The Secret City
Part 3 out of 7
stand still, and the body's the body, and to-morrow isn't yesterday--not
by no means. Moreover, Markovitch is a Russian and a peculiar one at
that. Finally, remember that I want Vera Michailovna to be happy quite
as much as you do!"
He was suddenly grave and almost boyish in his next words.
"I know that--you're a decent chap, Durward--I know it's hard to believe
me, but I just ask you to wait and test me. No one knows of this--that
I'd swear--and no one shall; but what's the matter with her, Durward,
what's she afraid of? That's why I spoke to you. You know her, and I'll
throttle you here where we stand if you don't tell me just what the
trouble is. I don't care for confidences or anything of the sort. You
must break them all and tell me--"
His hand was on my arm again, his big ugly face, now grim and obstinate,
close against mine.
"I'll tell you," I said slowly, "all I know, which is almost nothing.
The trouble is Semyonov, the doctor. Why or how I can't say, although
I've seen enough of him in the past to know the trouble he _can_ be.
She's afraid of him, and Markovitch is afraid of him. He likes playing
on people's nerves. He's a bitter, disappointed man, who loved
desperately once, as only real sensualists can... and now he's in love
with a ghost. That's why real life maddens him."
"Semyonov!" Lawrence whispered the name.
We had come to the end of the quay. My dear church with its round grey
wall stood glistening in the moonlight, the shadows from the snow
rippling up its sides, as though it lay under water. We stood and looked
across the river.
"I've always hated that fellow," Lawrence said. "I've only seen him
about twice, but I believe I hated him before I saw him.... All right,
Durward, that's what I wanted to know. Thank you. Good-night."
And before I could speak he had gripped my hand, had turned back, and
was walking swiftly away, across the golden-lighted quay.
From the moment that Lawrence left me, vanishing into the heart of the
snow and ice, I was obsessed by a conviction of approaching danger and
peril. It has been one of the most disastrous weaknesses of my life that
I have always shrunk from precipitate action. Before the war it had
seemed to many of us that life could be jockeyed into decisions by words
and theories and speculations. The swift, and, as it were, revengeful
precipitancy of the last three years had driven me into a self-distrust
and cowardice which had grown and grown until life had seemed veiled and
distant and mysteriously obscure. From my own obscurity, against my
will, against my courage, against my own knowledge of myself,
circumstances were demanding that I should advance and act. It was of no
avail to myself that I should act unwisely, that I should perhaps only
precipitate a crisis that I could not help. I was forced to act when I
would have given my soul to hold aloof, and in this town, whose darkness
and light, intrigue and display, words and action, seemed to derive some
mysterious force from the very soil, from the very air, the smallest
action achieved monstrous proportions. When you have lived for some
years in Russia you do not wonder that its citizens prefer inaction to
demonstration--the soil is so much stronger than the men who live upon
Nevertheless, for a fortnight I did nothing. Private affairs of an
especially tiresome kind filled my days--I saw neither Lawrence nor
Vera, and, during that period, I scarcely left my rooms.
There was much expectation in the town that February 14th, when the Duma
was appointed to meet, would be a critical day. Fine things were said of
the challenging speeches that would be made, of the firm stand that the
Cadet party intended to take, of the crisis with which the Court party
would be faced.
Of course nothing occurred. It may be safely said that, in Russian
affairs, no crisis occurs, either in the place or at the time, or in the
manner in which it is expected. Time with us here refuses to be caught
by the throat. That is the revenge that it takes on the scorn with
which, in Russia, it is always covered.
On the 20th of February I received an invitation to Nina's birthday
party. She would be eighteen on the 28th. She scribbed at the bottom of
Dear Durdles--If you don't come I will never forgive you.--Your loving
The immediate problem was a present. I knew that Nina adored presents,
but Petrograd was now no easy place for purchases, and I wished, I
suppose as a kind of tribute to her youth and freshness and colour, to
give her something for which she would really care. I sallied out on a
wonderful afternoon when the town was a blaze of colour, the walls dark
red, dark brown, violet, pink, and the snow a dazzling glitter of
crystal. The bells were ringing for some festival, echoing as do no
other bells in the world from wall to wall, roof to roof, canal to
canal. Everybody moved as though they were inspired with a gay sense of
adventure, men and women laughing; the Isvostchicks surveying possible
fares with an eye less patronising and lugubrious than usual, the flower
women and the beggars and the little Chinese boys and the wicked old men
who stare at you as though they were dreaming of Eastern debauches,
shared in the sun and tang of the air and high colour of the sky and
I pushed my way into the shop in the Morskaia that had the coloured
stones--the blue and azure and purple stones--in the window. Inside the
shop, which had a fine gleaming floor, and an old man with a tired eye,
there were stones of every colour, but there was nothing there for
Nina--all was too elaborate and grand.
Near the Nevski is a fine shop of pictures with snow scenes and blue
rivers and Italian landscapes, and copies of Repin and Verestchagin, and
portraits of the Czar. I searched here, but all were too sophisticated
in their bright brown frames, and their air of being the latest thing
from Paris and London. Then I crossed the road, threading my way through
the carriages and motor cars, past the old white-bearded sweeper with
the broom held aloft, gazing at the sky, and plunged into the English
Shop to see whether I might buy something warm for Nina. Here, indeed, I
could fancy that I was in the High Street in Chester, or Leicester, or
Truro, or Canterbury. A demure English provincialism was over
everything, and a young man in a high white collar and a shiny black
coat, washed his hands as he told me that "they hadn't any in stock at
the moment, but they were expecting a delivery of goods at any minute."
Russian shopmen, it is almost needless to say, do not care whether they
have goods in stock or no. They have other things to think about. The
air was filled with the chatter of English governesses, and an English
clergyman and his wife were earnestly turning over a selection of
Nothing here for Nina--nothing at all. I hurried away. With a sudden
flash of inspiration I realised that it was in the Jews' Market that I
would find what I wanted. I snatched at the bulging neck of a sleeping
coachman, and before he was fully awake was in his sledge, and had told
him my destination. He grumbled and wished to know how much I intended
to pay him, and when I said one and a half roubles, answered that he
would not take me for less than three. I threatened him then with the
fat and good-natured policeman who always guarded the confused junction
of the Morskaia and Nevski, and he was frightened and moved on. I sighed
as I remembered the days not so long before, when that same coachman
would have thought it an honour to drive me for half a rouble. Down the
Sadovya we slipped, bumping over the uneven surface of the snow, and the
shops grew smaller and the cinemas more stringent, and the women and men
with their barrows of fruit and coloured notepaper and toys more
frequent. Then through the market with the booths and the church with
its golden towers, until we stood before the hooded entrance to the
Jews' Paradise. I paid him, and without listening to his discontented
cries pushed my way in. The Jews' Market is a series of covered arcades
with a square in the middle of it, and in the middle of the square a
little church with some doll-like trees. These arcades are Western in
their hideous covering of glass and the ugliness of the exterior of the
wooden shops that line them, but the crowd that throngs them is Eastern,
so that in the strange eyes and voices, the wild gestures, the laughs,
the cries, the singing, and the dancing that meets one here it is as
though a new world was suddenly born--a world offensive, dirty, voluble,
blackguardly perhaps, but intriguing, tempting, and ironical. The
arcades are generally so crowded that one can move only at a slow pace
and, on every side one is pestered by the equivalents of the old English
cry: "What do you lack? What do you lack?"
Every mixture of blood and race that the world contains is to be seen
here, but they are all--Tartars, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Indians,
Arabs, Moslem, and Christian--formed by some subtle colour of
atmosphere, so that they seem all alike to be citizens of some secret
little town, sprung to life just for a day, in the heart of this other
city. Perhaps it is the dull pale mist that the glass flings down,
perhaps it is the uncleanly dust-clogged air; whatever it be, there is a
stain of grey shadowy smoke upon all this world, and Ikons and shabby
jewels, and piles of Eastern clothes, and old brass pots, and silver,
hilted swords, and golden-tasselled Tartar coats gleam through the
shadow and wink and stare.
To-day the arcades were so crowded that I could scarcely move, and the
noise was deafening.
Many soldiers were there, looking with indulgent amusement upon the
scene, and the Jews with their skull-caps and the fat, huge-breasted
Jewish women screamed and shrieked and waved their arms like boughs in a
storm. I stopped at many shops and fingered the cheap silver toys, the
little blue and green Ikons, the buckles and beads and rosaries that
thronged the trays, but I could not find anything for Nina. Then
suddenly I saw a square box of mother-of-pearl and silver, so charming
and simple, the figures on the silver lid so gracefully carved that I
decided at once.
The Jew in charge of it wanted twice as much as I was ready to give, and
we argued for ten minutes before a kindly and appreciative crowd. At
last we arranged a compromise, and I moved away, pleased and satisfied.
I stepped out of the arcade and faced the little Square. It was, at that
instant, fantastic and oddly coloured; the sun, about to set, hung in
the misty sky a perfect round crimson globe, and it was perched, almost
maliciously, just above the tower of the little church.
The rest of the world was grey. The Square was a thick mass of human
beings so tightly wedged together that it seemed to move backwards and
forwards like a floor of black wood pushed by a lever. One lamp burnt
behind the window of the church, the old houses leaned forward as though
listening to the babel below their eaves.
But it was the sun that seemed to me then so evil and secret and
cunning. Its deep red was aloof and menacing, and its outline so sharp
that it was detached from the sky as though it were human, and would
presently move and advance towards us. I don't know what there was in
that crowd of struggling human beings and that detached red sun.... The
air was cruel, and through all the arcades that seemed to run like veins
to this heart of the place I could feel the cold and the dark and the
smoky dusk creeping forward to veil us all with deepest night.
I turned away and then saw, advancing towards me, as though he had just
come from the church, pushing his way, and waving a friendly hand to me,
His greeting was most amiable. He was wearing a rather short fur coat
that only reached to a little below his knees, and the fur of the coat
was of a deep rich brown, so that his pale square yellow beard
contrasted with this so abruptly as to seem false. His body was as ever
thick and self-confident, and the round fur cap that he wore was cocked
ever so slightly to one side. I did not want to see him, but I was
caught. I fancied that he knew very well that I wanted to escape, and
that now, for sheer perversity, he would see that I did not. Indeed, he
caught my arm and drew me out of the Market. We passed into the dusky
"Now, Ivan Andreievitch," he said, "this is very pleasant... very....
You elude me, you know, which is unkind with two so old acquaintances.
Of course I know that you dislike me, and I don't suppose that I have
the highest opinion of _you_, but, nevertheless, we should be interested
in one another. Our common experience...." He broke off with a little
shiver, and pulled his fur coat closer around him.
I knew that all that I wanted was to break away. We had passed quickly
on leaving the Market into some of the meanest streets of Petrograd.
This was the Petrograd of Dostoeffsky, the Petrograd of "Poor Folk" and
"Crime and Punishment" and "The Despised and Rejected."... Monstrous
groups of flats towered above us, and in the gathering dusk the figures
that slipped in and out of the doors were furtive shadows and ghosts. No
one seemed to speak; you could see no faces under the spare pale-flamed
lamps, only hear whispers and smell rotten stinks and feel the snow,
foul and soiled under one's feet....
"Look here, Semyonov," I said, slipping from the control of his hand,
"it's just as you say. We don't like one another, and we know one
another well enough to say so. Neither you nor I wish to revive the
past, and there's nothing in the present that we have in common."
"Nothing!" He laughed. "What about my delightful nieces and their home
circle? You were always one to shrink from the truth, Ivan Andreievitch.
You fancy that you can sink into the bosom of a charming family and
escape the disadvantages.... Not at all. There are always disadvantages
in a Russian family. _I_ am the disadvantage in this one." He laughed
again, and insisted on taking my arm once more. "If you feel so strongly
about me, Durward" (when he used my surname he always accented the
second syllable very strongly) "all you have to do is to cut my niece
Vera out of your visiting list. That, I imagine, is the last thing that
you wish. Well, then--"
"Vera Michailovna is my friend," I said hotly--it was foolish of me to
be so easily provoked, but I could not endure his sneering tone. "If you
"Nonsense," he answered sharply, "I imply nothing. Do you suppose that I
have been more than a month here without discovering the facts? It's
your English friend Lawrence who is in love with Vera--and Vera with
"That is a lie!" I cried.
He laughed. "You English," he said, "are not so unobservant as you seem,
but you hate facts. Vera and your friend Lawrence have been in love with
one another since their first meeting, and my dear nephew-in-law
Markovitch knows it."
"That's impossible," I cried. "He--"
"No," Semyonov replied, "I was wrong. He does not know it--he suspects.
And my nephew-in-law in a state of suspicion is a delightful study."
By now we were in a narrow street, so dark that we stumbled at every
step. We seemed to be quite alone.
It was I who now caught his arm. "Semyonov!" I said, and my urgency
stopped him so that he stood where he was. "Leave them alone! Leave them
alone! They've done no harm to you, they can offer you nothing, they are
not intelligent enough for you nor amusing enough. Even if it is true
what you say it will pass--Lawrence will go away. I will see that he
does. Only leave them alone! For God's sake, let them be!"
His face was very close to mine, and, looking at it in the gathering
dark, it was as though it were a face of glass behind which other faces
passed and repassed. I cannot hope to give any idea of the strange
mingling of regret, malice, pride, pain, scorn, and humour that those
eyes showed. His red lips parted as though he would speak, for a moment
he turned away from me and looked down the black tunnel of the street,
then he walked forward again.
"You are wrong, my friend," he said, "if you imagine that there is no
amusement for me in the study of my family. It _is_ my family, you know.
I have none other. Perhaps it has never occurred to you, Durward, that
possibly I am a lonely man."
As he spoke I heard again the echo of that voice as it vanished into the
darkness.... "No one?" and the answer: "No one."...
"Don't imagine," he continued, "that I am asking for your pity. That
indeed would be humorous. I pity no one, and I despise the men who have
it to bestow... but there are situations in life that are intolerable,
Ivan Andreievitch, and any man who _is_ a man will see that he escapes
from such a thing. May I not find in the bosom of my family such an
escape?" He laughed.
"I know nothing about that," I began hotly. "All I know is--"
But he went on as though he had not heard me.
"Have you ever thought about death since you came away from the Front,
Durward? It used to occupy your mind a good deal while you were there, I
remember--in a foolish, romantic, sentimental way of course. You'll
forgive my saying that your views of death were those of a second-hand
novelist--all the same I'll do you the justice of acknowledging that you
had studied it at first hand. You're not a coward, you know."
I was struck most vividly with a sense of his uneasiness. During those
other days uneasy was the very last thing that I ever would have said
that he was--even after his catastrophe his grip of his soul did not
loosen. It was just that loosening that I felt now; he had less control
of the beasts that dwelt beneath the ground of his house, and he could
hear them snarl and whine, and could feel the floor quiver with the echo
of their movements.
I suddenly knew that I was afraid of him no longer.
"Now, see, Alexei Petrovitch," I said, "it isn't death that we want to
talk about now. It is a much simpler thing. It is, that you shouldn't
for your own amusement simply go in and spoil the lives of some of my
friends for nothing at all except your own stupid pride. If that's your
plan I'm going to prevent it."
"Why, Ivan Andreievitch," he cried, laughing, "this is a challenge."
"You can take it as what you please," I answered gravely.
"But, incorrigible sentimentalist," he went on, "tell me--are you,
English and moralist and believer in a good and righteous God as you
are, are you really going to encourage this abominable adultery, this
open, ruthless wrecking of a good man's home? You surprise me; this is a
new light on your otherwise rather uninteresting character."
"Never mind my character," I answered him; "all you've got to do is to
leave Vera Michailovna alone. There'll be no wrecking of homes, unless
you are the wrecker."
He put his hand on my arm again.
"Listen, Durward," he said, "I'll tell you a little story. I'm a doctor
you know, and many curious things occur within my province. Well, some
years ago I knew a man who was very miserable and very proud. His pride
resented that he should be miserable, and he was always suspecting that
people saw his weakness, and as he despised human nature, and thought
his companions fools and deserving of all that they got, and more, he
couldn't bear the thought that they should perceive that he allowed
himself to be unhappy. He coveted death. If it meant extinction he could
imagine nothing pleasanter than so restful an aloofness, quiet and apart
and alone, whilst others hurried and scrambled and pursued the
"And if death did not mean extinction then he thought that he might
snatch and secure for himself something which in life had eluded him. So
he coveted death. But he was too proud to reach it by suicide. That
seemed to him a contemptible and cowardly evasion, and such an easy
solution would have denied the purpose of all his life. So he looked
about him and discovered amongst his friends a man whose character he
knew well, a man idealistic and foolish and romantic, like yourself,
Ivan Andreievitch, only caring more for ideas, more impulsive and more
reckless. He found this man and made him his friend. He played with him
as a cat does with a mouse. He enjoyed life for about a year and then he
"Murdered!" I exclaimed.
"Yes--shot by his idealistic friend. I envy him that year. He must have
experienced many breathless sensations. When the murderer was tried his
only explanation was that he had been irritated and disappointed.
"'Disappointed of what?' asked the judge.
"'Of everything in which he believed....' said the man.
"It seemed a poor excuse for a murder; he is still, I have no doubt, in
"But I envy my friend. That was a delightful death to die....
Good-night, Ivan Andreievitch."
He waved his hand at me and was gone. I was quite alone in the long
black street, engulfed by the high, overhanging flats.
Late on the afternoon of Nina's birthday, when I was on the point of
setting out for the English Prospect, the Rat appeared. I had not seen
him for several weeks; but there he was, stepping suddenly out of the
shadows of my room, dirty and disreputable and cheerful. He had been, I
perceived, drinking furniture polish.
"Good-evening," I said sternly. "I told you not to come here when you
"I'm not drunk," he said, offended, "only a little. It's not much that
you can get these days. I want some money, Barin."
"I've none for you," I answered.
"It's only a little--God knows that I wouldn't ask you for much, but I'm
going to be very busy these next days, and it's work that won't bring
pay quickly. There'll be pay later, and then I will return it to you."
"There's nothing for you to-night," I said.
He laughed. "You're a fine man, Barin. A foreigner is fine--that's
where the poor Russian is unhappy. I love you, Barin, and I will look
after you, and if, as you say, there isn't any money here, one must
pray to God and he will show one the way."
"What's this work you're going to do?" I asked him.
"There's going to be trouble the other side of the river in a day or
two," he answered, "and I'm going to help."
"Help what?" I asked.
"Help the trouble," he answered, smiling.
"Behave like a blackguard, in fact."
"Ah, blackguard, Barin!" he protested, using a Russian word that is
worse than blackguard. "Why these names?... I'm not a good man, God have
mercy on my soul, but then I pretend nothing. I am what you see.... If
there's going to be trouble in the town I may as well be there. Why not
I as well as another? And it is to your advantage, Barin, that I should
"Why to my advantage?" I asked him.
"Because I am your friend, and we'll protect you," he answered.
"I wouldn't trust you a yard," I told him.
"Well, perhaps you're right," he said. "We are as God made us--I am no
better than the rest."
"No, indeed you're not," I answered him. "Why do you think there'll be
"I know.... Perhaps a lot of trouble, perhaps only a little. But it
will be a fine time for those of us who have nothing to lose.... So you
have no money for me?"
"A mere rouble or so?"
"Well, I must be off.... I am your friend. Don't forget," and he was
It had been arranged that Nina and Vera, Lawrence and Bohun and I should
meet outside the Giniselli at five minutes to eight. I left my little
silver box at the flat, paid some other calls, and just as eight o'clock
was striking arrived outside the Giniselli. This is Petrograd's apology
for a music-hall--in other words, it is nothing but the good
Then, again, it is not quite the circus of one's English youth, because
it has a very distinct Russian atmosphere of its own. The point really
is the enthusiasm of the audience, because it is an enthusiasm that in
these sophisticated, twentieth-century days is simply not to be found in
any other country in Europe. I am an old-fashioned man and, quite
frankly, I adore a circus; and when I can find one with the right
sawdust smell, the right clown, and the right enthusiasm, I am happy.
The smart night is a Saturday, and then, if you go, you will see, in the
little horse-boxes close to the arena, beautiful women in jewellery and
powder, and young officers, and fat merchants in priceless Shubas. But
to-night was not a Saturday, and therefore the audience was very
democratic, screaming cat-calls from the misty distances of the gallery,
and showering sunflower seeds upon the heads of the bourgeoisie, who
were, for the most part, of the smaller shopkeeper kind.
Nina, to-night, was looking very pretty and excited. She was wearing a
white silk dress with blue bows, and all her hair was piled on the top
of her head in imitation of Vera--but this only had the effect of making
her seem incredibly young and naive, as though she had put her hair up
just for the evening because there was to be a party. It was explained
that Markovitch was working but would be present at supper. Vera was
quiet, but looked happier, I thought, than I had seen her for a long
time. Bohun was looking after her, and Lawrence was with Nina. I sat
behind the four of them, in the back of the little box, like a presiding
Mostly I thought of how lovely Vera was to-night, and why it was, too,
that more people did not care for her. I knew that she was not popular,
that she was considered proud and reserved and cold. As she sat there
now, motionless, her hands on her lap, her whole being seemed to me to
radiate goodness and gentleness and a loving heart. I knew that she
could be impatient with stupid people, and irritated by sentimentality,
and infuriated by meanness and cruelty, but the whole size and grandeur
of her nobility seemed to me to shine all about her and set her apart
from the rest of human beings. She was not a woman whom I ever could
have loved--she had not the weaknesses and naiveties and appealing
helplessness that drew love from one's heart. Nor could I have ever
dared to face the depth and splendour of the passion that there was in
her--I was not built on that heroic scale. God forgive me if, as I
watched them, I felt a sudden glow of almost eager triumph at the
thought of Lawrence as her lover! I checked it. My heart was suddenly
Such a development could only mean tragedy, and I knew it. I had even
sworn to Semyonov that I would prevent it. I looked at them and felt my
helpless weakness. Who was I to prevent anything? And who was there now,
in the whole world, who would be guided by my opinion? They might have
me as a confidant because they trusted me, but after that... no, I had
no illusions. I was pushed off the edge of the world, hanging on still
with one quivering hand--soon my grip would loosen--and, God help me, I
did not want to go.
Nina turned back to me and, with a little excited clap of her hands,
drew my attention to the gallant Madame Gineselli, who, although by no
means a chicken, arrayed in silver tights and a large black picture-hat,
stood on one foot on the back of her white horse and bowed to the
already hysterical gallery. Mr. Gineselli cracked his whip, and the
white horse ambled along and the sawdust flew up into our eyes, and
Madame bent her knees first in and then out, and the bourgeoisie clapped
their hands and the gallery shouted "Brava." Gineselli cracked his whip
and there was the clown "Jackomeno, beloved of his Russian public," as
it was put on the programme; and indeed so he seemed to be, for he was
greeted with roars of applause. There was nothing very especially
Russian about him, however, and when he had taken his coat off and
brushed a place on which to put it and then flung it on the ground and
stamped on it, I felt quite at home with him and ready for anything.
He called up one of the attendants and asked him whether he had ever
played the guitar. I don't know what it was that the attendant answered,
because something else suddenly transfixed my attention--the vision of
Nina's little white-gloved hand resting on Lawrence's broad knee. I saw
at once, as though she had told me, that she had committed herself to a
most desperate venture. I could fancy the resolution that she had
summoned to take the step, the way that now her heart would be furiously
beating, and the excited chatter with which she would try to cover up
her action. Vera and Bohun could not, from where they were sitting, see
what she had done; Lawrence did not move, his back was set like a rock;
he stared steadfastly at the arena. Nina never ceased talking, her
ribbons fluttering and her other hand gesticulating.
I could not take my eyes from that little white hand. I should have
been, I suppose, ashamed of her, indignant for her, but I could only
feel that she was, poor child, in for the most desperate rebuff. I could
see from where I sat her cheek, hot and crimson, and her shrill voice
The interval arrived, to my intense relief, and we all went out into the
dark passage that smelt of sawdust and horses. Almost at once Nina
detached me from the others and walked off with me towards the lighted
"You saw," she said.
"Saw what?" I asked.
"Saw what I was doing."
I felt that she was quivering all over, and she looked so ridiculously
young, with her trembling lip and blue hat on one side and burning
cheeks, that I felt that I wanted to take her into my arms and kiss and
"I saw that you had your hand on his knee," I said. "That was silly of
"Why shouldn't I?" she answered furiously. "Why shouldn't I enjoy life
like every one else? Why should Vera, have everything?"
"Vera!" I cried. "What has it to do with Vera?"
She didn't answer my question. She put her hand on my arm, pressing
close up to me as though she wanted my protection.
"Durdles, I want him for my friend. I do--I do. When I look at him and
think of Boris and the others I don't want to speak to any one of them
again. I only want him for my friend. I'm getting old now, and they
can't treat me as a child any longer. I'll show them. I know what I'll
do if I can't have the friends I want and if Vera is always managing
me--I'll go off to Boris."
"My dear Nina," I said, "you mustn't do that. You don't care for him."
"No, I know I don't--but I will go if everybody thinks me a baby. And
Durdles--Durdles, please--make him like me--your Mr. Lawrence."
She said his name with the funniest little accent.
"Nina, dear," I said, "will you take a little piece of advice from me?"
"What is it?" she asked doubtfully.
"Well, this.... Don't you make any move yourself. Just wait and you'll
see he'll like you. You'll make him shy if you--"
But she interrupted me furiously in one of her famous tempers.
"Oh, you Englishmen with your shyness and your waiting and your
coldness! I hate you all, and I wish we were fighting with the Germans
against you. Yes, I do--and I hope the Germans win. You never have any
blood. You're all cold as ice.... And what do you mean spying on me?
Yes, you were--sitting behind and spying! You're always finding out what
we're doing, and putting it all down in a book. I hate you, and I won't
ever ask your advice again."
She rushed off, and I was following her when the bell rang for the
beginning of the second part. We all went in, Nina chattering and
laughing with Bohun just as though she had never been in a temper in her
Then a dreadful thing happened. We arrived at the box, and Vera, Bohun,
and Nina sat in the seats they had occupied before. I waited for
Lawrence to sit down, but he turned round to me.
"I say, Durward--you sit next to Nina Michailovna this time. She'll be
bored having me all the while."
"No, no!" I began to protest, but Nina, her voice shaking, cried:
"Yes, Durdles, you sit down next to me--please."
I don't think that Lawrence perceived anything. He said very cheerfully,
"That's right--and I'll sit behind and see that you all behave."
I sat down and the second part began. The second part was wrestling. The
bell rang, the curtains parted, and instead of the splendid horses and
dogs there appeared a procession of some of the most obese and monstrous
types of humanity. Almost naked, they wandered round the arena,
mountains of flesh glistening in the electric light. A little man, all
puffed up like a poulter pigeon, then advanced into the middle of the
arena, and was greeted with wild applause from the gallery. To this he
bowed and then announced in a terrific voice, "Gentlemen, you are about
to see some of the most magnificent wrestling in the world. Allow me to
introduce to you the combatants." He then shouted out the names: "Ivan
Strogoff of Kiev--Paul Rosing of Odessa--Jacob Smyerioff of
Petrograd--John Meriss from Africa (this the most hideous of
negroes)--Karl Tubiloff of Helsingfors...." and so on. The gentlemen
named smirked and bowed. They all marched off, and then, in a moment,
one couple returned, shook hands, and, under the breathless attention
of the whole house, began to wrestle.
They did not, however, command my attention. I could think of nothing
but the little crushed figure next to me. I stole a look at her and saw
that a large tear was hanging on one eyelash ready to fall. I looked
hurriedly away. Poor child! And her birthday! I cursed Lawrence for his
clumsiness. What did it matter if she had put her hand on his knee? He
ought to have taken it and patted it. But it was more than likely, as I
knew very well, that he had never even noticed her action. He was
marvellously unaware of all kinds of things, and it was only too
possible that Nina scarcely existed for him. I longed to comfort her,
and I did then a foolish thing. I put out my hand and let it rest for a
moment on her dress.
Instantly she moved away with a sharp little gesture.
Five minutes later I heard a little whisper: "Durdles, it's so hot
here--and I hate these naked men. Shall we go? Ask Vera--"
The first bout had just come to an end. The little man with the swelling
chest was alone, strutting up and down, and answering questions hurled
at him from the gallery.
"Uncle Vanya, where's Michael of Odessa?"
"Ah, he's a soldier in the army now."
"Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya..."
"Well, well, what is it?"
"Why isn't _Chornaya Maska_, wrestling to-night?"
"Ah, he's busy."
"What's he busy with?"
"Never mind, he's busy."
"What's he busy with?... Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya..."
"Isn't it true that Michael's dead now?"
"So they say."
"Is it true?"
"Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya...."
The message had passed along that Nina was tired and wanted to go. We
all moved out through the passage and into the cold fresh air.
"It was quite time," said Vera. "I was going to suggest it myself."
"I hope you liked it," said Lawrence politely to Nina.
"No, I hated it," she answered furiously, and turned her back on him.
It could not be said that the birthday party was promising very well.
And yet for the first half-hour it really seemed that it would "go" very
well indeed. It had been agreed that it was to be absolutely a "family"
party, and Uncle Ivan, Semyonov, and Boris Grogoff were the only
additions to our number. Markovitch was there of course, and I saw at
once that he was eager to be agreeable and to be the best possible host.
As I had often noticed before, there was something pathetic about
Markovitch when he wished to be agreeable. He had neither the figure nor
the presence with which to be fascinating, and he did not know in the
least how to bring out his best points.
Especially when he tried, as he was sometimes ill-advised enough to do,
to flirt with young girls, he was a dismal failure. He was intended, by
nature, to be mysterious and malevolent, and had he only had a
malevolent spirit there would have been no tragedy--but in the confused
welter that he called his soul, malevolence was the least of the
elements, and other things--love, sympathy, twisted self-pity, ambition,
courage, and cowardice--drowned it. He was on his best behaviour
to-night, and over the points of his high white collar his peaked, ugly,
anxious face peered, appealing to the Fates for generosity.
But the Fates despise those who appeal.
I very soon saw that he was on excellent terms with Semyonov, and this
could only be, I was sure, because Semyonov had been flattering him.
Very soon I learnt the truth. I was standing near the table, watching
the company, when I found Markovitch at my side.
"Very glad you've come, Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "I've been meaning
to come and see you, only I've been too busy."
"How's the ink getting along?" I asked him.
"Oh, the ink!" He brushed my words scornfully aside. "No, that's
nothing. We must postpone that to a more propitious time.
Meanwhile--meanwhile, Ivan Andreievitch, I've hit it at last!"
"What is it this time?" I asked.
He could hardly speak for his excitement. "It's wood--the bark--the bark
of the tree, you know--a new kind of fibre for cloth. If I hadn't got to
look after these people here, I'd take you and show you now. You're a
clever fellow--you'd understand at once. I've been showing it to Alexei"
(he nodded in the direction of Semyonov), "and he entirely agrees with
me that there's every kind of possibility in it. The thing will be to
get the labour--that's the trouble nowadays--but I'll find somebody--one
of these timber men...."
So that was it, was it? I looked across at Semyonov, who was now seated
on Vera's right hand just opposite Boris Grogoff. He was very quiet,
very still, looking about him, his square pale beard a kind of symbol of
the secret immobility of his soul. I fancied that I detected behind his
placidity an almost relieved self-satisfaction, as though things were
going very much better than he had expected.
"So Alexei Petrovitch thinks well of it, does he?" I asked.
"Most enthusiastic," answered Markovitch eagerly. "He's gone into the
thing thoroughly with me, and has made some admirable suggestions....
Ivan Andreievitch, I think I should tell you--I misjudged him. I wasn't
fair on what I said to you the other day about him. Or perhaps it is
that being at the Front has changed him, softened him a bit. His love
affair there, you know, made him more sympathetic and kindly. I believe
he means well to us all. Vera won't agree with me. She's more cynical
than she used to be. I don't like that in her. She never had a
suspicious nature before, but now she doesn't trust one."
"You don't tell her enough," I interrupted.
"Tell her?" he looked at me doubtfully. "What is there I should tell
"Everything!" I answered.
"Everything?" His eyes suddenly narrowed, his face was sharp and
suspicious. "Does she tell me everything? Answer me that, Ivan
Andreievitch. There was a time once--but now--I give my confidences
where I'm trusted. If she treated me fairly--"
There was no chance to say more; they called us to the table. I took my
place between Nina and Ivan.
As I have said, the supper began very merrily. Boris Grogoff was, I
think, a little drunk when he arrived; at any rate he was noisy from the
very beginning. I have wondered often since whether he had any private
knowledge that night which elated and excited him, and was responsible
in part, perhaps, for what presently occurred. It may well have been
so, although at the time, of course, nothing of the kind occurred to me.
Nina appeared to have recovered her spirits. She was sitting next to
Lawrence, and chattered and laughed with him in her ordinary fashion.
And now, stupidly enough, when I try to recall exactly the steps that
led up to the catastrophe, I find it difficult to see things clearly. I
remember that very quickly I was conscious that there was danger in the
air. I was conscious of it first in the eyes of Semyonov, those steady,
watching, relentless eyes so aloof as to be inhuman. He was on the other
side of the table, and suddenly I said to myself, "He's expecting
something to happen." Then, directly after that I caught Vera's eye, and
I saw that she too was anxious. She looked pale and tired and sad.
I caught myself in the next instant saying to myself, "Well, she's got
Lawrence to look after her now"--so readily does the spirit that is
beyond one's grasp act above and outside one's poor human will.
I saw then that the trouble was once again, as it had often been before,
Grogoff. He was drinking heavily the rather poor claret which Markovitch
had managed to secure from somewhere. He addressed the world in general.
"I tell you that we're going to stop this filthy war," he cried. "And if
our government won't do it, we'll take things into our own hands...."
"Well," said Semyonov, smiling, "that's a thing that no Russian has ever
said before, for certain."
Every one laughed, and Grogoff flushed. "Oh, it's easy to sneer!" he
said. "Just because there've been miserable cowards in Russian history,
you think it will always be so. I tell you it is not so. The time is
coming when tyranny will topple from its throne, and we'll show Europe
the way to liberty."
"By which you mean," said Semyonov, "that you'll involve Russia in at
least three more wars in addition to the one she's at present so
"I tell you," screamed Grogoff, now so excited that he was standing on
his feet and waving his glass in the air, "that this time you have not
cowards to deal with. This will not be as it was in 1905; I know of what
Semyonov leant over the table and whispered something in Markovitch's
ear. I had seen that Markovitch had already been longing to speak. He
jumped up on to his feet, fiercely excited, his eyes flaming.
"It's nonsense that you are talking, sheer nonsense!" he cried.
"Russia's lost the war, and all we who believed in her have our hearts
broken. Russia won't be mended by a few vapouring idiots who talk and
talk without taking action."
"What do you call me?" screamed Grogoff.
"I mention no names," said Markovitch, his little eyes dancing with
anger. "Take it or no as you please. But I say that we have had enough
of all this vapouring talk, all this pretence of courage. Let us admit
that freedom has failed in Russia, that she must now submit herself to
"Coward! Coward!" screamed Grogoff.
"It's you who are the coward!" cried Markovitch.
"Call me that and I'll show you!"
"I do call you it!"
There was an instant's pause, during which we all of us had, I suppose,
some idea of trying to intervene.
But it was too late. Grogoff raised his hand and, with all his force,
flung his glass at Markovitch. Markovitch ducked his head, and the glass
smashed with a shattering tinkle on the wall behind him.
We all cried out, but the only thing of which I was conscious was that
Lawrence had sprung from his seat, had crossed to where Vera was
standing, and had put his hand on her arm. She glanced up at him. That
look which they exchanged, a look of revelation, of happiness, of sudden
marvellous security, was so significant that I could have cried out to
them both, "Look out! Look out!"
But if I had cried they would not have heard me.
My next instinct was to turn to Markovitch. He was frowning, coughing a
little, and feeling the top of his collar. His face was turned towards
Grogoff and he was speaking--could catch some words: "No right... in my
own house... Boris... I apologise... please don't think of it." But
his eyes were not looking at Boris at all; they were turned towards
Vera, staring at her, begging her, beseeching her.... What had he seen?
How much had he understood? And Nina? And Semyonov?
But at once, in a way most truly Russian, the atmosphere had changed. It
was Nina who controlled the situation. "Boris," she cried, "come here!"
We all waited in silence. He looked at her, a little sulkily, his head
hanging, but his eyes glancing up at her.
He seemed nothing then but a boy caught in some misdemeanour, obstinate,
sulky, but ready to make peace if a chance were offered him.
"Boris, come here!"
He moved across to her, looking her full in the face, his mouth sulky,
but his eyes rebelliously smiling.
She stood away from the table, drawn to her full height, her eyes
commanding him: "How dare you! Boris, how dare you! My
birthday--_mine_--and you've spoilt it, spoilt it all. Come here--up
He came to her until his hands were almost on her body; he hung his
head, standing over her.
She stood back as though she were going to strike him, then suddenly
with a laugh she sprang upon the chair beside her, flung her arms round
his neck and kissed him; then, still standing on the chair, turned and
faced us all.
"Now, that's enough--all of you. Michael, Uncle Ivan, Uncle Alexei,
Durdles--how dare you, all of you? You're all as bad--every one of you.
I'll punish all of you if we have any more politics. Beastly politics!
What do they matter? It's my birthday. My _birthday_, I tell you. It
_shan't_ be spoilt."
She seemed to me so excited as not to know what she was saying. What had
she seen? What did she know?... Meanwhile Grogoff was elated, wildly
pleased like a boy who, contrary to all his expectations, had won a
He went up to Markovitch with his hand out:
"Nicholas--forgive me--_Prasteete_--I forgot myself. I'm ashamed--my
abominable temper. We are friends. You were right, too. We talk here in
Russia too much, far too much, and when the moment comes for action we
shrink back. We see too far perhaps. Who knows? But you were right and I
am a fool. You've taught me a lesson by your nobility. Thank you,
Nicholas. And all of you--I apologise to all of you."
We moved away from the table. Vera came over to us, and then sat on the
sofa with her arm around Nina's neck. Nina was very quiet now, sitting
there, her cheeks flushed, smiling, but as though she were thinking of
something quite different.
Some one proposed that we should play "Petits Cheveaux." We gathered
around the table, and soon every one was laughing and gambling.
Only once I looked up and saw that Markovitch was gazing at Vera; and
once again I looked at Vera and saw that she was staring before her,
seeing nothing, lost in some vision--but it was not of Markovitch that
she was thinking....
I was the first to leave--I said good-night to every one. I could hear
their laughter as I waited at the bottom of the stairs for the Dvornik
to let me out.
But when I was in the street the world was breathlessly still. I walked
up the Prospect--no soul was in sight, only the scattered lamps, the
pale snow, and the houses. At the end of the Canal I stopped. The
silence was intense.
It seemed to me then that in the very centre of the Canal the ice
suddenly cracked, slowly pulled apart, leaving a still pool of black
water. The water slowly stirred, rippled, then a long, horned, and scaly
head pushed up. I could see the shining scales on its thick side and the
ribbed horn on the back of the neck. Beneath it the water stirred and
heaved. With dead glazed eyes it stared upon the world, then slowly, as
though it were drawn from below, it sank. The water rippled in narrowing
circles--then all was still....
The moon came out from behind filmy shadow. The world was intensely
light, and I saw that the ice of the canal had never been broken, and
that no pool of black water caught the moon's rays.
It was fiercely cold and I hurried home, pulling my Shuba more closely
Of some of the events that I am now about to relate it is obvious that I
could not have been an eye-witness--and yet, looking back from the
strange isolation that is now my world I find it incredibly difficult to
realise what I saw and what I did not. Was I with Nina and Vera on that
Tuesday night when they stood face to face with one another for the
first time? Was I with Markovitch during his walk through that
marvellous new world that he seemed himself to have created? I know that
I shared none of these things..., and yet it seems to me that I was at
the heart of them all. I may have been told many things by the actors in
those events--I may not. I cannot now in retrospect see any of it save
as my own personal experience, and as my own personal experience I must
relate it; but, as I have already said at the beginning of this book, no
one is compelled to believe either my tale or my interpretation. Every
man would, I suppose, like to tell his story in the manner of some other
man. I can conceive the events of this part of my narration being
interpreted in the spirit of the wildest farce, of the genteelest
comedy, of the most humorous satire--"Other men, Other gifts." I am a
dull and pompous fellow, as Semyonov often tells me; and I hope that I
never allowed him to see how deeply I felt the truth of his words.
Meanwhile I will begin with a small adventure of Henry Bohun's.
Apparently, one evening soon after Nina's party, he found himself about
half-past ten in the evening, lonely and unhappy, walking down the
Nevski. Gay and happy crowds wandered by him, brushing him aside,
refusing to look at him, showing in fact no kind of interest in his
existence. He was suddenly frightened, the distances seemed terrific and
the Nevski was so hard and bright and shining--that it had no use at all
for any lonely young man. He decided suddenly that he would go and see
me. He found an Isvostchick, but when they reached the Ekaterinsgofsky
Canal the surly coachman refused to drive further, saying that his horse
had gone lame, and that this was as far as he had bargained to go.
Henry was forced to leave the cab, and then found himself outside the
little people's cinema, where he had once been with Vera and myself.
He knew that my rooms were not far away, and he started off beside the
white and silent canal, wondering why he had come, and wishing he were
back in bed.
There was still a great deal of the baby in Henry, and ghosts and giants
and scaly-headed monsters were not incredibilities to his young
imagination. As he left the main thoroughfare and turned down past the
widening docks, he suddenly knew that he was terrified. There had been
stories of wild attacks on rich strangers, sand-bagging and the rest,
often enough, but it was not of that kind of thing that he was afraid.
He told me afterwards that he expected to see "long thick crawling
creatures" creeping towards him over the ice. He continually turned
round to see whether some one were following him. When he crossed the
tumbledown bridge that led to my island it seemed that he was absolutely
alone in the whole world. The masts of the ships dim through the cold
mist were like tangled spiders' webs. A strange hard red moon peered
over the towers and chimneys of the distant dockyard. The ice was
limitless, and of a dirty grey pallor, with black shadows streaking it.
My island must have looked desolate enough, with its dirty snow-heaps,
old boards and scrap-iron and tumbledown cottages.
Again, as on his first arrival in Petrograd, Henry was faced by the
solemn fact that events are so often romantic in retrospect, but grimly
realistic in experience. He reached my lodging and found the door open.
He climbed the dark rickety stairs and entered my sitting-room. The
blinds were not drawn, and the red moon peered through on to the grey
shadows that the ice beyond always flung. The stove was not burning, the
room was cold and deserted. Henry called my name and there was no
answer. He went into my bedroom and there was no one there. He came back
and stood there listening.
He could hear the creaking of some bar beyond the window and the
melancholy whistle of a distant train.
He was held there, as though spellbound. Suddenly he thought that he
heard some one climbing the stairs. He gave a cry, and that was answered
by a movement so close to him that it was almost at his elbow.
"Who's there?" he cried. He saw a shadow pass between the moon and
himself. In a panic of terror he cried out, and at the same time struck
a match. Some one came towards him, and he saw that it was Markovitch.
He was so relieved to find that it was a friend that he did not stop to
wonder what Markovitch should be doing hiding in my room. It afterwards
struck him that Markovitch looked odd. "Like a kind of conspirator, in
old shabby Shuba with the collar turned up. He looked jolly ill and
dirty, as though he hadn't slept or washed. He didn't seem a bit
surprised at seeing me there, and I think he scarcely realised that it
_was_ me. He was thinking of something else so hard that he couldn't
take me in."
"Oh, Bohun!" he said in a confused way.
"Hullo, Nicolai Leontievitch," Bohun said, trying to be unconcerned.
"What are you doing here?"
"Came to see Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "Wasn't here; I was going to
write to him."
Bohun then lit a candle and discovered that the place was in a very
considerable mess. Some one had been sifting my desk, and papers and
letters were lying about the floor. The drawers of my table were open,
and one chair was over-turned. Markovitch stood back near the window,
looking at Bohun suspiciously. They must have been a curious couple for
such a position. There was an awkward pause, and then Bohun, trying to
speak easily, said:
"Well, it seems that Durward isn't coming. He's out dining somewhere I
"Probably," said Markovitch drily.
There was another pause, then Markovitch broke out with: "I suppose you
think I've been here trying to steal something."
"Oh no--oh no--no--" stammered Bohun.
"But I have," said Markovitch. "You can look round and see. There it is
on every side of you. I've been trying to find a letter."
"Oh yes," said Bohun nervously.
"Well, that seems to you terrible," went on Markovitch, growing ever
fiercer. "Of course it seems to you perfect Englishmen a dreadful thing.
But why heed it?... You all do things just as bad, only you are
"Oh yes, certainly," said Bohun.
"And now," said Markovitch with a snarl. "I'm sure you will not think me
a proper person for you to lodge with any longer--and you will be right.
I am not a proper person. I have no sense of decency, thank God, and no
Russian has any sense of decency, and that is why we are beaten and
despised by the whole world, and yet are finer than them all--so you'd
better not lodge with us any more."
"But of course," said Bohun, disliking more and more this uncomfortable
scene--"of course I shall continue to stay with you. You are my friends,
and one doesn't mind what one's friends do. One's friends are one's
Suddenly, then, Markovitch jerked himself forward, "just as though,"
Bohun afterwards described it to me, "he had shot himself out of a
"Tell me," he said, "is your English friend in love with my wife?"
What Bohun wanted to do then was to run out of the room, down the dark
stairs, and away as fast as his legs would carry him. He had not been in
Russia so long that he had lost his English dislike of scenes, and he
was seriously afraid that Markovitch was, as he put it, "bang off his
But at this critical moment, he remembered, it seems, my injunction to
him, "to be kind to Markovitch--to make a friend of him." That had
always seemed to him before impossible enough, but now, at the very
moment when Markovitch was at his queerest, he was also at his most
pathetic, looking there in the mist and shadows too untidy and dirty and
miserable to be really alarming. Henry then took courage. "That's all
nonsense, Markovitch," he said. "I suppose by 'your English friend' you
mean Lawrence. He thinks the world of your wife, of course, as we all
do, but he's not the fellow to be in love. I don't suppose he's ever
been really in love with a woman in his life. He's a kindly good-hearted
chap, Lawrence, and he wouldn't do harm to a fly."
Markovitch peered into Bohun's face. "What did you come here for, any of
you?" he asked. "What's Russia over-run with foreigners for? We'll clear
the lot of you out, all of you...." Then he broke off, with a pathetic
little gesture, his hand up to his head. "But I don't know what I'm
saying--I don't mean it, really. Only things are so difficult, and they
slip away from one so.
"I love Russia and I love my wife, Mr. Bohun--and they've both left me.
But you aren't interested in that. Why should you be? Only remember when
you're inclined to laugh at me that I'm like a man in a cockle-shell
boat--and it isn't my fault. I was put in it."
"But I'm never inclined to laugh," said Bohun eagerly. "I may be young
and only an Englishman--but I shouldn't wonder if I don't understand
better than you think. You try and see.... And I'll tell you another
thing, Nicolai Leontievitch, I loved your wife myself--loved her
madly--and she was so good to me and so far above me, that I saw that it
was like loving one of the angels. That's what we all feel, Nicolai
Leontievitch, so that you needn't have any fear--she's too far above all
of us. And I only want to be your friend and hers, and to help you in
any way I can."
(I can see Bohun saying this, very sincere, his cheeks flushed, eager.)
Markovitch held out both his hands.
"You're right," he cried. "She's above us all. It's true that she's an
angel, and we are all her servants. You have helped me by saying what
you have, and I won't forget it. You are right; I am wasting my time
with ridiculous suspicions when I ought to be working. Concentration,
that's what I want, and perhaps you will give it me."
He suddenly came forward and kissed Bohun on both cheeks. He smelt,
Bohun thought, of vodka. Bohun didn't like the embrace, of course, but
he accepted it gracefully.
"Now we'll go away," said Markovitch.
"We ought to put things straight," said Bohun.
"No; I shall leave things as they are," said Markovitch, "so that he
shall see exactly what I've done. I'll write a note."
He scribbled a note to me in pencil. I have it still. It ran:
Dear Ivan Andreievitch--I looked for a letter from my wife to you. In
doing so I was I suppose contemptible. But no matter. At least you see
me as I am. I clasp your hand, N. Markovitch.
They went away together.
I was greatly surprised to receive, a few days later, an invitation from
Baron Wilderling; he asked me to go with him on one of the first
evenings in March to a performance of Lermontov's "Masquerade" at the
Alexandra Theatre. I say Lermontov, but heaven knows that that great
Russian poet was not supposed to be going to have much to say in the
affair. This performance had been in preparation for at least ten years,
and when such delights as Gordon Craig's setting of "Hamlet," or Benois'
dresses for "La Locandiera" were discussed, the Wise Ones said:
"Ah,--all very well--just wait until you see 'Masquerade.'"
These manifestations of the artistic spirit had not been very numerous
of late in Petrograd. At the beginning of the war there had been many
cabarets--"The Cow," "The Calf," "The Dog," "The Striped Cat"--and these
had been underground cellars, lighted by Chinese lanterns, and the halls
decorated with Futurist paintings by Yakkolyeff or some other still more
advanced spirit. It seemed strange to me as I dressed that evening. I do
not know how long it was since I had put on a dinner-jacket. With the
exception of that one other visit to Baron Wilderling this seemed to be
my one link with the old world, and it was curious to feel its
fascination, its air of comfort and order and cleanliness, its courtesy
and discipline. "I think I'll leave these rooms," I thought as I looked
about me, "and take a decent flat somewhere."
It is a strange fact, behind which there lies, I believe, some odd sort
of moral significance, that I cannot now recall the events of that
evening in any kind of clear detail. I remember that it was bitterly
cold, with a sky that was flooded with stars. The snow had a queer
metallic sheen upon it as though it were coloured ice, and I can see now
the Nevski like a slab of some fiercely painted metal rising out of the
very smack of our horses' hoofs as my sleigh sped along--as though,
silkworm-like, I spun it out of the entrails of the sledge. It was all
light and fire and colour that night, with towers of gold and frosted
green, and even the black crowds that thronged the Nevski pavements shot
Somewhere in one of Shorthouse's stories--in _The Little Schoolmaster
Mark_, I think--he gives a curious impression of a whirling fantastic
crowd of revellers who evoke by their movements some evil pattern in the
air around them, and the boy who is standing in their midst sees this
dark twisted sinister picture forming against the gorgeous walls and the
coloured figures until it blots out the whole scene and plunges him into
darkness. I will not pretend that on this evening I discerned anything
sinister or ominous in the gay scene that the Alexandra Theatre offered
me, but I was nevertheless weighed down by some quite unaccountable
depression that would not let me alone. For this I can see now that
Lawrence was very largely responsible. When I met him and the
Wilderlings in the foyer of the theatre I saw at once that he was
The clear open expression of his eyes was gone; his mind was far away
from his company--and it was as though I could see into his brain and
watch the repetition of the old argument occurring again and again and
again with always the same questions and answers, the same reproaches,
the same defiances, the same obstinacies. He was caught by what was
perhaps the first crisis of his life. He had never been a man for much
contact with his fellow-beings, he had been aloof and reserved, generous
in his judgements of others, severe and narrow in his judgement of
himself. Above all, he had been proud of his strength....
Now he was threatened by something stronger than himself. He could have
managed it so long as he was aware only of his love for Vera.... Now,
when, since Nina's party, he knew that also Vera loved him, he had to
meet the tussle of his life.
That, at any rate, is the kind of figure that I give to his mood that
evening. He has told me much of what happened to him afterwards, but
nothing of that particular night, except once. "Do you remember that
'Masquerade' evening?... I was in hell that night...." which, for
Lawrence, was expressive enough.
Both the Baron and his wife were in great spirits. The Baron was more
than ever the evocation of the genius of elegance and order; he seemed
carved out of some coloured ivory, behind whose white perfection burnt a
shining resolute flame.
His clothes were so perfect that they would have expressed the whole of
him even though his body had not been there. He was happy. His eyes
danced appreciatively; he waved his white gloves at the scene as though
"Of course, Mr. Durward," he said to me, "this is nothing compared with
what we could do before the war--nevertheless here you see, for a
moment, a fragment of the old Petersburg--Petersburg as it shall be,
please God, again one day...."
I do not in the least remember who was present that evening, but it was,
I believe, a very distinguished company. The lights blazed, the jewels
flashed, and the chatter was tremendous. The horseshoe-shaped seats
behind the stalls clustered in knots and bunches of colour under the
great glitter of electricity about the Royal Box. Artists--Somoff and
Benois and Dobujinsky; novelists like Sologub and Merejkowsky; dancers
like Karsavina--actors from all over Petrograd--they were there, I
expect, to add criticism and argument to the adulation of friends and of
the carelessly observant rich Jews and merchants who had come simply to
display their jewellery. Petrograd, like every other city in the world,
is artistic only by the persistence of its minority.
I'm sure that there were Princesses and Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses
for any one who needed them, and it was only in the gallery where the
students and their girl-friends were gathered that the name of Lermontov
was mentioned. The name of the evening was "Meyerhold," the gentleman
responsible for the production. At last the Event that had been brewing
ceaselessly for the last ten years--ever since the last Revolution in
fact--was to reach creation. The moment of M. Meyerhold's life had
arrived--the moment, had we known it, of many other lives also; but we
did not know it. We buzzed and we hummed, we gasped and we gaped, we
yawned and we applauded; and the rustle of gold tissue, the scent of
gold leaf, the thick sticky substance of gold paint, filled the air,
flooded the arena, washed past us into the street outside. Meanwhile M.
Meyerhold, white, perspiring, in his shirt-sleeves with his collar
loosened and his hair damp, is in labour behind the gold tissue to
produce the child of his life... and Behold, the Child is produced!
And such a child! It was not I am sure so fantastic an affair in reality
as in my rememberance of it. I have, since then, read Lermontov's play,
and I must confess that it does not seem, in cold truth, to be one of
his finest works. It is long and old-fashioned, melodramatic and
clumsy--but then it was not on this occasion Lermontov's play that was
the thing. But it was a masquerade, and that in a sense far from the
author's intention. As I watched I remember that I forgot the bad acting
(the hero was quite atrocious), forgot the lapses of taste in the colour
and arrangement of the play, forgot the artifices and elaborate
originalities and false sincerities; there were, I have no doubt, many
things in it all that were bad and meretricious--I was dreaming. I saw,
against my will and outside my own agency, mingled with the gold
screens, the purple curtains, the fantasies and extravagances of the
costumes, the sudden flashes of unexpected colour through light or dress
or backcloth--pictures from those Galician days that had been, until
Semyonov's return, as I fancied, forgotten.
A crowd of revellers ran down the stage, and a shimmering cloud of gold
shot with red and purple was flung from one end of the hall to the
other, and behind it, through it, between it, I saw the chill light of
the early morning, and Nikitin and I sitting on the bench outside the
stinking but that we had used as an operating theatre, watching the
first rays of the sun warm, the cold mountain's rim. I could hear
voices, and the murmurs of the sleeping men and the groans of the
wounded. The scene closed. There was space and light, and a gorgeous
figure, stiff with the splendour of his robes, talked in a dark garden
with his lady. Their voices murmured, a lute was played, some one sang,
and through the thread of it all I saw that moment when, packed together
on our cart, we hung for an instant on the top of the hill and looked
back to a country that had suddenly crackled into flame. There was that
terrific crash as of the smashing of a world of china, the fierce
crackle of the machine-guns, and then the boom of the cannon from under
our very feet... the garden was filled with revellers, laughing,
dancing, singing, the air was filled again with the air of gold paint,
the tenor's voice rose higher and higher, the golden screens closed--the
act was ended.
It was as though I had received, in some dim, bewildered fashion, a
warning. When the lights went up, it was some moments before I realised
that the Baron was speaking to me, that a babel of chatter, like a
sudden rain storm on a glass roof, had burst on every side of us, and
that a huge Jewess, all bare back and sham pearls, was trying to pass me
on her way to the corridor. The Baron talked away: "Very amusing, don't
you think? After Reinhardt, of course, although they say now that
Reinhardt got all his ideas from your man Craig. I'm sure I don't know
whether that's so.... I hope you're more reassured to-night, Mr.
Durward. You were full of alarms the other evening. Look around you and
you'll see the true Russia...."
"I can't believe this to be the true Russia," I said. "Petrograd is not
the true Russia. I don't believe that there _is_ a true Russia."
"Well, there you are," he continued eagerly. "No true Russia! Quite so.
Very observant. But we have to pretend there is, and that's what you
foreigners are always forgetting. The Russian is an individualist--give
him freedom and he'll lose all sense of his companions. He will pursue
his own idea. Myself and my party are here to prevent him from pursuing
his own idea, for the good of himself and his country. He may be
discontented, he may grumble, but he doesn't realise his luck. Give him
his freedom, and in six months you'll see Russia back in the Middle
"And another six months?" I asked.
"The Stone Age."
"Ah," he said, smiling, "you ask me too much, Mr. Durward. We are
speaking of our own generation."
The curtain was up again and I was back in my other world. I cannot tell
you anything of the rest of the play--I remember nothing. Only I know
that I was actually living over again those awful days in the
forest--the heat, the flies, the smells, the glassy sheen of the trees,
the perpetual rumble of the guns, the desolate whine of the shells--and
then Marie's death, Trenchard's sorrow, Trenchard's death, that last
view of Semyonov... and I felt that I was being made to remember it all
for a purpose, as though my old friend, rich now with his wiser
knowledge, was whispering to me, "All life is bound up. You cannot leave
anything behind you; the past, the present, the future are one. You had
pushed us away from you, but we are with you always for ever. I am your
friend for ever, and Marie is your friend, and now, once more, you have
to take your part in a battle, and we have come to you to share it with
you. Do not be confused by history or public events or class struggle or
any big names; it is the individual and the soul of the individual alone
that matters. I and Marie and Vera and Nina and Markovitch--our love for
you, your love for us, our courage, our self-sacrifice, our weakness,
our defeat, our progress--these are the things for which life exists;
it exists as a training-ground for the immortal soul...."
With a sweep of colour the stage broke into a mist of movement. Masked
and hooded figures in purple and gold and blue and red danced madly off
into a forest of stinking, sodden leaves and trees as thin as
tissue-paper burnt by the sun. "Oh--aye! oh--aye! oh--aye!" came from
the wounded, and the dancers answered, "Tra-la-la-la! Tra-la-la-la,'"
The golden screens were drawn forward, the lights were up again, and the
whole theatre was stirring like a coloured paper ant heap.
Outside in the foyer I found Lawrence at my elbow.
"Go and see her," he whispered to me, "as soon as possible! Tell
her--tell her--no, tell her nothing. But see that she's all right and
let me know. See her to-morrow--early!"
I could say nothing to him, for the Baron had joined us.
"Good-night! Good-night! A most delightful evening!... Most amusing!...
No, thank you, I shall walk!"
"Come and see us," said the Baroness, smiling.
"Very soon," I answered. I little knew that I should never see either of
I awoke that night with a sudden panic that I must instantly see Vera.
I, even in the way that one does when, one is only half awake, struggled
out of bed and felt for my clothes. Then I remembered and climbed back
again, but sleep would not return to me. The self-criticism and
self-distrust that were always attacking me and paralysing my action
sprang upon me now and gripped me. What was I to do? How was I to act? I
saw Vera and Nina and Lawrence and, behind them, smiling at me,
Semyonov. They were asking for my help, but they were, in some strange,
intangible way, most desperately remote. When I read now in our papers
shrill criticisms on our officials, our Cabinet, our generals, our
propagandists, our merchants, for their failure to deal adequately with
Russia, I say: Deal adequately? First you must catch your bird... and
no Western snare has ever caught the Russian bird of paradise, and I
dare prophesy that no Western snare ever will. Had I not broken my
heart in the pursuit, and was I not as far as ever from attainment? The
secret of the mystery of life is the isolation that separates every man
from his fellow--the secret of dissatisfaction too; and the only purpose
in life is to realise that isolation, and to love one's fellow-man
because of it, and to show one's own courage, like a flag to which the
other travellers may wave their answer; but we Westerners have at least
the waiting comfort of our discipline, of our materialism, of our
indifference to ideas. The Russian, I believe, lives in a world of
loneliness peopled only by ideas. His impulses towards self-confession,
towards brotherhood, towards vice, towards cynicism, towards his belief
in God and his scorn of Him, come out of this world; and beyond it he
sees his fellow-men as trees walking, and the Mountain of God as a
distant peak, placed there only to emphasise his irony.
I had wanted to be friends with Nina and Vera--I had even longed for
it--and now at the crisis when I must rise and act they were so far away
from me that I could only see them, like coloured ghosts, vanishing into
I would go at once and see Vera and there do what I could. Lawrence must
return to England--then all would be well. Markovitch must be
persuaded.... Nina must be told.... I slept and tumbled into a
nightmare of a pursuit, down endless streets, of flying figures.
Next day I went to Vera. I found her, to my joy, alone. I realised at
once that our talk would be difficult. She was grave and severe, sitting
back in her chair, her head up, not looking at me at all, but beyond
through the window to the tops of the trees feathery with snow against
the sky of egg-shell blue. I am always beaten by a hostile atmosphere.
To-day I was at my worst, and soon we were talking like a couple of the
She asked me whether I had heard that there were very serious
disturbances on the other side of the river.
"I was on the Nevski early this afternoon," I said, "and I saw about
twenty Cossacks go galloping down towards the Neva. I asked somebody and
was told that some women had broken into the bakers' shops on Vassily
"It will end as they always end," said Vera. "Some arrests and a few
people beaten, and a policeman will get a medal."
There was a long pause. "I went to 'Masquerade' the other night," I
"I hear it's very good...."
"Pretentious and rather vulgar--but amusing all the same."
"Every one's talking about it and trying to get seats...."
"Yes. Meyerhold must be pleased."
"They discuss it much more than they do the war, or even politics. Every
one's tired of the war."
I said nothing. She continued:
"So I suppose we shall just go on for years and years.... And then the
Empress herself will be tired one day and it will suddenly stop." She
showed a flash of interest, turning to me and looking at me for the
first time since I had come in.
"Ivan Andreievitch, what do you stay in Russia for? Why don't you go
back to England?"
I was taken by surprise. I stammered, "Why do I stay? Why,
because--because I like it."
"You can't like it. There's _nothing_ to like in Russia."
"There's _everything_!" I answered. "And I have friends here," I added.
But she didn't answer that, and continued to sit staring out at the
trees. We talked a little more about nothing at all, and then there was
another long pause. At last I could endure it no longer, I jumped to my
"Vera Michailovna," I cried, "what have I done?"
"Done?" she asked me with a look of self-conscious surprise. "What do
"You know what I mean well enough," I answered. I tried to speak firmly,
but my voice trembled a little. "You told me I was your friend. When I
was ill the other day you came to me and said that you needed help and
that you wanted me to help you. I said that I would--"
"Well?" she said, in a hard, unrelenting voice.
"Well--" I hesitated and stammered, cursing myself for my miserable
cowardice. "You are in trouble now, Vera--great trouble--I came here
because I am ready to do anything for you--anything--and you treat me
like a stranger, almost like an enemy."
I saw her lip tremble--only for an instant. She said nothing.
"If you've got anything against me since you saw me last," I went on,
"tell me and I'll go away. But I had to see you and also Lawrence--"
At the mention of his name her whole body quivered, but again only for
"Lawrence asked me to come and see you."
She looked up at me then gravely and coldly, and without the sign of any
emotion either in her face or voice.
"Thank you, Ivan Andreievitch, but I want no help--I am in no trouble.
It was very kind of Mr. Lawrence, but really--"
Then I could endure it no longer. I broke out:
"Vera, what's the matter. You know all this isn't true.... I don't know
what idea you have now in your head, but you must let me speak to you.
I've got to tell you this--that Lawrence must go back to England, and as
soon as possible--and I will see that he does--"
That did its work. In an instant she was upon me like a wild beast,
springing from her chair, standing close to me, her head flung back, her
"You wouldn't dare!" she cried. "It's none of your business, Ivan
Andreievitch. You say you're my friend. You're not. You're my enemy--my
enemy. I don't care for him, not in the very least--he is nothing to
me--nothing to me at all. But he mustn't go back to England. It will
ruin his career. You will ruin him for life, Ivan Andreievitch. What
business is it of yours? You imagine--because of what you fancied you
saw at Nina's party. There was nothing at Nina's party--nothing. I love
my husband, Ivan Andreievitch, and you are my enemy if you say anything
else. And you pretend to be his friend, but you are his enemy if you try
to have him sent back to England.... He must not go. For the matter of
that, I will never see him again--never--if that is what you want. See,
I promise you never--never--" She suddenly broke down--she, Vera
Michailovna, the proudest woman I had ever known, turning from me, her
head in her hands, sobbing, her shoulders bent.
I was most deeply moved. I could say nothing at first, then, when the
sound of her sobbing became unbearable to me, I murmured,
"Vera, please. I have no power. I can't make him go. I will only do what
you wish. Vera, please, please--"
Then, with her back still turned to me, I heard her say,
"Please, go. I didn't mean--I didn't... but go now... and come
I waited a minute, and then, miserable, terrified of the future, I went.
Next night (it was Friday evening) Semyonov paid me a visit. I was just
dropping to sleep in my chair. I had been reading that story of De la
Mare's _The Return_--one of the most beautiful books in our language,
whether for its spirit, its prose, or its poetry--and something of the
moon-lit colour of its pages had crept into my soul, so that the
material world was spun into threads of the finest silk behind which
other worlds were more and more plainly visible. I had not drawn my
blind, and a wonderful moon shone clear on to the bare boards of my
room, bringing with its rays the mother-of-pearl reflections of the
limitless ice, and these floated on my wall in trembling waves of opaque
light. In the middle of this splendour I dropped slowly into slumber,
the book falling from my hands, and I, on my part, seeming to float
lazily backwards and forwards, as though, truly, one were at the bottom
of some crystal sea, idly and happily drowned.
From all of this I was roused by a sharp knock on my door, and I started
up, still bewildered and bemused, but saying to myself aloud, "There's
some one there! there's some one there!..." I stood for quite a while,
listening, on the middle of my shining floor, then the knock was almost
fiercely repeated. I opened the door and, to my surprise, found Semyonov
standing there. He came in, smiling, very polite of course.
"You'll forgive me, Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "This is terribly
unceremonious. But I had an urgent desire to see you, and you wouldn't
wish me, in the circumstances, to have waited."
"Please," I said. I went to the window and drew the blinds. I lit the
lamp. He took off his Shuba and we sat down. The room was very dim now,
and I could only see his mouth and square beard behind the lamp.
"I've no Samovar, I'm afraid," I said. "If I'd known you were coming I'd
have told her to have it ready. But it's too late now. She's gone to
"Nonsense," he said brusquely. "You know that I don't care about that.
Now we'll waste no time. Let us come straight to the point at once. I've
come to give you some advice, Ivan Andreievitch--very simple advice. Go
home to England." Before he had finished the sentence I had felt the
hostility in his voice; I knew that it was to be a fight between us, and
strangely, at once the self-distrust and cowardice from which I had been
suffering all those weeks left me. I felt warm and happy. I felt that
with Semyonov I knew how to deal. I was afraid of Vera and Nina,
perhaps, because I loved them, but of Semyonov, thank God, I was not
"Well, now, that's very kind of you," I said, "to take so much interest
in my movements. I didn't know that it mattered to you so much where I
was. Why must I go?"
"Because you are doing no good here. You are interfering in things of
which you have no knowledge. When we met before you interfered, and you
must honestly admit that you did not improve things. Now it is even more
serious. I must ask you to leave my family alone, Ivan Andreievitch."
"Your family!" I retorted, laughing. "Upon my word, you do them great
honour. I wonder whether they'd be very proud and pleased if they knew
of your adoption of them. I haven't noticed on their side any very great
signs of devotion."
He laughed. "No, you haven't noticed, Ivan Andreievitch. But there, you
don't really notice very much. You think you see the devil of a lot and
are a mighty clever fellow; but we're Russians, you know, and it takes
more than sentimental mysticism to understand us. But even if you did
understand us--which you don't--the real point is that we don't want
you, any of you, patronising, patting us on the shoulder, explaining us
to ourselves, talking about our souls, our unpunctuality, and our
capacity for drink. However, that's merely in a general way. In a
personal, direct, and individual way, I beg you not to visit my family
again. Stick to your own countrymen."
Although he spoke obstinately, and with a show of assurance, I realised,
behind his words, his own uncertainty.
"See here, Semyonov," I said. "It's just my own Englishmen that I am
going to stick to. What about Lawrence? And what about Bohun? Will you
prevent me from continuing my friendship with them?"
"Lawrence... Lawrence," he said slowly, in a voice quite other than his
earlier one, and as though he were talking aloud to himself. "Now,
that's strange... there's a funny thing. A heavy, dull, silent
Englishman, as ugly as only an Englishman can be, and the two of them
are mad about him--nothing in him--nothing--and yet there it is. It's
the fidelity in the man, that's what it is, Durward...." He suddenly
called out the word aloud, as though he'd made a discovery. "Fidelity...
fidelity... that's what we Russians admire, and there's a man with
not enough imagination to make him unfaithful. Fidelity!--lack of
imagination, lack of freedom--that's all fidelity is.... But I'm
faithful.... God knows I'm faithful--always! always!"
He stared past me. I swear that he did not see me, that I had vanished
utterly from his vision. I waited. He was leaning forward, pressing both
his thick white hands on the table. His gaze must have pierced the ice
beyond the walls, and the worlds beyond the ice.
Then quite suddenly he came back to me and said very quietly,
"Well, there it is, Ivan Andreievitch.... You must leave Vera and Nina
alone. It isn't your affair."
We continued the discussion then in a strange and friendly way. "I
believe it to be my affair," I answered quietly, "simply because they
care for me and have asked me to help them if they were in trouble. I
still deny that Vera cares for Lawrence.... Nina has had some girl's
romantic idea perhaps... but that is the extent of the trouble. You are
trying to make things worse, Alexei Petrovitch, for your own
purposes--and God only knows what they are."
He now spoke so quietly that I could scarcely hear his words. He was
leaning forward on the table, resting his head on his hands and looking
gravely at me.
"What I can't understand, Ivan Andreievitch," he said, "is why you're
always getting in my way. You did so in Galicia, and now here you are
again. It is not as though you were strong or wise--no, it is because
you are persistent. I admire you in a way, you know, but now, this time,
I assure you that you are making a great mistake in remaining. You will
be able to influence neither Vera Michailovna nor your bullock of an
Englishman when the moment comes. At the crisis they will never think of
you at all, and the end of it simply will be that all parties concerned
will hate you. I don't wish you any harm, and I assure you that you will
suffer terribly if you stay.... By the way, Ivan Andreievitch," his
voice suddenly dropped, "you haven't ever had--by chance--just by
chance--any photograph of Marie Ivanovna with you, have you? Just by
chance, you know...."
"No," I said shortly, "I never had one."
"No--of course--not. I only thought.... But of course you
wouldn't--no--no.... Well, as I was saying, you'd better leave us all to
our fate. You can't prevent things--you can't indeed." I looked at him
without speaking. He returned my gaze.
"Tell me one thing," I said, "before I answer you. What are you doing to
Markovitch, Alexei Petrovitch?"
"Markovitch!" He repeated the name with an air of surprise as though he
had never heard it before. "What do you mean?"
"You have some plan with regard to him," I said. "What is it?"
He laughed then. "I a plan! My dear Durward, how romantic you always
insist on being! I a plan! Your plunges into Russian psychology are as
naive as the girl who pays her ten kopecks to see the Fat Woman at the
Fair! Markovitch and I understand one another. We trust one another. He
is a simple fellow, but I trust him."
"Do you remember," I said, "that the other day at the Jews' Market you
told me the story of the man who tortured his friend, until the man shot
him--simply because he was tired of life and too proud to commit
suicide. Why did you tell me that story?"
"Did I tell it you?" he asked indifferently. "I had forgotten. But it is
of no importance. You know, Ivan Andreievitch, that what I told you
before is true.... We don't want you here any more. I tell you in a
perfectly friendly way. I bear you no malice. But we're tired of your
sentimentality. I'm not speaking only for myself--I'm not indeed. We
feel that you avoid life to a ridiculous extent, and that you have no
right to talk to us Russians on such a subject. What, for instance, do
you know about women? For years I slept with a different woman every
night of the week--old and young, beautiful and ugly, some women like
men, some like God, some like the gutter. That teaches you something
about women--but only something. Afterwards I found that there was only
one woman--I left all the others like dirty washing--I was supremely
faithful... so I learnt the rest. Now you have never been faithful nor
unfaithful--I'm sure that you have not. Then about God? When have you
ever thought about Him? Why, you are ashamed to mention His name. If an
Englishman speaks of God when other men are present every one
laughs--and yet why? It is a very serious and interesting question. God
exists undoubtedly, and so we must make up our minds about Him. We must
establish some relationship--what it is does not matter--that is our
individual 'case'--but only the English establish no relationship and
then call it a religion.... And so in this affair of my family. What
does it matter what they do? That is the only thing of which you think,
that they should die or disgrace their name or be unhappy or quarrel....
Pooh! What are all those things compared with the idea behind them? If
they wish to sacrifice happiness for an idea, that is their good luck,
and no Russian would think of preventing them. But you come in with your
English morality and sentiment, and scream and cry.... No, Ivan
Andreievitch, go home! go home!"
I waited to be quite sure that he had finished, and then I said,
"That's all as it may be, Alexei Petrovitch. It may be as you say. The
point is, that I remain here."
He got up from his chair. "You are determined on that?"
"I am determined," I answered.
"Nothing will change you?"
"Then it is a battle between us?"
"If you like."
"So be it."
I helped him on with his Shuba. He said, in an ordinary conversational
"There may be trouble to-morrow. There's been shooting by the Nicholas
Station this afternoon, I hear. I should avoid the Nevski to-morrow."
I laughed. "I'm not afraid of that kind of death, Alexei Petrovitch," I
"No," he said, looking at me. "I will do you justice. You are not."
He pulled his Shuba close about him.
"Good-night, Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "It's been a very pleasant
"Very," I answered. "Good-night,"
After he had gone I drew back the blinds and let the moonlight flood the
I feel conscious, as I approach the centre of my story, that there is an
appearance of uncertainty in the way that I pass from one character to
another. I do not defend that uncertainty.
What I think I really feel now, on looking back, is that each of
us--myself, Semyonov, Vera, Nina, Lawrence, Bohun, Grogoff, yes, and the
Rat himself--was a part of a mysterious figure who was beyond us,
outside us, and above us all. The heart, the lungs, the mouth, the
eyes... used against our own human agency, and yet free within that
domination for the exercise of our own free will. Have you never felt
when you have been swept into the interaction of some group of persons
that you were being employed as a part of a figure that without you
would be incomplete? The figure is formed.... For an instant it remains,
gigantic, splendid, towering above mankind, as a symbol, a warning, a
judgement, an ideal, a threat. Dimly you recognise that you have played
some part in the creation of that figure, and that living for a moment,
as you have done, in some force outside your individuality, you have yet
expressed that same individuality more nobly than any poor assertion of
your own small lonely figure could afford. You have been used and now
you are alone again.... You were caught up and united to your fellowmen.
God appeared to you--not, as you had expected, in a vision cut off from
the rest of the world, but in a revelation that you shared and that was
only revealed because you were uniting with others. And yet your
individuality was still there, strengthened, heightened, purified.
And the vision of the figure remains....
When I woke on Saturday morning, after my evening with Semyonov, I was
conscious that I was relieved as though I had finally settled some
affair whose uncertainty had worried me. I lay in bed chuckling as
though I had won a triumph over Semyonov, as though I said to myself,
"Well, I needn't be afraid of him any longer." It was a most beautiful
day, crystal clear, with a stainless blue sky and the snow like a carpet
of jewels, and I thought I would go and see how the world was behaving.
I walked down the Morskaia, finding it quiet enough, although I fancied
that the faces of the passers-by were anxious and nervous. Nevertheless,
the brilliant sunshine and the clear peaceful beauty of the snow
reassured me--the world was too beautiful and well-ordered a place to
allow disturbance. Then at the corner of the English shop where the
Morskaia joins the Nevski Prospect, I realised that something had
occurred. It was as though the world that I had known so long, and with
whom I felt upon such intimate terms, had suddenly screwed round its
face and showed me a new grin.
The broad space of the Nevski was swallowed up by a vast crowd, very
quiet, very amiable, moving easily, almost slothfully, in a slowly
As I looked up the Nevski I realised what it was that had given me the
first positive shock of an altered world. The trams had stopped. I had
never seen the Nevski without its trams; I had always been forced to
stand on the brink, waiting whilst the stream of Isvostchicks galloped
past and the heavy, lumbering, coloured elephants tottered along,
amiable and slow and good-natured like everything else in that country.
Now the elephants were gone; the Isvostchicks were gone. So far as my
eye could see, the black stream flooded the shining way.
I mingled with the crowd and found myself slowly propelled in an
amiable, aimless manner up the street.
"What's the matter?" I asked a cheerful, fat little "Chinovnik," who
seemed to be tethered to me by some outside invincible force.
"I don't know...." he said. "They're saying there's been some shooting
up by the Nicholas Station--but that was last night. Some women had a
procession about food.... _Tak oni gavoryat_--so they say.... But I
don't know. People have just come out to see what they can see...."
And so they had--women, boys, old men, little children. I could see no
signs of ill-temper anywhere, only a rather open-mouthed wonder and
sense of expectation.
A large woman near me, with a shawl over her head and carrying a large
basket, laughed a great deal. "No, I wouldn't go," she said. "You go and
get it for yourself--I'm not coming. Not I, I was too clever for that."
Then she would turn, shrilly calling for some child who was apparently
lost in the crowd. "Sacha!... Ah! Sacha!" she cried--and turning again,
"Eh! look at the Cossack!... There's a fine Cossack!"
It was then that I noticed the Cossacks. They were lined up along the
side of the pavement, and sometimes they would suddenly wheel and
clatter along the pavement itself, to the great confusion of the crowd
who would scatter in every direction.
They were fine-looking men, and their faces expressed childish and
rather worried amiability. The crowd obviously feared them not at all,
and I saw a woman standing with her hand on the neck of one of the
horses, talking in a very friendly fashion to the soldier who rode it.
"That's strange," I thought to myself; "there's something queer here."
It was then, just at the entrance of the "Malaia Koniushennaia," that a
strange little incident occurred. Some fellow--I could just see his
shaggy head, his pale face, and black beard--had been shouting
something, and suddenly a little group of Cossacks moved towards him and
he was surrounded. They turned off with him towards a yard close at
hand. I could hear his voice shrilly protesting; the crowd also moved
behind, murmuring. Suddenly a Cossack, laughing, said something. I could
not hear his words, but every one near me laughed. The little Chinovnik
at my side said to me, "That's right. They're not going to shoot,
whatever happens--not on their brothers, they say. They'll let the
fellow go in a moment. It's only just for discipline's sake. That's
right. That's the spirit!"
"But what about the police?" I asked.
"Ah, the police!" His cheery, good-natured face was suddenly dark and
scowling. "Let them try, that's all. It's Protopopoff who's our
enemy--not the Cossacks."
And a woman near him repeated.
"Yes, yes, it's Protopopoff. Hurrah for the Cossacks!"
I was squeezed now into a corner, and the crowd swirled and eddied about
me in a tangled stream, slow, smiling, confused, and excited. I pushed
my way along, and at last tumbled down the dark stone steps into the
"Cave de la Grave," a little restaurant patronised by the foreigners and
certain middle-class Russians. It was full, and every one was eating his
or her meal very comfortably as though nothing at all were the matter. I
sat down with a young American, an acquaintance of mine attached to the
"There's a tremendous crowd in the Nevski," I said.
"Guess I'm too hungry to trouble about it," he answered.
"Do you think there's going to be any trouble?" I asked.
"Course not. These folks are always wandering round. M. Protopopoff has
it in hand all right."
"Yes, I suppose he has," I answered with a sigh.
"You seem to want trouble," he said, suddenly looking up at me.
"No, I don't want trouble," I answered. "But I'm sick of this mess, this
mismanagement, thievery, lying--one's tempted to think that anything
would be better--"
"Don't you believe it," he said brusquely. "Excuse me, Durward, I've
been in this country five years. A revolution would mean God's own
upset, and you've got a war on, haven't you?"
"They might fight better than ever," I argued.
"Fight!" he laughed. "They're dam sick of it all, that's what they are.
And a revolution would leave 'em like a lot of silly sheep wandering on
to a precipice. But there won't be no revolution. Take my word."
It was at that moment that I saw Boris Grogoff come in. He stood in the
doorway looking about him, and he had the strangest air of a man walking
in his sleep, so bewildered, so rapt, so removed was he. He stared about
him, looked straight at me, but did not recognise me; finally, when a
waiter showed him a table, he sat down still gazing in front of him. The
waiter had to speak to him twice before he ordered his meal, and then he
spoke so strangely that the fellow looked at him in astonishment. "Guess
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