But what is he doing now? Well, he is seated on the bottom of his case and placidly eating his supper by the light of a little lamp. A box of preserves is on his knee, biscuit is not wanting, and in a little cupboard I notice some full bottles, besides a rug and overcoat hooked up on the wall.
Evidently No. 11 is quite at home. He is there in his cell like a snail in his shell. His house goes with him; and he saves the thousand francs it would have cost him to journey from Tiflis to Pekin, second-class. I know he is committing a fraud, and that the law punishes such fraud. He can come out of his box when he likes and take a walk in the van, or even at night venture on the platform. No! I do not blame him, and when I think of his being sent to the pretty Roumanian, I would willingly take his place.
An idea occurs to me which may not perhaps be as good as it seems. That is to rap lightly on the box so as to enter into communication with my new companion, and learn who he is, and whence he comes, for I know whither he goes. An ardent curiosity devours me, I must gratify it. There are moments when a special correspondent is metamorphosed into a daughter of Eve.
But how will the poor fellow take it? Very well, I am sure. I will tell him that I am a Frenchman, and a Roumanian knows he can always trust a Frenchman. I will offer him my services. I will propose to soften the rigors of his imprisonment by my interviews, and to make up the scarcity of his meals by little odds and ends. He will have nothing to fear from my imprudences.
I rap the panel.
The light suddenly goes out.
The prisoner has suspended his respiration.
I must reassure him.
"Open!" I say to him gently in Russian.
I cannot finish the sentence; for the train gives a sudden jump and slackens speed.
But we cannot yet have reached Gheok Tepe?
There is a noise outside.
I rush out of the van and shut the door behind me.
It was time.
I have scarcely reached the platform before Popofs door opens, and without seeing me he hurries through the van on to the engine.
Almost immediately the train resumes its normal speed and Popof reappears a minute afterwards.
"What is the matter, Popof?"
"What is often the matter, Monsieur Bombarnac. We have smashed a dromedary."
"Poor brute? He might have thrown us off the line!"
"Stupid brute, then!"
Before the train reaches Gheok Tepe I am back in the car. Confound this dromedary! If he had not managed to get smashed so clumsily No. 11 would no longer be unknown to me. He would have opened his panel, we would have talked in a friendly way, and separated with a friendly shake of the hand. Now he will be full of anxiety, he knows his fraud is discovered, that there is some one who has reason to suspect his intentions, some one who may not hesitate to betray his secret. And then, after being taken out of his case, he will be put under guard at the next station, and it will be useless for Mademoiselle Zinca Klork to expect him in the capital of the Chinese Empire!
Yes! It would be better for me to relieve his anxiety this very night. That is impossible, for the train will soon stop at Gheok Tepe, and then at Askhabad which it will leave in the first hour of daylight. I can no longer trust to Popof's going to sleep.
I am absorbed in these reflections, when the locomotive stops in Gheok Tepe station at one o'clock in the morning. None of my companions have left their beds.
I get out on to the platform and prowl around the van. It would be too risky to try and get inside. I should have been glad to visit the town, but the darkness prevents me from seeing anything. According to what Major Noltitz says it still retains the traces of Skobeleffs terrible assault in 1880--dismantled walls, bastions in ruins. I must content myself with having seen all that with the major's eyes.
The train starts at two o'clock in the morning, after having been joined by a few passengers who Popof tells me are Turkomans.