A little information concerning him, concerning Mademoiselle Zinca Klork, whence he comes, why he is going to Pekin, why he chose such a mode of transport, his provisions for the journey, how he gets into the case, his age, his trade, his birthplace, what he has done in the past, what he hopes to do in the future, etc., etc., and I have done all that a conscientious reporter can do. That is what I want to know; that is what I will ask him. It is not so very much.
And in the first place let us wait until the car is asleep. That will not be long, for my companions are more or less fatigued by the hours they have spent in Samarkand. The beds were ready immediately after dinner. A few of the passengers tried a smoke on the platform, but the gust drove them in very quickly. They have all taken up their places under the curtained lamps, and toward half-past ten the respiration of some and the snoring of others are blended with the continued grinding of the train on the steel rails.
I remained outside last of all, and Popof exchanged a few words with me.
"We shall not be disturbed to-night," he said to me, "and I would advise you to make the most of it. To-morrow night we shall be running through the defiles of the Pamir, and we shall not travel so quietly, I am afraid."
"Thanks, Popof, I will take your advice, and sleep like a marmot."
Popof wished me good night and went into his cabin.
I saw no use in going back into the car, and remained on the platform. It was impossible to see anything either to the left or right of the line. The oasis of Samarkand had already been passed, and the rails were now laid across a long horizontal plain. Many hours would elapse before the train reached the Syr Daria, over which the line passes by a bridge like that over the Amou-Daria, but of less importance.
It was about half-past eleven when I decided to open the door of the van, which I shut behind me.
I knew that the young Roumanian was not always shut up in his box, and the fancy might just have taken him to stretch his limbs by walking from one end to the other of the van.
The darkness is complete. No jet of light filters through the holes of the case. That seems all the better for me. It is as well that my No. 11 should not be surprised by too sudden an apparition. He is doubtless asleep. I will give two little knocks on the panel, I will awake him, and we will explain matters before he can move.
I feel as I go. My hand touches the case; I place my ear against the panel and I listen.
There is not a stir, not a breath! Is my man not here? Has he got away? Has he slipped out at one of the stations without my seeing him? Has my news gone with him? Really, I am most uneasy; I listen attentively.
No! He has not gone. He is in the case. I hear distinctly his regular and prolonged respiration. He sleeps. He sleeps the sleep of the innocent, to which he has no right, for he ought to sleep the sleep of the swindler of the Grand Transasiatic.
I am just going to knock when the locomotive's whistle emits its strident crow, as we pass through a station. But the train is not going to stop, I know, and I wait until the whistling has ceased.
I then give a gentle knock on the panel.
There is no reply.
However, the sound of breathing is not so marked as before.
I knock more loudly.
This time it is followed by an involuntary movement of surprise and fright.
"Open, open!" I say in Russian.
There is no reply.
"Open!" I say again. "It is a friend who speaks. You have nothing to fear!"
If the panel is not lowered, as I had hoped, there is the crack of a match being lighted and a feeble light appears in the case.
I look at the prisoner through the holes in the side.
There is a look of alarm on his face; his eyes are haggard. He does not know whether he is asleep or awake.
"Open, my friend, I say, open and have confidence. I have discovered your secret. I shall say nothing about it. On the other hand, I may be of use to you."
The poor man looks more at ease, although he does not move.