The Secret City
Part 1 out of 7
Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Jeremy Eble and the Online Distributed
BY HUGH WALPOLE
_STUDIES IN PLACE_
THE SECRET CITY
THE DARK FOREST
THE GOLDEN SCARECROW
THE WOODEN HORSE
MARADICK AT FORTY
THE GODS AND MR. PERRIN
THE PRELUDE TO ADVENTURE
_THE RISING CITY_
1. THE DUCHESS OF WREXE
2. THE GREEN MIRROR
THE SECRET CITY
A NOVEL IN THREE PARTS
AUTHOR OF "FORTITUDE," "THE DARK FOREST," "THE DUCHESS OF WREXE," ETC.
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919 BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
MAJOR JAMES ANNAND (15TH BATTALION 48TH HIGHLANDERS, C.E.F.)
IN RETURN FOR THE GIFT OF HIS FRIENDSHIP
In the eastern quarter dawn breaks, the stars flicker pale.
The morning cock at Ju-nan mounts the wall and crows.
The songs are over, the clock run down, but still the feast is set.
The Moon grows dim and the stars are few; morning has come to the world.
At a thousand gates and ten thousand doors the fish-shaped keys turn;
Round the Palace and up by the Castle, the crows and magpies are flying.
_Cock-Crow Song_. Anon. (1st Century B.C.).
PART I Vera And Nina
PART II Lawrence
PART III Markovitch And Semyonov
VERA AND NINA
THE SECRET CITY
VERA AND NINA
There are certain things that I feel, as I look through this bundle of
manuscript, that I must say. The first is that of course no writer ever
has fulfilled his intention and no writer ever will; secondly, that
there was, when I began, another intention than that of dealing with my
subject adequately, namely that of keeping myself outside the whole of
it; I was to be, in the most abstract and immaterial sense of the word,
a voice, and that simply because this business of seeing Russian
psychology through English eyes has no excuse except that it _is_
English. That is its only interest, its only atmosphere, its only
motive, and if you are going to tell me that any aspect of Russia
psychological, mystical, practical, or commercial seen through an
English medium is either Russia as she really is or Russia as Russians
see her, I say to you, without hesitation, that you don't know of what
you are talking.
Of Russia and the Russians I know nothing, but of the effect upon myself
and my ideas of life that Russia and the Russians have made during these
last three years I know something. You are perfectly free to say that
neither myself nor my ideas of life are of the slightest importance to
any one. To that I would say that any one's ideas about life are of
importance and that any one's ideas about Russian life are of
interest... and beyond that, I have simply been compelled to write. I
have not been able to help myself, and all the faults and any virtues in
this story come from that. The facts are true, the inferences absolutely
my own, so that you may reject them at any moment and substitute others.
It is true that I have known Vera Michailovna, Nina, Alexei Petrovitch,
Henry, Jerry, and the rest--some of them intimately--and many of the
conversations here recorded I have myself heard. Nevertheless the
inferences are my own, and I think there is no Russian who, were he to
read this book, would not say that those inferences were wrong. In an
earlier record, to which this is in some ways a sequel, my inferences
were, almost without exception, wrong, and there is no Russian alive for
whom this book can have any kind of value except as a happy example of
the mistakes that the Englishman can make about the Russian.
But it is over those very mistakes that the two souls, Russian and
English, so different, so similar, so friendly, so hostile, may meet....
And in any case the thing has been too strong for me. I have no other
defence. For one's interest in life is stronger, God knows how much
stronger, than one's discretion, and one's love of life than one's
wisdom, and one's curiosity in life than one's ability to record it. At
least, as I have said, I have endeavoured to keep my own history, my own
desires, my own temperament out of this, as much as is humanly
And the facts are true.
[Footnote 1: _The Dark Forest_.]
They had been travelling for a week, and had quite definitely decided
that they had nothing whatever in common. As they stood there, lost and
desolate on the grimy platform of the Finland station, this same thought
must have been paramount in their minds: "Thank God we shan't have to
talk to one another any longer. Whatever else may happen in this
strange place that at least we're spared." They were probably quite
unconscious of the contrast they presented, unconscious because, at this
time, young Bohun never, I should imagine, visualised himself as
anything more definite than absolutely "right," and Lawrence simply
never thought about himself at all. But they were perfectly aware of
their mutual dissatisfaction, although they were of course absolutely
polite. I heard of it afterwards from both sides, and I will say quite
frankly that my sympathy was all with Lawrence. Young Bohun can have
been no fun as a travelling companion at that time. If you had looked at
him there standing on the Finland station platform and staring haughtily
about for porters you must have thought him the most self-satisfied of
mortals. "That fellow wants kicking," you would have said. Good-looking,
thin, tall, large black eyes, black eyelashes, clean and neat and
"right" at the end of his journey as he had been at the beginning of it,
just foreign-looking enough with his black hair and pallor to make him
interesting--he was certainly arresting. But it was the
self-satisfaction that would have struck any one. And he had reason; he
was at that very moment experiencing the most triumphant moment of his
He was only twenty-three, and was already as it seemed to the youthfully
limited circle of his vision, famous. Before the war he had been, as he
quite frankly admitted to myself and all his friends, nothing but
ambitious. "Of course I edited the _Granta_ for a year," he would say,
"and I don't think I did it badly.... But that wasn't very much."
No, it really wasn't a great deal, and we couldn't tell him that it was.
He had always intended, however, to be a great man; the _Granta_ was
simply a stepping-stone. He was already, during his second year at
Cambridge, casting about as to the best way to penetrate, swiftly and
securely, the fastnesses of London journalism. Then the war came, and he
had an impulse of perfectly honest and selfless patriotism..., not
quite selfless perhaps, because he certainly saw himself as a mighty
hero, winning V.C.'s and saving forlorn hopes, finally received by his
native village under an archway of flags and mottoes (the local
postmaster, who had never treated him very properly, would make the
speech of welcome). The reality did him some good, but not very much,
because when he had been in France only a fortnight he was gassed and
sent home with a weak heart. His heart remained weak, which made him
interesting to women and allowed time for his poetry. He was given an
easy post in the Foreign Office and, in the autumn of 1916 he published
_Discipline: Sonnets and Poems_. This appeared at a very fortunate
moment, when the more serious of British idealists were searching for
signs of a general improvement, through the stress of war, of poor
humanity.... "Thank God, there are our young poets," they said.
The little book had excellent notices in the papers, and one poem in
especial "How God spoke to Jones at Breakfast-time" was selected for
especial praise because of its admirable realism and force. One paper
said that the British breakfast-table lived in that poem "in all its
tiniest most insignificant details," as no breakfast-table, save
possibly that of Major Pendennis at the beginning of _Pendennis_ has
lived before. One paper said, "Mr. Bohun merits that much-abused word
The young author carried these notices about with him and I have seen
them all. But there was more than this. Bohun had been for the last four
years cultivating Russian. He had been led into this through a real,
genuine interest. He read the novelists and set himself to learn the
Russian language. That, as any one who has tried it will know is no easy
business, but Henry Bohun was no fool, and the Russian refugee who
taught him was no fool. After Henry's return from France he continued
his lessons, and by the spring of 1916 he could read easily, write
fairly, and speak atrociously. He then adopted Russia, an easy thing to
do, because his supposed mastery of the language gave him a tremendous
advantage over his friends. "I assure you that's not so," he would say.
"You can't judge Tchehov till you've read him in the original. Wait till
you can read him in Russian." "No, I don't think the Russian characters
are like that," he would declare. "It's a queer thing, but you'd almost
think I had some Russian blood in me... I sympathise so." He followed
closely the books that emphasised the more sentimental side of the
Russian character, being of course grossly sentimental himself at heart.
He saw Russia glittering with fire and colour, and Russians, large,
warm, and simple, willing to be patronised, eagerly confessing their
sins, rushing forward to make him happy, entertaining him for ever and
ever with a free and glorious hospitality.
"I really think I do understand Russia," he would say modestly. He said
it to me when he had been in Russia two days.
Then, in addition to the success of his poems and the general interest
that he himself aroused the final ambition of his young heart was
realised. The Foreign Office decided to send him to Petrograd to help in
the great work of British propaganda.
He sailed from Newcastle on December 2, 1916....
At this point I am inevitably reminded of that other Englishman who, two
years earlier than Bohun, had arrived in Russia with his own pack of
dreams and expectations.
But John Trenchard, of whose life and death I have tried elsewhere to
say something, was young Bohun's opposite, and I do not think that the
strange unexpectedness of Russia can he exemplified more strongly than
by the similarity of appeal that she could make to two so various
characters. John was shy, self-doubting, humble, brave, and a
gentleman,--Bohun was brave and a gentleman, but the rest had yet to be
added to him. How he would have patronised Trenchard if he had known
him! And yet at heart they were not perhaps so dissimilar. At the end of
my story it will be apparent, I think, that they were not.
That journey from Newcastle to Bergen, from Bergen to Torneo, from
Torneo to Petrograd is a tiresome business. There is much waiting at
Custom-houses, disarrangement of trains and horses and meals, long
wearisome hours of stuffy carriages and grimy window-panes. Bohun I
suspect suffered, too, from that sudden sharp precipitance into a world
that knew not _Discipline_ and recked nothing of the _Granta_. Obviously
none of the passengers on the boat from Newcastle had ever heard of
_Discipline_. They clutched in their hands the works of Mr. Oppenheim,
Mr. Compton Mackenzie, and Mr. O'Henry and looked at Bohun, I imagine,
with indifferent superiority. He had been told at the Foreign Office
that his especial travelling companion was to be Jerry Lawrence. If he
had hoped for anything from this direction one glance at Jerry's
brick-red face and stalwart figure must have undeceived him. Jerry,
although he was now thirty-two years of age, looked still very much the
undergraduate. My slight acquaintance with him had been in those earlier
Cambridge days, through a queer mutual friend, Dune, who at that time
seemed to promise so magnificently, who afterwards disappeared so
mysteriously. You would never have supposed that Lawrence, Captain of
the University Rugger during his last two years, Captain of the English
team through all the Internationals of the season 1913-14, could have
had anything in common, except football, with Dune, artist and poet if
ever there was one. But on the few occasions when I saw them together it
struck me that football was the very least part of their common ground.
And that was the first occasion on which I suspected that Jerry Lawrence
was not quite what he seemed....
I can imagine Lawrence standing straddleways on the deck of the
_Jupiter_, his short thick legs wide apart, his broad back indifferent
to everything and everybody, his rather plump, ugly, good-natured face
staring out to sea as though he saw nothing at all. He always gave the
impression of being half asleep, he had a way of suddenly lurching on
his legs as though in another moment his desire for slumber would be too
strong for him, and would send him crashing to the ground. He would be
smoking an ancient briar, and his thick red hands would be clasped
behind his back....
No encouraging figure for Bohun's aestheticism.
I can see as though I had been present Bohun's approach to him, his
patronising introduction, his kindly suggestion that they should eat
their meals together, Jerry's smiling, lazy acquiescence. I can imagine
how Bohun decided to himself that "he must make the best of this chap.
After all, it was a long tiresome journey, and anything was better than
having no one to talk to...." But Jerry, unfortunately, was in a bad
temper at the start. He did not want to go out to Russia at all. His
father, old Stephen Lawrence, had been for many years the manager of
some works in Petrograd, and the first fifteen years of Jerry's life had
been spent in Russia. I did not, at the time when I made Jerry's
acquaintance at Cambridge, know this; had I realised it I would have
understood many things about him which puzzled me. He never alluded to
Russia, never apparently thought of it, never read a Russian book, had,
it seemed, no connection of any kind with any living soul in that
Old Lawrence retired, and took a fine large ugly palace in Clapham to
end his days in....
Suddenly, after Lawrence had been in France for two years, had won the
Military Cross there and, as he put it, "was just settling inside his
skin," the authorities realised his Russian knowledge, and decided to
transfer him to the British Military Mission in Petrograd. His anger
when he was sent back to London and informed of this was extreme. He
hadn't the least desire to return to Russia, he was very happy where he
was, he had forgotten all his Russian; I can see him, saying very
little, looking like a sulky child and kicking his heel up and down
across the carpet.
"Just the man we want out there, Lawrence," he told me somebody said to
him; "keep them in order."
"Keep them in order!" That tickled his sense of humour. He was to laugh
frequently, afterwards, when he thought of it. He always chewed a joke
as a cow chews the cud.
So that he was in no pleasant temper when he met Bohun on the decks of
the _Jupiter_. That journey must have had its humours for any observer
who knew the two men. During the first half of it I imagine that Bohun
talked and Lawrence slumbered. Bohun patronised, was kind and indulgent,
and showed very plainly that he thought his companion the dullest and
heaviest of mortals. Then he told Lawrence about Russia; he explained
everything to him, the morals, psychology, fighting qualities,
strengths, and weaknesses. The climax arrived when he announced: "But
it's the mysticism of the Russian peasant which will save the world.
That adoration of God...."
"Rot!" interrupted Lawrence.
Bohun was indignant. "Of course if you know better--" he said.
"I do," said Lawrence, "I lived there for fifteen years. Ask my old
governor about the mysticism of the Russian peasant. He'll tell you."
Bohun felt that he was justified in his annoyance. As he said to me
afterwards: "The fellow had simply been laughing at me. He might have
told me about his having been there." At that time, to Bohun, the most
terrible thing in the world was to be laughed at.
After that Bohun asked Jerry questions. But Jerry refused to give
himself away. "I don't know," he said, "I've forgotten it all. I don't
suppose I ever did know much about it."
At Haparanda, most unfortunately, Bohun was insulted. The Swedish
Customs Officer there, tired at the constant appearance of
self-satisfied gentlemen with Red Passports, decided that Bohun was
carrying medicine in his private bags. Bohun refused to open his
portmanteau, simply because he "was a Courier and wasn't going to be
insulted by a dirty foreigner." Nevertheless "the dirty foreigner" had
his way and Bohun looked rather a fool. Jerry had not sympathised
sufficiently with Bohun in this affair.... "He only grinned," Bohun told
me indignantly afterwards. "No sense of patriotism at all. After all,
Englishmen ought to stick together."
Finally, Bohun tested Jerry's literary knowledge. Jerry seemed to have
none. He liked Fielding, and a man called Farnol and Jack London.
He never read poetry. But, a strange thing, he was interested in Greek.
He had bought the works of Euripides and Aeschylus in the Loeb Library,
and he thought them "thundering good." He had never read a word of any
Russian author. "Never _Anna_? Never _War and Peace_? Never _Karamazov_?
Bohun gave him up.
It should be obvious enough then that they hailed their approaching
separation with relief. Bohun had been promised by one of the
secretaries at the Embassy that rooms would be found for him. Jerry
intended to "hang out" at one of the hotels. The "Astoria" was, he
believed, the right place.
"I shall go to the 'France' for to-night," Bohun declared, having lived,
it would seem, in Petrograd all his days. "Look me up, old man, won't
Jerry smiled his slow smile. "I will," he said. "So long."
We will now follow the adventures of Henry. He had in him, I know, a
tiny, tiny creature with sharp ironical eyes and pointed springing feet
who watched his poses, his sentimentalities and heroics with
affectionate scorn. This same creature watched him now as he waited to
collect his bags, and then stood on the gleaming steps of the station
whilst the porters fetched an Isvostchick, and the rain fell in long
thundering lines of steel upon the bare and desolate streets.
"You're very miserable and lonely," the Creature said; "you didn't
No, Henry had not expected this, and he also had not expected that the
Isvostchick would demand eight roubles for his fare to the "France."
Henry knew that this was the barest extortion, and he had sworn to
himself long ago that he would allow nobody to "do" him. He looked at
the rain and submitted. "After all, it's war time," he whispered to the
He huddled himself into the cab, his baggage piled all about him, and
tried by pulling at the hood to protect himself from the elements. He
has told me that he felt that the rain was laughing at him; the cab was
so slow that he seemed to be sitting in the middle of pools and melting
snow; he was dirty, tired, hungry, and really not far from tears. Poor
Henry was very, very young....
He scarcely looked at the Neva as he crossed the bridge; all the length
of the Quay he saw only the hunched, heavy back of the old cabman and
the spurting, jumping rain, the vast stone grave-like buildings and the
high grey sky. He drove through the Red Square that swung in the rain.
He was thinking about the eight roubles.... He pulled up with a jerk
outside the "France" hotel. Here he tried, I am sure, to recover his
dignity, but he was met by a large, stout, eastern-looking gentleman
with peacock feathers in his round cap who smiled gently when he heard
about the eight roubles, and ushered Henry into the dark hall with a
kindly patronage that admitted of no reply.
The "France" is a good hotel, and its host is one of the kindest of
mortals, but it is in many ways Russian rather than Continental in its
atmosphere. That ought to have pleased and excited so sympathetic a soul
as Henry. I am afraid that this moment of his arrival was the first
realisation in his life of that stern truth that that which seems
romantic in retrospect is only too often unpleasantly realistic in its
He stepped into the dark hall, damp like a well, with a whirring
snarling clock on the wall and a heavy glass door pulled by a rope
swinging and shifting, the walls and door and rack with the letters
shifting too. In this rocking world there seemed to be no stable thing.
He was dirty and tired and humiliated. He explained to his host, who
smiled but seemed to be thinking of other things, that he wanted a bath
and a room and a meal. He was promised these things, but there was no
conviction abroad that the "France" had gone up in the world since Henry
Bohun had crossed its threshold. An old man with a grey beard and the
fixed and glittering eye of the "Ancient Mariner" told him to follow
him. How well I know those strange, cold, winding passages of the
"France," creeping in and out across boards that shiver and shake, with
walls pressing in upon you so thin and rocky that the wind whistles and
screams and the paper makes ghostly shadows and signs as though unseen
fingers moved it. There is that smell, too, which a Russian hotel alone,
of all the hostelries in the world, can produce, a smell of damp and
cabbage soup, of sunflower seeds and cigarette-ends, of drainage and
patchouli, of, in some odd way, the sea and fish and wet pavements. It
is a smell that will, until I die, be presented to me by those dark
half-hidden passages, warrens of intricate fumbling ways with boards
suddenly rising like little mountains in the path; behind the wainscot
one hears the scuttling of innumerable rats.
The Ancient Mariner showed Henry to his room and left him. Henry was
depressed at what he saw. His room was a slip cut out of other rooms,
and its one window was faced by a high black wall down whose surface
gleaming water trickled. The bare boards showed large and gaping cracks;
there was a washstand, a bed, a chest of drawers, and a faded padded
arm-chair with a hole in it. In the corner near the window was an Ikon
of tinsel and wood; a little round marble-topped table offered a dusty
carafe of water. A heavy red-plush bell-rope tapped the wall.
He sat down in the faded arm-chair and instantly fell asleep. Was the
room hypnotic? Why not? There are stranger things than that in
Petrograd.... I myself am aware of what walls and streets and rivers,
engaged on their own secret life in that most secret of towns, can do to
the mere mortals who interfere with their stealthy concerns. Henry
dreamt; he was never afterwards able to tell me of what he had dreamt,
but it had been a long heavy cobwebby affair, in which the walls of the
hotel seemed to open and to close, black little figures moving like ants
up and down across the winding ways. He saw innumerable carafes and
basins and beds, the wall-paper whistling, the rats scuttling, and lines
of cigarette-ends, black and yellow, moving in trails like worms across
the boards. All men like worms, like ants, like rats and the gleaming
water trickling interminably down the high black wall. Of course he was
tired after his long journey, hungry too, and depressed.... He awoke to
find the Ancient Mariner watching him. He screamed. The Mariner
reassured him with a toothless smile, gripped him by the arm and showed
him the bathroom.
"_Pajaluista!_" said the Mariner.
Although Henry had learnt Russian, so unexpected was the pronunciation
of this familiar word that it was as though the old man had said "Open
He felt happy and consoled after a bath, a shave, and breakfast. Always
I should think he reacted very quickly to his own physical sensations,
and he was, as yet, too young to know that you cannot lay ghosts by the
simple brushing of your hair and sponging your face. After his breakfast
he lay down on the bed and again fell asleep, but this time not to
dream; he slept like a Briton, dreamless, healthy and clean. He awoke as
sure of himself as ever.... The first incantation had not, you see, been
He plunged into the city. It was raining with that thick dark rain that
seems to have mud in it before it has fallen. The town was veiled in
thin mist, figures appearing and disappearing, tram-bells ringing, and
those strange wild cries in the Russian tongue that seem at one's first
hearing so romantic and startling, rising sharply and yet lazily into
the air. He plunged along and found himself in the Nevski Prospect--he
could not mistake its breadth and assurance, dull though it seemed in
the mud and rain.
But he was above all things a romantic and sentimental youth, and he was
determined to see this country as he had expected to see it; so he
plodded on, his coat-collar up, British obstinacy in his eyes and a
little excited flutter in his heart whenever a bright colour, an Eastern
face, a street pedlar, a bunched-up, high-backed coachman, anything or
any one unusual presented itself.
He saw on his right a great church; it stood back from the street,
having in front of it a desolate little arrangement of bushes and public
seats and winding paths. The church itself was approached by flights of
steps that disappeared under the shadow of a high dome supported by vast
stone pillars. Letters in gold flamed across the building above the
Henry passed the intervening ground and climbed the steps. Under the
pillars before the heavy, swinging doors were two rows of beggars; they
were dirtier, more touzled and tangled, fiercer and more ironically
falsely submissive than any beggars that, he had ever seen. He described
one fellow to me, a fierce brigand with a high black hat of feathers, a
soiled Cossack coat and tall dirty red leather boots; his eyes were
fires, Henry said. At any rate that is what Henry liked to think they
were. There was a woman with no legs and a man with neither nose nor
ears. I am sure that they watched Henry with supplicating hostility. He
entered the church and was instantly swallowed up by a vast multitude.
He described to me afterwards that it was as though he had been pushed
(by the evil, eager fingers of the beggars no doubt) into deep water. He
rose with a gasp, and was first conscious of a strange smell of dirt and
tallow and something that he did not know, but was afterwards to
recognise as the scent of sunflower seed. He was pushed upon, pressed
and pulled, fingered and crushed. He did not mind--he was glad--this was
what he wanted. He looked about him and found that he and all the people
round him were swimming in a hazy golden mist flung into the air from
the thousands of lighted candles that danced in the breeze blowing
through the building. The whole vast shining floor was covered with
peasants, pressed, packed together. Peasants, men and women--he did not
see a single member of the middle-class. In front of him under the altar
there was a blaze of light, and figures moved in the blaze uncertainly,
indistinctly. Now and then a sudden quiver passed across the throng, as
wind blows through the corn. Here and there men and women knelt, but for
the most part they stood steadfast, motionless, staring in front of
them. He looked at them and discovered that they had the faces of
children--simple, trustful, unintelligent, unhumorous children,--and
eyes, always kindlier than any he had ever seen in other human beings.
They stood there gravely, with no signs of religious fervour, with no
marks of impatience or weariness and also with no evidence of any
especial interest in what was occurring. It might have been a vast
concourse of sleep-walkers.
He saw that three soldiers near to him were holding hands....
From the lighted altars came the echoing whisper of a monotonous chant.
The sound rose and fell, scarcely a voice, scarcely an appeal, something
rising from the place itself and sinking back into it again without
After a time he saw a strange movement that at first he could not
understand. Then watching, he found that unlit candles were being passed
from line to line, one man leaning forward and tapping the man in front
of him with the candle, the man in front passing it, in his turn,
forward, and so on until at last it reached the altar where it was
lighted and fastened into its sconce. This tapping with the candles
happened incessantly throughout the vast crowd. Henry himself was
tapped, and felt suddenly as though he had been admitted a member of
some secret society. He felt the tap again and again, and soon he seemed
to be hypnotised by the low chant at the altar and the motionless silent
crowd and the dim golden mist. He stood, not thinking, not living, away,
away, questioning nothing, wanting nothing....
He must of course finish with his romantic notion. People pushed around
him, struggling to get out. He turned to go and was faced, he told me,
with a remarkable figure. His description, romantic and sentimental
though he tried to make it, resolved itself into nothing more than the
sketch of an ordinary peasant, tall, broad, black-bearded, neatly clad
in blue shirt, black trousers, and high boots. This fellow stood
apparently away from the crowd, apart, and watched it all, as you so
often may see the Russian peasant doing, with indifferent gaze. In his
mild blue eyes Bohun fancied that he saw all kinds of things--power,
wisdom, prophecy--a figure apart and symbolic. But how easy in Russia it
is to see symbols and how often those symbols fail to justify
themselves! Well, I let Bohun have his fancies. "I should know that man
anywhere again," he declared. "It was as though he knew what was going
to happen and was ready for it." Then I suppose he saw my smile, for he
broke off and said no more.
And here for a moment I leave him and his adventures.
I must speak, for a moment, of myself. Throughout the autumn and winter
of 1914 and the spring and summer of 1915 I was with the Russian Red
Cross on the Polish and Galician fronts. During the summer and early
autumn of 1915 I shared with the Ninth Army the retreat through Galicia.
Never very strong physically, owing to a lameness of the left hip from
which I have suffered from birth, the difficulties of the retreat and
the loss of my two greatest friends gave opportunities to my arch-enemy
Sciatica to do what he wished with me, and in October 1915 I was forced
to leave the Front and return to Petrograd. I was an invalid throughout
the whole of that winter, and only gradually during the spring of 1916
was able to pull myself back to an old shadow of my former vigour and
energy. I saw that I would never be good for the Front again, but I
minded that the less now in that the events of the summer of 1915 had
left me without heart or desire, the merest spectator of life, passive
and, I cynically believed, indifferent. I was nothing to any one, nor
was any one anything to me. The desire of my heart had slipped like a
laughing ghost away from my ken--men of my slow warmth and cautious
suspicion do not easily admit a new guest....
Moreover during this spring of 1916 Petrograd, against my knowledge,
wove webs about my feet. I had never shared the common belief that
Moscow was the only town in Russia. I had always known that Petrograd
had its own grace and beauty, but it was not until, sore and sick at
heart, lonely and bitter against fate, haunted always by the face and
laughter of one whom I would never see again, I wandered about the
canals and quays and deserted byways of the city that I began to
understand its spirit. I took, to the derision of my few friends, two
tumbledown rooms on Pilot's Island, at the far end of Ekateringofsky
Prospect. Here amongst tangled grass, old, deserted boats, stranded,
ruined cottages and abraided piers, I hung above the sea. Not indeed the
sea of my Glebeshire memories; this was a sluggish, tideless sea, but in
the winter one sheet of ice, stretching far beyond the barrier of the
eye, catching into its frosted heart every colour of the sky and air,
the lights of the town, the lamps of imprisoned barges, the moon, the
sun, the stars, the purple sunsets, and the strange, mysterious lights
that flash from the shadows of the hovering snow-clouds. My rooms were
desolate perhaps, bare boards with holes, an old cracked mirror, a
stove, a bookcase, a photograph, and a sketch of Rafiel Cove. My friends
looked and shivered; I, staring from my window on to the entrance into
the waterways of the city, felt that any magic might come out of that
strange desolation and silence. A shadow like the sweeping of the wing
of a great bird would hover above the ice; a bell from some boat would
ring, then the church bells of the city would answer it; the shadow
would pass and the moon would rise, deep gold, and lie hard and sharp
against the thick, impending air; the shadow would pass and the stars
come out, breaking with an almost audible crackle through the stuff of
the sky... and only five minutes away the shop-lights were glittering,
the Isvostchicks crying to clear the road, the tram-bells clanging, the
boys shouting the news. Around and about me marvellous silence....
In the early autumn of 1916 I met at a dinner-party Nicolai Leontievitch
Markovitch. In the course of a conversation I informed him that I had
been for a year with the Ninth Army in Galicia, and he then asked me
whether I had met his wife's uncle Alexei Petrovitch Semyonov, who was
also with the Ninth Army. It happened that I had known Alexei Petrovitch
very well and the sound of his name brought back to me so vividly events
and persons with whom we had both been connected that I had difficulty
in controlling my sudden emotion. Markovitch invited me to his house. He
lived, he told me, with his wife in a flat in the Anglisky Prospect; his
sister-in-law and another of his wife's uncles, a brother of Alexei
Petrovitch, also lived with them. I said that I would be very glad to
It is impossible to describe how deeply, in the days that followed, I
struggled against the attraction that this invitation presented to me. I
had succeeded during all these months in avoiding any contact with the
incidents or characters of the preceding year. I had written no letters
and had received none; I had resolutely avoided meeting any members of
my old Atriad when they came to the town.
But now I succumbed. Perhaps something of my old vitality and curiosity
was already creeping back into my bones, perhaps time was already
dimming my memories--at any rate, on an evening early in October I paid
my call. Alexei Petrovitch was not present; he was on the Galician
front, in Tarnople. I found Markovitch, his wife Vera Michailovna, his
sister-in-law Nina Michailovna, his wife's uncle Ivan Petrovitch and a
young man Boris Nicolaievitch Grogoff. Markovitch himself was a thin,
loose, untidy man with pale yellow hair thinning on top, a ragged, pale
beard, a nose with a tendency to redden at any sudden insult or unkind
word and an expression perpetually anxious.
Vera Michailovna on the other hand was a fine young woman and it must
have been the first thought of all who met them as to why she had
married him. She gave an impression of great strength; her figure tall
and her bosom full, her dark eyes large and clear. She had black hair, a
vast quantity of it, piled upon her head. Her face was finely moulded,
her lips strong, red, sharply marked. She looked like a woman who had
already made up her mind upon all things in life and could face them
all. Her expression was often stern and almost insolently scornful, but
also she could be tender, and her heart would shine from her eyes. She
moved slowly and gracefully, and quite without self-consciousness.
A strange contrast was her sister, Nina Michailovna, a girl still, it
seemed, in childhood, pretty, with brown hair, laughing eyes, and a
trembling mouth that seemed ever on the edge of laughter. Her body was
soft and plump; she had lovely hands, of which she was obviously very
proud. Vera dressed sternly, often in black, with a soft white collar,
almost like a nurse or nun. Nina was always in gay colours; she wore
clothes, as it seemed to me, in very bad taste, colours clashing,
strange bows and ribbons and lace that had nothing to do with the dress
to which they were attached. She was always eating sweets, laughed a
great deal, had a shrill piercing voice, and was never still. Ivan
Petrovitch, the uncle, was very different from my Semyonov. He was
short, fat, and dressed with great neatness and taste. He had a short
black moustache, a head nearly bald, and a round chubby face with small
smiling eyes. He was a Chinovnik, and held his position in some
Government office with great pride and solemnity. It was his chief aim,
I found, to be considered cosmopolitan, and when he discovered the
feeble quality of my French he insisted in speaking always to me in his
strange confused English, a language quite of his own, with sudden
startling phrases which he had "snatched" as he expressed it from
Shakespeare and the Bible. He was the kindest soul alive, and all he
asked was that he should be left alone and that no one should quarrel
with him. He confided to me that he hated quarrels, and that it was an
eternal sorrow to him that the Russian people should enjoy so greatly
that pastime. I discovered that he was terrified of his brother, Alexei,
and at that I was not surprised. His weakness was that he was
inpenetrably stupid, and it was quite impossible to make him understand
anything that was not immediately in line with his own
experiences--unusual obtuseness in a Russian. He was vain about his
clothes, especially about his shoes, which he had always made in London;
he was sentimental and very easily hurt.
Very different again was the young man Boris Nicolaievitch Grogoff. No
relation of the family, he seemed to spend most of his time in the
Markovitch flat. A handsome young man, strongly built, with a head of
untidy curly yellow hair, blue eyes, high cheek bones, long hands with
which he was for ever gesticulating. Grogoff was an internationalist
Socialist and expressed his opinions at the top of his voice whenever he
could find an occasion. He would sit for hours staring moodily at the
floor, or glaring fiercely upon the company. Then suddenly he would
burst out, walking about, flinging up his arms, shouting. I saw at once
that Markovitch did not like him and that he despised Markovitch. He did
not seem to me a very wise young man, but I liked his energy, his
kindness, sudden generosities, and honesty. I could not see his reason
for being so much in this company.
During the autumn of 1916 I spent more and more time with the
Markovitches. I cannot tell you what was exactly the reason. Vera
Michailovna perhaps, although let no one imagine that I fell in love
with her or ever thought of doing so. No, my time for that was over. But
I felt from the first that she was a fine, understanding creature, that
she sympathised with me without pitying me, that she would be a good and
loyal friend, and that I, on my side could give her comprehension and
fidelity. They made me feel at home with them; there had been as yet no
house in Petrograd whither I could go easily and without ceremony, which
I could leave at any moment that I wished. Soon they did not notice
whether I were there or no; they continued their ordinary lives and
Nina, to whom I was old, plain, and feeble, treated me with a friendly
indifference that did not hurt as it might have done in England. Boris
Grogoff patronised and laughed at me, but would give me anything in the
way of help, property, or opinions, did I need it. I was in fact by
Christmas time a member of the family. They nicknamed me "Durdles,"
after many jokes about my surname and reminiscences of "Edwin Drood" (my
Russian name was Ivan Andreievitch). We had merry times in spite of the
troubles and distresses now crowding upon Russia.
And now I come to the first of the links in my story. It was with this
family that Henry Bohun was to lodge.
Some three years before, when Ivan Petrovitch had gone to live with the
Markovitches, it had occurred to them that they had two empty rooms and
that these would accommodate one or two paying guests. It seemed to them
still more attractive that these guests should be English, and I expect
that it was Ivan Petrovitch who emphasised this. The British Consulate
was asked to assist them, and after a few inconspicuous clerks and young
business men they entertained for a whole six months the Hon. Charles
Trafford, one of the junior secretaries at the Embassy. At the end of
those six months the Hon. Charles, burdened with debt, and weakened by
little sleep and much liquor, was removed to a less exciting atmosphere.
With all his faults, he left faithful friends in the Markovitch flat,
and he, on his side, gave so enthusiastic an account of Mme.
Markovitch's attempts to restrain and modify his impetuosities that the
Embassy recommended her care and guidance to other young secretaries.
The war came and Vera Michailovna declared that she could have lodgers
no longer, and a terrible blow this was to Ivan Petrovitch. Then
suddenly, towards the end of 1916, she changed her mind and announced to
the Embassy that she was ready for any one whom they could send her.
Henry Bohun was offered, accepted, and prepared for. Ivan Petrovitch was
a happy man once more.
I never discovered that Markovitch was much consulted in these affairs.
Vera Michailovna "ran" the flat financially, industrially, and
spiritually. Markovitch meanwhile was busy with his inventions. I have,
as yet, said nothing about Nicolai Leontievitch's inventions. I
hesitate, indeed, to speak of them, although they are so essential, and
indeed important a part of my story. I hesitate simply because I do not
wish this narrative to be at all fantastic, but that it should stick
quite honestly and obviously to the truth. It is certain moreover that
what is naked truth to one man seems the falsest fancy to another, and
after all I have, from beginning to end, only my own conscience to
satisfy. The history of the human soul and its relation to divinity
which is, I think, the only history worth any man's pursuit must push
its way, again and again, through this same tangled territory which
infests the region lying between truth and fantasy; one passes suddenly
into a world that seems pure falsehood, so askew, so obscure, so twisted
and coloured is it. One is through, one looks back and it lies behind
one as the clearest truth. Such an experience makes one tender to other
men's fancies and less impatient of the vague and half-defined
travellers' tales that other men tell. Childe Roland is not the only
traveller who has challenged the Dark Tower.
In the Middle Ages Nicolai Leontievitch Markovitch would have been
called, I suppose, a Magician--a very half-hearted and unsatisfactory
one he would always have been--and he would have been most certainly
burnt at the stake before he had accomplished any magic worthy of the
name. His inventions, so far as I saw anything of them, were innocent
and simple enough. It was the man himself rather than his inventions
that arrested the attention. About the time of Bohun's arrival upon the
scene it was a new kind of ink that he had discovered, and for many
weeks the Markovitch flat dripped ink from every pore. He had no
laboratory, no scientific materials, nor, I think, any profound
knowledge. The room where he worked was a small box-like place off the
living-room, a cheerless enough abode with a little high barred window
in it as in a prison-cell, cardboard-boxes piled high with feminine
garments, a sewing-machine, old dusty books, and a broken-down
perambulator occupying most of the space. I never could understand why
the perambulator was there, as the Markovitches had no children. Nicolai
Leontievitch sat at a table under the little window, and his favourite
position was to sit with the chair perched on one leg and so, rocking in
this insecure position, he brooded over his bottles and glasses and
trays. This room was so dark even in the middle of the day that he was
often compelled to use a lamp. There he hovered, with his ragged beard,
his ink-stained fingers and his red-rimmed eyes, making strange noises
to himself and envolving from his materials continual little explosions
that caused him infinite satisfaction. He did not mind interruptions,
nor did he ever complain of the noise in the other room, terrific though
it often was. He would be absorbed, in a trance, lost in another world,
and surely amiable and harmless enough. And yet not entirely amiable.
His eyes would close to little spots of dull, lifeless colour--the only
thing alive about him seemed to be his hands that moved and stirred as
though they did not belong to his body at all, but had an independent
existence of their own--and his heels protruding from under his chair
were like horrid little animals waiting, malevolently, on guard.
His inventions were, of course, never successful, and he contributed,
therefore, nothing to the maintenance of his household. Vera Michailovna
had means of her own, and there were also the paying guests. But he
suffered from no sense of distress at his impecuniosity. I discovered
very quickly that Vera Michailovna kept the family purse, and one of
the earliest sources of family trouble was, I fancy, his constant
demands for money. Before the war he had, I believe, been drunk whenever
it was possible. Because drink was difficult to obtain, and in a flood
of patriotism roused by the enthusiasm of the early days of the war, he
declared himself a teetotaller, and marvellously he kept his vows. This
abstinence was now one of his greatest prides, and he liked to tell you
about it. Nevertheless he needed money as badly as ever, and he borrowed
whenever he could. One of the first things that Vera Michailovna told me
was that I was on no account to open my purse to him. I was not always
able to keep my promise.
On this particular evening of Bohun's arrival I came, by invitation, to
supper. They had told me about their Englishman, and had asked me indeed
to help the first awkward half-hour over the stile. It may seem strange
that the British Embassy should have chosen so uncouth a host as Nicolai
Leontievitch for their innocent secretaries, but it was only the more
enterprising of the young men who preferred to live in a Russian family;
most of them inhabited elegant flats of their own, ornamented with
coloured stuffs and gaily decorated cups and bright trays from the Jews'
Market, together with English comforts and luxuries dragged all the way
from London. Moreover, Markovitch figured very slightly in the
consciousness of his guests, and the rest of the flat was roomy and
clean and light. It was, like most of the homes of the Russian
Intelligentzia over-burdened with family history. Amazing the things
that Russians will gather together and keep, one must suppose, only
because they are too lethargic to do away with them. On the walls of the
Markovitch dining-room all kinds of pictures were hung--old family
photographs yellow and dusty, old calendars, prints of ships at sea, and
young men hanging over stiles, and old ladies having tea, photographs of
the Kremlin and the Lavra at Kieff, copies of Ivan and his murdered son
and Serov's portrait of Chaliapine as Boris Godounov. Bookcases there
were with tattered editions of Pushkin and Lermontov. The middle of the
living-room was occupied with an enormous table covered by a dark red
cloth, and this table was the centre of the life of the family. A large
clock wheezed and groaned against the wall, and various chairs of
different shapes and sizes filled up most of the remaining space.
Nevertheless, although everything in the room looked old except the
white and gleaming stove, Vera Michailovna spread over the place the
impress of her strong and active personality. It was not a sluggish
room, nor was it untidy as so many Russian rooms are. Around the table
everybody sat. It seemed that at all hours of the day and night some
kind of meal was in progress there; and it was almost certain that from
half-past two in the afternoon until half-past two on the following
morning the samovar would be found there, presiding with sleepy dignity
over the whole family and caring nothing for anybody. I can smell now
that especial smell of tea and radishes and salted fish, and can hear
the wheeze of the clock, the hum of the samovar, Nina's shrill laugh and
Boris's deep voice.... I owe that room a great deal. It was there that I
was taken out of myself and memories that fared no better for their
perpetual resurrection. That room called me back to life.
On this evening there was to be, in honour of young Bohun, an especially
fine dinner. A message had come from him that he would appear with his
boxes at half-past seven. When I arrived Vera was busy in the kitchen,
and Nina adding in her bedroom extra ribbons and laces to her costume;
Boris Nicolaievitch was not present; Nicolai Leontievitch was working in
I went through to him. He did not look up as I came in. The room was
darker than usual; the green shade over the lamp was tilted wickedly as
though it were cocking its eye at Markovitch's vain hopes, and there was
the man himself, one cheek a ghastly green, his hair on end and his
chair precariously balanced.
I heard him say as though he repeated an incantation--"_Nu Vot... Nu
Vot... Nu Vot_."
"_Zdras te_, Nicolai Leontievitch," I said. Then I did not disturb him
but sat down on a rickety chair and waited. Ink dripped from his table
on to the floor. One bottle lay on its side, the ink oozing out, other
bottles stood, some filled, some half-filled, some empty.
"Ah, ha!" he cried, and there was a little explosion; a cork spurted out
and struck the ceiling; there was smoke and the crackling of glass. He
turned round and faced me, a smudge of ink on one of his cheeks, and
that customary nervous unhappy smile on his lips.
"Well, how goes it?" I asked.
"Well enough." He touched his cheek then sucked his fingers. "I must
wash. We have a guest to-night. And the news, what's the latest?"
He always asked me this question, having apparently the firm conviction
that an Englishman must know more about the war than a man of any other
nationality. But he didn't pause for an answer--"News--but of course
there is none. What can you expect from this Russia of ours?--and the
rest--it's all too far away for any of us to know anything about
it--only Germany's close at hand. Yes. Remember that. You forget it
sometimes in England. She's very near indeed.... We've got a guest
coming--from the English Embassy. His name's Boon and a funny name too.
You don't know him, do you?"
No, I didn't know him. I laughed. Why should he think that I always knew
everybody, I who kept to myself so?
"The English always stick together. That's more than can be said for us
Russians. We're a rotten lot. Well, I must go and wash."
Then, whether by a sudden chance of light and shade, or if you like to
have it, by a sudden revelation on the part of a beneficent Providence,
he really did look malevolent, standing in the middle of the dirty
little room, malevolent and pathetic too, like a cross, sick bird.
"Vera's got a good dinner ready. That's one thing, Ivan Andreievitch,"
he said; "and vodka--a little bottle. We got it from a friend. But I
don't drink now, you know."
He went off and I, going into the other room, found Vera Michailovna
giving last touches to the table. I sat and watched with pleasure her
calm assured movements. She really was splendid, I thought, with the
fine carriage of her head, her large mild eyes, her firm strong hands.
"All ready for the guest, Vera Michailovna?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered, smiling at me, "I hope so. He won't be very
particular, will he, because we aren't princes?"
"I can't answer for him," I replied, smiling back at her. "But he can't
be more particular than the Hon. Charles--and he was a great success."
The Hon. Charles was a standing legend in the family, and we always
laughed when we mentioned him.
"I don't know"--she stopped her work at the table and stood, her hand up
to her brow as though she would shade her eyes from the light--"I wish
he wasn't coming--the new Englishman, I mean. Better perhaps as we
were--Nicholas--" she stopped short. "Oh, I don't know! They're
difficult times, Ivan Andreievitch."
The door opened and old Uncle Ivan came in. He was dressed very smartly
with a clean white shirt and a black bow tie and black patent leather
shoes, and his round face shone as the sun.
"Ah, Mr. Durward," he said, trotting forward. "Good health to you! What
excellent weather we're sharing."
"So we are, M. Semyonov," I answered him. "Although it did rain most of
yesterday you know. But weather of the soul perhaps you mean? In that
case I'm very glad to hear that you are well."
"Ah--of the soul?" He always spoke his words very carefully, clipping
and completing them, and then standing back to look at them as though
they were china ornaments arranged on a shining table. "No--my soul
to-day is not of the first rank, I'm afraid."
It was obvious that he was in a state of the very greatest excitement;
he could not keep still, but walked up and down beside the long table,
fingering the knives and forks.
Then Nina burst in upon us in one of her frantic rages. Her tempers were
famous both for their ferocity and the swiftness of their passing. In
the course of them she was like some impassioned bird of brilliant
plumages, tossing her feathers, fluttering behind the bars of her cage
at some impertinent, teasing passer-by. She stood there now in the
doorway, gesticulating with her hands.
"_Nu, Tznaiesh schto?_ Michael Alexandrovitch has put me off--says he is
busy all night at the office. He busy all night! Don't I know the
business he's after? And it's the third time--I won't see him again--no,
I won't. He--"
"Good-evening, Nina Michailovna," I said, smiling. She turned to me.
"Durdles--Mr. Durdles--only listen. It was all arranged for
to-night--the _Parisian_, and then we were to come straight back--"
"But your guest--" I began.
However the torrent continued. The door opened and Boris Grogoff came
in. Instantly she turned upon him.
"There's your fine friend!" she cried; "Michael Alexandrovitch isn't
coming. Put me off at the last moment, and it's the third time. And I
might have gone to Musikalnaya Drama. I was asked by--"
"Well, why not?" Grogoff interrupted calmly. "If he had something better
Then she turned upon him, screaming, and in a moment they were at it,
tooth and nail, heaping up old scores, producing fact after fact to
prove, the one to the other, false friendship, lying manners, deceitful
promises, perjured records. Vera tried to interrupt, Markovitch said
something, I began a remonstrance--in a moment we were all at it, and
the room was a whirl of noise. In the tempest it was only I who heard
the door open. I turned and saw Henry Bohun standing there.
I smile now when I think of that moment of his arrival, go fitting to
the characters of the place, so appropriate a symbol of what was to
come. Bohun was beautifully dressed, spotlessly neat, in a bowler hat a
little to one side, a light-blue silk scarf, a dark-blue overcoat. His
face wore an expression of dignified self-appreciation. It was as though
he stood there breathing blessings on the house that he had sanctified
by his arrival. He looked, too, with it all, such a boy that my heart
was touched. And there was something good and honest about his eyes.
He may have spoken, but certainly no one heard him in the confusion.
I just caught Nina's shrill voice: "Listen all of you! There you are!
You hear what he says! That I told him it was to be Tuesday when,
everybody knows--Verotchka! Ah--Verotchka! He says--" Then she paused; I
caught her amazed glance at the door, her gasp, a scream of stifled
laughter, and behold she was gone!
Then they all saw. There was instant silence, a terrible pause, and then
Bohun's polite gentle voice: "Is this where Mr. Markovitch lives? I beg
Great awkwardness followed. It is quite an illusion to suppose that
Russians are easy, affable hosts. I know of no people in the world who
are so unable to put you at your ease if there is something unfortunate
in the air. They have few easy social graces, and they are inclined to
abandon at once a situation if it is made difficult for them. If it
needs an effort to make a guest happy they leave him alone and trust to
a providence in whose powers, however, they entirely disbelieve. Bohun
was led to his room, his bags being carried by old Sacha, the
Markovitch's servant, and the Dvornik.
His bags, I remember, were very splendid, and I saw the eyes of Uncle
Ivan grow large as he watched their progress. Then with a sigh he drew a
chair up to the table and began eating zakuska, putting salt-fish and
radishes and sausage on to his place and eating them with a fork.
"Dyadya, Ivan!" Vera said reproachfully. "Not yet--we haven't begun.
Ivan Andreievitch, what do you think? Will he want hot water?"
She hurried after him.
The evening thus unfortunately begun was not happily continued. There
was a blight upon us all. I did my best, but I was in considerable pain
and very tired. Moreover, I was not favourably impressed with my first
sight of young Bohun. He seemed to me foolish and conceited. Uncle Ivan
was afraid of him. He made only one attack.
"It was a very fruitful journey that you had, sir, I hope?"
"I beg your pardon," said Bohun.
"A very fruitful journey--nothing burdensome nor extravagant?"
"Oh, all right, thanks," Bohun answered, trying unsuccessfully to show
that he was not surprised at my friend's choice of words. But Uncle Ivan
saw that he had not been successful and his lip trembled. Markovitch was
silent and Boris Nicolaievitch sulked. Only once towards the end of the
meal Bohun interested me.
"I wonder," he asked me, "whether you know a fellow called Lawrence? He
travelled from England with me. A man who's played a lot of football."
"Not Jerry Lawrence, the international!" I said. "Surely he can't have
come out here?" Of course it was the same. I was interested and
strangely pleased. The thought of Lawrence's square back and cheery
smile was extremely agreeable just then.
"Oh! I'm very glad," I answered. "I must get him to come and see me. I
knew him pretty well at one time. Where's he to be found?"
Bohun, with an air of rather gentle surprise, as though he could not
help thinking it strange that any one should take an interest in
Lawrence's movements, told me where he was lodging.
"And I hope you also will find your way to me sometime,"
I added. "It's an out-of-place grimy spot, I'm afraid. You might bring
Lawrence round one evening."
Soon after that, feeling that I could do no more towards retrieving an
evening definitely lost, I departed. At the last I caught Markovitch's
eye. He seemed to be watching for something. A new invention perhaps. He
was certainly an unhappy man.
I was to meet Jerry Lawrence sooner than I had expected. And it was in
Two days after the evening that I have just described I was driven to go
and see Vera Michailovna. I was driven, partly by my curiosity, partly
by my depression, and partly by my loneliness. This same loneliness was,
I believe, at this time beginning to affect us all. I should be
considered perhaps to be speaking with exaggeration if I were to borrow
the title of one of Mrs. Oliphant's old-fashioned and charming novels
and to speak of Petrograd as already "A Beleaguered City"--beleaguered,
moreover, in very much the same sense as that other old city was. From
the very beginning of the war Petrograd was isolated--isolated not by
the facts of the war, its geographical position or any of the obvious
causes, but simply by the contempt and hatred with which it was
regarded. From very old days it was spoken of as a German town. "If you
want to know Russia don't go to Petrograd." "Simply a cosmopolitan town
like any other." "A smaller Berlin"--and so on, and so on. This sense of
outside contempt influenced its own attitude to the world. It was
always at war with Moscow. It showed you when you first arrived its
Nevski, its ordered squares, its official buildings as though it would
say: "I suppose you will take the same view as the rest. If you don't
wish to look any deeper here you are. I'm not going to help you."
As the war developed it lost whatever gaiety and humour it had. After
the fall of Warsaw the attitude of the Russian people in general became
fatalistic. Much nonsense was talked in the foreign press about "Russia
coming back again and again." "Russia, the harder she was pressed the
harder she resisted," and the ghost of Napoleon retreating from Moscow
was presented to every home in Europe; but the plain truth was that,
after Warsaw, the temper of the people changed. Things were going wrong
once more as they had always gone wrong in Russian history, and as they
always would go wrong. Then followed bewilderment. What to do? Whose
fault was it all? Shall we blame our blood or our rulers? Our rulers,
certainly, as we always, with justice, have blamed them--our blood, too,
perhaps. From the fall of Warsaw, in spite of momentary flashes of
splendour and courage, the Russians were a blindfolded, naked people,
fighting a nation fully armed. Now, Europe was vast continents away, and
only Germany, that old Germany whose soul was hateful, whose practical
spirit was terribly admirable, was close at hand. The Russian people
turned hither and thither, first to its Czar, then to its generals, then
to its democratic spirit, then to its idealism--and there was no hope
anywhere. They appealed for Liberty. In the autumn of 1916 a great
prayer from the whole country went up that the bandage might be taken
from its eyes, and soon, lest when the light did at last come the eyes
should be so unused to it that they should see nothing. Nicholas had his
opportunity--the greatest opportunity perhaps ever offered to man. He
refused it. From that moment the easiest way was closed, and only a most
perilous rocky path remained.
With every week of that winter of 1916, Petrograd stepped deeper and
deeper into the darkness. Its strangeness grew and grew upon me as the
days filed through. I wondered whether my illness and the troubles of
the preceding year made me see everything at an impossible angle--or it
was perhaps my isolated lodging, my crumbling rooms, with the grey
expanse of sea and sky in front of them that was responsible. Whatever
it was, Petrograd soon came to be to me a place with a most terrible
secret life of its own.
There is an old poem of Pushkin's that Alexandre Benois has most
marvellously illustrated, which has for its theme the rising of the
river Neva in November 1824. On that occasion the splendid animal
devoured the town, and in Pushkin's poem you feel the devastating power
of the beast, and in Benois' pictures you can see it licking its lips as
it swallowed down pillars and bridges and streets and squares with poor
little fragments of humanity clutching and crying and fruitlessly
This poem only emphasised for me the suspicion that I had originally
had, that the great river and the marshy swamp around it despised
contemptuously the buildings that man had raised beside and upon it, and
that even the buildings in their turn despised the human beings who
thronged them. It could only be some sense of this kind that could make
one so repeatedly conscious that one's feet were treading ancient
The town, raised all of a piece by Peter the Great, could claim no
ancient history at all; but through every stick and stone that had been
laid there stirred the spirit and soul of the ground, so that out of one
of the sluggish canals one might expect at any moment to see the horrid
and scaly head of some palaeolithic monster with dead and greedy eyes
slowly push its way up that it might gaze at the little black hurrying
atoms as they crossed and recrossed the grey bridge. There are many
places in Petrograd where life is utterly dead; where some building,
half-completed, has fallen into red and green decay; where the water
lies still under iridescent scum and thick clotted reeds seem to stand
at bay, concealing in their depths some terrible monster.
At such a spot I have often fancied that the eyes of countless
inhabitants of that earlier world are watching me, and that not far away
the waters of Neva are gathering, gathering, gathering their mighty
momentum for some instant, when, with a great heave and swell, they will
toss the whole fabric of brick and mortar from their shoulders, flood
the streets and squares, and then sink tranquilly back into great sheets
of unruffled waters marked only with reeds and the sharp cry of some
All this may be fantastic enough, I only know that it was sufficiently
real to me during that winter of 1916 to be ever at the back of my mind;
and I believe that some sense of that kind had in all sober reality
something to do with that strange weight of uneasy anticipation that we
all of us, yes, the most unimaginative amongst us, felt at this time.
Upon this afternoon when I went to pay my call on Vera Michailovna, the
real snow began to fall. We had had the false preliminary attempt a
fortnight before; now in the quiet persistent determination, the solid
soft resilience beneath one's feet, and the patient aquiescence of roofs
and bridges and cobbles one knew that the real winter had come. Already,
although it was only four o'clock in the afternoon, there was darkness,
with the strange almost metallic glow as of the light from an inverted
looking-glass that snow makes upon the air. I had not far to go, but the
long stretch of the Ekateringofsky Canal was black and gloomy and
desolate, repeating here and there the pale yellow reflection of some
lamp, but for the most part dim and dead, with the hulks of barges lying
like sleeping monsters on its surface. As I turned into Anglisky
Prospect I found stretched like a black dado, far down the street,
against the wall, a queue of waiting women. They would be there until
the early morning, many of them, and it was possible that then the
bread would not be sufficient. And this not from any real lack, but
simply from the mistakes of a bungling, peculating Government. No wonder
that one's heart was heavy.
I found Vera Michailovna to my relief alone. When Sacha brought me into
the room she was doing what I think I had never seen her do before,
sitting unoccupied, her eyes staring in front of her, her hands folded
on her lap.
"I don't believe that I've ever caught you idle before, Vera
Michailovna," I said.
"Oh, I'm glad you've come!" She caught my hand with an eagerness very
different from her usual calm, quiet greeting. "Sit down. It's an
extraordinary thing. At that very moment I was wishing for you."
"What is it I can do for you?" I asked. "You know that I would do
anything for you."
"Yes, I know that you would. But--well. You can't help me because I
don't know what's the matter with me."
"That's very unlike you," I said.
"Yes, I know it is--and perhaps that's why I am frightened. It's so
vague; and you know I long ago determined that if I couldn't define a
trouble and have it there in front of me, so that I could strangle
it--why I wouldn't bother about it. But those things are so easy to
She got up and began to walk up and down the room. That again was
utterly unlike her, and altogether I seemed to be seeing, this
afternoon, some quite new Vera Michailovna, some one more intimate, more
personal, more appealing. I realised suddenly that she had never before,
at any period of our friendship, asked for my help--not even for my
sympathy. She was so strong and reliant and independent, cared so little
for the opinion of others, and shut down so closely upon herself her
private life, that I could not have imagined her asking help from any
one. And of the two of us, she was the man, the strong determined soul,
the brave and self-reliant character. It seemed to me ludicrous that
she should ask for my help. Nevertheless I was greatly touched.
"I would do anything for you," I said.
She turned to me, a splendid figure, her head, with its crown of black
hair, lifted, her hands on her hips, her eyes gravely regarding me.
"There are three things," she said, "perhaps all of them nothing.... And
yet all of them disturbing. First my husband. He's beginning to drink
"Drink?" I said; "where can he get it from?"
"I don't know. I must discover. But it isn't the actual drinking. Every
one in our country drinks if he can. Only what has made my husband break
his resolve? He was so proud of it. You know how proud he was. And he
lies about it. He says he is not drinking. He never used to lie about
anything. That was not one of his faults."
"Perhaps his inventions," I suggested.
"Pouf! His inventions! You know better than that, Ivan Andreievitch. No,
no. It is something.... He's not himself. Well, then, secondly, there's
Nina. The other night did you notice anything?"
"Only that she lost her temper. But she's always doing that."
"No, it's more than that. She's unhappy, and I don't like the life she's
leading. Always out at cinematographs and theatres and restaurants, and
with a lot of boys who mean no harm, I know--but they're idiotic,
they're no good.... Now, when the war's like this and the suffering....
To be always at the cinematograph! But I've lost my authority over her,
Ivan Andreievitch. She doesn't care any longer what I say to her. Once,
and not so long ago, I meant so much to her. She's changed, she's
harder, more careless, more selfish. You know, Ivan Andreievitch, that
Nina's simply everything to me. I don't talk about myself, do I? but at
least I can say that since--oh, many, many years, she's been the whole
world and more than the whole world to me. Our mother and father were
killed in a railway accident coming up from Odessa when Nina was very
small, and since then Nina's been mine--all mine!"
She said that word with sudden passion, flinging it at me with a fierce
gesture of her hands. "Do you know what it is to want that something
should belong to you, belong entirely to you, and to no one else? I've
been too proud to say, but I've wanted that terribly all my life. I
haven't had children, although I prayed for them, and perhaps now it is
as well. But Nina! She's known she was mine, and, until now, she's loved
to know it. But now she's escaping from me, and she knows that too, and
is ashamed. I think I could bear anything but that sense that she
herself has that she's being wrong--I hate her to be ashamed."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "it's time that she went out into the world now
and worked. There are a thousand things that a woman can do."
"No--not Nina. I've spoilt her, perhaps; I don't know. I always liked to
feel that she needed my help. I didn't want to make her too
self-reliant. That was wrong of me, and I shall be punished for it."
"Speak to her," I said. "She loves you so much that one word from you to
her will be enough."
"No," Vera Michailovna said slowly. "It won't be enough now. A year ago,
yes. But now she's escaping as fast as she can."
"Perhaps she's in love with some one," I suggested.
"No. I should have seen at once if it had been that. I would rather it
were that. I think she would come back to me then. No, I suppose that
this had to happen. I was foolish to think that it would not. But it
leaves one alone--it--"
She pulled herself up at that, regarding me with sudden shyness, as
though she would forbid me to hint that she had shown the slightest
emotion, or made in any way an appeal for pity.
I was silent, then I said:
"And the third thing, Vera Michailovna?"
"Uncle Alexei is coming back." That startled me. I felt my heart give
one frantic leap.
"Alexei Petrovitch!" I cried. "When? How soon?"
"I don't know. I've had a letter." She felt in her dress, found the
letter and read it through. "Soon, perhaps. He's leaving the Front for
good. He's disgusted with it all, he says. He's going to take up his
Petrograd practice again."
"Will he live with you?"
"No. God forbid!"
She felt then, perhaps, that her cry had revealed more than she
intended, because she smiled and, trying to speak lightly, said:
"No. We're old enemies, my uncle and I. We don't get on. He thinks me
sentimental, I think him--but never mind what I think him. He has a bad
effect on my husband."
"A bad effect?" I repeated.
"Yes. He irritates him. He laughs at his inventions, you know."
I nodded my head. Yes, with my earlier experience of him I could
understand that he would do that.
"He's a cynical, embittered man," I said. "He believes in nothing and in
nobody. And yet he has his fine side--"
"No, he has no fine side," she interrupted me fiercely. "None. He is a
bad man. I've known him all my life, and I'm not to be deceived."
Then in a softer, quieter tone she continued:
"But tell me, Ivan Andreievitch. I've wanted before to ask you. You were
with him on the Front last year. We have heard that he had a great love
affair there, and that the Sister whom he loved was killed. Is that
"Yes," I said, "that is true."
"Was he very much in love with her?"
"I believe terribly."
"And it hurt him deeply when she was killed?"
"But what kind of woman was she? What type? It's so strange to me. Uncle
Alexei... with his love affairs!"
I looked up, smiling. "She was your very opposite, Vera Michailovna, in
everything. Like a child--with no knowledge, no experience, no
self-reliance--nothing. She was wonderful in her ignorance and bravery.
We all thought her wonderful."
"And she loved _him?_"
"Yes--she loved him."
"How strange! Perhaps there is some good in him somewhere. But to us at
any rate he always brings trouble. This affair may have changed him.
They say he is very different. Worse perhaps--"
She broke out then into a cry:
"I want to get away, Ivan Andreievitch! To get away, to escape, to leave
Russia and everything in it behind me! To escape!"
It was just then that Sacha knocked on the door. She came in to say that
there was an Englishman in the hall inquiring for the other Englishman
who had come yesterday, that he wanted to know when he would be back.
"Perhaps I can help," I said. I went out into the hall and there I found
He stood there in the dusk of the little hall looking as resolute and
unconcerned as an Englishman, in a strange and uncertain world, is
expected to look. Not that he ever considered the attitudes fitting to
adopt on certain occasions. He would tell you, if you inquired, that "he
couldn't stand those fellows who looked into every glass they passed."
His brow wore now a simple and innocent frown like that of a healthy
baby presented for the first time with a strange and alarming rattle. It
was only later that I was to arrive at some faint conception of
Lawrence's marvellous acceptance of anything that might happen to turn
up. Vice, cruelty, unsuspected beauty, terror, remorse, hatred, and
ignorance--he accepted them all once they were there in front of him. He
sometimes, as I shall on a later occasion, show, allowed himself a free
expression of his views in the company of those whom he could trust, but
they were never the views of a suspicious or a disappointed man. It was
not that he had great faith in human nature. He had, I think, very
little. Nor was he without curiosity--far from it. But once a thing was
really there he wasted no time over exclamations as to the horror or
beauty or abomination of its actual presence. There was as he once
explained to me, "precious little time to waste." Those who thought him
a dull, silent fellow--and they were many--made of course an almost
ludicrous mistake, but most people in life are, I take it, too deeply
occupied with their own personal history to do more than estimate at its
surface value the appearance of others... but after all such a
dispensation makes, in all probability for the general happiness....
On this present occasion Jerry Lawrence stood there exactly as I had
seen him stand many times on the football field waiting for the
referee's whistle, his thick short body held together, his mouth shut
and his eyes on guard. He did not at first recognise me.
"You've forgotten me," I said.
"I beg your pardon," he answered in his husky good-natured voice, like
the rumble of an amiable bull-dog.
"My name is Durward," I said, holding out my hand. "And years ago we had
a mutual friend in Olva Dune."
That pleased him. He gripped my hand very heartily and smiled a big ugly
smile. "Why, yes," he said. "Of course. How are you? Feeling fit? Damned
long ago all that, isn't it? Hope you're really fit?"
"Oh, I'm all right," I answered. "I was never a Hercules, you know. I
heard that you were here from Bohun. I was going to write to you. But
it's excellent that we should meet like this."
"I was after young Bohun," he explained. "But it's pleasant to find
there's another fellow in the town one knows. I've been a bit at sea
these two days. To tell you the truth I never wanted to come." I heard a
rumble in his throat that sounded like "silly blighters."
"Come in," I said. "You must meet Madame Markovitch with whom Bohun is
staying--and then wait a bit. He won't be long, I expect."
The idea of this seemed to fill Jerry with alarm. He turned back toward
the door. "Oh! I don't think... she won't want... better another time..."
his mouth was filled with indistinct rumblings.
"Nonsense." I caught his arm. "She is delightful. You must make yourself
at home here. They'll be only too glad."
"Does she speak English?" he asked.
"No," I answered. "But that's all right."
He backed again towards the door.
"My Russian's so slow," he said. "Never been here since I was a kid. I'd
rather not, really--"
However, I dragged him in and introduced him. I had quite a fatherly
desire, as I watched him, that "he should make good." But I'm afraid
that that first interview was not a great success. Vera Michailovna was
strange that afternoon, excited and disturbed as I had never known her,
and I could see that it was only with the greatest difficulty that she
could bring herself to think about Jerry at all.
And Jerry himself was so unresponsive that I could have beaten him.
"Why, you're duller than you used to be," I thought to myself, and
wondered how I could have suspected, in those days, subtle depths and
mysterious comprehensions. Vera Michailovna asked him questions about
France and London but, quite obviously, did not listen to his answers.
After ten minutes he pulled himself up slowly from his chair:
"Well, I must be going," he said. "Tell young Bohun I shall be waiting
for him to-night--7.30--Astoria--" He turned to Vera Michailovna to say
good-bye, and then, suddenly, as she rose and their eyes met, they
seemed to strike some unexpected chord of sympathy. It took both of
them, I think, by surprise; for quite a moment they stared at one
"Please come whenever you want to see your friend," she said, "we shall
"Thank you," he answered simply, and went.
When he had gone she said to me:
"I like that man. One could trust him."
"Yes, one could," I answered her.
I must return now to young Henry Bohun. I would like to arouse your
sympathy for him, but sympathy's a dangerous medicine for the young, who
are only too ready, so far as their self-confidence goes, to take a mile
if you give them an inch. But with Bohun it was simply a case of
re-delivering, piece by piece, the mile that he had had no possible
right to imagine in his possession, and at the end of his relinquishment
he was as naked and impoverished a soul as any life with youth and
health on its side can manage to sustain. He was very miserable during
these first weeks, and then it must be remembered that Petrograd was, at
this time, no very happy place for anybody. Bohun was not a coward--he
would have stood the worst things in France without flinching--but he
was neither old enough nor young enough to face without a tremor the
queer world of nerves and unfulfilled expectation in which he found
himself. In the first place, Petrograd was so very different from
anything that he had expected. Its size and space, its power of reducing
the human figure to a sudden speck of insignificance, its strange lights
and shadows, its waste spaces and cold, empty, moonlit squares, its
jumble of modern and mediaeval civilisation, above all, its supreme
indifference to all and sundry--these things cowed and humiliated him.
He was sharp enough to realise that here he was nobody at all. Then he
had not expected to be so absolutely cut off from all that he had known.
The Western world simply did not seem to exist. The papers came so
slowly that on their arrival they were not worth reading. He had not
told his friends in England to send his letters through the Embassy bag,
with the result that they would not, he was informed, reach him for
Of his work I do not intend here to speak,--it does not come into this
story,--but he found that it was most complicated and difficult, and
kicks rather than halfpence would be the certain reward. And Bohun hated
Finally, he could not be said to be happy in the Markovitch flat. He
had, poor boy, heard so much about Russian hospitality, and had formed,
from the reading of the books of Mr. Stephen Graham and others,
delightful pictures of the warmest hearts in the world holding out the
warmest hands before the warmest samovars. In its spirit that was true
enough, but it was not true in the way that Bohun expected it.
The Markovitches, during those first weeks, left him to look after
himself because they quite honestly believed that that was the thing
that he would prefer. Uncle Ivan tried to entertain him, but Bohun found
him a bore, and with the ruthless intolerance of the very young, showed
him so. The family did not put itself out to please him in any way. He
had his room and his latchkey. There was always coffee in the morning,
dinner at half-past six, and the samovar from half-past nine onwards.
But the Markovitch family life was not turned from its normal course.
Why should it be?
And then he was laughed at. Nina laughed at him. Everything about him
seemed to Nina ridiculous--his cold bath in the morning, his
trouser-press, the little silver-topped bottles on his table, the crease
in his trousers, his shining neat hair, the pearl pin in his black tie,
his precise and careful speech, the way that he said "_Nu tak...
Spasebo... gavoreet... gariachy_..." She was never tired of imitating
him; and very soon he caught her strutting about the dining-room with a
man's cap on her head, twisting a cane and bargaining with an
Isvostchick--this last because, only the evening before, he had told
them with great pride of his cleverness in that especial direction. The
fun was good-natured enough, but it was, as Russian chaff generally is,
quite regardless of sensitive feelings. Nina chaffed everybody and
nobody minded, but Bohun did not know this, and minded very much indeed.
He showed during dinner that evening that he was hurt, and sat over his
cabbage soup very dignified and silent. This made every one
uncomfortable, although Vera told me afterwards that she found it
difficult not to laugh. The family did not make themselves especially
pleasant, as Henry felt they ought to have done--they continued the even
tenor of their way. He was met by one of those sudden cold horrible
waves of isolated terror with which it pleases Russia sometimes to
overwhelm one. The snow was falling; the town was settling into a
suspicious ominous quiet. There was no light in the sky, and horrible
winds blew round the corners of abandoned streets. Henry was desperately
homesick. He would have cut and run, had there been any possible means
of doing it. He did not remember the wild joy with which he had heard,
only a few weeks before, that he was to come to Petrograd. He had
forgotten even the splendours of _Discipline_. He only knew that he was
lonely and frightened and home-sick. He seemed to be without a friend in
But he was proud. He confided in nobody. He went about with his head up,
and every one thought him the most conceited young puppy who had ever
trotted the Petrograd streets. And, although he never owned it even to
himself, Jerry Lawrence seemed to him now the one friendly soul in all
the world. You could be sure that Lawrence would be always the same; he
would not laugh at you behind your back, if he disliked something he
would say so. You knew where you were with him, and in the uncertain
world in which poor Bohun found himself that simply was everything.
Bohun would have denied it vehemently if you told him that he had once
looked down on Lawrence, or despised him for his inartistic mind.
Lawrence was "a fine fellow"; he might seem a little slow at first, "but
you wait and you will see what kind of a chap he is." Nevertheless Bohun
was not able to be for ever in his company; work separated them, and
then Lawrence lodged with Baron Wilderling on the Admiralty Quay, a long
way from Anglisky Prospect. Therefore, at the end of three weeks, Henry
Bohun discovered himself to be profoundly wretched. There seemed to be
no hope anywhere. Even the artist in him was disappointed. He went to
the Ballet and saw Tchaikowsky's "Swan Lake"; but bearing Diagilev's
splendours in front of him, and knowing nothing about the technique of
ballet-dancing he was bored and cross and contemptuous. He went to
"Eugen Onyegin" and enjoyed it, because there was still a great deal of
the schoolgirl in him; but after that he was flung on to Glinka's
"Russlan and Ludmilla," and this seemed to him quite interminable and to
have nothing to do with the gentleman and lady mentioned in the title.
He tried a play at the Alexander Theatre; it was, he saw, by Andreeff,
whose art he had told many people in England he admired, but now he
mixed him up in his mind with Kuprin, and the play was all about a
circus--very confused and gloomy. As for literature, he purchased some
new poems by Balmont, some essays by Merejkowsky, and Andre Biely's _St.
Petersburg,_ but the first of these he found pretentious, the second
dull, and the third quite impossibly obscure. He did not confess to
himself that it might perhaps be his ignorance of the Russian language
that was at fault. He went to the Hermitage and the Alexander Galleries,
and purchased coloured post-cards of the works of Somov, Benois,
Douboginsky, Lanceray, and Ostroymova--all the quite obvious people. He
wrote home to his mother "that from what he could see of Russian Art it
seemed to him to have a real future in front of it"--and he bought
little painted wooden animals and figures at the Peasants' Workshops and
stuck them up on the front of his stove.
"I like them because they are so essentially Russian," he said to me,
pointing out a red spotted cow and a green giraffe. "No other country
could have been responsible for them."
Poor boy, I had not the heart to tell him that they had been made in
However, as I have said, in spite of his painted toys and his operas he
was, at the end of three weeks, a miserable man. Anybody could see that
he was miserable, and Vera Michailovna saw it. She took him in hand, and
at once his life was changed. I was present at the beginning of the
It was the evening of Rasputin's murder. The town of course talked of
nothing else--it had been talking, without cessation, since two o'clock
that afternoon. The dirty, sinister figure of the monk with his magnetic
eyes, his greasy beard, his robe, his girdle, and all his other
properties, brooded gigantic over all of us. He was brought into
immediate personal relationship with the humblest, most insignificant
creature in the city, and with him incredible shadows and shapes, from
Dostoeffsky, from Gogol, from Lermontov, from Nekrasov--from whom you
please--all the shadows of whom one is eternally subconsciously aware
in Russia--faced us and reminded us that they were not shadows but
The details of his murder were not accurately known--it was only sure
that, at last, after so many false rumours of attempted assassination,
he was truly gone, and this world would be bothered by his evil presence
Pictures formed in one's mind as one listened. The day was fiercely
cold, and this seemed to add to the horror of it all--to the
Hoffmannesque fantasy of the party, the lights, the supper, and the
women, the murder with its mixture of religion and superstition and
melodrama, the body flung out at last so easily and swiftly, on to the
frozen river. How many souls must have asked themselves that day--"Why,
if this is so easy, do we not proceed further? A man dies more simply
than you thought--only resolution... only resolution."
I know that that evening I found it impossible to remain in my lonely
rooms; I went round to the Markovitch flat. I found Vera Michailovna and
Bohun preparing to go out; they were alone in the flat. He looked at me
apprehensively. I think that I appeared to him at that time a queer,
moody, ill-disposed fellow, who was too old to understand the true
character of young men's impetuous souls. It may be that he was
"Will you come with us, Ivan Andreievitch?" Vera Michailovna asked me.
"We're going to the little cinema on Ekateringofsky--a piece of local
colour for Mr. Bohun."
"I'll come anywhere with you," I said. "And we'll talk about Rasputin."
Bohun was only too ready. The affair seemed to his romantic soul too
good to be true. Because we none of us knew, at that time, what had
really happened, a fine field was offered for every rumour and
Bohun had collected some wonderful stories. I saw that, apart from
Rasputin, he was a new man--something had happened to him. It was not
long before I discovered that what had happened was that Vera
Michailovna had been kind to him. Vera's most beautiful quality was her
motherliness. I do not intend that much-abused word in any sentimental
fashion. She did not shed tears over a dirty baby in the street, nor did
she drag decrepit old men into the flat to give them milk and fifty
kopecks,--but let some one appeal to the strength and bravery in her,
and she responded magnificently. I believe that to be true of very many
Russian women, who are always their most natural selves when something
appeals to the best in them. Vera Michailovna had a strength and a
security in her protection of souls weaker than her own that had about
it nothing forced or pretentious or self-conscious--it was simply the
natural woman acting as she was made to act. She saw that Bohun was
lonely and miserable and, now that the first awkwardness was passed and
he was no longer a stranger, she was able, gently and unobtrusively, to
show him that she was his friend. I think that she had not liked him at
first; but if you want a Russian to like you, the thing to do is to show
him that you need him. It is amazing to watch their readiness to receive
dependent souls whom they are in no kind of way qualified to
protect--but they do their best, and although the result is invariably
bad for everybody's character, a great deal of affection is created.
As we walked to the cinema she asked him, very gently and rather shyly,
about his home and his people and English life. She must have asked all
her English guests the same questions, but Bohun, I fancy, gave her
rather original answers. He let himself go, and became very young and
rather absurd, but also sympathetic. We were, all three of us, gay and
silly, as one very often suddenly is, in Russia, in the middle of even
disastrous situations. It had been a day of most beautiful weather, the
mud was frozen, the streets clean, the sky deep blue, the air harshly
sweet. The night blazed with stars that seemed to swing through the haze
of the frost like a curtain moved, very gently, by the wind. The
Ekateringofsky Canal was blue with the stars lying like scraps of
quicksilver all about it, and the trees and houses were deep black in
outline above it. I could feel that the people in the street were happy.
The murder of Rasputin was a sign, a symbol; his figure had been behind
the scenes so long that it had become mythical, something beyond human
power--and now, behold, it was not beyond human power at all, but was
there like a dead stinking fish. I could see the thought in their minds
as they hurried along: "Ah, he is gone, the dirty fellow--_Slava
Bogu_--the war will soon be over."
I, myself, felt the influence. Perhaps now the war would go better,
perhaps Stunner and Protopopoff and the rest of them would be dismissed,
and clean men... it was still time for the Czar.... And I heard Bohun,
in his funny, slow, childish Russian: "But you understand, Vera
Michailovna, that my father knows nothing about writing, nothing at
all--so that it wouldn't matter very much what he said.... Yes, he's
military--been in the Army always...."
Along the canal the little trees that in the spring would be green
flames were touched now very faintly by silver frost. A huge barge lay
black against the blue water; in the middle of it the rain had left a
pool that was not frozen and under the light of a street lamp blazed
gold--very strange the sudden gleam.... We passed the little wooden
shelter where an old man in a high furry cap kept oranges and apples and
nuts and sweets in paper. One candle illuminated his little store. He
looked out from the darkness behind him like an old prehistoric man. His
shed was peaked like a cocked hat, an old fat woman sat beside him
knitting and drinking a glass of tea....
"I'm sorry, Vera Michailovna, that you can't read English...." Bohun's
careful voice was explaining, "Only Wells and Locke and Jack London...."
I heard Vera Michailovna's voice. Then Bohun again:
"No, I write very slowly--yes, I correct an awful lot...."
We stumbled amongst the darkness of the cobbles; where pools had been
the ice crackled beneath our feet, then the snow scrunched.... I loved
the sound, the sharp clear scent of the air, the pools of stars in the
sky, the pools of ice at our feet, the blue like the thinnest glass
stretched across the sky. I felt the poignancy of my age, of the country
where I was, of Bohun's youth and confidence, of the war, of disease and
death--but behind it all happiness at the strange sense that I had
to-night, that came to me sometimes from I knew not where, that the
undercurrent of the river of life was stronger than the eddies and
whirlpools on its surface, that it knew whither it was speeding, and
that the purpose behind its force was strong and true and good....
"Oh," I heard Bohun say, "I'm not really very young, Vera Michailovna.
After all, it's what you've done rather than your actual years...."
"You're older than you'll ever be again, Bohun, if that's any
consolation to you," I said.
We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was
gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a
soldiers' band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played
away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills
announcing "The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts," and there
were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in
bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme
horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the
band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered
with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers' boots
and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess
behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled
into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of
human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some
seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the
impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the
lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its
No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers,
sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow
benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the
narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments.
Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the
public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of
noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were
cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the
girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from
bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a
kindly face. All the faces were kindly--kindly, ignorant, and
astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and
my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism
even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I
caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young
soldier--I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of
Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked
back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen,
and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the
security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with
which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours.... I was not wise, I
was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity....
The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the
cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and
torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and
the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked
strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd
semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all
around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a
party.... The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger... my head swam
a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe,
catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky.
We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun's happy eyes;
he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from
her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her
thoughts were elsewhere.
There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in
peasants' dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes
narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet
and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.
The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a
black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who
shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience
liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A
stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged
for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who
wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was
uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The
indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the
human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and
dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously
into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the
He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He
could not continue.
The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then
they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel
throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He
responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his
verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance,
bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the
Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the "Drama of the Woman without
a Soul," but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human
flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at
last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The
black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings
against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam
in the crystal air.
We took deep breaths of the freshness and purity; cheerful noises were
on every side of us, the band and laughter; a church bell with its deep
note and silver tinkle; the snow was vast and deep and hard all about
us. We walked back very happily to Anglisky Prospect. Vera Michailovna
said good-night to me and went in. Before he followed her, Bohun turned
round to me:
"Isn't she splendid?" he whispered. "By God, Durward, I'd do anything
for her.... Do you think she likes me?"
"Why not?" I asked.
"I want her to--frightfully. I'd do anything for her. Do you think she'd
like to learn English?"
"I don't know," I said. "Ask her."
He disappeared. As I walked home I felt about me the new interaction of
human lives and souls--ambitions, hopes, youth. And the crisis, behind
these, of the world's history made up, as it was, of the same
interactions of human and divine. The fortunes and adventures of the
soul on its journey towards its own country, its hopes and fears,
struggles and despairs, its rejections and joy and rewards--its death
and destruction--all this in terms of human life and the silly
blundering conditions of this splendid glorious earth.... Here was Vera
Michailovna and her husband, Nina and Boris Grogoff, Bohun and Lawrence,
myself and Semyonov--a jumbled lot--with all our pitiful self-important
little histories, our crimes and virtues so insignificant and so quickly
over, and behind them the fine stuff of the human and divine soul,
pushing on through all raillery and incongruity to its goal. Why, I had
caught up, once more, that interest in life that I had, I thought, so
utterly lost! I stopped for a moment by the frozen canal and laughed to
myself. The drama of life was, after all, too strong for my weak
indifference. I felt that night as though I had stepped into a new house
with lighted rooms and fires and friends waiting for me. Afterwards, I
was so closely stirred by the sense of impending events that I could not
sleep, but sat at my window watching the faint lights of the sky shift
and waver over the frozen ice....
We were approaching Christmas. The weather of these weeks was
wonderfully beautiful, sharply cold, the sky pale bird's-egg blue, the
ice and the snow glittering, shining with a thousand colours. There
began now a strange relationship between Markovitch and myself.
There was something ineffectual and pessimistic about me that made
Russians often feel in me a kindred soul. At the Front, Russians had
confided in me again and again, but that was not astonishing, because
they confided in every one. Nevertheless, they felt that I was less
English than the rest, and rather blamed me in their minds, I think, for
being so. I don't know what it was that suddenly decided Markovitch to
"make me part of his life." I certainly did not on my side make any
One evening he came to see me and stayed for hours. Then he came two or
three times within the following fortnight. He gave me the effect of not
caring in the least whether I were there or no, whether I replied or
remained silent, whether I asked questions or simply pursued my own
work. And I, on my side, had soon in my consciousness his odd,
irascible, nervous, pleading, shy and boastful figure painted
permanently, so that his actual physical presence seemed to be
unimportant. There he was, as he liked to stand up against the white
stove in my draughty room, his rather dirty nervous hands waving in
front of me, his thin hair on end, his ragged beard giving his eyes an
added expression of anxiety. His body was a poor affair, his legs thin
and uncertain, an incipient stomach causing his waistcoat suddenly to
fall inwards somewhere half-way up his chest, his feet in ill-shapen
boots, and his neck absurdly small inside his high stiff collar. His
stiff collar jutting sharply into his weak chin was perhaps his most
striking feature. Most Russians of his careless habits wore soft collars
or students' shirts that fastened tight about the neck, but this high
white collar was with Markovitch a sign and a symbol, the banner of his
early ambitions; it was the first and last of him. He changed it every
day, it was always high and sharp, gleaming and clean, and it must have
hurt him very much. He wore with it a shabby black tie that ran as far
up the collar as it could go, and there was a sense of pathos and
struggle about this tie as though it were a wild animal trying to escape
over an imprisoning wall. He would stand clutching my stove as though it
assured his safety in a dangerous country; then suddenly he would break
away from it and start careering up and down my room, stopping for an
instant to gaze through my window at the sea and the ships, then off
Back to Full Books