Assured of safety I cross the gangway and am in front of the baggage van.
The door is only fastened with a bar which is hung between two staples.
I open it and shut it behind me.
I do this without noise, for if I do not want to attract Popof's attention, I do not want as yet to attract the attention of the man in the packing case.
Although the darkness is deep in the van, although there is no side window, I know my position. I know where the case is placed; it is in the left corner as I enter. The thing is not to knock against any other case--not against one of those belonging to Ephrinell, for what a row there would be if I set all those artificial teeth chattering!
Carefully feeling with feet and hands, I reach the case. No cat could have been more gentle or more silent as I felt its edges.
I leaned over and placed my ear timidly against the outer panel.
There was no sound of breathing.
The products of the house of Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York, could not be more noiseless in their boxes.
A fear seizes upon me--the fear of seeing all my reporter's hopes vanish. Was I deceived on board the _Astara_? That respiration, that sneeze; had I dreamed it all? Was there no one in the case, not even Zeitung? Were these really glass goods exported to Miss Zinca Klork, Avenue Cha-Coua, Pekin, China?
No! Feeble as it is, I detect a movement inside the case! It becomes more distinct, and I ask if the panel is going to slide, if the prisoner is coming out of his prison to breathe the fresh air?
What I had better do to see and not to be seen is to hide between two cases. Thanks to the darkness there is nothing to fear.
Suddenly a slight cracking greets my ear. I am not the sport of an illusion; it is the crack of a match being lighted.
Almost immediately a few feeble rays pierce the ventilation holes of the case.
If I had had any doubts as to the position held by the prisoner in the scale of being, I have none now. At the least it must be an ape who knows the use of fire, and also the handling of matches. Travelers tell us that such animals exist, but we have to take the statement on trust.
Why should I not confess it? A certain emotion came over me and I had to take care I did not run away.
A minute elapsed. Nothing shows that the panel has been moved, nothing gives me reason to suppose that the unknown is coming out.
Cautiously I wait. Then I have an idea to make something out of this light. The case is lighted within; if I were to peep through those holes?
I creep toward the case. A single apprehension chills my brain. If the light were suddenly extinguished!
I am against the panel, which I take care not to touch, and I put my eyes close to one of the holes.
There is a man in the box, and it is not the Austrian tailor, Zeitung! Thank Heaven! I will soon make him my No. 11.
The man's features I can make out clearly. He is from twenty-five to twenty-six years of age. He does not shave, and his beard is brown. He is of the true Roumanian type, and that confirms me in my notion regarding his Roumanian correspondent. He is good-looking, although his face denotes great energy of character, and he must be energetic to have shut himself up in a box like this for such a long journey. But if he has nothing of the malefactor about him, I must confess that he does not look like the hero I am in search of as the chief personage in my story.
After all, they were not heroes, that Austrian and that Spaniard who traveled in their packing cases. They were young men, very simple, very ordinary, and yet they yielded columns of copy. And so this brave No. 11, with amplifications, antonyms, diaphoreses, epitases, tropes, metaphors, and other figures of that sort, I will beat out, I will enlarge, I will develop--as they develop a photographic negative.
Besides to travel in a box from Tiflis to Pekin is quite another affair than traveling from Vienna or Barcelona to Paris, as was done by Zeitung, Erres and Flora Anglora.
I add that I will not betray my Roumanian; I will report him to no one. He may rely on my discretion; he may reckon on my good offices if I can be of use to him when he is found out.