"Here if any one wanted to come he comes. Very often we hate him for coming, but still there it is. It is too much trouble to turn him out, besides it wouldn't be kind—and anyway they wouldn't go. You can be as rude as you like here and nobody cares. For a long while Nina paid no attention to Boris. She doesn't like him. She will never like him, I'm sure. But now, these last weeks, I've begun to be afraid. In some way, he has power over her—not much power, but a little—and she is so young, so ignorant—she knows nothing.
"Until lately she always told me everything. Now she tells me nothing. She's strange with me; angry for nothing. Then sorry and sweet again—then suddenly angry.... She's excited and wild, going out all the time, but unhappy too.... I know she's unhappy. I can feel it as though it were myself."
"You're imagining things," I said. "Now when the war's reached this period we're all nervous and overstrung. The atmosphere of this town is enough to make any one fancy that they see anything. Nina's all right."
"I'm losing her! I'm losing her!" Vera cried, suddenly stretching out her hand as though in a gesture of appeal. "She must stay with me. I don't know what's happening to her. Ah, and I'm so lonely without her!"
There was silence between us for a little, and then she went on.
"Durdles, I did wrong to marry Nicholas—wrong to Nina, wrong to Nicholas, wrong to myself, I thought it was right. I didn't love Nicholas—I never loved him and I never pretended to. He knew that I did not. But I thought then that I was above love, that knowledge was what mattered. Ideas—saving the world—and he had such ideas! Wonderful! There was, I thought, nothing that he would not be able to do if only he were helped enough. He wanted help in every way. He was such a child, so unhappy, so lonely, I thought that I could give him everything that he needed. Don't fancy that I thought that I sacrificed myself. I felt that I was the luckiest girl in all the world—and still, now when I see that he is not strong enough for his ideas I care for him as I did then, and I would never let any trouble touch him if I could help it. But if—if—"
She paused, turned away from me, looking towards the window.
"If, after all, I was wrong. If, after all, I was meant to love. If love were to come now... real love... now...."
She broke off, suddenly stood up, and very low, almost whispering, said:
"I have fancied lately that it might come. And then, what should I do? Oh, what should I do? With Nicholas and Nina and all the trouble there is now in the world—and Russia—I'm afraid of myself—and ashamed...."
I could not speak. I was utterly astonished. Could it be Bohun of whom she was speaking? No, I saw at once that the idea was ludicrous. But if not—.
I took her hand.
"Vera," I said. "Believe me. I'm much older than you, and I know. Love's always selfish, always cruel to others, always means trouble, sorrow, and disappointment. But it's worth it, even when it brings complete disaster. Life isn't life without it."
I felt her hand tremble in mine.
"I don't know," she said, "I know nothing of it, except my love for Nina. It isn't that now there's anybody. Don't think that. There is no one—no one. Only my self-confidence is gone. I can't see clearly any more. My duty is to Nina and Nicholas. And if they are happy nothing else matters—nothing. And I'm afraid that I'm going to do them harm."
She paused as though she were listening. "There's no one there, is there?" she asked me—"there by the door?"
"There are so many noises in this house. Don't they disturb you?"
"I don't think of them now. I'm used to them—and in fact I like them."
She went on: "It's Uncle Alexei of course. He comes to see us nearly every day. He's very pleasant, more pleasant than he has ever been before, but he has a dreadful effect on Nicholas—"
"I know the effect he can have," I said.
"I know that Nicholas has been feeling for a long time that his inventions are no use. He will never own it to me or to any one—but I can tell. I know it so well. The war came and his new feeling about Russia carried him along. He put everything into that. Now that has failed him, and he despises himself for having expected it to do otherwise. He's raging about, trying to find something that he can believe in, and Uncle Alexei knows that and plays on that.... He teases him; he drives him wild and then makes him happy again. He can do anything with him he pleases. He always could. But now he has some plan. I used to think that he simply laughed at people because it amused him to see how weak they can be. But now there's more than that. He's been hurt himself at last, and that has hurt his pride, and he wants to hurt back.... It's all in the dark. The war's in the dark... everything...." Then she smiled and put her hand on my arm. "That's why I've come to you, because I trust you and believe you and know you say what you mean."
Once before Marie had said those same words to me. It was as though I heard her voice again.
"I won't fail you," I said.
There was a knock on the door, it was flung open as though by the wind, and Nina was with us. Her face was rosy with the cold, her eyes laughed under her little round fur cap. She came running across the room, pulled herself up with a little cry beside the bed, and then flung herself upon me, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me.
"My dear Nina!" cried Vera.
She looked up, laughing.
"Why not? Poor Durdles. Are you better? Biednie... give me your hands. But—how cold they are! And there are draughts everywhere. I've brought you some chocolates—and a book."
"My dear!..." Vera cried again. "He won't like that," pointing to a work of fiction by a modern Russian literary lady whose heart and brain are of the succulent variety.
"Why not? She's very good. It's lovely! All about impossible people! Durdles, dear! I'll give up the party. We won't go. We'll sit here and entertain you. I'll send Boris away. We'll tell him we don't want him."
"Boris!" cried Vera.
"Yes," Nina laughed a little uneasily, I thought. "I know you said he wasn't to come. He'll quarrel with Rozanov of course. But he said he would. And so how was one to prevent him? You're always so tiresome, Vera.... I'm not a baby now, nor is Boris. If he wants to come he shall come."
Vera stood away from us both. I could see that she was very angry. I had never seen her angry before.
"You know that it's impossible, Nina," she said. "You know that Rozanov hates him. And besides—there are other reasons. You know them perfectly well, Nina."
Nina stood there pouting, tears were in her eyes.
"You're unfair," she said. "You don't let me do anything. You give me no freedom, I don't care for Boris, but if he wants to go he shall go. I'm grown up now. You have your Lawrence. Let me have my Boris."
"My Lawrence?" asked Vera.
"Yes. You know that you're always wanting him to come—always looking for him. I like him, too. I like him very much. But you never let me talk to him. You never—"
"Quiet, Nina." Vera's voice was trembling. Her face was sterner than I'd ever seen it. "You're making me angry."
"I don't care how angry I make you. It's true. You're impossible now. Why shouldn't I have my friends? I've nobody now. You never let me have anybody. And I like Mr. Lawrence—"
She began to sob, looking the most desolate figure.
"You don't know what you've said, Nina, nor how you've hurt.... You can go to your party as you please—"
And before I could stop her she was gone.
Nina turned to me a breathless, tearful face. She waited; we heard the door below closed.
"Oh, Durdles, what have I done?"
"Go after her! Stop her!" I said.
Nina vanished and I was alone. My room was intensely quiet.
They didn't come to see me again together. Vera came twice, kind and good as always, but with no more confidences; and Nina once with flowers and fruit and a wild chattering tongue about the cinemas and Smyrnov, who was delighting the world at the Narodny Dom, and the wonderful performance of Lermontov's "Masquerade" that was shortly to take place at the Alexander Theatre.
"Are you and Vera friends again?" I asked her.
"Oh yes! Why not?" And she went on, snapping a chocolate almond between her teeth—"The one at the 'Piccadilly' is the best. It's an Italian one, and there's a giant in it who throws people all over the place, out of windows and everywhere. Ah! how lovely!... I wish I could go every night."
"You ought to be helping with the war," I said severely.
"Oh, I hate the war!" she answered. "We're all terribly tired of it. Tanya's given up going to the English hospital now, and is just meaning to be as gay as she can be; and Zinaida Fyodorovna had just come back from her Otriad on the Galician front, and she says it's shocking there now—no food or dancing or anything. Why doesn't every one make peace?"
"Do you want the Germans to rule Russia?" I asked.
"Why not?" she said, laughing. "We can't do it ourselves. We don't care who does it. The English can do it if they like, only they're too lazy to bother. The German's aren't lazy, and if they were here we'd have lots of theatres and cinematographs."
"Don't you love your country?" I asked.
"This isn't our country," she answered. "It just belongs to the Empress and Protopopoff."
"Supposing it became your country and the Emperor went?"
"Oh, then it would belong to a million different people, and in the end no one would have anything. Can't you see how they'd fight?"... She burst out laughing: "Boris and Nicholas and Uncle Alexei and all the others!"
Then she was suddenly serious.
"I know, Durdles, you consider that I'm so young and frivolous that I don't think of anything serious. But I can see things like any one else. Can't you see that we're all so disappointed with ourselves that nothing matters? We thought the war was going to be so fine—but now it's just like the Japanese one, all robbery and lies—and we can't do anything to stop it."
"Perhaps some day some one will," I said.
"Oh yes!" she answered scornfully, "men like Boris."
After that she refused to be grave for a moment, danced about the room, singing, and finally vanished, a whirlwind of blue silk.
* * * * *
A week later I was out in the world again. That curious sense of excitement that had first come to me during the early days of my illness burnt now more fiercely than ever. I cannot say what it was exactly that I thought was going to happen. I have often looked back, as many other people must have done, to those days in February and wondered whether I foresaw anything of what was to come, and what were the things that might have seemed to me significant if I had noticed them. And here I am deliberately speaking of both public and private affairs. I cannot quite frankly dissever the two. At the Front, a year and a half before, I had discovered how intermingled the souls of individuals and the souls of countries were, and how permanent private history seemed to me and how transient public events; but whether that was true or no before, it was now most certain that it was the story of certain individuals that I was to record,—the history that was being made behind them could at its best be only a background.
I seemed to step into a city ablaze with a sinister glory. If that appears melodramatic I can only say that the dazzling winter weather of those weeks was melodramatic. Never before had I seen the huge buildings tower so high, never before felt the shadows so vast, the squares and streets so limitless in their capacity for swallowing light and colour. The sky was a bitter changeless blue; the buildings black; the snow and ice, glittering with purple and gold, swept by vast swinging shadows as though huge doors opened and shut in heaven, or monstrous birds hovered, their wings spread, motionless in the limitless space.
And all this had, as ever, nothing to do with human life. The little courtyards with their woodstacks and their coloured houses, carts and the cobbled squares and the little stumpy trees that bordered the canals and the little wooden huts beside the bridges with their candles and fruit—these were human and friendly and good, but they had their precarious condition like the rest of us.
On the first afternoon of my new liberty I found myself in the Nevski Prospect, bewildered by the crowds and the talk and trams and motors and carts that passed in unending sequence up and down the long street. Standing at the corner of the Sadovia and the Nevski one was carried straight to the point of the golden spire that guarded the farther end of the great street. All was gold, the surface of the road was like a golden stream, the canal was gold, the thin spire caught into its piercing line all the colour of the swiftly fading afternoon; the wheels of the carriages gleamed, the flower-baskets of the women glittered like shining foam, the snow flung its crystal colour into the air like thin fire dim before the sun. The street seemed to have gathered on to its pavements the citizens of every country under the sun. Tartars, Mongols, Little Russians, Chinamen, Japanese, French officers, British officers, peasants and fashionable women, schoolboys, officials, actors and artists and business men and priests and sailors and beggars and hawkers and, guarding them all, friendly, urbane, filled with a pleasant self-importance that seemed at that hour the simplest and easiest of attitudes, the Police. "Rum—rum—rum—whirr—whirr—whirr—whirr"—like the regular beat of a shuttle the hum rose and fell, as the sun faded into rosy mist and white vapours stole above the still canals.
I turned to go home and felt some one touch my elbow.
I swung round and there, his broad face ruddy with the cold, was Jerry Lawrence.
I was delighted to see him and told him so.
"Well, I'm damned glad," he said gruffly. "I thought you might have a grudge against me."
"A grudge?" I said. "Why?"
"Haven't been to see you. Heard you were ill, but didn't think you'd want me hanging round."
"Why this modesty?" I asked.
"No—well—you know what I mean." He shuffled his feet. "No good in a sick-room."
"Mine wasn't exactly a sick-room," I said. "But I heard that you did come."
"Yes. I came twice," he answered, looking at me shyly. "Your old woman wouldn't let me see you."
"Never mind that," I said; "let's have an evening together soon."
"Yes—as soon as you like." He looked up and down the street. "There are some things I'd like to ask your advice about."
"Certainly," I said.
"What do you say to coming and dining at my place? Ever met Wilderling?"
"Wilderling?" I could not remember for the moment the name.
"Yes—the old josser I live with. Fine old man—got a point of view of his own!"
"Delighted," I said.
"To-morrow. Eight o'clock. Don't dress."
He was just going off when he turned again.
"Awfully glad you're better," he said. He cleared his throat, looked at me in a very friendly way, then smiled.
"Awfully glad you're better," he repeated, then went off, rolling his broad figure into the evening mist.
I turned towards home.
I arrived at the Baron's punctually at eight o'clock. His flat was in a small side street off the English Quay. I paused for a moment, before turning into its dark recesses, to gather in the vast expanse of the frozen river and the long white quay. It was as though I had found my way behind a towering wall that now closed me in with a smile of contemptuous derision. There was no sound in the shining air and the only figure was a guard who moved monotonously up and down outside the Winter Palace.
I rang the bell and the "Schwitzer," bowing very ceremoniously, told me the flat was on the second floor. I went up a broad stone staircase and found a heavy oak door with brass nails confronting me. When this slowly swung open I discovered a very old man with white hair bowing before me. He was a splendid figure in a uniform of dark blue, his tall thin figure straight and slim, his white moustaches so neat and fierce that they seemed to keep guard over the rest of his face as though they warned him that they would stand no nonsense. There was an air of hushed splendour behind him, and I could hear the heavy, solemn ticking of a clock keeping guard over all the austere sanctities of the place. When I had taken off my Shuba and goloshes I was ushered into a magnificent room with a high gold clock on the mantlepiece, gilt chairs, heavy dark carpets and large portraits frowning from the grey walls. The whole room was bitterly silent, save for the tick of the clock. There was no fire in the fireplace, but a large gleaming white stove flung out a close scented heat from the further corner of the room. There were two long glass bookcases, some little tables with gilt legs, and a fine Japanese screen of dull gold. The only other piece of furniture was a huge grand piano near the window.
I sat down and was instantly caught into the solemn silence. There was something threatening in the hush of it all. "We do what we're told," the clock seemed to say, "and so must you." I thought of the ice and snow beyond the windows, and, in spite of myself, shivered.
Then the door opened and the Baron came in. He stood for a moment by the door, staring in front of him as though he could not penetrate the heavy and dusky air, and seen thus, under the height and space of the room, he seemed so small as to be almost ridiculous. But he was not ridiculous for long. As he approached one was struck at once by the immaculate efficiency that followed him like a protecting shadow. In himself he was a scrupulously neat old man with weary and dissipated eyes, but behind the weariness, the neatness, and dissipation was a spirit of indomitable determination and resolution. He wore a little white Imperial and a long white moustache. His hair was brushed back and his forehead shone like marble. He wore a black suit, white spats, and long, pointed, black patent-leather shoes. He had the smallest feet I have ever seen on any man.
He greeted me with great courtesy. His voice was soft, and he spoke perfect English, save for a very slight accent that was rather charming; this gave his words a certain naivete. He rubbed his hands and smiled in a gentle but determined way, as though he meant no harm by it, but had decided that it was a necessary thing to do. I forget of what we talked, but I know that I surrendered myself at once to an atmosphere that had been strange to me for so long that I had almost forgotten its character—an atmosphere of discipline, order, comfort, and above all, of security. My mind flew to the Markovitches, and I smiled to myself at the thought of the contrast.
Then, strangely, when I had once thought of the Markovitch flat the picture haunted me for the rest of the evening. I could see the Baron's gilt chairs and gold clock, his little Imperial and shining shoes only through the cloudy disorder of the Markovitch tables and chairs. There was poor Markovitch in his dark little room perched on his chair with his boots, with his hands, with his hair... and there was poor Uncle and there poor Vera.... Why was I pitying them? I gloried in them. That is Russia... This is....
"Allow me to introduce you to my wife," the Baron said, bending forward, the very points of his toes expressing amiability.
The Baroness was a large solid lady with a fine white bosom and strong white arms. Her face was homely and kind; I saw at once that she adored her husband; her placid smile carried beneath its placidity a tremulous anxiety that he should be pleased, and her mild eyes swam in the light of his encouragement. I was sure, however, that the calm and discipline that I felt in the things around me came as much from her domesticity as from his discipline. She was a fortunate woman in that she had attained the ambition of her life—to govern the household of a man whom she could both love and fear.
Lawrence came in, and we went through high folding doors into the dining-room. This room had dark-blue wall-paper, electric lights heavily shaded, and soft heavy carpets. The table itself was flooded with light—the rest of the room was dusk. I wondered as I looked about me why the Wilderlings had taken Lawrence as a paying guest. Before my visit I had imagined that they were poor, as so many of the better-class Russians were, but here were no signs of poverty. I decided that.
Our dinner was good, and the wine was excellent. We talked, of course, politics, and the Baron was admirably frank.
"I won't disguise from you, M. Durward," he said, "that some of us watch your English effort at winning the heart of this country with sympathy, but also, if I am not offending you, with some humour. I'm not speaking only of your propaganda efforts. You've got, I know, one or two literary gentlemen here—a novelist, I think, and a professor and a journalist. Well, soon you'll find them inefficient, and decide that you must have some commercial gentlemen, and then, disappointed with them, you'll decide for the military... and still the great heart of Russia will remain untouched."
"Yes," I said, "because your class are determined that the peasant shall remain uneducated, and until he is educated he will be unable to approach any of us."
"Quite so," said the Baron smiling at me very cheerfully. "I perceive, M. Durward, that you are a democrat. So are we all, these days.... You look surprised, but I assure you that the good of the people in the interests of the people is the only thing for which any of us care. Only some of us know Russia pretty well, and we know that the Russian peasant is not ready for liberty, and if you were to give him liberty to-night you would plunge his country into the most desperate torture of anarchy and carnage known in history. A little more soup?—we are offering you only a slight dinner."
"Yes, but, Baron," I said, "would you tell me when it is intended that the Russian peasant shall begin his upward course towards light and learning? If that day is to be for ever postponed?"
"It will not be for ever postponed," said the Baron gently. "Let us finish the war, and education shall be given slowly, under wise direction, to every man, woman, and child in the country. Our Czar is the most liberal ruler in Europe—and he knows what is good for his children."
"And Protopopoff and Stuermer?" I asked.
"Protopopoff is a zealous, loyal liberal, but he has been made to see during these last months that Russia is not at this moment ready for freedom. Stuermer—well, M. Stuermer is gone."
"So you, yourself, Baron," I asked, "would oppose at this moment all reform?"
"With every drop of blood in my body," he answered, and his hand flat against the tablecloth quivered. "At this crisis admit one change and your dyke is burst, your land flooded. Every Russian is asked at this moment to believe in simple things—his religion, his Czar, his country. Grant your reforms, and in a week every babbler in the country will be off his head, talking, screaming, fighting. The Germans will occupy Russia at their own good time, you will be beaten on the West and civilisation will be set back two hundred years. The only hope for Russia is unity, and for unity you must have discipline, and for discipline, in Russia at any rate, you must have an autocracy."
As he spoke the furniture, the grey walls, the heavy carpets, seemed to whisper an echo of his words: "Unity... Discipline... Discipline... Autocracy... Autocracy... Autocracy...."
"Then tell me, Baron," I said, "if it isn't an impertinent question, do you feel so secure in your position that you have no fears at all? Does such a crisis, as for instance Milyukoff's protest last November, mean nothing? You know the discontent.... Is there no fear....?"
"Fear!" He interrupted me, his voice swift and soft and triumphant. "M. Durward, are you so ignorant of Russia that you consider the outpourings of a few idealistic Intelligentzia, professors and teachers and poets, as important? What about the people, M. Durward? You ask any peasant in the Moscow Government, or little Russia, or the Ukraine whether he will remain loyal to his Little Father or no! Ask—and the question you suggested to me will be answered."
"Then, you feel both secure and justified?" I said.
"We feel both secure and justified"—he answered me, smiling.
After that our conversation was personal and social. Lawrence was very quiet. I observed that the Baroness had a motherly affection for him, that she saw that he had everything that he wanted, and that she gave him every now and then little friendly confidential smiles. As the meal proceeded, as I drank the most excellent wine and the warm austerity of my surroundings gathered ever more closely around me, I wondered whether after all my apprehensions and forebodings of the last weeks had not been the merest sick man's cowardice. Surely if any kingdom in the world was secure, it was this official Russia. I could see it stretching through the space and silence of that vast land, its servants in every village, its paths and roads all leading back to the central citadel, its whispered orders flying through the air from district to district, its judgements, its rewards, its sins, its virtues, resting upon a basis of superstition and ignorance and apathy, the three sure friends of autocracy through history!
And on the other side—who? The Rat, Boris Grogoff, Markovitch. Yes, the Baron had reason for his confidence.... I thought for a moment of that figure that I had seen on Christmas Eve by the river—the strong grave bearded peasant whose gaze had seemed to go so far beyond the bounds of my own vision. But no! Russia's mystical peasant—that was an old tale. Once, on the Front, when I had seen him facing the enemy with bare hands, I had, myself, believed it. Now I thought once more of the Rat—that was the type whom I must now confront.
I had a most agreeable evening. I do not know how long it had been since I had tasted luxury and comfort and the true fruits of civilisation. The Baron was a most admirable teller of stories, with a capital sense of humour. After dinner the Baroness left us for half an hour, and the Baron became very pleasantly Rabelaisian, speaking of his experiences in Paris and London, Vienna and Berlin so easily and with so ready a wit that the evening flew. The Baroness returned and, seeing that it was after eleven, I made my farewells. Lawrence said that he would walk with me down the quay before turning into bed. My host and hostess pressed me to come as often as possible. The Baron's last words to me were:
"Have no fears, M. Durward. There is much talk in this country, but we are a lazy people."
The "we" rang strangely in my ears.
"He's of course no more a Russian than you or I," I said to Lawrence, as we started down the quay.
"Oh yes, he is!" Lawrence said. "Quite genuine—not a drop of German blood in spite of the name. But he's a Prussian at heart—a Prussian of the Prussians. By that I don't mean in the least that he wants Germany to win the war. He doesn't—his interests are all here, and you mayn't believe me, but I assure you he's a Patriot. He loves Russia, and he wants what's best for her—and believes that to be Autocracy."
After that Lawrence shut up. He would not say another word. We walked for a long time in silence. The evening was most beautiful. A golden moon flung the snow into dazzling relief against the deep black of the palaces. Across the Neva the line of towers and minarets and chimneys ran like a huge fissure in the golden, light from sky to sky.
"You said there was something you wanted to ask my advice about?"
I broke the silence.
He looked at me with his long slow considering stare. He mumbled something; then, with a sudden gesture, he gripped my arm, and his heavy body quivering with the urgency of his words he said:
"It's Vera Markovitch.... I'd give my body and soul and spirit for her happiness and safety.... God forgive me, I'd give my country and my honour.... I ache and long for her, so that I'm afraid for my sanity. I've never loved a woman, nor lusted for one, nor touched one in my whole life, Durward—and now... and now... I've gone right in. I've spoken no word to any one; but I couldn't stand my own silence.... Durward, you've got to help me!"
I walked on, seeing the golden light and the curving arc of snow and the little figures moving like dolls from light to shadow. Lawrence! I had never thought of him as an urgent lover; even now, although I could still feel his hand quivering on my arm, I could have laughed at the ludicrous incongruity of romance, and that stolid thick-set figure. And at the same time I was afraid. Lawrence in love was no boy on the threshold of life like Bohun... here was no trivial passion. I realised even in that first astonished moment the trouble that might be in store for all of us.
"Look here, Lawrence!" I said at last. "The first thing that you may as well realise is that it is hopeless. Vera Michailovna has confided in me a good deal lately, and she is devoted to her husband, thinks of nothing else. She's simple, naive, with all her sense and wisdom...."
"Hopeless!" he interrupted, and he gave a kind of grim chuckle of derision. "My dear Durward, what do you suppose I'm after?... rape and adultery and Markovitch after us with a pistol? I tell you—" and here he spoke fiercely, as though he were challenging the whole ice-bound world around us—"that I want nothing but her happiness, her safety, her comfort! Do you suppose that I'm such an ass as not to recognise the kind of thing that my loving her would lead to? I tell you I'm after nothing for myself, and that not because I'm a fine unselfish character, but simply because the thing's too big to let anything into it but herself. She shall never know that I care twopence about her, but she's got to be happy and she's got to be safe.... Just now, she's neither of those things, and that's why I've spoken to you.... She's unhappy and she's afraid, and that's got to change. I wouldn't have spoken of this to you if I thought you'd be so short-sighted...."
"All right! All right!" I said testily. "You may be a kind of Galahad, Lawrence, outside all natural law. I don't know, but you'll forgive me if I go for a moment on my own experience—and that experience is, that you can start on as highbrow an elevation as you like, but love doesn't stand still, and the body's the body, and to-morrow isn't yesterday—not by no means. Moreover, Markovitch is a Russian and a peculiar one at that. Finally, remember that I want Vera Michailovna to be happy quite as much as you do!"
He was suddenly grave and almost boyish in his next words.
"I know that—you're a decent chap, Durward—I know it's hard to believe me, but I just ask you to wait and test me. No one knows of this—that I'd swear—and no one shall; but what's the matter with her, Durward, what's she afraid of? That's why I spoke to you. You know her, and I'll throttle you here where we stand if you don't tell me just what the trouble is. I don't care for confidences or anything of the sort. You must break them all and tell me—"
His hand was on my arm again, his big ugly face, now grim and obstinate, close against mine.
"I'll tell you," I said slowly, "all I know, which is almost nothing. The trouble is Semyonov, the doctor. Why or how I can't say, although I've seen enough of him in the past to know the trouble he can be. She's afraid of him, and Markovitch is afraid of him. He likes playing on people's nerves. He's a bitter, disappointed man, who loved desperately once, as only real sensualists can... and now he's in love with a ghost. That's why real life maddens him."
"Semyonov!" Lawrence whispered the name.
We had come to the end of the quay. My dear church with its round grey wall stood glistening in the moonlight, the shadows from the snow rippling up its sides, as though it lay under water. We stood and looked across the river.
"I've always hated that fellow," Lawrence said. "I've only seen him about twice, but I believe I hated him before I saw him.... All right, Durward, that's what I wanted to know. Thank you. Good-night."
And before I could speak he had gripped my hand, had turned back, and was walking swiftly away, across the golden-lighted quay.
From the moment that Lawrence left me, vanishing into the heart of the snow and ice, I was obsessed by a conviction of approaching danger and peril. It has been one of the most disastrous weaknesses of my life that I have always shrunk from precipitate action. Before the war it had seemed to many of us that life could be jockeyed into decisions by words and theories and speculations. The swift, and, as it were, revengeful precipitancy of the last three years had driven me into a self-distrust and cowardice which had grown and grown until life had seemed veiled and distant and mysteriously obscure. From my own obscurity, against my will, against my courage, against my own knowledge of myself, circumstances were demanding that I should advance and act. It was of no avail to myself that I should act unwisely, that I should perhaps only precipitate a crisis that I could not help. I was forced to act when I would have given my soul to hold aloof, and in this town, whose darkness and light, intrigue and display, words and action, seemed to derive some mysterious force from the very soil, from the very air, the smallest action achieved monstrous proportions. When you have lived for some years in Russia you do not wonder that its citizens prefer inaction to demonstration—the soil is so much stronger than the men who live upon it.
Nevertheless, for a fortnight I did nothing. Private affairs of an especially tiresome kind filled my days—I saw neither Lawrence nor Vera, and, during that period, I scarcely left my rooms.
There was much expectation in the town that February 14th, when the Duma was appointed to meet, would be a critical day. Fine things were said of the challenging speeches that would be made, of the firm stand that the Cadet party intended to take, of the crisis with which the Court party would be faced.
Of course nothing occurred. It may be safely said that, in Russian affairs, no crisis occurs, either in the place or at the time, or in the manner in which it is expected. Time with us here refuses to be caught by the throat. That is the revenge that it takes on the scorn with which, in Russia, it is always covered.
On the 20th of February I received an invitation to Nina's birthday party. She would be eighteen on the 28th. She scribbed at the bottom of Vera's note:
Dear Durdles—If you don't come I will never forgive you.—Your loving Nina.
The immediate problem was a present. I knew that Nina adored presents, but Petrograd was now no easy place for purchases, and I wished, I suppose as a kind of tribute to her youth and freshness and colour, to give her something for which she would really care. I sallied out on a wonderful afternoon when the town was a blaze of colour, the walls dark red, dark brown, violet, pink, and the snow a dazzling glitter of crystal. The bells were ringing for some festival, echoing as do no other bells in the world from wall to wall, roof to roof, canal to canal. Everybody moved as though they were inspired with a gay sense of adventure, men and women laughing; the Isvostchicks surveying possible fares with an eye less patronising and lugubrious than usual, the flower women and the beggars and the little Chinese boys and the wicked old men who stare at you as though they were dreaming of Eastern debauches, shared in the sun and tang of the air and high colour of the sky and snow.
I pushed my way into the shop in the Morskaia that had the coloured stones—the blue and azure and purple stones—in the window. Inside the shop, which had a fine gleaming floor, and an old man with a tired eye, there were stones of every colour, but there was nothing there for Nina—all was too elaborate and grand.
Near the Nevski is a fine shop of pictures with snow scenes and blue rivers and Italian landscapes, and copies of Repin and Verestchagin, and portraits of the Czar. I searched here, but all were too sophisticated in their bright brown frames, and their air of being the latest thing from Paris and London. Then I crossed the road, threading my way through the carriages and motor cars, past the old white-bearded sweeper with the broom held aloft, gazing at the sky, and plunged into the English Shop to see whether I might buy something warm for Nina. Here, indeed, I could fancy that I was in the High Street in Chester, or Leicester, or Truro, or Canterbury. A demure English provincialism was over everything, and a young man in a high white collar and a shiny black coat, washed his hands as he told me that "they hadn't any in stock at the moment, but they were expecting a delivery of goods at any minute." Russian shopmen, it is almost needless to say, do not care whether they have goods in stock or no. They have other things to think about. The air was filled with the chatter of English governesses, and an English clergyman and his wife were earnestly turning over a selection of woollen comforters.
Nothing here for Nina—nothing at all. I hurried away. With a sudden flash of inspiration I realised that it was in the Jews' Market that I would find what I wanted. I snatched at the bulging neck of a sleeping coachman, and before he was fully awake was in his sledge, and had told him my destination. He grumbled and wished to know how much I intended to pay him, and when I said one and a half roubles, answered that he would not take me for less than three. I threatened him then with the fat and good-natured policeman who always guarded the confused junction of the Morskaia and Nevski, and he was frightened and moved on. I sighed as I remembered the days not so long before, when that same coachman would have thought it an honour to drive me for half a rouble. Down the Sadovya we slipped, bumping over the uneven surface of the snow, and the shops grew smaller and the cinemas more stringent, and the women and men with their barrows of fruit and coloured notepaper and toys more frequent. Then through the market with the booths and the church with its golden towers, until we stood before the hooded entrance to the Jews' Paradise. I paid him, and without listening to his discontented cries pushed my way in. The Jews' Market is a series of covered arcades with a square in the middle of it, and in the middle of the square a little church with some doll-like trees. These arcades are Western in their hideous covering of glass and the ugliness of the exterior of the wooden shops that line them, but the crowd that throngs them is Eastern, so that in the strange eyes and voices, the wild gestures, the laughs, the cries, the singing, and the dancing that meets one here it is as though a new world was suddenly born—a world offensive, dirty, voluble, blackguardly perhaps, but intriguing, tempting, and ironical. The arcades are generally so crowded that one can move only at a slow pace and, on every side one is pestered by the equivalents of the old English cry: "What do you lack? What do you lack?"
Every mixture of blood and race that the world contains is to be seen here, but they are all—Tartars, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Arabs, Moslem, and Christian—formed by some subtle colour of atmosphere, so that they seem all alike to be citizens of some secret little town, sprung to life just for a day, in the heart of this other city. Perhaps it is the dull pale mist that the glass flings down, perhaps it is the uncleanly dust-clogged air; whatever it be, there is a stain of grey shadowy smoke upon all this world, and Ikons and shabby jewels, and piles of Eastern clothes, and old brass pots, and silver, hilted swords, and golden-tasselled Tartar coats gleam through the shadow and wink and stare.
To-day the arcades were so crowded that I could scarcely move, and the noise was deafening.
Many soldiers were there, looking with indulgent amusement upon the scene, and the Jews with their skull-caps and the fat, huge-breasted Jewish women screamed and shrieked and waved their arms like boughs in a storm. I stopped at many shops and fingered the cheap silver toys, the little blue and green Ikons, the buckles and beads and rosaries that thronged the trays, but I could not find anything for Nina. Then suddenly I saw a square box of mother-of-pearl and silver, so charming and simple, the figures on the silver lid so gracefully carved that I decided at once.
The Jew in charge of it wanted twice as much as I was ready to give, and we argued for ten minutes before a kindly and appreciative crowd. At last we arranged a compromise, and I moved away, pleased and satisfied. I stepped out of the arcade and faced the little Square. It was, at that instant, fantastic and oddly coloured; the sun, about to set, hung in the misty sky a perfect round crimson globe, and it was perched, almost maliciously, just above the tower of the little church.
The rest of the world was grey. The Square was a thick mass of human beings so tightly wedged together that it seemed to move backwards and forwards like a floor of black wood pushed by a lever. One lamp burnt behind the window of the church, the old houses leaned forward as though listening to the babel below their eaves.
But it was the sun that seemed to me then so evil and secret and cunning. Its deep red was aloof and menacing, and its outline so sharp that it was detached from the sky as though it were human, and would presently move and advance towards us. I don't know what there was in that crowd of struggling human beings and that detached red sun.... The air was cruel, and through all the arcades that seemed to run like veins to this heart of the place I could feel the cold and the dark and the smoky dusk creeping forward to veil us all with deepest night.
I turned away and then saw, advancing towards me, as though he had just come from the church, pushing his way, and waving a friendly hand to me, Semyonov.
His greeting was most amiable. He was wearing a rather short fur coat that only reached to a little below his knees, and the fur of the coat was of a deep rich brown, so that his pale square yellow beard contrasted with this so abruptly as to seem false. His body was as ever thick and self-confident, and the round fur cap that he wore was cocked ever so slightly to one side. I did not want to see him, but I was caught. I fancied that he knew very well that I wanted to escape, and that now, for sheer perversity, he would see that I did not. Indeed, he caught my arm and drew me out of the Market. We passed into the dusky streets.
"Now, Ivan Andreievitch," he said, "this is very pleasant... very.... You elude me, you know, which is unkind with two so old acquaintances. Of course I know that you dislike me, and I don't suppose that I have the highest opinion of you, but, nevertheless, we should be interested in one another. Our common experience...." He broke off with a little shiver, and pulled his fur coat closer around him.
I knew that all that I wanted was to break away. We had passed quickly on leaving the Market into some of the meanest streets of Petrograd. This was the Petrograd of Dostoeffsky, the Petrograd of "Poor Folk" and "Crime and Punishment" and "The Despised and Rejected."... Monstrous groups of flats towered above us, and in the gathering dusk the figures that slipped in and out of the doors were furtive shadows and ghosts. No one seemed to speak; you could see no faces under the spare pale-flamed lamps, only hear whispers and smell rotten stinks and feel the snow, foul and soiled under one's feet....
"Look here, Semyonov," I said, slipping from the control of his hand, "it's just as you say. We don't like one another, and we know one another well enough to say so. Neither you nor I wish to revive the past, and there's nothing in the present that we have in common."
"Nothing!" He laughed. "What about my delightful nieces and their home circle? You were always one to shrink from the truth, Ivan Andreievitch. You fancy that you can sink into the bosom of a charming family and escape the disadvantages.... Not at all. There are always disadvantages in a Russian family. I am the disadvantage in this one." He laughed again, and insisted on taking my arm once more. "If you feel so strongly about me, Durward" (when he used my surname he always accented the second syllable very strongly) "all you have to do is to cut my niece Vera out of your visiting list. That, I imagine, is the last thing that you wish. Well, then—"
"Vera Michailovna is my friend," I said hotly—it was foolish of me to be so easily provoked, but I could not endure his sneering tone. "If you imply—"
"Nonsense," he answered sharply, "I imply nothing. Do you suppose that I have been more than a month here without discovering the facts? It's your English friend Lawrence who is in love with Vera—and Vera with him."
"That is a lie!" I cried.
He laughed. "You English," he said, "are not so unobservant as you seem, but you hate facts. Vera and your friend Lawrence have been in love with one another since their first meeting, and my dear nephew-in-law Markovitch knows it."
"That's impossible," I cried. "He—"
"No," Semyonov replied, "I was wrong. He does not know it—he suspects. And my nephew-in-law in a state of suspicion is a delightful study."
By now we were in a narrow street, so dark that we stumbled at every step. We seemed to be quite alone.
It was I who now caught his arm. "Semyonov!" I said, and my urgency stopped him so that he stood where he was. "Leave them alone! Leave them alone! They've done no harm to you, they can offer you nothing, they are not intelligent enough for you nor amusing enough. Even if it is true what you say it will pass—Lawrence will go away. I will see that he does. Only leave them alone! For God's sake, let them be!"
His face was very close to mine, and, looking at it in the gathering dark, it was as though it were a face of glass behind which other faces passed and repassed. I cannot hope to give any idea of the strange mingling of regret, malice, pride, pain, scorn, and humour that those eyes showed. His red lips parted as though he would speak, for a moment he turned away from me and looked down the black tunnel of the street, then he walked forward again.
"You are wrong, my friend," he said, "if you imagine that there is no amusement for me in the study of my family. It is my family, you know. I have none other. Perhaps it has never occurred to you, Durward, that possibly I am a lonely man."
As he spoke I heard again the echo of that voice as it vanished into the darkness.... "No one?" and the answer: "No one."...
"Don't imagine," he continued, "that I am asking for your pity. That indeed would be humorous. I pity no one, and I despise the men who have it to bestow... but there are situations in life that are intolerable, Ivan Andreievitch, and any man who is a man will see that he escapes from such a thing. May I not find in the bosom of my family such an escape?" He laughed.
"I know nothing about that," I began hotly. "All I know is—"
But he went on as though he had not heard me.
"Have you ever thought about death since you came away from the Front, Durward? It used to occupy your mind a good deal while you were there, I remember—in a foolish, romantic, sentimental way of course. You'll forgive my saying that your views of death were those of a second-hand novelist—all the same I'll do you the justice of acknowledging that you had studied it at first hand. You're not a coward, you know."
I was struck most vividly with a sense of his uneasiness. During those other days uneasy was the very last thing that I ever would have said that he was—even after his catastrophe his grip of his soul did not loosen. It was just that loosening that I felt now; he had less control of the beasts that dwelt beneath the ground of his house, and he could hear them snarl and whine, and could feel the floor quiver with the echo of their movements.
I suddenly knew that I was afraid of him no longer.
"Now, see, Alexei Petrovitch," I said, "it isn't death that we want to talk about now. It is a much simpler thing. It is, that you shouldn't for your own amusement simply go in and spoil the lives of some of my friends for nothing at all except your own stupid pride. If that's your plan I'm going to prevent it."
"Why, Ivan Andreievitch," he cried, laughing, "this is a challenge."
"You can take it as what you please," I answered gravely.
"But, incorrigible sentimentalist," he went on, "tell me—are you, English and moralist and believer in a good and righteous God as you are, are you really going to encourage this abominable adultery, this open, ruthless wrecking of a good man's home? You surprise me; this is a new light on your otherwise rather uninteresting character."
"Never mind my character," I answered him; "all you've got to do is to leave Vera Michailovna alone. There'll be no wrecking of homes, unless you are the wrecker."
He put his hand on my arm again.
"Listen, Durward," he said, "I'll tell you a little story. I'm a doctor you know, and many curious things occur within my province. Well, some years ago I knew a man who was very miserable and very proud. His pride resented that he should be miserable, and he was always suspecting that people saw his weakness, and as he despised human nature, and thought his companions fools and deserving of all that they got, and more, he couldn't bear the thought that they should perceive that he allowed himself to be unhappy. He coveted death. If it meant extinction he could imagine nothing pleasanter than so restful an aloofness, quiet and apart and alone, whilst others hurried and scrambled and pursued the future....
"And if death did not mean extinction then he thought that he might snatch and secure for himself something which in life had eluded him. So he coveted death. But he was too proud to reach it by suicide. That seemed to him a contemptible and cowardly evasion, and such an easy solution would have denied the purpose of all his life. So he looked about him and discovered amongst his friends a man whose character he knew well, a man idealistic and foolish and romantic, like yourself, Ivan Andreievitch, only caring more for ideas, more impulsive and more reckless. He found this man and made him his friend. He played with him as a cat does with a mouse. He enjoyed life for about a year and then he was murdered...."
"Murdered!" I exclaimed.
"Yes—shot by his idealistic friend. I envy him that year. He must have experienced many breathless sensations. When the murderer was tried his only explanation was that he had been irritated and disappointed.
"'Disappointed of what?' asked the judge.
"'Of everything in which he believed....' said the man.
"It seemed a poor excuse for a murder; he is still, I have no doubt, in Siberia.
"But I envy my friend. That was a delightful death to die.... Good-night, Ivan Andreievitch."
He waved his hand at me and was gone. I was quite alone in the long black street, engulfed by the high, overhanging flats.
Late on the afternoon of Nina's birthday, when I was on the point of setting out for the English Prospect, the Rat appeared. I had not seen him for several weeks; but there he was, stepping suddenly out of the shadows of my room, dirty and disreputable and cheerful. He had been, I perceived, drinking furniture polish.
"Good-evening," I said sternly. "I told you not to come here when you were drunk."
"I'm not drunk," he said, offended, "only a little. It's not much that you can get these days. I want some money, Barin."
"I've none for you," I answered.
"It's only a little—God knows that I wouldn't ask you for much, but I'm going to be very busy these next days, and it's work that won't bring pay quickly. There'll be pay later, and then I will return it to you."
"There's nothing for you to-night," I said.
He laughed. "You're a fine man, Barin. A foreigner is fine—that's where the poor Russian is unhappy. I love you, Barin, and I will look after you, and if, as you say, there isn't any money here, one must pray to God and he will show one the way."
"What's this work you're going to do?" I asked him.
"There's going to be trouble the other side of the river in a day or two," he answered, "and I'm going to help."
"Help what?" I asked.
"Help the trouble," he answered, smiling.
"Behave like a blackguard, in fact."
"Ah, blackguard, Barin!" he protested, using a Russian word that is worse than blackguard. "Why these names?... I'm not a good man, God have mercy on my soul, but then I pretend nothing. I am what you see.... If there's going to be trouble in the town I may as well be there. Why not I as well as another? And it is to your advantage, Barin, that I should be."
"Why to my advantage?" I asked him.
"Because I am your friend, and we'll protect you," he answered.
"I wouldn't trust you a yard," I told him.
"Well, perhaps you're right," he said. "We are as God made us—I am no better than the rest."
"No, indeed you're not," I answered him. "Why do you think there'll be trouble?"
"I know.... Perhaps a lot of trouble, perhaps only a little. But it will be a fine time for those of us who have nothing to lose.... So you have no money for me?"
"A mere rouble or so?"
"Well, I must be off.... I am your friend. Don't forget," and he was gone.
It had been arranged that Nina and Vera, Lawrence and Bohun and I should meet outside the Giniselli at five minutes to eight. I left my little silver box at the flat, paid some other calls, and just as eight o'clock was striking arrived outside the Giniselli. This is Petrograd's apology for a music-hall—in other words, it is nothing but the good old-fashioned circus.
Then, again, it is not quite the circus of one's English youth, because it has a very distinct Russian atmosphere of its own. The point really is the enthusiasm of the audience, because it is an enthusiasm that in these sophisticated, twentieth-century days is simply not to be found in any other country in Europe. I am an old-fashioned man and, quite frankly, I adore a circus; and when I can find one with the right sawdust smell, the right clown, and the right enthusiasm, I am happy. The smart night is a Saturday, and then, if you go, you will see, in the little horse-boxes close to the arena, beautiful women in jewellery and powder, and young officers, and fat merchants in priceless Shubas. But to-night was not a Saturday, and therefore the audience was very democratic, screaming cat-calls from the misty distances of the gallery, and showering sunflower seeds upon the heads of the bourgeoisie, who were, for the most part, of the smaller shopkeeper kind.
Nina, to-night, was looking very pretty and excited. She was wearing a white silk dress with blue bows, and all her hair was piled on the top of her head in imitation of Vera—but this only had the effect of making her seem incredibly young and naive, as though she had put her hair up just for the evening because there was to be a party. It was explained that Markovitch was working but would be present at supper. Vera was quiet, but looked happier, I thought, than I had seen her for a long time. Bohun was looking after her, and Lawrence was with Nina. I sat behind the four of them, in the back of the little box, like a presiding Benevolence.
Mostly I thought of how lovely Vera was to-night, and why it was, too, that more people did not care for her. I knew that she was not popular, that she was considered proud and reserved and cold. As she sat there now, motionless, her hands on her lap, her whole being seemed to me to radiate goodness and gentleness and a loving heart. I knew that she could be impatient with stupid people, and irritated by sentimentality, and infuriated by meanness and cruelty, but the whole size and grandeur of her nobility seemed to me to shine all about her and set her apart from the rest of human beings. She was not a woman whom I ever could have loved—she had not the weaknesses and naiveties and appealing helplessness that drew love from one's heart. Nor could I have ever dared to face the depth and splendour of the passion that there was in her—I was not built on that heroic scale. God forgive me if, as I watched them, I felt a sudden glow of almost eager triumph at the thought of Lawrence as her lover! I checked it. My heart was suddenly heavy.
Such a development could only mean tragedy, and I knew it. I had even sworn to Semyonov that I would prevent it. I looked at them and felt my helpless weakness. Who was I to prevent anything? And who was there now, in the whole world, who would be guided by my opinion? They might have me as a confidant because they trusted me, but after that... no, I had no illusions. I was pushed off the edge of the world, hanging on still with one quivering hand—soon my grip would loosen—and, God help me, I did not want to go.
Nina turned back to me and, with a little excited clap of her hands, drew my attention to the gallant Madame Gineselli, who, although by no means a chicken, arrayed in silver tights and a large black picture-hat, stood on one foot on the back of her white horse and bowed to the already hysterical gallery. Mr. Gineselli cracked his whip, and the white horse ambled along and the sawdust flew up into our eyes, and Madame bent her knees first in and then out, and the bourgeoisie clapped their hands and the gallery shouted "Brava." Gineselli cracked his whip and there was the clown "Jackomeno, beloved of his Russian public," as it was put on the programme; and indeed so he seemed to be, for he was greeted with roars of applause. There was nothing very especially Russian about him, however, and when he had taken his coat off and brushed a place on which to put it and then flung it on the ground and stamped on it, I felt quite at home with him and ready for anything.
He called up one of the attendants and asked him whether he had ever played the guitar. I don't know what it was that the attendant answered, because something else suddenly transfixed my attention—the vision of Nina's little white-gloved hand resting on Lawrence's broad knee. I saw at once, as though she had told me, that she had committed herself to a most desperate venture. I could fancy the resolution that she had summoned to take the step, the way that now her heart would be furiously beating, and the excited chatter with which she would try to cover up her action. Vera and Bohun could not, from where they were sitting, see what she had done; Lawrence did not move, his back was set like a rock; he stared steadfastly at the arena. Nina never ceased talking, her ribbons fluttering and her other hand gesticulating.
I could not take my eyes from that little white hand. I should have been, I suppose, ashamed of her, indignant for her, but I could only feel that she was, poor child, in for the most desperate rebuff. I could see from where I sat her cheek, hot and crimson, and her shrill voice never stopped.
The interval arrived, to my intense relief, and we all went out into the dark passage that smelt of sawdust and horses. Almost at once Nina detached me from the others and walked off with me towards the lighted hall.
"You saw," she said.
"Saw what?" I asked.
"Saw what I was doing."
I felt that she was quivering all over, and she looked so ridiculously young, with her trembling lip and blue hat on one side and burning cheeks, that I felt that I wanted to take her into my arms and kiss and pet her.
"I saw that you had your hand on his knee," I said. "That was silly of you, Nina."
"Why shouldn't I?" she answered furiously. "Why shouldn't I enjoy life like every one else? Why should Vera, have everything?"
"Vera!" I cried. "What has it to do with Vera?"
She didn't answer my question. She put her hand on my arm, pressing close up to me as though she wanted my protection.
"Durdles, I want him for my friend. I do—I do. When I look at him and think of Boris and the others I don't want to speak to any one of them again. I only want him for my friend. I'm getting old now, and they can't treat me as a child any longer. I'll show them. I know what I'll do if I can't have the friends I want and if Vera is always managing me—I'll go off to Boris."
"My dear Nina," I said, "you mustn't do that. You don't care for him."
"No, I know I don't—but I will go if everybody thinks me a baby. And Durdles—Durdles, please—make him like me—your Mr. Lawrence."
She said his name with the funniest little accent.
"Nina, dear," I said, "will you take a little piece of advice from me?"
"What is it?" she asked doubtfully.
"Well, this.... Don't you make any move yourself. Just wait and you'll see he'll like you. You'll make him shy if you—"
But she interrupted me furiously in one of her famous tempers.
"Oh, you Englishmen with your shyness and your waiting and your coldness! I hate you all, and I wish we were fighting with the Germans against you. Yes, I do—and I hope the Germans win. You never have any blood. You're all cold as ice.... And what do you mean spying on me? Yes, you were—sitting behind and spying! You're always finding out what we're doing, and putting it all down in a book. I hate you, and I won't ever ask your advice again."
She rushed off, and I was following her when the bell rang for the beginning of the second part. We all went in, Nina chattering and laughing with Bohun just as though she had never been in a temper in her life.
Then a dreadful thing happened. We arrived at the box, and Vera, Bohun, and Nina sat in the seats they had occupied before. I waited for Lawrence to sit down, but he turned round to me.
"I say, Durward—you sit next to Nina Michailovna this time. She'll be bored having me all the while."
"No, no!" I began to protest, but Nina, her voice shaking, cried:
"Yes, Durdles, you sit down next to me—please."
I don't think that Lawrence perceived anything. He said very cheerfully, "That's right—and I'll sit behind and see that you all behave."
I sat down and the second part began. The second part was wrestling. The bell rang, the curtains parted, and instead of the splendid horses and dogs there appeared a procession of some of the most obese and monstrous types of humanity. Almost naked, they wandered round the arena, mountains of flesh glistening in the electric light. A little man, all puffed up like a poulter pigeon, then advanced into the middle of the arena, and was greeted with wild applause from the gallery. To this he bowed and then announced in a terrific voice, "Gentlemen, you are about to see some of the most magnificent wrestling in the world. Allow me to introduce to you the combatants." He then shouted out the names: "Ivan Strogoff of Kiev—Paul Rosing of Odessa—Jacob Smyerioff of Petrograd—John Meriss from Africa (this the most hideous of negroes)—Karl Tubiloff of Helsingfors...." and so on. The gentlemen named smirked and bowed. They all marched off, and then, in a moment, one couple returned, shook hands, and, under the breathless attention of the whole house, began to wrestle.
They did not, however, command my attention. I could think of nothing but the little crushed figure next to me. I stole a look at her and saw that a large tear was hanging on one eyelash ready to fall. I looked hurriedly away. Poor child! And her birthday! I cursed Lawrence for his clumsiness. What did it matter if she had put her hand on his knee? He ought to have taken it and patted it. But it was more than likely, as I knew very well, that he had never even noticed her action. He was marvellously unaware of all kinds of things, and it was only too possible that Nina scarcely existed for him. I longed to comfort her, and I did then a foolish thing. I put out my hand and let it rest for a moment on her dress.
Instantly she moved away with a sharp little gesture.
Five minutes later I heard a little whisper: "Durdles, it's so hot here—and I hate these naked men. Shall we go? Ask Vera—"
The first bout had just come to an end. The little man with the swelling chest was alone, strutting up and down, and answering questions hurled at him from the gallery.
"Uncle Vanya, where's Michael of Odessa?"
"Ah, he's a soldier in the army now."
"Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya..."
"Well, well, what is it?"
"Why isn't Chornaya Maska, wrestling to-night?"
"Ah, he's busy."
"What's he busy with?"
"Never mind, he's busy."
"What's he busy with?... Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya..."
"Isn't it true that Michael's dead now?"
"So they say."
"Is it true?"
"Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya...."
The message had passed along that Nina was tired and wanted to go. We all moved out through the passage and into the cold fresh air.
"It was quite time," said Vera. "I was going to suggest it myself."
"I hope you liked it," said Lawrence politely to Nina.
"No, I hated it," she answered furiously, and turned her back on him.
It could not be said that the birthday party was promising very well.
And yet for the first half-hour it really seemed that it would "go" very well indeed. It had been agreed that it was to be absolutely a "family" party, and Uncle Ivan, Semyonov, and Boris Grogoff were the only additions to our number. Markovitch was there of course, and I saw at once that he was eager to be agreeable and to be the best possible host. As I had often noticed before, there was something pathetic about Markovitch when he wished to be agreeable. He had neither the figure nor the presence with which to be fascinating, and he did not know in the least how to bring out his best points.
Especially when he tried, as he was sometimes ill-advised enough to do, to flirt with young girls, he was a dismal failure. He was intended, by nature, to be mysterious and malevolent, and had he only had a malevolent spirit there would have been no tragedy—but in the confused welter that he called his soul, malevolence was the least of the elements, and other things—love, sympathy, twisted self-pity, ambition, courage, and cowardice—drowned it. He was on his best behaviour to-night, and over the points of his high white collar his peaked, ugly, anxious face peered, appealing to the Fates for generosity.
But the Fates despise those who appeal.
I very soon saw that he was on excellent terms with Semyonov, and this could only be, I was sure, because Semyonov had been flattering him. Very soon I learnt the truth. I was standing near the table, watching the company, when I found Markovitch at my side.
"Very glad you've come, Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "I've been meaning to come and see you, only I've been too busy."
"How's the ink getting along?" I asked him.
"Oh, the ink!" He brushed my words scornfully aside. "No, that's nothing. We must postpone that to a more propitious time. Meanwhile—meanwhile, Ivan Andreievitch, I've hit it at last!"
"What is it this time?" I asked.
He could hardly speak for his excitement. "It's wood—the bark—the bark of the tree, you know—a new kind of fibre for cloth. If I hadn't got to look after these people here, I'd take you and show you now. You're a clever fellow—you'd understand at once. I've been showing it to Alexei" (he nodded in the direction of Semyonov), "and he entirely agrees with me that there's every kind of possibility in it. The thing will be to get the labour—that's the trouble nowadays—but I'll find somebody—one of these timber men...."
So that was it, was it? I looked across at Semyonov, who was now seated on Vera's right hand just opposite Boris Grogoff. He was very quiet, very still, looking about him, his square pale beard a kind of symbol of the secret immobility of his soul. I fancied that I detected behind his placidity an almost relieved self-satisfaction, as though things were going very much better than he had expected.
"So Alexei Petrovitch thinks well of it, does he?" I asked.
"Most enthusiastic," answered Markovitch eagerly. "He's gone into the thing thoroughly with me, and has made some admirable suggestions.... Ivan Andreievitch, I think I should tell you—I misjudged him. I wasn't fair on what I said to you the other day about him. Or perhaps it is that being at the Front has changed him, softened him a bit. His love affair there, you know, made him more sympathetic and kindly. I believe he means well to us all. Vera won't agree with me. She's more cynical than she used to be. I don't like that in her. She never had a suspicious nature before, but now she doesn't trust one."
"You don't tell her enough," I interrupted.
"Tell her?" he looked at me doubtfully. "What is there I should tell her?"
"Everything!" I answered.
"Everything?" His eyes suddenly narrowed, his face was sharp and suspicious. "Does she tell me everything? Answer me that, Ivan Andreievitch. There was a time once—but now—I give my confidences where I'm trusted. If she treated me fairly—"
There was no chance to say more; they called us to the table. I took my place between Nina and Ivan.
As I have said, the supper began very merrily. Boris Grogoff was, I think, a little drunk when he arrived; at any rate he was noisy from the very beginning. I have wondered often since whether he had any private knowledge that night which elated and excited him, and was responsible in part, perhaps, for what presently occurred. It may well have been so, although at the time, of course, nothing of the kind occurred to me. Nina appeared to have recovered her spirits. She was sitting next to Lawrence, and chattered and laughed with him in her ordinary fashion.
And now, stupidly enough, when I try to recall exactly the steps that led up to the catastrophe, I find it difficult to see things clearly. I remember that very quickly I was conscious that there was danger in the air. I was conscious of it first in the eyes of Semyonov, those steady, watching, relentless eyes so aloof as to be inhuman. He was on the other side of the table, and suddenly I said to myself, "He's expecting something to happen." Then, directly after that I caught Vera's eye, and I saw that she too was anxious. She looked pale and tired and sad.
I caught myself in the next instant saying to myself, "Well, she's got Lawrence to look after her now"—so readily does the spirit that is beyond one's grasp act above and outside one's poor human will.
I saw then that the trouble was once again, as it had often been before, Grogoff. He was drinking heavily the rather poor claret which Markovitch had managed to secure from somewhere. He addressed the world in general.
"I tell you that we're going to stop this filthy war," he cried. "And if our government won't do it, we'll take things into our own hands...."
"Well," said Semyonov, smiling, "that's a thing that no Russian has ever said before, for certain."
Every one laughed, and Grogoff flushed. "Oh, it's easy to sneer!" he said. "Just because there've been miserable cowards in Russian history, you think it will always be so. I tell you it is not so. The time is coming when tyranny will topple from its throne, and we'll show Europe the way to liberty."
"By which you mean," said Semyonov, "that you'll involve Russia in at least three more wars in addition to the one she's at present so magnificently losing."
"I tell you," screamed Grogoff, now so excited that he was standing on his feet and waving his glass in the air, "that this time you have not cowards to deal with. This will not be as it was in 1905; I know of what I'm speaking."
Semyonov leant over the table and whispered something in Markovitch's ear. I had seen that Markovitch had already been longing to speak. He jumped up on to his feet, fiercely excited, his eyes flaming.
"It's nonsense that you are talking, sheer nonsense!" he cried. "Russia's lost the war, and all we who believed in her have our hearts broken. Russia won't be mended by a few vapouring idiots who talk and talk without taking action."
"What do you call me?" screamed Grogoff.
"I mention no names," said Markovitch, his little eyes dancing with anger. "Take it or no as you please. But I say that we have had enough of all this vapouring talk, all this pretence of courage. Let us admit that freedom has failed in Russia, that she must now submit herself to the yoke."
"Coward! Coward!" screamed Grogoff.
"It's you who are the coward!" cried Markovitch.
"Call me that and I'll show you!"
"I do call you it!"
There was an instant's pause, during which we all of us had, I suppose, some idea of trying to intervene.
But it was too late. Grogoff raised his hand and, with all his force, flung his glass at Markovitch. Markovitch ducked his head, and the glass smashed with a shattering tinkle on the wall behind him.
We all cried out, but the only thing of which I was conscious was that Lawrence had sprung from his seat, had crossed to where Vera was standing, and had put his hand on her arm. She glanced up at him. That look which they exchanged, a look of revelation, of happiness, of sudden marvellous security, was so significant that I could have cried out to them both, "Look out! Look out!"
But if I had cried they would not have heard me.
My next instinct was to turn to Markovitch. He was frowning, coughing a little, and feeling the top of his collar. His face was turned towards Grogoff and he was speaking—could catch some words: "No right... in my own house... Boris... I apologise... please don't think of it." But his eyes were not looking at Boris at all; they were turned towards Vera, staring at her, begging her, beseeching her.... What had he seen? How much had he understood? And Nina? And Semyonov?
But at once, in a way most truly Russian, the atmosphere had changed. It was Nina who controlled the situation. "Boris," she cried, "come here!"
We all waited in silence. He looked at her, a little sulkily, his head hanging, but his eyes glancing up at her.
He seemed nothing then but a boy caught in some misdemeanour, obstinate, sulky, but ready to make peace if a chance were offered him.
"Boris, come here!"
He moved across to her, looking her full in the face, his mouth sulky, but his eyes rebelliously smiling.
She stood away from the table, drawn to her full height, her eyes commanding him: "How dare you! Boris, how dare you! My birthday—mine—and you've spoilt it, spoilt it all. Come here—up close!"
He came to her until his hands were almost on her body; he hung his head, standing over her.
She stood back as though she were going to strike him, then suddenly with a laugh she sprang upon the chair beside her, flung her arms round his neck and kissed him; then, still standing on the chair, turned and faced us all.
"Now, that's enough—all of you. Michael, Uncle Ivan, Uncle Alexei, Durdles—how dare you, all of you? You're all as bad—every one of you. I'll punish all of you if we have any more politics. Beastly politics! What do they matter? It's my birthday. My birthday, I tell you. It shan't be spoilt."
She seemed to me so excited as not to know what she was saying. What had she seen? What did she know?... Meanwhile Grogoff was elated, wildly pleased like a boy who, contrary to all his expectations, had won a prize.
He went up to Markovitch with his hand out:
"Nicholas—forgive me—Prasteete—I forgot myself. I'm ashamed—my abominable temper. We are friends. You were right, too. We talk here in Russia too much, far too much, and when the moment comes for action we shrink back. We see too far perhaps. Who knows? But you were right and I am a fool. You've taught me a lesson by your nobility. Thank you, Nicholas. And all of you—I apologise to all of you."
We moved away from the table. Vera came over to us, and then sat on the sofa with her arm around Nina's neck. Nina was very quiet now, sitting there, her cheeks flushed, smiling, but as though she were thinking of something quite different.
Some one proposed that we should play "Petits Cheveaux." We gathered around the table, and soon every one was laughing and gambling.
Only once I looked up and saw that Markovitch was gazing at Vera; and once again I looked at Vera and saw that she was staring before her, seeing nothing, lost in some vision—but it was not of Markovitch that she was thinking....
I was the first to leave—I said good-night to every one. I could hear their laughter as I waited at the bottom of the stairs for the Dvornik to let me out.
But when I was in the street the world was breathlessly still. I walked up the Prospect—no soul was in sight, only the scattered lamps, the pale snow, and the houses. At the end of the Canal I stopped. The silence was intense.
It seemed to me then that in the very centre of the Canal the ice suddenly cracked, slowly pulled apart, leaving a still pool of black water. The water slowly stirred, rippled, then a long, horned, and scaly head pushed up. I could see the shining scales on its thick side and the ribbed horn on the back of the neck. Beneath it the water stirred and heaved. With dead glazed eyes it stared upon the world, then slowly, as though it were drawn from below, it sank. The water rippled in narrowing circles—then all was still....
The moon came out from behind filmy shadow. The world was intensely light, and I saw that the ice of the canal had never been broken, and that no pool of black water caught the moon's rays.
It was fiercely cold and I hurried home, pulling my Shuba more closely about me.
Of some of the events that I am now about to relate it is obvious that I could not have been an eye-witness—and yet, looking back from the strange isolation that is now my world I find it incredibly difficult to realise what I saw and what I did not. Was I with Nina and Vera on that Tuesday night when they stood face to face with one another for the first time? Was I with Markovitch during his walk through that marvellous new world that he seemed himself to have created? I know that I shared none of these things..., and yet it seems to me that I was at the heart of them all. I may have been told many things by the actors in those events—I may not. I cannot now in retrospect see any of it save as my own personal experience, and as my own personal experience I must relate it; but, as I have already said at the beginning of this book, no one is compelled to believe either my tale or my interpretation. Every man would, I suppose, like to tell his story in the manner of some other man. I can conceive the events of this part of my narration being interpreted in the spirit of the wildest farce, of the genteelest comedy, of the most humorous satire—"Other men, Other gifts." I am a dull and pompous fellow, as Semyonov often tells me; and I hope that I never allowed him to see how deeply I felt the truth of his words.
Meanwhile I will begin with a small adventure of Henry Bohun's. Apparently, one evening soon after Nina's party, he found himself about half-past ten in the evening, lonely and unhappy, walking down the Nevski. Gay and happy crowds wandered by him, brushing him aside, refusing to look at him, showing in fact no kind of interest in his existence. He was suddenly frightened, the distances seemed terrific and the Nevski was so hard and bright and shining—that it had no use at all for any lonely young man. He decided suddenly that he would go and see me. He found an Isvostchick, but when they reached the Ekaterinsgofsky Canal the surly coachman refused to drive further, saying that his horse had gone lame, and that this was as far as he had bargained to go.
Henry was forced to leave the cab, and then found himself outside the little people's cinema, where he had once been with Vera and myself.
He knew that my rooms were not far away, and he started off beside the white and silent canal, wondering why he had come, and wishing he were back in bed.
There was still a great deal of the baby in Henry, and ghosts and giants and scaly-headed monsters were not incredibilities to his young imagination. As he left the main thoroughfare and turned down past the widening docks, he suddenly knew that he was terrified. There had been stories of wild attacks on rich strangers, sand-bagging and the rest, often enough, but it was not of that kind of thing that he was afraid. He told me afterwards that he expected to see "long thick crawling creatures" creeping towards him over the ice. He continually turned round to see whether some one were following him. When he crossed the tumbledown bridge that led to my island it seemed that he was absolutely alone in the whole world. The masts of the ships dim through the cold mist were like tangled spiders' webs. A strange hard red moon peered over the towers and chimneys of the distant dockyard. The ice was limitless, and of a dirty grey pallor, with black shadows streaking it. My island must have looked desolate enough, with its dirty snow-heaps, old boards and scrap-iron and tumbledown cottages.
Again, as on his first arrival in Petrograd, Henry was faced by the solemn fact that events are so often romantic in retrospect, but grimly realistic in experience. He reached my lodging and found the door open. He climbed the dark rickety stairs and entered my sitting-room. The blinds were not drawn, and the red moon peered through on to the grey shadows that the ice beyond always flung. The stove was not burning, the room was cold and deserted. Henry called my name and there was no answer. He went into my bedroom and there was no one there. He came back and stood there listening.
He could hear the creaking of some bar beyond the window and the melancholy whistle of a distant train.
He was held there, as though spellbound. Suddenly he thought that he heard some one climbing the stairs. He gave a cry, and that was answered by a movement so close to him that it was almost at his elbow.
"Who's there?" he cried. He saw a shadow pass between the moon and himself. In a panic of terror he cried out, and at the same time struck a match. Some one came towards him, and he saw that it was Markovitch.
He was so relieved to find that it was a friend that he did not stop to wonder what Markovitch should be doing hiding in my room. It afterwards struck him that Markovitch looked odd. "Like a kind of conspirator, in old shabby Shuba with the collar turned up. He looked jolly ill and dirty, as though he hadn't slept or washed. He didn't seem a bit surprised at seeing me there, and I think he scarcely realised that it was me. He was thinking of something else so hard that he couldn't take me in."
"Oh, Bohun!" he said in a confused way.
"Hullo, Nicolai Leontievitch," Bohun said, trying to be unconcerned. "What are you doing here?"
"Came to see Ivan Andreievitch," he said. "Wasn't here; I was going to write to him."
Bohun then lit a candle and discovered that the place was in a very considerable mess. Some one had been sifting my desk, and papers and letters were lying about the floor. The drawers of my table were open, and one chair was over-turned. Markovitch stood back near the window, looking at Bohun suspiciously. They must have been a curious couple for such a position. There was an awkward pause, and then Bohun, trying to speak easily, said:
"Well, it seems that Durward isn't coming. He's out dining somewhere I expect."
"Probably," said Markovitch drily.
There was another pause, then Markovitch broke out with: "I suppose you think I've been here trying to steal something."
"Oh no—oh no—no—" stammered Bohun.
"But I have," said Markovitch. "You can look round and see. There it is on every side of you. I've been trying to find a letter."
"Oh yes," said Bohun nervously.
"Well, that seems to you terrible," went on Markovitch, growing ever fiercer. "Of course it seems to you perfect Englishmen a dreadful thing. But why heed it?... You all do things just as bad, only you are hypocrites."
"Oh yes, certainly," said Bohun.
"And now," said Markovitch with a snarl. "I'm sure you will not think me a proper person for you to lodge with any longer—and you will be right. I am not a proper person. I have no sense of decency, thank God, and no Russian has any sense of decency, and that is why we are beaten and despised by the whole world, and yet are finer than them all—so you'd better not lodge with us any more."
"But of course," said Bohun, disliking more and more this uncomfortable scene—"of course I shall continue to stay with you. You are my friends, and one doesn't mind what one's friends do. One's friends are one's friends."
Suddenly, then, Markovitch jerked himself forward, "just as though," Bohun afterwards described it to me, "he had shot himself out of a catapault."
"Tell me," he said, "is your English friend in love with my wife?"
What Bohun wanted to do then was to run out of the room, down the dark stairs, and away as fast as his legs would carry him. He had not been in Russia so long that he had lost his English dislike of scenes, and he was seriously afraid that Markovitch was, as he put it, "bang off his head."
But at this critical moment, he remembered, it seems, my injunction to him, "to be kind to Markovitch—to make a friend of him." That had always seemed to him before impossible enough, but now, at the very moment when Markovitch was at his queerest, he was also at his most pathetic, looking there in the mist and shadows too untidy and dirty and miserable to be really alarming. Henry then took courage. "That's all nonsense, Markovitch," he said. "I suppose by 'your English friend' you mean Lawrence. He thinks the world of your wife, of course, as we all do, but he's not the fellow to be in love. I don't suppose he's ever been really in love with a woman in his life. He's a kindly good-hearted chap, Lawrence, and he wouldn't do harm to a fly."
Markovitch peered into Bohun's face. "What did you come here for, any of you?" he asked. "What's Russia over-run with foreigners for? We'll clear the lot of you out, all of you...." Then he broke off, with a pathetic little gesture, his hand up to his head. "But I don't know what I'm saying—I don't mean it, really. Only things are so difficult, and they slip away from one so.
"I love Russia and I love my wife, Mr. Bohun—and they've both left me. But you aren't interested in that. Why should you be? Only remember when you're inclined to laugh at me that I'm like a man in a cockle-shell boat—and it isn't my fault. I was put in it."
"But I'm never inclined to laugh," said Bohun eagerly. "I may be young and only an Englishman—but I shouldn't wonder if I don't understand better than you think. You try and see.... And I'll tell you another thing, Nicolai Leontievitch, I loved your wife myself—loved her madly—and she was so good to me and so far above me, that I saw that it was like loving one of the angels. That's what we all feel, Nicolai Leontievitch, so that you needn't have any fear—she's too far above all of us. And I only want to be your friend and hers, and to help you in any way I can."
(I can see Bohun saying this, very sincere, his cheeks flushed, eager.)
Markovitch held out both his hands.
"You're right," he cried. "She's above us all. It's true that she's an angel, and we are all her servants. You have helped me by saying what you have, and I won't forget it. You are right; I am wasting my time with ridiculous suspicions when I ought to be working. Concentration, that's what I want, and perhaps you will give it me."
He suddenly came forward and kissed Bohun on both cheeks. He smelt, Bohun thought, of vodka. Bohun didn't like the embrace, of course, but he accepted it gracefully.
"Now we'll go away," said Markovitch.
"We ought to put things straight," said Bohun.
"No; I shall leave things as they are," said Markovitch, "so that he shall see exactly what I've done. I'll write a note."
He scribbled a note to me in pencil. I have it still. It ran:
Dear Ivan Andreievitch—I looked for a letter from my wife to you. In doing so I was I suppose contemptible. But no matter. At least you see me as I am. I clasp your hand, N. Markovitch.
They went away together.
I was greatly surprised to receive, a few days later, an invitation from Baron Wilderling; he asked me to go with him on one of the first evenings in March to a performance of Lermontov's "Masquerade" at the Alexandra Theatre. I say Lermontov, but heaven knows that that great Russian poet was not supposed to be going to have much to say in the affair. This performance had been in preparation for at least ten years, and when such delights as Gordon Craig's setting of "Hamlet," or Benois' dresses for "La Locandiera" were discussed, the Wise Ones said:
"Ah,—all very well—just wait until you see 'Masquerade.'"
These manifestations of the artistic spirit had not been very numerous of late in Petrograd. At the beginning of the war there had been many cabarets—"The Cow," "The Calf," "The Dog," "The Striped Cat"—and these had been underground cellars, lighted by Chinese lanterns, and the halls decorated with Futurist paintings by Yakkolyeff or some other still more advanced spirit. It seemed strange to me as I dressed that evening. I do not know how long it was since I had put on a dinner-jacket. With the exception of that one other visit to Baron Wilderling this seemed to be my one link with the old world, and it was curious to feel its fascination, its air of comfort and order and cleanliness, its courtesy and discipline. "I think I'll leave these rooms," I thought as I looked about me, "and take a decent flat somewhere."
It is a strange fact, behind which there lies, I believe, some odd sort of moral significance, that I cannot now recall the events of that evening in any kind of clear detail. I remember that it was bitterly cold, with a sky that was flooded with stars. The snow had a queer metallic sheen upon it as though it were coloured ice, and I can see now the Nevski like a slab of some fiercely painted metal rising out of the very smack of our horses' hoofs as my sleigh sped along—as though, silkworm-like, I spun it out of the entrails of the sledge. It was all light and fire and colour that night, with towers of gold and frosted green, and even the black crowds that thronged the Nevski pavements shot with colour.
Somewhere in one of Shorthouse's stories—in The Little Schoolmaster Mark, I think—he gives a curious impression of a whirling fantastic crowd of revellers who evoke by their movements some evil pattern in the air around them, and the boy who is standing in their midst sees this dark twisted sinister picture forming against the gorgeous walls and the coloured figures until it blots out the whole scene and plunges him into darkness. I will not pretend that on this evening I discerned anything sinister or ominous in the gay scene that the Alexandra Theatre offered me, but I was nevertheless weighed down by some quite unaccountable depression that would not let me alone. For this I can see now that Lawrence was very largely responsible. When I met him and the Wilderlings in the foyer of the theatre I saw at once that he was greatly changed.
The clear open expression of his eyes was gone; his mind was far away from his company—and it was as though I could see into his brain and watch the repetition of the old argument occurring again and again and again with always the same questions and answers, the same reproaches, the same defiances, the same obstinacies. He was caught by what was perhaps the first crisis of his life. He had never been a man for much contact with his fellow-beings, he had been aloof and reserved, generous in his judgements of others, severe and narrow in his judgement of himself. Above all, he had been proud of his strength....
Now he was threatened by something stronger than himself. He could have managed it so long as he was aware only of his love for Vera.... Now, when, since Nina's party, he knew that also Vera loved him, he had to meet the tussle of his life.
That, at any rate, is the kind of figure that I give to his mood that evening. He has told me much of what happened to him afterwards, but nothing of that particular night, except once. "Do you remember that 'Masquerade' evening?... I was in hell that night...." which, for Lawrence, was expressive enough.
Both the Baron and his wife were in great spirits. The Baron was more than ever the evocation of the genius of elegance and order; he seemed carved out of some coloured ivory, behind whose white perfection burnt a shining resolute flame.
His clothes were so perfect that they would have expressed the whole of him even though his body had not been there. He was happy. His eyes danced appreciatively; he waved his white gloves at the scene as though blessing it.
"Of course, Mr. Durward," he said to me, "this is nothing compared with what we could do before the war—nevertheless here you see, for a moment, a fragment of the old Petersburg—Petersburg as it shall be, please God, again one day...."
I do not in the least remember who was present that evening, but it was, I believe, a very distinguished company. The lights blazed, the jewels flashed, and the chatter was tremendous. The horseshoe-shaped seats behind the stalls clustered in knots and bunches of colour under the great glitter of electricity about the Royal Box. Artists—Somoff and Benois and Dobujinsky; novelists like Sologub and Merejkowsky; dancers like Karsavina—actors from all over Petrograd—they were there, I expect, to add criticism and argument to the adulation of friends and of the carelessly observant rich Jews and merchants who had come simply to display their jewellery. Petrograd, like every other city in the world, is artistic only by the persistence of its minority.
I'm sure that there were Princesses and Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses for any one who needed them, and it was only in the gallery where the students and their girl-friends were gathered that the name of Lermontov was mentioned. The name of the evening was "Meyerhold," the gentleman responsible for the production. At last the Event that had been brewing ceaselessly for the last ten years—ever since the last Revolution in fact—was to reach creation. The moment of M. Meyerhold's life had arrived—the moment, had we known it, of many other lives also; but we did not know it. We buzzed and we hummed, we gasped and we gaped, we yawned and we applauded; and the rustle of gold tissue, the scent of gold leaf, the thick sticky substance of gold paint, filled the air, flooded the arena, washed past us into the street outside. Meanwhile M. Meyerhold, white, perspiring, in his shirt-sleeves with his collar loosened and his hair damp, is in labour behind the gold tissue to produce the child of his life... and Behold, the Child is produced!
And such a child! It was not I am sure so fantastic an affair in reality as in my rememberance of it. I have, since then, read Lermontov's play, and I must confess that it does not seem, in cold truth, to be one of his finest works. It is long and old-fashioned, melodramatic and clumsy—but then it was not on this occasion Lermontov's play that was the thing. But it was a masquerade, and that in a sense far from the author's intention. As I watched I remember that I forgot the bad acting (the hero was quite atrocious), forgot the lapses of taste in the colour and arrangement of the play, forgot the artifices and elaborate originalities and false sincerities; there were, I have no doubt, many things in it all that were bad and meretricious—I was dreaming. I saw, against my will and outside my own agency, mingled with the gold screens, the purple curtains, the fantasies and extravagances of the costumes, the sudden flashes of unexpected colour through light or dress or backcloth—pictures from those Galician days that had been, until Semyonov's return, as I fancied, forgotten.
A crowd of revellers ran down the stage, and a shimmering cloud of gold shot with red and purple was flung from one end of the hall to the other, and behind it, through it, between it, I saw the chill light of the early morning, and Nikitin and I sitting on the bench outside the stinking but that we had used as an operating theatre, watching the first rays of the sun warm, the cold mountain's rim. I could hear voices, and the murmurs of the sleeping men and the groans of the wounded. The scene closed. There was space and light, and a gorgeous figure, stiff with the splendour of his robes, talked in a dark garden with his lady. Their voices murmured, a lute was played, some one sang, and through the thread of it all I saw that moment when, packed together on our cart, we hung for an instant on the top of the hill and looked back to a country that had suddenly crackled into flame. There was that terrific crash as of the smashing of a world of china, the fierce crackle of the machine-guns, and then the boom of the cannon from under our very feet... the garden was filled with revellers, laughing, dancing, singing, the air was filled again with the air of gold paint, the tenor's voice rose higher and higher, the golden screens closed—the act was ended.