none other than the ex-agent-provocateur Bagrov.
Six hours later the Prime Minister breathed his last, a victim of the Empress and her Potsdam camarilla, while Vera Baltz fled to Switzerland.
Rasputin afterwards told me that he urged the Court to leave Kiev at once, adding:
"It was far best for Alix and Nicholas to pretend horror of the tragedy than to offer condolences."
And so ended another chapter of Russia's underground history.
THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE
THE murder of Stolypin, though unsuspected by the chancelleries of Europe, was, as I have explained, the work of the Hidden Hand of Germany. Stolypin had suspected the true state of affairs at the Russian Court, therefore the success of Germany in the coming war depended upon closing his mouth; so Potsdam, using the erotic monk Rasputin as its catspaw, effected a coup which had, alas! sad result to Holy Russia.
Stolypin was but one of many persons of both sexes who, because they knew too much of Germany's secret propaganda in Russia, fell victims in those constant conspiracies whereby they were swept either into the net of the corrupt police or into their graves.
As servant of the head of Russia's "Dark Forces"—as Rasputin and Protopopoff were afterwards denounced in the Duma—I was compelled to be ever at the saint's elbow; hence I saw and heard much that was astounding.
One night, a few months after Stolypin's assassination, we had been bidden to dinner by the great Polish landowner Ivan Volkhovski, who had a beautiful villa outside Petrograd. There I met a smart, middle-aged Russian officer, who, over our champagne, declared to me that things were growing critical in Europe over the Balkan question, but that France and Russia were united against any attack that Germany might secretly engineer.
"Then you think that war is really coming?" I asked him in surprise.
"Think!" he echoed. "You are a cosmopolitan, surely! Don't you know? Are you really blind?"
"Well, I am blind politically," I replied with a wink. "I see that on all sides people are getting rich quickly and receiving ironmongery—as I call the tin decorations from the Sovereign—as reward for closing their eyes to the true facts."
"Ah! I see that you are quite wideawake, my dear Rajevski," said the officer, whose name was Colonel Dubassoff. "Our friends here in Petrograd will continue to remain asleep, for they have every incentive, thanks to the great pro-German propaganda and the generous distribution of German gold. To-day our enemies in Berlin have their hands outstretched and clutching upon Paris, New York, Rome and London, just as they have here in Petrograd. War must come—depend upon it. The English Lord Roberts has forecast it. He knows!"
"Then you believe that Germany is at work actively arming in preparation for war?"
"Most certainly I do," replied the colonel. "Only a month ago I was in London and afterwards in Paris. In London the authorities are not so entirely asleep as we are in Russia."
Suddenly, as he spoke, I noticed that Rasputin, who was in whispered conversation with Bishop Theophanus, a fellow-guest, had been listening very attentively.
Two hours later, when I returned home with Rasputin, he ordered me to sit down and write a note, which the scoundrel dictated as follows:
"Please listen to N.N. Colonel Paul Dubassoff, of the Preobrajensky Regiment, has expressed in my presence to-night disloyalty to the Sovereign, and he is a serious danger to the State. He should be suppressed."
To this lie the monk scrawled his initials, and next morning the letter was sent to the Chief of the Secret Police. Within twelve hours the unfortunate colonel who had dared to pronounce his opinion concerning Germany's activities was already lodged in the fortress of Peter and Paul, where, I believe, he remained until the Revolution of 1917.
At that moment, however, the German propaganda in Russia found itself in an extremely critical state. By Stolypin's murder a new difficulty had arisen. All the colleagues of the late Prime Minister believed themselves entitled to become his successor, and as each had his own particular circle of friends, each naturally pulled all the political wires possible. Intrigues arose on every hand, and though everybody realised the personal danger of anybody appointed to the dead man's position, yet ambition was apparent everywhere.
The Empress, who had now returned from her fateful journey to the Crimea, was in daily consultation with the monk, it being their intention to obtain the appointment of some hard-up Minister who, by being well paid with German gold, would remain inert and keep his mouth closed regarding the world-plot in progress. Being at Tsarskoe-Selo, and conducting the Starets's correspondence, I know how deep was the intrigue to keep out and discredit the Minister of Finance, Vladimir Nicholaievitch Kokovtsov, who was known to be the only strong man who could succeed Stolypin.
The whole machinery of the pro-German propaganda had been set to work from Berlin to prevent the mantle of Stolypin falling upon Kokovtsov. Yet one afternoon, while I sat writing at Rasputin's dictation in his elegant sitting-room in the palace of Tsarskoe-Selo, the Empress, who was dressed ready to go for her daily drive, burst angrily in, saying:
"Nikki has just appointed that hateful money-grubber Kokovtsov! I tried all I could to prevent it, Father. But I have failed!"
Rasputin smiled at her words, and with that sinister calmness that characterised him in moments of chagrin, he replied:
"Pray do not distress thyself, O lady! Kokovtsov will assuredly not be long in office when the hand of Gregory is lifted against him."
"He must not remain long. He may get to know too much, as others have done. In Berlin his appointment will give the greatest offence," she said.
"I will ask the Almighty's intercession, for I see, O lady, that thou art nervous and unstrung. Compose thyself, I beg of thee. All will be well," and the "healer" crossed himself piously.
Truly, the condition of our dear land was in parlous state. A vogue for asceticism had sprung up, just as other vogues have become popular in other European countries.
As head of this circle of ascetic followers the monk had, with the connivance of Badmayev the herbalist, invented an expedient to deaden the flesh so as to render it benumbed as with cocaine. Hundreds of weak-minded women were flocking about him. Some of them were wives and daughters of the wealthy manufacturing class, but most were of the high aristocracy, who all regarded my employer as the Saviour of Russia, sent by Heaven to reform and deliver the "Holy" land from the toils of unrest and desolation.
We Russians are always idealists. That is our curse. Our religion is, unfortunately, an obsession, for any drunken scoundrel can become a "holy man" by simply making such declaration, and ever afterwards "sponging" upon his neighbours. Rasputin was but an example of this.
After all, it was but natural that, with the bevy of female devotees ever at his knees, he should attract the gossip of the scandalmongers. Much, indeed, of what they said was true, for I happen to know that personally.
But on that day at Tsarskoe-Selo I noted the Empress's agitation that Kokovtsov had been appointed, and began to suspect that the camarilla would take drastic action in order to defeat him. Indeed, when the Empress had left the room, Rasputin grew thoughtful in turn, and stroked his unkempt beard as he paced the floor, saying:
"Ah, Feodor! We must crush this jackanapes. I must see what we can do."
Weeks went by. The usual meetings of the monk's "sister-disciples" were held at the house in the Poltavskaya, and often in the presence of a stranger or a female novice about to be admitted to the cult he pretended to speak to Alexandra Feodorovna over his mock telephone.
Every action of the monk was that of an arrogant and erotic swindler. His intelligence was, however, extremely perceptive, and he was not wanting in finesse of the mujik order, combined with a sense of foresight that was utterly amazing. These, with his suave manner, his affectation of deepest piety, and his wonderful fascination over women of every age and every class, had now brought him to the position of the power behind the Throne.
He already ruled Russia. Tsar and Tsaritza were his puppets, so cleverly did he play his cards, yet as he frequently remarked to me in the weeks that followed:
"Kokovtsov is against me. We are enemies. He must go."
I knew that if the Premier had an enemy in Grichka, then the statesman was doomed.
Now, the plot which Rasputin formed against the new Prime Minister was an extremely clever and subtle one.
While it was being carried out I often met Vladimir Nicholaievitch, who was naturally compelled to curry favour with the Father, and consequently sometimes visited him even against his inclination, no doubt. He was a long, rather narrow-faced, bearded man, with a pair of deep-set eyes and a secretive air, subtle by temperament, and keenly alive to his own interests as well as those of the Empire.
His one sin in the eyes of Alexandra Feodorovna was that he hated Germany.
"He once lost money in a German financial concern," Rasputin declared to me one day with a laugh. "That is why he cannot bear the Germans."
The Premier, risen from the middle-class, was a dandy who never looked one in the face, and whose eyes were ever upon his own clothes, as though expecting to find specks of dust upon them. He was always immaculately dressed, and his newly-acquired manners were so perfect that I often wondered if he carried a book of etiquette in his pocket.
My own estimate of him was that he was too neat, too well groomed, too civil, too bowing, and too anxious not to forget what he should say at the right moment. In a word, he was an elegant who had suddenly entered the Court entourage, in which there was no place for him.
The Tsar had no affection for him, and had merely appointed him because he believed that he might worry him less than others whose names and abilities had been put forward.
Poor Kokovtsov! He was in complete ignorance of the clever plot which Rasputin, at the Empress's suggestion, was engineering against his patriotic activities. Germany intended to rule Russia in the near future, and woe betide any statesman who would not remain inert and be spoon-fed by Teutonic propaganda, or place in his pocket the German marks held out so temptingly to him. In that way lay advancement, emoluments, decorations, and the Tsar's favour. To be Russian was, alas! to court disaster and ignominy.
Monsieur Kokovtsov was typically a good Russian. He had no fighting spirit, but was essentially a man of peace, entertaining a horror of bloodshed or of sanguinary deeds. His placid temper caused him to avoid all questions in dispute. He was prepared to do all possible to benefit our country. He had cleverly conducted the election campaign, and had all the governors of each province with him. The Emperor trusted him; the Empress hated him.
Besides, Kokovtsov was a worker. He did not believe in that favourite expression among Russians, "nechevo," which really means "nothing," but is equivalent to "don't bother" or "don't worry." In Russia we unfortunately always have a "zarftra," or to-morrow. For that reason he was disliked also by the people.
It was not many months after his appointment when one night, at the Poltavskaya, Rasputin received a visit from General Rogogin, the Director of the Black Cabinet, the cabinet noir, the existence of which was rigorously kept secret until the Revolution afforded the public a glimpse of Russia behind the scenes.
Even from the tribune of the Duma it was declared that the Black Cabinet was a fiction. Yet I happened to know that it existed, for later that evening I accompanied Rasputin and the Director to the General Post Office, where in three rooms on the second floor of the building the mysterious department, where correspondence was opened and read, was situated. Here was the most secret establishment of the Imperial Police. For over a hundred years had this mysterious department been at work examining the letters of all classes of people whose thoughts or doings could be of interest to the Tsar, his Minister of the Interior, or the Okhrana. Indeed, I learned from the general's conversation with the monk—I first having taken an oath never to divulge anything of what I saw or heard—that even the correspondence of the Tsar, his relatives, or friends was not immune from examination.
Then I instantly realised the reason that the Tsaritza and Rasputin, in communicating with their friends in Germany, sent their letters by hand.
On the night in question I stood watching with interest how letters for secret examination were taken from a lift which passed up and down from the sorting-rooms above to the distributing room below. The basket was taken off the lift during its slow descent, and another basket substituted containing letters already examined, so quickly that the man in charge of the lift below noticed nothing.
We saw several processes of opening letters by steaming them, first taking an impression in plaster of any seal, and also by cutting off the end of the envelope by means of a small guillotine. The letters were dexterously opened, photographed, replaced in their respective envelopes, refastened and new seals made, or in other cases the ends of the cut envelopes were resealed by means of paper pulp to match the colour of the envelope, and placed under pressure in a hot press, thus actually remaking the paper!
The watchman of this secret chamber was an illiterate, deaf and dumb peasant.
"Each functionary on being first admitted here," said Rogogin, "is compelled to take a solemn oath never to divulge its existence to a living soul—not to his wife, father, sister, brother, or dearest friend."
All was remarkable, a spying system of which I had never dreamed.
When we entered the Director's well-furnished private room and the door was closed, Rogogin took from a locker drawer a letter which he handed to the monk, saying:
"Here is the letter of which I spoke; if I hold it back it may arouse suspicion."
Rasputin, who could only read with difficulty, looked at the letter, and then, handing it to me with that lofty air he assumed in the belief that he could conceal his ignorance, said:
"Feodor, read it to me."
It was on grey paper, and was as follows:
"IMPERIAL RUSSIAN EMBASSY, "UNTER DEN LINDEN, 7. "June 8th. "Secret.
"YOUR EXCELLENCY,—In accordance with your instructions I beg to report confidentially as follows: On arrival here I presented my credentials of His Excellency our Ambassador, and in consequence was allowed to conduct a confidential inquiry among the staff of the Embassy, and in other quarters, in which I have been actively assisted with excellent results by P. Ostrovski, agent of the Okhrana in Berlin, whom I recommend for advancement.
"My discoveries are several, and of an interesting nature. First, a person named Hardt, who is often resident in Petrograd, is the secret courier of the Empress between Potsdam and Tsarskoe-Selo. Secondly, a sum of one hundred thousand marks was paid by the Dresdner Bank on March 11th last to the account of one Boris Stuermer, who has an account in Riga at the Disconto Gesellschaft. Thirdly, the Emperor William on April 2nd gave audience in secret at the Berlin Schloss to M. Protopopoff, for which no reason can be assigned. Fourthly, I have learned on the best authority that if Herr Hardt were arrested on any of his journeys to Sweden or Germany, some highly interesting private correspondence would be found upon him. Fifthly, there is no doubt whatever that the monk Rasputin is in receipt of money from this city, as I have in my possession a receipt given by him for two hundred thousand roubles paid him by the Deutsche Bank, and this I am bringing with me on my return.
"Further, I have documentary evidence of a widespread German intrigue in Russia, facts which will, I feel confident, amaze your Excellency. When I return I shall place in your hands weapons by which the enemy may be combated. I hesitate to send any documents through the post in case they miscarry, and I am addressing this letter to Mademoiselle Pauline, as your Excellency suggested.
"I have yet some further inquiries to make on your Excellency's behalf, but I intend to leave Berlin in any case on the twenty-second. I have the honour to remain, your Excellency's obedient servant, IVAN BOTKINE."
The monk listened attentively, his big, strange eyes wearing a sly, crafty expression. He fingered the jewelled cross suspended from his neck—a habit of his.
"Ah! So Botkine leaves Berlin on the twenty-second. It is well that we know this, my dear Rogogin—eh?"
"Yes," laughed the traitorous general. "He must not reach Russia."
"Of course not," agreed the monk. "We must obtain possession of this documentary evidence that he will carry upon him. Who is he?"
"Botkine is a confidential agent in Kokovtsov's employ," was the Director's reply. "He was, I find, assistant-director of police in Nijni before the Minister was appointed, and is now in His Excellency's private service."
"Well, it is excellent that by your astuteness, my dear General, we are forewarned. If not, there might very easily have resulted a serious contretemps—eh?"
"And who is this Mademoiselle Pauline?" asked Rasputin, his clever criminal brain already at work to defeat a revelation of the truth.
"Pauline Lahure, the little French dancer at the Villa Rode."
"Lahure!" cried Rasputin. "I know her, of course, a music-hall artiste. She has been lately taken up by the old Countess Bronevski. She was at my house only a fortnight ago, and wanted to become a 'sister'!"
"As spy of Kokovtsov—eh?"
"Without a doubt," I chimed in. "From all I hear His Excellency is a gay dog."
"True, my dear Feodor," remarked the monk, fingering the cross nervously, and then taking a cigarette which the general offered him. "But had not our friend Rogogin been on the alert and opened the dainty dancer's letters, what a trap we should have fallen into—not only ourselves, but the Empress also! Vladimir would have presented the documents to the Emperor, and an unholy domestic scene would have resulted. This fellow Botkine must never reach Russia!" he added seriously.
"I agree," replied the general. "Let us see Gutchkoff at once," he added. General Gutchkoff was a Jew and the director of the dreaded political police, with whom Rogogin, of course, worked hand-in-glove.
It was then nearly eleven o'clock at night, but we all three drove to General Gutchkoff's house in the Spaskaya. He was out, his man informed us.
"I must see him at once," said the monk loftily. "Where is he?"
"He went out to dinner, Holy Father, and he is probably now at the Krestovsky or at the Bouffes."
"Go at once and find him," said the monk. "It is a matter of extreme urgency, and we will await him here."
Thus ordered by Gregory Rasputin—who was all-powerful in the capital—the general's servant ushered us into a cosy little salon, placed a box of cigarettes and some liqueurs before us, and then himself left in a droshky to find his master, who was so well known in Petrograd as a bon viveur.
For half an hour Rasputin, much worried by the secret inquiries of the Premier into the doings of the pro-German camarilla, chatted with the general, more than once expressing fear regarding the perilous situation.
"Revelations seem imminent," he exclaimed anxiously. "The man Botkine must never arrive in Russia—you understand that, Rogogin!"
"I quite agree," said the Director of the Black Cabinet. "But Gutchkoff must see to it. I have done my part in the affair."
"You have done excellently, my dear friend—most excellently," declared the monk. "Nothing could have been better. I will mention your great services to the Empress. Yes, we must rely upon Gutchkoff."
In half an hour the servant returned with his master, the head of the political police, a short, fat man in general's uniform, with decorations, who, when he entered the room, betrayed unmistakable signs of having dined well. Indeed, he had been unearthed from a midnight carouse at a questionable restaurant.
At sight of Rasputin, a power to be reckoned with and a person of whom even the greatest in the land craved favours, he pulled himself together and cast himself into a chair to listen.
The monk was clever enough not to enlighten the Police Director regarding the plot to upset Kokovtsov's undue inquisitiveness. He merely told him that a certain secret agent named Botkine was leaving Berlin for Petrograd on the twenty-second.
"The man is dangerous," he added, "extremely dangerous."
"Why?" asked Gutchkoff, somewhat surprised at our midnight visit.
"Because—well, because I happen to know that he is in possession of certain facts concerning very high personages. He is a blackmailer, and has been to Berlin to endeavour to sell some documents to Maximilian Harden—documents which, if published, would place a certain member of our Imperial family in a very unsatisfactory light," Rasputin said. "My friend Rogogin here will bear me out."
The Police Director, after a few minutes' silence, asked:
"Has he sold the documents in question?"
"I think not," was Rasputin's reply. "If he has not, he will have them in his possession on his return. We must secure them at all costs."
"You wish to close his mouth—eh?"
"Yes. He must be suppressed at all hazards," declared the monk. "It is the wish of the Emperor," he added, a glib lie always ready upon his tongue. "Further, I need not add that if this affair be conducted in secrecy and scandal in the Imperial House avoided, His Majesty will certainly see that you are adequately rewarded. I can promise you that."
General Gutchkoff was again silent. He well knew that if the Tsar had ordered the man Botkine to be silenced there must be some very unsavoury affair to be hushed up.
"There is an agent of yours in Berlin named Ostrovski, is there not?" the monk asked.
"Then he must also be removed at once to another post. Transfer him to Constantinople, or, better still, to Yokohama. He must not remain in Berlin another twenty-four hours, and he must, not, at any cost, be allowed to return to Russia," Rasputin said decisively.
"I scarcely follow you, Holy Father," was the amazed general's reply. "Ostrovski is very reliable, and has been entrusted with the most delicate affairs. He has always given me the greatest satisfaction."
"I regret if he is under your protection, but that does not alter matters. He and Botkine have been acting in unison, and hence Ostrovski knows more of this scandal concerning a certain member of the Imperial family than is good for him to know. Promote him with increased salary to Yokohama, and send him there by way of Marseilles upon some confidential mission. But on no account must he return to Russia before going to Japan—you understand? He will no doubt wish to travel by way of Siberia, but this must be forbidden. If you will write out his appointment, I will obtain the Emperor's signature to it to-morrow morning."
"You wish me to write out the order now—eh?" asked Gutchkoff, still much puzzled, but eager to get scent of the particular scandal known to Botkine.
"Yes, now," replied the monk, pointing to the writing-table, whereupon the Police Director sat down and wrote out the order transferring the agent Ostrovski to Japan, an order which Rasputin, after pretending to read it, handed to me to place in my pocket.
"And now, what about this person Botkine?" asked Gutchkoff. "How do you wish me to act towards him?"
"In the way that I will direct to-morrow," replied the monk. "I must have time to devise some plan—a plan which will be secret and arouse no suspicion," he added grimly, with a sinister smile.
Early next morning I accompanied him to Peterhof, where the Imperial Court happened to be. Anna Vyrubova was away in Moscow, but without delay he sought the Empress and remained in her boudoir for a full hour, no doubt explaining the discovery of Kokovtsov's inquiries in Berlin.
I met the Prime Minister himself in the long corridor guarded by "Araby" servants which led to the Emperor's private cabinet, and with him was General Gutchkoff, who had evidently also been summoned to audience regarding some matters concerning the police administration. Kokovtsov had no suspicion of what Rasputin had learned, or that Gutchkoff had promised to act as he directed against his trusted agent Ivan Botkine.
The pair strolled along the softly carpeted corridor, chatting affably, for they were apparently going to consult His Majesty together. Truly, the Court world is a strange life of constant intrigue and double-dealing, of lack of morals and of honesty of purpose and of patriotism. In our Holy Russia many good men and women have, because of their love for their own land, been sent to drag out their lives in the dreariness of the Siberian prison camps.
When the monk returned to me he asked for Ostrovski's appointment, written on the previous night, which I carried in my pocket. This he took at once to the Tsar. His Majesty was at that moment closeted with the Prime Minister, Gutchkoff having already seen the Emperor and, transacting his business, been dismissed.
Five minutes later Rasputin returned with the Emperor's scribbled signature still wet, and in my presence handed it to the Director of Political Police. Ostrovski had been transferred to Japan, where he would be harmless, even though he might have learned facts from Botkine. But what had Rasputin decided should be the fate of the latter? For the sake of Alexandra Feodorovna and the whole camarilla Botkine's lips must, I knew, be closed. That had been decided. I longed to learn what the Empress had said when the monk had revealed the truth to her and pointed out her peril.
No doubt Her Majesty would see to it that the affair was hushed up. I knew full well that she understood that once Kokovtsov obtained evidence too many people would be implicated, and perhaps a public trial might result. Both she and Rasputin, no doubt, realised that it would be unwise to allow a member of the Okhrana—as Botkine had been—to be arrested, for fear of the scandal public revelations would cause. The capital teemed with Germans like Stuermer and Fredericks, traitors like Protopopoff and Soukhomlinoff, men like Azeff, Guerassimoff and Kurtz—one day the bosom friend of Ministers and powerful noblemen, and the next cast into the fortress of Peter and Paul—Rogogin, the sycophant Raeff—whom Rasputin had made Procurator of the Holy Synod—and the drunken "saint" Mitia the Blessed—at last dismissed—spiritualists, charlatans, and cranks. Upon such fine society was the Throne of the Romanoffs based! Was it any wonder that it was already tottering preparatory to its fall?
I left Peterhof with Rasputin at about three o'clock that afternoon, and on our return to the Poltavskaya I spoke over the telephone, at the monk's orders, to Doctor Badmayev, the expert herbalist who prepared those secret drugs with which Madame Vyrubova regularly doped the little Tsarevitch, keeping him in a constant state of ill-health and in such a condition that he puzzled the most noted physicians in Europe.
Badmayev, a small, ferret-eyed man, his features of Tartar cast, came and dined with us, after which Rasputin signed a cheque for twenty-eight thousand roubles, a sum to which "the doctor" was entitled under an agreement. Well did I know that the sum in question was payment for his active assistance in supplying certain drugs of which the monk in turn declared that he himself held the formula. The drugs—which he pretended to be the secret of the priests of Tibet—were those which he doled out in small quantities to his sister-disciples, and which produced insensibility to physical pain, drugs which were so baneful and pernicious that the monk always warned me against them, and never took any himself.
After dinner, at which they both drank deeply of champagne, the monk and his friend went out to spend the evening at a low-class variety theatre, while I was left alone until midnight.
In consequence I visited some friends in the Ivanovskaya, and returned to Rasputin's at about a quarter-past twelve. Twenty minutes later he returned in a hopeless state of intoxication; therefore I did not speak to him till next morning.
Such was the fellow's vitality that he was up before six o'clock. At seven he went out, and returned about nine, when he called me to his den.
"Feodor," he said, "I wish you to leave to-day for Vilna, and go to the Palace Hotel there. Remain until a friend of ours named Heckel calls upon you."
"Who is Heckel?" I asked, surprised at being sent upon such a long journey in that sudden manner.
"A friend of Hardt and myself. Do not be inquisitive—only obey. When Heckel calls please give him this letter," and he handed me a rather thick letter in an official cartridge envelope of the Imperial Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Heckel will tell you that he is from 'Father Gregory.' He is tall, fair, and rather slim—a German, as you may guess from his name. Your train leaves at two-forty this afternoon. Be careful of that letter and to whom you deliver it in secret. Heckel, after finding you at the hotel, will produce an English five-pound note and show it to you. That will be his passport. If he does not do so, then do not give him the letter."
That afternoon I left for Vilna by the Warsaw express, and after a long journey through the endless pines and silver birches duly arrived at the hotel indicated, and there awaited my visitor. He arrived next day, a fair-haired, slim man, just as Rasputin had described him, evidently an agent-provocateur from Berlin. After he had been ushered into my bedroom by a waiter, he greeted me warmly, and inquired if I had anything to hand him.
To this I made an evasive reply, in pretence of being in ignorance of his meaning, whereupon he said in German:
"Ah! I forgot. You wish first to establish my identity," and laughingly he produced from his wallet an English five-pound note, which he showed to me.
In consequence I handed him the letter from the Ministry, which he placed unopened in his pocket and then left, while that same night I returned to Petrograd.
Three days later I learned the truth.
Ivan Botkine, the trusted secret agent of the Prime Minister Kokovtsov, who had left Berlin on the twenty-second for Petrograd, had been found dead in one of the sleeping compartments on the arrival of the train at the frontier station of Wirballen. His pockets and valise had been rifled, and an inquiry had been opened. Though the doctors disagreed as to the exact cause of death, it was apparent that one of the dishes he had eaten in the restaurant car an hour before had been poisoned.
Further, I have since established the horrifying fact that the mysterious letter from the Ministry which I handed to Heckel in Vilna contained a secret poison! That it was used to remove poor Botkine, Rasputin afterwards admitted to me. Such were the methods of the camarilla who were ruling Russia!
RASPUTIN IN BERLIN
TRULY, our Russia was a country of blood and tears under the last of the Romanoffs. Its creed and its motto was "Gallows and Siberia!"
No man's life was safe under a regime run by scoundrels, of whom "Grichka," my chief, was the worst.
An unlimited secret fund was placed at the disposal of the Ministry of the Interior for purposes of the Secret Police, and when I say that Rasputin controlled that Ministry as well as the Emperor himself, it can easily be understood that all who were loyal Russians were "suspect," and denunciation throve on all sides. The Okhrana recruited its agents from all quarters. That is why one was never sure that the stranger who denounced Rasputin and his friends was not an agent-provocateur.
Every Russian subject of any note, and every foreign traveller, was watched, not because of his disloyalty, but because Rasputin and his camarilla, including the Empress, feared lest he should discover how they were daily betraying Russia and its Tsar.
I have been, at Rasputin's orders, many times in the central bureau of the Secret Police in search of the index-card of some person who had fallen beneath the monk's displeasure. In these indices and in the corresponding files the persons concerned were, I found, never designated by their own names, but by code-names that could be telegraphed if necessary from city to city. Thus the Deputy Cheidze (since become famous) was registered under the name of "drawing-room" (gostini), Lenin (also since famous) as "symbol," Miliukoff as "grass," and the traitor Soukhomlinoff as "glycerine."
Those were indeed terrible days in Holy Russia—days when the innocent were sent to their death, while Rasputin, the religious fraud, laughed and drank champagne with his high-born devotees, who believed him, even in this twentieth century, to be divine!
I remember that on May 16th, 1914, when the political horizon was cloudless and no one dreamed of war, I sat in the visitors' gallery of the Duma, having been sent there by Rasputin to listen to the debate and report to him.
The labour leader Kerensky, who afterwards became Minister of Justice in the Provisional Government, rose and from the tribune proclaimed the infamy of the police. He did not mince matters. He said:
"The most notorious jailers of the period of Alexander III. knew how to respect in their political enemies the man who thought differently, and when they shut him up in the fortress of Schluesselburg they would sometimes come to chat with him. And some of those martyrs, those men struggling for liberty, have been able to return to us with the glamour about them of twenty years' hard labour. But now, the sons of those famous jailers do not hesitate to seize young men of seventeen or eighteen and make them die slowly, but surely, under the blows of the knout, under the strokes of the rod, or by the burns of a red-hot iron. Are we not returning to the days when political prisoners were walled up alive? And you imagine, gentlemen, that you can claim for this country the civilising mission of a European nation!"
He spoke of a man whom I knew well, one of the most sinister persons in all Russia, a man who, like Rasputin and Stuermer, accepted German gold. The man's name was Evno Azef, upon whom unfortunately the French Government bestowed the Legion of Honour.
Before he went to Paris, Azef was a close friend of Rasputin and of Stuermer. He was a criminal of the worst type, an expert in crime, though he was a recognised agent of the Russian Political Police. And yet so clever was he as an agent-provocateur that he actually managed to get himself elected as director of the Terrorist organisation of Petrograd, and as a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Party!
In my presence he one night, when in his cups, boasted to the merry monk what he had to his credit as a revolutionary. He organised the murders of the Minister of the Interior, Plehve, and of the Grand Duke Sergius. It was he who prepared the attempted murders of Admiral Dubassof, the Governor-General Guerchelman, and the attempt on Nicholas II. The latter was with Rasputin's knowledge and consent! Perhaps Alexandra Feodorovna knew of it. Who knows? That she was not so devoted to "Nikki" as she pretended is well known to everyone who was at the Imperial Court at the time. Happily, however, the plot failed because of circumstances which Azef could not control.
The scoundrel also assisted in the drawing up of the plans for the military mutinies at Moscow, Viborg, and Kronstadt, while he knew beforehand of the preparations for the assassination of General Sakarof, and of Governor Bogdanovitch at Ufa, as well as a number of Terrorist crimes which succeeded.
One of his crimes in conspiracy with Rasputin I will here relate, because it is a mystery which has long puzzled the London police.
On the morning of January 11th, 1909, the London newspapers contained a report of a strange discovery. Four days before there had arrived at Victoria Station a young French lady, dark-haired and extremely good-looking, who took a cab to a small but highly respectable private hotel in the vicinity. There she gave the name of Mademoiselle Thomas, and her profession as governess. Next morning a tall, thin young foreigner called for her, and they went out together, she returning very late that night apparently exhausted after a long motor journey. Next day she remained in her room all day. On the third day an elderly man called, and she went out with him, being absent about a couple of hours. On her return she went straight to her room and nothing was seen of her further until the next day at noon the chambermaid failed to arouse her by knocking. The police were informed, the door was forced, and Mademoiselle Thomas was found dead. She was lying upon the floor fully dressed.
The medical evidence at the inquest was that the pretty French governess had been dead fully eighteen hours. Upon her or in her small hand-luggage there was nothing to establish her identity. That she had taken poison was the opinion of the expert medical witness. Yet the poison could not be established. Apparently it was a case of suicide, for the laundry marks and names of the makers of her clothing had been deliberately removed.
One thing, however, was extremely mysterious. Upon the marble top of the washhand-stand in the bedroom the police found some scrawled words in a character they could not decipher. Experts were brought in, when it was found that the writing was in Russian character, and the words were: "The holy Starets is——"
This conveyed nothing to the London police, who, of course, knew nothing save that a "Starets" in Russia is a "saint."
Therefore the experts at Scotland Yard were, after much patient investigation, compelled to dismiss it as one of London's unsolved mysteries.
Now for the truth.
One night, a year before, when I had returned with Rasputin from Tsarskoe-Selo, we found awaiting us the somewhat dandified man of a hundred aliases and as many disguises, the notorious Azef. He greeted us both warmly, and being a close friend of Rasputin, the monk took him into his cosy little den, where for over an hour they remained closeted together.
I was one of the few who knew the secret of Azef's crimes. Indeed, when I entered the room while the pair were talking I heard him ask with a laugh:
"What if we give him a taste of the necktie of Stolypin—eh?"
"It certainly would be best, my dear Evno," the monk agreed. "That is if you think the accusation can be well made."
"Trust me," laughed the great agent-provocateur. "A denunciation, the discovery of papers—you have those of Buchman in your safe, by the way, and they could be used—arrest, trial, and the necktie! It would be quite easy, and his mouth would be closed."
"He is growing dangerous," growled Rasputin. "What you say is perfectly true."
Then turning to me, he said:
"Feodor, bring those papers which Manuiloff brought me a week ago—the papers used for the arrest of Professor Buchman in Warsaw."
I obeyed, well knowing how that file of incriminating correspondence with an Anarchist group in Zurich had been forged by Stuermer's secretary Manuiloff, and how it had been found among the professor's effects.
"The necktie of Stolypin," was Azef's playful allusion to the ever-ready gallows to which he, plotting with Rasputin, Manuiloff, Guerassimof, and others, was so constantly sending innocent persons. Truly, Russia was a strange country even before the outbreak of war.
The immediate object of Azef's activities, combined with Rasputin's, was at Germany's direction to extend the Terrorist action and thus cause trouble and unrest in the Empire. By every fresh success he obtained more money from Berlin, and at the same time strengthened his privileged position in the ranks of the Terrorists, while his worth was increased in the eyes of both the Minister of the Interior and of the Emperor. The scoundrel's revolutionary career and his police career were inseparable. He was a Terrorist to-day, a police official to-morrow, but, like Rasputin, a secret agent of Germany always!
Terrible as it may seem, the Okhrana, with the connivance of the Wilhelmstrasse, and with the Empress's full knowledge—of this there is no doubt, because documentary evidence exists which proves it—caused the highest personages in Russia to be murdered or hanged in order to prove to those lucky ones who survived how necessary was the organisation for their own existence!
A hundred dramas could be written upon the intrigues of Grichka and Azef. Some of them were amazing; all were disgraceful. The life of the most upright and honest man or woman was not safe if marked down by the pair of scoundrels. The attempt upon Admiral Dubassof, in which Count Konovnicin met his death; the attempt upon General Guerchelman, Governor-General of Moscow; the assassination of General Slepzof at Tver, with half a dozen other murders of the same kind, were all the work of Azef. Why? Because both Azef and General Guerassimof, chief of the Secret Police, were in the toils of Germany. The Wilhelmstrasse paid well, but threatened exposures if this or that person were not removed. Hence Azef, as one of the heads of the Terrorists, received his orders through Rasputin, and, obeying, was paid his blood-money.
Many of the dastardly crimes which Azef, aided by the monk, committed at Germany's orders will never be known. Hundreds of innocent persons were arrested, and when the police searched their homes the most incriminating documents were found concealed—documents which when produced they had never before seen. Hundreds of men and women were hurried to Siberia, and hundreds of others were sent to rot in jails and fortresses, while upon dozens there was placed "the necktie of Stolypin."
"Ah! my dear Gregory," Azef said, after he had lit a fresh cigarette, "there will be no security until that man's mouth is closed. I see that you agree with me."
"Quite," replied the monk, who, I saw, was rather agitated because of something which the police spy had told him.
"Good! Then I will go further. To-day I have proposed to the Council of Workmen's Delegates that we should blow up the Central Bureau of the Okhrana, with Guerassimof in the centre of it. The killing of Guerassimof appealed to them. They hate him—as you know. Really, those people are humorous. They think I am their friend, and yet each day the police arrest one or two members regularly but quietly, and they disappear no one knows whither. I have suspicions of Menchikof, of the Okhrana at Moscow. The other day I met him at Princess Kamenskoi's, and what he told me set me wondering. He poses as your friend, but I feel convinced he is your enemy."
Rasputin's bearded face relaxed into that strange, sardonic grin of his as he replied:
"I know Menchikof. He is harmless. The only man we may fear is Burtsef. He knows far too much of the police organisation and the deeds of our provocating agents."
"I agree. But he lives in Paris, and hence the Okhrana cannot lay hands upon him. If only he would return to Russia, then he would not be long at liberty. That I assure you."
"He is in Paris. Could we not send him a message that his daughter Vera—who married young Tchernof last year—has been taken suddenly ill, and thus summon him at once to Vilna? Once on Russian soil he could be arrested."
Azef smiled. "Our friend Burtsef knows a little too much of our methods to fall into such a trap. He would recognise my hand in it in an instant. No, some other means must be found. Meanwhile we must deal with the person under discussion. We were agreed that he must be suppressed at all hazards, eh?"