"I like them because they are so essentially Russian," he said to me, pointing out a red spotted cow and a green giraffe. "No other country could have been responsible for them."
Poor boy, I had not the heart to tell him that they had been made in Germany.
However, as I have said, in spite of his painted toys and his operas he was, at the end of three weeks, a miserable man. Anybody could see that he was miserable, and Vera Michailovna saw it. She took him in hand, and at once his life was changed. I was present at the beginning of the change.
It was the evening of Rasputin's murder. The town of course talked of nothing else—it had been talking, without cessation, since two o'clock that afternoon. The dirty, sinister figure of the monk with his magnetic eyes, his greasy beard, his robe, his girdle, and all his other properties, brooded gigantic over all of us. He was brought into immediate personal relationship with the humblest, most insignificant creature in the city, and with him incredible shadows and shapes, from Dostoeffsky, from Gogol, from Lermontov, from Nekrasov—from whom you please—all the shadows of whom one is eternally subconsciously aware in Russia—faced us and reminded us that they were not shadows but realities.
The details of his murder were not accurately known—it was only sure that, at last, after so many false rumours of attempted assassination, he was truly gone, and this world would be bothered by his evil presence no longer.
Pictures formed in one's mind as one listened. The day was fiercely cold, and this seemed to add to the horror of it all—to the Hoffmannesque fantasy of the party, the lights, the supper, and the women, the murder with its mixture of religion and superstition and melodrama, the body flung out at last so easily and swiftly, on to the frozen river. How many souls must have asked themselves that day—"Why, if this is so easy, do we not proceed further? A man dies more simply than you thought—only resolution... only resolution."
I know that that evening I found it impossible to remain in my lonely rooms; I went round to the Markovitch flat. I found Vera Michailovna and Bohun preparing to go out; they were alone in the flat. He looked at me apprehensively. I think that I appeared to him at that time a queer, moody, ill-disposed fellow, who was too old to understand the true character of young men's impetuous souls. It may be that he was right....
"Will you come with us, Ivan Andreievitch?" Vera Michailovna asked me. "We're going to the little cinema on Ekateringofsky—a piece of local colour for Mr. Bohun."
"I'll come anywhere with you," I said. "And we'll talk about Rasputin."
Bohun was only too ready. The affair seemed to his romantic soul too good to be true. Because we none of us knew, at that time, what had really happened, a fine field was offered for every rumour and conjecture.
Bohun had collected some wonderful stories. I saw that, apart from Rasputin, he was a new man—something had happened to him. It was not long before I discovered that what had happened was that Vera Michailovna had been kind to him. Vera's most beautiful quality was her motherliness. I do not intend that much-abused word in any sentimental fashion. She did not shed tears over a dirty baby in the street, nor did she drag decrepit old men into the flat to give them milk and fifty kopecks,—but let some one appeal to the strength and bravery in her, and she responded magnificently. I believe that to be true of very many Russian women, who are always their most natural selves when something appeals to the best in them. Vera Michailovna had a strength and a security in her protection of souls weaker than her own that had about it nothing forced or pretentious or self-conscious—it was simply the natural woman acting as she was made to act. She saw that Bohun was lonely and miserable and, now that the first awkwardness was passed and he was no longer a stranger, she was able, gently and unobtrusively, to show him that she was his friend. I think that she had not liked him at first; but if you want a Russian to like you, the thing to do is to show him that you need him. It is amazing to watch their readiness to receive dependent souls whom they are in no kind of way qualified to protect—but they do their best, and although the result is invariably bad for everybody's character, a great deal of affection is created.
As we walked to the cinema she asked him, very gently and rather shyly, about his home and his people and English life. She must have asked all her English guests the same questions, but Bohun, I fancy, gave her rather original answers. He let himself go, and became very young and rather absurd, but also sympathetic. We were, all three of us, gay and silly, as one very often suddenly is, in Russia, in the middle of even disastrous situations. It had been a day of most beautiful weather, the mud was frozen, the streets clean, the sky deep blue, the air harshly sweet. The night blazed with stars that seemed to swing through the haze of the frost like a curtain moved, very gently, by the wind. The Ekateringofsky Canal was blue with the stars lying like scraps of quicksilver all about it, and the trees and houses were deep black in outline above it. I could feel that the people in the street were happy. The murder of Rasputin was a sign, a symbol; his figure had been behind the scenes so long that it had become mythical, something beyond human power—and now, behold, it was not beyond human power at all, but was there like a dead stinking fish. I could see the thought in their minds as they hurried along: "Ah, he is gone, the dirty fellow—Slava Bogu—the war will soon be over."
I, myself, felt the influence. Perhaps now the war would go better, perhaps Stunner and Protopopoff and the rest of them would be dismissed, and clean men... it was still time for the Czar.... And I heard Bohun, in his funny, slow, childish Russian: "But you understand, Vera Michailovna, that my father knows nothing about writing, nothing at all—so that it wouldn't matter very much what he said.... Yes, he's military—been in the Army always...."
Along the canal the little trees that in the spring would be green flames were touched now very faintly by silver frost. A huge barge lay black against the blue water; in the middle of it the rain had left a pool that was not frozen and under the light of a street lamp blazed gold—very strange the sudden gleam.... We passed the little wooden shelter where an old man in a high furry cap kept oranges and apples and nuts and sweets in paper. One candle illuminated his little store. He looked out from the darkness behind him like an old prehistoric man. His shed was peaked like a cocked hat, an old fat woman sat beside him knitting and drinking a glass of tea....
"I'm sorry, Vera Michailovna, that you can't read English...." Bohun's careful voice was explaining, "Only Wells and Locke and Jack London...."
I heard Vera Michailovna's voice. Then Bohun again:
"No, I write very slowly—yes, I correct an awful lot...."
We stumbled amongst the darkness of the cobbles; where pools had been the ice crackled beneath our feet, then the snow scrunched.... I loved the sound, the sharp clear scent of the air, the pools of stars in the sky, the pools of ice at our feet, the blue like the thinnest glass stretched across the sky. I felt the poignancy of my age, of the country where I was, of Bohun's youth and confidence, of the war, of disease and death—but behind it all happiness at the strange sense that I had to-night, that came to me sometimes from I knew not where, that the undercurrent of the river of life was stronger than the eddies and whirlpools on its surface, that it knew whither it was speeding, and that the purpose behind its force was strong and true and good....
"Oh," I heard Bohun say, "I'm not really very young, Vera Michailovna. After all, it's what you've done rather than your actual years...."
"You're older than you'll ever be again, Bohun, if that's any consolation to you," I said.
We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers' band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing "The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts," and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers' boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.
No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly—kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier—I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours.... I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity....
The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party.... The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger... my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun's happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.
There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants' dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.
The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.
He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.
The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the "Drama of the Woman without a Soul," but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.
We took deep breaths of the freshness and purity; cheerful noises were on every side of us, the band and laughter; a church bell with its deep note and silver tinkle; the snow was vast and deep and hard all about us. We walked back very happily to Anglisky Prospect. Vera Michailovna said good-night to me and went in. Before he followed her, Bohun turned round to me:
"Isn't she splendid?" he whispered. "By God, Durward, I'd do anything for her.... Do you think she likes me?"
"Why not?" I asked.
"I want her to—frightfully. I'd do anything for her. Do you think she'd like to learn English?"
"I don't know," I said. "Ask her."
He disappeared. As I walked home I felt about me the new interaction of human lives and souls—ambitions, hopes, youth. And the crisis, behind these, of the world's history made up, as it was, of the same interactions of human and divine. The fortunes and adventures of the soul on its journey towards its own country, its hopes and fears, struggles and despairs, its rejections and joy and rewards—its death and destruction—all this in terms of human life and the silly blundering conditions of this splendid glorious earth.... Here was Vera Michailovna and her husband, Nina and Boris Grogoff, Bohun and Lawrence, myself and Semyonov—a jumbled lot—with all our pitiful self-important little histories, our crimes and virtues so insignificant and so quickly over, and behind them the fine stuff of the human and divine soul, pushing on through all raillery and incongruity to its goal. Why, I had caught up, once more, that interest in life that I had, I thought, so utterly lost! I stopped for a moment by the frozen canal and laughed to myself. The drama of life was, after all, too strong for my weak indifference. I felt that night as though I had stepped into a new house with lighted rooms and fires and friends waiting for me. Afterwards, I was so closely stirred by the sense of impending events that I could not sleep, but sat at my window watching the faint lights of the sky shift and waver over the frozen ice....
We were approaching Christmas. The weather of these weeks was wonderfully beautiful, sharply cold, the sky pale bird's-egg blue, the ice and the snow glittering, shining with a thousand colours. There began now a strange relationship between Markovitch and myself.
There was something ineffectual and pessimistic about me that made Russians often feel in me a kindred soul. At the Front, Russians had confided in me again and again, but that was not astonishing, because they confided in every one. Nevertheless, they felt that I was less English than the rest, and rather blamed me in their minds, I think, for being so. I don't know what it was that suddenly decided Markovitch to "make me part of his life." I certainly did not on my side make any advances.
One evening he came to see me and stayed for hours. Then he came two or three times within the following fortnight. He gave me the effect of not caring in the least whether I were there or no, whether I replied or remained silent, whether I asked questions or simply pursued my own work. And I, on my side, had soon in my consciousness his odd, irascible, nervous, pleading, shy and boastful figure painted permanently, so that his actual physical presence seemed to be unimportant. There he was, as he liked to stand up against the white stove in my draughty room, his rather dirty nervous hands waving in front of me, his thin hair on end, his ragged beard giving his eyes an added expression of anxiety. His body was a poor affair, his legs thin and uncertain, an incipient stomach causing his waistcoat suddenly to fall inwards somewhere half-way up his chest, his feet in ill-shapen boots, and his neck absurdly small inside his high stiff collar. His stiff collar jutting sharply into his weak chin was perhaps his most striking feature. Most Russians of his careless habits wore soft collars or students' shirts that fastened tight about the neck, but this high white collar was with Markovitch a sign and a symbol, the banner of his early ambitions; it was the first and last of him. He changed it every day, it was always high and sharp, gleaming and clean, and it must have hurt him very much. He wore with it a shabby black tie that ran as far up the collar as it could go, and there was a sense of pathos and struggle about this tie as though it were a wild animal trying to escape over an imprisoning wall. He would stand clutching my stove as though it assured his safety in a dangerous country; then suddenly he would break away from it and start careering up and down my room, stopping for an instant to gaze through my window at the sea and the ships, then off again, swinging his arms, his anxious eyes searching everywhere for confirmation of the ambitions that still enflamed him.
For the root and soul of him was that he was greatly ambitious. He had been born, I learnt, in some small town in the Moscow province, and his father had been a schoolmaster in the place—a kind of Perodonov, I should imagine, from the things that Markovitch told me about him. The father, at any rate, was a mean, malicious, and grossly sensual creature, and he finally lost his post through his improper behaviour towards some of his own small pupils. The family then came to evil days, and at a very early age young Markovitch was sent to Petrograd to earn what he could with his wits. He managed to secure the post of a secretary to an old fellow who was engaged in writing the life of his grandfather—a difficult book, as the grandfather had been a voluminous letter-writer, and this correspondence had to be collected and tabulated. For months, and even years, young Markovitch laboriously endeavoured to arrange these old yellow letters, dull, pathetic, incoherent. His patron grew slowly imbecile, but through the fogs that increasingly besieged him saw only this one thing clearly, that the letters must be arranged. He kept Markovitch relentlessly at his table, allowing him no pleasures, feeding him miserably and watching him personally undress every evening lest he should have secreted certain letters somewhere on his body. There was something almost sadist apparently in the old gentleman's observation of Markovitch's labours.
It was during these years that Markovitch's ambitions took flame. He was always as he told me having "amazing ideas." I asked him—What kind of ideas? "Ideas by which the world would be transformed.... Those letters were all old, you know, and dusty, and yellow, and eaten, some of them, by rats, and they'd lie on the floor and I'd try to arrange them in little piles according to their dates.... There'd be rows of little packets all across the floor..., and then somehow, when one's back was turned, they'd move, all of their own wicked purpose—and one would have to begin all over again, bending with one's back aching, and seeing always the stupid handwriting.... I hated it, Ivan Andreievitch, of course I hated it, but I had to do it for the money. And I lived in his house, too, and as he got madder it wasn't pleasant. He wanted me to sleep with him because he saw things in the middle of the night, and he'd catch hold of me and scream and twist his fat legs round me... no, it wasn't agreeable. On ne sympatichne saff-szem. He wasn't a nice man at all. But while I was sorting the letters these ideas would come to me and I would be on fire.... It seemed to me that I was to save the world, and that it would not be difficult if only one might be resolute enough. That was the trouble—to be resolute. One might say to oneself, 'On Friday October 13th I will do so and so, and then on Saturday November 3rd I will do so and so, and then on December 24th it will be finished.' But then on October 13th one is, may be, in quite another mood—one is even ill possibly—and so nothing is done and the whole plan is ruined. I would think all day as to how I would make myself resolute, and I would say when old Feodor Stepanovitch would pinch my ear and deny me more soup, 'Ah ha, you wait, you old pig-face—you wait until I've mastered my resolution—and then I'll show you!' I fancied, for instance, that if I could command myself sufficiently I could just go to people and say, 'You must have bath-houses like this and this'—I had all the plans ready, you know, and in the hottest room you have couches like this, and you have a machine that beats your back—so, so, so—not those dirty old things that leave bits of green stuff all over you—and so on, and so on. But better ideas than that, ideas about poverty and wealth, no more kings, you know, nor police, but not your cheap Socialism that fellows like Boris Nicolaievitch shout about; no, real happiness, so that no one need work as I did for an old beast who didn't give you enough soup, and have to keep quiet, all the same and say nothing. Ideas came like flocks of birds, so many that I couldn't gather them all but had sometimes to let the best ones go. And I had no one to talk to about them—only the old cook and the girl in the kitchen, who had a child by old Feodor that he wouldn't own,—but she swore it was his, and told every one the time when it happened and where it was and all.... Then the old man fell downstairs and broke his neck, and he'd left me some money to go on with the letters...."
At this point Markovitch's face would become suddenly triumphantly malevolent, like the face of a schoolboy who remembers a trick that he played on a hated master. "Do you think I went on with them, Ivan Andreievitch? no, not I... but I kept the money."
"That was wrong of you," I would say gravely.
"Yes—wrong of course. But hadn't he been wrong always? And after all, isn't everybody wrong? We Russians have no conscience, you know, about anything, and that's simply because we can't make up our minds as to what's wrong and what's right, and even if we do make up our minds it seems a pity not to let yourself go when you may be dead to-morrow. Wrong and right.... What words!... Who knows? Perhaps it would have been the greatest wrong in the world to go on with the letters, wasting everybody's time, and for myself, too, who had so many ideas, that life simply would never be long enough to think them all out."
It seemed that shortly after this he had luck with a little invention, and this piece of luck was, I should imagine, the ruin of his career, as pieces of luck so often are the ruin of careers. I could never understand what precisely his invention was, it had something to do with the closing of doors, something that you pulled at the bottom of the door, so that it shut softly and didn't creak with the wind. A Jew bought the invention, and gave Markovitch enough money to lead him confidently to believe that his fortune was made. Of course it was not, he never had luck with an invention again, but he was bursting with pride and happiness, set up house for himself in a little flat on the Vassily Ostrov—and met Vera Michailovna. I wish I could give some true idea of the change that came over him when he reached this part of his story. When he had spoken of his childhood, his father, his first struggles to live, his life with his old patron, he had not attempted to hide the evil, the malice, the envy that there was in his soul. He had even emphasised it, I might fancy, for my own especial benefit, so that I might see that he was not such a weak, romantic, sentimental creature as I had supposed—although God knows I had never fancied him romantic. Now when he spoke of his wife his whole body changed. "She married me out of pity," he told me. "I hated her for that, and I loved her for that, and I hate and love her for it still."
Here I interrupted him and told him that perhaps it was better that he should not confide in me the inner history of his marriage.
"Why not?" he asked me suspiciously.
"Because I'm only an acquaintance, you scarcely know me. You may regret it afterwards when you're in another mood."
"Oh, you English!" he said contemptuously; "you're always to be trusted. As a nation you're not, but as one man to another you're not interested enough in human nature to give away secrets."
"Well, tell me what you like," I said. "Only I make no promises about anything."
"I don't want you to," he retorted; "I'm only telling you what every one knows. Wasn't I aware from the first moment that she married me out of pity, and didn't they all know it, and laugh and tell her she was a fool. She knew that she was a fool too, but she was very young, and thought it fine to sacrifice herself for an idea. I was ill and I talked to her about my future. She believed in it, she thought I could do wonderful things if only some one looked after me. And at the same time despised me for wanting to be looked after.... And then I wasn't so ugly as I am now. She had some money of her own, and we took in lodgers, and I loved her, as I love her now, so that I could kiss her feet and then hate her because she was kind to me. She only cares for her sister, Nina; and because I was jealous of the girl and hated to see Vera good to her I had her to live with us, just to torture myself and show that I was stronger than all of them if I liked.... And so I am, than her beastly uncle the doctor and all the rest of them—let him do what he likes...."
It was the first time that he had mentioned Semyonov.
"He's coming back," I said.
"Oh, is he?" snarled Markovitch. "Well, he'd better look out." Then his voice, his face, even the shape of his body, changed once again. "I'm not a bad man, Ivan Andreievitch. No, I'm not.... You think so of course, and I don't mind if you do. But I love Vera, and if she loved me I could do great things. I could astonish them all. I hear them say, 'Ah, that Nicholas Markovitch, he's no good... with his inventions. What did a fine woman like that marry such a man for?' I know what they say. But I'm strong if I like. I gave up drink when I wished. I can give up anything. And when I succeed they'll see—and then we'll have enough money not to need these people staying with us and despising us...."
"No one despises you, Nicolai Leontievitch," I interrupted.
"And what does it matter if they do?" he fiercely retorted. "I despise them—all of them. It's easy for them when everything goes well with them, but with me everything goes wrong. Everything!... But I'm strong enough to make everything go right—and I will."
This was, for the time, the end of his confidences. He had, I was sure, something further to tell me, some plan, some purpose, but he decided suddenly that he would keep it to himself, although I am convinced that he had only told me his earlier story in order that I might understand this new idea of his. But I did not urge him to tell me. My interest in life had not yet sufficiently revived; it was, after all, none of my business.
For the rest, it seemed that he had been wildly enthusiastic about the war at its commencement. He had had great ideas about Russia, but now he had given up all hope. Russia was doomed; and Germany, whom he hated and admired, would eat her up. And what did it matter? Perhaps Germany would "run Russia," and then there would be order and less thieving, and this horrible war would stop. How foolish it had been to suppose that any one in Russia would ever do anything. They were all fools and knaves and idle in Russia—like himself.
And so he left me.
On Christmas Eve, late in the evening, I went into a church. It was my favourite church in Petrograd, rising at the English Prospect end of the Quay, with its white rounded towers pure and quiet and modest.
I had been depressed all day. I had not been well, and the weather was harsh, a bitterly cold driving wind beating down the streets and stroking the ice of the canal into a dull grey colour. Christmas seemed to lift into sharper, bitterer irony the ghastly horrors of this end endless war. Last Christmas I had been too ill to care, and the Christmas before I had been at the Front when the war had been young and full of hope, and I had seen enough nobility and self-sacrifice to be reassured about the true stuff of the human soul. Now all that seemed to be utterly gone. On the one side my mind was filled with my friends, John Trenchard and Marie Ivanovna. The sacrifice that they had made seemed to be wicked and useless. I had lost altogether that conviction of the continuance and persistence of their souls that I had, for so long, carried with me. They were dead, dead... simply dead. There at the Front one had believed in many things. Here in this frozen and starving town, with every ghost working against every human, there was assurance of nothing—only deep foreboding and an ominous silence. The murder of Rasputin still hung over every head. The first sense of liberty had passed, and now his dirty malicious soul seemed to be watching us all, reminding us that he had not left us, but was waiting for the striking of some vast catastrophe that the friends whom he had left behind him to carry on his work were preparing. It was this sense of moving so desperately and so hopelessly in the dark that was with me. Any chance that there had seemed to be of Russia rising from the war with a free soul appeared now to be utterly gone. Before our eyes the powers that ruled us were betraying us, laughing at us, selling us. And we did not know who was our enemy, who our friend, whom to believe, of whom to take counsel. Peculation and lying and the basest intrigue was on every side of us, hunger for which there was no necessity, want in a land packed with everything. I believe that there may have been very well another side to the picture, but at that time we could not see; we did not wish to see, we were blindfolded men....
I entered the church and found that the service was over. I passed through the aisle into the little rounded cup of dark and gold where the altars were. Here there were still collected a company of people, kneeling, some of them, in front of the candles, others standing there, motionless like statues, their hands folded, gazing before them. The candles flung a mist of dim embroidery upon the walls, and within the mist the dark figures of the priests moved to and fro. An old priest with long white hair was standing behind a desk close to me, and reading a long prayer in an unswerving monotonous voice. There was the scent of candles and cold stone and hot human breath in the little place. The tawdry gilt of the Ikons glittered in the candle-light, and an echo of the cold wind creeping up the long dark aisle blew the light about so that the gilt was like flashing piercing eyes. I wrapped my Shuba closely about me, and stood there lost in a hazy, indefinite dream.
I was comforted and touched by the placid, mild, kindly faces of those standing near me. "No evil here...." I thought. "Only ignorance, and for that others are responsible."
I was lost in my dream and I did not know of what I was dreaming. The priest's voice went on, and the lights flickered, and it was as though some one, a long way off, were trying to give me a message that it was important that I should hear, important for myself and for others. There came over me, whence I know not, a sudden conviction of the fearful power of Evil, a sudden realisation, as though I had been shown something, a scene or a picture or writing which had brought this home to me.... The lights seemed to darken, the priest's figure faded, and I felt as though the message that some one had been trying to deliver to me had been withdrawn. I waited a moment, looking about me in a bewildered fashion, as though I had in reality just woken from sleep. Then I left the church.
Outside the cold air was intense. I walked to the end of the Quay and leaned on the stone parapet. The Neva seemed vast like a huge, white, impending shadow; it swept in a colossal wave of frozen ice out to the far horizon, where tiny, twinkling lights met it and closed it in. The bridges that crossed it held forth their lights, and there were the gleams, like travelling stars, of the passing trams, but all these were utterly insignificant against the vast body of the contemptuous ice. On the farther shore the buildings rose in a thin, tapering line, looking as though they had been made of black tissue paper, against the solid weight of the cold, stony sky. The Peter and Paul Fortress, the towers of the Mohammedan Mosque were thin, immaterial, ghostly, and the whole line of the town was simply a black pencilled shadow against the ice, smoke that might be scattered with one heave of the force of the river. The Neva was silent, but beneath that silence beat what force and power, what contempt and scorn, what silent purposes?
I saw then, near me, and gazing, like myself, on to the river the tall, broad figure of a peasant, standing, without movement, black against the sky.
He seemed to dominate the scene, to be stronger and more contemptuous than the ice itself, but also to be in sympathy with it.
I made some movement, and he turned and looked at me. He was a fine man, with a black beard and noble carriage. He passed down the Quay and I turned towards home.
About four o'clock on Christmas afternoon I took some flowers to Vera Michailovna. I found that the long sitting-room had been cleared of all furniture save the big table and the chairs round it. About a dozen middle-aged ladies were sitting about the table and solemnly playing "Lotto." So serious were they that they scarcely looked up when I came in. Vera Michailovna said my name and they smiled and some of them bowed, but their eyes never left the numbered cards. "Dvar... Peedecat... Cheteeriy... Zurock Tree... Semdecet Voisim"... came from a stout and good-natured lady reading the numbers as she took them from the box. Most of the ladies were healthy, perspiring, and of a most amiable appearance. They might, many of them, have been the wives of English country clergymen, so domestic and unalarmed were they. I recognised two Markovitch aunts and a Semyonov cousin.
There was a hush and a solemnity about the proceedings. Vera Michailovna was very busy in the kitchen, her face flushed and her sleeves rolled up; Sacha, the servant, malevolently assisting her and scolding continually the stout and agitated country girl who had been called in for the occasion.
"All goes well," Vera smilingly assured me. "Half-past six it is—don't be late."
"I will be in time," I said.
"Do you know, I've asked your English friend. The big one."
"Lawrence?... Is he coming?"
"Yes. At least I understood so on the telephone, but he sounded confused. Do you think he will want to come?"
"I'm sure he will," I answered.
"Afterwards I wasn't sure. I thought he might think it impertinent when we know him so little. But he could easily have said if he didn't want to come, couldn't he?"
There seemed to me something unusual in the way that she asked me these questions. She did not usually care whether people were offended or no. She had not time to consider that, and in any case she despised people who took offence easily.
I would perhaps have said something, but the country girl dropped a plate and Sacha leapt upon the opportunity. "Drunk!... What did I say, having such a girl? Is it not better to do things for yourself? But no—of course no one cares for my advice, as though last year the same thing...." And so on.
I left them and went home to prepare for the feast.
I returned punctually at half-past six and found every one there. Many of the ladies had gone, but the aunts remained, and there were other uncles and some cousins. We must have been in all between twenty and thirty people. The table was now magnificently spread. There was a fine glittering Father Christmas in the middle, a Father Christmas of German make, I am afraid. Ribbons and frosted strips of coloured paper ran in lines up and down the cloth. The "Zakuska" were on a side-table near the door—herrings and ham and smoked fish and radishes and mushrooms and tongue and caviare and, most unusual of all in those days, a decanter of vodka.
No one had begun yet; every one stood about, a little uneasy and awkward, with continuous glances flung at the "Zakuska" table. Of the company Markovitch first caught my eye. I had never seen him so clean and smart before. His high, piercing collar was of course the first thing that one saw; then one perceived that his hair was brushed, his beard trimmed, and that he wore a very decent suit of rather shiny black. This washing and scouring of him gave him a curiously subdued and imprisoned air; I felt sympathetic towards him; I could see that he was anxious to please, happy at the prospect of being a successful host, and, to-night, most desperately in love with his wife. That last stood out and beyond all else. His eyes continually sought her face; he had the eyes of a dog watching and waiting for its master's appreciative word.
I had never before seen Vera Michailovna so fine and independent and, at the same time, so kind and gracious. She was dressed in white, very plain and simple, her shining black hair piled high on her head, her kind, good eyes watching every one and everything to see that all were pleased. She, too, was happy to-night, but happy also in a strange, subdued, quiescent way, and I felt, as I always did about her, that her soul was still asleep and untouched, and that much of her reliance and independence came from that. Uncle Ivan was in his smart clothes, his round face very red and he wore his air of rather ladylike but inoffensive superiority. He stood near the table with the "Zakuska," and his eyes rested there. I do not now remember many of the Markovitch and Semyonov relations. There was a tall thin young man, rather bald, with a short black moustache; he was nervous and self-assertive, and he had a high, shrill voice. He talked incessantly. There were several delightful, middle-aged women, quiet and ready to be pleased with everything—the best Russian type of all perhaps, women who knew life, who were generously tolerant, kind-hearted, with a quiet sense of humour and no nonsense about them. There was one fat red-faced man in a very tight black coat, who gave his opinion always about food and drink. He was from Moscow—his name Paul Leontievitch Rozanov—and I met him on a later occasion of which I shall have to tell in its place. Then there were two young girls who giggled a great deal and whispered together. They hung around Nina and stroked her hair and admired her dress, and laughed at Boris Grogoff and any one else who was near them.
Nina was immensely happy. She loved parties of course, and especially parties in which she was the hostess. She was like a young kitten or puppy in a white frock, with her hair tumbling over her eyes. She was greatly excited, and as joyous as though there were no war, and no afflicted Russia, and nothing serious in all the world. This was the first occasion on which I suspected that Grogoff cared for her. Outwardly he did nothing but chaff and tease her, and she responded in that quick rather sharp and very often crudely personal way at which foreigners for the first time in Russian company so often wonder. Badinage with Russians so quickly passes to lively and noisy quarrelling, which in its turn so suddenly fades into quiet contented amiability that it is little wonder that the observer feels rather breathless at it all. Grogoff was a striking figure, with his fine height and handsome head and bold eyes, but there was something about him that I did not like. Immensely self-confident, he nevertheless seldom opened his mouth without betraying great ignorance about almost everything. He was hopelessly ill-educated, and was the more able therefore from the very little knowledge that he had to construct a very simple Socialist creed in which the main statutes were that everything should be taken from the rich and given to the poor, the peasants should have all the land, and the rulers of the world be beheaded. He had no knowledge of other countries, although he talked very freely of what he called his "International Principles." I could not respect him as I could many Russian revolutionaries, because he had never on any occasion put himself out or suffered any inconvenience for his principles, living as he did, comfortably, with all the food and clothes that he needed. At the same time he was, on the other hand, kindly and warm-hearted, and professed friendship for me, although he despised what he called my "Capitalistic tendencies." Had he only known, he was far richer and more autocratic than I!
In the midst of this company Henry Bohun was rather shy and uncomfortable. He was suspicious always that they would laugh at his Russian (what mattered it if they did?), and he was distressed by the noise and boisterous friendliness of every one. I could not help smiling to myself as I watched him. He was learning very fast. He would not tell any one now that "he really thought that he did understand Russia," nor would he offer to put his friends right about Russian characteristics and behaviour. He watched the young giggling girls, and the fat Rozanov, and the shrill young man with ill-concealed distress. Very far these from the Lizas and Natachas of his literary imagination—and yet not so far either, had he only known.
He pinned all his faith, as I could see, to Vera Michailovna, who did gloriously fulfil his self-instituted standards. And yet he did not know her at all! He was to suffer pain there too.
At dinner he was unfortunately seated between one of the giggling girls and a very deaf old lady who was the great-aunt of Nina and Vera. This old lady trembled like an aspen leaf, and was continually dropping beneath the table a little black bag that she carried. She could make nothing of Bohun's Russian, even if she heard it, and was under the impression that he was a Frenchman. She began a long quivering story about Paris to which she had once been, how she had lost herself, and how a delightful Frenchman had put her on her right path again.... "A chivalrous people, your countrymen".... she repeated, nodding her head so that her long silver earrings rattled again—"gay and chivalrous!" Bohun was not, I am afraid, as chivalrous as he might have been, because he knew that the girl on his other side was laughing at his attempts to explain that he was not a Frenchman. "Stupid old woman!" he said to me afterwards. "She dropped her bag under the table at least twenty times!"
Meanwhile the astonishing fact was that the success of the dinner was Jerry Lawrence. He was placed on Vera Michailovna's left hand, Rozanov, the Moscow merchant near to him, and I did not hear him say anything very bright or illuminating, but every one felt, I think, that he was a cheerful and dependable person. I always felt, when I observed him, that he understood the Russian character far better than any of us. He had none of the self-assertion of the average Englishman and, at the same time, he had his opinions and his preferences. He took every kind of chaff with good-humoured indifference, but I think it was above everything else his tolerance that pleased the Russians. Nothing shocked him, which did not at all mean that he had no code of honour or morals. His code was severe and stern, but his sense of human fallibility, and the fine fight that human nature was always making against stupendous odds stirred him to a fine and comprehending clarity. He had many faults. He was obstinate, often dull and lethargic, in many ways grossly ill-educated and sometimes wilfully obtuse—but he was a fine friend, a noble enemy, and a chivalrous lover. There was nothing mean nor petty in him, and his views of life and the human soul were wider and more all-embracing than in any Englishman I have ever known. You may say of course that it is sentimental nonsense to suppose at all that the human soul is making a fine fight against odds. Even I, at this period, was tempted to think that it might be nonsense, but it is a view as good as another, after all, and so ignorant are all of us that no one has a right to say that anything is impossible!
After drinking the vodka and eating the "Zakuska," we sat down to table and devoured crayfish soup. Every one became lively. Politics of course, were discussed.
I heard Rozanov say, "Ah, you in Petrograd! What do you know of things? Don't let me hurt any one's feelings, pray.... Most excellent soup, Vera Michailovna—I congratulate you.... But you just wait until Moscow takes things in hand. Why only the other day Maklakoff said to a friend of mine—'It's all nonsense,' he said."
And the shrill-voiced young man told a story—"But it wasn't the same man at all. She was so confused when she saw what she'd done, that I give you my word she was on the point of crying. I could see tears... just trembling—on the edge. 'Oh, I beg your pardon,' she said, and the man was such a fool...."
Markovitch was busy about the drinks. There was some sherry and some light red wine. Markovitch was proud of having been able to secure it. He was beaming with pride. He explained to everybody how it had been done. He walked round the table and stood, for an instant, with his hand on Vera Michailovna's shoulder. The pies with fish and cabbage in them were handed round. He jested with the old great-aunt. He shouted in her ear:
"Now, Aunt Isabella... some wine. Good for you, you know—keep you young...."
"No, no, no..." she protested, laughing and shaking her earrings, with tears in her eyes. But he filled her glass and she drank it and coughed, still protesting.
"Thank you, thank you," she chattered as Bohun dived under the table and found her bag for her. I saw that he did not like the crayfish soup, and was distressed because he had so large a helping.
He blushed and looked at his plate, then began again to eat and stopped.
"Don't you like it?" one of the giggling girls asked him. "But it's very good. Have another 'Pie!'"
The meal continued. There were little suckling pigs with "Kasha," a kind of brown buckwheat. Every one was gayer and gayer. Now all talked at once, and no one listened to anything that any one else said. Of them all, Nina was by far the gayest. She had drunk no wine—she always said that she could not bear the nasty stuff, and although every one tried to persuade her, telling her that now when you could not get it anywhere, it was wicked not to drink it, she would not change her mind. It was simply youth and happiness that radiated from her, and also perhaps some other excitement for which I could not account. Grogoff tried to make her drink. She defied him. He came over to her chair, but she pushed him away, and then lightly slapped his cheek. Every one laughed. Then he whispered something to her. For an instant the gaiety left her eyes. "You shouldn't say that!" she answered almost angrily. He went back to his seat. I was sitting next to her, and she was very charming to me, seeing that I had all that I needed and showing that she liked me. "You mustn't be gloomy and ill and miserable," she whispered to me. "Oh! I've seen you! There's no need. Come to us and we'll make you as happy as we can—Vera and I.... We both love you."
"My dear, I'm much too old and stupid for you to bother about!"
She put her hand on my arm. "I know that I'm wicked and care only for pleasure.... Vera's always saying so. But I can be better if you want me to be."
This was flattering, but I knew that it was only her general happiness that made her talk like that. And at once she was after something else. "Your Englishman," she said, looking across the table at Lawrence, "I like his face. I should be frightened of him, though."
"Oh no, you wouldn't," I answered. "He wouldn't hurt any one."
She continued to look at him and he, glancing up, their eyes met. She smiled and he smiled. Then he raised his glass and drank.
"I mustn't drink," she called across the table. "It's only water and that's bad luck."
"Oh, you can challenge any amount of bad luck—I'm sure," he called back to her.
I fancied that Grogoff did not like this. He was drinking a great deal. He roughly called Nina's attention.
But she, although I am certain that she heard him, paid no attention.
He called again more loudly:
"Well?" She turned towards him, her eyes laughing at him.
"Drink my health."
"I can't. I have only water."
"Then you must drink wine."
"I won't. I detest it."
"But you must."
He came over to her and poured a little red wine into her water. She turned and emptied the glass over his hand. For an instant his face was dark with rage.
"I'll pay you for that," I heard him whisper.
She shrugged her shoulders. "He's tiresome, Boris...." she said, "I like your Englishman better."
We were ever gayer and gayer. There were now of course no cakes nor biscuits, but there was jam with our tea, and there were even some chocolates. I noticed that Vera and Lawrence were getting on together famously. They talked and laughed, and her eyes were full of pleasure.
Markovitch came up and stood behind them, watching them. His eyes devoured his wife.
"Vera!" he said suddenly.
"Yes!" she cried. She had not known that he was behind her; she was startled. She turned round and he came forward and kissed her hand. She let him do this, as she let him do everything, with the indulgence that one allows a child. He stood, afterwards, half in the shadow, watching her.
And now the moment for the event of the evening had arrived. The doors of Markovitch's little work-room were suddenly opened, and there—instead of the shabby untidy dark little hole—there was a splendid Christmas Tree blazing with a hundred candles. Coloured balls and frosted silver and wooden figures of red and blue hung all about the tree—it was most beautifully done. On a table close at hand were presents. We all clapped our hands. We were childishly delighted. The old great-aunt cried with pleasure. Boris Grogoff suddenly looked like a happy boy of ten. Happiest and proudest of them all was Markovitch. He stood there, a large pair of scissors in his hand, waiting to cut the string round the parcels. We said again and again, "Marvellous!" "Wonderful!" "Splendid!"... "But this year—however did you find it, Vera Michailovna?" "To take such trouble!..." "Splendid! Splendid!" Then we were given our presents. Vera, it was obvious had chosen them, for there was taste and discrimination in the choice of every one. Mine was a little old religious figure in beaten silver—Lawrence had a silver snuff-box.... Every one was delighted. We clapped our hands. We shouted. Some one cried "Cheers for our host and hostess!"
We gave them, and in no half measure. We shouted. Boris Grogoff cried, "More cheers!"
It was then that I saw Markovitch's face that had been puckered with pleasure like the face of a delighted child suddenly stiffen, his hand moved forward, then dropped. I turned and found, standing in the doorway, quietly watching us, Alexei Petrovitch Semyonov.
I stared at him. I could not take my eyes away. I instantly forgot every one else, the room, the tree, the lights.... With a force, with a poignancy and pathos and brutality that were more cruel than I could have believed possible that other world came back to me. Ah! I could see now that all these months I had been running away from this very thing, seeking to pretend that it did not exist, that it had never existed. All in vain—utterly in vain. I saw Semyonov as I had just seen him, sitting on his horse outside the shining white house at O——. Then Semyonov operating in a stinking room, under a red light, his arms bathed in blood; then Semyonov and Trenchard; then Semyonov speaking to Marie Ivanovna, her eyes searching his face; then that day when I woke from my dream in the orchard to find his eyes staring at me through the bright green trees, and afterwards when we went in to look at her dead; then worst of all that ride back to the "Stab" with my hand on his thick, throbbing arm.... Semyonov in the Forest, working, sneering, hating us, despising us, carrying his tragedy in his eyes and defying us to care; Semyonov that last time of all, vanishing into the darkness with his "Nothing!" that lingering echo of a defiant desperate soul that had stayed with me, against my bidding, ever since I had heard it.
What a fool had I been to know these people! I had felt from the first to what it must lead, and I might have avoided it and I would not. I looked at him, I faced him, I smiled. He was the same as he had been. A little stouter, perhaps, his pale hair and square-cut beard looking as though it had been carved from some pale honey-coloured wood, the thick stolidity of his long body and short legs, the squareness of his head, the coldness of his eyes and the violent red of his lips, all were just as they had been—the same man, save that now he was in civilian clothes, in a black suit with a black bow tie. There was a smile on his lips, that same smile half sneer half friendliness that I knew so well. His eyes were veiled....
He was, I believe, as violently surprised to see me as I had been to see him, but he held himself in complete control!
He said, "Why, Durward!... Ivan Andreievitch!" Then he greeted the others.
I was able, now, to notice the general effect of his arrival. It was as though a cold wind had suddenly burst through the windows, blown out all the candles upon the tree and plunged the place into darkness. Those who did not know him felt that, with his entrance, the gaiety was gone. Markovitch's face was pale, he was looking at Vera who, for an instant, had stood, quite silently, staring at her uncle, then, recovering herself, moved forward.
"Why, Uncle Alexei!" she cried, holding out her hand. "You're too late for the tree! Why didn't you tell us? Then you could have come to dinner... and now it is all over. Why didn't you tell us?"
He took her hand, and, very solemnly, bent down and kissed it.
"I didn't know myself, dear Vera Michailovna. I only arrived in Petrograd yesterday; and then in my house everything was wrong, and I've been busy all day. But I felt that I must run in and give you the greetings of the season.... Ah, Nicholas, how are you? And you, Ivan?... I telephoned to you.... Nina, my dear...." And so on. He went round and shook hands with them all. He was introduced to Bohun and Lawrence. He was very genial, praising the tree, laughing, shouting in the ears of the great-aunt. But no one responded. As so frequently happens in Russia the atmosphere was suddenly changed. No one had anything to say. The candles on the tree were blown out. Of course, the evening was not nearly ended. There would be tea and games, perhaps—at any rate every one would sit and sit until three or four if, for no other reason, simply because it demanded too much energy to rise and make farewells. But the spirit of the party was utterly dead....
The samovar hissed at the end of the table. Vera Michailovna sat there making tea for every one. Semyonov (I should now in the heart of his relations, have thought of him as Alexei Petrovitch, but so long had he been Semyonov to me that Semyonov he must remain) was next to her, and I saw that he took trouble, talking to her, smiling, his stiff strong white fingers now and then stroking his thick beard, his red lips parting a little, then closing so firmly that it seemed that they would never open again.
I noticed that his eyes often wandered towards me. He was uneasy about my presence there, I thought, and that disturbed me. I felt as I looked at him the same confusion as I had always felt. I did not hate him. His strength of character, his fearlessness, these things in a country famous for neither quality I was driven to admire and to respect. And I could not hate what I admired.
And yet my fear gathered and gathered in volume as I watched him. What would he do with these people? What plans had he? What purpose? What secret, selfish ambitions was he out now to secure?
Markovitch was silent, drinking his tea, watching his wife, watching us all with his nervous frowning expression.
I rose to go and then, when I had said farewell to every one and went towards the door, Semyonov joined me.
"Well, Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "So we have not finished with one another yet."
He looked at me with his steady unswerving eyes; he smiled.
I also smiled as I found my coat and hat in the little hall. Sacha helped me into my Shuba. He stood, his lips a little apart, watching me.
"What have you been doing all this time?" he asked me.
"I've been ill," I answered.
"Not had, I hope."
"No, not had. But enough to keep me very idle."
"As much of an optimist as ever?"
"Was I an optimist?"
"Why, surely. A charming one. Do you love Russia as truly as ever?"
I laughed, my hand on the door. "That's my affair, Alexei Petrovitch," I answered.
"Certainly," he said, smiling. "You're looking older, you know."
"You too," I said.
"Yes, perhaps. Would I still think you sentimental, do you suppose?"
"It is of no importance, Alexei Petrovitch," I said. "I'm sure you have other better things to do. Are you remaining in Petrograd?"
He looked at me then very seriously, his eyes staring straight into mine.
"I hope so."
"You will work at your practice?"
"Perhaps." He nodded to me. "Strange to find you here...." he said. "We shall meet again. Good-night."
He closed the door behind me.
Next day I fell ill. I had felt unwell for several weeks, and now I woke up to a bad feverish cold, my body one vast ache, and at the same time impersonal, away from me, floating over above me, sinking under me, tied to me only by pain....
I was too utterly apathetic to care. The old woman who looked after my rooms telephoned to my doctor, a stout, red-faced jolly man, who came and laughed at me, ordered me some medicine, said that I was in a high fever, and left me. After that, I was, for several days, caught into a world of dreams and nightmares. No one, I think, came near me, save my old woman, Marfa, and a new acquaintance of mine, the Rat.
The Rat I had met some weeks before outside my house. I had been returning one evening, through the dark, with a heavy bag of books which I had fetched from an English friend of mine who lodged in the Millionnaya. I had had a cab for most of the distance, but that had stopped on the other side of the bridge—it could not drive amongst the rubbish pebbles and spars of my island. As I staggered along with my bag a figure had risen, as it seemed to me, out of the ground and asked huskily whether he could help me. I had only a few steps to go, but he seized my burden and went in front of me. I submitted. I told him my door and he entered the dark passage, climbed the rickety stairs and entered my room. Here we were both astonished. He, when I had lighted my lamp, was staggered by the splendour and luxury of my life, I, as I looked at him, by the wildness and uncouthness of his appearance. He was as a savage from the centre of Africa, thick ragged hair and beard, a powerful body in rags, and his whole attitude to the world primeval and utterly primitive. His mouth was cruel; his eyes, as almost always with the Russian peasant, mild and kindly. I do not intend to take up much space here with an account of him, but he did, after this first meeting, in some sort attach himself to me. I never learned his name nor where he lived; he was I should suppose an absolutely abominable plunderer and pirate and ruffian. He would appear suddenly in my room, stand by the door and talk—but talk with the ignorance, naivete, brutal simplicity of an utterly abandoned baby. Nothing mystical or beautiful about the Rat. He did not disguise from me in the least that there was no crime that he had not committed—murder, rape, arson, immorality of the most hideous, sacrilege, the basest betrayal of his best friends—he was not only savage and outlaw, he was deliberate anarchist and murderer. He had no redeeming point that I could anywhere discover. I did not in the least mind his entering my room when he pleased. I had there nothing of any value; he could take my life even, had he a mind to that.... The naive abysmal depths of his depravity interested me. He formed a kind of attachment to me. He told me that he would do anything for me. He had a strange tact which prevented him from intruding upon me when I was occupied. He was as quick as any cultured civilised cosmopolitan to see if he was not wanted. He developed a certain cleanliness; he told me, with an air of disdainful superiority, that he had been to the public baths. I gave him an old suit of mine and a pair of boots. He very seldom asked for anything; once and again he would point to something and say that he would like to have it; if I said that he could not he expressed no disappointment; sometimes he stole it, but he always acknowledged that he had done so if I asked him, although he would lie stupendously on other occasions for no reason at all.
"Now you must bring that back," I would say sternly.
"Oh no, Barin.... Why? You have so many things. Surely you will not object. Perhaps I will bring it—and perhaps not."
"You must certainly bring it," I would say.
"We will see," he would say, smiling at me in the friendliest fashion.
He was the only absolutely happy Russian I have ever known. He had no passages of despair. He had been in prison, he would be in prison again. He had spasms of the most absolute ferocity. On one occasion I thought that I should be his next victim, and for a moment my fate hung, I think, in the balance. But he changed his mind. He had a real liking for me, I think. When he could get it, he drank a kind of furniture polish, the only substitute in these days for vodka. This was an absolutely killing drink, and I tried to prove to him that frequent indulgence in it meant an early decease. That did not affect him in the least. Death had no horror for him although, I foresaw, with justice as after events proved, that if he were faced with it he would be a very desperate coward. He liked very much my cigarettes, and I gave him these on condition that he did not spit sunflower seeds over my floor. He kept his word about this.
He chatted incessantly, and sometimes I listened and sometimes not. He had no politics and was indeed comfortably ignorant of any sort of geography or party division. There were for him only the rich and the poor. He knew nothing about the war, but he hoped, he frankly told me, that there would be anarchy in Petrograd, so that he might rob and plunder.
"I will look after you then, Barin," he answered me, "so that no one shall touch you." I thanked him. He was greatly amused by my Russian accent, although he had no interest in the fact that I was English, nor did he want to hear in the least about London or any foreign town. Marfa, my old servant, was, of course, horrified at this acquaintanceship of mine, and warned me that it would mean both my death and hers. He liked to tease and frighten her, but he was never rude to her and offered sometimes to help her with her work, an offer that she always indignantly refused. He had some children, he told me, but he did not know where they were. He tried to respect my hospitality, never bringing any friends of his with him, and only once coming when he was the worse for drink. On that occasion he cried and endeavoured to embrace me. He apologised for this the next day.
They would try to take him soon, he supposed, for a soldier, but he thought that he would be able to escape. He hated the Police, and would murder them all if he could. He told me great tales of their cruelty, and he cursed them most bitterly. I pointed out to him that society must be protected, but he did not see why this need be so. It was, he thought, wrong that some people had so much and others so little, but this was as far as his social investigations penetrated.
He was really distressed by my illness. Marfa told me that one day when I was delirious he cried. At the same time he pointed out to her that, if I died, certain things in my rooms would be his. He liked a silver cigarette case of mine, and my watch chain, and a signet ring that I wore. I saw him vaguely, an uncertain shadow in the mists of the first days of my fever. I was not, I suppose, in actual fact, seriously ill, and yet I abandoned myself to my fate, allowing myself to slip without the slightest attempt at resistance, along the easiest way, towards death or idiocy or paralysis, towards anything that meant the indifferent passivity of inaction. I had bad, confused dreams. The silence irritated me. I fancied to myself that the sea ought to make some sound, that it was holding itself deliberately quiescent in preparation for some event. I remember that Marfa and the doctor prevented me from rising to look from my window that I might see why the sea was not roaring. Some one said to me in my dreams something about "Ice," and again and again I repeated the word to myself as though it were intensely significant. "Ice! Ice! Ice!... Yes, that was what I wanted to know!" My idea from this was that the floor upon which I rested was exceedingly thin, made only of paper in fact, and that at any moment it might give way and precipitate me upon the ice. This terrified me, and the way that the cold blew up through the cracks in the floor was disturbing enough. I knew that my doctor thought me mad to remain in such a place. But above all I was overwhelmed by the figure of Semyonov. He haunted me in all my dreams, his presence never left me for a single instant. I could not be sure whether he were in the room or no, but certainly he was close to me... watching me, sneering at me as he had so often done before.
I was conscious also of Petrograd, of the town itself, in every one of its amazingly various manifestations. I saw it all laid out as though I were a great height above it—the fashionable streets, the Nevski and the Morskaia with the carriages and the motor-cars and trams, the kiosks and the bazaars, the women with their baskets of apples, the boys with the newspapers, the smart cinematographs, the shop in the Morskaia with the coloured stones in the window, the oculist and the pastry-cook's and the hairdressers and the large "English shop" at the corner of the Nevski, and Pivato's the restaurant, and close beside it the art shop with popular post cards and books on Serov and Vrubel, and the Astoria Hotel with its shining windows staring on to S. Isaac's Square. And I saw the Nevski, that straight and proud street, filled with every kind of vehicle and black masses of people, rolling like thick clouds up and down, here and there, the hum of their talk rising like mist from the snow. And there was the Kazan Cathedral, haughty and proud, and the book shop with the French books and complete sets of Tchekov and Merejkowsky in the window, and the bridges and the palaces and the square before the Alexander Theatre, and Elisseieff's the provision shop, and all the banks, and the shops with gloves and shirts, all looking ill-fitting as though they were never meant to be worn, and then the little dirty shops poked in between the grand ones, the shop with rubber goods and the shop with an Aquarium, gold-fish and snails and a tortoise, and the shop with oranges and bananas. Then, too, there was the Arcade with the theatre where they acted Romance and Potash and Perlmutter (almost as they do in London), and on the other side of the street, at the corner of the Sadovia, the bazaar with all its shops and its trembling mist of people. I watched the Nevski, and saw how it slipped into the Neva with the Red Square on one side of it, and S. Isaac's Square on the other, and the great station at the far end of it, and about these two lines the Neva and the Nevski, the whole town sprawled and crept, ebbed and flowed. Away from the splendour it stretched, dirty and decrepit and untended, here piles of evil flats, there old wooden buildings with cobbled courts, and the canals twisting and creeping up and down through it all. It was all bathed, as I looked down upon it, in coloured mist. The air was purple and gold and light blue, fading into the snow and ice and transforming it. Everywhere there were the masts of ships and the smell of the sea and rough deserted places—and shadows moved behind the shadows, and yet more shadows behind them, so that it was all uncertain and unstable, and only the river knew what it was about.
Over the whole town Semyonov and I moved together, and the ice and snow silenced our steps, and no one in the whole place spoke a word, so that we had to lower our voices and whispered....
Suddenly I was better. I quite recovered from my fever and only lay still on my bed, weak, and very hungry. I was happy, happy as I had not been since I came to Petrograd. I felt all the luxury of convalescence creeping into my bones. All that I need do was to lie there and let people feed me and read a little if it did not make my head ache. I had a water-colour painted by Alexander Benois on the wall opposite me, a night in the Caucasus, with a heavy sweep of black hill, a deep blue steady sky, and a thin grey road running into endless distance. A pleasing picture, with no finality in its appeal—intimate too, so that it was one's own road and one's own hill. I had bought it extravagantly, at last year's "Mir Eskoustva," and now I was pleased at my extravagance.
Marfa was very good to me, feeding me, and being cross with me to make me take an interest in things, and acting with wonderful judgement about my visitors. Numbers of people, English and Russian, came to see me—I had not known that I had so many friends. I felt amiable to all the world, and hopeful about it, too. I looked back on the period before my illness as a bad dream.
People told me I was foolish to live out in this wretched place of mine, where it was cold and wild and lonely. And then when they came again they were not so sure, and they looked out on the ice that shone in waves and shadows of light under the sun, and thought that perhaps they too would try. But of course, I knew well that they would not....
As I grew stronger I felt an intense and burning interest in the history that had been developing when I fell ill. I heard that Vera Michailovna and Nina had called many times. Markovitch had been, and Henry Bohun and Lawrence.
Then, one sunny afternoon, Henry Bohun came in and I was surprised at my pleasure at the sight of him. He was shocked at the change in me, and was too young to conceal it.
"Oh, you do look bad!" were his first words as he sat down by my bed. "I say, are you comfortable here? Wouldn't you rather be somewhere with conveniences—telephone and lifts and things?"
"Not at all!" I answered. "I've got a telephone. I'm very happy where I am."
"It is a queer place," he said. "Isn't it awfully unhealthy?"
"Quite the reverse—with the sea in front of it! About the healthiest spot in Petrograd!"
"But I should get the blues here. So lonely and quiet. Petrograd is a strange town! Most people don't dream there's a queer place like this."
"That's why I like it," I said. "I expect there are lots of queer places in Petrograd if you only knew."
He wandered about the room, looking at my few pictures and my books and my writing-table. At last he sat down again by my bed.
"Now tell me all the news," I said.
"News?" he asked. He looked uncomfortable, and I saw at once that he had come to confide something in me. "What sort of news? Political?"
"Well, politics are about the same. They say there's going to be an awful row in February when the Duma meets—but then other people say there won't be a row at all until the war is over."
"What else do they say?"
"They say Protopopoff is up to all sorts of tricks. That he says prayers with the Empress and they summon Rasputin's ghost.... That's all rot of course. But he does just what the Empress tells him, and they're going to enslave the whole country and hand it over to Germany."
"What will they do that for?" I asked.
"Why, then, the Czarevitch will have it—under Germany. They say that none of the munitions are going to the Front, and Protopopoff's keeping them all to blow up the people here with."
"What else?" I asked sarcastically.
"No, but really, there's something in it, I expect." Henry looked serious and important. "Then on the other hand, Clutton-Davies says the Czar's absolutely all right, dead keen on the war and hates Germany... I don't know—but Clutton-Davies sees him nearly every day."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"Oh, food's worse than ever! Going up every day, and the bread queues are longer and longer. The Germans have spies in the queues, women who go up and down telling people it's all England's fault."
"And people are just the same?"
"Just the same; Donons' and the Bear are crowded every day. You can't get a table. So are the cinematographs and the theatres. I went to the Ballet last night."
"What was it?"
"'La fille mal gardee'—Karsavina dancing divinely. Every one was there."
This closed the strain of public information. I led him further.
"Well, Bohun, what about our friends the Markovitches?" I asked. "How are you getting on there?"
He blushed and looked at his boots.
"All right," he said. "They're very decent."
Then he burst out with: "I say, Durward, what do you think of this uncle that's turned up, the doctor chap?"
"Nothing particular. Why?"
"You were with him at the Front, weren't you?"
"Was he a good doctor?"
"He had a love affair at the Front, hadn't he?"
"And she was killed?"
"Poor devil...." Then he added: "Did he mind very much?"
"Funny thing, you wouldn't think he would."
"Why not," I asked.
"Oh, he looks a hard sort of fellow—as though he'd stand anything. I wouldn't like to have a row with him."
"Has he been to the Markovitches much lately?"
"Yes—almost every evening."
"What does he do there?"
"Oh, just sits and talks. Markovitch can't bear him. You can see that easily enough. He teases him."
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"Oh, he laughs at him all the time, at his inventions and that kind of thing. Markovitch gets awfully wild. He is bit of an ass, isn't he?"
"Do you like Semyonov?" I asked.
"I do rather," said Henry. "He's very decent to me. I had a walk with him one afternoon. He said you were awfully brave at the Front."
"Thank him for nothing," I said.
"And he said you didn't like him—don't you?"
"Ah, that's too old a story," I answered. "We know what we feel about one another."
"Well, Lawrence simply hates him," continued Bohun. "He says he's the most thundering cad, and as bad as you make them. I don't see how he can tell."
This interested me extremely. "When did he tell you this?" I asked.
"Yesterday. I asked him what he had to judge by and he said instinct. I said he'd no right to go only by that."
"Has Lawrence been much to the Markovitches?"
"Yes—once or twice. He just sits there and never opens his mouth."
"Very wise of him if he hasn't got anything to say."
"No, but really—do you think so? It doesn't make him popular."
"Why, who doesn't like him?"
"Nobody," answered Henry ungrammatically. "None of the English anyway. They can't stand him at the Embassy or the Mission. They say he's fearfully stuck-up and thinks about nothing but himself.... I don't agree, of course—all the same, he might make himself more agreeable to people."
"What nonsense!" I answered hotly. "Lawrence is one of the best fellows that ever breathed. The Markovitches don't dislike him, do they?"
"No, he's quite different with them. Vera Michailovna likes him I know."
It was the first time that he had mentioned her name to me. He turned towards me now, his face crimson. "I say—that's really what I came to talk about, Durward. I care for her madly!... I'd die for her. I would really. I love her, Durward. I see now I've never loved anybody before."
"Well, what will you do about it?"
"Do about it?... Why nothing, of course. It's all perfectly hopeless. In the first place, there's Markovitch."
"Yes. There's Markovitch," I agreed.
"She doesn't care for him—does she? You know that—" He waited, eagerly staring into my face.
I had a temptation to laugh. He was so very young, so very helpless, and yet—that sense of his youth had pathos in it too, and I suddenly liked young Bohun—for the first time.
"Look here, Bohun," I said, trying to speak with a proper solemnity. "Don't be a young ass. You know that it's hopeless, any feeling of that kind. She does care for her husband. She could never care for you in that way, and you'd only make trouble for them all if you went on with it.... On the other hand, she needs a friend badly. You can do that for her. Be her pal. See that things are all right in the house. Make a friend of Markovitch himself. Look after him!"
"Look after Markovitch!" Bohun exclaimed.
"Yes... I don't want to be melodramatic, but there's trouble coming there; and if you're the friend of them all, you can help—more than you know. Only none of the other business—"
Bohun flushed. "She doesn't know—she never will. I only want to be a friend of hers, as you put it. Anything else is hopeless, of course. I'm not the kind of fellow she'd ever look at, even if Markovitch wasn't there. But if I can do anything... I'd be awfully glad. What kind of trouble do you mean?" he asked.
"Probably nothing," I said; "only she wants a friend. And Markovitch wants one too."
There was a pause—then Bohun said, "I say, Durward—what an awful ass I was."
"What about?" I asked.
"About my poetry—and all that. Thinking it so important."
"Yes," I said, "you were."
"I've written some poetry to her and I tore it up," he ended.
"That's a good thing," said I.
"I'm glad I told you," he said. He got up to go. "I say, Durward—"
"Well," I asked.
"You're an awfully funny chap. Not a bit what you look—"
"That's all right," I said; "I know what you mean."
"Well, good-night," he said, and went.
I thought that night, as I lay cosily in my dusky room, of those old stories by Wilkie Collins that had once upon a time so deeply engrossed my interest—stories in which, because some one has disappeared on a snowy night, or painted his face blue, or locked up a room and lost the key, or broken down in his carriage on a windy night at the cross-roads, dozens of people are involved, diaries are written, confessions are made, and all the characters move along different roads towards the same lighted, comfortable Inn. That is the kind of story that intrigues me, whether it be written about out-side mysteries by Wilkie Collins or inside mysteries by the great creator of "The Golden Bowl" or mysteries of both kinds, such as Henry Galleon has given us. I remember a friend of mine, James Maradick, once saying to me, "It's no use trying to keep out of things. As soon as they want to put you in—you're in. The moment you're born, you're done for."
It's just that spectacle of some poor innocent being suddenly caught into some affair, against his will, without his knowledge, but to the most serious alteration of his character and fortunes, that one watches with a delight almost malicious—whether it be The Woman in White, The Wings of the Dove, or The Roads that offer it us. Well, I had now to face the fact that something of this kind had happened to myself.
I was drawn in—and I was glad. I luxuriated in my gladness, lying there in my room under the wavering, uncertain light of two candles, hearing the church bells clanging and echoing mysteriously beyond the wall. I lay there with a consciousness of being on the very verge of some adventure, with the assurance, too, that I was to be of use once more, to play my part, to fling aside, thank God, that old cloak of apathetic disappointment, of selfish betrayal, of cynical disbelief. Semyonov had brought the old life back to me and I had shrunk from the impact of it; but he had brought back to me, too, the presences of my absent friends who, during these weary months, had been lost to me. It seemed to me that, in the flickering twilight, John and Marie were bringing forward to me Vera and Nina and Jerry and asking me to look after them.... I would do my best.
And while I was thinking of these things Vera Michailovna came in. She was suddenly in the room, standing there, her furs up to her throat, her body in shadow, but her large, grave eyes shining through the candlelight, her mouth smiling.
"Is it all right?" she said, coming forward. "I'm not in the way? You're not sleeping?"
I told her that I was delighted to see her.
"I've been almost every day, but Marfa told me you were not well enough. She does guard you—like a dragon. But to-night Nina and I are going to Rozanov's, to a party, and she said she'd meet me here.... Shan't I worry you?"
"Worry me! You're the most restful friend I have—" I felt so glad to see her that I was surprised at my own happiness. She sat down near to me, very quietly, moving, as she always did, softly and surely.
I could see that she was distressed because I looked ill, but she asked me no tiresome questions, said nothing about my madness in living as I did (always so irritating, as though I were a stupid child), praised the room, admired the Benois picture, and then talked in her soft, kindly voice.
"We've missed you so much, Nina and I," she said. "I told Nina that if she came to-night she wasn't to make a noise and disturb you."
"She can make as much noise as she likes," I said. "I like the right kind of noise."
We talked a little about politics and England and anything that came into our minds. We both felt, I know, a delightful, easy intimacy and friendliness and trust. I had never with any other woman felt such a sense of friendship, something almost masculine in its comradeship and honesty. And to-night this bond between us strengthened wonderfully. I blessed my luck. I saw that there were dark lines under her eyes and that she was pale.
"You're tired," I said.
"Yes, I am," she acknowledged. "And I don't know why. At least, I do know. I'm going to use you selfishly, Durdles. I'm going to tell you all my troubles and ask your help in every possible way. I'm going to let you off nothing."
I took her hand.
"I'm proud," I said, "now and always."
"Do you know that I've never asked any one's help before? I was rather conceited that I could get on always without it. When I was very small I wouldn't take a word of advice from any one, and mother and father, when I was tiny, used to consult me about everything. Then they were killed and I had to go on alone.... And after that, when I married Nicholas, it was I again who decided everything. And my mistakes taught me nothing. I didn't want them to teach me."
She spoke that last word fiercely, and through the note that came into her voice I saw suddenly the potentialities that were in her, the other creature that she might be if she were ever awakened.
She talked then for a long time. She didn't move at all; her head rested on her hand and her eyes watched me. As I listened I thought of my other friend Marie, who now was dead, and how restless she was when she spoke, moving about the room, stopping to demand my approval, protesting against my criticism, laughing, crying out.... Vera was so still, so wise, too, in comparison with Marie, braver too—and yet the same heart, the same charity, the same nobility.
But she was my friend, and Marie I had loved.... The difference in that! And how much easier now to help than it had been then, simply because one's own soul was one's own and one stood by oneself!
How happy a thing freedom is—and how lonely!
She told me many things that I need not repeat here, but, as she talked, I saw how, far more deeply than I had imagined, Nina had been the heart of the whole of her life. She had watched over her, protected her, advised her, warned her, and loved her, passionately, jealously, almost madly all the time.
"When I married Nicholas," she said, "I thought of Nina more than any one else. That was wrong.... I ought to have thought most of Nicholas; but I knew that I could give her a home, that she could have everything she wanted. And still she would be with me. Nicholas was only too ready for that. I thought I would care for her until some one came who was worthy of her, and who would look after her far better than I ever could.
"But the only person who had come was Boris Grogoff. He loved Nina from the first moment, in his own careless, conceited, opinionated way."
"Why did you let him come so often to the house if you didn't approve of him?" I asked.
"How could I prevent it?" she asked me. "We Russians are not like the English. In England I know you just shut the door and say, 'Not at home.'