This was Ivan's immediate tangle. And, mercifully, tangle it remained for many years. Only by degrees so gradual that they hardly hurt, did he begin at last to draw away from the ideal, and accept, with whatever reluctance, the real. At the very end, the struggle may have been sharp. But this was simply because the idealized being himself seized and tore away his last shred of illusion, and stood, bare-souled, before the son who could only sit and gaze in horrified, horrible judgment.
* * * * *
It happened in this wise.
Through the years of his son's infancy and boyhood Michael Gregoriev, disregarding all thought of his child, saw practically nothing of the boy. He had, in his heart, some faint satisfaction concerning Ivan's sex, mingled with a fancy, gained after one accidental interview, that nevertheless, considering his tastes and traits, Sophia's child should have been a girl. Later, as Ivan began to emerge a little from utter childishness, his father had resorted occasionally to his school-room to search the little dweller there for certain longed-for signs of temperament. Not finding them, he once more put his son away, this time furiously raging that he should have been given a Blashkov heir. Nevertheless, because Ivan was his all, and because the Prince, to his own discomfiture, found himself constantly building careers for a successor, there came again a day when his wild heart turned one last time towards the boy, and, calculating his age, he was astonished to find that his son had passed the first year of his teens.
That summer—the summer of 1854—Madame Gregoriev, Ivan, and Ludmillo had spent at the Princess' favorite country-place, the tiny estate of Maidonovo, near Klin. Here, in the spot where she had fewest memories of the man whose name she bore, Sophia found that she could, for a few weeks, rally from the weakness, the premonitory pain and its accompanying dread which had lately found definite place in her life. Here the summer skies were of Italian blue; the bells rang through air liquidly golden, perfumed, rich with the murmur of insect life. And here the three, mother, son, and their quiet companion, walked the country-side, watching, first, the hurried sowing, fostering and reaping of the brief-seasoned crops, and then the mad Russian festivals which terminate the frightful summer labor. This year marked itself especially in Ivan's mind; because it was the first in which he began to be haunted by unremembered harmonies and melodies that throbbed again and again across his brain till he would rush, in a frenzy, to the piano, and play them swiftly away as one ridding himself of a torment. And it was at this time rather a misery to him than a delight that, within a few hours, they were always back again, driving him to continued pondering over strange mysteries of tone.
It was the end of September before the little party returned to Moscow, driven thither by premonitions of swift-approaching winter. A fortnight more, and, on the seventh of the month, Ivan would enter his fifteenth year. But it was three days before his birthday when the incident occurred which prepared him for its unusual celebration. For while, at dusk on the evening of the fourth day of the month, Ivan sat alone in his music-room, he was approached by Piotr and silently conducted across the building and into the presence of his father.
Michael received his son in his public office: a room which, to the boy, appeared a fitting frame for the figure of the Prince, magnificent in gold-embroidered uniform; booted, spurred, fiery-eyed and fierce-mustached, but for all that showing a softened light in his face as he perceived his son.
Piotr was promptly dismissed, and Ivan seated at the huge table whence he could gaze at the burly figure opposite him as long as his eyes had courage to look up. Nevertheless the pause was uncomfortable enough; and the boy was glad when the silence ended.
"Ivan! you're now at the age at which I entered my first battle—as drummer-boy—and had—Hm! my first love-affair. Are you in love?"
Ivan's velvet eyes lifted themselves slowly to the glittering orbs set in the dark face. No word passed the young lips, but Michael read, plainly enough, the wondering displeasure in the boyish face. Slightly amused, he went on, relentlessly:
"This week, you're fourteen: a man, in short. Now, what have you done that men can do?"
A fiery reply flew suddenly to the boy's lips; but there it stuck. He could not speak to this man of his mother. Again he chose silence for his answer.
"Nothing? You don't speak? Bah!" Michael brought his fist down upon the table, till everything in the room danced. "Bah! It's a girl I've got! A ninny. A milk-sop.—I thought so! Your lips—your cheeks—you—a Gregoriev!" But the glittering eyes, striving to fathom those others, were caught in a sudden quiet depth, wavered for an instant, and—were lowered! Then Michael sat in a frown, elbows on the table, his chin on his hand, thinking. Ivan, meantime, this little feat accomplished, sat waiting, uneasily, for a decision or—a dismissal. He waited for some time; but the end was worth it—perhaps. When his father spoke again, his tone was serious:
"Well, I shall try you, after all. Here, on Thursday—your birthday, mind! you shall meet life. I'll give you a supper, an early one, at ten o'clock. Tell your mother about that from me. But Piotr will come to dress you. I'll have no baby about. He'll bring the suit I command you to wear; and—we'll see.
"Tell your mother, Ivan, that at last—on the seventh of this month, her rule ends. The last Gregoriev becomes a man—or else—he leaves the Gregoriev house! Do you hear? Prepare yourself, then, and—go!"
So, without another look, Michael caught his cloak and cap up from a chair and strode from the room, leaving his son behind him. Presently, however, Piotr came to lead away the dazed and bewildered boy.
Once more in his own room Ivan sat down, in a corner, to think. In the beginning, he could only go over and over the recent scene. Considering it, it seemed almost like some vivid dream, so unnatural had been his father's conduct and manner of speech. And himself! How preposterously he had behaved! Not a word, not a single sign of response or comprehension could he remember having given. Certainly his father might very well think him a—"milk-sop," was it, he had said?
For a day or two Ivan lived, in secret, through that scene. And after forty-eight hours it dawned upon him that he was beginning to live in an ever-increasing dread of that approaching supper-party, "at which he was to become a Gregoriev!" Those over-sensitive, over-perceptive young nerves of Ivan's had divined more of his father's mind than Michael believed. And now a sure and certain instinct was warning the boy of danger. Nevertheless—disobey the Prince's command? Ivan shivered. Not appear, on his birthday evening, before the guests that would be—his? Impossible! Well, something he had yet to do. There remained one command of his father's which, up to this moment, he had felt reluctant to follow. This was the message to his mother. Should he take it to her now; or should he not?
Ivan had reached this point in his reverie of the late afternoon of Tuesday, when the Princess came quietly into the room where he sat. With an exclamation, he rose, and went to her; and presently they were seated side by side upon a long divan, Ivan's warm young hand clasped tightly in two that were dry and burning. The boy, relieved, gave a long, quiet sigh; but it was Sophia who began to speak.
"Ivan, yesterday you saw your father?"
"Ah! You know, then, mother?"
"Know—what, my son?"
"What—what he said? About my saint's-day supper? Mother, I was to tell you. He said, tell you that, on the seventh—that's the day—your rule is over, and I become a Gregoriev. But, oh mother, it's not so, you know!"
This last Ivan added with eager haste; for Sophia had given a low cry, and her hands so tightened upon his that the grip hurt, rather. But after he had spoken she waited a little, her head bent so that he could not see her face in the twilight. When at last she lifted it to him it was very white; but the lips did not tremble, the voice was steady. "He is to give you a supper on this night? He told you so? Spoke about your manhood—at fourteen?" she added, in a whisper, to herself.
"So he said, Madame. And I did not like it. My father is a very strange man."
"Then, you do not want this supper?" her gaze at him was intense, but the dignity had fully returned to it.
To her secret consternation, however, Ivan hesitated. "I—no—yes—Mother, ought I not to want it?"
For some seconds Sophia stared at him, trying to fathom the exact purport of his question. Then her whole aspect changed. She took his two hands and drew them to her breast, and kissed and bowed her head upon them; and presently, though Ivan was clinging to her and demanding explanation, she rose, hastily, and left the room.
Her going was impulsive. That which prompted it had come to her in a sudden flash. Into Ivan's wistful question she had discerned some sense of loyalty towards the other parent; and, in that instant, she was ashamed. After all, he was Michael's own son. Must she, then, be sure that he sought to do the boy harm? Nay, for once in her life she should be brave again. First of all, she must try, as never before, to trust the father of her son. Secondly, she must also trust that son. If Ivan found himself, at the promised supper, in moral danger, he would instinctively know it. Then, if he made no effort to escape, of what use protection, or love, or fear, on her part, forevermore? No feminine force could keep him from going, eventually, down the Gregoriev road.
With such reasoning did the woman try to control the secret, rising terror that was on her. It would not be wholly downed; yet she succeeded in keeping her own counsel during the next two days, and in that won a victory greater than she knew. For the Princess never guessed that during this time Michael waited in hourly, ironic expectation of some sort of protest on her part. And neither master nor mistress suspected that, on Wednesday evening, the serfs, kept informed by Piotr, Alexei, and Masha of a little more than all, held solemn conclave in their own house at the back of the inner court-yard. There Michael their lord was duly cursed, their lady in the same way pitied; and, above all, they discussed the possibility of giving the young master some sort of protection at that impending festivity. The matter of open protest to Prince Michael was actually brought up. For, alas! these simple folk knew more than their lady of the usual details of their master's orgies; and the thought of Ivan's participation in the simplest of them was as horrifying to these slaves as to the gentle lady they served. But the bold proposition came at last to nothing. For which of these lame dogs was to beard the lion in his lair?
Wednesday and most of Thursday passed, for mother and son, in a fluctuating succession of every mood known to their respective natures. Finally, on the afternoon of his birthday, Ivan, furious at the indignity, was forced into an hour or two of preparatory rest. But so restless had been his recent nights that his very protests drifted presently into sound unconsciousness, and he only awoke at candle-light, to find Piotr bending over him, and his promised suit, gorgeous even beyond expectation, lying at hand. And here Michael showed a touch of his wonderful knowledge of human weakness; for that suit played havoc with Ivan. There was courage to be found in the crimson cloth, interest in the gold embroidery, ardent curiosity in the gleaming boots, an almost swagger in the empty sword-belt. Truly, his Highness had calculated well. By the appointed hour, Ivan was aflame. Once dressed, he relinquished the idea of going to his mother for a parting kiss. He felt, instead, that his "manhood" had already come upon him, and that kisses were for children. Still, it was a relief to find that, had he wished it, his half-promised visit would not have been feasible; for, ere the last buckle was fastened, Sosha had come to escort his young Prince, with due ceremony, in his first descent into the traditional hell of his fathers.
Ivan was too little of his own blood, a youth too habitually and instinctively pure-minded, to comprehend, in the first glance, that supper scene, and gain therefrom life-long disillusionment. For him, even after he had left it, there remained in some sort a glamour over it all—the softening veil of lights and laughter, the gleam of plate and the perfume of flowers, which successfully hid the blackest ugliness. The first fresh frost was still upon his glass; and through it the golden wine was beautiful as it could not be for those about him, who saw, as it were, through tepid crystal, a flat and nauseous vintage hardly to be borne even for the faint quickening of the blood still to be obtained from it. But with Ivan it was as his mother had hoped. She still sheathed him as in a coat of mail; yet that night the sword of disaster glanced off it as by a miracle only.
Was this man indeed a father who could find place for his boy at such a table, beside the woman who awaited him? who could command the boy in one breath to drain his glass, and Piotr in the next to refill it?
Within twenty minutes Ivan's head was light with the delicious poison of that exquisite wine. So transparently white grew his skin, so huge and velvety his black eyes, so serious his finely chiselled mouth, that even Celestine and Cerisette began to feel, somewhere beneath that hardened outer shell of "temperament," a disregarded organ filled with a long-forgotten, aching sensation that was not to be encouraged. Regarding the quiet boy whose gold embroidery glittered so bravely in the light, they grew painfully silent; and in that silence secretly reproached the man who put them to such abominable usage. Indeed, Gregoriev himself, always quick to take the temperature of a company, was presently amazed at the tone beginning to prevail over this one. The screaming laughter had been modified; the unquestionable conversations stilled. But the wine, for these very reasons, was flowing faster, as each member of that company sought to deaden those strangely roused sensations which most of them had believed forever dead for them. Gregoriev perceived how many eyes remained fixed reflectively on the white face of the young Prince, in whose eyes was beginning to dawn a look of comprehension. And they saw with fear the gleam of mockery that was glowing in Michael's orbs. The host, indeed, had planned, but found no time in which to execute, a new and daring coup, before his son had sprung to his feet, lifted his brimming glass in a hand grown tremulous, and dashed it violently at the nearest wall, where it shivered into splinters, its contents falling, in one heavy, golden mass, upon the rug. Then, mouth set, head erect, he turned from the company and walked steadily out of the room. But, the door once closed behind him, once out of range of his father's mocking eyes, he began to run, madly, through the narrow corridor, into the central hall and up the staircase, whence he presently precipitated himself into the bedroom of his mother, who was sitting in a lounging-chair before a blazing fire.
At the unexpected appearance, Sophia rose with a cry. Only the angels could have read all the anguish which that utterance bore from her—all the pent-up misery of a woman tortured during the last hours beyond every power of endurance. High God had heard her at last. Her son had returned to her, unconstrained, of his own will, up from that depth, from that nether hell, to the sounds of which she had been listening for a long hour. But now her boy was clasped within her arms, his suddenly burning cheek pressed to hers, his wine-tainted breath, mingling with her half-restrained sobs as she cried over him only half coherently:
"Ivan—little one—son of my heart—you came back to me!"
"Oh, little mother! Little mother! Keep me safe—from him!"
THE CORPS OF CADETS
In the old, feudal days of quick-spilled blood and easy death, there was a certain fateful, epoch-making cry which had power to carry dread or terror through the high ranks of the official world, while it brought to others exultant hopes of desires and ambitions at last to be fulfilled. It was a cry of life and of death, of the ending of one rule, the beginning of another, consisting of two phrases from which nations took their being; which were cried aloud by men in robes of mingled black and white and punctuated by the breaking of a black, the flourishing of a white, wand. It is the cry with which history ends and begins: "Le Roi est mort! Vive le Roi!"
Now Russia, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was almost Europe in the sixteenth. It was on February 18, 1855, that the reign of the Iron Czar actually came to an end. But the news of his death was made public in Moscow only two days later. For forty-eight hours the sudden closing of that rule, which had been as sombre, as turbulent, as tyrannical as that of any Borgia or Medici, was concealed from the nation. But the morning of the twenty-first found the petty-official world, risen early from sleepless unrest, pushing aside its early tea to re-read the unexpected bulletin from the Hermitage.
High and low, from the Minister of the Interior to the humblest customs inspector, waited, trembling, for the readjustment. But Michael Petrovitch Gregoriev, who, it might have been thought, had good cause for apprehension, came down from his bedroom at the usual hour, shut himself into his sanctum, sat down to stare thoughtfully at a certain portion of his hieroglyphic map, and then, with a deep, relieving sigh, fared vigorously forth to the day's officialdom.
And it soon appeared that Monsieur Gregoriev's confidence was justified. More yet, special favor was shown him. He passed his summer in a long and important journey through Southern Russia, travelling especially through battle-scarred Crimea, and, returning with his report to Moscow, found awaiting him that for which he had vainly intrigued for years. Thus his wife was hastily summoned from her retirement at Baden-Baden, where she had been joyously living with Ivan and her sister; and she returned, drearily, to Moscow, to receive a blow she had never thought to dread.
It was again the evening of October seventh when Ivan, called from the quiet festivity he was enjoying with his mother and Ludmillo, followed Piotr unwillingly into the presence of his father, who awaited him in his official room. Left alone at the closed door, Ivan entered, slowly, and was motioned to a seat opposite his father at the paper-piled table.
For a moment or two Michael regarded him thoughtfully. Then all at once he cried out: "You my son! God! What a baby it is!"
Ivan's face flamed and his lips twitched; but, in the end, he held his tongue. After all, did it matter what this man said?
Michael, watching him, and in some measure reading his thought, let his face soften again. "Well, it may be better that way. Listen, Mikhailovitch! I have done for you what has been done for no Gregoriev before. You are to be pushed up the ladder. You're to be deostracized. In the end, you'll find that Petersburg will receive you. They must; for at last I've obtained your commission in the Cadet Corps: something that none of our race has ever had. I tried, of course, for the Pages, but that they wouldn't give. Nevertheless, you'll come out an ensign of the line, and I can buy your lieutenancy in a guard regiment within the month. You understand?"
Michael paused, and fixed his keen eyes on the boy who was now on his feet, motionless, his brows knitted. He was a little bewildered by the unexpectedness of the thing. Yet he did understand—tumultuously, what that great news meant.
"When do I leave here?" he asked, presently, in a voice that was strange to him.
"In one week—to the day. There are preparations to be made. You go like the Prince you are. Christ! If I had had the chance!"
This last, muttered exclamation, Ivan scarcely heard. He was still staring down at the table, trying to readjust himself, to resolve his thoughts into either joy, or—more difficult—regret. The silence seemed longer than it was. Then Ivan looked up, silently asking permission to go. But he found his father's unholy eyes fixed on him, and instinctively he shrank backward, trying to cover his naked soul from that piercing vision.
"Wait! I've not finished yet. I want you to see just what I'm giving you. I want you to understand the start you're getting. Do you realize that, unless you make an unholy fool of yourself, within four years all Petersburg will be open to you? At twenty you will penetrate to those places to which I—I, with all the—experience, and the intimate knowledge I've got, shall never be admitted. I can buy commissions for you in any regiment. But in the end I don't intend you for the army. Oh, if I could have started you in the Pages Corps! Still, your advance is certain. And this is my first, middle, and last advice to you: walk instantly to the very centre of the first high intrigue that presents itself—everywhere. You'll find them even at the Corps—in your first year. For in Russia, Ivan, a full comprehension of that great game means power. Understand, the utterance of such a sentiment would mean Siberia. But this young Alexander is simply a puppy. He's to be influenced by a footman—by a serf! See that you reach him, then. Study him: learn him: absorb him. Then find your own methods and stick to them; stopping at absolutely nothing they may carry you to. It's the stopping, sooner or later, that is the universal mistake: the mistake I've never made—else I should have been in the gutter yet. You begin, Ivan, where I end. I see no limit for you. Petersburg will hold more than one empty portfolio. But you must not look below the highest. Take the Interior for yourself. To-night, Ivan, I, your father, make you Premier of Russia. Am I so careless of my son?"
Once more Michael's gloomy, flashing eyes were fastened upon Ivan's uplifted face; nor was he wholly dissatisfied at the unquestionable interest he perceived in the boy's expression. Ivan, indeed, felt petrified at the vista opened up before him. It seemed as if his father's words were burning themselves into his brain. And yet, even as he waited, quietly, for the dismissal that soon came, these ambitions of his father's for him were succeeded by something all his own: a thing as yet only half understood, and held secret in his heart out of dread of hearing it mocked or of finding it something common to all men. While, then, the words "Premier of Russia" still echoed through his head, there rose upon his inner ear a sudden note of melody, vagrant, sweet and melancholy as the songs of the Steppes. Known song it was not, however; but something unique, as were all the airs that came to him unbidden. Under its influence it was natural that his face should change, and soften. But Michael, imagining that rapt expression to be the result of his own words, was well satisfied; and he sent the boy from him so preoccupied with his uncomprehended gift, that the immediate prospect of the new life faded, for the moment, into the dim land of the unimportant Real.
This brief ecstasy of unsought happiness could not last, however. During the ensuing days Ivan was obliged to banish dreams, and yield himself to preparations for that change which, though it should have brought something of eager anticipation to his boy's mind, was really invested with an unreasonable dread: dread rooted no less in a presentiment of his own than in the expression of his mother's face, the morning redness of her eyes, the uncontrollable quiver of her lip. Sophia, indeed, had received a blow that she was not to recover from. But the full misery of her immediate future she could, fortunately, not as yet surmise.
The farewell between Ivan and his quiet tutor was somewhat pathetic. The prospects of the Pole were, in their way, far drearier than those of his pupil. He was an intensely shy man; and yet the thought of leaving the home which had come so perfectly to suit his sensitive temperament, was to him more calamitous than the prospect of finding and fitting himself into another place. On the last morning, master and pupil spoke but little. Ivan sat drearily strumming out one of the nocturnes of that young countryman of Ludmillo's, lately dead but already hailed immortal by a select few, Monsieur Chopin; and the heart-break in its strange harmonies seemed to express all that neither of them dared attempt to say. Fortunately, the strain did not last long. It was barely ten o'clock when Casimir, having imprinted a kiss upon the hand of his Princess, and actually left another on Ivan's scarlet cheek, was driven, with his modest box, away from the familiar portal into the unfriendly realms beyond. With him slipped away the first large piece of Ivan's child-world. And the rest of it was not to be long in following.
Of the final clinging of Sophia to her child, the child of her martyrdom, the man-child who must be relinquished now to the world that called to him, who shall write? Torn mother-love stares not out from paper pages, in the cold black and white of print. Poor Princess! She was strong in neither mind nor body. Trained to a fashionable young ladyhood of delicacy, vapors and graceful fainting-fits, there had been little in her married life to build up fortitude and the courage to endure unwelcome griefs. From day to day her little store of bravery had been drawn upon, extravagantly. For in Sophia, fear bred no angry pride, but rather a flat despair. And it had come to a point at last where even the hauteur of her class would no longer suffice to cover the humiliations of her daily life. Now that the final climax had come, it found her quite denuded of all force, all strength, all hope. Her one raison d'etre was to be removed, her single prop drawn from her. Therefore she fell, quietly, with scarcely a word of protest, only an instant of tottering. This the metaphor. To speak plainly, so complete was her desolation that, outwardly, she betrayed nothing. Ivan was drawn to wonder at it; but he left her, perhaps, with the less anxiety, being too inexperienced in the ways of grief to worry as a woman might have done over this attitude towards their parting. Nevertheless, the memory of their last evening together lay graven so ineffaceably upon Ivan's heart, that he recalled it clearly, in its every incident, during the last hour of his life.
It was a Sunday—the evening of the day of Ludmillo's departure. Ivan had been summoned to his mother's room, where he found her sitting, rather wearily, he thought, before a table on which steamed a brightly polished samovar, surrounded by the dishes of a tempting meal, devised by Masha to suit the respective tastes of her lady and the young Prince. Darkness had fallen an hour before, and the room, with its quaint old furniture, tapestry-hung walls, and old oaken floor strewn with Bokhara rugs, was lighted by three swinging-lamps that cast red reflections upon the polished wood of wainscot and floor. Mother and son sat side by side at the table, and, while they ate, made little attempt at conversation. Instinctively, each was waiting for the other to speak.
But the inevitable talk, at thought of which Sophia's heart fluttered till her breath was all but gone, was not allowed a natural beginning. After a time there came from below the first of a crescendo of sounds—that noise of muffled voices, long since familiar to the room. As the sound increased, and the laughter began to be punctuated by clangs of shivering glass, the woman and the boy drew closer together, and began a hasty conversation, each trying to draw the attention of the other away from that which occupied them both irresistibly. It was long before there arrived any diminution in the unholy racket. But at last, by some fortunate caprice, the party evidently decided to leave the house for some place of public amusement; so that, at last, the great palace was wrapped in its wonted, daytime stillness. And in the first minutes of this, Ivan, as if he read his mother's thoughts, grew silent, and turned to her expectantly.
His hope was fulfilled. That night, acting impulsively upon a half-considered plan, Sophia, for the first and last time in her life, laid bare her heart before her son. The boy listened in a silence that grew by degrees from reverent interest to pity, from pity to horror, from horror to absolute fury, till, thinking of the Gregoriev blood that ran in his veins, he longed to tear from his breast the heart which had been made to beat by the man below—that father whom he now saw in the full light of truth. It was in that hour that Ivan put away from him forever all childish things. His mother's story, so direfully heightened by reason of all which she left to the intuition and imagination of her listener, suddenly brought him to an understanding of true womanhood that is the portion of very few experienced men. It seemed as if his existence had been enveloped in all that was foul, and wicked, and heart-breakingly pathetic in the world. And afterwards he realized that in that evening was sown in him a seed which was to bear bitter fruit: the seed of the Russian Tosca, that Herzeleide, which has stamped every one of the company of illustrious Slavs with an indelible print of melancholy.
Sophia probably did not realize Ivan's capacity for feeling or for pity. Yet she had a purpose in the telling of her story. Ivan, a Gregoriev, must be given the opportunity of knowing how a woman's soul can be killed within her. Then, should he follow the footsteps of his race, his sin would be upon his own head. Nevertheless, she used little art in her tale, and she drew therefrom neither moral nor homily. Of what use either of these? What remonstrance was there that could hold a true Gregoriev from the pursuits of his maturity? At the same time, if Ivan was what she believed him to be, he could read the moral as he ran. She spoke from a bursting heart, and only in small degree relieved herself by speaking. Nor did she mention their approaching parting; for reference to this subject was beyond her. Ivan must divine what he could of her feeling, or he must believe her callous in her great despair.
Meantime the boy had yielded one slender hand to his mother's clasp; the other was tightly clinched. He sat bolt upright, his burning eyes fixed sternly on the wall before him, his face pallid save for the two round spots of flaming red that burned high upon his cheekbones. His heart was throbbing irregularly. And in his brain, amid the chaos of broken ideals, crumbled idols, and all the jumbled facts of his new understanding of misery and of evil:—amid all his strange and vibrant emotions, there thundered gigantically a series of magnificent minor chords forming a motive over-poweringly climatic. It was the same theme of "hope abandoned," which, nearly forty years later, was to open the last movement of his greatest work: that "Tosca Symphony" which has moved the whole world to wondering tears. Many times during the succeeding years it left his memory, and he would try vainly to recall it. But circumstances always rose to bring it again to his mind; till, at last, recurrent pain had fixed it there forever: that world-theme, which had its birth on this first Sunday of his sixteenth year.
It was eleven o'clock when Madame Gregoriev, worn out and trembling with feeling, finally ended her narrative. It was midnight before she and Ivan kissed good-night. During that whole hour, neither one of them uttered a word. Ivan had sunk to the floor at his mother's feet, his head in her lap, his burning hands clasped in her icy ones, his throat contracting ever and again with the dry, gasping sob of extreme emotion. Sophia, on the contrary, sat above him, her head lifted, her pale face calm, her tearless eyes gazing off into some far country of her own. Yet before their minds lay the same picture—that of a woman's woe: a petty thing, the commonest of all affairs in the man-ruled world, yet hardly a thing to be discussed. Some reverence, or understanding, must be granted it by the dullest mind. So, as the distant voice of Moscow's great bell boomed its twelve strokes, Ivan rose, slowly, as one still in his dream; went for a moment into the mother-clasp; and then, still without speaking, turned to pass, for the last night, down the corridor leading to the distant wing in which were his own rooms.
* * * * *
It was on a Monday—beginning of the working week—the morning of October fourteenth in the year 1855, that Ivan went out into the world. His flight was not far: merely to the other end of Moscow; but it led into a life that he had been unable to imagine in the smallest detail. Once there, it took him less than a week to perceive that, while his vague hopes of companionship were scarcely to be realized, he was to drink to its dregs his preconceived cup of unhappiness.
The four great Corps des Cadets, created in the mid-reign of the Iron Czar, had been devised especially for the preparation of youthful Russian nobility for their respective places in the military, possibly the official, world. As it presently turned out, these great schools were destined to become hot-beds of tyranny, intrigue, rivalry, caste-feeling, and snobbery in their worst forms. Hence, considering the certain future of each cadet, the Corps afforded an even more adequate preparation for bureaucratic methods than their creator had had reason to expect. In the Moscow institution every inmate, from its head, Colonel Becker, to the youngest boy of the fourth class, was subject to a government of favoritism, bribery, deceit, and the pettiest meanness, in which was no room whatever for advancement along the lines of conscientious work, honesty, or honor. Here prestige of birth, or aptitude for intrigue, carried all before them; for this was, indeed, the period of the worst mismanagement these schools were to know. In later years the Liberator found time to look to them. At present—in the Moscow Corps, Sitsky, "Cock" of the school, a vicious dunce of twenty, would never be called upon to yield his position to Kashkarev, a brilliant scholar and a thoroughly scrupulous boy of eighteen, who was generally despised because his grandfather had been a Pole.
In this gathering, where all were in some degree noble, the distinctions drawn by the boys themselves between lineage and wealth, political prestige and the quiet conservatism of lofty birth, were so arbitrary, so contradictory, so innately Russian, that the very masters, who, from Becker down, were German, did not pretend to understand the system, but blindly followed the lead of the scholars and their truculent head. And, to those who have had any experience at such hands, it is bitterly plain that of all merciless cruelty of civilized lands, that of boys under twenty-five is the most remorseless.
It is, then, not difficult to understand that, from the first days, Ivan was in a situation undreamed-of even by his father. In the immediate beginning Becker, awed by his knowledge of the enormous power wielded by Prince Michael, would have treated Michael's son with some sort of consideration. He was soon shown his mistake. The boys he was supposed to teach had none of them, as yet, ever come under the eye of the mysterious, hardly-credited "Third Section." Upon the day following Ivan's arrival, therefore, there was held, in the dormitory inhabited by the upper ten of the dreaded "first class," a solemn conclave, headed by the lords of the school: Sitsky, Sablef, Osinin, Pryanishikoff, and Blashkov—this last actually a second cousin of Ivan. The decision resulting from the debate, held when the lower school was at drill, was spread abroad without delay by certain methods known only to the boys. By nightfall every cadet knew that young Gregoriev's status had been fixed; and henceforth none would dream of disputing it till the boy in question had passed his second year. By the third day the masters had read and accepted the decree, quietly assigning the new boy to his destined oblivion. For Ivan was a Gregoriev, son of a trans-Moskva house, and had never even seen the Equerries' Quarter! grandson, moreover, of a creature who had worked. Worse yet, he was the son of what was really no more than a police officer. (For, though officialdom meant much in their ranks, the police was beyond the pale of their bigoted respect.) Thus it is easy to recognize Ivan's natural place, and why he must henceforth regard himself honored if a member of the upper school so much as addressed to him a command. This much the week decided. But it was Sunday night before active persecution began.
Boys' schools, be they in what country they may, are as much alike as boy nature is alike and unalterable the world over, from age to age. Only the details differ. At Rugby, new boys undergo blanket-tossing. In France there is a custom less vigorous though physically more painful. In the Moscow Corps des Cadets, in the fifties, matters were as much more savage as Russian civilization was, at that day, lower than that of England. In the Kishinaia, then, the popular form of hazing is—or was—the "circus"; and the pretty game was ordinarily arranged for several victims. But Ivan was accorded a distinction, inasmuch as the boys of his form positively refused to soil themselves by contact with a rank outsider; and the upper school could not but condone its inferiors in their aristocratic aloofness. Having, then, but one victim for the evening's sport, it was thought fitting that some unusual climax should be invented for the furtherance of the school ideals. And this touch was finally invented by a youth who had just finished a certain forbidden book relating to some unspeakable customs of the Orient.
Ivan's Sunday evening shall know no record here. He bore it, lived through it—even infuriated his tormentors by his insistent refusals to cry out or beg for mercy: choosing, instead, meanly to faint just before the crucial moment. But though it was a week before he crept shakily from his bed again, there was no inquiry in the school as to the cause of his peculiar illness. Only in secret was some notice taken of the affair; which had really gone beyond ordinary bounds. Colonel Becker gave Ivan more than one hour of serious consideration; for to him Ivan's father was more than a name. And, in the end, the boy was granted what his mother had hitherto vainly asked: leave to spend thirty-six hours, weekly—from Saturday night to Monday morning—at home, in his mother's company. It was a wise decision, and it served a double purpose; for not only did it remove a sure victim from the band of savages that held possession of the school through every weekly holiday, but it gave one miserable boy just enough respite from his wretchedness to stifle the revelations which time and suffering would otherwise have surely brought. Even so, at first, Becker trembled lest the terrible Chief should be made aware of his son's treatment at that noted school. But weeks passed and no complaint was made. And thus came Ivan's first step towards favor. For Becker could not but be thankful for the boy's brave silence; nor thereafter did he always try to hide that gratitude from the unhappiest of his pupils.
* * * * *
Such was the beginning of Ivan's school life. It had taken just seven days to teach him that the curse of his parentage must still be his heavy burden. He had done infinitely more than was generally required to prove a boy's worthiness for acceptance by his fellows. Not a boy in the school but had watched his clothes cut to ribbons before them, under the knout. Not a boy but surmised the hideous state of his bruised body. And yet, not a boy in the school offered the slightest sign of friendliness, even of recognition. Loneliness he had known—was, indeed, to know again—but never thereafter the loneliness that he endured in this crowded school.
Of what Ivan bore during his first year in that harsh preparation for his after life, it would be useless to write. The day's routine was long and hard: its hours from early morning till nine at night; its subjects the usual studies, with military drill, tactics, and history. Moreover, at the end of the ordered day there was frequently guard-duty at the door of the first form's secret club, which used pretended fear of discovery as a means of keeping some younger boy awake till he should fall asleep on his feet, and be carried into the club-room for the punishment always inflicted for this military crime of "sleeping on duty." This year the fourth form had one more cause of gratitude for the existence of Ivan; for he was chosen for this vigil three nights to any other boy's one. The consequence of this was that, between October and April, he was in the hospital four times, always owing to an increase in the low fever induced by physical and mental exhaustion. Through the winter, Becker had made a few feeble attempts at protection, all of which proved abortive. But finally, in the early spring, noting Ivan's look of frailty, and fearing a breakdown that must be brought to the notice of Prince Michael, he took the case in hand vigorously, and procured for the boy at least unbroken sleep at night, though he could force no other consideration from the scornful young brutes towards their physically broken, mentally-raging victim.
It was, for Ivan, an added irony of Fate that, during this long period of physical strain, the severest he was ever to know, his one hitherto unfailing refuge should be denied him. And the trial culminated in a shock as unexpected as it then seemed unendurable.
For many weeks the boy, while sedulously concealing the facts of his school life, had nevertheless wondered that, during his Sundays with her, his mother divined none of his unhappiness. But he himself failed to perceive the burden which that same mother, hitherto as near to him as he to her, was herself bearing. How should he guess that she was at last obliged to concentrate her every faculty upon herself in order to keep from him any betrayal of her condition? Ivan had, certainly, more than once remarked the haggard pallor of her face; or caught her in an involuntary movement of pain. There were nights at school when he thought long and anxiously of her. Yet he was thoroughly unprepared when, on the morning of the third of April, he received from her a brief, strained, unnatural note, containing the astounding information that she was starting at once, with his aunt, for the Riviera, where she might remain for some weeks.
He had the day to ponder over this news: reserving the greater pain of it for the night: when, happily, he should be unmolested. But he never came to this; for, at the end of the evening study-period, he was called from the assembly-hall by no less a person than Colonel Becker himself, at the door of whose dreaded room stood Piotr, white-faced and red-eyed. At his appearance Ivan halted for one, heart-stilling instant. Then he muttered, in a hoarse, dry voice:
"My mother!—She is dead?"
Piotr slowly shook his head, replying: "Not yet.—They have sent for you."
During that long winter when the mental eyes of Ivan were first opening to the meaning of life and the individual struggles of each to find his place in a world apparently unassailable, Ivan's mother, Princess Sophia, slowly, in great anguish of body, was learning a last lesson of the master by whom she had never been spared. Through that dark period, though mother and son met weekly, their intercourse, hitherto so full, so unreserved, became inevitably hesitant and broken. Each was bearing a burden which neither was willing to reveal to the other. Ivan, concealing from the tender woman every sign of his persecution at the hands of his companions in the Corps, felt himself constantly tongue-tied before her. And though ordinarily the mother-sense would speedily have penetrated that awkward reserve, Sophia, herself all unaccustomed to deceit, was so fully occupied in hiding every sign of her own secret, that Ivan's reticence appeared to her only the reflection of her own. It was as natural, then, as it was unfortunate, that these visits, looked forward to by each of them as bright oases in an otherwise treeless desert, should also have brought with them their quota of discomfort and vain regret. Throughout each week, woman and boy alike hungered for each other. Yet on Sunday night both usually parted with hearts overflowing with secret remorse at the thought that there was actual relief in the knowledge that the day was over. Moreover, as the weeks passed, the Sunday evenings together became shorter and more short. Madame Gregoriev, smiling through the agony that yet found place in every line of her face, would confess to fatigue and would resign herself to the hands of the maid whose duties were daily becoming more those of a nurse, leaving Ivan to the care of the serfs, who, by their unfeigned delight in his appearance, generally sent him away from their quarters about midnight in a very cheerful mood. Later, however, through the dark hours that followed, Ivan's thoughts instinctively reverted to his mother, and the strange expression in her face would take a significance filling his heart with a pain which the morrow's light could not banish.
Months slid by. The Russian New Year came and went. And now, when Ivan reached home on Saturday evening, his mother frequently greeted him from her bed; and on Sunday would sit up only for an hour or two, in her chaise-longue, before the open fire always kept burning in her up-stairs sitting-room, her frail form clad in the loosest of negligees. Still, to all the boy's sad and anxious queries, the reply would be: "Just fatigue, and perhaps a little cold. In a few weeks, you shall see me quite strong again. Smile for me, Ivan!" And Ivan seemed to accept the words. But weekly he went back to his work with something added to the weight now constantly dragging at his heart.
Had Ivan guessed half the truth, however: could he have had one glimpse of his mother's reason for her constant "fatigue," he would have learned that the vague disquiet he was bearing was a feather-weight in comparison to the helpless misery of watching and comprehending the slow spread and increase of the most pitiless, direfully cruel, of all diseases.
It had been in the very first week of Ivan's life in the Corps that Sophia Ivanovna returned, in a kind of numb haze, from the house of the doctor she had gone to for examination. She stood alone in her own room, trying to comprehend the fulness of that which had come upon her. All alone she had made her discovery; and alone had gone to have it verified. But, in spite of everything, realization was difficult: the realization that, turn whither she would, there was upon her—upon that poor, tortured breast, the relentless clutch of death. Struggle as she might, through the ensuing months—the few, few ensuing months, that clutch must grow tighter and more cruelly tight, until—the end. During the years since her marriage Madame Gregoriev had, more than once, wished—nay, prayed for death. But a hopeless desire and the inevitable reality are generally two widely different things. And the clearest possible proof of the poignancy of the mental suffering of her past life lay in the fact that, fully understanding her position, it was a matter of only a few hours before she could accept, with some show of tranquillity, this last incident of, this fitting climax to, her long tragedy.
From the first, she kept her knowledge to herself. The doctor who had examined her had not been requested to take up the case; and as yet, she asked help of none. It was weeks before old Masha, coming, one afternoon, into the Princess' rooms with tea, found her mistress on her knees before the ikon, passionately demanding strength for continued silence. The old woman, struck suddenly dumb with intuition, waited only till the dread name had come from Sophia's lips, and then burst into a wild wailing—that long-drawn cry for the dead, characteristic of the Russian peasant. The Princess demanded, implored, finally threatened her old servitor, till the promise of secrecy had been obtained; but she guessed that Masha had not given it till she had assured herself that the disease could not be concealed much longer.
Hitherto, in that bleak and lonely household, there had been little comfort for the woman who knew no hour, no second, free from pain. But Masha, like many country-bred women, was skilled in the decoction of those herbs and simples that seem, at times, more efficacious than more scientific medicines. Moreover, the old woman was passionately devoted to the mistress whom she had tended as a child, and nursed through every illness of girlhood. Thenceforth Sophia was the recipient of the tenderest care; and the old serf, experimenting, found more than one preparation which, for a time at least, seemed to draw some of the fiery agony from the poor, disfigured breast.
As the winter passed, however, and March drew towards its close, the Princess, wasted almost to a shadow, left her bed no more. Thus at last her husband awoke to the fact that her illness was no mere "woman's nonsense." Their first brief interview terminated when, in response to his direct questions, Sophia simply drew the covering from her breast and let him look upon the hideous source of her pain. The man bent over her, stared for a moment, shuddered, and, turning on his heel, left the room without a word. Early upon the morning of the following day, that of March thirty-first, to Sophia's amazed displeasure, the two most eminent physicians in Moscow met at her bedside. At the conclusion of their examination they were ushered below, to the Prince's cabinet, where they gave Michael their decision as to the necessary course of action. There must be an immediate operation. That was the one possible hope. Even so—it was a pity, a very great pity, that the gnaedige Frau had waited so long. By now, every day—almost every hour—diminished the chance of recovery.
After this explanation, made by the German doctor and entirely corroborated by his Russian colleague, there was a silence. Prince Gregoriev sat bent over the table. A grayish tinge, absolutely foreign to it, had overspread his face. His eyes were flaming. His teeth gnawed savagely at the ends of his mustache. The two physicians waited, considerately, till the lowered head was raised, the eyes lifted:
"There is—no other way? She—she has got to submit to the knife?"
"Gewiss! Nor can we promise—recovery—even so. Without it—two weeks—a month, perhaps!" he shrugged, helplessly. "You understand, it is medullary: the most rapid, the most malignant variety of all. It is not a case that promises credit to us. Therefore, if the Herr Graf would wish to try another physician, I should be glad that it were so. I would resign the case willingly; for this disease gives little satisfaction to us who love our work."
"At the same time," broke in Monsieur Petchkoff, the Russian doctor, with some asperity, "we must remind our client, Herr Weimann, that operations to-day do not mean what they did before the recent great discovery of anaesthetics. I have been using chloroform now for more than three years; and in every case where the heart permits, it has obliterated entirely the pain of incision. You understand that the patient may go to sleep in her bed and awaken there again, a few hours later, without the slightest knowledge that she has ever been removed from it. Consider that, your Highness!"
Gregoriev leaped to his feet. "Is it possible? I never believed those tales. Do you corroborate this statement?" he added, turning to Weimann, who sat approvingly nodding his head.
At the question he merely raised his shaggy brows, replying: "Without doubt, Herr Graf. Anaesthesia is now used in every enlightened country in the world. The Herr Doctor has exaggerated its benefits in no particular."
Gregoriev sank into his place again with a groan of relief. "Operate, then! Operate at once—to-day, if there be time!"
* * * * *
Prince Michael's desire, which was, in fact, that of his wife also, since the thing must be gone through, was impractical, owing to the fact that considerable preparatory work was still necessary. On the first day of the new month, Weimann made an examination of her heart, which resulted less satisfactorily than he had hoped. Not until evening did he finally announce his decision that the administration of chloroform might be made without undue danger. And after this there were still to be made those preparations necessary for an operation in the palace: Michael absolutely refusing his wife's request that she be taken to the Royal Hospital. Nor was it till the evening of that day—the second of April—that the unhappy lady wrote Ivan her scarcely deceptive letter: an act repellent to her, but insisted upon by Michael, who persisted in maintaining his belief in her ultimate recovery. With what an agony of yearning to see her boy, to bid him good-bye, the poor soul hung upon each painfully scrawled word, only those who have lain under the chill of death can know. From the first she had no hope, and but little desire, of leaving the dread table alive. Yet she was loath to give expression to the doubt that might still be hailed by her husband with his old, scornful mockery.
It was the first time, perhaps, that she had misjudged Michael on the side of inhumanity. Scorn for her was gone from him now; and so changed was he that his very servants could not read him. Was it remorse, or actually some long-latent affection, reawakened under the shadow of impending loss, that had brought the haggard lines about his mouth, and dulled the fires of those terrible eyes? Sophia herself asked that question of the darkness, as she lay the long night through, watching for what she dreamed of as her last dawn.
The hour of the operation was fixed for one o'clock on the afternoon of April third. By dawn of that day the whole household was astir, gravitating, for the first time in many a year, wholly about the bedroom of the mistress of the house. Madame Gregoriev, lying motionless in the half-light of her room during the morning hours, preceding the impending ordeal, was filled with a sense of unreality, of wonder at the stir that was suddenly being created about her. For years she had been accustomed to a life of systematic neglect. For months she had borne her bodily torment silently and without hope of aid. Now, in one day, as it seemed, she had become the centre of a new world. There were two professional nurses to anticipate her every want, while old Masha, hitherto her one attendant, cowered snuffling in a dark corner of the room. At her bedside her husband, his black eyes dulled with trouble, sat side by side with Vassily, the brother, whose manner had never before so softened in addressing her. And his voice grew husky as he persisted in the assurances of perfect recovery that he could not himself believe. Lastly, and best of all, Caroline was coming: was, indeed, already on her rapid way. All things had been done for her comfort; yet none of them weighed for a moment in the balance with her one, great, unvoiced desire: the desire to see and talk to her boy before she yielded herself to that mysterious unconsciousness from which she had not the smallest hope of emerging. But she was now wholly under Michael's sway. She realized that he was acting for Ivan's peace of mind: that in so acting he had himself some hope of her recovery. And, remembering his new consideration for her, she could not bring herself to dispute him. When, at the hour named, the surgeons and their assistants entered her room, she received the kisses of husband and brother upon an unwrinkled brow; and, as she lifted her head towards the sweet-smelling sponge, there was a faint smile upon her lips, a gleam of relief in her tired eyes.
Vassily Blashkov and his black brother-in-law waited together at Sophia's bedside till her unconsciousness was complete; and then both stood, reverently, while the limp body was carried from the room. For the first time in their lives these two utterly selfish men looked into each other's eyes with but one comprehensive thought, which was all for another. Each man was suddenly white with unwonted feeling; for there was something in the pose of that helpless form which brought home, with a poignant stab, a sudden realization of her neglected life.
Still acting upon common impulse the two presently descended, side by side, to Michael's official room, where, on the table, Piotr had placed a bottle of sherry, some glasses, and a plate of biscuits. Before these the two seated themselves; and, as the first glow of the wine began to course through them, they fell into a low-voiced conversation; for it was a period of strain so great that any possibility of forgetfulness was grasped, eagerly. Of Sophia, however, neither could speak; and their thoughts fell naturally upon that which was dearest to her: Ivan: the nephew to whom the uncle was almost a complete stranger. And it was to this man whom for years he had hated so roundly, that Michael revealed, for the only time in his life, his feeling for the boy whom he had so tardily and slightly acknowledged.
"You—haven't told him, I understand?" Blashkov began, in a low tone.
"Not yet. If—if she comes out—he may see her. The anxiety will be less for him.—She—she's his whole life, here."
"And he hers, I imagine?"
"It's true.—I—I haven't counted with either of them.—I never tried."
This was all. The long, almost unbearable pause that followed was broken by a commonplace remark, and the conversation kept in that vein by mutual consent. For, when the inner life is throbbing fast and strong, intimate expression becomes impossible. And above these two men, chatting about the trivial things of their existence, hung a black shadow of dread: a strain of waiting which, minute by minute, grew more tense.
An hour had passed, and the ears of both were strained for the faintest sound in the corridor, when there came an unhoped-for break. Less than forty-eight hours after the first news had reached her in Petersburg, Caroline Dravikine entered the Gregoriev house in Moscow. Piotr, his face alight with relief, showed her into the room where brother and brother-in-law sat together. There she flung off her wraps, commanded tea, and exerted all her power towards distracting the thoughts of those two men who showed not half her courage in the face of a calamity which could touch neither of them as it must touch her, who had kept the one greatly unselfish affection of her life for the sister now lying at the point of death above her.
A second hour slipped round, and the momentary relief of Caroline's arrival passed. The darkening room had grown silent again, and the sense of oppression was becoming unendurable to the three of them, when one of the nurses slipped into the room to say:
"The Princess Gregoriev is in her bed. You can see her if you wish."
A woman's whisper broke the twilight: "Thank God!—Thank God!—She is conscious? She is safe?"
"She cannot be conscious for some hours yet, Madame.—The operation has been a terribly difficult one. Her Ladyship's condition is critical."
Silence. Then a faint groan from Michael's chair.
There followed six hours of waiting, watching, hoping, despairing. The deadened consciousness trembled on the edge of the great void; and neither doctor, nurse, nor relative left the still room in which the soul still delayed. Now and again, after the administration of some stimulant, one of the three, Michael, Vassily, or Caroline would whisper a question, hoping always for an answer suggestive of hope. But the reply was always the same:
"We cannot tell.—Wait."
It was nine o'clock at night before the body stirred naturally for the first time, and a long, fluttering sigh broke from the pallid lips. From Caroline came a faint cry of joy; and then Sophia's great eyes opened, languidly, and her look was turned upon her sister.
"Mother!" she whispered, smiling.
But Weimann was at her elbow. "Do not contradict!" he murmured. Then he turned to Michael.
"You have a son?" he said, quietly.
"Yes!—You mean—" Michael's face had not held this look before.
"He should be here," said the doctor, steadily. "I think she will know you all—yet."
Prince Gregoriev bowed his head upon his breast, and stole from the room. Ten minutes later Piotr was speeding across Moscow in his master's brougham, towards the Corps des Cadets.
* * * * *
Of that long drive homeward across the city, Ivan's only memory was of a long blur of pain that culminated, as they halted at the portals, in a sudden burst of realization. His eyes, tear-shrouded as they were, sought the well-known window on the second floor from which his mother's face had so often greeted him or smiled down a farewell for one more week.—Yes, the window was alight! Then—then she was still—Great God! How did human senses bear such grief as was swelling through him now?
Within the gloomily lighted hall Ivan found himself, quite unexpectedly, face to face with his father, who was apparently awaiting him. Until this moment Ivan had forgotten the very existence of Prince Michael; but now he was startled at the drawn and haggard face that presented itself in the lamp-light, as his father seized him by the arm, and, whispering a few words of the explanation that brought Ivan's heart into his throat, drew him swiftly up-stairs, to the threshold of her room, and there turned, leaving him alone.
Five minutes before the priest, his last rites accomplished, had passed out of the doorway on which the boy now halted, straining his eyes into the room beyond. He saw a bed surrounded by silent figures; and only then became conscious of the meaning of the sound that had filled his ears since his coming: the high, long-drawn, wailing of Sophia's piteous struggle for breath. Immediately over her hung Weimann and one of the nurses, just finishing an injection of strychnine. At the foot of the bed sat Madame Dravikine, white, silent, dry-eyed. Across the room, before the largest of the three ikons, knelt Sonya and old Masha, praying, silently. And upon them all, even the deathlike figure on the bed, was an air of listening, of waiting, of expectancy, which was presently relieved by the apparition of the tall, lean, boyish figure, who wavered for one moment, and then came hurriedly forward.
Ivan was scarcely conscious of his movements. His limbs were trembling, his hands were icy cold and damp with sweat, his tightened throat seemed as if it must break the drawn muscles in its straining. But his great black eyes shone tearless as he walked straight to the bed and stood gazing down upon the quivering face upturned to him. Then, after a moment of preparation, the dreadful breathing ceased, and a faint, shaking voice replaced it:
"Ivan! Dearest! You have come!"
Taking his mother's transparent hands with a movement of infinite gentleness into his own, Ivan dropped upon his knees by the bedside, his two eyes still fixed longingly, hungrily, upon the beloved face. For an instant he was conscious that others in the room were stealing away, and presently, save for one nurse, he was alone with her who, sixteen years before, had brought him into the world.
In the silence that surrounded him Ivan felt his very soul pierced by a medley of unknown emotions, chief of which was the sense that he stood alone and helpless before a separation that he could not bear. And presently that dread was voiced for him, in the strange, weak, tender tones of his mother's voice:
"I must leave you soon now, Ivan."
At last a sob tore its way through his rigid throat, and his answer was given in a passionate whisper: "No, mother! No!"
"Dear, my body is going. You could not wish to keep me always. And I am so glad, Ivan! So glad! My own mother has been here, at my side, all day. So, then, I shall come and comfort you—at least at the first, while it is most sad for you."
"'At first!' Do you think I can stop wanting you, grieving for you—ever?"
She could smile, that dying one, in her great wisdom, at this passionate repudiation of the balm of time. To her, it appeared, the secrets of the dead had been already revealed. "You are still very young, dear boy. None of us of the world can escape this pain of parting. 'Death is the last enemy that shall be overcome.' The time is not long, Ivan, before you will take on man's full estate. Shall you remember then what I, your mother, have suffered—through a man?—through your father, Ivan?"
His expression turned to one of surprise. Never had she spoken, even indirectly, on this subject to him before. But he answered at once: "Yes, mother. I know. I shall remember."
"Ah, yes—keep that remembrance—all of it! You will be a man of power, of influence. When you marry a good woman, Ivan, then think of me most of all. You have in you Gregoriev blood, and all Gregorievs have been like your father. You must change that, break that tradition. Will you remember? Will you—pro—"
The speech had been a long one, and, syllable by syllable, her voice had been growing weaker. Now, with a word half uttered, she settled back, gasping violently, her eyes half shut. Ivan started to his feet; but already the nurse was by the bed, forcing cognac and water down the Princess' throat. Ivan stood still, tightly clasping one of those chilly hands. He was waiting anxiously for her to speak again; for to him their talk was not finished. His mother, however, seemed to think differently. Her hand tightened upon his, but she had the air of one satisfied, content with all things. The boy, watching her, understood that she desired nothing more.
Presently the others stole softly in again, and Sophia drew her sister, by a look, to the bed, beside Ivan, and made one more effort of speech:
"Katrisha—remember—Ivan. He is—mine. When he—goes—to Petersburg—care for him—for—my sake!"
"Ah, yes, Moussia! Yes! Ivan shall be cared for—well!" murmured Caroline, brokenly.
Sophia, her dim eyes resting on them both, smiled.
In the midst of this came an interruption. The smile vanished, and a gleam of dread crossed the face of the Princess, who had started forward a little, and seemed to listen. Indeed, there was the sound of a muffled tread approaching the door. Another instant, and Michael, entering, went to the bedside, and stood looking down upon his wife. White and strange was his face, and Madame Dravikine perceived that his hands were trembling. She saw also, however, how Sophia drew away from him, how the labor of her breathing was increased. Every one in the room started when the dying woman's right hand was raised from the sheet and pointed at the dark and powerful figure bending near.
"You—who have ruined my life—go! Let me die—at last—in peace!" she said, all the silent torture of her wifehood sounding through the wavering, feeble voice.
Michael Gregoriev, with a violent start, drew back. He passed his hand once across his face; then, straightening suddenly, and without another look at the figure on the bed, he turned and strode from the room, leaving the door open.
Behind him, silence fell again. Sophia's breathing and the faint mutter of old Masha's prayers mingled with the wailing of the wind as it rushed round the corner of the house, and the pelt of freezing rain on the windows. In the half-lighted room no one either moved or spoke. Minutes passed. Half an hour. Ivan, standing on his feet, grew desperately nervous and weary. Madame Dravikine, seated in a corner, leaned back in her chair and let her heavy eyelids fall.
Presently, out of the night, came the voice of Ivan Veliki, from the distant Kremlin, booming the eleventh hour. As the last stroke trembled through the room and echoed into silence, Sophia Gregoriev lifted herself suddenly to a sitting posture. Her eyes widened, joyously, upon some distant scene, and a cry of ecstatic wonder broke from her lips. Then, in a breath, the divine light faded. The lips fell apart. It was her son who caught her as she fell.
Yet death held something still in store. Minutes later, as Ivan lifted himself heavily from his kneeling-place beside the bed, and gazed, through tear-filmed eyes, upon the face of his dead, there broke from him a little cry, a cry of joy. In its passage to freedom his mother's soul had stamped her visage with its state. From that face the lines of many years of anguish, mental and physical, had fallen away, leaving the flesh as smooth and fair as that of a girl. The eyes were lightly closed; and, most beautiful of all, her lips had slowly spread into a smile of such transfigured radiance as sent a thrill of intense and wistful longing through the hearts of those that looked on her.
The tragedy of Sophia Gregoriev was at an end; and none seeing her could doubt that she had found in the Unknown Land ample reason and compensation for her life on earth.
There is a certain maxim, unpleasant as it is prevalent, indulged in with great frequency by a certain class of stoical sophists, to the effect that there are many sorrows in life more difficult to bear than that separation from our nearest brought by death. But those men—and especially the women—who have experienced sorrow of both varieties, do not use that proverb.
In his after life Ivan Gregoriev was called upon to bear many burdens of grief; but none of them ever caused him to waver in the assurance that the death of his mother had brought him the bitterest suffering he could be called upon to endure. Before this time—for many recent weeks—he had believed himself cognizant of most forms of unhappiness. So, in a blind, insensate fashion, he was. But the night on which his mother left him opened his eyes to that land of grief where consolation waits on time; it shook from him the last vestige of morbidity; and, lastly, it brought him, too, in generous measure, perception of those beauties of thought and action to be gained by one who accepts his loss unselfishly, in a true and humble spirit.
During the three days that passed before the funeral, Ivan, his brain dulled and heavy with a kind of morbid despair, haunted the room where his mother lay, surrounded with candles the lights of which illumined and intensified the smile of transfiguration still remaining on her peaceful face. To the boy, waiting and watching dumbly, it seemed intolerable that the stillness of that sacred room should be disturbed by the exits and entrances of strangers. In the beginning, he resented even the arrival from her Petersburg convent of his cousin Nathalie; and for the many members of the Blashkov family, distant relatives or mere acquaintances, who throughout her life had left Sophia to bitter loneliness, and came now to stare upon her empty frame, the son felt a hatred too fierce to be expressed in words. They, however, neither knew nor would have cared to learn how the boy heard their every word concerning him and his with wrath unspeakable, and shuddered with misery at their heartless insolence. Nevertheless, the wretchedness hidden under his set, strained mask, was divined by his aunt. Thus, she, for the time much softened by her grief, and feeling also a good deal of curiosity concerning the inner nature of this youth of the haunted eyes, presently sought, by every art of tact and seeming understanding, to open his heart to tears. The fact that she at length succeeded, must be put down to her lasting credit; it having been a deed directly opposed to the traits of her rather cold nature.
Upon the evening after the funeral Madame Dravikine, intensely wearied by the long walk to and from the cemetery, was lying on her couch, eyes closed, her head aching slightly. Nevertheless, when there came a timid knock upon her door, she answered with a summons to enter, and Ivan, responding, went to her impetuously, yielded his hands to her clasp, and allowed himself to be drawn to his knees, at her side, there to listen to gentle words about his mother's love for him, and her ambitions for his future, till she had pierced through the armor of his reserve, and he burst into a storm of sobs the violence of which at first frightened her.
It was the one possible means of relief, however; and Madame Dravikine, wise in her generation, let him weep his bitter revolt away. This lasted nearly an hour, and both were exhausted by the time the tears had ceased, and only an occasional, spasmodic sob gave evidence of the storm that had passed. It was at this juncture—Ivan upon the floor, half sitting, half kneeling, Caroline's arms clasping him close—that the door of the room opened again, quietly, and Nathalie appeared. At sight of the two she halted, uncertainly. But her mother, gently releasing the embarrassed boy, bade her come in; nor when, an instant later, he made the move, would she permit Ivan to go. It was, perhaps, unfair to her that this kindly act of hers should have borne, for all three of them, consequences so momentous, and, to the Countess, so unwelcome. Yet it was certainly this evening which saw the beginning of the single real passion of Ivan's life. Thereafter, in that little gallery of mental portraits carried by each of us in his intimate heart, the beloved form of his dead mother was given a companion picture: that of a girl's face, warm and living, upon which he often gazed with an ardor, a devotion, a longing, rather unboyishly sincere.
Certainly the picture thus enshrined was one not unworthy of strong admiration. For even at fourteen Nathalie Dravikine was very beautiful, in a delicate, flower-like way. Her complexion was clear and pale, the blood which ran beneath it showing only under the stress of some emotion, when it would suffuse her whole face with waves of exquisite color. Her delicate head bore a weight, almost too great, of fine, blue-black hair, just now hanging in a heavy plait to her knees. Her eyes, large and velvety as Ivan's own, were, however, of a shade indescribable, chameleon-like: one day varying between beryl and aqua-marine, anon of a light hazel, and finally, in moments of excitement, grief, or joy, of a deep, baffling black. Hitherto, Ivan had been undecided about their color; but to-night, as he saw them run their gamut from light to that tender dark, he felt a strange, quivering half-fear, half-joy, stirring his heart; and in one moment it had become impossible for him to look her in the eyes again and retain any sort of composure. Moreover, as he sat, red-eyed and conscious, in a chair between aunt and cousin, it seemed to him as if some one were pouring a cool balm over the burning wound within him: as if, already, his mother's strange promise were finding fulfilment, and she herself, or her fair spirit, stood at his side, her gentle hand upon his shoulder, a smile of the old, loving companionship in her deep eyes. He did not know whether it were minutes or hours before, with a long sigh, he rose, kissed his aunt, drew back with flaming face from Nathalie's tentative advance, but finally, with throbbing heart, just touched her cheek in the usual place, and then ran off, glad of the darkness in the passage outside. Unlike the traditional young lover, however, he was not destined to spend the dark hours in waking dreams of his love. Nay, the pretty child did him better service. That night, for the first time in ninety-six weary hours, he slept, soundly and dreamlessly, till Alexei came to call him, when he rose with a feeling of great strangeness, of irrevocable change, upon him, as he faced a final joyless day.
There was no help for it. He must return, that afternoon, to the Corps; where now there would be no weekly breaks in his monotony of unhappiness. So much he learned in a brief, uncomfortable interview with his father, immediately after breakfast. And when he was dismissed, he understood that it was Prince Michael's farewell to him for an indefinite period: a fact which troubled him very little in itself, however; the less so since, when he reached his room again, he found in his hand an envelope containing a princely sum of pocket-money—which was to last him through the spring. Wearily and drearily, however, the boy, with the aid of his serf, packed the few garments he had brought with him, and then went off to hang about the closed door of his aunt's suite of rooms, in which, also packing, was Nathalie: that strange, new Nathalie, born for him fifteen hours before.
He had reached a great depth of unhappiness when suddenly, about noon-time, the gate to fairy-land opened and he was admitted by Celestine, who had been sent, indeed, to seek him. In a few, whirling moments, he found himself eating an early dejeuner a la fourchette with his aunt and cousin, after which he drove with them to the Petersburg station, and there, upon the noisy, crowded platform, reached his empyrean.
Madame Dravikine and her maid were in the carriage reserved for them, arranging their bags and rugs. But Nathalie had remained—ah, was it not of her own choice?—outside, for three minutes longer. Their few words were as simple and as awkward as inexperience could make them; but they were afterwards gone over, a hundred times, at least, by Ivan, who, at each repetition, became more impressed by the brilliance, the wit, the savoir-faire, the repose of Mademoiselle Nathalie's brief and stumbling formalities. Then—then Madame Dravikine was calling her daughter. A whistle blew. The second bell rang loudly. Officials jangled hastily down the platform; and Ivan, his heart throbbing in his throat, suddenly caught his cousin's slender figure in his arms, held her for one endless instant, found her lips with his own, and found himself, five minutes later, gazing blindly down an empty track, while the footman at his side stared at him in stupid wonderment. So, coloring with shame, joyously angry, broken by the long prospect of ensuing grief and longing—not for one being loved and lost, but for two—he entered the carriage which was to carry him across Moscow, from heaven to hell: from the Petersburg station to the stone buildings of the Corps des Cadets, where, in the ensuing weeks, Ivan Gregoriev, already an adept in enduring the various forms of school-boy misery, was about to begin upon a lesson before which more than one grown man would have visibly shrunk; and under which Ivan himself, before it was finished, had become appalled at his own capacity for suffering.
* * * * *
During every age of humanity, in every state and stage of human civilization, there have been certain great-souled beings who, for the sake of a totally inadequate reward, have delivered themselves over, bound and helpless, into the hands of a task-master severe, relentless, all-demanding, but wise and just beyond every other teacher of mankind. The greater number of these daring persons have, in the end, accomplished their schooling, done their tasks, and reached their goal; because, once in the toils, they must needs go forward, or die. A very few of these toilers, Hindoos ascending towards Arahatship, Christians aspiring to certain heaven by way of certain martyrdom, have been given beforehand an exact estimate of the price they were to pay. But all others, the vast majority of those demanding of nature her divinest gifts, have mortgaged themselves blindly for an amount, and at a rate of interest, unknown, undreamed of. Of these, Ivan was one. At the age of sixteen he first felt his power, made his demand. Consciously or unconsciously—probably both—he cried to Fate: "Behold me! I hold a message for mankind! The Spirit of Music will deign to make use of me as her instrument. I am summoned to the world-service. Give me, then, that which shall make me great enough to bring this gift of mine to its highest issue, that my mistress may find her priest worthy of acclaim and of advancement!"
This is a cry that Fate is bound to answer, for it is the cry of assurance. Hearing his words, the Great One stood before the boy and considered him thoughtfully. It may be that he was given secret warning of the meaning of his demand. This it is not for us to know. But, knowing or unknowing, he repeated his cry, and was answered. There and then, with this mysterious, perverse wisdom, his task-master began his training, blinding the eyes of the pupil to all save the few immediate steps along the steep road that lay before, permitting him to advance only step by step, under her guidance. Ivan yielded himself as clay to those powerful hands; but the clay was pure, and, because of its youth, more pliable than are those who know themselves only in later years. And now, had he wished it, his master would not have let him go.
Poor Ivan! My poor hero! How was he lashed through that long spring, and the summer that he spent alone at ghost-haunted Klin, where every corner of house and garden spoke to him of his mother. How pitilessly was he dragged through depths of grief and solitude and hopeless longing; till he stumbled, half fainting, deep in the slough of despair! Hopeless and heart-sick, forgetting, and, he believed, forgotten by, every living joy, he fought his battle of temperament hand to hand, imagining every contest lost. Nothing of his past, his present or his future, was clear before him. He was as one crying in the wilderness; and no echo of an answer caught his ear. So numb was he from emotional experience by the summer's end, that, in the second week of September, he returned to Moscow for his second winter in the Corps, with hardly more than a dull and throbbing sense of dread.
The cold weather set in early that year. October and November passed in a whirl of powdery snow and winds that cut through the heaviest furs. As the time of Christmas fasts and feasts drew on, Ivan began to long for what he believed would not be granted him—the spending of his holiday week in comparative freedom at home. He was, however, too proud to beg such permission; and not one word from Prince Michael did he receive. It was, then, not till the very hour that his companions were gayly rushing off to their various conveyances of departure, that Ivan, standing ruefully in the snow-filled court-yard, perceived Piotr tramping through the outer gate, looking about him, undecided as to the right entrance.
That night Ivan slept beneath his father's roof for the first time in nine months; and in the gray of early morning there came to him an idea of radiant promise. The pocket-money sent him in September—five hundred rubles, the existence of which his companions had fortunately never surmised, remained almost untouched. Ivan was extravagant only in the purchase of music-paper and harmony-books, which are not matters of great cost. Why, then, should he not drive to-day to the Tverskaia, and there select Christmas presents for those few to whom it would be a delight to give? The custom, not at that day so prevalent in Russia as now, was still by no means unusual. And though Piotr and Alexei and old Masha, besides, as a matter of duty, his father, were the names on Ivan's written list, they were all of them meaningless compared with that one gift for her for whom no gift in the world could be sufficiently fine or costly.
Through that whole morning he dragged the sleigh and patient Alexei up and down the Tverskaia, while, the other presents long since selected, he went from shop to shop, dismayed anew at every place by the price asked for those gems which alone seemed fitting for the object of his gift. Still, in the end, he was comparatively satisfied; nor was his choice one likely to displease any feminine soul the world over. For the little, pearl-studded bracelet that lay in a blue-velvet case in the breast-pocket of Ivan's coat was, considering the boy's inexperience, in astonishingly appropriate taste; and well calculated to recall him to the mind of the girl of whom he had dreamed through nine long months.
The remainder of the day belonged to the gods; for Ivan managed to devote more than two hours in the penning of a moderately long, rather stiff little letter addressed to his cousin Nathalie, at the Catherine Institute for the Daughters of Nobility, in Petersburg. Moreover, this done, there was still the bracelet to be wrapped, tied and stamped. Then, after his return from the nearest official registry, there remained the dear delight of dusk-dreams, which, to-day, concerned the probable reception of his gift, the reading of his letter, and, climax of climaxes, the probability of an acknowledgment!
Ivan's holiday week passed slowly, and there came no word from Petersburg. On each of the last three mornings he rose tremulous with hope; on each of the nights retired praying for a speedy morrow. But instead of any joy, these days brought him only unexpected trials. His father, it seemed, had suddenly become much interested in his son's straight, strong presence, and took opportunity to keep him, for long periods every day, in his company, discussing with him the details of his life at the Corps, and the possibilities of the future. Each conference brought only strengthened conviction of his father's insistence upon a military-diplomatic career for him, and of the futility of the slightest hope of leading that musician's life for which he had been created. To-day, the least suggestion of his secret desires might bring upon him a storm which would, then and there, forever annihilate them. At this day his own, spiritual guide had become a thing of little importance, in Ivan's mind, compared with the relentless strength which his father could exhibit at an instant's warning. And, because he had not yet learned that supreme faith in destiny to which he afterwards did attain, Ivan carried this curious trouble with him through many a long day, nor cast it wholly off till the world had changed for him.
On the day after New Year's Ivan returned drearily to the Corps, where, after a week of aimless dejection, that institute, following its invariable custom, brought him an unlooked-for blow. It was in the form of a small packet, bearing the Petersburg mark, which, on opening, he found to contain a little pearl-studded bracelet, and a note that ran as follows:
"MY DEAR IVAN MIKHAILOVITCH,—The mother-superior of the Catherine Institute has forwarded to me a gift and a note designed by you for your cousin Nathalie.
"I very much regret that you should have made such a mistake as to think that little girls either receive jewelry from any persons other than their parents, or, indeed, at my daughter's age, receive it at all. Nor do the pupils of the Institute accept communications from any persons but those whose names are upon a list prepared by the parents of the inmate.
"Wishing you the compliments of the season, and health under the blessing of your patron saint, accept, my dear nephew, the considerations of my sincere regard.
"CAROLINE IVANOVNA DRAVIKINE."
Ivan read this short missive till he had it by rote. At each repetition it struck him as more cutting, more cruel, more unjust. His aunt had certainly intended a rebuke; but she hardly realized either the over-sensitiveness of Ivan's nature or the extent of his boyish feeling for his cousin, whom he concluded to be responsible, by some unfathomable pique, for his humiliating discomfiture.
As a matter of actual fact, Nathalie had never received either letter or gift. She, like Ivan, had left her school during Christmas week to spend the festival with her father and mother. It was not till two days after the departure of Mademoiselle Dravikine from the institute that the packet and the letter from Moscow had been placed in the hands of the mother-superior. That worthy woman, examining the list of her pupil's correspondents, found upon it but one person from Moscow—Madame la Princesse Gregoriev, lately deceased, whose name she now took the opportunity of erasing from the authorized list. This done, it remained for her to ponder upon the subsequent conclusion of this very unusual incident. Undoubtedly something must be done, if not with the letter at least with the packet, which, even to her unworldly eyes, had about it a suggestion of gold and gems that could not but bring a flutter of interest to a heart which, long as it had been consecrated to unworldly things, was still of the eternal feminine. It was not till the good, stupid soul had resorted to earnest prayer, that she hit upon the inspiration of casting all responsibility upon the capable shoulders of her pupil's mamma, the worshipful Countess Dravikine.
This august lady, though it did not occur to her to seek council with the Most High, found adequate means of disposing of the undesirable gift. It was a matter of considerable satisfaction to her that Nathalie had not been made cognizant of the little affair. Yet the watchful mother would have been not a little amazed could she have read the depths of her demure daughter's mind, and found there a vague but unquestionable disappointment at having in so many months received neither word nor message from her Moscow cousin. It was odd that Madame Dravikine should not have realized, by this time, that her daughter was the child of her own heart: and, since her childhood, Caroline Ivanovna had certainly never failed to recognize the least of her own conquests. Was it possible that the woman now high in the favor of a second reign, should have a dunce for a daughter? Yet the mother would probably have felt something other than satisfaction had she suspected how keenly Mademoiselle Nathalie had studied her tact and her tactics. It might be flattery of the sincerest order; but it must, nevertheless, prove rather too trying for comfort.
It had been in the August of the year 1843 that the court journal of Petersburg announced, at the head of its budget from Tsarskoe-Selo, at which fashionable resort the Dravikines were wont to spend part of each summer, the birth of a daughter to the popular and fascinating Countess, Caroline Ivanovna. Within the month there began to pour in upon that lady a flood of congratulations which, upon the occasions of the first calls, were astutely turned to tactful condolences, it being at length understood that, while the Count was satisfied with the sex of his child, the Countess daily vibrated between rage and tears that she should not have given her house an heir. And since it was unquestionably madame who ruled the family, young Mademoiselle Nathalie, despite her remarkable eyes, her curling black hair and her rose-leaf skin, came to spend her babyhood in the care of the Dravikine serfs; until at the age of six she talked like a kitchen-maid, and had the manners of a stable-boy—or a Grand-Duke.
Now, in the autumn of 1849, Count Dravikine, whose promotions came about as regularly as his wife's allowance was paid, had just been created Assistant Minister of Public Works; and the dignity thereby superinduced in him was in exact proportion to the height of his upward step. Upon a November afternoon, then, as his Excellency was returning from the Council, he came suddenly upon his daughter, standing in the court-yard of his house, bare-headed, arms akimbo, feet spread apart in the attitude of a jockey, her white bonnet thrown upon the muddy flags before her, her shrill voice raised to a scream, as she pelted her helpless nurse with a string of oaths that would have done credit to his Iron Majesty, all for presuming to interrupt her game within doors in order to take her for the prescribed daily walk in the gardens of the Tauride.