The Secret City
Part 5 out of 7
"The sun before it set flooded the hall with light. What a scene through
the dust! The red flags, the women and the soldiers and the shouting!
"I was suddenly dismayed. 'How can order come out of this?' I thought.
'They are all mad.... Terrible things are going to happen.' I was dirty
and tired and exhausted. I fought my way through the mob, found the
door. For a moment I looked back, to that sea of men lit by the last
light of the sun. Then I pushed out, was thrown, it seemed to me, from
man to man, and was at last in the air.... Quiet, fires burning in the
courtyard, a sky of the palest blue, a few stars, and the people singing
"It was like drinking great draughts of cold water after an intolerable
"...Hasn't Tchekov said somewhere that Russians have nostalgia but no
patriotism? That was never true of me--can't remember how young I was
when I remember my father talking to me about the idea of Russia. I've
told you that he was by any kind of standard a bad man. He had, I think,
no redeeming points at all--but he had, all the same, that sense of
Russia. I don't suppose that he put it to any practical use, or that he
even tried to teach it to his pupils, but it would suddenly seize him
and he would let himself go, and for an hour he would be a fine
master--of words. And what Russian is ever more than that at the end?
"He spoke to me and gave me a picture of a world inside a world, and
this inside world was complete in itself. It had everything in
it--beauty, wealth, force, power; it could be anything, it could do
anything. But it was held by an evil enchantment as though a wicked
magician had it in thrall, and everything slept as in Tchaikowsky's
Ballet. But one day, he told me, the Prince would come and kill the
Enchanter, and this great world would come into its own. I remember that
I was so excited that I couldn't bear to wait, but prayed that I might
be allowed to go out and find the Enchanter... but my father laughed
and said that there were no Enchanter now, and then I cried. All the
same I never lost my hope. I talked to people about Russia, but it was
never Russia itself they seemed to care for--it was women or drink or
perhaps freedom and socialism, or perhaps some part of Russia, Siberia,
or the Caucasus--but my world they none of them believed in. It didn't
exist they said. It was simply my imagination that had painted it, and
they laughed at me and said it was held together by the lashes of the
knout, and when those went Russia would go too. As I grew up some of
them thought that I was revolutionary, and they tried to make me join
their clubs and societies. But those were no use to me. They couldn't
give me what I wanted. They wanted to destroy, to assassinate some one,
or to blow up a building. They had no thought beyond destruction, and
that to me seemed only the first step. And they never think of Russia,
our revolutionaries. You will have noticed that yourself, Ivan
Andreievitch. Nothing so small and trivial as Russia! It must be the
whole world or nothing at all. Democracy... Freedom... the Brotherhood
of Man! Oh, the terrible harm that words have done to Russia! Had the
Russians of the last fifty years been born without the gift of speech we
would be now the greatest people on the earth!
"But I loved Russia from end to end. The farthest villages in Siberia,
the remotest hut beyond Archangel, from the shops in the Sadovaya to the
Lavra at Kieff, from the little villages on the bank of the Volga to the
woods round Tarnopol--all, all one country, one people, one world within
a world. The old man to whom I was secretary discovered this secret hope
of mine. I talked one night when I was drunk and told him everything. I
mentioned even the Enchanter and the Sleeping Beauty! How he laughed at
me! He would never leave me alone. 'Nicolai Leontievitch believes in
Holy Russia!' he would say. 'Not so much Holy, you understand, as
Bewitched. A Fairy Garden, ladies, with a sleeping beauty in the middle
of it. Dear me, Nicolai Leontievitch, no wonder you are heart-free!'
"How I hated him and his yellow face and his ugly stomach! I would have
stamped on it with delight. But that made me shy. I was afraid to speak
of it to any one, and I kept to myself. Then Vera came and she didn't
laugh at me. The two ideas grew together in my head. Vera and Russia!
The two things in my life by which I stood--because man must have
something in life round which he may nestle as a cat curls up by the
"But even Vera did not seem to care for Russia as Russia. 'What can
Siberia be to me?' she would say. 'Why, Nicholas, it is no more than
"But it was more than China; when I looked at it on the map I recognised
it as though it were my own country. Then the war came and I thought the
desire of my heart was fulfilled. At last men talked about Russia as
though she truly existed. For a moment all Russia was united, all
classes, rich and poor, high and low. Men were patriotic together as
though one heart beat through all the land. But only for a moment.
Divisions came, and quickly things were worse than before. There came
Tannenburg and afterwards Warsaw.
"All was lost.... Russia was betrayed, and I was a sentimental fool. You
know yourself how cynical even the most sentimental Russians are--that
is because if you stick to facts you know where you are, but ideas are
always betraying you. Life simply isn't long enough to test them, that's
all, and man is certainly not a patient animal.
"At first I watched the war going from bad to worse, and then I shut
myself in and refused to look any longer. I thought only of Vera and my
work. I would make a great discovery and be rich, and then Vera at last
would love me. Idiot! As though I had not known that Vera would not love
for that kind of reason.... I determined that I would think no more of
Russia, that I would be a man of no country. Then during those last
weeks before the Revolution I began to be suspicious of Vera and to
watch her. I did things of which I was ashamed, and then I despised
myself for being ashamed.
"I am a man, I can do what I wish. Even though I am imprisoned I am
free.... I am my own master. But all the same, to be a spy is a mean
thing, Ivan Andreievitch. You Englishmen, although you are stupid, you
are not mean. It was that day when your young friend, Bohun, found me
looking in your room for letters, that in spite of myself I was ashamed.
"He looked at me in a sort of way as though, down to his very soul he
was astonished at what I had done. Well, why should I mind that he
should be astonished? He was very young and all wrong in his ideas of
life. Nevertheless that look of his influenced me. I thought about it
afterwards. Then came Alexei Petrovitch. I've told you already. He was
always hinting at something. He was always there as though he were
waiting for something to happen. He hinted things about Vera. It's
strange, Ivan Andreievitch, but there was a day just a week before the
Revolution, when I was very nearly jumping up and striking him. Just to
get rid of him so that he shouldn't be watching me....Why even when I
wasn't there he....
"But what's that got to do with my walk? Nothing perhaps. All the same,
it was all these little things that made me, when I walked out of the
Duma that evening so queer. You see I'd been getting desperate. All that
I had left was being taken from me, and then suddenly this Revolution
had come and given me back Russia again. I forgot Alexei Petrovitch and
your Englishman Lawrence and the failure of my work--I remembered, once
again, just as I had those first days of the war, Vera and Russia.
"There, in the clear evening air, I forgot all the talk there had been
inside the Duma, the mess and the noise and the dust. I was suddenly
happy again, and excited, and hopeful.... The Enchanter had come after
all, and Russia was to awake.
"Ah, what a wonderful evening that was! You know that there have been
times--very, very rare occasions in one's life--when places that one
knows well, streets and houses so common and customary as to be like
one's very skin--are suddenly for a wonderful half-hour places of magic,
the trees are gold, the houses silver, the bricks jewelled, the pavement
of amber. Or simply perhaps they are different, a new country of new
colour and mystery... when one is just in love or has won some prize,
or finished at last some difficult work. Petrograd was like that to me
that night; I swear to you, Ivan Andreievitch, I did not know where I
was. I seem now on looking back to have been in places that night,
magical places, that by the morning had flown away. I could not tell you
where I went. I know that I must have walked for miles. I walked with a
great many people who were all my brothers. I had drunk nothing, not
even water, and yet the effect on me was exactly as though I were drunk,
drunk with happiness, Ivan Andreievitch, and with the possibility of all
the things that might now be.
"We, many of us, marched along, singing the 'Marseillaise' I suppose.
There was firing I think in some of the streets, because I can remember
now on looking back that once or twice I heard a machine-gun quite close
to me and didn't care at all, and even laughed.... Not that I've ever
cared for that. Bullets aren't the sort of things that frighten me.
There are other terrors....All the same it was curious that we should
all march along as though there were no danger and the peace of the
world had come. There were women with us--quite a number of them I
think--and, I believe, some children. I remember that some of the way I
carried a child, fast asleep in my arms. How ludicrous it would be now
if I, of all men in the world, carried a baby down the Nevski! But it
was quite natural that night. The town seemed to me blazing with light.
Of course that it cannot have been; there can have only been the stars
and some bonfires. And perhaps we stopped at the police-courts which
were crackling away. I don't remember that, but I know that somewhere
there were clouds of golden sparks opening into the sky and mingling
with the stars--a wonderful sight, flocks of golden birds and behind
them a roar of sound like a torrent of water... I know that, most of
the night, I had one man especially for my companion. I can see him
quite clearly now, although, whether it is all my imagination or not I
can't say. Certainly I've never seen him since and never will again. He
was a peasant, a bigly made man, very neatly and decently dressed in a
workman's blouse and black trousers. He had a long black beard and was
grave and serious, speaking very little but watching everything. Kindly,
our best type of peasant--perhaps the type that will one day give Russia
her real freedom... one day... a thousand years from now....
"I don't know why it is that I can still see him so clearly, because I
can remember no one else of that night, and even this fellow may have
been my imagination. But I think that, as we walked along, I talked to
him about Russia and how the whole land now from Archangel to
Vladivostock might be free and be one great country of peace and plenty,
first in all the world.
"It seemed to me that every one was singing, men and women and
"We must, at last, have parted from most of the company. I had come with
my friend into the quieter streets of the city. Then it was that I
suddenly smelt the sea. You must have noticed how Petrograd is mixed up
with the sea, how suddenly, where you never would expect it, you see the
masts of ships all clustered together against the sky. I smelt the sea,
the wind blew fresh and strong and there we were on the banks of the
Neva. Everywhere there was perfect silence. The Neva lay, tranquil,
bound under its ice. The black hulks of the ships lay against the white
shadows like sleeping animals. The curve of the sky, with its multitude
of stars, was infinite.
"My friend embraced me and left me and I stayed alone, so happy, so sure
of the peace of the world that I did what I had not done for years, sent
up a prayer of gratitude to God. Then with my head on my hands, looking
down at the masts of the ships, feeling Petrograd behind me with its
lights as though it were the City of God, I burst into tears--tears of
happiness and joy and humble gratitude.... I have no memory of anything
So much for the way that one Russian saw it. There were others. For
I suppose that the motive of Vera's life was her pride. Quite early, I
should imagine, she had adopted that as the sort of talisman that would
save her from every kind of ill. She told me once that when she was a
little girl, the story of the witch who lured two children into the wood
and then roasted them in her oven had terrified her beyond all control,
and she would lie awake and shiver for hours because of it. It became a
symbol of life to her--the Forest was there and the Oven and the
Witch--and so clever and subtle was the Witch that the only way to
outwit her was by pride. Then there was also her maternal tenderness; it
was through that that Markovitch won her. She had not of course loved
him--she had never pretended to herself that she had--but she had seen
that he wanted caring for, and then, having taken the decisive step, her
pride had come to her aid, had shown her a glimpse of the Witch waiting
in the Forest darkness, and had proved to her that here was her great
opportunity. She had then, with the easy superiority of a young girl,
ignorant of life, dismissed love as of something that others might care
for but that would, in no case, concern herself. Did Love for a moment
smile at her or beckon to her Pride came to her and showed her Nina and
Nicholas, and that was enough.
But Love knows its power. He suddenly put forth his strength and Vera
was utterly helpless--far more helpless than a Western girl with her
conventional code and traditional training would have been. Vera had no
convention and no tradition. She had only her pride and her maternal
instinct and these, for a time, fought a battle for her... then they
suddenly deserted her.
I imagine that they really deserted her on the night of Nina's
birthday-party, but she would not admit defeat so readily, and fought on
for a little. On this eventful week when the world, as we knew it, was
tumbling about our ears, she had told herself that the only thing to
which she must give a thought was her fixed loyalty to Nina and
Nicholas. She would not think of Lawrence....She would not think of him.
And so resolving, thought of him all the more.
By Wednesday morning her nerves were exhausted. The excitements of this
week came as a climax to many months of strain. With the exception of
her visit to the Astoria she had been out scarcely at all and, although
the view from her flat was peaceful enough she could imagine every kind
of horror beyond the boundaries of the Prospect--and in every horror
There occurred that morning a strange little conversation between Vera,
Semyonov, Nicholas Markovitch, and myself. I arrived about ten o'clock
to see how they were and to hear the news. I found Vera sitting quietly
at the table sewing. Markovitch stood near to her, his anxious eyes and
trembling mouth perched on the top of his sharp peaky collar and his
hands rubbing nervously one within another. He was obviously in a state
of very great excitement. Semyonov sat opposite Vera, leaning his thick
body on his arms, his eyes watching his niece and every once and again
his firm pale hand stroking his beard.
When I joined them he said to me:
"Well, Ivan Andreievitch, what's the latest news of your splendid
"Why my Revolution?" I asked. I felt an especial dislike this morning of
his sneering eyes and his thick pale honey-coloured beard. "Whose ever
it was he should be proud of it. To see thousands of people who've been
hungry for months wandering about as I've seen them this morning and
none of them touching a thing--it's stupendous!"
Semyonov smiled but said nothing. His smile irritated me. "Oh, of course
you sneer at the whole thing, Alexei Petrovitch!" I said. "Anything fine
in human nature excites your contempt as I know of old."
I think that that was the first time that Vera had heard me speak to him
in that way, and she looked up at me with sudden surprise and I think
Semyonov treated me with complete contempt. He answered me slowly: "No,
Ivan Andreievitch, I don't wish to deprive you of any kind of happiness.
I wouldn't for worlds. But do you know our people, that's the question?
You haven't been here very long; you came loaded up with romantic
notions, some of which you've discarded but only that you may pick up
others....I don't want to insult you at all, but you simply don't know
that the Christian virtues that you are admiring just now so
extravagantly are simply cowardice and apathy....Wait a little! Wait a
little! and then tell me whether I've not been right."
There was a moment's pause like the hush before the storm, and then
Markovitch broke in upon us. I can see and hear him now, standing there
behind Vera with his ridiculous collar and his anxious eyes. The words
simply pouring from him in a torrent, his voice now rising into a shrill
scream, now sinking into a funny broken bass like the growl of a young
baby tiger. And yet he was never ridiculous. I've known other mortals,
and myself one of the foremost, who, under the impulse of some sudden
anger, enthusiasm, or regret, have been simply figures of fun....
Markovitch was never that. He was like a dying man fighting for
possession of the last plank. I can't at this distance of time remember
all that he said. He talked a great deal about Russia; while he spoke I
noticed that he avoided Semyonov's eyes, which never for a single
instant left his face.
"Oh, don't you see, don't you see?" he cried. "Russia's chance has come
back to her? We can fight now a holy, patriotic war. We can fight, not
because we are told to by our masters, but because we, of our own free
will, wish to defend the soil of our sacred country. _Our_ country! No
one has thought of Russia for the last two years--we have thought only
of ourselves, our privations, our losses--but now--now. O God! the world
may be set free again because Russia is at last free!"
"Yes," said Semyonov quietly (his eyes covered Markovitch's face as a
searchlight finds out the running figure of a man). "And who has spoken
of Russia during the last few days? Russia! Why, I haven't heard the
word mentioned once. I may have been unlucky, I don't know. I've been
out and about the streets a good deal... I've listened to a great many
conversations.... Democracy, yes, and Brotherhood and Equality and
Fraternity and Bread and Land and Peace and Idleness--but Russia! Not a
"It will come! It will come!" Markovitch urged. "It _must_ come! You
didn't walk, Alexei, as I did last night, through the streets, and see
the people and hear their voices and see their faces.... Oh! I believe
that at last that good has come to the world, and happiness and peace;
and it is Russia who will lead the way.... Thank God! Thank God!" Even
as he spoke some instinct in me urged me to try and prevent him. I felt
that Semyonov would not forget a word of this, and would make his own
use of it in the time to come. I could see the purpose in Semyonov's
eyes. I almost called out to Nicholas, "Look out! Look out!" just as
though a man were standing behind him with a raised weapon....
"You really mean this?" asked Semyonov.
"Of course I mean it!" cried Markovitch. "Do I not sound as though I
"I will remind you of it one day," said Semyonov.
I saw that Markovitch was trembling with excitement from head to foot.
He sat down at the table near Vera and put one hand on the tablecloth to
steady himself. Vera suddenly covered his hand with hers as though she
were protecting him. His excitement seemed to stream away from him, as
though Semyonov were drawing it out of him.
He suddenly said:
"You'd like to take my happiness away from me if you could, Alexei. You
don't want me to be happy."
"What nonsense!" Semyonov said, laughing. "Only I like the truth--I
simply don't see the thing as you do. I have my view of us Russians. I
have watched since the beginning of the war. I think our people lazy and
selfish--think you must drive them with a whip to make them do anything.
I think they would be ideal under German rule, which is what they'll get
if their Revolution lasts long enough... that's all."
I saw that Markovitch wanted to reply, but he was trembling so that he
He said at last: "You leave me alone, Alexei; let me go my own way."
"I have never tried to prevent you," said Semyonov.
There was a moment's silence.
Then, in quite another tone, he remarked to me: "By the way, Ivan
Andreievitch, what about your friend Mr. Lawrence? He's in a position of
very considerable danger where he is with Wilderling. They tell me
Wilderling may be murdered at any moment."
Some force stronger than my will drove me to look at Vera. I saw that
Nicolai Leontievitch also was looking at her. She raised her eyes for an
instant, her lips moved as though she were going to speak, then she
looked down again at her sewing.
Semyonov watched us all. "Oh, he'll be all right," I answered. "If any
one in the world can look after himself it's Lawrence."
"That's all very well," said Semyonov, still looking at Markovitch. "But
to be in Wilderling's company this week is a very unhealthy thing for
any one. And that type of Englishman is not noted for cowardice."
"I tell you that Lawrence can look after himself," I insisted angrily.
Semyonov knew and Markovitch knew that I was speaking to Vera. No one
then said a word. There was a long pause. At last Semyonov saw fit to
"I'm off to the Duma," he said. "There's a split, I believe. And I want
to hear whether it's true that the Czar's abdicated."
"I believe you'd rather he hadn't, Alexei Petrovitch," Markovitch broke
He laughed at us all and said, "Whose interests am I studying? My
own?... Holy Russia's?... Yours?... When will you learn, Nicholas my
friend, that I am a spectator, not a participator?"
Vera was alone during most of that day; and even now, after the time
that has passed, I cannot bear to think of what she suffered. She
realised quite definitely and now, with no chance whatever of
self-deception, that she loved Lawrence with a force that no denial or
sacrifice on her part could alter. She told me afterwards that she
walked up and down that room for hours, telling herself again and again
that she must not go and see whether he were safe. She did not dare even
to leave the room. She felt that if she entered her bedroom the sight
of her hat and coat there would break down her resolution, that if she
went to the head of the stairs and listened she must then go farther and
then farther again. She knew quite well that to go to him now would mean
complete surrender. She had no illusions about that. The whole of her
body was quivering with desire for his embrace, for the warm strength of
his body, for the kindness in his eyes, and the compelling mastery of
She had never loved a man before; but it seemed to her now that she had
known all these sensations always, and that she was now, at last, her
real self, and that the earlier Vera had been a ghost. And what ghosts
were Nina and Markovitch!
She told me afterwards that, on looking back, this seemed to her the
most horrible part of the horrible afternoon. These two, who had been
for so many years the very centre of her life, whom she had forced to
hold up, as it were, the whole foundation of her existence, now simply
were not real at all. She might call to them, and their voices were like
far echoes or the wind. She gazed at them, and the colours of the room
and the street seemed to shine through them.... She fought for their
reality. She forced herself to recall all the many things that they had
done together, Nina's little ways, the quarrels with Nicholas, the
reconciliations, the times when he had been ill, the times when they had
gone to the country, to the theatre... and through it all she heard
Semyonov's voice, "By the way, what about your friend Lawrence?... He's
in a position of very considerable danger... considerable danger...
By the evening she was almost frantic. Nina had been with a girl friend
in the Vassily Ostrov all day. She would perhaps stay there all night
if there were any signs of trouble. No one returned. Only the clock
ticked on. Old Sacha asked whether she might go out for an hour. Vera
nodded her head. She was then quite alone in the flat.
Suddenly, about seven o'clock, Nina came in. She was tired, nervous, and
unhappy. The Revolution had not come to _her_ as anything but a sudden
crumbling of all the life that she had known and believed in. She had
had, that afternoon, to run down a side street to avoid a machine-gun,
and afterwards on the Morskaia she had come upon a dead man huddled up
in the snow like a piece of offal. These things terrified her and she
did not care about the larger issues. Her life had been always intensely
personal--not selfish so much as vividly egoistic through her vitality.
And now she was miserable, not because she was afraid for her own
safety, but because she was face to face, for the first time, with the
unknown and the uncertain.
She came in, sat down at the table, put her head into her arms and burst
into tears. She must have looked a very pathetic figure with her little
fur hat askew, her hair tumbled--like a child whose doll is suddenly
Vera was at her side in a moment. She put her arms around her.
"Nina, dear, what is it?... Has somebody hurt you? Has something
happened? Is anybody--killed?"
"No!" Nina sobbed. "Nobody--nothing--only--I'm frightened. It all looks
so strange. The streets are so funny, and--there was--a dead man on the
"You shouldn't have gone out, dear. I oughtn't to have let you. But now
we can just be cosy together. Sacha's gone out. There's no one here but
ourselves. We'll have supper and make ourselves comfortable."
Nina looked up, staring about her. "Has Sacha gone out? Oh, I wish she
hadn't!... Supposing somebody came."
"No one will come. Who could? No one wants to hurt _us!_ I've been here
all the afternoon, and no one's come near the flat. If anybody did come
we've only got to telephone to Nicholas. He's with Rozanov all the
"Nicholas!" Nina repeated scornfully. "As though he could help anybody."
She looked up. Vera told me afterwards that it was at that moment, when
Nina looked such a baby with her tumbled hair and her flushed cheeks
stained with tears, that she realised her love for her with a fierceness
that for a moment seemed to drown even her love for Lawrence. She caught
her to her and hugged her, kissing her again and again.
But Nina was suspicious. There were many things that had to be settled
between Vera and herself. She did not respond, and Vera let her go. She
went into her room, to take off her things.
Afterwards they lit the samovar and boiled some eggs and put the caviare
and sausage and salt fish and jam on the table. At first they were
silent, and then Nina began to recover a little.
"You know, Vera, I've had an extraordinary day. There were no trams
running, of course, and I had to walk all the distance. When I got there
I found Katerina Ivanovna in a terrible way because their Masha--whom
they've had for years, you know--went to a Revolutionary meeting last
evening, and was out all night, and she came in this morning and said
she wasn't going to work for them any more, that every one was equal
now, and that they must do things for themselves. Just fancy! When she's
been with them for years and they've been so good to her. It upset
Katerina Ivanovna terribly, because of course they couldn't get any one
else, and there was no food in the house."
"Perhaps Sacha won't come back again."
"Oh, she must! _She's_ not like that... and we've been so good to her.
_Nu... Patom_, some soldiers came early in the afternoon and they said
that some policeman had been firing from Katya's windows and they must
search the flat. They were very polite--quite a young student was in
charge of them, he was rather like Boris--and they went all over
everything. They were very polite, but it wasn't nice seeing them stand
there with their rifles in the middle of the dining-room. Katya offered
them some wine. But they wouldn't touch it. They said they had been told
not to, and they looked quite angry with her for offering it. They
couldn't find the policeman anywhere of course, but they told Katya they
might have to burn the house down if they didn't find him. I think they
just said it to amuse themselves. But Katya believed it, and was in a
terrible way and began collecting all her china in the middle of the
floor, and then Ivan came in and told her not to be silly."
"Weren't you frightened to come home?" asked Vera.
"Ivan wanted to come with me but I wouldn't let him. I felt quite brave
in the flat, as though I'd face anybody. And then every step I took
outside I got more and more frightened. It was so strange, so quiet with
the trams not running and the shops all shut. The streets are quite
deserted except that in the distance you see crowds, and sometimes there
were shots and people running.... Then suddenly I began to run. I felt
as though there were animals in the canals and things crawling about on
the ships. And then, just as I thought I was getting home, I saw a man,
dead on the snow.... I'm not going out alone again until it's over. I'm
so glad I'm back, Vera darling. We'll have a lovely evening."
They both discovered then how hungry they were, and they had an enormous
meal. It was very cosy with the curtains drawn and the wood crackling in
the stove and the samovar chuckling. There was a plateful of chocolates,
and Nina ate them all. She was quite happy now, and sang and danced
about as they cleared away most of the supper, leaving the samovar and
the bread and the jam and the sausage for Nicholas and Bohun when they
At last Vera sat down in the old red arm-chair that had the holes and
the places where it suddenly went flat, and Nina piled up some cushions
and sat at her feet. For a time they were happy, saying very little,
Vera softly stroking Nina's hair. Then, as Vera afterwards described it
to me, "Some fright or sudden dread of loneliness came into the room. It
was exactly as though the door had opened and some one had joined us...
and, do you know, I looked up and expected to see Uncle Alexei."
However, of course, there was no one there; but Nina moved away a
little, and then Vera, wanting to comfort her, tried to draw her closer,
and then of course, Nina (because she was like that) with a little
peevish shrug of the shoulders drew even farther away. There was, after
that, silence between them, an awkward ugly silence, piling up and up
with discomfort until the whole room seemed to be eloquent with it.
Both their minds were, of course, occupied in the same direction, and
suddenly Nina, who moved always on impulse and had no restraint, burst
"I must know how Andrey Stepanovitch (their name for Lawrence, because
Jeremy had no Russian equivalent) is--I'm going to telephone."
"You can't," Vera said quietly. "It isn't working--I tried an hour ago
to get on to Nicholas."
"Well then, I shall go off and find out," said Nina, knowing very well
that she would not.
"Oh, Nina, of course you mustn't.... You know you can't. Perhaps when
Nicholas comes in he will have some news for us."
"Why shouldn't I?"
"You know why not. What would he think? Besides, you're not going out
into the town again to-night."
"Oh, aren't I? And who's going to stop me?"
"I am," said Vera.
Nina sprang to her feet. In her later account to me of this quarrel she
said, "You know, Durdles, I don't believe I ever loved Vera more than I
did just then. In spite of her gravity she looked so helpless and as
though she wanted loving so terribly. I could just have flung my arms
round her and hugged her to death at the very moment that I was
screaming at her. Why are we like that?"
At any rate Nina stood up there and stamped her foot, her hair hanging
all about her face and her body quivering. "Oh, you're going to keep me,
are you? What right have you got over me? Can't I go and leave the flat
at any moment if I wish, or am I to consider myself your prisoner?...
_Tzuineeto, pajalueesta_... I didn't know. I can only eat my meals with
your permission, I suppose. I have to ask your leave before going to see
my friends.... Thank you, I know now. But I'm not going to stand it. I
shall do just as I please. I'm grown up. No one can stop me...."
Vera, her eyes full of distress looked helplessly about her. She never
could deal with Nina when she was in these storms of rage, and to-day
she felt especially helpless.
"Nina, dear... don't.... You know that it isn't so. You can go where
you please, do what you please."
"Thank you," said Nina, tossing her head. "I'm glad to hear it."
"I know I'm tiresome very often. I'm slow and stupid. If I try you
sometimes you must forgive me and be patient.... Sit down again and
let's be happy. You know how I love you. Nina, darling... come again."
But Nina stood there pouting. She was loving Vera so intensely that it
was all that she could do to hold herself back, but her very love made
her want to hurt.... "It's all very well to say you love me, but you
don't act as though you do. You're always trying to keep me in. I want
to be free. And Andrey Stepanovitch...."
They both paused at Lawrence's name. They knew that that was at the root
of the matter between them, that it had been so for a long time, and
that any other pretence would be false.
"You know I love him--" said Nina, "and I'm going to marry him."
I can see then Vera taking a tremendous pull upon herself as though she
suddenly saw in front of her a gulf into whose depths, in another
moment, she would fall. But my vision of the story, from this point, is
Vera told me no more until she came to the final adventure of the
evening. This part of the scene then is witnessed with Nina's eyes, and
I can only fill in details which, from my knowledge of them both, I
believe to have occurred. Nina, knew, of course, what the effect of her
announcement would be upon Vera, but she had not expected the sudden
thin pallor which stole like a film over her sister's face, the
withdrawal, the silence. She was frightened, so she went on recklessly.
"Oh, I know that he doesn't care for me yet.... I can see that of
course. But he will. He must. He's seen nothing of me yet. But I am
stronger than he, I can make him do as I wish. I _will_ make him. You
don't want me to marry him and I know why."
She flung that out as a challenge, tossing her head scornfully, but
nevertheless watching with frightened eyes her sister's face. Suddenly
Vera spoke, and it was in a voice so stern that it was to Nina a new
voice, as though she had suddenly to deal with some new figure whom she
had never seen before.
"I can't discuss that with you, Nina. You can't marry because, as you
say, he doesn't care for you--in that way. Also if he did it would be a
very unhappy marriage. You would soon despise him. He is not clever in
the way that you want a man to be clever. You'd think him slow and dull
after a month with him.... And then he ought to beat you and he
wouldn't. He'd be kind to you and then you'd be ruined. I can see now
that I've always been too kind to you--indeed, every one has--and the
result is, that you're spoilt and know nothing about life at all--or
men. You are right. I've treated you as a child too long. I will do so
Nina turned like a little fury, standing back from Vera as though she
were going to spring upon her. "That's it, is it?" she cried. "And all
because you want to keep him for yourself. I understand. I have eyes.
You love him. You are hoping for an intrigue with him.... You love him!
You love him! You love him!... and he doesn't love you and you are so
Vera looked at Nina, then suddenly turned and burying her head in her
hands sobbed, crouching in her chair. Then slipping from the chair,
knelt catching Nina's knees, her head against her dress.
Nina was aghast, terrified--then in a moment overwhelmed by a surging
flood of love so that she caught Vera to her, caressing her hair,
calling her by her little name, kissing her again and again and again.
"Verotchka--Verotchka--I didn't mean anything. I didn't indeed. I love
you. I love you. You know that I do. I was only angry and wicked. Oh,
I'll never forgive myself. Verotchka--get up--don't kneel to me like
She was interrupted by a knock on the outer hall door. To both of them
that sound must have been terribly alarming. Vera said afterwards, that
"at once we realised that it was the knock of some one more frightened
than we were."
In the first place, no one ever knocked, they always rang the rather
rickety electric bell--and then the sound was furtive and hurried, and
even frantic; "as though," said Vera, "some one on the other side of the
door was breathless."
The sisters stood, close together, for quite a long time without moving.
The knocking ceased and the room was doubly silent. Then suddenly it
began again, very rapid and eager, but muffled, almost as though some
one were knocking with a gloved hand.
Vera went then. She paused for a moment in the little hall, for again
there was silence and she fancied that perhaps the intruder had given up
the matter in despair. But, no--there it was again--and this third time
seemed to her, perhaps because she was so close to it, the most urgent
and eager of all. She went to the door and opened it. There was no light
in the passage save the dim reflection from the lamp on the lower floor,
and in the shadow she saw a figure cowering back into the corner behind
"Who is it?" she asked. The figure pushed past her, slipping into their
own little hall.
"But you can't come in like that," she said, turning round on him.
"Shut the door!" he whispered. "_Bozhe moi! Bozhe moi_.... Shut the
She recognised him then. He was the policeman from the corner of their
street, a man whom they knew well. He had always been a pompous little
man, stout and short of figure, kindly so far as they knew, although
they had heard of him as cruel in the pursuit of his official duties.
They had once talked to him a little and he explained: "I wouldn't hurt
a fly, God knows," he had said, "of myself, but a man likes to do his
work efficiently--and there are so many lazy fellows about here."
He prided himself, they saw, on a punctilious attention to duty. When he
had to come there for some paper or other he was always extremely
polite, and if they were going away he helped them about their
passports. He told them on another occasion that "he was pleased with
life--although one never knew of course when it might come down upon
Well, it had come down on him now. A more pitiful object Vera had never
seen. He was dressed in a dirty black suit and wore a shabby fur cap,
his padded overcoat was torn.
But the overwhelming effect of him was terror. Vera had never before
seen such terror, and at once, as though the thing were an infectious
disease, her own heart began to beat furiously. He was shaking so that
the fur cap, which was too large for his head, waggled up and down over
his eye in a ludicrous manner.
His face was dirty as though he had been crying, and a horrid pallid
grey in colour.
His collar was torn, showing his neck between the folds of his overcoat.
Vera looked out down the stairs as though she expected to see something.
The flat was perfectly still. There was not a sound anywhere. She turned
back to the man again, he was crouching against the wall.
"You can't come in here," she repeated. "My sister and I are alone. What
do you want?... What's the matter?"
"Shut the door!... Shut the door!... Shut the door!..." he repeated.
She closed it. "Now what is it?" she asked, and then, hearing a sound,
turned to find that Nina was standing with wide eyes, watching.
"What is it?" Nina asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," said Vera, also whispering. "He won't tell me."
He pushed past them then into the dining-room, looked about him for a
moment, then sank into a chair as though his legs would no longer
support him, holding on to the cloth with both hands.
The sisters followed him into the dining-room.
"Don't shiver like that!" said Vera, "tell us why you've come in
His eyes looked past them, never still, wandering from wall to wall,
from door to door.
"They're after me..." he said. "That's it--I was hiding in our cupboard
all last night and this morning. They were round there all the time
breaking up our things.... I heard them shouting. They were going to
kill me. I've done nothing--O God! what's that?"
"There's no one here," said Vera, "except ourselves."
"I saw a chance to get away and I crept out. But I couldn't get far....
I knew you would be good-hearted... good-hearted. Hide me
somewhere--anywhere!... and they won't come in here. Only until the
evening. I've done no one any harm.... Only my duty...."
He began to snivel, taking out from his coat a very dirty
pocket-handkerchief and dabbing his face with it.
The odd thing that they felt, as they looked at him, was the incredible
intermingling of public and private affairs. Five minutes before they
had been passing through a tremendous crisis in their personal
relationship. The whole history of their lives together, flowing through
how many years, through how many phases, how many quarrels, and
happiness and adventures had reached here a climax whose issue was so
important that life between them could never be the same again.
So urgent had been the affair that during that hour they had forgotten
the Revolution, Russia, the war. Moreover, always in the past, they had
assumed that public life was no affair of theirs. The Russo-Japanese
War, even the spasmodic revolt in 1905, had not touched them except as a
wind of ideas which blew so swiftly through their private lives that
they were scarcely affected by it.
Now in the person of that trembling, shaking figure at their table, the
Revolution had come to them, and not only the Revolution, but the
strange new secret city that Petrograd was... the whole ground was
quaking beneath them.
And in the eyes of the fugitive they saw what terror of death really
was. It was no tale read in a story-book, no recounting of an adventure
by some romantic traveller, it was _here_ with them in the flat and at
It was then that Vera realised that there was no time to lose--something
must be done at once.
"Who's pursuing you?" she asked, quickly. "Where are they?"
He got up and was moving about the room as though he was looking for a
"All the people.... Everybody!" He turned round upon them, suddenly
striking, what seemed to them, a ludicrously grand attitude.
"Abominable! That's what it is. I heard them shouting that I had a
machine-gun on the roof and was killing people. I had no machine-gun. Of
course not. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I had one. But there
they were. That's what they were shouting! And I've always done my duty.
What's one to do? Obey one's superior officer? Of course, what he says
one does. What's life for?... and then naturally one expects a reward.
Things were going well with me, very well indeed--and then this comes.
It's a degrading thing for a man to hide for a day and a night in a
cupboard." His teeth began to chatter then so that he could scarcely
speak. He seemed to be shaking with ague.
He caught Vera's hand. "Save me--save me!" he said. "Put me
somewhere.... I've done nothing disgraceful. They'll shoot me like a
The sisters consulted.
"What are we to do?" asked Nina. "We can't let him go out to be killed."
"No. But if we keep him here and they come in and find him, we shall all
be involved.... It isn't fair to Nicholas or Uncle Ivan...."
"We can't let him go out."
"No, we can't," Vera replied. She saw at once how impossible that was.
Were he caught outside and shot they would feel that they had his death
for ever on their souls.
"There's the linen cupboard," she said.
She turned round to Nina. "I'm afraid," she said, "if you hide here,
you'll have to go into another cupboard. And it can only be for an hour
or two. We couldn't keep you here all night."
He said nothing except "Quick. Take me." Vera led him into her bedroom
and showed him the place. Without another word he pressed in amongst the
clothes. It was a deep cupboard, and, although he was a fat man, the
door closed quite evenly.
It was suddenly as though he had never been, Vera went back to Nina.
They stood close to one another in the middle of the room, and talked in
"What are we going to do?"
"We can only wait!"
"They'll never dare to search your room, Vera."
"One doesn't know now... everything's so different."
"Vera, you _are_ brave. Forgive me what I said just now.... I'll help
you if you want--"
"Hush, Nina dear. Not that now. We've got to think--what's best...."
They kissed very quietly, and then they sat down by the table and
waited. There was simply nothing else to do.
Vera said that, during that pause, she could see the little policeman
everywhere. In every part of the room she found him, with his fat legs
and dirty, streaky face and open collar. The flat was heavy, portentous
with his presence, as though it stood with a self-important finger on
its lips saying, "I've got a secret in here. _Such_ a secret. You don't
know what _I've_ got...."
They discussed in whispers as to who would come in first. Nicholas or
Uncle Ivan or Bohun or Sacha? And supposing one of them came in while
the soldiers were there? Who would be the most dangerous? Sacha? She
would scream and give everything away. Suppose they had seen him enter
and were simply waiting, on the cat-and-mouse plan, to catch him? That
was an intolerable thought.
"I think," said Nina, "I must go and see whether there's any one
But there was no need for her to do that. Even as she spoke they heard
the steps on the stairs; and instantly afterwards there came the loud
knocking on their door. Vera pressed Nina's hand and went into the hall.
"_Kto tam_... Who's there?" she asked.
"Open the door!... The Workmen and Soldiers' Committee demand entrance
in the name of the Revolution."
She opened the door at once. During those first days of the Revolution
they cherished certain melodramatic displays.
Whether consciously or no they built on all the old French Revolution
traditions, or perhaps it is that every Revolution produces of necessity
the same clothing with which to cover its nakedness. A strange mixture
of farce and terror were those detachments of so-called justice. At
their head there was, as a rule, a student, often smiling and
bespectacled. The soldiers themselves, from one of the Petrograd
regiments, were frankly out for a good time and enjoyed themselves
thoroughly, but, as is the Slavonic way, playfulness could pass with
surprising suddenness to dead earnest--with, indeed, so dramatic a
precipitance that the actors themselves were afterwards amazed. Of these
"little, regrettable mistakes" there had already, during the week, been
several examples. To Vera, with the knowledge of the contents of her
linen-cupboard, the men seemed terrifying enough. Their leader was a fat
and beaming student--quite a boy. He was very polite, saying
"_Zdrastvuite,"_ and taking off his cap. The men behind him--hulking men
from one of the Guards regiments--pushed about in the little hall like a
lot of puppies, joking with one another, holding their rifles upside
down, and making sudden efforts at a seriousness that they could not
Only one of them, an older man with a thick black beard, was intensely
grave, and looked at Vera with beseeching eyes, as though he longed to
tell her the secret of his life.
"What can I do for you?" she asked the student.
"_Prosteete_... Forgive us." He smiled and blinked at her, then put on
his cap, clicked his heels, gave a salute, and took his cap off again.
"We wish to be in no way an inconvenience to you. We are simply obeying
orders. We have instructions that a policeman is hiding in one of these
flats.... We know, of course, that he cannot possibly be here.
Nevertheless we are compelled... _Prosteete_.... What nice pictures you
have!" he ended suddenly. It was then that Vera discovered that they
were by this time in the dining-room, crowded together near the door and
gazing at Nina with interested eyes.
"There's no one here, of course," said Vera, very quietly. "No one at
"_Tak Tochno_ (quite so)," said the black-bearded soldier, for no
particular reason, suddenly.
"You will allow me to sit down?" said the student, very politely. "I
must, I am afraid, ask a few questions."
"Certainly," said Vera quietly. "Anything you like."
She had moved over to Nina, and they stood side by side. But she could
not think of Nina, she could not think even of the policeman in the
cupboard.... She could think only of that other house on the Quay where,
perhaps even now, this same scene was being enacted. They had found
Wilderling.... They had dragged him out.... Lawrence was beside him....
They were condemned together.... Oh! love had come to her at last in a
wild, surging flood! Of all the steps she had been led until at last,
only half an hour before in that scene with Nina, the curtains had been
flung aside and the whole view revealed to her. She felt such a
strength, such a pride, such a defiance, as she had not known belonged
to human power. She had, for many weeks, been hesitating before the
gates. Now, suddenly, she had swept through. His death now was not the
terror that it had been only an hour before. Nina's accusation had shown
her, as a flash of lightning flings the mountains into view, that now
she could never lose him, were he with her or no, and that beside that
truth nothing mattered.
Something of her bravery and grandeur and beauty must have been felt by
them all at that moment. Nina realised it.... She told me that her own
fear left her altogether when she saw how Vera was facing them. She was
suddenly calm and quiet and very amused.
The student officer seemed now to be quite at home. He had taken a great
many notes down in a little book, and looked very important as he did
so. His chubby face expressed great self-satisfaction. He talked half to
himself and half to Vera. "Yes... Yes... quite so. Exactly. And your
husband is not yet at home, Madame Markovitch.... _Nu da...._ Of course
these are very troublesome times, and as you say things have to move in
"You've heard perhaps that Nicholas Romanoff has abdicated entirely--and
refused to allow his son to succeed. Makes things simpler.... Yes....
Very pleasant pictures you have--and Ostroffsky--six volumes. Very
agreeable. I have myself acted in Ostroffsky at different times. I find
his plays very enjoyable. I am sure you will forgive us, Madame, if we
walk through your charming flat."
But indeed by this time the soldiers themselves had begun to roam about
on their own account. Nina remembers one soldier in especial--a large
dirty fellow with ragged moustache--who quite frankly terrified her. He
seemed to regard her with particular satisfaction, staring at her, and,
as it were, licking his lips over her. He wandered about the room
fingering things, and seemed to be immensely interested in Nicholas's
little den, peering through the glass window that there was in the door
and rubbing the glass with his finger. He presently pushed the door open
and soon they were all in there.
Then a characteristic thing occurred. Apparently Nicholas's
inventions--his little pieces of wood and bark and cloth, his glass
bottles, and tubes--seemed to them highly suspicious. There was laughter
at first, and then sudden silence. Nina could see part of the room
through the open door and she watched them as they gathered round the
little table, talking together in excited whispers. The tall,
rough-looking fellow who had frightened her before picked up one of the
tubes, and then, whether by accident or intention, let it fall, and the
tinkling smash of the glass frightened them all so precipitately that
they came tumbling out into the larger room. The big fellow whispered
something to the student, who at once became more self-important than
ever, and said very seriously to Vera:
"That is your husband's room, Madame, I understand?"
"Yes," said Vera quietly, "he does his work in there."
"What kind of work?"
"He is an inventor."
"An inventor of what?"
"Various things.... He is working at present on something to do with the
making of cloth."
Unfortunately this serious view of Nicholas's inventions suddenly seemed
to Nina so ridiculous that she tittered. She could have done nothing
more regrettable. The student obviously felt that his dignity was
threatened. He looked at her very severely:
"This is no laughing matter," he said. He himself then got up and went
into the inner room. He was there for some time, and they could hear him
fingering the tubes and treading on the broken glass. He came out again
He was seriously offended.
"You should have told us your husband was an inventor."
"I didn't think it was of importance," said Vera.
"Everything is of importance," he answered. The atmosphere was now
entirely changed. The soldiers were angry--they had, it seemed, been
deceived and treated like children. The melancholy fellow with the black
beard looked at Vera with eyes of deep reproach.
"When will your husband return?" asked the student.
"I am afraid I don't know," said Vera. She realised that the situation
was now serious, but she could not keep her mind upon it. In that house
on the Quay what was happening? What had, perhaps, already happened?...
"Where has he gone?"
"I don't know."
"Why didn't he tell you where he was going?"
"He often does not tell me."
"Ah, that is wrong. In these days one should always say where one is
He stood up very stiff and straight. "Search the house," he said to his
Suddenly then Vera's mind concentrated. It was as though, she told me "I
came back into the room and saw for the first time what was happening."
"There is no one in the rest of the flat," she said, "and nothing that
can interest you."
"That is for me to judge," said the little officer grimly.
"But I assure you there is nothing," she went on eagerly. "There is only
the kitchen and the bath-room and the five bedrooms."
"Whose bedrooms?" said the officer.
"My husband's, my own, my sister's, my uncle's, and an Englishman's,"
she answered, colouring a little.
"Nevertheless we must do our duty.... Search the house," he repeated.
"But you must not go into our bedrooms," she said, her voice rising.
"There is nothing for you there. I am sure you will respect our
"Our orders must be obeyed," he answered angrily.
"But--" she cried.
"Silence, Madame," he said, furiously, staring at her as though she were
his personal, deadly enemy.
"Very well," said Vera proudly. "Please do as you wish."
The officer walked past her with his head up, and the soldiers followed
him, their eyes malicious and inquisitive and excited. The sisters stood
together waiting. Of course the end had come. They simply stood there
fastening their resolution to the extreme moment.
"I must go with them," said Vera. She followed them into her bedroom. It
was a very little place and they filled it, they looked rather sheepish
now, whispering to one another.
"What's in there?" said the officer, tapping the cupboard.
"Only some clothes," said Vera.
"Open it!" he ordered.
Then the world did indeed stand still. The clock ceased to tick, the
little rumble in the stove was silenced, the shuffling feet of one of
the soldiers stayed, the movement of some rustle in the wall paper was
held. The world was frozen.
"Now I suppose we shall all be shot," was Vera's thought, repeated over
and over again with a ludicrous monotony. Then she could see nothing but
the little policeman, tumbling out of the cupboard, dishevelled and
terrified. Terrified! what that look in his eyes would be! That at any
rate she could not face and she turned her head away from them, looking
out through the door into the dark little passage.
She heard as though from an infinite distance the words:
"Well, there's nobody there."
She did not believe him of course. He said that whoever he was, to test
her, to tempt her to give herself away. But she was too clever for them.
She turned back and faced them, and then saw, to the accompaniment of an
amazement that seemed like thunder in her ears, that the cupboard was
"There is nobody," said the black-bearded soldier.
The student looked rather ashamed of himself. The white clothes, the
skirts, and the blouses in the cupboard reproached him.
"You will of course understand, Madame," he said stiffly, "that the
search was inevitable. Regrettable but necessary. I'm sure you will see
that for your own satisfaction...."
"You are assured now that there is no one here?" Vera interrupted him
"Assured," he answered.
But where was the man? She felt as though she were in some fantastic
nightmare in which nothing was as it seemed. The cupboard was not a
cupboard, the policeman not a policeman....
"There is the kitchen," she said.
In the kitchen of course they found nothing. There was a large cupboard
in one corner but they did not look there. They had had enough. They
returned into the dining-room and there, looking very surprised, his
head very high above his collar was Markovitch.
"What does this mean?" he asked.
"I regret extremely," said the officer pompously. "I have been compelled
to make a search. Duty only... I regret. But no one is here. Your flat
is at liberty. I wish you good-afternoon."
Before Markovitch could ask further questions the room was emptied of
them all. They tramped out, laughing and joking, children again, the
hall door closed behind them.
Nina clutched Vera's arm.
"Vera.... Vera, where is he?"
"I don't know," said Vera.
"What's all this?" asked Nicholas.
They explained to him but he scarcely seemed to hear. He was
radiant--smiling in a kind of ecstasy.
"They have gone? I am safe?"
In the doorway was the little policeman, black with grime and dust, so
comical a figure that in reaction from the crisis of ten minutes before,
they laughed hysterically.
"Oh look! look!..." cried Nina. "How dirty he is!"
"Where have you been?" asked Vera. "Why weren't you in the cupboard?"
The little man's teeth were chattering, so that he could scarcely
"I heard them in the other room. I knew that the cupboard would be the
first place. I slipped into the kitchen and hid in the fireplace."
"You're not angry, Nicholas?" Vera asked. "We couldn't send him out to
"What does that matter?" he almost impatiently brushed it aside. "There
are other things more important." He looked at the trembling dirty
figure. "Only you'd better go back and hide again until it's dark. They
might come back...."
He caught Vera by the arm. His eyes were flames. He drew her with him
back into her little room. He closed the door.
"The Revolution has come--it has really come," he cried.
"Yes," she answered, "it has come into this very house. The world has
"The Czar has abdicated.... The old world has gone, the old wicked
world! Russia is born again!"
His eyes were the eyes of a fanatic.
Her eyes, too, were alight. She gazed past him.
"I know--I know," she whispered as though to herself.
"Russia--Russia," he went on coming closer and closer, "Russia and you.
We will build a new world. We will forget our old troubles. Oh, Vera, my
darling, my darling, we're going to be happy now! I love you so. And now
I can hope again. All our love will be clean in this new world. We're
going to be happy at last!"
But she did not hear him. She saw into space. A great exultation ran
through her body. All lost for love! At last she was awakened, at last
she lived, at last, at last, she knew what love was.
"I love him! I love him... him," her soul whispered. "And nothing now
in this world or the next can separate us."
"Vera--Vera," Nicholas cried, "we are together at last--as we have never
been. And now we'll work together again--for Russia."
She looked at the man whom she had never loved, with a great compassion
and pity. She put her arms around him and kissed him, her whole maternal
spirit suddenly aware of him and seeking to comfort him.
At the touch of her lips his body trembled with happiness. But he did
not know that it was a kiss of farewell....
I have no idea at all what Lawrence did during the early days of that
week. He has never told me, and I have never asked him. He never, with
the single exception of the afternoon at the Astoria, came near the
Markovitches, and I know that was because he had now reached a stage
where he did not dare trust himself to see Vera--just as she at that
time did not trust herself to see him....
I do not know what he thought of those first days of the Revolution. I
can imagine that he took it all very quietly, doing his duty and making
no comment. He had of course his own interest in it, but it would be, I
am sure, an entirely original interest, unlike any one else's. I
remember Dune once, in the long-dead days, saying to me, "It's never any
use guessing what Lawrence is thinking. When you think it's football
it's Euripides, and when you think it's Euripides it's Marie Corelli."
Of all the actors in this affair he remains to me to the last as the
most mysterious. I know that he loved Vera with the endurance of the
rock, the heat of the flame, the ruthlessness of a torrent, but behind
that love there sat the man himself, invisible, silent, patient,
He may have had Semyonov's contempt for the Revolutionary idealist, he
may have had Wilderling's belief in the Czar's autocracy, he may have
had Boris Grogoff's enthusiasm for freedom and a general holiday. I
don't know. I know nothing at all about it. I don't think that he saw
much of the Wilderlings during the earlier part of the week. He himself
was a great deal with the English Military Mission, and Wilderling was
with _his_ party whatever that might be. He could see of course that
Wilderling was disturbed, or perhaps indignant is the right word. "As
though you know," he said, "some dirty little boy had been pullin'
snooks at him." Nevertheless the Baroness was the human link. Lawrence
would see from the first--that is, from the morning of the Sunday--that
she was in an agony of horror. She confided in nobody, but went about as
though she was watching for something, and at dinner her eyes never left
her husband's face for a moment. Those evening meals must have been
awful. I can imagine the dignity, the solemn heavy room with all the
silver, the ceremonious old man-servant and Wilderling himself behaving
as though nothing at all were the matter. To do him all justice he was
as brave as a lion, and as proud as a gladiator, and as conceited as a
Prussian. On the Wednesday evening he did not return home. He telephoned
that he was kept on important business.
The Baroness and Lawrence had the long slow meal together. It was almost
more than Jerry could stand having, of course, his own private tortures
to face. "It was as though the old lady felt that she had been deputed
to support the honour of the family during her husband's absence. She
must have been wild with anxiety, but she showed no sign except that her
hand trembled when she raised her glass."
"What did you talk about?" I asked him.
"Oh, about anything! Theatres and her home, when she was a girl and
England.... Awful, every minute of it!"
There was a moment towards the end of the meal, when the good lady
nearly broke down. The bell in the hall rang and there was a step; she
thought it was her husband and half rose. It was, however, the Dvornik
with a message of no importance. She gave a little sigh. "Oh, I do wish
he would come!... I do wish he would come!" she murmured to herself.
"Oh, he'll come," Lawrence reassured her, but she seemed indignant with
him for having overheard her. Afterwards, sitting together desolately in
the magnificent drawing-room, she became affectionately maternal. I have
always wondered why Lawrence confided to me the details of their very
intimate conversation. It was exactly the kind of thing he was most
She asked him about his home, his people, his ambitions. She had asked
him about these things before, but to-night there was an appeal in her
questions, as though she said:
"Take my mind off that other thing. Help me to forget, if it's only for
"Have you ever been in love?" she asked.
"Yes. Once," he said.
"Was he in love now?"
"With some one in Russia?"
She hoped that he would be happy. He told her that he didn't think
happiness was quite the point in this particular case. There were other
things more important--and, anyway, it was inevitable.
"He had fallen in love at first sight?"
"Yes. The very first moment."
She sighed. So had she. It was, she thought, the only real way. She
asked him whether it might not, after all, turn out better than he
No, he did not think that it could. But he didn't mind how it turned
out--at least he couldn't look that far. The point was that he was in
it, up to the neck, and he was never going to be out of it again.
There was something boyish about that that pleased her. She put her
plump hand on his knee and told him how she had first met the Baron,
down in the South, at Kieff, how grand he had looked; how, seeing her
across a room full of people, he had smiled at her before he had ever
spoken to her or knew her name. "I was quite pretty then," she added. "I
have never regretted our marriage for a single moment," she said. "Nor,
I know, has he."
"We hoped there would he children...." She gave a pathetic little
gesture. "We will get away down to the South again as soon as the
troubles are over," she ended.
I don't suppose he was thinking much of her--his mind was on Vera all
the time--but after he had left her and lay in bed, sleepless, his mind
dwelt on her affectionately, and he thought that he would like to help
her. He realised, quite clearly, that Wilderling was in a very dangerous
position, but I don't think that it ever occurred to him for a moment
that it would be wise for him to move to another flat.
On the next day, Thursday, Lawrence did not return until the middle of
the afternoon. The town was, by now, comparatively quiet again. Numbers
of the police had been caught and imprisoned, some had been shot and
others were in hiding; most of the machine-guns shooting from the roofs
had ceased. The abdication of the Czar had already produced the second
phase of the Revolution--the beginning of the struggle between the
Provisional Government and the Council of Workmen and Soldiers'
Deputies, and this was proceeding, for the moment, inside the walls of
the Duma rather than in the streets and squares of the town. Lawrence
returned, therefore, that afternoon with a strange sense of quiet and
"It was almost, you know, as though this tommy-rot about a White
Revolution might be true after all--with this jolly old Duma and their
jolly old Kerensky runnin' the show. Of course I'd seen the nonsense
about their not salutin' the officers and all that, but I didn't think
any fellers alive would be such dam fools.... I might have known
He let himself into the flat and found there a death-like stillness--no
one about and no sound except the tickings of the large clock in the
He wandered into that horribly impressive place and suddenly sat down on
the sofa with a realisation of extreme physical fatigue. He didn't know
why he was so tired, he had felt quite "bobbish" all the week; suddenly
now his limbs were like water, he had a bad ache down his spine and his
legs were as heavy as lead. He sat in a kind of trance on that sofa, he
was not asleep, but he was also, quite certainly, not awake. He wondered
why the place was so "beastly still" after all the noise there had been
all the week. There was no one left alive--every one dead--except
himself and Vera... Vera... Vera.
Then he was conscious that some one was looking at him through the
double-doors. At first he didn't realise who it was, the face was so
white and the figure so quiet, then, pulling himself together, he saw
that it was the old servant.
"What is it, Andre?" he asked, sitting up.
The old man didn't answer, but came into the room, carefully closing the
door behind him. Lawrence saw that he was trembling with fright, but was
still endeavouring to behave with dignity.
"Barin! Barin!" he whispered, as though Lawrence were a long way from
him. "Paul Konstantinovitch! (that was Wilderling). He's mad.... He
doesn't know what he's doing. Oh, sir, stop him, stop him, or we shall
all be murdered!"
"What is he doing?" asked Lawrence, standing up.
"In the little hack room," Andre whispered, as though now he were
confiding a terrible secret. "Come quickly...!"
Lawrence followed him; when he had gone a few steps down the passage he
heard suddenly a sharp, muffled report.
Andre came close to him, his old, seamed face white like plaster.
"He has a rifle in there..." he said. "He's shooting at them!" Then as
Lawrence stepped up to the door of the little room that was Wilderling's
dressing-room, Andre caught his arm--.
"Be careful, Barin.... He doesn't know what he's about. He may not
"Oh, that's all right!" said Lawrence. He pushed the door open and
walked in. To give for a moment his own account of it: "You know that
room was the rummiest thing. I'd never been into it before. I knew the
old fellow was a bit of a dandy, but I never expected to see all the
pots and jars and glasses there were. You'd have thought one wouldn't
have noticed a thing at such a time, but you couldn't escape them,--his
dressing-table simply covered,--white round jars with pink tops,
bottles of hair-oil with ribbons round the neck, manicure things, heaps
of silver things, and boxes with Chinese patterns on them, and one
thing, open, with what was mighty like rouge in it. And clothes all over
the place--red silk dressing-gown with golden tassels, and red leather
"I don't remember noticing any of this at the moment, but it all comes
back to me as soon as I begin to think of it--and the room stank of
But of course it was the old man in the corner who mattered. It was, I
think, very significant of Lawrence's character and his
unEnglish-English tradition that the first thing that he felt was the
pathos of it. No other Englishman in Petrograd would have seen that at
Wilderling was crouched in the corner against a piece of gold Japanese
embroidery. He was in the shadow, away from the window, which was pushed
open sufficiently to allow the muzzle of the rifle to slip between the
woodwork and the pane. The old man, his white hair disordered, his
clothes dusty, and his hands grimy, crept forward just as Lawrence
entered, fired down into the side-street, then moved swiftly back into
his corner again. He muttered to himself without ceasing in French,
"Chiens! Chiens!... Chiens!" He was very hot, and he stopped for a
moment to wipe the sweat from his forehead, then he saw Lawrence.
"What do you want?" he asked, as though he didn't recognize him.
Lawrence moved down the side of the room, avoiding the window. He
touched the little man's arm.
"I say, you know," he said, "this won't do."
Wilderling smelt of gunpowder, and he was breathing hard as though he
had been running desperately. He quivered when Lawrence touched him.
"Go away!" he said, "you mustn't come here.... I'll get them yet--I tell
you I'll get them yet--I tell you I'll get them--Let them dare...
Chiens... Chiens..." He jerked his rifle away from the window and
began, with trembling fingers, to load it again.
Lawrence gripped his arm. "When I did that," he said, "it felt as though
there wasn't an arm there at all, but just a bone which I could break if
I pressed a bit harder."
"Come away!" he said. "You damn fool--don't you see that it's hopeless?"
"And I'd always been so respectful to him...." he added in parenthesis.
Wilderling hissed at him, saying no words, just drawing in his breath.
"I've got two of them," he whispered suddenly. "I'll get them all."
Then a bullet crashed through the window, burying itself in the opposite
After that things happened so quickly that it was impossible to say in
what order they occurred. There was suddenly a tremendous noise in the
"It was just as though the whole place was going to tumble about our
ears. All the pots and bottles began to jump about, and then another
bullet came through, landed on the dressing-table, and smashed
everything. The looking-glass crashed, and the hair-oil was all over the
place. I rushed out to see what was happening in the hall...."
What "was happening" was that the soldiers had broken the hall door in.
Lawrence saw then a horrible thing. One of the men rushed forward and
stuck Andre, who was standing, paralysed, by the drawing-room door, in
the stomach. The old man cried out "just like a shot rabbit," and stood
there "for what seemed ages," with the blood pouring out of his middle.
That finished Lawrence. He rushed forward, and they would certainly have
"stuck" him too if someone hadn't cried out, "Look out, he's an
Englishman--an _Anglichanin_--I know him."
After that, for a time, he was uncertain of anything. He struggled; he
was held. He heard noises around him--shouts or murmurs or sighs--that
didn't seem to him to be connected with anything human. He could not
have said where he was nor what he was doing. Then, quite suddenly,
everything cleared. He came to himself with a consciousness of that
utter weariness that he had felt before. He was able to visualise the
scene, to take it all in, but as a distant spectator. "It was like
nothing so much as watching a cinematograph," he told me. He could do
nothing; he was held by three soldiers, who apparently wished him to be
a witness of the whole affair. Andre's body lay there, huddled up in a
pool of drying blood, that glistened under the electric light. One of
his legs was bent crookedly under him, and Lawrence had a strange mad
impulse to thrust his way forward and put it straight.
It was then, with a horrible sickly feeling, exactly like a blow in the
stomach, that he realised that the Baroness was there. She was standing,
quite alone, at the entrance of the hall, looking at the soldiers, who
were about eight in number.
He heard her say, "What's happened? Who are you?..." and then in a
sharper, more urgent voice, "Where's my husband?"
Then she saw Andre.... She gave a sharp little cry, moved forward
towards him, and stopped.
"I don't know what she did then," said Lawrence. "I think she suddenly
began to run down the passage. I know she was crying, 'Paul! Paul!
Paul!'... I never saw her again."
The officer--an elderly kindly-looking man like a doctor or a lawyer (I
am trying to give every possible detail, because I think it
important)--then came up to Lawrence and asked him some questions:
"What was his name?"
"Jeremy Ralph Lawrence."
"He was an Englishman."
"Working at the British Embassy?"
"No, at the British Military Mission."
"He was officer?"
"In the British Army?"
"Yes. He had fought for two years in France."
"He had been lodging with Baron Wilderling?"
"Yes. Ever since he came to Russia."
The officer nodded his head. They knew about him, had full information.
A friend of his, a Mr. Boris Grogoff, had spoken of him.
The officer was then very polite, told him that they regretted extremely
the inconvenience and discomfort to which he might be put, but that they
must detain him until this affair was concluded--"which will be very
soon" added the officer. He also added that he wished Lawrence to be a
witness of what occurred so that he should see that, under the new
regime in Russia, everything was just and straightforward.
"I tried to tell him," said Lawrence to me, "that Wilderling was off his
head. I hadn't the least hope, of course.... It was all quite clear,
and, at such a time, quite just. Wilderling had been shooting them out
of his window.... The officer listened very politely, but when I had
finished he only shook his head. That was their affair he said.
"It was then that I realised Wilderling. He was standing quite close to
me. He had obviously been struggling a bit, because his shirt was all
torn, and you could see his chest. He kept moving his hand and trying to
pull his shirt over; it was his only movement. He was as straight as a
dart, and except for the motion of his hand as still as a statue,
standing between the soldiers, looking directly in front of him. He had
been mad in that other room, quite dotty.
"He was as sane as anything now, grave and serious and rather ironical,
just as he always looked. Well it was at that moment, when I saw him
there, that I thought of Vera. I had been thinking of her all the time
of course. I had been thinking of nothing else for weeks. But that
minute, there in the hall, settled me. Callous, wasn't it? I ought to
have been thinking only of Wilderling and his poor old wife. After all,
they'd been awfully good to me. She'd been almost like a mother all the
time.... But there it was. It came over me like a storm. I'd been
fighting for nights and days and days and nights not to go to
her--fighting like hell, trying to play the game the sentimentalists
would call it. I suppose seeing the old man there and knowing what they
were going to do to him settled it. It was a sudden conviction, like a
blow, that all this thing was real, that they weren't playing at it,
that any one in the town was as near death as winking.... And so there
it was! Vera! I'd got to get to her--at once--and never leave her again
until she was safe. I'd got to get to her! I'd got to get to her! I'd
got to get to her!... Nothing else mattered. Not Wilderling's death nor
mine either, except that if I was dead I'd be out of it and wouldn't be
able to help her. They talk about men with one idea. From that moment I
had only one idea in all the world--I don't know that I've had any
other one since. They talk about scruples, moralities, traditions.
They're all right, but there just are moments in life when they simply
don't count at all.... Vera was in danger--Well, that was all that
"The officer said something to Wilderling. I heard Wilderling answer:
"You're rebels against His Majesty.... I wish I'd shot more of you!"
Fine old boy, you know, whatever way you look at it.
"They moved him forward then. He went quite willingly, without any kind
of resistance. They motioned to me to follow. We walked out of the flat
down the stairs, no one saying a word. We went out on to the Quay. There
was no one there. They stood him up against the wall, facing the river.
It was dark, and when he was against the wall he seemed to vanish,--only
I got one kind of gesture, a sort of farewell, you know, his grey hair
waving in the breeze from the river.
"There was a report, and it was as though a piece of the wall slowly
unsettled itself and fell forward. No sound except the report. Oh, he
was a fine old boy!
"The officer came up to me and said very politely:
"'You are free now, sir,' and something about regretting incivility, and
something, I think, about them perhaps wanting me again to give some
sort of evidence. Very polite he was.
"I was mad, I suppose, I don't know. I believe I said something to him
about Vera, which of course he didn't understand.
"I know I wanted to run like hell to Vera to see that she was safe.
"But I didn't. I walked off as slowly as anything. It was awful. They'd
been so good to me, and yet I wasn't thinking of Wilderling at all...."
Markovitch on that same afternoon came back to the flat early. He also,
like Lawrence, felt the strange peace and tranquillity of the town, and
it seemed inevitably like the confirmation of all his dearest hopes. The
Czar was gone, the Old Regime was gone, the people, smiling and
friendly, were maintaining their own discipline--above all, Vera had
He did not go deeper into his heart and see how strained all their
recent relations must have been for this now to give him such joy. He
left that--it simply was that at last he and Vera understood one
another, she had found that she cared for him after all, and that he was
necessary to her happiness. What that must mean for their future life
together he simply dared not think.... It would change the world for
him. He felt like the man in the story from whom the curse is suddenly
He walked home through the quiet town, humming to himself. He fancied
that there was a warmth in the air, a strange kindly omen of spring,
although the snow was still thick on the ground, and the Neva a grey
carpet of ice.
He came into the flat and found it empty. He went into his little room
and started on his inventions. He was so happy that he hummed to himself
as he worked and cut slices off his pieces of wood, and soaked flannel
in bottles, and wrote funny little sentences in his abominable
handwriting in a red notebook.
One need not grudge it him, poor Markovitch. It was the last happy
half-hour of his life.
He did not turn on his green-shaded lamp, but sat there in the gathering
dusk, chipping up the wood and sometimes stopping, idly lost in happy
Some one came in. He peered through his little glass window and saw that
it was Nina. She passed quickly through the dining-room, beyond, towards
her bedroom, without stopping to switch on the light.
Nina had broken the spell. He went back to his table, but he couldn't
work now, and he felt vaguely uneasy and cold. He was just going to
leave his work and find the _Retch_ and settle down to a comfortable
read, when he heard the hall door close. He stood behind his little
glass window and watched; it was Vera, perhaps... it must be... his
heart began eagerly to beat.
It _was_ Vera. At once he saw that she was strangely agitated. Before
she had switched on the light he realised it. With a click the light was
on. Markovitch had intended to open his door and go out to her, smiling.
He saw at once that she was waiting for some one.... He stood,
trembling, on tiptoe, his face pressed against the glass of the pane.
Lawrence came in. He had the face, Markovitch told me many weeks
afterwards, "of a triumphant man."
They had obviously met outside, because Vera said, as though continuing
"And it's only just happened?"
"I've come straight from there," Lawrence answered.
Then he went up to her. She let herself at once go to him and he half
carried her to a chair near the table and exactly opposite Markovitch's
They kissed "like people who had been starving all their lives."
Markovitch was trembling so that he was afraid lest he should tumble or
make some noise. The two figures in the chair were like statues in their
immobile, relentless, unswerving embrace.
Suddenly he saw that Nina was standing in the opposite doorway "like a
ghost." She was there for so brief a moment that he could not be sure
that she had been there at all. Only her white, frightened face remained
One of his thoughts was:
"This is the end of my life."
"How could they be so careless, with the light on, and perhaps people in
And after that:
"They need it so much that they don't care who sees--Starved people...."
And after that:
"I'm starved too."
He was so cold that his teeth were chattering, and he crept back from
his window, crept into the farthest farthest corner of his little room,
and crouched there on the floor, staring and staring, but seeing nothing
MARKOVITCH AND SEMYONOV
MARKOVITCH AND SEMYONOV.
On the evening of that very afternoon, Thursday, I again collapsed. I
was coming home in the dusk through a whispering world. All over the
streets, everywhere on the broad shining snow, under a blaze of stars so
sharp and piercing that the sky seemed strangely close and intimate, the
talk went on. Groups everywhere and groups irrespective of all class
distinction--a well-to-do woman in rich furs, a peasant woman with a
shawl over her head, a wild, bearded soldier, a stout, important
officer, a maid-servant, a cab-driver, a shopman--talking, talking,
talking, talking.... The eagerness, the ignorance, the odd fairy-tale
world spun about those groups, so that the coloured domes of the
churches, the silver network of the stars, the wooden booths, the mist
of candles before the Ikons, the rough painted pictures on the shops
advertising the goods sold within--all these things shared in that crude
idealistic, cynical ignorance, in that fairy-tale of brutality,
goodness, cowardice, and bravery, malice and generosity, superstition
and devotion that was so shortly to be offered to a materialistic,
hard-fighting, brave and unthinking Europe!...
That, however, was not now my immediate business--enough of that
presently. My immediate business, as I very quickly discovered, was to
pluck up enough strength to drag my wretched body home. The events of
the week had, I suppose, carried me along. I was to suffer now the
inevitable reaction. I felt exactly as though I had been shot from a gun
and landed, suddenly, without breath, without any strength in any of my
limbs in a new and strange world. I was standing, when I first realised
my weakness, beside the wooden booths in the Sadovaya. They were all
closed of course, but along the pavement women and old men had baskets
containing sweets and notepaper and red paper tulips offered in memory
of the glorious Revolution. Right across the Square the groups of people
scattered in little dusky pools against the snow, until they touched the
very doors of the church.... I saw all this, was conscious that the
stars and the church candles mingled... then suddenly I had to clutch
the side of the booth behind me to prevent myself from falling. My head
swam, my limbs were as water, and my old so well-remembered friend
struck me in the middle of the spine as though he had cut me in two with
his knife. How was I ever to get home? No one noticed me--indeed they
seemed to my sick eyes to have ceased to be human. Ghosts in a ghostly
world, the snow gleaming through them so that they only moved like a
thin diaphanous veil against the wall of the sky... I clutched my
booth. In a moment I should be down. The pain in my back was agony, my
legs had ceased to exist, and I was falling into a dark, dark pool of
clear jet-black water, at the bottom of which lay a star....
The strange thing is that I do not know who it was who rescued me. I
know that some one came. I know that to my own dim surprise an
Isvostchick was there and that very feebly I got into it. Some one was
with me. Was it my black-bearded peasant? I fancy now that it was. I can
even, on looking back, see him sitting up, very large and still, one
thick arm holding me. I fancy that I can still smell the stuff of his
clothes. I fancy that he talked to me, very quietly, reassuring me about
something. But, upon my word, I don't know. One can so easily imagine
what one wants to be true, and now I want, more than I would then ever
have believed to be possible, to have had actual contact with him. It is
the only conversation between us that can ever have existed: never,
before or after, was there another opportunity. And in any case there
can scarcely have been a conversation, because I certainly said nothing,
and I cannot remember anything that he said, if indeed he said anything
at all. At any rate I was there in the Sadovaya, I was in a cab, I was
in my bed. The truth of the rest of it any one may decide for
That Thursday was March 15. I was conscious of my existence again on
Sunday, April 1st. I opened my eyes and saw that there was a thaw. That
was the first thing of which I was aware--that water was apparently
dripping on every side of me. It is a strange sensation to lie on your
bed very weak, and very indifferent, and to feel the world turning to
moisture all about you.... My ramshackle habitation had never been a
very strong defence against the outside world. It seemed now to have
definitely decided to abandon the struggle. The water streamed down the
panes of my window opposite my bed. One patch of my ceiling (just above
my only bookcase, confound it!) was coloured a mouldy grey, and from
this huge drops like elephant's tears, splashed monotonously. (Already
_The Spirit of Man_ was disfigured by a long grey streak, and the green
back of Galleon's _Roads_ was splotched with stains.) Some one had
placed a bucket near the door to catch a perpetual stream flowing from
the corner of the room. Down into the bucket it pattered with a hasty,
giggling, hysterical jiggle. I rather liked the companionship of it. I
didn't mind it at all. I really minded nothing whatever.... I sighed my
appreciation of my return to life. My sigh brought some one from the
corner of my room and that some one was, of course, the inevitable Eat.
He came up to my bed in his stealthy, furtive fashion, and looked at me
reproachfully. I asked him, my voice sounding to myself strange and very
far away, what he was doing there. He answered that if it had not been
for him I should be dead. He had come early one morning and found me
lying in my bed and no one in the place at all. No one--because the old
woman had vanished. Yes, the neighbours had told him. Apparently on that
very Thursday she had decided that the Revolution had given her her
freedom, and that she was never going to work for anybody ever again.
She had told a woman-neighbour that she heard that the land now was
going to be given back to everybody, and she was returning therefore to
her village somewhere in the Moscow Province. She had not been back
there for twenty years. And first, to celebrate her liberty, she would
get magnificently drunk on furniture polish.
"I did not see her of course," said the Rat. "No. When I came, early in
the morning, no one was here. I thought that you were dead, Barin, and I
began collecting your property, so that no one else should take it. Then
you made a movement, and I saw that you were alive--so I got some
cabbage soup and gave it you. That certainly saved you.... I'm going to
stay with you now."
I did not care in the least whether he went or stayed. He chattered on.
By staying with me he would inevitably neglect his public duties.
Perhaps I didn't know that he had public duties? Yes, he was now an
Anarchist, and I should be astonished very shortly, by the things the
Anarchists would do. All the same, they had their own discipline. They
had their own processions, too, like any one else. Only four days ago he
had marched all over Petrograd carrying a black flag. He must confess
that he was rather sick of it. But they must have processions.... Even
the prostitutes had marched down the Nevski the other day demanding
But of course I cannot remember all that he said. During the next few
days I slowly pulled myself out of the misty dead world in which I had
been lying. Pain came back to me, leaping upon me and then receding,
finally, on the third day suddenly leaving me altogether. The Rat fed me
on cabbage soup and glasses of tea and caviare and biscuits. During
those three days he never left me, and indeed tended me like a woman. He
would sit by my bed and with his rough hand stroke my hair, while he
poured into my ears ghastly stories of the many crimes that he had
committed. I noticed that he was cleaner and more civilised. His beard
was clipped and he smelt of cabbage and straw--a rather healthy smell.
One morning he suddenly took the pail, filled it with water and washed
himself in front of my windows. He scrubbed himself until I should have
thought that he had no skin left.
"You're a fine big man, Rat," I said.
He was delighted with that, and came quite near my bed, stretching his
naked body, his arms and legs and chest, like a pleased animal.
"Yes, I'm a fine man, Barin," he said; "many women have loved me, and
many will again..." Then he went back, and producing clean drawers and
vest from somewhere (I suspect that they were mine but I was too weak to
care), put them on.
On the second and third days I felt much better. The thaw was less
violent, the wood crackled in my stove. On the morning of Wednesday
April 14 I got up, dressed, and sat in front of my window. The ice was
still there, but over it lay a faint, a very faint, filmy sheen of
water. It was a day of gleams, the sun flashing in and out of the
clouds. Just beneath my window a tree was pushing into bud. Pools of
water lay thick on the dirty melting snow. I got the Rat to bring a
little table and put some books on it. I had near me _The Spirit of
Man_, Keats's _Letters_, _The Roads_, Beddoes, and _Pride and
Prejudice_. A consciousness of the outer world crept, like warmth,
through my bones.
"Rat," I said, "who's been to see me?"
"No one," said he.
I felt suddenly a ridiculous affront.
"No one?" I asked, incredulous.
"No one," he answered. "They've all forgotten you, Barin," he added
maliciously, knowing that that would hurt me.
It was strange how deeply I cared. Here was I who, only a short while
before, had declared myself done with the world for ever, and now I was
almost crying because no one had been to see me! Indeed, I believe in my
weakness and distress I actually did cry. No one at all? Not Vera nor
Nina nor Jeremy nor Bohun? Not young Bohun even...? And then slowly my
brain realised that there was now a new world. None of the old
conditions held any longer.
We had been the victims of an earthquake. Now it was--every man for
himself! Quickly then there came upon me an eager desire to know what
had happened in the Markovitch family. What of Jerry and Vera? What of
Nicholas? What of Semyonov...?
"Rat," I said, "this afternoon I am going out!"
"Very well, Barin," he said, "I, too, have an engagement."
In the afternoon I crept out like an old sick man. I felt strangely shy
and nervous. When I reached the corner of Ekateringofsky Canal and the
English Prospect I decided not to go in and see the Markovitches. For
one thing I shrank from the thought of their compassion. I had not
shaved for many days. I was that dull sickly yellow colour that offends
the taste of all healthy vigorous people. I did not want their pity.
No.... I would wait until I was stronger.
My interest in life was reviving with every step that I took. I don't
know what I had expected the outside world to be. This was April 14. It
was nearly a month since the outburst of the Revolution, and surely
there should be signs in the streets of the results of such a cataclysm.
There were, on the surface, no signs. There was the same little cinema
on the canal with its gaudy coloured posters, there was the old woman
sitting at the foot of the little bridge with her basket of apples and
bootlaces, there was the same wooden hut with the sweets and the fruit,
the same figures of peasant women, soldiers, boys hurrying across the
bridge, the same slow, sleepy Isvostchick stumbling along carelessly.
One sign there was. Exactly opposite the little cinema, on the other
side of the canal, was a high grey block of flats. This now was starred
and sprayed with the white marks of bullets. It was like a man marked
for life with smallpox. That building alone was witness to me that I had
not dreamt the events of that week.
The thaw made walking very difficult. The water poured down the sides of
the houses and gurgled in floods through the pipes. The snow was
slippery under the film of gleaming wet, and there were huge pools at
every step. Across the middle of the English Prospect, near the Baths,
there was quite a deep lake....
I wandered slowly along, enjoying the chill warmth of the soft spring
sun. The winter was nearly over! Thank God for that! What had happened
during my month of illness? Perhaps a great Revolutionary army had been
formed, and a mighty, free, and united Russia was going out to save the
world! Oh, I did hope that it was so! Surely that wonderful white week
was a good omen. No Revolution in history had started so well as this
I found my way at last very slowly to the end of the Quay, and the sight
of the round towers of my favourite church was like the reassuring smile
of an old friend. The sun was dropping low over the Neva. The whole vast
expanse of the river was coloured very faintly pink. Here, too, there
Back to Full Books