The Secret City
Part 2 out of 7
again, swinging his arms, his anxious eyes searching everywhere for
confirmation of the ambitions that still enflamed him.
For the root and soul of him was that he was greatly ambitious. He had
been born, I learnt, in some small town in the Moscow province, and his
father had been a schoolmaster in the place--a kind of Perodonov, I
should imagine, from the things that Markovitch told me about him. The
father, at any rate, was a mean, malicious, and grossly sensual
creature, and he finally lost his post through his improper behaviour
towards some of his own small pupils. The family then came to evil days,
and at a very early age young Markovitch was sent to Petrograd to earn
what he could with his wits. He managed to secure the post of a
secretary to an old fellow who was engaged in writing the life of his
grandfather--a difficult book, as the grandfather had been a voluminous
letter-writer, and this correspondence had to be collected and
tabulated. For months, and even years, young Markovitch laboriously
endeavoured to arrange these old yellow letters, dull, pathetic,
incoherent. His patron grew slowly imbecile, but through the fogs that
increasingly besieged him saw only this one thing clearly, that the
letters must be arranged. He kept Markovitch relentlessly at his table,
allowing him no pleasures, feeding him miserably and watching him
personally undress every evening lest he should have secreted certain
letters somewhere on his body. There was something almost sadist
apparently in the old gentleman's observation of Markovitch's labours.
It was during these years that Markovitch's ambitions took flame. He was
always as he told me having "amazing ideas." I asked him--What kind of
ideas? "Ideas by which the world would be transformed.... Those letters
were all old, you know, and dusty, and yellow, and eaten, some of them,
by rats, and they'd lie on the floor and I'd try to arrange them in
little piles according to their dates.... There'd be rows of little
packets all across the floor..., and then somehow, when one's back was
turned, they'd move, all of their own wicked purpose--and one would have
to begin all over again, bending with one's back aching, and seeing
always the stupid handwriting.... I hated it, Ivan Andreievitch, of
course I hated it, but I had to do it for the money. And I lived in his
house, too, and as he got madder it wasn't pleasant. He wanted me to
sleep with him because he saw things in the middle of the night, and
he'd catch hold of me and scream and twist his fat legs round me... no,
it wasn't agreeable. _On ne sympatichne saff-szem_. He wasn't a nice man
at all. But while I was sorting the letters these ideas would come to me
and I would be on fire.... It seemed to me that I was to save the world,
and that it would not be difficult if only one might be resolute enough.
That was the trouble--to be resolute. One might say to oneself, 'On
Friday October 13th I will do so and so, and then on Saturday November
3rd I will do so and so, and then on December 24th it will be finished.'
But then on October 13th one is, may be, in quite another mood--one is
even ill possibly--and so nothing is done and the whole plan is ruined.
I would think all day as to how I would make myself resolute, and I
would say when old Feodor Stepanovitch would pinch my ear and deny me
more soup, 'Ah ha, you wait, you old pig-face--you wait until I've
mastered my resolution--and then I'll show you!' I fancied, for
instance, that if I could command myself sufficiently I could just go to
people and say, 'You must have bath-houses like this and this'--I had
all the plans ready, you know, and in the hottest room you have couches
like this, and you have a machine that beats your back--so, so, so--not
those dirty old things that leave bits of green stuff all over you--and
so on, and so on. But better ideas than that, ideas about poverty and
wealth, no more kings, you know, nor police, but not your cheap
Socialism that fellows like Boris Nicolaievitch shout about; no, real
happiness, so that no one need work as I did for an old beast who didn't
give you enough soup, and have to keep quiet, all the same and say
nothing. Ideas came like flocks of birds, so many that I couldn't
gather them all but had sometimes to let the best ones go. And I had no
one to talk to about them--only the old cook and the girl in the
kitchen, who had a child by old Feodor that he wouldn't own,--but she
swore it was his, and told every one the time when it happened and where
it was and all.... Then the old man fell downstairs and broke his neck,
and he'd left me some money to go on with the letters...."
At this point Markovitch's face would become suddenly triumphantly
malevolent, like the face of a schoolboy who remembers a trick that he
played on a hated master. "Do you think I went on with them, Ivan
Andreievitch? no, not I... but I kept the money."
"That was wrong of you," I would say gravely.
"Yes--wrong of course. But hadn't he been wrong always? And after all,
isn't everybody wrong? We Russians have no conscience, you know, about
anything, and that's simply because we can't make up our minds as to
what's wrong and what's right, and even if we do make up our minds it
seems a pity not to let yourself go when you may be dead to-morrow.
Wrong and right.... What words!... Who knows? Perhaps it would have been
the greatest wrong in the world to go on with the letters, wasting
everybody's time, and for myself, too, who had so many ideas, that life
simply would never be long enough to think them all out."
It seemed that shortly after this he had luck with a little invention,
and this piece of luck was, I should imagine, the ruin of his career, as
pieces of luck so often are the ruin of careers. I could never
understand what precisely his invention was, it had something to do with
the closing of doors, something that you pulled at the bottom of the
door, so that it shut softly and didn't creak with the wind. A Jew
bought the invention, and gave Markovitch enough money to lead him
confidently to believe that his fortune was made. Of course it was not,
he never had luck with an invention again, but he was bursting with
pride and happiness, set up house for himself in a little flat on the
Vassily Ostrov--and met Vera Michailovna. I wish I could give some true
idea of the change that came over him when he reached this part of his
story. When he had spoken of his childhood, his father, his first
struggles to live, his life with his old patron, he had not attempted to
hide the evil, the malice, the envy that there was in his soul. He had
even emphasised it, I might fancy, for my own especial benefit, so that
I might see that he was not such a weak, romantic, sentimental creature
as I had supposed--although God knows I had never fancied him romantic.
Now when he spoke of his wife his whole body changed. "She married me
out of pity," he told me. "I hated her for that, and I loved her for
that, and I hate and love her for it still."
Here I interrupted him and told him that perhaps it was better that he
should not confide in me the inner history of his marriage.
"Why not?" he asked me suspiciously.
"Because I'm only an acquaintance, you scarcely know me. You may regret
it afterwards when you're in another mood."
"Oh, you English!" he said contemptuously; "you're always to be trusted.
As a nation you're not, but as one man to another you're not interested
enough in human nature to give away secrets."
"Well, tell me what you like," I said. "Only I make no promises about
"I don't want you to," he retorted; "I'm only telling you what every one
knows. Wasn't I aware from the first moment that she married me out of
pity, and didn't they all know it, and laugh and tell her she was a
fool. She knew that she was a fool too, but she was very young, and
thought it fine to sacrifice herself for an idea. I was ill and I talked
to her about my future. She believed in it, she thought I could do
wonderful things if only some one looked after me. And at the same time
despised me for wanting to be looked after.... And then I wasn't so ugly
as I am now. She had some money of her own, and we took in lodgers, and
I loved her, as I love her now, so that I could kiss her feet and then
hate her because she was kind to me. She only cares for her sister,
Nina; and because I was jealous of the girl and hated to see Vera good
to her I had her to live with us, just to torture myself and show that I
was stronger than all of them if I liked.... And so I am, than her
beastly uncle the doctor and all the rest of them--let him do what he
It was the first time that he had mentioned Semyonov.
"He's coming back," I said.
"Oh, is he?" snarled Markovitch. "Well, he'd better look out." Then his
voice, his face, even the shape of his body, changed once again. "I'm
not a bad man, Ivan Andreievitch. No, I'm not.... You think so of
course, and I don't mind if you do. But I love Vera, and if she loved me
I could do great things. I could astonish them all. I hear them say,
'Ah, that Nicholas Markovitch, he's no good... with his inventions.
What did a fine woman like that marry such a man for?' I know what they
say. But I'm strong if I like. I gave up drink when I wished. I can give
up anything. And when I succeed they'll see--and then we'll have enough
money not to need these people staying with us and despising us...."
"No one despises you, Nicolai Leontievitch," I interrupted.
"And what does it matter if they do?" he fiercely retorted. "I despise
them--all of them. It's easy for them when everything goes well with
them, but with me everything goes wrong. Everything!... But I'm strong
enough to make everything go right--and I will."
This was, for the time, the end of his confidences. He had, I was sure,
something further to tell me, some plan, some purpose, but he decided
suddenly that he would keep it to himself, although I am convinced that
he had only told me his earlier story in order that I might understand
this new idea of his. But I did not urge him to tell me. My interest in
life had not yet sufficiently revived; it was, after all, none of my
For the rest, it seemed that he had been wildly enthusiastic about the
war at its commencement. He had had great ideas about Russia, but now he
had given up all hope. Russia was doomed; and Germany, whom he hated and
admired, would eat her up. And what did it matter? Perhaps Germany would
"run Russia," and then there would be order and less thieving, and this
horrible war would stop. How foolish it had been to suppose that any one
in Russia would ever do anything. They were all fools and knaves and
idle in Russia--like himself.
And so he left me.
On Christmas Eve, late in the evening, I went into a church. It was my
favourite church in Petrograd, rising at the English Prospect end of the
Quay, with its white rounded towers pure and quiet and modest.
I had been depressed all day. I had not been well, and the weather was
harsh, a bitterly cold driving wind beating down the streets and
stroking the ice of the canal into a dull grey colour. Christmas seemed
to lift into sharper, bitterer irony the ghastly horrors of this end
endless war. Last Christmas I had been too ill to care, and the
Christmas before I had been at the Front when the war had been young and
full of hope, and I had seen enough nobility and self-sacrifice to be
reassured about the true stuff of the human soul. Now all that seemed to
be utterly gone. On the one side my mind was filled with my friends,
John Trenchard and Marie Ivanovna. The sacrifice that they had made
seemed to be wicked and useless. I had lost altogether that conviction
of the continuance and persistence of their souls that I had, for so
long, carried with me. They were dead, dead... simply dead. There at
the Front one had believed in many things. Here in this frozen and
starving town, with every ghost working against every human, there was
assurance of nothing--only deep foreboding and an ominous silence. The
murder of Rasputin still hung over every head. The first sense of
liberty had passed, and now his dirty malicious soul seemed to be
watching us all, reminding us that he had not left us, but was waiting
for the striking of some vast catastrophe that the friends whom he had
left behind him to carry on his work were preparing. It was this sense
of moving so desperately and so hopelessly in the dark that was with me.
Any chance that there had seemed to be of Russia rising from the war
with a free soul appeared now to be utterly gone. Before our eyes the
powers that ruled us were betraying us, laughing at us, selling us. And
we did not know who was our enemy, who our friend, whom to believe, of
whom to take counsel. Peculation and lying and the basest intrigue was
on every side of us, hunger for which there was no necessity, want in a
land packed with everything. I believe that there may have been very
well another side to the picture, but at that time we could not see; we
did not wish to see, we were blindfolded men....
I entered the church and found that the service was over. I passed
through the aisle into the little rounded cup of dark and gold where the
altars were. Here there were still collected a company of people,
kneeling, some of them, in front of the candles, others standing there,
motionless like statues, their hands folded, gazing before them. The
candles flung a mist of dim embroidery upon the walls, and within the
mist the dark figures of the priests moved to and fro. An old priest
with long white hair was standing behind a desk close to me, and reading
a long prayer in an unswerving monotonous voice. There was the scent of
candles and cold stone and hot human breath in the little place. The
tawdry gilt of the Ikons glittered in the candle-light, and an echo of
the cold wind creeping up the long dark aisle blew the light about so
that the gilt was like flashing piercing eyes. I wrapped my Shuba
closely about me, and stood there lost in a hazy, indefinite dream.
I was comforted and touched by the placid, mild, kindly faces of those
standing near me. "No evil here...." I thought. "Only ignorance, and for
that others are responsible."
I was lost in my dream and I did not know of what I was dreaming. The
priest's voice went on, and the lights flickered, and it was as though
some one, a long way off, were trying to give me a message that it was
important that I should hear, important for myself and for others. There
came over me, whence I know not, a sudden conviction of the fearful
power of Evil, a sudden realisation, as though I had been shown
something, a scene or a picture or writing which had brought this home
to me.... The lights seemed to darken, the priest's figure faded, and I
felt as though the message that some one had been trying to deliver to
me had been withdrawn. I waited a moment, looking about me in a
bewildered fashion, as though I had in reality just woken from sleep.
Then I left the church.
Outside the cold air was intense. I walked to the end of the Quay and
leaned on the stone parapet. The Neva seemed vast like a huge, white,
impending shadow; it swept in a colossal wave of frozen ice out to the
far horizon, where tiny, twinkling lights met it and closed it in. The
bridges that crossed it held forth their lights, and there were the
gleams, like travelling stars, of the passing trams, but all these were
utterly insignificant against the vast body of the contemptuous ice. On
the farther shore the buildings rose in a thin, tapering line, looking
as though they had been made of black tissue paper, against the solid
weight of the cold, stony sky. The Peter and Paul Fortress, the towers
of the Mohammedan Mosque were thin, immaterial, ghostly, and the whole
line of the town was simply a black pencilled shadow against the ice,
smoke that might be scattered with one heave of the force of the river.
The Neva was silent, but beneath that silence beat what force and power,
what contempt and scorn, what silent purposes?
I saw then, near me, and gazing, like myself, on to the river the tall,
broad figure of a peasant, standing, without movement, black against the
He seemed to dominate the scene, to be stronger and more contemptuous
than the ice itself, but also to be in sympathy with it.
I made some movement, and he turned and looked at me. He was a fine man,
with a black beard and noble carriage. He passed down the Quay and I
turned towards home.
About four o'clock on Christmas afternoon I took some flowers to Vera
Michailovna. I found that the long sitting-room had been cleared of all
furniture save the big table and the chairs round it. About a dozen
middle-aged ladies were sitting about the table and solemnly playing
"Lotto." So serious were they that they scarcely looked up when I came
in. Vera Michailovna said my name and they smiled and some of them
bowed, but their eyes never left the numbered cards. "_Dvar...
Peedecat... Cheteeriy... Zurock Tree... Semdecet Voisim_"... came from a
stout and good-natured lady reading the numbers as she took them from
the box. Most of the ladies were healthy, perspiring, and of a most
amiable appearance. They might, many of them, have been the wives of
English country clergymen, so domestic and unalarmed were they. I
recognised two Markovitch aunts and a Semyonov cousin.
There was a hush and a solemnity about the proceedings. Vera Michailovna
was very busy in the kitchen, her face flushed and her sleeves rolled
up; Sacha, the servant, malevolently assisting her and scolding
continually the stout and agitated country girl who had been called in
for the occasion.
"All goes well," Vera smilingly assured me. "Half-past six it is--don't
"I will be in time," I said.
"Do you know, I've asked your English friend. The big one."
"Lawrence?... Is he coming?"
"Yes. At least I understood so on the telephone, but he sounded
confused. Do you think he will want to come?"
"I'm sure he will," I answered.
"Afterwards I wasn't sure. I thought he might think it impertinent when
we know him so little. But he could easily have said if he didn't want
to come, couldn't he?"
There seemed to me something unusual in the way that she asked me these
questions. She did not usually care whether people were offended or no.
She had not time to consider that, and in any case she despised people
who took offence easily.
I would perhaps have said something, but the country girl dropped a
plate and Sacha leapt upon the opportunity. "Drunk!... What did I say,
having such a girl? Is it not better to do things for yourself? But
no--of course no one cares for my advice, as though last year the same
thing...." And so on.
I left them and went home to prepare for the feast.
I returned punctually at half-past six and found every one there. Many
of the ladies had gone, but the aunts remained, and there were other
uncles and some cousins. We must have been in all between twenty and
thirty people. The table was now magnificently spread. There was a fine
glittering Father Christmas in the middle, a Father Christmas of German
make, I am afraid. Ribbons and frosted strips of coloured paper ran in
lines up and down the cloth. The "Zakuska" were on a side-table near
the door--herrings and ham and smoked fish and radishes and mushrooms
and tongue and caviare and, most unusual of all in those days, a
decanter of vodka.
No one had begun yet; every one stood about, a little uneasy and
awkward, with continuous glances flung at the "Zakuska" table. Of the
company Markovitch first caught my eye. I had never seen him so clean
and smart before. His high, piercing collar was of course the first
thing that one saw; then one perceived that his hair was brushed, his
beard trimmed, and that he wore a very decent suit of rather shiny
black. This washing and scouring of him gave him a curiously subdued and
imprisoned air; I felt sympathetic towards him; I could see that he was
anxious to please, happy at the prospect of being a successful host,
and, to-night, most desperately in love with his wife. That last stood
out and beyond all else. His eyes continually sought her face; he had
the eyes of a dog watching and waiting for its master's appreciative
I had never before seen Vera Michailovna so fine and independent and, at
the same time, so kind and gracious. She was dressed in white, very
plain and simple, her shining black hair piled high on her head, her
kind, good eyes watching every one and everything to see that all were
pleased. She, too, was happy to-night, but happy also in a strange,
subdued, quiescent way, and I felt, as I always did about her, that her
soul was still asleep and untouched, and that much of her reliance and
independence came from that. Uncle Ivan was in his smart clothes, his
round face very red and he wore his air of rather ladylike but
inoffensive superiority. He stood near the table with the "Zakuska," and
his eyes rested there. I do not now remember many of the Markovitch and
Semyonov relations. There was a tall thin young man, rather bald, with a
short black moustache; he was nervous and self-assertive, and he had a
high, shrill voice. He talked incessantly. There were several
delightful, middle-aged women, quiet and ready to be pleased with
everything--the best Russian type of all perhaps, women who knew life,
who were generously tolerant, kind-hearted, with a quiet sense of humour
and no nonsense about them. There was one fat red-faced man in a very
tight black coat, who gave his opinion always about food and drink. He
was from Moscow--his name Paul Leontievitch Rozanov--and I met him on a
later occasion of which I shall have to tell in its place. Then there
were two young girls who giggled a great deal and whispered together.
They hung around Nina and stroked her hair and admired her dress, and
laughed at Boris Grogoff and any one else who was near them.
Nina was immensely happy. She loved parties of course, and especially
parties in which she was the hostess. She was like a young kitten or
puppy in a white frock, with her hair tumbling over her eyes. She was
greatly excited, and as joyous as though there were no war, and no
afflicted Russia, and nothing serious in all the world. This was the
first occasion on which I suspected that Grogoff cared for her.
Outwardly he did nothing but chaff and tease her, and she responded in
that quick rather sharp and very often crudely personal way at which
foreigners for the first time in Russian company so often wonder.
Badinage with Russians so quickly passes to lively and noisy
quarrelling, which in its turn so suddenly fades into quiet contented
amiability that it is little wonder that the observer feels rather
breathless at it all. Grogoff was a striking figure, with his fine
height and handsome head and bold eyes, but there was something about
him that I did not like. Immensely self-confident, he nevertheless
seldom opened his mouth without betraying great ignorance about almost
everything. He was hopelessly ill-educated, and was the more able
therefore from the very little knowledge that he had to construct a very
simple Socialist creed in which the main statutes were that everything
should be taken from the rich and given to the poor, the peasants
should have all the land, and the rulers of the world be beheaded. He
had no knowledge of other countries, although he talked very freely of
what he called his "International Principles." I could not respect him
as I could many Russian revolutionaries, because he had never on any
occasion put himself out or suffered any inconvenience for his
principles, living as he did, comfortably, with all the food and clothes
that he needed. At the same time he was, on the other hand, kindly and
warm-hearted, and professed friendship for me, although he despised what
he called my "Capitalistic tendencies." Had he only known, he was far
richer and more autocratic than I!
In the midst of this company Henry Bohun was rather shy and
uncomfortable. He was suspicious always that they would laugh at his
Russian (what mattered it if they did?), and he was distressed by the
noise and boisterous friendliness of every one. I could not help smiling
to myself as I watched him. He was learning very fast. He would not tell
any one now that "he really thought that he did understand Russia," nor
would he offer to put his friends right about Russian characteristics
and behaviour. He watched the young giggling girls, and the fat Rozanov,
and the shrill young man with ill-concealed distress. Very far these
from the Lizas and Natachas of his literary imagination--and yet not so
far either, had he only known.
He pinned all his faith, as I could see, to Vera Michailovna, who did
gloriously fulfil his self-instituted standards. And yet he did not know
her at all! He was to suffer pain there too.
At dinner he was unfortunately seated between one of the giggling girls
and a very deaf old lady who was the great-aunt of Nina and Vera. This
old lady trembled like an aspen leaf, and was continually dropping
beneath the table a little black bag that she carried. She could make
nothing of Bohun's Russian, even if she heard it, and was under the
impression that he was a Frenchman. She began a long quivering story
about Paris to which she had once been, how she had lost herself, and
how a delightful Frenchman had put her on her right path again.... "A
chivalrous people, your countrymen".... she repeated, nodding her head
so that her long silver earrings rattled again--"gay and chivalrous!"
Bohun was not, I am afraid, as chivalrous as he might have been, because
he knew that the girl on his other side was laughing at his attempts to
explain that he was not a Frenchman. "Stupid old woman!" he said to me
afterwards. "She dropped her bag under the table at least twenty times!"
Meanwhile the astonishing fact was that the success of the dinner was
Jerry Lawrence. He was placed on Vera Michailovna's left hand, Rozanov,
the Moscow merchant near to him, and I did not hear him say anything
very bright or illuminating, but every one felt, I think, that he was a
cheerful and dependable person. I always felt, when I observed him, that
he understood the Russian character far better than any of us. He had
none of the self-assertion of the average Englishman and, at the same
time, he had his opinions and his preferences. He took every kind of
chaff with good-humoured indifference, but I think it was above
everything else his tolerance that pleased the Russians. Nothing shocked
him, which did not at all mean that he had no code of honour or morals.
His code was severe and stern, but his sense of human fallibility, and
the fine fight that human nature was always making against stupendous
odds stirred him to a fine and comprehending clarity. He had many
faults. He was obstinate, often dull and lethargic, in many ways grossly
ill-educated and sometimes wilfully obtuse--but he was a fine friend, a
noble enemy, and a chivalrous lover. There was nothing mean nor petty in
him, and his views of life and the human soul were wider and more
all-embracing than in any Englishman I have ever known. You may say of
course that it is sentimental nonsense to suppose at all that the human
soul is making a fine fight against odds. Even I, at this period, was
tempted to think that it might be nonsense, but it is a view as good as
another, after all, and so ignorant are all of us that no one has a
right to say that anything is impossible!
After drinking the vodka and eating the "Zakuska," we sat down to table
and devoured crayfish soup. Every one became lively. Politics of course,
I heard Rozanov say, "Ah, you in Petrograd! What do you know of things?
Don't let me hurt any one's feelings, pray.... Most excellent soup, Vera
Michailovna--I congratulate you.... But you just wait until Moscow takes
things in hand. Why only the other day Maklakoff said to a friend of
mine--'It's all nonsense,' he said."
And the shrill-voiced young man told a story--"But it wasn't the same
man at all. She was so confused when she saw what she'd done, that I
give you my word she was on the point of crying. I could see tears...
just trembling--on the edge. 'Oh, I beg your pardon,' she said, and the
man was such a fool...."
Markovitch was busy about the drinks. There was some sherry and some
light red wine. Markovitch was proud of having been able to secure it.
He was beaming with pride. He explained to everybody how it had been
done. He walked round the table and stood, for an instant, with his hand
on Vera Michailovna's shoulder. The pies with fish and cabbage in them
were handed round. He jested with the old great-aunt. He shouted in her
"Now, Aunt Isabella... some wine. Good for you, you know--keep you
"No, no, no..." she protested, laughing and shaking her earrings, with
tears in her eyes. But he filled her glass and she drank it and coughed,
"Thank you, thank you," she chattered as Bohun dived under the table and
found her bag for her. I saw that he did not like the crayfish soup,
and was distressed because he had so large a helping.
He blushed and looked at his plate, then began again to eat and stopped.
"Don't you like it?" one of the giggling girls asked him. "But it's very
good. Have another 'Pie!'"
The meal continued. There were little suckling pigs with "Kasha," a kind
of brown buckwheat. Every one was gayer and gayer. Now all talked at
once, and no one listened to anything that any one else said. Of them
all, Nina was by far the gayest. She had drunk no wine--she always said
that she could not bear the nasty stuff, and although every one tried to
persuade her, telling her that now when you could not get it anywhere,
it was wicked not to drink it, she would not change her mind. It was
simply youth and happiness that radiated from her, and also perhaps some
other excitement for which I could not account. Grogoff tried to make
her drink. She defied him. He came over to her chair, but she pushed him
away, and then lightly slapped his cheek. Every one laughed. Then he
whispered something to her. For an instant the gaiety left her eyes.
"You shouldn't say that!" she answered almost angrily. He went back to
his seat. I was sitting next to her, and she was very charming to me,
seeing that I had all that I needed and showing that she liked me. "You
mustn't be gloomy and ill and miserable," she whispered to me. "Oh! I've
seen you! There's no need. Come to us and we'll make you as happy as we
can--Vera and I.... We both love you."
"My dear, I'm much too old and stupid for you to bother about!"
She put her hand on my arm. "I know that I'm wicked and care only for
pleasure.... Vera's always saying so. But I can be better if you want me
This was flattering, but I knew that it was only her general happiness
that made her talk like that. And at once she was after something else.
"Your Englishman," she said, looking across the table at Lawrence, "I
like his face. I should be frightened of him, though."
"Oh no, you wouldn't," I answered. "He wouldn't hurt any one."
She continued to look at him and he, glancing up, their eyes met. She
smiled and he smiled. Then he raised his glass and drank.
"I mustn't drink," she called across the table. "It's only water and
that's bad luck."
"Oh, you can challenge any amount of bad luck--I'm sure," he called
back to her.
I fancied that Grogoff did not like this. He was drinking a great deal.
He roughly called Nina's attention.
But she, although I am certain that she heard him, paid no attention.
He called again more loudly:
"Well?" She turned towards him, her eyes laughing at him.
"Drink my health."
"I can't. I have only water."
"Then you must drink wine."
"I won't. I detest it."
"But you must."
He came over to her and poured a little red wine into her water. She
turned and emptied the glass over his hand. For an instant his face was
dark with rage.
"I'll pay you for that," I heard him whisper.
She shrugged her shoulders. "He's tiresome, Boris...." she said, "I like
your Englishman better."
We were ever gayer and gayer. There were now of course no cakes nor
biscuits, but there was jam with our tea, and there were even some
chocolates. I noticed that Vera and Lawrence were getting on together
famously. They talked and laughed, and her eyes were full of pleasure.
Markovitch came up and stood behind them, watching them. His eyes
devoured his wife.
"Vera!" he said suddenly.
"Yes!" she cried. She had not known that he was behind her; she was
startled. She turned round and he came forward and kissed her hand. She
let him do this, as she let him do everything, with the indulgence that
one allows a child. He stood, afterwards, half in the shadow, watching
And now the moment for the event of the evening had arrived. The doors
of Markovitch's little work-room were suddenly opened, and
there--instead of the shabby untidy dark little hole--there was a
splendid Christmas Tree blazing with a hundred candles. Coloured balls
and frosted silver and wooden figures of red and blue hung all about the
tree--it was most beautifully done. On a table close at hand were
presents. We all clapped our hands. We were childishly delighted. The
old great-aunt cried with pleasure. Boris Grogoff suddenly looked like a
happy boy of ten. Happiest and proudest of them all was Markovitch. He
stood there, a large pair of scissors in his hand, waiting to cut the
string round the parcels. We said again and again, "Marvellous!"
"Wonderful!" "Splendid!"... "But this year--however did you find it,
Vera Michailovna?" "To take such trouble!..." "Splendid! Splendid!" Then
we were given our presents. Vera, it was obvious had chosen them, for
there was taste and discrimination in the choice of every one. Mine was
a little old religious figure in beaten silver--Lawrence had a silver
snuff-box.... Every one was delighted. We clapped our hands. We shouted.
Some one cried "Cheers for our host and hostess!"
We gave them, and in no half measure. We shouted. Boris Grogoff cried,
It was then that I saw Markovitch's face that had been puckered with
pleasure like the face of a delighted child suddenly stiffen, his hand
moved forward, then dropped. I turned and found, standing in the
doorway, quietly watching us, Alexei Petrovitch Semyonov.
I stared at him. I could not take my eyes away. I instantly forgot every
one else, the room, the tree, the lights.... With a force, with a
poignancy and pathos and brutality that were more cruel than I could
have believed possible that other world came back to me. Ah! I could see
now that all these months I had been running away from this very thing,
seeking to pretend that it did not exist, that it had never existed. All
in vain--utterly in vain. I saw Semyonov as I had just seen him, sitting
on his horse outside the shining white house at O----. Then Semyonov
operating in a stinking room, under a red light, his arms bathed in
blood; then Semyonov and Trenchard; then Semyonov speaking to Marie
Ivanovna, her eyes searching his face; then that day when I woke from my
dream in the orchard to find his eyes staring at me through the bright
green trees, and afterwards when we went in to look at her dead; then
worst of all that ride back to the "Stab" with my hand on his thick,
throbbing arm.... Semyonov in the Forest, working, sneering, hating us,
despising us, carrying his tragedy in his eyes and defying us to care;
Semyonov that last time of all, vanishing into the darkness with his
"Nothing!" that lingering echo of a defiant desperate soul that had
stayed with me, against my bidding, ever since I had heard it.
What a fool had I been to know these people! I had felt from the first
to what it must lead, and I might have avoided it and I would not. I
looked at him, I faced him, I smiled. He was the same as he had been. A
little stouter, perhaps, his pale hair and square-cut beard looking as
though it had been carved from some pale honey-coloured wood, the thick
stolidity of his long body and short legs, the squareness of his head,
the coldness of his eyes and the violent red of his lips, all were just
as they had been--the same man, save that now he was in civilian
clothes, in a black suit with a black bow tie. There was a smile on his
lips, that same smile half sneer half friendliness that I knew so well.
His eyes were veiled....
He was, I believe, as violently surprised to see me as I had been to see
him, but he held himself in complete control!
He said, "Why, Durward!... Ivan Andreievitch!" Then he greeted the
I was able, now, to notice the general effect of his arrival. It was as
though a cold wind had suddenly burst through the windows, blown out all
the candles upon the tree and plunged the place into darkness. Those who
did not know him felt that, with his entrance, the gaiety was gone.
Markovitch's face was pale, he was looking at Vera who, for an instant,
had stood, quite silently, staring at her uncle, then, recovering
herself, moved forward.
"Why, Uncle Alexei!" she cried, holding out her hand. "You're too late
for the tree! Why didn't you tell us? Then you could have come to
dinner... and now it is all over. Why didn't you tell us?"
He took her hand, and, very solemnly, bent down and kissed it.
"I didn't know myself, dear Vera Michailovna. I only arrived in
Petrograd yesterday; and then in my house everything was wrong, and I've
been busy all day. But I felt that I must run in and give you the
greetings of the season.... Ah, Nicholas, how are you? And you, Ivan?...
I telephoned to you.... Nina, my dear...." And so on. He went round
and shook hands with them all. He was introduced to Bohun and Lawrence.
He was very genial, praising the tree, laughing, shouting in the ears of
the great-aunt. But no one responded. As so frequently happens in Russia
the atmosphere was suddenly changed. No one had anything to say. The
candles on the tree were blown out. Of course, the evening was not
nearly ended. There would be tea and games, perhaps--at any rate every
one would sit and sit until three or four if, for no other reason,
simply because it demanded too much energy to rise and make farewells.
But the spirit of the party was utterly dead....
The samovar hissed at the end of the table. Vera Michailovna sat there
making tea for every one. Semyonov (I should now in the heart of his
relations, have thought of him as Alexei Petrovitch, but so long had he
been Semyonov to me that Semyonov he must remain) was next to her, and I
saw that he took trouble, talking to her, smiling, his stiff strong
white fingers now and then stroking his thick beard, his red lips
parting a little, then closing so firmly that it seemed that they would
never open again.
I noticed that his eyes often wandered towards me. He was uneasy about
my presence there, I thought, and that disturbed me. I felt as I looked
at him the same confusion as I had always felt. I did not hate him. His
strength of character, his fearlessness, these things in a country
famous for neither quality I was driven to admire and to respect. And I
could not hate what I admired.
And yet my fear gathered and gathered in volume as I watched him. What
would he do with these people? What plans had he? What purpose? What
secret, selfish ambitions was he out now to secure?
Markovitch was silent, drinking his tea, watching his wife, watching us
all with his nervous frowning expression.
I rose to go and then, when I had said farewell to every one and went
towards the door, Semyonov joined me.
"Well, Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "So we have not finished with one
He looked at me with his steady unswerving eyes; he smiled.
I also smiled as I found my coat and hat in the little hall. Sacha
helped me into my Shuba. He stood, his lips a little apart, watching me.
"What have you been doing all this time?" he asked me.
"I've been ill," I answered.
"Not had, I hope."
"No, not had. But enough to keep me very idle."
"As much of an optimist as ever?"
"Was I an optimist?"
"Why, surely. A charming one. Do you love Russia as truly as ever?"
I laughed, my hand on the door. "That's my affair, Alexei Petrovitch," I
"Certainly," he said, smiling. "You're looking older, you know."
"You too," I said.
"Yes, perhaps. Would I still think you sentimental, do you suppose?"
"It is of no importance, Alexei Petrovitch," I said. "I'm sure you have
other better things to do. Are you remaining in Petrograd?"
He looked at me then very seriously, his eyes staring straight into
"I hope so."
"You will work at your practice?"
"Perhaps." He nodded to me. "Strange to find you here...." he said. "We
shall meet again. Good-night."
He closed the door behind me.
Next day I fell ill. I had felt unwell for several weeks, and now I woke
up to a bad feverish cold, my body one vast ache, and at the same time
impersonal, away from me, floating over above me, sinking under me, tied
to me only by pain....
I was too utterly apathetic to care. The old woman who looked after my
rooms telephoned to my doctor, a stout, red-faced jolly man, who came
and laughed at me, ordered me some medicine, said that I was in a high
fever, and left me. After that, I was, for several days, caught into a
world of dreams and nightmares. No one, I think, came near me, save my
old woman, Marfa, and a new acquaintance of mine, the Rat.
The Rat I had met some weeks before outside my house. I had been
returning one evening, through the dark, with a heavy bag of books which
I had fetched from an English friend of mine who lodged in the
Millionnaya. I had had a cab for most of the distance, but that had
stopped on the other side of the bridge--it could not drive amongst the
rubbish pebbles and spars of my island. As I staggered along with my bag
a figure had risen, as it seemed to me, out of the ground and asked
huskily whether he could help me. I had only a few steps to go, but he
seized my burden and went in front of me. I submitted. I told him my
door and he entered the dark passage, climbed the rickety stairs and
entered my room. Here we were both astonished. He, when I had lighted my
lamp, was staggered by the splendour and luxury of my life, I, as I
looked at him, by the wildness and uncouthness of his appearance. He was
as a savage from the centre of Africa, thick ragged hair and beard, a
powerful body in rags, and his whole attitude to the world primeval and
utterly primitive. His mouth was cruel; his eyes, as almost always with
the Russian peasant, mild and kindly. I do not intend to take up much
space here with an account of him, but he did, after this first meeting,
in some sort attach himself to me. I never learned his name nor where he
lived; he was I should suppose an absolutely abominable plunderer and
pirate and ruffian. He would appear suddenly in my room, stand by the
door and talk--but talk with the ignorance, naivete, brutal simplicity
of an utterly abandoned baby. Nothing mystical or beautiful about the
Rat. He did not disguise from me in the least that there was no crime
that he had not committed--murder, rape, arson, immorality of the most
hideous, sacrilege, the basest betrayal of his best friends--he was not
only savage and outlaw, he was deliberate anarchist and murderer. He had
no redeeming point that I could anywhere discover. I did not in the
least mind his entering my room when he pleased. I had there nothing of
any value; he could take my life even, had he a mind to that.... The
naive abysmal depths of his depravity interested me. He formed a kind of
attachment to me. He told me that he would do anything for me. He had a
strange tact which prevented him from intruding upon me when I was
occupied. He was as quick as any cultured civilised cosmopolitan to see
if he was not wanted. He developed a certain cleanliness; he told me,
with an air of disdainful superiority, that he had been to the public
baths. I gave him an old suit of mine and a pair of boots. He very
seldom asked for anything; once and again he would point to something
and say that he would like to have it; if I said that he could not he
expressed no disappointment; sometimes he stole it, but he always
acknowledged that he had done so if I asked him, although he would lie
stupendously on other occasions for no reason at all.
"Now you must bring that back," I would say sternly.
"Oh no, Barin.... Why? You have so many things. Surely you will not
object. Perhaps I will bring it--and perhaps not."
"You must certainly bring it," I would say.
"We will see," he would say, smiling at me in the friendliest fashion.
He was the only absolutely happy Russian I have ever known. He had no
passages of despair. He had been in prison, he would be in prison again.
He had spasms of the most absolute ferocity. On one occasion I thought
that I should be his next victim, and for a moment my fate hung, I
think, in the balance. But he changed his mind. He had a real liking for
me, I think. When he could get it, he drank a kind of furniture polish,
the only substitute in these days for vodka. This was an absolutely
killing drink, and I tried to prove to him that frequent indulgence in
it meant an early decease. That did not affect him in the least. Death
had no horror for him although, I foresaw, with justice as after events
proved, that if he were faced with it he would be a very desperate
coward. He liked very much my cigarettes, and I gave him these on
condition that he did not spit sunflower seeds over my floor. He kept
his word about this.
He chatted incessantly, and sometimes I listened and sometimes not. He
had no politics and was indeed comfortably ignorant of any sort of
geography or party division. There were for him only the rich and the
poor. He knew nothing about the war, but he hoped, he frankly told me,
that there would be anarchy in Petrograd, so that he might rob and
"I will look after you then, Barin," he answered me, "so that no one
shall touch you." I thanked him. He was greatly amused by my Russian
accent, although he had no interest in the fact that I was English, nor
did he want to hear in the least about London or any foreign town.
Marfa, my old servant, was, of course, horrified at this
acquaintanceship of mine, and warned me that it would mean both my death
and hers. He liked to tease and frighten her, but he was never rude to
her and offered sometimes to help her with her work, an offer that she
always indignantly refused. He had some children, he told me, but he did
not know where they were. He tried to respect my hospitality, never
bringing any friends of his with him, and only once coming when he was
the worse for drink. On that occasion he cried and endeavoured to
embrace me. He apologised for this the next day.
They would try to take him soon, he supposed, for a soldier, but he
thought that he would be able to escape. He hated the Police, and would
murder them all if he could. He told me great tales of their cruelty,
and he cursed them most bitterly. I pointed out to him that society must
be protected, but he did not see why this need be so. It was, he
thought, wrong that some people had so much and others so little, but
this was as far as his social investigations penetrated.
He was really distressed by my illness. Marfa told me that one day when
I was delirious he cried. At the same time he pointed out to her that,
if I died, certain things in my rooms would be his. He liked a silver
cigarette case of mine, and my watch chain, and a signet ring that I
wore. I saw him vaguely, an uncertain shadow in the mists of the first
days of my fever. I was not, I suppose, in actual fact, seriously ill,
and yet I abandoned myself to my fate, allowing myself to slip without
the slightest attempt at resistance, along the easiest way, towards
death or idiocy or paralysis, towards anything that meant the
indifferent passivity of inaction. I had bad, confused dreams. The
silence irritated me. I fancied to myself that the sea ought to make
some sound, that it was holding itself deliberately quiescent in
preparation for some event. I remember that Marfa and the doctor
prevented me from rising to look from my window that I might see why the
sea was not roaring. Some one said to me in my dreams something about
"Ice," and again and again I repeated the word to myself as though it
were intensely significant. "Ice! Ice! Ice!... Yes, that was what I
wanted to know!" My idea from this was that the floor upon which I
rested was exceedingly thin, made only of paper in fact, and that at any
moment it might give way and precipitate me upon the ice. This terrified
me, and the way that the cold blew up through the cracks in the floor
was disturbing enough. I knew that my doctor thought me mad to remain in
such a place. But above all I was overwhelmed by the figure of Semyonov.
He haunted me in all my dreams, his presence never left me for a single
instant. I could not be sure whether he were in the room or no, but
certainly he was close to me... watching me, sneering at me as he had
so often done before.
I was conscious also of Petrograd, of the town itself, in every one of
its amazingly various manifestations. I saw it all laid out as though I
were a great height above it--the fashionable streets, the Nevski and
the Morskaia with the carriages and the motor-cars and trams, the kiosks
and the bazaars, the women with their baskets of apples, the boys with
the newspapers, the smart cinematographs, the shop in the Morskaia with
the coloured stones in the window, the oculist and the pastry-cook's and
the hairdressers and the large "English shop" at the corner of the
Nevski, and Pivato's the restaurant, and close beside it the art shop
with popular post cards and books on Serov and Vrubel, and the Astoria
Hotel with its shining windows staring on to S. Isaac's Square. And I
saw the Nevski, that straight and proud street, filled with every kind
of vehicle and black masses of people, rolling like thick clouds up and
down, here and there, the hum of their talk rising like mist from the
snow. And there was the Kazan Cathedral, haughty and proud, and the book
shop with the French books and complete sets of Tchekov and Merejkowsky
in the window, and the bridges and the palaces and the square before the
Alexander Theatre, and Elisseieff's the provision shop, and all the
banks, and the shops with gloves and shirts, all looking ill-fitting as
though they were never meant to be worn, and then the little dirty shops
poked in between the grand ones, the shop with rubber goods and the
shop with an Aquarium, gold-fish and snails and a tortoise, and the shop
with oranges and bananas. Then, too, there was the Arcade with the
theatre where they acted _Romance_ and _Potash and Perlmutter_ (almost
as they do in London), and on the other side of the street, at the
corner of the Sadovia, the bazaar with all its shops and its trembling
mist of people. I watched the Nevski, and saw how it slipped into the
Neva with the Red Square on one side of it, and S. Isaac's Square on the
other, and the great station at the far end of it, and about these two
lines the Neva and the Nevski, the whole town sprawled and crept, ebbed
and flowed. Away from the splendour it stretched, dirty and decrepit and
untended, here piles of evil flats, there old wooden buildings with
cobbled courts, and the canals twisting and creeping up and down through
it all. It was all bathed, as I looked down upon it, in coloured mist.
The air was purple and gold and light blue, fading into the snow and ice
and transforming it. Everywhere there were the masts of ships and the
smell of the sea and rough deserted places--and shadows moved behind the
shadows, and yet more shadows behind _them_, so that it was all
uncertain and unstable, and only the river knew what it was about.
Over the whole town Semyonov and I moved together, and the ice and snow
silenced our steps, and no one in the whole place spoke a word, so that
we had to lower our voices and whispered....
Suddenly I was better. I quite recovered from my fever and only lay
still on my bed, weak, and very hungry. I was happy, happy as I had not
been since I came to Petrograd. I felt all the luxury of convalescence
creeping into my bones. All that I need do was to lie there and let
people feed me and read a little if it did not make my head ache. I had
a water-colour painted by Alexander Benois on the wall opposite me, a
night in the Caucasus, with a heavy sweep of black hill, a deep blue
steady sky, and a thin grey road running into endless distance. A
pleasing picture, with no finality in its appeal--intimate too, so that
it was one's own road and one's own hill. I had bought it extravagantly,
at last year's "_Mir Eskoustva_," and now I was pleased at my
Marfa was very good to me, feeding me, and being cross with me to make
me take an interest in things, and acting with wonderful judgement about
my visitors. Numbers of people, English and Russian, came to see me--I
had not known that I had so many friends. I felt amiable to all the
world, and hopeful about it, too. I looked back on the period before my
illness as a bad dream.
People told me I was foolish to live out in this wretched place of mine,
where it was cold and wild and lonely. And then when they came again
they were not so sure, and they looked out on the ice that shone in
waves and shadows of light under the sun, and thought that perhaps they
too would try. But of course, I knew well that they would not....
As I grew stronger I felt an intense and burning interest in the history
that had been developing when I fell ill. I heard that Vera Michailovna
and Nina had called many times. Markovitch had been, and Henry Bohun
Then, one sunny afternoon, Henry Bohun came in and I was surprised at my
pleasure at the sight of him. He was shocked at the change in me, and
was too young to conceal it.
"Oh, you do look bad!" were his first words as he sat down by my bed. "I
say, are you comfortable here? Wouldn't you rather be somewhere with
conveniences--telephone and lifts and things?"
"Not at all!" I answered. "I've got a telephone. I'm very happy where I
"It is a queer place," he said. "Isn't it awfully unhealthy?"
"Quite the reverse--with the sea in front of it! About the healthiest
spot in Petrograd!"
"But I should get the blues here. So lonely and quiet. Petrograd is a
strange town! Most people don't dream there's a queer place like this."
"That's why I like it," I said. "I expect there are lots of queer
places in Petrograd if you only knew."
He wandered about the room, looking at my few pictures and my books and
my writing-table. At last he sat down again by my bed.
"Now tell me all the news," I said.
"News?" he asked. He looked uncomfortable, and I saw at once that he had
come to confide something in me. "What sort of news? Political?"
"Well, politics are about the same. They say there's going to be an
awful row in February when the Duma meets--but then other people say
there won't be a row at all until the war is over."
"What else do they say?"
"They say Protopopoff is up to all sorts of tricks. That he says prayers
with the Empress and they summon Rasputin's ghost.... That's all rot of
course. But he does just what the Empress tells him, and they're going
to enslave the whole country and hand it over to Germany."
"What will they do that for?" I asked.
"Why, then, the Czarevitch will have it--under Germany. They say that
none of the munitions are going to the Front, and Protopopoff's keeping
them all to blow up the people here with."
"What else?" I asked sarcastically.
"No, but really, there's something in it, I expect." Henry looked
serious and important. "Then on the other hand, Clutton-Davies says the
Czar's absolutely all right, dead keen on the war and hates Germany...
_I_ don't know--but Clutton-Davies sees him nearly every day."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"Oh, food's worse than ever! Going up every day, and the bread queues
are longer and longer. The Germans have spies in the queues, women who
go up and down telling people it's all England's fault."
"And people are just the same?"
"Just the same; Donons' and the Bear are crowded every day. You can't
get a table. So are the cinematographs and the theatres. I went to the
Ballet last night."
"What was it?"
"'La fille mal gardee'--Karsavina dancing divinely. Every one was
This closed the strain of public information. I led him further.
"Well, Bohun, what about our friends the Markovitches?" I asked. "How
are you getting on there?"
He blushed and looked at his boots.
"All right," he said. "They're very decent."
Then he burst out with: "I say, Durward, what do you think of this uncle
that's turned up, the doctor chap?"
"Nothing particular. Why?"
"You were with him at the Front, weren't you?"
"Was he a good doctor?"
"He had a love affair at the Front, hadn't he?"
"And she was killed?"
"Poor devil...." Then he added: "Did he mind very much?"
"Funny thing, you wouldn't think he would."
"Why not," I asked.
"Oh, he looks a hard sort of fellow--as though he'd stand anything. I
wouldn't like to have a row with him."
"Has he been to the Markovitches much lately?"
"Yes--almost every evening."
"What does he do there?"
"Oh, just sits and talks. Markovitch can't bear him. You can see that
easily enough. He teases him."
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"Oh, he laughs at him all the time, at his inventions and that kind of
thing. Markovitch gets awfully wild. He is bit of an ass, isn't he?"
"Do you like Semyonov?" I asked.
"I do rather," said Henry. "He's very decent to me. I had a walk with
him one afternoon. He said you were awfully brave at the Front."
"Thank him for nothing," I said.
"And he said you didn't like him--don't you?"
"Ah, that's too old a story," I answered. "We know what we feel about
"Well, Lawrence simply hates him," continued Bohun. "He says he's the
most thundering cad, and as bad as you make them. I don't see how he can
This interested me extremely. "When did he tell you this?" I asked.
"Yesterday. I asked him what he had to judge by and he said instinct. I
said he'd no right to go only by that."
"Has Lawrence been much to the Markovitches?"
"Yes--once or twice. He just sits there and never opens his mouth."
"Very wise of him if he hasn't got anything to say."
"No, but really--do you think so? It doesn't make him popular."
"Why, who doesn't like him?"
"Nobody," answered Henry ungrammatically. "None of the English anyway.
They can't stand him at the Embassy or the Mission. They say he's
fearfully stuck-up and thinks about nothing but himself.... I don't
agree, of course--all the same, he might make himself more agreeable to
"What nonsense!" I answered hotly. "Lawrence is one of the best fellows
that ever breathed. The Markovitches don't dislike him, do they?"
"No, he's quite different with them. Vera Michailovna likes him I know."
It was the first time that he had mentioned her name to me. He turned
towards me now, his face crimson. "I say--that's really what I came to
talk about, Durward. I care for her madly!... I'd die for her. I would
really. I love her, Durward. I see now I've never loved anybody before."
"Well, what will you do about it?"
"Do about it?... Why nothing, of course. It's all perfectly hopeless.
In the first place, there's Markovitch."
"Yes. There's Markovitch," I agreed.
"She doesn't care for him--does she? You know that--" He waited, eagerly
staring into my face.
I had a temptation to laugh. He was so very young, so very helpless, and
yet--that sense of his youth had pathos in it too, and I suddenly liked
young Bohun--for the first time.
"Look here, Bohun," I said, trying to speak with a proper solemnity.
"Don't be a young ass. You know that it's hopeless, any feeling of that
kind. She _does_ care for her husband. She could never care for you in
that way, and you'd only make trouble for them all if you went on with
it.... On the other hand, she needs a friend badly. You can do that for
her. Be her pal. See that things are all right in the house. Make a
friend of Markovitch himself. Look after _him!_"
"Look after Markovitch!" Bohun exclaimed.
"Yes... I don't want to be melodramatic, but there's trouble coming
there; and if you're the friend of them all, you can help--more than you
know. Only none of the other business--"
Bohun flushed. "She doesn't know--she never will. I only want to be a
friend of hers, as you put it. Anything else is hopeless, of course.
I'm not the kind of fellow she'd ever look at, even if Markovitch wasn't
there. But if I can do anything... I'd be awfully glad. What kind of
trouble do you mean?" he asked.
"Probably nothing," I said; "only she wants a friend. And Markovitch
wants one too."
There was a pause--then Bohun said, "I say, Durward--what an awful ass I
"What about?" I asked.
"About my poetry--and all that. Thinking it so important."
"Yes," I said, "you were."
"I've written some poetry to her and I tore it up," he ended.
"That's a good thing," said I.
"I'm glad I told you," he said. He got up to go. "I say, Durward--"
"Well," I asked.
"You're an awfully funny chap. Not a bit what you look--"
"That's all right," I said; "I know what you mean."
"Well, good-night," he said, and went.
I thought that night, as I lay cosily in my dusky room, of those old
stories by Wilkie Collins that had once upon a time so deeply engrossed
my interest--stories in which, because some one has disappeared on a
snowy night, or painted his face blue, or locked up a room and lost the
key, or broken down in his carriage on a windy night at the cross-roads,
dozens of people are involved, diaries are written, confessions are
made, and all the characters move along different roads towards the same
lighted, comfortable Inn. That is the kind of story that intrigues me,
whether it be written about out-side mysteries by Wilkie Collins or
inside mysteries by the great creator of "The Golden Bowl" or mysteries
of both kinds, such as Henry Galleon has given us. I remember a friend
of mine, James Maradick, once saying to me, "It's no use trying to keep
out of things. As soon as they want to put you in--you're in. The moment
you're born, you're done for."
It's just that spectacle of some poor innocent being suddenly caught
into some affair, against his will, without his knowledge, but to the
most serious alteration of his character and fortunes, that one watches
with a delight almost malicious--whether it be _The Woman in White, The
Wings of the Dove,_ or _The Roads_ that offer it us. Well, I had now to
face the fact that something of this kind had happened to myself.
I was drawn in--and I was glad. I luxuriated in my gladness, lying there
in my room under the wavering, uncertain light of two candles, hearing
the church bells clanging and echoing mysteriously beyond the wall. I
lay there with a consciousness of being on the very verge of some
adventure, with the assurance, too, that I was to be of use once more,
to play my part, to fling aside, thank God, that old cloak of apathetic
disappointment, of selfish betrayal, of cynical disbelief. Semyonov had
brought the old life back to me and I had shrunk from the impact of it;
but he had brought back to me, too, the presences of my absent friends
who, during these weary months, had been lost to me. It seemed to me
that, in the flickering twilight, John and Marie were bringing forward
to me Vera and Nina and Jerry and asking me to look after them.... I
would do my best.
And while I was thinking of these things Vera Michailovna came in. She
was suddenly in the room, standing there, her furs up to her throat, her
body in shadow, but her large, grave eyes shining through the
candlelight, her mouth smiling.
"Is it all right?" she said, coming forward. "I'm not in the way? You're
I told her that I was delighted to see her.
"I've been almost every day, but Marfa told me you were not well enough.
She _does_ guard you--like a dragon. But to-night Nina and I are going
to Rozanov's, to a party, and she said she'd meet me here.... Shan't I
"Worry me! You're the most restful friend I have--" I felt so glad to
see her that I was surprised at my own happiness. She sat down near to
me, very quietly, moving, as she always did, softly and surely.
I could see that she was distressed because I looked ill, but she asked
me no tiresome questions, said nothing about my madness in living as I
did (always so irritating, as though I were a stupid child), praised the
room, admired the Benois picture, and then talked in her soft, kindly
"We've missed you so much, Nina and I," she said. "I told Nina that if
she came to-night she wasn't to make a noise and disturb you."
"She can make as much noise as she likes," I said. "I like the right
kind of noise."
We talked a little about politics and England and anything that came
into our minds. We both felt, I know, a delightful, easy intimacy and
friendliness and trust. I had never with any other woman felt such a
sense of friendship, something almost masculine in its comradeship and
honesty. And to-night this bond between us strengthened wonderfully. I
blessed my luck. I saw that there were dark lines under her eyes and
that she was pale.
"You're tired," I said.
"Yes, I am," she acknowledged. "And I don't know why. At least, I do
know. I'm going to use you selfishly, Durdles. I'm going to tell you all
my troubles and ask your help in every possible way. I'm going to let
you off nothing."
I took her hand.
"I'm proud," I said, "now and always."
"Do you know that I've never asked any one's help before? I was rather
conceited that I could get on always without it. When I was very small I
wouldn't take a word of advice from any one, and mother and father, when
I was tiny, used to consult me about everything. Then they were killed
and I _had_ to go on alone.... And after that, when I married Nicholas,
it was I again who decided everything. And my mistakes taught me
nothing. I didn't want them to teach me."
She spoke that last word fiercely, and through the note that came into
her voice I saw suddenly the potentialities that were in her, the other
creature that she might be if she were ever awakened.
She talked then for a long time. She didn't move at all; her head rested
on her hand and her eyes watched me. As I listened I thought of my other
friend Marie, who now was dead, and how restless she was when she spoke,
moving about the room, stopping to demand my approval, protesting
against my criticism, laughing, crying out.... Vera was so still, so
wise, too, in comparison with Marie, braver too--and yet the same heart,
the same charity, the same nobility.
But she was my friend, and Marie I had loved.... The difference in that!
And how much easier now to help than it had been then, simply because
one's own soul _was_ one's own and one stood by oneself!
How happy a thing freedom is--and how lonely!
She told me many things that I need not repeat here, but, as she talked,
I saw how, far more deeply than I had imagined, Nina had been the heart
of the whole of her life. She had watched over her, protected her,
advised her, warned her, and loved her, passionately, jealously, almost
madly all the time.
"When I married Nicholas," she said, "I thought of Nina more than any
one else. That was wrong.... I ought to have thought most of Nicholas;
but I knew that I could give her a home, that she could have everything
she wanted. And still she would be with me. Nicholas was only too ready
for that. I thought I would care for her until some one came who was
worthy of her, and who would look after her far better than I ever
"But the only person who had come was Boris Grogoff. He loved Nina from
the first moment, in his own careless, conceited, opinionated way."
"Why did you let him come so often to the house if you didn't approve of
him?" I asked.
"How could I prevent it?" she asked me. "We Russians are not like the
English. In England I know you just shut the door and say, 'Not at
"Here if any one wanted to come he comes. Very often we hate him for
coming, but still there it is. It is too much trouble to turn him out,
besides it wouldn't be kind--and anyway they wouldn't go. You can be as
rude as you like here and nobody cares. For a long while Nina paid no
attention to Boris. She doesn't like him. She will never like him, I'm
sure. But now, these last weeks, I've begun to be afraid. In some way,
he has power over her--not much power, but a little--and she is so
young, so ignorant--she knows nothing.
"Until lately she always told me everything. Now she tells me nothing.
She's strange with me; angry for nothing. Then sorry and sweet
again--then suddenly angry.... She's excited and wild, going out all the
time, but unhappy too.... I _know_ she's unhappy. I can feel it as
though it were myself."
"You're imagining things," I said. "Now when the war's reached this
period we're all nervous and overstrung. The atmosphere of this town is
enough to make any one fancy that they see anything. Nina's all right."
"I'm losing her! I'm losing her!" Vera cried, suddenly stretching out
her hand as though in a gesture of appeal. "She must stay with me. I
don't know what's happening to her. Ah, and I'm so lonely without her!"
There was silence between us for a little, and then she went on.
"Durdles, I did wrong to marry Nicholas--wrong to Nina, wrong to
Nicholas, wrong to myself, I thought it was right. I didn't love
Nicholas--I never loved him and I never pretended to. He knew that I did
not. But I thought then that I was above love, that knowledge was what
mattered. Ideas--saving the world--and he had _such_ ideas! Wonderful!
There was, I thought, nothing that he would not be able to do if only he
were helped enough. He wanted help in every way. He was such a child, so
unhappy, so lonely, I thought that I could give him everything that he
needed. Don't fancy that I thought that I sacrificed myself. I felt that
I was the luckiest girl in all the world--and still, now when I see that
he is not strong enough for his ideas I care for him as I did then, and
I would never let any trouble touch him if I could help it. But
She paused, turned away from me, looking towards the window.
"If, after all, I was wrong. If, after all, I was meant to love. If love
were to come now... real love... now...."
She broke off, suddenly stood up, and very low, almost whispering, said:
"I have fancied lately that it might come. And then, what should I do?
Oh, what should I do? With Nicholas and Nina and all the trouble there
is now in the world--and Russia--I'm afraid of myself--and ashamed...."
I could not speak. I was utterly astonished. Could it be Bohun of whom
she was speaking? No, I saw at once that the idea was ludicrous. But if
I took her hand.
"Vera," I said. "Believe me. I'm much older than you, and I know. Love's
always selfish, always cruel to others, always means trouble, sorrow,
and disappointment. But it's worth it, even when it brings complete
disaster. Life isn't life without it."
I felt her hand tremble in mine.
"I don't know," she said, "I know nothing of it, except my love for
Nina. It isn't that now there's anybody. Don't think that. There is no
one--no one. Only my self-confidence is gone. I can't see clearly any
more. My duty is to Nina and Nicholas. And if they are happy nothing
else matters--nothing. And I'm afraid that I'm going to do them harm."
She paused as though she were listening. "There's no one there, is
there?" she asked me--"there by the door?"
"There are so many noises in this house. Don't they disturb you?"
"I don't think of them now. I'm used to them--and in fact I like them."
She went on: "It's Uncle Alexei of course. He comes to see us nearly
every day. He's very pleasant, more pleasant than he has ever been
before, but he has a dreadful effect on Nicholas--"
"I know the effect he can have," I said.
"I know that Nicholas has been feeling for a long time that his
inventions are no use. He will never own it to me or to any one--but I
can tell. I know it so well. The war came and his new feeling about
Russia carried him along. He put everything into that. Now that has
failed him, and he despises himself for having expected it to do
otherwise. He's raging about, trying to find something that he can
believe in, and Uncle Alexei knows that and plays on that.... He teases
him; he drives him wild and then makes him happy again. He can do
anything with him he pleases. He always could. But now he has some plan.
I used to think that he simply laughed at people because it amused him
to see how weak they can be. But now there's more than that. He's been
hurt himself at last, and that has hurt his pride, and he wants to hurt
back.... It's all in the dark. The war's in the dark... everything...."
Then she smiled and put her hand on my arm. "That's why I've come to
you, because I trust you and believe you and know you say what you
Once before Marie had said those same words to me. It was as though I
heard her voice again.
"I won't fail you," I said.
There was a knock on the door, it was flung open as though by the wind,
and Nina was with us. Her face was rosy with the cold, her eyes laughed
under her little round fur cap. She came running across the room, pulled
herself up with a little cry beside the bed, and then flung herself upon
me, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me.
"My dear Nina!" cried Vera.
She looked up, laughing.
"Why not? Poor Durdles. Are you better? _Biednie_... give me your
hands. But--how cold they are! And there are draughts everywhere. I've
brought you some chocolates--and a book."
"My dear!..." Vera cried again. "He won't like _that_," pointing to a
work of fiction by a modern Russian literary lady whose heart and brain
are of the succulent variety.
"Why not? She's very good. It's lovely! All about impossible people!
Durdles, _dear_! I'll give up the party. We won't go. We'll sit here and
entertain you. I'll send Boris away. We'll tell him we don't want him."
"Boris!" cried Vera.
"Yes," Nina laughed a little uneasily, I thought. "I know you said he
wasn't to come. He'll quarrel with Rozanov of course. But he said he
would. And so how was one to prevent him? You're always so tiresome,
Vera.... I'm not a baby now, nor is Boris. If he wants to come he shall
Vera stood away from us both. I could see that she was very angry. I had
never seen her angry before.
"You know that it's impossible, Nina," she said. "You know that Rozanov
hates him. And besides--there are other reasons. You know them
perfectly well, Nina."
Nina stood there pouting, tears were in her eyes.
"You're unfair," she said. "You don't let me do anything. You give me no
freedom, I don't care for Boris, but if he wants to go he shall go. I'm
grown up now. You have your Lawrence. Let me have my Boris."
"My Lawrence?" asked Vera.
"Yes. You know that you're always wanting him to come--always looking
for him. I like him, too. I like him very much. But you never let me
talk to him. You never--"
"Quiet, Nina." Vera's voice was trembling. Her face was sterner than I'd
ever seen it. "You're making me angry."
"I don't care how angry I make you. It's true. You're impossible now.
Why shouldn't I have my friends? I've nobody now. You never let me have
anybody. And I like Mr. Lawrence--"
She began to sob, looking the most desolate figure.
"You don't know what you've said, Nina, nor how you've hurt.... You can
go to your party as you please--"
And before I could stop her she was gone.
Nina turned to me a breathless, tearful face. She waited; we heard the
door below closed.
"Oh, Durdles, what have I done?"
"Go after her! Stop her!" I said.
Nina vanished and I was alone. My room was intensely quiet.
They didn't come to see me again together. Vera came twice, kind and
good as always, but with no more confidences; and Nina once with flowers
and fruit and a wild chattering tongue about the cinemas and Smyrnov,
who was delighting the world at the Narodny Dom, and the wonderful
performance of Lermontov's "Masquerade" that was shortly to take place
at the Alexander Theatre.
"Are you and Vera friends again?" I asked her.
"Oh yes! Why not?" And she went on, snapping a chocolate almond between
her teeth--"The one at the 'Piccadilly' is the best. It's an Italian
one, and there's a giant in it who throws people all over the place, out
of windows and everywhere. Ah! how lovely!... I wish I could go every
"You ought to be helping with the war," I said severely.
"Oh, I hate the war!" she answered. "We're all terribly tired of it.
Tanya's given up going to the English hospital now, and is just meaning
to be as gay as she can be; and Zinaida Fyodorovna had just come back
from her Otriad on the Galician front, and she says it's shocking there
now--no food or dancing or anything. Why doesn't every one make peace?"
"Do you want the Germans to rule Russia?" I asked.
"Why not?" she said, laughing. "We can't do it ourselves. We don't care
who does it. The English can do it if they like, only they're too lazy
to bother. The German's aren't lazy, and if they were here we'd have
lots of theatres and cinematographs."
"Don't you love your country?" I asked.
"This isn't our country," she answered. "It just belongs to the Empress
"Supposing it became your country and the Emperor went?"
"Oh, then it would belong to a million different people, and in the end
no one would have anything. Can't you see how they'd fight?"... She
burst out laughing: "Boris and Nicholas and Uncle Alexei and all the
Then she was suddenly serious.
"I know, Durdles, you consider that I'm so young and frivolous that I
don't think of anything serious. But I can see things like any one else.
Can't you see that we're all so disappointed with ourselves that nothing
matters? We thought the war was going to be so fine--but now it's just
like the Japanese one, all robbery and lies--and we can't do anything to
"Perhaps some day some one will," I said.
"Oh yes!" she answered scornfully, "men like Boris."
After that she refused to be grave for a moment, danced about the room,
singing, and finally vanished, a whirlwind of blue silk.
* * * * *
A week later I was out in the world again. That curious sense of
excitement that had first come to me during the early days of my illness
burnt now more fiercely than ever. I cannot say what it was exactly that
I thought was going to happen. I have often looked back, as many other
people must have done, to those days in February and wondered whether I
foresaw anything of what was to come, and what were the things that
might have seemed to me significant if I had noticed them. And here I am
deliberately speaking of both public and private affairs. I cannot quite
frankly dissever the two. At the Front, a year and a half before, I had
discovered how intermingled the souls of individuals and the souls of
countries were, and how permanent private history seemed to me and how
transient public events; but whether that was true or no before, it was
now most certain that it was the story of certain individuals that I was
to record,--the history that was being made behind them could at its
best be only a background.
I seemed to step into a city ablaze with a sinister glory. If that
appears melodramatic I can only say that the dazzling winter weather of
those weeks was melodramatic. Never before had I seen the huge buildings
tower so high, never before felt the shadows so vast, the squares and
streets so limitless in their capacity for swallowing light and colour.
The sky was a bitter changeless blue; the buildings black; the snow and
ice, glittering with purple and gold, swept by vast swinging shadows as
though huge doors opened and shut in heaven, or monstrous birds hovered,
their wings spread, motionless in the limitless space.
And all this had, as ever, nothing to do with human life. The little
courtyards with their woodstacks and their coloured houses, carts and
the cobbled squares and the little stumpy trees that bordered the canals
and the little wooden huts beside the bridges with their candles and
fruit--these were human and friendly and good, but they had their
precarious condition like the rest of us.
On the first afternoon of my new liberty I found myself in the Nevski
Prospect, bewildered by the crowds and the talk and trams and motors and
carts that passed in unending sequence up and down the long street.
Standing at the corner of the Sadovia and the Nevski one was carried
straight to the point of the golden spire that guarded the farther end
of the great street. All was gold, the surface of the road was like a
golden stream, the canal was gold, the thin spire caught into its
piercing line all the colour of the swiftly fading afternoon; the wheels
of the carriages gleamed, the flower-baskets of the women glittered like
shining foam, the snow flung its crystal colour into the air like thin
fire dim before the sun. The street seemed to have gathered on to its
pavements the citizens of every country under the sun. Tartars, Mongols,
Little Russians, Chinamen, Japanese, French officers, British officers,
peasants and fashionable women, schoolboys, officials, actors and
artists and business men and priests and sailors and beggars and hawkers
and, guarding them all, friendly, urbane, filled with a pleasant
self-importance that seemed at that hour the simplest and easiest of
attitudes, the Police. "Rum--rum--rum--whirr--whirr--whirr--whirr"--like
the regular beat of a shuttle the hum rose and fell, as the sun faded
into rosy mist and white vapours stole above the still canals.
I turned to go home and felt some one touch my elbow.
I swung round and there, his broad face ruddy with the cold, was Jerry
I was delighted to see him and told him so.
"Well, I'm damned glad," he said gruffly. "I thought you might have a
grudge against me."
"A grudge?" I said. "Why?"
"Haven't been to see you. Heard you were ill, but didn't think you'd
want me hanging round."
"Why this modesty?" I asked.
"No--well--you know what I mean." He shuffled his feet. "No good in a
"Mine wasn't exactly a sick-room," I said. "But I heard that you did
"Yes. I came twice," he answered, looking at me shyly. "Your old woman
wouldn't let me see you."
"Never mind that," I said; "let's have an evening together soon."
"Yes--as soon as you like." He looked up and down the street. "There are
some things I'd like to ask your advice about."
"Certainly," I said.
"What do you say to coming and dining at my place? Ever met Wilderling?"
"Wilderling?" I could not remember for the moment the name.
"Yes--the old josser I live with. Fine old man--got a point of view of
"Delighted," I said.
"To-morrow. Eight o'clock. Don't dress."
He was just going off when he turned again.
"Awfully glad you're better," he said. He cleared his throat, looked at
me in a very friendly way, then smiled.
"_Awfully_ glad you're better," he repeated, then went off, rolling his
broad figure into the evening mist.
I turned towards home.
I arrived at the Baron's punctually at eight o'clock. His flat was in a
small side street off the English Quay. I paused for a moment, before
turning into its dark recesses, to gather in the vast expanse of the
frozen river and the long white quay. It was as though I had found my
way behind a towering wall that now closed me in with a smile of
contemptuous derision. There was no sound in the shining air and the
only figure was a guard who moved monotonously up and down outside the
I rang the bell and the "Schwitzer," bowing very ceremoniously, told me
the flat was on the second floor. I went up a broad stone staircase and
found a heavy oak door with brass nails confronting me. When this slowly
swung open I discovered a very old man with white hair bowing before me.
He was a splendid figure in a uniform of dark blue, his tall thin figure
straight and slim, his white moustaches so neat and fierce that they
seemed to keep guard over the rest of his face as though they warned
him that they would stand no nonsense. There was an air of hushed
splendour behind him, and I could hear the heavy, solemn ticking of a
clock keeping guard over all the austere sanctities of the place. When I
had taken off my Shuba and goloshes I was ushered into a magnificent
room with a high gold clock on the mantlepiece, gilt chairs, heavy dark
carpets and large portraits frowning from the grey walls. The whole room
was bitterly silent, save for the tick of the clock. There was no fire
in the fireplace, but a large gleaming white stove flung out a close
scented heat from the further corner of the room. There were two long
glass bookcases, some little tables with gilt legs, and a fine Japanese
screen of dull gold. The only other piece of furniture was a huge grand
piano near the window.
I sat down and was instantly caught into the solemn silence. There was
something threatening in the hush of it all. "We do what we're told,"
the clock seemed to say, "and so must you." I thought of the ice and
snow beyond the windows, and, in spite of myself, shivered.
Then the door opened and the Baron came in. He stood for a moment by the
door, staring in front of him as though he could not penetrate the heavy
and dusky air, and seen thus, under the height and space of the room, he
seemed so small as to be almost ridiculous. But he was not ridiculous
for long. As he approached one was struck at once by the immaculate
efficiency that followed him like a protecting shadow. In himself he was
a scrupulously neat old man with weary and dissipated eyes, but behind
the weariness, the neatness, and dissipation was a spirit of indomitable
determination and resolution. He wore a little white Imperial and a long
white moustache. His hair was brushed back and his forehead shone like
marble. He wore a black suit, white spats, and long, pointed, black
patent-leather shoes. He had the smallest feet I have ever seen on any
He greeted me with great courtesy. His voice was soft, and he spoke
perfect English, save for a very slight accent that was rather charming;
this gave his words a certain naivete. He rubbed his hands and smiled in
a gentle but determined way, as though he meant no harm by it, but had
decided that it was a necessary thing to do. I forget of what we talked,
but I know that I surrendered myself at once to an atmosphere that had
been strange to me for so long that I had almost forgotten its
character--an atmosphere of discipline, order, comfort, and above all,
of security. My mind flew to the Markovitches, and I smiled to myself at
the thought of the contrast.
Then, strangely, when I had once thought of the Markovitch flat the
picture haunted me for the rest of the evening. I could see the Baron's
gilt chairs and gold clock, his little Imperial and shining shoes only
through the cloudy disorder of the Markovitch tables and chairs. There
was poor Markovitch in his dark little room perched on his chair with
his boots, with his hands, with his hair... and there was poor Uncle
and there poor Vera.... Why was I pitying them? I gloried in them. That
is Russia... This is....
"Allow me to introduce you to my wife," the Baron said, bending forward,
the very points of his toes expressing amiability.
The Baroness was a large solid lady with a fine white bosom and strong
white arms. Her face was homely and kind; I saw at once that she adored
her husband; her placid smile carried beneath its placidity a tremulous
anxiety that he should be pleased, and her mild eyes swam in the light
of his encouragement. I was sure, however, that the calm and discipline
that I felt in the things around me came as much from her domesticity as
from his discipline. She was a fortunate woman in that she had attained
the ambition of her life--to govern the household of a man whom she
could both love and fear.
Lawrence came in, and we went through high folding doors into the
dining-room. This room had dark-blue wall-paper, electric lights heavily
shaded, and soft heavy carpets. The table itself was flooded with
light--the rest of the room was dusk. I wondered as I looked about me
why the Wilderlings had taken Lawrence as a paying guest. Before my
visit I had imagined that they were poor, as so many of the better-class
Russians were, but here were no signs of poverty. I decided that.
Our dinner was good, and the wine was excellent. We talked, of course,
politics, and the Baron was admirably frank.
"I won't disguise from you, M. Durward," he said, "that some of us watch
your English effort at winning the heart of this country with sympathy,
but also, if I am not offending you, with some humour. I'm not speaking
only of your propaganda efforts. You've got, I know, one or two literary
gentlemen here--a novelist, I think, and a professor and a journalist.
Well, soon you'll find them inefficient, and decide that you must have
some commercial gentlemen, and then, disappointed with them, you'll
decide for the military... and still the great heart of Russia will
"Yes," I said, "because your class are determined that the peasant shall
remain uneducated, and until he is educated he will be unable to
approach any of us."
"Quite so," said the Baron smiling at me very cheerfully. "I perceive,
M. Durward, that you are a democrat. So are we all, these days.... You
look surprised, but I assure you that the good of the people in the
interests of the people is the only thing for which any of us care. Only
some of us know Russia pretty well, and we know that the Russian peasant
is not ready for liberty, and if you were to give him liberty to-night
you would plunge his country into the most desperate torture of anarchy
and carnage known in history. A little more soup?--we are offering you
only a slight dinner."
"Yes, but, Baron," I said, "would you tell me when it is intended that
the Russian peasant shall begin his upward course towards light and
learning? If that day is to be for ever postponed?"
"It will not be for ever postponed," said the Baron gently. "Let us
finish the war, and education shall be given slowly, under wise
direction, to every man, woman, and child in the country. Our Czar is
the most liberal ruler in Europe--and he knows what is good for his
"And Protopopoff and Stuermer?" I asked.
"Protopopoff is a zealous, loyal liberal, but he has been made to see
during these last months that Russia is not at this moment ready for
freedom. Stuermer--well, M. Stuermer is gone."
"So you, yourself, Baron," I asked, "would oppose at this moment all
"With every drop of blood in my body," he answered, and his hand flat
against the tablecloth quivered. "At this crisis admit one change and
your dyke is burst, your land flooded. Every Russian is asked at this
moment to believe in simple things--his religion, his Czar, his country.
Grant your reforms, and in a week every babbler in the country will be
off his head, talking, screaming, fighting. The Germans will occupy
Russia at their own good time, you will be beaten on the West and
civilisation will be set back two hundred years. The only hope for
Russia is unity, and for unity you must have discipline, and for
discipline, in Russia at any rate, you must have an autocracy."
As he spoke the furniture, the grey walls, the heavy carpets, seemed to
whisper an echo of his words: "Unity... Discipline... Discipline...
Autocracy... Autocracy... Autocracy...."
"Then tell me, Baron," I said, "if it isn't an impertinent question, do
you feel so secure in your position that you have no fears at all? Does
such a crisis, as for instance Milyukoff's protest last November, mean
nothing? You know the discontent.... Is there no fear....?"
"Fear!" He interrupted me, his voice swift and soft and triumphant. "M.
Durward, are you so ignorant of Russia that you consider the outpourings
of a few idealistic Intelligentzia, professors and teachers and poets,
as important? What about the people, M. Durward? You ask any peasant in
the Moscow Government, or little Russia, or the Ukraine whether he will
remain loyal to his Little Father or no! Ask--and the question you
suggested to me will be answered."
"Then, you feel both secure and justified?" I said.
"We feel both secure and justified"--he answered me, smiling.
After that our conversation was personal and social. Lawrence was very
quiet. I observed that the Baroness had a motherly affection for him,
that she saw that he had everything that he wanted, and that she gave
him every now and then little friendly confidential smiles. As the meal
proceeded, as I drank the most excellent wine and the warm austerity of
my surroundings gathered ever more closely around me, I wondered whether
after all my apprehensions and forebodings of the last weeks had not
been the merest sick man's cowardice. Surely if any kingdom in the world
was secure, it was this official Russia. I could see it stretching
through the space and silence of that vast land, its servants in every
village, its paths and roads all leading back to the central citadel,
its whispered orders flying through the air from district to district,
its judgements, its rewards, its sins, its virtues, resting upon a basis
of superstition and ignorance and apathy, the three sure friends of
autocracy through history!
And on the other side--who? The Rat, Boris Grogoff, Markovitch. Yes, the
Baron had reason for his confidence.... I thought for a moment of that
figure that I had seen on Christmas Eve by the river--the strong grave
bearded peasant whose gaze had seemed to go so far beyond the bounds of
my own vision. But no! Russia's mystical peasant--that was an old tale.
Once, on the Front, when I had seen him facing the enemy with bare
hands, I had, myself, believed it. Now I thought once more of the
Rat--_that_ was the type whom I must now confront.
I had a most agreeable evening. I do not know how long it had been
since I had tasted luxury and comfort and the true fruits of
civilisation. The Baron was a most admirable teller of stories, with a
capital sense of humour. After dinner the Baroness left us for half an
hour, and the Baron became very pleasantly Rabelaisian, speaking of his
experiences in Paris and London, Vienna and Berlin so easily and with so
ready a wit that the evening flew. The Baroness returned and, seeing
that it was after eleven, I made my farewells. Lawrence said that he
would walk with me down the quay before turning into bed. My host and
hostess pressed me to come as often as possible. The Baron's last words
to me were:
"Have no fears, M. Durward. There is much talk in this country, but we
are a lazy people."
The "we" rang strangely in my ears.
"He's of course no more a Russian than you or I," I said to Lawrence, as
we started down the quay.
"Oh yes, he is!" Lawrence said. "Quite genuine--not a drop of German
blood in spite of the name. But he's a Prussian at heart--a Prussian of
the Prussians. By that I don't mean in the least that he wants Germany
to win the war. He doesn't--his interests are all here, and you mayn't
believe me, but I assure you he's a Patriot. He loves Russia, and he
wants what's best for her--and believes that to be Autocracy."
After that Lawrence shut up. He would not say another word. We walked
for a long time in silence. The evening was most beautiful. A golden
moon flung the snow into dazzling relief against the deep black of the
palaces. Across the Neva the line of towers and minarets and chimneys
ran like a huge fissure in the golden, light from sky to sky.
"You said there was something you wanted to ask my advice about?"
I broke the silence.
He looked at me with his long slow considering stare. He mumbled
something; then, with a sudden gesture, he gripped my arm, and his heavy
body quivering with the urgency of his words he said:
"It's Vera Markovitch.... I'd give my body and soul and spirit for her
happiness and safety.... God forgive me, I'd give my country and my
honour.... I ache and long for her, so that I'm afraid for my sanity.
I've never loved a woman, nor lusted for one, nor touched one in my
whole life, Durward--and now... and now... I've gone right in. I've
spoken no word to any one; but I couldn't stand my own silence....
Durward, you've got to help me!"
I walked on, seeing the golden light and the curving arc of snow and the
little figures moving like dolls from light to shadow. Lawrence! I had
never thought of him as an urgent lover; even now, although I could
still feel his hand quivering on my arm, I could have laughed at the
ludicrous incongruity of romance, and that stolid thick-set figure. And
at the same time I was afraid. Lawrence in love was no boy on the
threshold of life like Bohun... here was no trivial passion. I realised
even in that first astonished moment the trouble that might be in store
for all of us.
"Look here, Lawrence!" I said at last. "The first thing that you may as
well realise is that it is hopeless. Vera Michailovna has confided in me
a good deal lately, and she is devoted to her husband, thinks of nothing
else. She's simple, naive, with all her sense and wisdom...."
"Hopeless!" he interrupted, and he gave a kind of grim chuckle of
derision. "My dear Durward, what do you suppose I'm after?... rape and
adultery and Markovitch after us with a pistol? I tell you--" and here
he spoke fiercely, as though he were challenging the whole ice-bound
world around us--"that I want nothing but her happiness, her safety,
her comfort! Do you suppose that I'm such an ass as not to recognise the
kind of thing that my loving her would lead to? I tell you I'm after
nothing for myself, and that not because I'm a fine unselfish character,
but simply because the thing's too big to let anything into it but
herself. She shall never know that I care twopence about her, but she's
got to be happy and she's got to be safe.... Just now, she's neither of
those things, and that's why I've spoken to you.... She's unhappy and
she's afraid, and that's got to change. I wouldn't have spoken of this
to you if I thought you'd be so short-sighted...."
"All right! All right!" I said testily. "You may be a kind of Galahad,
Lawrence, outside all natural law. I don't know, but you'll forgive me
if I go for a moment on my own experience--and that experience is, that
you can start on as highbrow an elevation as you like, but love doesn't
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