The longing for such things, for one thing almost unattainable, is in man and beast at certain times. In the distant northern plains, a hundred miles from the sea, in the midst of the Laplander's village, a young reindeer raises his broad muzzle to the north wind, and stares at the limitless distance while a man may count a hundred. He grows restless from that moment, but he is yet alone. The next day, a dozen of the herd look up, from the cropping of the moss, snuffing the breeze. Then the Laps nod to one another, and the camp grows daily more unquiet. At times, the whole herd of young deer stand at gaze, as it were, breathing hard through wide nostrils, then jostling each other and stamping the soft ground. They grow unruly and it is hard to harness them in the light sledge. As the days pass, the Laps watch them more and more closely, well knowing what will happen sooner or later. And then at last, in the northern twilight, the great herd begins to move. The impulse is simultaneous, irresistible, their heads are all turned in one direction. They move slowly at first, biting still, here and there, at the bunches of rich moss. Presently the slow step becomes a trot, they crowd closely together while the Laps hasten to gather up their last unpacked possessions, their cooking utensils and their wooden gods. The great herd break together from a trot to a gallop, from a gallop to a break-neck race, the distant thunder of their united tread reaches the camp during a few minutes, and they are gone to drink of the polar sea. The Laps follow after them, dragging painfully their laden sledges in the broad track left by the thousands of galloping beasts—a day's journey, and they are yet far from the sea, and the trail is yet broad. On the second day it grows narrower, and there are stains of blood to be seen; far on the distant plain before them their sharp eyes distinguish in the direct line a dark, motionless object, another and then another. The race has grown more desperate and more wild as the stampede neared the sea. The weaker reindeer have been thrown down, and trampled to death by their stronger fellows. A thousand sharp hoofs have crushed and cut through hide and flesh and bone. Ever swifter and more terrible in their motion, the ruthless herd has raced onward, careless of the slain, careless of food, careless of any drink but the sharp salt water ahead of them. And when at last the Laplanders reach the shore their deer are once more quietly grazing, once more tame and docile, once more ready to drag the sledge whithersoever they are guided. Once in his life the reindeer must taste of the sea in one long, satisfying draught, and if he is hindered he perishes. Neither man nor beast dare stand between him and the ocean in the hundred miles of his arrow-like path.
Something of this longing came upon the Cossack, as he suddenly remembered the sour taste of the kvass, to the recollection of which he had been somehow led by a train of thought which had begun with Vjera's love for the Count, to end abruptly in a camp kettle. For the heart of man is much the same everywhere, and there is nothing to show that the step from the sublime to the ridiculous is any longer in the Don country than in any other part of the world. But between poor Johann Schmidt and his draught of kvass there lay obstacles not encountered by the reindeer in his race for the Arctic Ocean. There was the wife, and there were the children, and there was the vast distance, so vast that it might have discouraged even the fleet-footed scourer of the northern snows. Johann Schmidt might long for his kvass, and draw in his thin, wan lips at the thought of the taste of it, and bend his black brows and close his sharp eyes as in a dream—it was all of no use, there was no change in store for him. He had cast his lot in the land of beer and sausages, and he must work out his salvation and the support of his family without a ladleful of the old familiar brew to satisfy his unreasonable caprices.
So, last of all those concerned in the events of the evening, Johann Schmidt went home to bed and to rest. That power, at least, had remained with him. Whenever he lay down he could close his eyes and be asleep, and forget the troubles and the mean trifles of his thorny existence. In this respect he had the advantage of the others.
Vjera lay down, indeed, but the attempt to sleep seemed more painful than the accepted reality of waking. The night was the most terrible in her remembrance, filled as it was with anxiety for the fate of the man she so dearly loved. To her still childlike inexperience of the world, the circumstances seemed as full of fear and danger as though the poor Count had been put upon his trial for a murder or a robbery on an enormous scale, instead of being merely detained because he could not give a satisfactory account of a puppet which had been found in his possession. In the poor girl's imagination arose visions of judges, awful personages in funereal robes and huge Hack caps, with cruel lips and hard, steely eyes, sitting in solemn state in a gloomy hall and dispensing death, disgrace, or long terms of prison, at the very least, to all comers. For her, the police-station was a dungeon, and she fancied the Count chained to a dank and slimy wall in a painful position, chilled to the marrow by the touch of the dripping stone, his teeth chattering, his face distorted with suffering. Of course he was in a solitary cell, behind a heavy door, braced with clamps and bolts and locks and studded with great dark iron nails. Without, the grim policemen were doubtless pacing up and down with drawn swords, listening with a murderous delight to the groans of their victim as he writhed in his chains. In the eyes of the poor and the young, the law is a very terrible thing, taking no account of persons, and very little of the relative magnitude of men's misdeeds. The province of justice, as Vjera conceived it, was to crush in its iron claws all who had the misfortune to come within its reach. Vjera had never heard of Judge Jeffreys nor of the Bloody Assizes, but the methods of procedure adopted by that eminent destroyer of his kind would have seemed mild and humane compared with what she supposed that all men, innocent or guilty, had to expect after they had once fallen into the hands of the policeman. She was not a German girl, taught in the common school to understand something of the methods by which society governs itself. Her early childhood had been spent in a Polish village, far within the Russian frontier, and though the law in Russian Poland is not exactly the irresponsible and blood-thirsty monster depicted by young gentlemen and old maids who traverse the country in search of horrors, yet it must be admitted by the least prejudiced that it sometimes moves in a mysterious way, calculated to rouse some apprehension in the minds of those who are governed by it. And Vjera had brought with her her childish impressions, and applied them in the present case as descriptive of the Munich police-station. The whole subject was to her so full of horror that she had not dared to ask Schmidt for the details of the Count's situation. To her, a revolutionary caught in the act of undermining the Tsar's bedroom, could not be in a worse case. She would not have believed Schmidt, had he told her that the Count was sitting in an attitude of calm thought upon the edge of a broad wooden bench, his hands quite free from chains and gyves, and occupied in rolling cigarettes at regular intervals of half an hour—and this, in a clean and well-ventilated room, lighted by a ground glass lantern. She would have supposed that Schmidt was inventing a description of such comfort and comparative luxury in order to calm her fears, and she would have been ten times more afraid than before.
It is small wonder that she could not sleep. The Count's arrest alone would have sufficed to keep her in an agony of wakefulness, and there were other matters, besides that, which tormented the poor girl's brain. She had been long accustomed to his singular madness and to hearing from him the assurance of his returning to wealth. At first, with perfect simplicity, she had believed every word of the story he told with such evident certainty of its truth, and she had reproached her older companions, as far as she dared, for their incredulity. But at last she had herself been convinced of his madness as through the weeks, and months, and years, the state of expectation returned on Tuesday evenings, to be followed by the disappointments of Wednesday and by the oblivion which ensued on Thursday morning. Vjera, like the rest, had come to regard the regularly recurring delusion as being wholly groundless, and not to be taken into account, except inasmuch as it deprived them of the Count's company on Wednesdays, for on that day he stayed at home, in his garret room, waiting for the high personages who were to restore to him his wealth. Sometimes, indeed, when he chanced to be very sure that they would not come for him until evening, he would stroll through the town for an hour, looking into the shop windows and making up his mind what he should buy; and sometimes, on such occasions, he would visit the scene of his late labours, as he called the tobacconist's shop on that day of the week, and would exchange a few friendly words with his former companions. On Thursday morning he invariably returned to his place without remark and resumed his work, not seeming to understand any observations made about his absence or strange conduct on the previous day.
So far the story he had told Vjera had always been the same. Now, however, he had introduced a new incident in the tale, which filled poor Vjera with dismay. He had never before spoken of his father and brother, except as the causes of his disasters, explaining that the powerful influence of his own friends, aided by the machinery of justice, had at last obliged them to concede him a proportional part of the fortune. Fischelowitz was accustomed to laugh at this statement, saying that if the Count were only a younger son, the law would do nothing for him and that he must continue to earn his livelihood as he could. In the course of a long time Vjera had come to the conclusion, by comparing this remark with the Count's statement when in his abnormal condition, that he was indeed the son of a great noble who had turned him out of doors for some fancied misdeed, and from whom he had in reality nothing to expect. Such was the girl's present belief.
Now, however, he had suddenly declared that his father and his brother were dead. With a woman's keenness she took alarm at this new development. She really loved the poor man with all her heart. If this new addition to his story were a mere invention, it was a sign that his madness was growing upon him, and she had heard her companions discuss their comrade often enough to know that, in their opinion, if he began to grow worse, he would very soon be in the madhouse. It was bad enough to go through what she suffered so often, to see the inward struggle expressed on his face, whenever he chanced to be alone with her on a Tuesday afternoon, to hear from his lips the same assurance of love, the same offer of marriage, and to know that all would be forgotten and that his manner to her would change again, by Thursday, to that of a uniform, considerate kindness. It was bad enough, for the girl loved him and was sensitive. But it would be worse—how much worse, she dared not think—to see him go mad before her very eyes, to see him taken away at last from the midst of them all to the huge brick house in the outskirts of the city beyond the Isar.
One more hypothesis remained. This time the story might turn out true. She believed in his birth and in his misfortunes, and in the existence of his father and his brother. They might indeed be dead, as he had told her, and he would then, perhaps, be sole master in their stead—she did not know how that would be, in Russia. But then, if it were all true, he must go away—and her life would be over, with its loving hope and its hopeless love.
It is small wonder that Vjera did not sleep that night.
Once or twice in the course of the night, the Count changed his position, got up, stretched himself and paced the length of the room. Dumnoff lay like a log upon his pallet, his head thrown back, his mouth open, snoring with the strong bass vibration of a thirty-two-foot organ pipe. The Count looked at him occasionally, but did not envy him his power of sleep. His own reflections were in a measure more agreeable than any dream could have been, certainly more so in his judgment than the visions of unlimited cabbage soup, vodka, and fighting which were doubtless delighting Dumnoff's slumbering soul.
As the church clocks struck one hour after another, his spirits rose. He had, indeed, never had the least apprehension concerning his own liberty, since he knew himself to be perfectly innocent. He only desired to be released as soon as possible in order to repair the damage done to his coat and collar before the earliest hour at which the messengers of good news could be expected at his house. Meanwhile he cared little whether he spent the night on a bench in the police-station, or on one of the rickety wooden chairs which afforded the only sitting accommodation in his own room. He could not sleep in either case, for his brain was too wide awake with the anticipations of the morrow, and with the endless plans for future happiness which suggested themselves.
At last he was aware that the nature of the light in the room was changing and that the white ground glass of the lantern was illuminated otherwise than by the little flame within. The high window, as he looked up, was like a grey figure cut out of dark paper, and the dawn was stealing in at last.
"Wednesday at last!" he exclaimed softly to himself. "Wednesday at last!" A gentle smile spread over his tired face, and made it seem less haggard and drawn than it really was.
The day broke, and somewhere not far from the window, the birds all began to sing at once, filling the room with a continuous strain of sound, loud, clear and jubilant. The soft spring air seemed to awake, as though it had itself been sleeping through the still night and must busy itself now in sending the sweet breezes upon their errands to the flowers.
"I always thought it would come in spring," thought the Count, as he listened to the pleasant sounds, and then held one of his yellow hands up to the window to feel the freshness that was without.
He wondered how long it would be before Fischelowitz would come and tell the truth of the Gigerl's story. By his knowledge of the time of daybreak, he guessed that it was not yet much past four o'clock, and he doubted whether Fischelowitz would come before eight. The tobacconist was a kind man, but a comfortable one, loving his rest and his breakfast and his ease at all times. Moreover, as the Count knew better than any one else, Akulina would be rejoiced to hear of the misadventure which had befallen her enemy and would in no way hurry her husband upon his mission of justice. She would doubtless consume an unusual amount of time in the preparation of his coffee, she would presumably tell him that the milkman had not appeared punctually, and would probably assert that there were as yet no rolls to be had. The immediate consequence of these spiteful fictions would be that Fischelowitz would dress himself very leisurely, swallowing the smoke of several cigarettes in the meanwhile, and that he would hardly be clothed, fed and out of the house before eight in the morning, instead of being on the way to the shop at seven as was his usual practice.
But the Count was not at all disturbed by this. The persons whose coming he expected were not of the class who pay visits at eight o'clock. It was as pleasant to sit still and think of the glorious things in the future, as to do anything else, until the great moment came. Here, at least, he was undisturbed by the voices of men, unless Dumnoff's portentous snore could be called a voice, and to this his ear had grown accustomed.
He sat down again, therefore, in his old position, crossed one knee over the other and again produced the piece of crumpled newspaper which held his tobacco. The supply was low, but he consoled himself with the belief that Dumnoff probably had some about him, and rolled what remained of his own for immediate consumption.
He was quite right in his surmises concerning his late employer and the latter's wife. Akulina had in the first place let her husband sleep as long as he pleased, and had allowed a considerable time to elapse before informing him of the events of the previous evening. As was to be expected, the good man stated his intention of immediately procuring the Count's liberation, and was only prevailed upon with difficulty to taste his breakfast. One taste, however, convinced him of the necessity of consuming all that was set before him, and while he was thus actively employed Akulina entered into the consideration of the theft, recalling all the details she could remember about the intimacy supposed to exist between the Count and the swindler in coloured glasses, and conscientiously showing the matter in all its aspects.
"One fact remains," she said, in conclusion, "he promised you upon his honour last night that he would pay you the fifty marks to-day, and, in my opinion, since he has been the means of your losing the Gigerl after all, he ought to be made to pay the money."
"And where can he get fifty marks to pay me?" inquired Fischelowitz with careless good-humour.
"Where he got the doll, I suppose," said Akulina, triumphantly completing the vicious circle in which she caused her logic to move.
Fischelowitz smiled as he pushed away his cup, rose and lighted a fresh cigarette.
"You are a very good housekeeper, Akulina, my love," he observed. "You always know how the money goes."
"That is more than can be said for some people," laughed Akulina. "But never mind, Christian Gregorovitch, your wife is only a weak woman, but she can take care for two, never fear!"
Fischelowitz was of the same opinion as he, at last, took his hat and left the house. To him, the whole affair had a pleasant savour of humour about it, and he was by no means so much disturbed as Johann Schmidt or Vjera. He had lived in Munich many years and understood very well the way in which things are managed in the good-natured Bavarian capital. A night in the police-station in the month of May seemed by no means such a terrible affair, certainly not a matter involving any great suffering to any one concerned. Moreover it could not be helped, a consideration which, when available, was a great favourite with the rotund tobacconist. Whatever the Count had done on the previous night, he said to himself, was done past undoing; and though, if he had found Akulina awake when he returned from spending the evening with his friend, and if she had then told him what had happened, he would certainly have made haste to get the Count released—yet, since Akulina had been sound asleep, he had necessarily gone to bed in ignorance of the story, to the temporary inconvenience of the arrested pair.
He was not long in procuring an order for the Count's release, but Dumnoff's case seemed to be considered as by far the graver of the two, since he had actually been guilty of grasping the sacred, green legs of two policemen, at the time in the execution of their duty, and of violently turning the aforesaid policemen upside down in the public room of an eating-house. It was, indeed, reckoned as favourable to him that he had returned and submitted to being handcuffed without offering further resistance, but it might have gone hard with him if Fischelowitz had not procured the co-operation of a Munich householder and taxpayer to bail him out until the inquiry should be made. It would have been a serious matter for Fischelowitz to lose the work of Dumnoff in his "celebrated manufactory" for any length of time together, since it was all he could do to meet the increasing demands for his wares with his present staff of workers.
"And how did you spend the night, Count?" he inquired as they walked quickly down the street together. Dumnoff had made off in the opposite direction, in search of breakfast, after which he intended to go directly to the shop, as though nothing had happened.
"I spent it very pleasantly, thank you," answered the Count. "The fact is that, with such an interesting day before me, I should not have slept if I had been at home. I have so much to think of, as you may imagine, and so many preparations to make, that the time cannot seem long with me."
"I am glad of that," said Fischelowitz, serenely. "I suppose we shall not see you to-day?"
"Hardly—hardly," replied the Count, as though considering whether his engagements would allow him to look in at the shop. "You will certainly see me this evening, at the latest," he added, as if he had suddenly recollected something. "I have not forgotten that I am to hand you fifty marks—I only regret that you should have lost the Gigerl, which, I think I have heard you say, afforded you some amusement. However, the money shall be in your hands without delay, or with as little delay as possible. My friends will in all probability arrive by the mid-day train and will, of course, come to me at once. An hour or so to talk over our affairs, and I shall then have leisure to come to you for a few moments and to settle that unfortunate affair. Not indeed, my dear Herr Fischelowitz, that I have ever held myself responsible for the dishonest young man who wore green spectacles. I was, indeed, a loser by him myself, in an insignificant sum, and as he turned out to be such an indifferent character, I do not mind acknowledging the fact. I do not think it can harm him, if I do. No. I was not responsible for him to you, but since your excellent wife, Frau Fischelowitz, labours under the impression that I was, I am quite willing to accept the responsibility, and shall therefore discharge the debt before night, as a matter of honour."
"It is very kind of you," remarked the tobacconist, smiling at the impressive manner in which the promise was made. "But of course, Count, if anything should prevent the arrival of your friends, you will not consider this to be an engagement."
"Nothing will prevent the coming of those I expect, nor, if anything could, would such an accident prevent my fulfilling an engagement which, since your excellent wife's remarks last night, I do consider binding upon my honour. And now, Herr Fischelowitz, with my best thanks for your intervention this morning, I will leave you. After the vicissitudes to which I have been exposed during the last twelve hours, my appearance is not what I could wish it to be. I have the pleasure to wish you a very good morning."
Shaking his companion heartily by the hand, the Count bowed civilly and turned into an unfrequented street. Fischelowitz looked after him a few seconds, as though expecting that he would turn back and say something more, and then walked briskly in the direction of his shop.
He found Akulina standing at the door which led into the workroom, in such a position as to be able to serve a customer should any chance to enter, and yet so placed as to see the greater part of her audience. For she was holding forth volubly in her thick, strong voice, giving her very decided opinion about the events of the previous evening, the Count, considered in the first place as a specimen of the human race, and secondly, as in relation to his acts. Her hearers were poor Vjera, her insignificant companion and the Cossack who listened, so to say, without enthusiasm, unless the occasional foolish giggle of the younger girl was to be taken for the expression of applause.
"I am thoroughly sick of his crazy ways," she was saying, "and if he were not really such a good workman we should have turned him out long ago. But he really does make cigarettes very well, and with the new shop about to be opened, and the demand there is already, it is all we can do to keep people satisfied. Not but what my husband has been talking lately of getting a new workman from Vilna, and if he turns out to be all that we expect, why the Count may go about his business and we shall be left in peace at last. Indeed it is high time. My poor nerves will not stand many more such scenes as last night, and as for my poor husband, I believe he has lost as much money through the Count and his friends as he has paid to him for work, and if you turn that into figures it makes the cigarettes he rolls worth six marks a thousand instead of three, which is more than any pocket can stand, while there are children to be fed at home. And if you have anything to say to that, little husband, why just say it!"
Fischelowitz had entered the shop and the last words were addressed to him.
"Oh, nothing, nothing," he answered, beginning to bustle cheerily about the place, setting a box straight here, removing an empty one there, opening the till and counting the small change, and, generally, doing all those things which he was accustomed to do when he appeared in the morning.
Poor Vjera looked paler and more waxen than ever in her life before, so pale indeed was she that the total absence of colour lent a sort of refinement to her plain features, not often found even in really beautiful faces. She had suffered intensely and was suffering still. From the first words that Akulina had spoken she had understood that the Count had been in the station-house all night, and she found herself reviewing all the hideous visions of his cruel treatment which she had conjured up since the previous evening. Akulina of course hastened to say that Fischelowitz had lost no time in having the poor man set at liberty, and this at least was a relief to Vjera's great anxiety. But she wanted to hear far more than Akulina could or would tell, she longed to know whether he had really suffered as she fancied he had, and how he looked after spending in a prison the night that had seemed so long to her. She would have given anything to overwhelm the tobacconist with questions, to ask for a minute description of the Count's appearance, to express her past terrors to some one and to have some one tell her that they had been groundless.
But she dared not open her lips to speak of the matters which filled her thoughts. She was so wretchedly nervous that she felt as though the tears would break out at the sound of her own voice, and at the same time she was disturbed by the consciousness that Johann Schmidt's eyes watched her closely from the corner in which he was steadily wielding his swivel knife. It had been almost natural to tell him of her love in the darkness of the streets, in the mad anxiety for the loved one's safety, in the weariness and the hopelessness of the night hours. But now, sitting at her little table, at her daily work, with all the trivial objects that belonged to it recalling her to the reality of things, she realised that her day-dreams were no longer her secret, and she was ashamed that any one should guess the current of her thoughts. It was hard for her to understand how she could have thus taken the Cossack into her confidence, and she would have made almost any sacrifice to take back the confession. Good he was, and honest, and kind-hearted, but she was ashamed of what she had done. It seemed to her that, besides giving up to another the knowledge of her heart, she had also done something against the dignity of him she loved. She herself felt no superiority over Johann Schmidt; they were equals in every way. But she did feel, and strongly, that the Cossack was not the equal of the Count, and she reproached herself with having made a confidant of one beneath her idol in station and refinement. This feeling sprang from such a multiplicity of sources, as almost to defy explanation. There was, at the bottom of it, the strange, unreasoning notion of the superiority of one class over another by right of blood, from which no race seems to be wholly exempt, and which has produced such surprising results in the world. Poor Vjera had been brought up in one of those countries where that tradition is still strongest. The mere sound of the word "Count" evoked a body of impressions so firmly rooted, so deeply ingrained, as necessarily to influence her judgment. The outward manner of the man did the rest, his dignity under all circumstances, his uncomplaining patience, his unquestioning generosity, his quiet courtesy to every one. There was something in every word he spoke, in his every action, which distinguished him from his companions. They themselves felt it. He was sometimes ridiculous, poor man, and they laughed together over his carefully chosen language, over the grand sweep of his bow and his punctilious attention to the smallest promise or shadow of a promise. These things amused them, but at the same time they felt that he could never be what they were, and that those manners and speeches of his, which, if they had imitated them, would have seemed in themselves so many forms of vulgarity, were somehow not vulgar in him. Vjera, as she loved him, felt all this far more keenly than the others. And besides, to add to her embarrassment at present, there was the girl's maidenly shyness and timidity. Since she had told Johann Schmidt her secret, she felt as though all eyes were upon her, and as though every one were about to turn upon her with those jesting questions which coarse natures regard as expressions of sympathy where love is concerned. And yet no one spoke to her, nor disturbed her. There was only the disquieting consciousness of the Cossack's curious scrutiny to remind her that all things were not as they had been yesterday.
The hours of the morning seemed endless. On all other days, Vjera was accustomed to see the Count's quiet face opposite to her, and when she was most weary of her monotonous toil, a glance at him gave her fresh courage, and turned the currents of her thoughts into a channel not always smooth indeed, but long familiar and never wearisome to follow. The stream emptied, it is true, into the dead sea of doubt, and each time, as she ended the journey of her fancy, she felt the cruel chill of the conclusion, as though she had in reality fallen into a deep, dark water; but she was always able to renew the voyage, to return to the fountain-head of love, enjoying at least the pleasant, smooth reaches of the river, that lay between the racing rapids and the tumbling falls.
But to-day there was no one at the little table opposite, and Vjera's reflections would not be guided in their familiar course. Her heart yearned for the lonely man who, on that day, sat in the solitude of his poor chamber confidently expecting the messengers of good tidings who never came. She wondered what expression was on his face, as he watched the door and listened for the fall of feet upon the stairs. She knew, for she knew his nature, that he had carefully dressed himself in what he had that was best, in order to receive decently the long-expected visit; she fancied that he would move thoughtfully about the narrow room, trying to give it a feebly festive look in accordance with his own inward happiness. He would forget to eat, as he sat there, hearing the hours chime one after another, seeing the sun rise higher and higher until noon and watching the lengthening shadows of the chimneys on the roofs as day declined. More than all, she wondered what that dreadful moment could be like when, each week, he gave up hope at last, and saw that it had all been a dream. She had seen him more than once, towards the evening of the regularly recurring day, still confidently expecting the coming of his friends, explaining that they must come by the last train, and hastening away in order to be ready to receive them. Somewhere between the Wednesday evening and the Thursday morning there must be an hour, of which she hardly dared to think, in which all was made clear to him, or in which a veil descended over all, shutting out in merciful obscurity the brilliant vision and the bitter disappointment. If she could only be with him at that moment, she thought, she might comfort him, she might make his sufferings more easy to bear, and at the idea the tears that were so near rose nearer still to the flowing, kept back only by shame of being seen.
It was a terrible day, and everything jarred upon the poor girl's nature, from Akulina's thick, strong voice, continually discussing the question of marks and pennies, with occasional allusions to late events, to the disagreeable, scratching, paring sound of the Cossack's heavy knife as it cut its way through the great packages of leaves. The mid-day hour afforded no relief, for the pressure of work was great and each of the workers had brought a little food to be eaten in haste and almost without a change of position. For the work was paid for in proportion to its quantity, and the poor people were glad enough when there was so much to do, since there was then just so much more to be earned. There were times when the demand was slack and when Fischelowitz would not keep his people at their tables for more than two or three hours in a day. They might occupy the rest of their time as they could, and earn something in other ways, if they were able. When those hard times came poor Vjera picked up a little sewing, paid for at starvation rates, Johann Schmidt turned his hand to the repairing of furs, in which he had some skill, and which is an art in itself, and Dumnoff varied his existence by exercising great economy in the matter of food without making a similar reduction in the allowance of his drink. Under ordinary circumstances Vjera would have rejoiced at the quantity of work to be done, and as it was, her mental suffering did not make her fingers awkward or less nervously eager in the perpetual rolling of the little pieces of paper round the glass tube. Even acute physical pain is often powerless to affect the mechanical skill of a hand trained for many years to repeat the same little operation thousands of times in a day with unvarying perfection. Vjera worked as well and as quickly as ever, though the hours seemed so endlessly long as to make her wonder why she did not turn out more work than usual. From time to time the two men exchanged more or less personal observations after their manner.
"It seems to me that you work better than usual," remarked the Cossack, looking at Dumnoff.
"I feel better," laughed the latter. "I feel as though I had been having a holiday and a country dance."
"For the sake of your health, you ought to have a little excitement now and then," continued Schmidt. "It is hard for a man of your constitution to be shut up day after day as you are here. A little bear-fight now and then would do you almost as much good as an extra bottle of brandy, besides being cheaper."
"Yes." Dumnoff yawned, displaying all his ferocious white teeth to the assembled company. "That is true—and then, those green cloth policemen look so funny when one upsets them. I wish I had a few here."
"You have not heard the last of your merry-making yet," said Fischelowitz, who was standing in the doorway. "If I had not got you out this morning you would still be in the police-station."
"There is something in that," observed Schmidt. "If he were not out, he would still be in."
"Well, if I were, I should still be asleep," said Dumnoff. "That would not be so bad, after all."
"You may be there again before long," suggested Fischelowitz. "You know there is to be an inquiry. I only hope you will do plenty of work before they lock you up for a fortnight."
"I suppose they will let me work in prison," answered Dumnoff, indifferently. "They do in some places."
Vjera, whose ideas of prisons have been already explained at length, was so much surprised that she at last opened her lips.
"Have you ever been in prison?" she asked in a wondering tone.
"Several times," replied the other, without looking up. "But always," he added, as though suddenly anxious for his reputation, "always for that sort of thing—for upsetting somebody who did not want to be upset. It is a curious thing—I always do it in the same way, and they always tumble down. One would think people would learn—" he paused as though considering a profound problem.
"Perhaps they are not always the same people," remarked the Cossack.
"That is true. That may have something to do with it." The ex-coachman relapsed into silence.
"But, is it not very dreadful—in prison?" asked Vjera rather timidly, after a short pause.
"No—if one can sleep well, the time passes very pleasantly. Of course, one is not always as comfortable as we were last night. That is not to be expected."
"Comfortable!" exclaimed the girl in surprise.
"Well—we had a nice room with a good light, and there happened to be nobody else in for the night. It was dry and clean and well furnished—rather hard beds, I believe, though I scarcely noticed them. We smoked and talked some time and then I went to sleep. Oh, yes—I passed a very pleasant evening, and a comfortable night."
"But I thought—" Vjera hesitated, as though fearing that she was going to say something foolish. "I thought that prisoners always had chains," she said, at last.
Everybody laughed loudly at this remark and the poor girl felt very much ashamed of herself, though the question had seemed so natural and had been in her mind a long time. It was an immense relief, however, to know that things had not been so bad as she had imagined, and Dumnoff's description of the place of his confinement was certainly reassuring.
As the endless day wore on, she began to glance anxiously towards the door, straining her ears for a familiar footstep in the outer shop. As has been said, the Count sometimes looked in on Wednesdays, when his calculations had convinced him that his friends, not having arrived by one train, could not be expected for several hours. But to-day he did not come, to-day when Vjera would have given heaven and earth for a sight of him. Never, in her short life, had she realised how slowly the hours could limp along from sunrise to noon, from noon to sunset, never had the little spot of sunlight which appeared in the back-shop on fine afternoons taken so long to crawl its diagonal course from the left front-leg of Dumnoff's table, where it made its appearance, to the right-hand corner of her own, at which point it suddenly went out and was seen no more, being probably intercepted by some fixed object outside.
Time is the measure of most unhapppiness, for it is in sorrow and anxiety that we are most keenly conscious of it, and are oppressed by its leaden weight. When we are absorbed in work, in study, in the production of anything upon which all our faculties are concentrated, we say that the time passes quickly. When we are happy we know nothing of time nor of its movement, only, long afterwards, we look back, and we say, "How short the hours seemed then!"
Vjera toiled on and on, watching the creeping sunshine on the floor, glancing at the ever-increasing heap of cut leaves that fell from the Cossack's cutting-block, noting the slow rise in the pile of paper shells before her and comparing it with that produced by the girl at her elbow, longing for the moment when she would see the freshly-made cigarettes just below the inner edge of Dumnoff's basket, taking account of every little thing by which to persuade herself that the day was declining and the evening at hand.
Her life was sad and monotonous enough at the best of times. It seemed as though the accidents of the night had made it by contrast ten times more sad and monotonous and hopeless than before.
The Count, as Vjera supposed, had dressed himself with even greater care than usual in anticipation of the official visit, and while she was working through the never-ending hours of her weary day, he was calmly seated upon a chair by the open window in his little room, one leg crossed over the other, one hand thrust into the bosom of his coat and the other extended idly upon the table by his side. His features expressed the perfect calm and satisfaction of a man who knows that something very pleasant is about to happen, who has prepared himself for it, and who sits in the midst of his swept and garnished dwelling in an attitude of pleased expectancy.
The Count's face was tired, indeed, and there were dark circles under his sunken grey eyes, brought there by loss of sleep as much as by an habitual facility for forgetting to eat and drink. But in the eyes themselves there was a bright, unusual light, as though some brilliant spectacle were reflected in them out of the immediate future. There was colour, too, in his lean cheeks, a slight flush like that which comes into certain dark faces with the anticipation of any keen pleasure. As he sat in his chair, he looked constantly at the door of the room, as though expecting it to open at any moment. From time to time, voices and footsteps were heard on the stairs, far below. When any of these sounds reached him, the Count rose gravely from his seat, and stood in the middle of the room, slowly rubbing his hands together, listening again, moving a step to the one side or the other and back again, in the mechanical manner of a person to whom a visitor has been announced and who expects to see him appear almost immediately. But the footsteps echoed and died away and the voices were still again. The Count stood still a few moments when this happened, satisfying himself that he had been mistaken, and then, shaking his head and once more passing his hands round each other, he resumed his seat and his former attitude. He listened also for the chiming of the hours, and when he was sure that an hour had passed since the arrival of his imaginary express train, he rose again, looked out of the window, watched the wheeling of the house swallows, and assumed an air of momentary indifference. The next ringing of the clock bells revived the illusion. Another train was doubtless just running in to the station, and in a quarter of an hour his friends might be with him. There was no time to be lost. The flush returned to his cheeks as he hastily combed his smooth hair for the twentieth time, examining his appearance minutely in the dingy, spotted mirror, brushing his clothes—far too well brushed these many years—and lastly making sure that there was no weak point in the adjustment of his false collar. He made another turn of inspection round his little room, feeling sure that there was just time to see that all was right and in order, but already beginning to listen for a noise of approaching people on the stairs. Once more he straightened and arranged the patched coverlet of Turkey red cotton upon the bed, so that it should hide the pillows and the sheets; once more he adjusted the clean towel neatly upon the wooden peg over the washing-stand, discreetly concealing the one he had used in the drawer of the table; for the last time he made sure that the chair which had the broken leg was in such close and perfect contact with the wall as to make it safely serviceable if not rashly removed into a wider sphere of action. Then, as he passed the chest of drawers, he gave a final touch to the half-dozen ragged-edged books which composed his library—three volumes of Puschkin, of three different editions, Ivan Kryloff's Poems and Fables, Gogol's Terrible Revenge, Tolstoi's How People Live, and two or three more, including Koltsoff, the shepherd poet, and an ancient guide to the city of Kiew—as heterogeneous a collection of works as could be imagined, yet all notable in their way, except, indeed, the guide-book, for beauty, power, or touching truth.
And when he had touched and straightened everything in the room, he returned to his seat, calmly expectant as ever, to wait for the footsteps on the stairs, to rise and rub his hands, if the sound reached him, to shake his head gravely if he were again disappointed, in short to go through the same little round of performance as before until some chiming clock suggested to his imagination that the train had come and brought no one, and that he might enjoy an interval of distraction in looking out of the window until the next one arrived. The Count must have had a very exaggerated idea of the facility of communication between Munich and Russia, for he assuredly stood waiting for his friends, combed, brushed, and altogether at his best, more than twenty times between the morning and the evening. As the day declined, indeed, his imaginary railway station must have presented a scene of dangerous confusion, for his international express trains seemed to come in quicker and quicker succession, until he barely had time to look out of the window before it became necessary to comb his hair again in order to be ready for the next possible arrival. At last he walked perpetually on a monotonous beat from the window to the mirror, from the mirror to the door, and from the door to the mirror again.
Suddenly he stopped and tapped his forehead with his hand. The sun was setting and the last of his level rays shot over the sea of roofs and the forest of chimneys and entered the little room in a broad red stream, illuminating the lean, nervous figure as it stood still in the ruddy light.
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed the Count, in a tone of great anxiety, "I have forgotten Fischelowitz and his money."
There was a considerable break in the continuity of the imaginary time-table, for he stood still a long time, in deep thought. He was arguing the case in his mind. What he had promised was, to consider the fifty marks as a debt of honour. Now a debt of honour must be paid within twenty-four hours. No doubt, thought the Count, it would not be altogether impossible to consider the twenty-four hours as extending from midnight to midnight. The Russians have an expression which means a day and a night together—they call that space of time the sutki, and it is a more or less elastic term, as we say "from day to day," "from one evening to another." Rooms in Russian hotels are let by the sutki, railway tickets are valid for one or more sutki, and the Count might have chosen to consider that his sutki extended from the time when he had spoken to Fischelowitz until twelve o'clock on the following night. But he had no means of knowing exactly what the time had been when he had been in the shop, and his punctilious ideas of honour drove him to under-estimate the number of hours still at his disposal. Moreover, and this last consideration determined his action, if he brought the money too late it was to be feared that Fischelowitz would have shut up the shop, after which there would be no certainty of finding him. The Count wished to make the restitution of the money in Akulina's presence, but he was also determined to give the fifty marks directly to the tobacconist.
He saw that the sun was going down, and that there was no time to be lost. It occurred to him at the same instant that if he was to pay the debt at all, he must find money for that purpose, and although, in his own belief, he was to be master of a large fortune in the course of the evening, no scheme for raising so considerable a sum as fifty marks presented itself to his imagination. Poor as he was, he was far more used to lending than to borrowing, and more accustomed to giving than to either. He regretted, now, that he had bound himself to pay the debt to-day. It would have been so easy to name the next day but one. But who could have foreseen that his friends would miss that particular train and only arrive late in the evening?
He paced his room in growing anxiety, his trouble increasing in exact proportion with the decrease of the daylight.
"Fifty marks!" he exclaimed, in dismay, as he realised more completely the dilemma in which he was placed. "Fifty marks! It is an enormous sum to find at a moment's notice. If they had only telegraphed me a credit at once, I could have got it from a bank—a bank—yes—but they do not know me. That is it. They do not know me. And then, it is late."
The drops of perspiration stood on his pale forehead as he began to walk again. He glanced at his possessions and turned from the contemplation of them in renewed despair. Many a time, before, he had sought among his very few belongings for some object upon which a pawnbroker might advance five marks, and he had sought in vain. The furniture of the room was not his, and beyond the furniture the room contained little enough. He had parted long ago with an old silver watch, of which the chain had even sooner found its way to the lender's. A long-cherished ring had disappeared last winter, by an odd coincidence, at the very time when Johann Schmidt's oldest child was lying ill with diphtheria. As for clothing, he had nothing to offer. The secrets of his outward appearance were known to him alone, but they were of a nature to discourage the hope of raising money on coat or trousers. A few well-thumbed volumes of Russian authors could not be expected to find a brilliant sale in Munich at a moment's notice. He looked about, and he saw that there was nothing, and he turned very pale.
"And yet, before midnight, it must be paid," he said. Then his face brightened again. "Before midnight—but they will be here before then, of course. Perhaps I may borrow the money for a few hours."
But in order to do this, or to attempt it, he must go out. What if his friends arrived at the moment when he was out of the house?
"No," he said, consulting his imaginary time-table, "there is no train now, for a couple of hours, at least."
He took up his hat and turned to go. It struck him, however, that to provide against all possible accidents it would be as well to leave some written word upon his table, and he took up a sheet of writing paper and a pen. It was remarkable that there was a good supply of the former on the table, and that the inkstand contained ink in a fluid state, as though the Count were in the habit of using it daily. He wrote rapidly, in Russian.
"This line is to inform you that Count Skariatine is momentarily absent from his lodging on a matter of urgent importance, connected with a personal engagement. He will return as soon as possible and requests that you will have the goodness to wait, if you should happen to arrive while he is out."
He set the piece of notepaper upright, in a prominent position upon the table, and exactly opposite to the door. He did not indeed recollect that in the course of half an hour the room would be quite dark, and he was quite satisfied that he had taken every reasonable precaution against missing his visitors altogether. Once more he seized his hat, and a moment later he was descending the long flights of stairs towards the street. As he went, the magnitude of the sum of money he needed appalled him, and by the time he stepped out upon the pavement into the fresh evening air, he was in a state of excitement and anxiety which bordered on distraction. His brain refused to act any longer, and he was utterly incapable of thinking consecutively of anything, still less of solving a problem so apparently incapable of solution as was involved in the question of finding fifty marks at an hour's notice. It was practically of little use to repeat the words "Fifty marks" incessantly and in an audible voice, to the great surprise of the few pedestrians he met. It was far from likely that any of them would consider themselves called upon to stop in their walk and to produce two large gold pieces and a small one, for the benefit of an odd-looking stranger. And yet, as he hurried along the street, the poor Count had not the least idea where he was going, and if he should chance to reach any definite destination in his erratic course he would certainly be much puzzled to decide what he was to do upon his arrival. The one thing which remained clearly defined in his shaken intelligence was that he must pay to Fischelowitz the money promised within the limit of time agreed upon, or be disgraced for ever in his own eyes, as well as in the estimation of the world at large. The latter catastrophe would be bad enough, but nothing short of self-destruction could follow upon his condemnation of himself.
A special Providence is said to watch over the movements of madmen, sleep-walkers and drunkards. Those who find difficulty in believing in the direct intervention of Heaven in very trivial matters of everyday life, are satisfied to put a construction of less tremendous import upon the facts in cases concerning the preservation of their irresponsible brethren. A great deal may be accounted for by considering what are the instincts of the body when momentarily liberated from the directing guidance of the mind. It has been already noticed in the course of this story that, when the Count did not know where he was going, he was generally making the best of his way to the establishment in which so much of his time was passed. This is exactly what took place on the present occasion. Conscious only of his debt, and not knowing where to find money with which to pay it, he was unwittingly hurrying towards the very place in which the payment was to be made, and, within a quarter of an hour of his leaving his lodging, he found himself standing on the pavement, over against the tobacconist's shop, stupidly gazing at the glass door, the well-known sign and the familiar, dilapidated chalet of cigarettes which held a prominent place in the show window. No longer ago than yesterday afternoon the little Swiss cottage had been flanked by the Wiener Gigerl, whose smart red coat and insolent face had been the cause of so much disaster and anxiety during the past twenty-four hours. The very fact that the doll was no longer there, in its accustomed place, served to remind the Count of his rash promise to pay the money and dangerously increased the excitement which already possessed him. He wiped the cold drops from his brow and leaned for a moment against the brick wall behind him. He was dizzy, confused and tired.
The tormenting thought that was driving him recalled his failing consciousness of outer things. He straightened himself again and made a step forward, as though he would cross the street, but paused again before his foot had left the pavement. Then he asked of his senses how he had got to the place where he stood. He did not remember traversing the familiar highways and byways by which he was accustomed daily to make his way from his lodging to the shop. Every object on the way had long been so well known to him as to cause a permanent impression in his brain, which was distinctly visible to him whenever he thought of the walk in any way, whether he had just been over the ground or not. He could not now account to himself for his being so near Fischelowitz's shop, and he found it impossible to decide whether he had come thither by his usual route or not. It was still harder to explain the reason for his coming, since the fifty marks were no nearer to his hand than before, and without them it was useless to think of entering. As he stood there, hesitating and trying to grasp the situation more clearly, it grew, on the contrary, more and more confused. At the same time the bells of a neighbouring church struck the hour, and the clanging tone revived in his mind the other impression, which had possessed it all day, the impression that his friends were at that moment arriving at the railway station. The confusion in his thoughts became intolerable, and he covered his eyes with one hand, steadying himself by pressing the other against the wall.
He did not know how long he had stood thus, when an anxious voice recalled him to outer things—a voice in which love, sympathy, tenderness and anxiety for him had taken possession of the weak tones and lent them a passing thrill of touching music.
"In Heaven's name—what is it? Speak to me—I am Vjera—here, beside you."
He looked up suddenly, and seemed to recover his self-possession.
"You came just in time, Vjera—God bless you. I—" he hesitated. "I think—I must have been a little dizzy with the heat. It is a warm evening—a very warm evening."
He pressed an old silk pocket-handkerchief to his moist brow, the pocket-handkerchief which he always had about him, freshly ironed and smoothly folded, on the day when he expected his friends. Vjera, her face pale with distress, passed her arm through his and made as though she would walk with him down the gentle slope of the street, which leads in the direction of the older city. He suffered himself to be led a few steps in silence.
"Where are you going, Vjera?" he asked, stopping again and looking into her face.
"Wherever you like," she said, trying to speak cheerfully. She saw that something terrible was happening, and it was only by a desperate effort that she controlled the violent hysterical emotion that rose like a great lump in her throat.
"Ah, that is it, Vjera," he answered. "That is it. Where shall I go, child?" Then he laughed nervously. "The fact is," he continued, "that I am in a very absurd position. I do not at all know what to do."
Perhaps he had tried to give himself courage by the attempt to laugh, but, in that case, he had failed for the present. In spite of his words his despair was evident. His usually erect carriage was gone. His head sank wearily forward, his shoulders rounded themselves as though under a burden, his feet dragged a little as he tried to walk on again, and he leaned heavily on the young girl's arm.
"What is it?" she asked. "Tell me—perhaps I can help you—I mean—I beg your pardon," she added, humbly, "perhaps it would help you to speak of it. That sometimes makes things seem clearer just when they have been most confused."
"Perhaps so, Vjera, perhaps so. You are a very good girl, and you came just in time. I love you, Vjera—do not forget that I love you." His voice was by turns sharp and suddenly low and monotonous, like that of a man talking in sleep. Altogether his manner was so strange that poor Vjera feared the very worst. The extremity of her anxiety kept her from losing her self-possession. For the first time in her life she felt that she was the stronger of the two, and that if he was to be saved it must be by her efforts rather than by anything he was now able to do for himself. She loved him, mad or sane, with an admiration and a devotion which took no account of his intellectual state except to grieve over it for his own sake. The belief that in this crisis she might be of use to him, strongly conquered the rising hysterical passion, and drove the tears so far from her eyes that she wondered vaguely why she had been so near to shedding them a few moments sooner. She pressed his arm with her hand.
"And I, too, I love you, with all my heart and soul," she said. "And if you will tell me what has happened, I will do what I can—if it were my life that were needed. I know I can help you, for God will help me."
He raised his head a little and again stood still, gazing into her eyes with an odd sort of childish wonder.
"What makes you so strong, Vjera? You used to be a weak little thing."
"Love," she answered.
It was strange to see such a man, outwardly lean, tough-looking, well put together and active, though not, indeed, powerful, looking at the poor white-faced girl and asking the secret of her strength, as though he envied it. But at that moment, the natural situation was reversed. His eyes were lustreless, tired, without energy. Hers were suddenly bright and flashing with determination, and with the expression of her new-found will. Vjera felt that all at once a change had come over her, the weak strings of her heart grew strong, the dreamy hopelessness of her thoughts fell away, leaving one clearly defined resolution in its place. The man she loved was going mad, and she would save him, cost what it might.
That Faith, no larger than the tiniest mustard seed, but able to toss the mountains, as pebbles, from their foundations into the sea, is the determination to do the thing chosen to be done or to die—literally, to die—in the trying to do it. Death is farther from most of us than we fancy, and if we would but risk all, to win or lose all, we could almost always do the deed which looks so grimly impossible. Those who have faced great physical dangers, or who have been matched by fate against overwhelming odds of anxiety and trouble, alone know what great things are done when men stand at bay and face the world, and fate, and life, and death and misfortune, all banded together against them, and say in their hearts, "We will win this fight or die." Then, at that word, when it is spoken earnestly, in sincerity and truth, the iron will rises up and takes possession of the feeble body, the doubting soul shakes off its hesitating weakness, is drawn back upon itself like a strong bow bent double, is compressed and full of a terrible latent power, like the handful of deadly explosive which, buried in the bosom of the rock, will presently shake the mighty cliff to its roots, as no thunderbolt could shake it.
Vjera had made up her mind that she would save the man she loved from the destruction which was coming upon him. How he was to be saved, she knew not, but then and there, on the pavement of the commonplace Munich street, she made her stand and faced the odds, as bravely as ever soldier faced the enemy's triumphant charge, though she was only a forlorn little Polish shell-maker, without much health or strength, and having very little understanding of the danger beyond that which was given to her by her love.
She fixed her eyes upon the Count's face as though she would have him obey her.
"I will help you, and make everything right," she said. "But you must tell me what the trouble is."
"But how can you help me, child?" he asked, beginning to grow calmer under her clear gaze. "It is such a very complicated case," he continued, falling back gradually into his own natural manner. "You see, my friends have probably arrived by this train, and yet I cannot go home until I have set this other matter right with Fischelowitz. It is true, I have left a word written for them on my table, and perhaps they are there now, waiting for me, and if I went home I could have the money at once. But then—it may be too late before I get here again—"
"What money?" asked Vjera, anxious to get at the truth without delay.
"Oh, it is an absurd thing," he answered, growing nervous again. "Quite absurd—and yet, it is fifty marks—and until they come, I do not see what to do. Fifty marks—to-day it seems so much, and to-morrow it will seem so little!" He made a poor attempt to smile, but his voice trembled.
"But these fifty marks—what do you need them for to-night?" Vjera asked, not understanding at all. "Will not to-morrow do as well?"
"No, no!" he cried in renewed anxiety. "It must be to-night, now, this very hour. If I do not pay the money, I am ruined, Vjera, disgraced for ever. It is a debt of honour—you do not understand what that means, child, nor how terrible it is for a man not to pay before the day is over—ah, if it were not a debt of honour!—but there is no time to be lost. It is almost dark already. Go home, dear Vjera, go home. I cannot go with you to-night, for I must find this money. Good-night—and then to-morrow—I have not forgotten, and you must not forget—but there is no time now—good-night!"
He suddenly broke away from her side and began walking quickly in the opposite direction, his head bent down, his arms swinging by his side. She ran after him and again took his arm, and looked into his face.
"You must not go away like this," she said, so firmly and with so much authority that he stood still. "You have only half explained the trouble to me, but I can help you. A debt of honour, you say—what will happen if you do not pay it?"
"I must die," answered the Count. "I could never respect myself again."
"You have borrowed this money of Fischelowitz and promised to pay it to-day? Is that it? Tell me."
"No—I never borrowed it. No, no—it was that villain, last winter, who gave him the Gigerl—"
"And Fischelowitz expects you to pay that!" cried Vjera, indignantly. "It is impossible."
"When I took the Gigerl away last night I promised to bring the fifty marks by to-night. I gave my word, my word as a gentleman, Vjera, which I cannot break—my word, as a gentleman," he repeated with something of his old dignity.
"It is monstrous that Fischelowitz should have taken such a promise," said Vjera.
"That does not alter the obligation," answered the Count proudly. "Besides, I gave it of my own accord. I did not wait for him to ask it, after his wife accused me of being the means of his losing the money."
"Oh, how could she be so heartless!" Vjera exclaimed.
"What was the use of telling you? I did not mean to. Good-night, Vjera dear—I must be quick." He tried to leave her, but she held him fast.
"I will get you the money at once," she said desperately and without the least hesitation. He started, in the utmost astonishment, staring at her as though he fancied that she had lost her senses.
"You! Why, Vjera, how can you imagine that I would take it from you, or how do you think it would be possible for you to find it? You are mad, my dear child, quite mad!"
In spite of everything, the tears broke from her eyes at the words which meant so much to her and which seemed to mean so little to him. But she brushed them bravely away.
"You say you love me—you know that I love you. Do you trust me? Do you believe in me? And if you do, why then believe that I will do what I say. And as for taking the fifty marks from me—will not your friends be here to-night, as you say, and will you not be able to give it all back very soon? Only wait here—or no, go into the shop and talk to Fischelowitz—I will bring it to you in less than an hour, I promise you that I will—"
"But how? Oh, Vjera—I am in such trouble that I could almost bring myself to borrow it of you if you could lend it—I despise myself, but it is growing so late, and it will only be until to-morrow, only for a few hours perhaps. If you will wait to-night I may bring it to you before bedtime. But—are you sure, Vjera? Have you really got it? If I should wait here—and you should not find it—and my word should be broken—"
"For your word I give you mine. You shall have it in an hour." She tried to throw so much certainty into her tone as might persuade him, and she succeeded. "Where will you wait for me? In the shop?" she asked.
"No—not there. In the Cafe here—I am tired—I will sit down and drink a cup of coffee. I think I have a little money—enough for that." He smiled faintly as he felt in his pockets. Then his face fell. On the previous evening, when they had led him away from the eating-house, he had carelessly given all he had—a mark and two pennies—to pay for his supper, throwing it to the fat hostess without any reckoning, as he went out. "Never mind," he said, after the fruitless search. "I will wait outside."
But Vjera thrust a silver piece into his hand and was gone before he could protest. And in this way she took upon herself the burden of the Count's debt of honour.
Vjera turned her head when she had reached the corner of the street, and saw that the Count had disappeared. He had entered the Cafe, and had evidently accepted her assurance that she would bring the money without delay. So far, at least, she had been successful. Though by far the most difficult portion of the enterprise lay before her, she was convinced that if she could really produce the fifty marks, the approaching catastrophe of total madness would be averted. Her determination was still so strong that she never doubted the possibility of performing her promise. Without hesitation, she returned to the shop, in search of Johann Schmidt, to whose energies and kindness she instinctively turned for counsel and help. As she came to the door she saw that he was just bidding good-night to his employer. She waited a moment and met him on the pavement as he came out.
"I must have fifty marks in an hour, Herr Schmidt," she said, boldly. "If I do not get it, something dreadful will happen."
"Fifty marks!" exclaimed the Cossack in a tone of amazement. If she had said fifty millions, the shock to his financial sense could not have been more severe. "It is an enormous sum," he said, slowly, while she fixed her eyes upon him, waiting for his answer. "What is the matter, Vjera? Have you not been able to pay your rent this year, and has old Homolka threatened to turn you out?"
"Oh no! It is worse than that, far worse than that! If it were only myself—" she hesitated.
"What is it? Who is it? Perhaps it is not so serious as you think. Tell me all about it."
"There is very little time—only an hour. He is going mad—really mad, Herr Schmidt, because he has given his word of honour to pay Herr Fischelowitz that money this evening. I only calmed him, by promising to bring the money at once."
"You promised that?" exclaimed Schmidt. "It was a very wild promise—"
"I will keep it, and you must help me. We have an hour. If we do not succeed he will never be himself again."
"But fifty marks!" Schmidt could not recover from his astonishment. "Oh, Vjera!" he exclaimed at last, in the simplicity of his heart, "how you must love him!"
"I would do more than that—if I could," she answered. "But come, you will help me, will you not? I have a ten-mark piece and an old thaler put away at home. That makes thirteen, and two I have in my pocket, fifteen and—I am afraid that is all," she concluded after a slight hesitation.
"And five are twenty," said the Cossack, producing the six which he had, and taking one silver piece out of the number to be returned to his pocket. The children must not starve on the morrow.
"Oh, thank you, Herr Schmidt!" cried poor Vjera in a joyful voice as she eagerly took the proffered coins. "Twenty already! Why, twenty-five will be half, will it not? And I am sure that we can find the rest, then."
"There is Dumnoff," said Schmidt. "He probably has something, too."
"But I could not borrow of him—besides, if he knew it was for the Count—and he is so rough—he would not give it to us."
"We shall see," answered the other, who knew his man. "Wait a moment. He is still inside."
He re-entered the shop, where Fischelowitz and his wife were conversing under the gaslight.
"I tell you," Akulina was saying, "that it is high time you got rid of him. The new workman from Vilna will take his place, and it is positively ridiculous to be made to submit to this madman's humours, and impertinence. What sort of a man are you, Christian Gregorovitch, to let the fellow carry off your Gigerl, with his airy promise to pay you the money to-day?"
"The Gigerl was broken," observed the tobacconist.
"Oh, it could have been mended; and if it was really stolen, was that our business, I would like to know? Nobody would ever have supposed, seeing it in our window, that it had been stolen. And it could have been mended, as I say, and might have been worth something after all. You never really tried to sell it, as you ought to have done from the very first. And now you have got nothing at all, nothing but that insolent maniac's promise. If I were you I would take the money out of his wages, I would indeed!"
"No doubt you would," said Fischelowitz, with sincere conviction.
Meanwhile Schmidt had gone into the back shop, where Dumnoff was still doggedly working, making up for the time he had lost by coming late in the morning. He was alone at his little table.
"How much money have you got?" asked the Cossack, briefly. Dumnoff looked up rather stupidly, dropped the cigarette he was making, and felt in his pocket for his change. He produced five marks, an unusual sum for him to have in his possession, and which would not have found itself in his hands had not his arrest on the previous evening prevented his spending considerably more than he had spent in his favourite corn-brandy.
"I want it all," said Schmidt.
"You are a cool-blooded fellow," laughed Dumnoff, making as though he would return the coins to his pocket.
"Look here, Dumnoff," answered the Cossack, his bright eyes gleaming. "I want that money. You know me, and you had better give it to me without making any trouble."
Dumnoff seemed confused by the sharpness of the demand, and hesitated.
"You seem in a great hurry," he said, with an awkward laugh, "I suppose you mean to give it back to me?"
"You shall have it at the rate of a mark a day in the next five work days. You will get your pay this evening and that will be quite enough for you to get drunk with to-night."
"That is true," said Dumnoff, thoughtfully. "Well, take it," he added, slipping the money into the other's outstretched palm.
"Thank you," said the Cossack. "You are not so bad as you look, Dumnoff. Good-night." He was gone in a moment.
Dumnoff stared at the door through which he had disappeared.
"After all," he muttered, discontentedly, "he could not have taken it by force. I wonder why I was such a fool as to give it to him!"
"I tell you," said Akulina to her husband as Schmidt passed through the outer shop, "that he will end by costing us so much in money lent, and squandered in charity, that the business will go to dust and feathers! I am only a weak woman, Christian Gregorovitch, but I have four children—"
The Cossack heard no more, for he closed the street door behind him and returned to Vjera's side. She was standing as he had left her, absorbed in the contemplation of the financial crisis.
"Five more," said he, giving her the silver. "That is one half. Now for the other. But are you quite sure, Vjera, that it is as bad as you think? I know that Fischelowitz does not in the least expect the money."
"No—I daresay not. But I know this, if I had not met him just now and promised to bring him the fifty marks, he would have been raving mad before morning." Schmidt saw by her look that she was convinced of the fact.
"Very well," he said. "I am not going to turn back now. The poor Count has done me many a good turn in his time, and I will do my best, though I do not exactly see what more I can do, at such short notice."
"Have you got anything worth pawning, Herr Schmidt?" asked Vjera, ruthless, as devoted people can be when the object of their devotion is in danger.
"Well—I have not much that I can spare. There is the bed—but my wife cannot sleep on the floor, though I would myself. And there are a few pots and pans in the kitchen—not worth much, and I do not know what we should do without them. I do not know, I am sure. I cannot take the children's things, Vjera, even for you."
"No," said Vjera doubtfully. "I suppose not. Of course not!" she exclaimed, immediately afterwards, with an attempt to express conviction.
"There is one thing—there is the old samovar," continued the Cossack. "It has a leak in one side, and we make the tea as we can, when we have any. But I remember that I once pawned it, years ago, for five marks."
"That would make thirty," said Vjera promptly.
"I do not believe they would lend so much on it now, though it is good metal. It is a little battered, besides being leaky."
"Let us get it," said Vjera, beginning to walk briskly on. "I have something, too, though I do not know what it is worth. It is an old skin of a wolf—my father killed it inside the village, just before we came away."
"A wolf skin!" exclaimed Schmidt. "That may be worth something, if it is good."
"I am afraid it is not very good," answered Vjera doubtfully. "The hair comes out. I think it must have been a mangy wolf. And there is a bad hole on one side."
"It was probably badly cured," said the Cossack, who understood furs. "But I can mend the hole in five minutes, so that nobody will see it."
"We will get it, too. But I am afraid that it will not be nearly enough to make up the twenty-five marks. They could not possibly give us twenty marks for the skin, could they?"
"No, indeed, unless you could sell it to some one who does not understand those things. And the samovar will not bring five, as I said. We must find something else."
"Let us get the samovar first," said Vjera decisively. "I will wait downstairs till you get it, and then you will wait for me where I live, and after that we will go together. I may find something else. Indeed, I must, or we shall not have enough."
They walked rapidly through the deepening shadows towards Schmidt's home. Vjera moved, as people do, who are possessed by an idea which must be put into immediate execution, her head high, her eyes full of light, her lips set, her step firm. Her companion was surprised to find that he needed to walk fast in order to keep by her side. He looked at her often, as he had looked all day, with an expression that showed at once much interest, considerable admiration and some pity. If he had not been lately brought to some new opinion concerning the girl he would certainly not have entered into her wild scheme for calming the Count's excitement without at least arguing the case lengthily, and discussing all the difficulties which presented themselves to his imagination. As it was, he felt himself carried away by a sort of enthusiasm in her cause, which would have led him to make even greater sacrifices than he had it in his power to offer. So strong was this feeling that he felt called upon to make a sort of apology.
"I am sorry I cannot do more to help you," he said regretfully. "It is very little I know, but then, you see I am not alone in the world, Vjera. There are others to be thought of. And besides, I have just paid the rent, and there are no savings left."
"Dear Herr Schmidt," answered Vjera gratefully, "you are doing too much already—but I cannot help taking all you give me, though I can thank you for it with all my heart."
They did not speak again during the next few minutes, until they reached the door of the house in which the Cossack lived.
"I shall only need a moment," he said, as he dived into the dark entrance.
He lost so little time, that it seemed to Vjera as though the echo of his steps had not died away upon the stairs before she heard his footfall again as he descended. This time, however, there was a rattle and clatter of metal to be heard as well as his quick tread and the loud creaking of his coarse, stiff shoes. He emerged into the street with the body of the samovar under one arm. The movable brass chimney of the machine was sticking out of one of his pockets, and in his left hand he had its little tray, with the rings and other pieces belonging to the whole. Amongst those latter objects, which he grasped tightly in his fingers, there figured also the fragment of a small spoon of which the bowl had been broken from the handle.
"It is silver," he said, referring to the latter utensil, as he held up the whole handful before Vjera's eyes. "But if we can find a jeweller's shop open, we will sell it. We can get more for it in that way. And now your wolf's skin, Vjera. And be sure to bring me a needle and some strong thread when you come down. I can mend the hole by the gaslight in the street, for Homolka would not understand it if he saw me going to your room, you know."
She helped him to put all the smaller things into his pockets, so that he had only the samovar itself, and its metal tray to carry in his hands, and then they went briskly on towards Vjera's lodging.
"Do you think we shall get three marks for the little spoon?" she asked, constantly preoccupied by her calculations.
"Oh yes," Schmidt answered cheerfully. "We may get five. It is good silver, and they buy silver by weight."
A few moments later she stood still before a narrow shop which was lighted within, though there was no lamp in the windows. It was that of a small watchmaker and jeweller, and a few silver watches and some cheap chains and trinkets were visible behind the glass pane.
"Perhaps he may buy the spoon," suggested Vjera, anxious to lose no time.
Without a word Schmidt entered the shop, while the girl stood outside. In less than five minutes he came out again with something in his hand.
"Three and a half," he said, handing her the money.
"I had hoped it would be worth more," she answered, putting the coins with the rest.
"No. He weighed it with silver marks. It weighed just four of them, and he said he must have half a mark to make it worth his while."
"Very well," said Vjera, "it is always something. I have twenty-eight and a half now."
When they reached her lodging Schmidt set down the samovar upon the pavement and made himself a cigarette, while he waited for her. She was gone a long time, as it seemed to him, and he was beginning to wonder whether anything had happened, when she suddenly made her appearance, noiseless in her walk, as always. The old wolf's skin was hung over one shoulder, and she carried besides a limp-looking brown paper parcel, tied with a bit of folded ribband. As he caught sight of her face in the light of the street lamp, Schmidt fancied that she was paler than before, and that her cheek was wet.
"I am sorry I was so long," she said. "The little sister cried because I would not stay, and I had to quiet her. Here is the skin. Do you see? I am afraid this is a very big hole—and the hair comes out in handfuls. Look at it."
"It was a very old wolf," remarked the Cossack, holding the skin up under the gaslight.
"Does that make it worth less?" asked Vjera anxiously.
"Not of itself; on the contrary. And I can mend the hole, if you have the thread and needle. The worst thing about it all is the way the hairs fall out. I am afraid the moths have been at it, Vjera." He shook his head gravely. "I am afraid the moths have done a great deal of damage."
"Oh, if I had only known—I would have been so careful! And to think that it might have been worth something."
"It is worth something as it is, but at the pawnbroker's they will not lend much on it." He took the threaded needle, which she had not forgotten, and sitting down upon the edge of the pavement spread the skin upon his knees with the fur downwards. Then he quickly began to draw the hole together, sewing it firmly with the furrier's cross stitch, and so neatly that the seam looked like a single straight line on the side of the leather, while it was quite invisible in the fur on the other.
"What is the other thing you have brought?" he inquired without looking up from his work. The light was bad, and he had to bend his eyes close to the sewing.
"It is something I may be able to sell," said Vjera in a rather unsteady voice.
"Silver?" asked Schmidt, cheerfully.
"Oh no—not silver—something dearer," she said, almost under her breath. "I am afraid it is very hard for you to see," she added quickly, attempting to avoid his questions. "Do you not think that I could hold a match for you, to make a little more light? You always have some with you."
"Wait a moment—yes—I have almost finished the seam—here is the box. Now, if you can hold the match just there, just over the needle, and keep it from going out, I can finish the end off neatly."
Vjera knelt down beside him and held the flickering bit of wood as well as she was able. They made a strange picture, out in the unfrequented street, the dim glare of the gaslight above them, and the redder flame of the match making odd tints and shadows in their faces. Vjera's shawl had slipped back from her head and her thick tress of red-brown hair had found its way over her shoulder. An artist, strolling supperwards from his studio, came down their side of the way. He stopped and looked at them.
"Has anything happened?" he asked kindly. "Can I be of any use?"
Vjera looked up with a frightened glance. The Cossack paid no attention to the stranger.
"Oh no, thank you—thank you, sir, it is nothing—only a little piece of work to finish."
The artist gave one more look and passed on, wishing that he could have had pencil and paper and light at his command for five minutes.
"There," said Schmidt triumphantly. "It is done, and very well done. And now for the pawn-shop, Vjera!"
Vjera took the skin over her arm and her companion picked up the samovar with its tray, and they moved on again. Vjera's face was pale and sad, but she seemed more confident of success than ever, and her step was elastic and hopeful. Johann Schmidt's curiosity was very great, as has been seen on previous occasions. He did his best to control it, for some time, only trying to guess from the general appearance of the limp parcel what it might contain. But his ingenuity failed to solve the problem. At last he could bear it no longer. They were entering the street where the pawnbroker's shop was situated when his resolution broke down.
"Is it a piece of lace?" he asked at a venture. "If it is, you know, and if it is good, it may be worth all the other things together."
"No. It is not a piece of lace," answered the girl. "I will tell you what it is, if we do not get enough without it."
"I only thought," explained the Cossack, "that if we were going to try and pawn it, I had better know—"
"We cannot pawn it," said Vjera decisively. "It will have to be sold. Let us go in together." She spoke the last words as they reached the door of the pawn-shop.
"I could save you the trouble," Schmidt suggested, offering to take the wolf's skin. But Vjera would not give it up. She felt that she must see everything done herself, if only to distract her thoughts from more painful matters.
The place was half full of people, most of them with anxious faces, and all having some object or other in their hands. The pawn-shops do their best business in the evening. A man and a woman, both advanced in middle age, well fed, parsimoniously washed and possessing profiles of an outline disquieting to Christian prejudices, leaned over the counter, handled the articles offered them, consulted each other in incomprehensible monosyllables, talked volubly to the customers in oily undertones and from time to time counted out small doses of change which they gave to the eager recipients, accompanied by little slips of paper on which there were both printed and written words. The room was warm and redolent of poverty. A broad flame of gas burned, without a shade, over the middle of the counter.
In spite of their unctuous tones the Hebrew and his wife did their business rapidly, with sharpness and decision. Either one of them would have undertaken to name the precise pawning value of anything on earth and, possibly, of most things in heaven, provided that the universe were brought piecemeal to their counter. Both Vjera and Schmidt had been made acquainted by previous necessities with the establishment. Vjera held her paper parcel in her hand. The other things were laid together upon the counter. The Hebrew woman glanced at the samovar, felt the weight of it and turned it once round.
"Leaky," she observed in her smooth voice. "Old brass. One mark and a half." Her husband put out his hand, touched the machine, lifted it, and nodded.
"Only a mark and a half!" exclaimed Vjera. "And the skin, how much for that?"
"It is a genuine Russian wolf," Schmidt put in. "And it is very large."
"Moth-eaten," said the Jewess. "And there is a hole in the side. Five marks."
Schmidt held the fur up to the light and blew into it with a professional air, as furriers do.
"Look at that!" he cried, persuasively. "Why, it is worth twenty!"
The Hebrew lady, instead of answering extended a fat thumb and a plump, pointed forefinger, and pinching a score of hairs between the two, pulled them out without effort, and then held them close to the Cossack's eyes.
"Five marks," she repeated, getting the money out and preparing to fill in a couple of pawn-tickets.
"Make it ten, with the samovar!" entreated Vjera. The Jewess smiled.
"Do you think the samovar is of gold?" she inquired. "Six and a half for the two. Take it or leave it."
Vjera looked at Schmidt anxiously as though to ask his opinion.
"They will not give more," he said, in Russian.
The girl took the money and the flimsy tickets and they went out into the street. Vjera hesitated as to the direction she should take, and Schmidt looked to her as though awaiting her orders.
"Twenty-eight and a half and six and a half are thirty-five," she said, thoughtfully. "And we have nothing more to give, but this. I must sell it, Herr Schmidt."
"Well, what is it?" he asked, glad to know the secret at last.
"It is my mother's hair. She cut it off herself when she knew she was dying and she told me to sell it if ever I needed a little money."
The girl's voice trembled violently, and she turned her head away. Schmidt was silent and very grave. Then Vjera began to move on again, clutching the precious thing to her bosom and drawing her shawl over it.