Read CHAPTER XIV - IN THE HOLY VILLAGE of The Book of All-Power , free online book, by Edgar Wallace, on ReadCentral.com.

“Preopojensky, but by a circuitous route,” said Malinkoff, speaking across the chauffeur.  “What about the wires?”

He looked up at the telegraph lines, looping from pole to pole, and Malcolm thrust his head into the window of the limousine to communicate this danger to the sybaritic Mr. Bim, who was spraying himself with perfume from a bottle he had found in the well-equipped interior of the car.

“Stop,” said Cherry.  “We’re well away from Moscow.”

At a word from Malinkoff the chauffeur brought the car to a standstill and Cherry slipped out, revolver in hand.

Then to the amazement of Malcolm and the unfeigned admiration of the general, Cherry Bim made good his boast.  Four times his gun cracked and at each shot a line broke.

“To be repeated at intervals,” said Cherry, climbing into the car.  “Wake me in half an hour,” and, curling himself up in the luxurious depths of swansdown cushions, he fell asleep.

Happily Malinkoff knew the country to an inch.  They were not able to avoid the villages without avoiding the roads, but they circumnavigated the towns.  At nightfall they were in the depths of a wood which ran down to the edge of the big lake on which the holy village of Preopojensky stands.

“The chauffeur is not the difficulty I thought he would be,” reported Malinkoff; “he used to drive Korniloff in the days when he was a divisional general, and he is willing to throw in his lot with ours.”

“Can you trust him!” asked Malcolm.

“I think so,” said Malinkoff, “unless we shoot him we simply must trust him ­what do you think, Mr. Bim?”

“You can call me Cherry,” said that worthy.  He was eating bread and sour cheese which had been bought at a fabulous price in one of the villages through which they had passed.  Here again they might have been compelled to an act which would have called attention to their lawless character, for they had no money, had it not been for Cherry.  He financed the party from the lining of his waistcoat (Malcolm remembered that the little man had never discarded this garment, sleeping or waking) and made a casual reference to the diamonds which had gone to his account via a soi-disant princess and the favourite of a Commissary.

“Anyway,” he said, “we could have got it from the chauffeur ­he’s open to reason.”

They did not ask him what argument he would have employed, but were glad subsequently that these arguments had not been used.

What was as necessary as food was petrol.  Peter the chauffeur said that there were big army supplies in Preopojensky itself, and undertook to steal sufficient to keep the car running for a week.

They waited until it was dark before they left the cover of the wood, and walked in single file along a cart-track to the half a dozen blinking lights that stood for Preopojensky.

The car they had pulled into deeper cover, marking the place with a splinter of mirror broken from its silver frame.

“Nothing like a mirror,” explained Cherry Bim.  “You’ve only to strike a match, and it shows a light for you.”

The way was a long one, but presently they came to a good road which crossed the track at right angles, but which curved round until it ran parallel with the path they had followed.

“There is the military store,” whispered the chauffeur.  “I will go now, my little general.”

“I trust you, drushka,” said Malinkoff.

“By the head of my mother I will not betray you,” said the man, and disappeared in the darkness.

After this they held a council of war.

“So far as I can remember, Petroff is the silk merchant,” said Malinkoff, “and his house is the first big residence we reach coming from this direction.  I remember it because I was on duty at the Coronation of the Emperor, and his Imperial Majesty came to Preopojensky, which is a sacred place for the Royal House.  Peter the Great lived here.”

Luck was with them, for they had not gone far before they heard a voice bellowing a mournful song, and came up with its owner, a worker in the silk mills (they had long since ceased to work) who was under the influence of methylated spirit ­a favourite tipple since vodka had been ukased out of existence.

“Ivan Petroff, son of Ivan?” he hiccoughed.

“Yes, my little dove, it is there.  He is a boorjoo and an aristocrat, and there is no Czar and no God! ­prikanzerio ­it is ordered by the Soviet!...”

And he began to weep

“No Czar and no God!  Long live the Revolution!  Evivo!  No blessed saints and no Czar!  And I was of the Rasholnik!...”

They left him weeping by the roadside.

“The Rasholniks are the dissenters of Russia ­this village was a hotbed of them, but they’ve gone the way of the rest,” said Malinkoff sadly.

The house they approached was a big wooden structure ornamented with perfectly useless cupolas and domes, so that Malcolm thought at first that this was one of the innumerable churches in which the village abounded.

There was a broad flight of wooden stairs leading to the door, but this they avoided.  A handful of gravel at a likely-looking upper window seemed a solution.  The response was immediate.  Though no light appeared, the window swung open and a voice asked softly: 

“Who is that?”

“We are from Irene,” answered Malcolm in the same tone.

The window closed, and presently they heard a door unfastened and followed the sound along the path which ran close to the house.  It was a small side door that was opened, and Malcolm led the way through.

Their invisible host closed the door behind them, and they heard the clink of a chain.

“If you have not been here before, keep straight on, touching the wall with your right hand.  Where it stops turn sharply to the right,” said the unknown rapidly.

They followed his directions, and found the branch passage.

“Wait,” said the voice.

The man passed them.  They heard him turn a handle.

“Straight ahead you will find the door.”

They obeyed, and their conductor struck a match and lit an oil lamp.  They were in the long room ­they guessed that by the glow of the closed stove they had seen as they entered.

The windows were heavily shuttered and curtained, and even the door was hidden under a thick portiere.  The man who had brought them in was middle-aged and poorly dressed, but then this was a time when everybody in Russia was poorly dressed, and his shabbiness did not preclude the possibility of his being the proprietor of the house, as indeed he was.

He was eyeing them with suspicion, not wholly unjustified, for the patent respectability of Cherry’s Derby hat was no compensation for the armoury belted about his rotund middle.

But when the man’s eyes fell upon Malinkoff, his whole demeanour changed, and he advanced with outstretched hand.

“General Malinkoff,” he said, “you remember me; I entertained you at ­”

“At Kieff!  Of course!” smiled Malinkoff.  “I did not know the Ivan Petroff of Moscow was the Ivan of the Ukraine.”

“Now, gentlemen, what is your wish?” asked the man, and Malinkoff explained the object of the visit.

Petroff looked serious.

“Of course, I will do anything her Highness wishes,” he said.  “I saw her yesterday, and she told me that she had a dear friend in St. Basil.”  Malcolm tried to look unconcerned under Malinkoff’s swift scrutiny and failed.  “But I think she wished you to meet another ­guest.”

He paused.

“He has gone into Moscow to-night against my wishes,” he said with trouble in his face; “such an old man ­”

“Kensky?” said Malcolm quickly.

“Kensky.”  The tone was short.  “I told him that no good would come of it ­her Highness was married to-night.”

Malcolm took a step forward, but it was an unsteady step.

“Married?” he repeated.  “To whom was she married?”

Petroff looked down at the floor as though he dare not meet the eye of any man and say so monstrous a thing.

“To the servant Boolba,” he said.