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The French correspondent was named Alcide Jolivet. Harry Blount was the name of the Englishman. They had just met for the first time at this fete in the New Palace, of which they had been ordered to give an account in their papers. The dissimilarity of their characters, added to a certain amount of jealousy, which generally exists between rivals in the same calling, might have rendered them but little sympathetic. However, they did not avoid each other, but endeavored rather to exchange with each other the chat of the day. They were sportsmen, after all, hunting on the same ground. That which one missed might be advantageously secured by the other, and it was to their interest to meet and converse.
This evening they were both on the look out; they felt, in fact, that there was something in the air.
"Even should it be only a wildgoose chase," said Alcide Jolivet to himself, "it may be worth powder and shot."
The two correspondents therefore began by cautiously sounding each other.
"Really, my dear sir, this little fete is charming!" said Alcide Jolivet pleasantly, thinking himself obliged to begin the conversation with this eminently French phrase.
"I have telegraphed already, 'splendid!'" replied Harry Blount calmly, employing the word specially devoted to expressing admiration by all subjects of the United Kingdom.
"Nevertheless," added Alcide Jolivet, "I felt compelled to remark to my cousin--"
"Your cousin?" repeated Harry Blount in a tone of surprise, interrupting his brother of the pen.
"Yes," returned Alcide Jolivet, "my cousin Madeleine. It is with her that I correspond, and she likes to be quickly and well informed, does my cousin. I therefore remarked to her that, during this fete, a sort of cloud had appeared to overshadow the sovereign's brow."
"To me, it seemed radiant," replied Harry Blount, who perhaps, wished to conceal his real opinion on this topic.
"And, naturally, you made it 'radiant,' in the columns of the Daily Telegraph."
"Do you remember, Mr. Blount, what occurred at Zakret in 1812?"
"I remember it as well as if I had been there, sir," replied the English correspondent.
"Then," continued Alcide Jolivet, "you know that, in the middle of a fete given in his honor, it was announced to the Emperor Alexander that Napoleon had just crossed the Niemen with the vanguard of the French army. Nevertheless the Emperor did not leave the fete, and notwithstanding the extreme gravity of intelligence which might cost him his empire, he did not allow himself to show more uneasiness."
"Than our host exhibited when General Kissoff informed him that the telegraphic wires had just been cut between the frontier and the government of Irkutsk."
"Ah! you are aware of that?"
"As regards myself, it would be difficult to avoid knowing it, since my last telegram reached Udinsk," observed Alcide Jolivet, with some satisfaction.
"And mine only as far as Krasnoiarsk," answered Harry Blount, in a no less satisfied tone.
"Then you know also that orders have been sent to the troops of Nikolaevsk?"
"I do, sir; and at the same time a telegram was sent to the Cossacks of the government of Tobolsk to concentrate their forces."
"Nothing can be more true, Mr. Blount; I was equally well acquainted with these measures, and you may be sure that my dear cousin shall know of them to-morrow."
"Exactly as the readers of the Daily Telegraph shall know it also, M. Jolivet."
"Well, when one sees all that is going on. . . ."
"And when one hears all that is said. . . ."
"An interesting campaign to follow, Mr. Blount."
"I shall follow it, M. Jolivet!"
"Then it is possible that we shall find ourselves on ground less safe, perhaps, than the floor of this ball-room."
"Less safe, certainly, but--"
"But much less slippery," added Alcide Jolivet, holding up his companion, just as the latter, drawing back, was about to lose his equilibrium.
Thereupon the two correspondents separated, pleased that the one had not stolen a march on the other.
At that moment the doors of the rooms adjoining the great reception saloon were thrown open, disclosing to view several immense tables beautifully laid out, and groaning under a profusion of valuable china and gold plate. On the central table, reserved for the princes, princesses, and members of the corps diplomatique, glittered an epergne of inestimable price, brought from London, and around this chef-d'oeuvre of chased gold reflected under the light of the lusters a thousand pieces of most beautiful service from the manufactories of Sevres.
The guests of the New Palace immediately began to stream towards the supper-rooms.
At that moment. General Kissoff, who had just re-entered, quickly approached the officer of chasseurs.
"Well?" asked the latter abruptly, as he had done the former time.
"Telegrams pass Tomsk no longer, sire."
"A courier this moment!"
The officer left the hall and entered a large antechamber adjoining. It was a cabinet with plain oak furniture, situated in an angle of the New Palace. Several pictures, amongst others some by Horace Vernet, hung on the wall.
The officer hastily opened a window, as if he felt the want of air, and stepped out on a balcony to breathe the pure atmosphere of a lovely July night. Beneath his eyes, bathed in moonlight, lay a fortified inclosure, from which rose two cathedrals, three palaces, and an arsenal. Around this inclosure could be seen three distinct towns: Kitai-Gorod, Beloi-Gorod, Zemlianai-Gorod--European, Tartar, and Chinese quarters of great extent, commanded by towers, belfries, minarets, and the cupolas of three hundred churches, with green domes, surmounted by the silver cross. A little winding river, here and there reflected the rays of the moon.
This river was the Moskowa; the town Moscow; the fortified inclosure the Kremlin; and the officer of chasseurs of the guard, who, with folded arms and thoughtful brow, was listening dreamily to the sounds floating from the New Palace over the old Muscovite city, was the Czar.
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Michael Strogoff -by- Jules Verne