‘So tell me, Sally, why are you here at the Yusupov Palace?’ Marina looked into the eyes of the man who called himself Ivan and thought about how ridiculous her story sounded.
‘Well, it all began when I was clearing out Aunt Ludmila’s room. I found a note that led me to St Petersburg and The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood where I found another note that led me to the Peter and Paul Fortress. It seems silly now I say it out loud, but I found another message there which led me to the museum inside the zoo. Then I found another note that led me here.’
‘What did the note say?’ Ivan asked quickly.
Marina pulled the faded yellowing paper out of her pocket, feeling it crackle as she unfolded it. She read the message to Ivan.
‘He was invited to dine but he came to die. Three times he died before he drowned. It obviously means Rasputin, but there seems to be nothing here. I suppose this is the end of the trail.’
‘Not necessarily. Have you been to the cellar, to the Rasputin Museum?’
‘No. I didn’t know there was one.’
‘I am not surprised. Only people who buy a ticket for the Russian guided tour get to see it. You have to buy a separate ticket for the museum from the lady who sells the audio guides and they are only available once you are inside the palace. Wait for me here. I won’t be long.’
Ivan strode out of the Moorish Drawing Room and back towards the heavy carved oak doors of the magnificent entrance.
‘What have I done?’ thought Marina. ‘Telling my silly story to a total stranger. He will think I am a complete fantasist.’
Her mind made up, Marina walked briskly towards the entrance intending to leave and come back on her own the following day but she stopped short when she saw Ivan chatting to a middle-aged woman. Standing just inside the entrance, she was wearing the dark red jacket that identified her as a guide, shaking her head and speaking rapidly in Russian.
‘There you are, my darling.’ Ivan beckoned Marina over to the guide. ‘This is Sally, my girlfriend from London.’ He grabbed her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers and squeezing them tightly as if he was sending her a message to play along.
The smiling eyes of the guide found Marina’s and she nodded politely.
‘За час до закрытия, Пожалуйста, оставьте до этого.’ The guide repeated her instructions and pointed along the hallway to a set of steps leading downwards.
‘What did she say?’ asked Marina, quietly. She felt awkward and on edge as Ivan led her by the hand towards the steps.
‘Shhh. Just keep walking until we get to the cellar,’ whispered Ivan. They continued down the steps which were illuminated by lights set within small alcoves. At the bottom, a wooden doorway opened into a large room whose walls were covered in photographic displays depicting the rise and fall of Rasputin.
‘So, what did she say?’ Marina asked. Her tone left no doubt she was not comfortable about being pulled into the cellar without explanation. She raised her hand, which was still entwined with Ivan’s.
‘Do you mind? I would quite like my hand back, please.’
‘I am sorry. I wanted her to believe you are my girlfriend. There are no more tours today or tomorrow and I wanted us to see the cellar without a crowd. She said we have one hour until the museum closes and we must be gone by then. Please, I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to help you find the next clue . . . ’ Ivan’s voice tailed away as he seemed to realise that he may have gone too far.
‘Well, alright. I suppose you’re only trying to help.’ Marina looked around at the stark white walls and the shiny display cases that filled the room. ‘This all looks very modern. It’s not at all what I was expecting. I can’t imagine that there will be a clue here.’ Deflated, she turned towards the staircase and prepared to make her way back upstairs.
‘Do you know the story of Rasputin?’ asked Ivan. Marina turned and shook her head. ‘He was a Strannik, a religious wanderer who claimed he had the power to cure disease. That’s how he became close to the Romanovs, the Tsarina Alexandria in particular. She was desperate to find a cure for her son’s haemophilia. Rasputin was a vain and boastful man who bragged about his special relationship with the Royal Family, often showing the Tsarina’s private letters in public. His behaviour meant he was suspected of having a sinister and corrupt influence over the Royal Family. Some people even thought of him as the Antichrist and, in 1914, he was stabbed by a woman who wanted to rid the world of his evil.’
‘So what happened to him?’ asked Marina. ‘And why would the clue send us here?’
‘Through here, this is where he began to die.’ Ivan ducked through another wooden doorway into a small room whose window was covered with a heavy red and silver silk curtain. The table was laid for dinner with a waxwork seated as if about to eat from the lavish display of food. The glow of the lightbulb that shone from the fireplace cast an eerie shadow across the features of the long-dead Rasputin.
Marina shivered as she stared into the waxwork’s sightless eyes. Ivan’s deep, accented voice echoed through the small room as he continued his story.
‘Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to the Tsar’s only niece, Irina, invited Rasputin to dinner. There were three other guests in the house at the time, a politician called VM Purishkevich, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Dr Stannislas de Lazovert. The four of them had made a pact to kill Rasputin and end his influence over the Royal Family. The Prince told Rasputin that Irina was suffering from a headache and he wanted the Strannik to cure her. In this room Prince Felix gave Rasputin Madeira wine and cake, both laced with cyanide, but he survived. When the Prince realised that Rasputin was still alive, he shot him in the chest. But this time, when Rasputin did not die, he was able to escape into the courtyard above us.’
‘What happened next?’ asked Marina, fascinated by the timbre of Ivan’s voice.
‘Purishkevich found him in the courtyard and shot him in the kidneys and the head. Rasputin fell into the snow and the conspirators, fearing he was still alive, beat him and bound his hands and feet with chains and rope before throwing him into the icy Nevka River. There was water in his lungs when his body was found, which meant he was alive when he was dumped in the river.’
Marina shivered as she felt a chill creep along her spine. ‘Ivan would do a great job as a tour guide on Halloween,’ she thought to herself. ‘The clue must be leading us to something structural in this room as the furniture and the waxwork must have been moved in here at some point to create the display.’ She ducked under the rope separating the tourists from the display. ‘The fireplace looks like an original feature.’ She knelt on the hearth and looked behind the glow of the light bulb that simulated a log fire. The bricks were old and worn and Marina stared at each one carefully, searching for anything that looked different. She was about to give up when she noticed a small cross scratched deeply into one of the bricks in the top right-hand corner. She ran her fingers over the cross and felt around the edges of the brick. Feeling a barely perceptible wobble, she pushed a little harder and a shower of dust landed on the bulb with a hiss.
Marina reached into her bag and her fingers closed around a nail file. She ran the point of the file along the edges of the brick and was rewarded when it loosened enough to fall into her palm, revealing a gap just big enough for her to get her hand through. When her trembling fingers reached inside, they met the cool surface of oilskin. She tugged hard, falling back on her heels as two packages fell into her hand.
‘What have you found?’ asked Ivan from the doorway, where he had taken watch to prevent them being disturbed.
‘I’m not sure.’ Marina pushed the brick back into place and spread the fallen dust along the hearth. Taking a deep breath, she pulled at the stubborn knots in the string holding the oilcloth around one of the packages. When the binding finally loosened, the musty scent of rotting fabric rose up towards her nostrils as an old petticoat fell into her lap. She held it up to show Ivan.
‘It’s a petticoat, I think, an old one. It feels very heavy. I think there is something sewn into the hem.’ Marina grabbed her nail file once more and began to pull at the small stitches in the hem. ‘There is definitely something in here.’ She gasped as she pulled at the last stitch and what looked like a string of pearls appeared in the folds of material.
‘Let me see!’ Ivan held out his hand across the rope, pulling the petticoat and the pearls from Marina’s dust-streaked hands and moving towards the table where a plastic candle glowed above the feast.
Marina turned her attention to the other package and began to loosen the knots around the second piece of oilskin. When they came undone and the wrapping parted, a photograph fell into her lap. It showed a Red Cross nurse from the First World War. Marina turned it over and saw some faded writing on the back.
The day he gave me Ortipo
Tatiana Nikolaevna Romanov
‘Is there anything else?’ asked Ivan. He was poring over the rotting fabric and the pearls, which glistened even in the weak light.
‘No, nothing,’ replied Marina as she pushed the photograph deep into her pocket.
[Image of WWI Red Cross nurse used with kind permission from www.worldwar1postcards.com ]