At that moment we were joined by an English merchant whom we both knew, a stout elderly man who had lived all his life in Russia. I was surprised to find him in a state of extreme terror. I had always known him as a calm, conceited, stupid fellow, with a great liking for Russian ladies. This pastime he was able as a bachelor to enjoy to the full. Now, however, instead of the ruddy, coarse, self-confident merchant there was a pallid, trembling jelly-fish.
"I say, you fellows," he asked, catching my arm. "Where are you off to?"
"We're off to the Astoria," I answered.
"Let me come with you. I'm not frightened, not at all—all the same I don't want to be left alone. I was in the 1905 affair. That was enough for me. Where are they firing—do you know?"
"All over the place," said Bohun, enjoying himself. "They'll be down here in a minute."
"Good God! Do you really think so? It's terrible—these fellows—once they get loose they stick at nothing.... I remember in 1905.... Good heavens! Where had we better go? It's very exposed here, isn't it?"
"It's very exposed everywhere," said Bohun. "I doubt whether any of us are alive in the morning."
"Good heavens! You don't say so! Why should they interfere with us?"
"Oh, rich, you know, and that kind of thing. And then we're Englishmen. They'll clear out all the English."
"Oh, I'm not really English. My mother was Russian. I could show them my papers...."
Bohun laughed. "I'm only kidding you, Watchett," he said. "We're safe enough. Look, there's not a soul about!" We were at the corner of the Moika now; all was absolutely quiet. Two women and a man were standing on the bridge talking together. A few stars clustered above the bend of the Canal seemed to shift and waver ever so slightly through a gathering mist, like the smoke of blowing candles.
"It seems all right," said the merchant, sniffing the air suspiciously as though he expected to smell blood. We turned towards the Morskaia. One of the women detached herself from the group and came to us.
"Don't go down the Morskaia," she said, whispering, as though some hostile figure were leaning over her shoulder. "They're firing round the Telephone Exchange." Even as she spoke I heard the sharp clatter of the machine-gun break out again, but now very close, and with an intimate note as though it were the same gun that I had heard before, which had been tracking me down round the town.
"Do you hear that?" said the merchant.
"Come on," said Bohun. "We'll go down the Moika. That seems safe enough!"
How strangely in the flick of a bullet the town had changed! Yesterday every street had been friendly, obvious, and open; they were now no longer streets, but secret blind avenues with strange trees, fantastic doors, shuttered windows, a grinning moon, malicious stars, and snow that lay there simply to prevent every sound. It was a town truly beleaguered as towns are in dreams. The uncanny awe with which I moved across the bridge was increased when the man with the women turned towards me, and I saw that he was—or seemed to be—that same grave bearded peasant whom I had seen by the river, whom Henry had seen in the Cathedral, who remained with one, as passing strangers sometimes do, like a symbol or a message or a threat.
He stood, with the Nevski behind him, calm and grave, and even it seemed a little amused, watching me as I crossed. I said to Bohun, "Did you ever see that fellow before?"
Bohun turned and looked.
"No," he said.
"Don't you remember? The man that first day in the Kazan?"
"They're all alike," Bohun said. "One can't tell...."
"Oh, come on," said the merchant. "Let's get to the Astoria."
We started down the Moika, past that faded picture-shop where there are always large moth-eaten canvases of cornfields under the moon and Russian weddings and Italian lakes. We had got very nearly to the little street with the wooden hoardings when the merchant gripped my arm.
"What's that?" he gulped. The silence now was intense. We could not hear the machine-gun nor any shouting. The world was like a picture smoking under a moon now red and hard. Against the wall of the street two women were huddled, one on her knees, her head pressed against the thighs of the other, who stood stretched as though crucified, her arms out, staring on to the Canal. Beside a little kiosk, on the space exactly in front of the side street, lay a man on his face. His bowler-hat had rolled towards the kiosk; his arms were stretched out so that he looked oddly like the shadow of the woman against the wall.
Instead of one hand there was a pool of blood. The other hand with all the fingers stretched was yellow against the snow.
As we came up a bullet from the Morskaia struck the kiosk.
The woman, not moving from the wall, said, "They've shot my husband... he did nothing."
The other woman, on her knees, only cried without ceasing.
The merchant said, "I'm going back—to the Europe," and he turned and ran.
"What's down that street?" I said to the woman, as though I expected her to say "Hobgoblins." Bohun said, "This is rather beastly.... We ought to move that fellow out of that. He may be alive still."
And how silly such a sentence when only yesterday, just here, there was the beggar who sold boot-laces, and just there, where the man lay, an old muddled Isvostchick asleep on his box!
We moved forward, and instantly it was as though I were in the middle of a vast desert quite alone with all the hosts of heaven aiming at me malicious darts. As I bent down my back was so broad that it stretched across Petrograd, and my feet were tiny like frogs.
We pulled at the man. His head rolled and his face turned over, and the mouth was full of snow. It was so still that I whispered, whether to Bohun or myself, "God, I wish somebody would shout!" Then I heard the wood of the kiosk crack, ever so slightly, like an opening door, and panic flooded me as I had never known it do during all my time at the Front.
"I've no strength," I said to Bohun.
"Pull for God's sake!" he answered. We dragged the body a little way; my hand clutched the thigh, which was hard and cold under the stuff of his clothing. His head rolled round, and his eyes now were covered with snow. We dragged him, and he bumped grotesquely. We had him under the wall, near the two women, and the blood welled out and dripped in a spreading pool at the women's feet.
"Now," said Bohun, "we've got to run for it."
"Do you know," said I, as though I were making a sudden discovery, "I don't think I can." I leaned back against the wall and looked at the pool of blood near the kiosk where the man had been.
"Oh, but you've got to," said Bohun, who seemed to feel no fear. "We can't stay here all night."
"No, I know," I answered. "But the trouble is—I'm not myself." And I was not. That was the trouble. I was not John Durward at all. Some stranger was here with a new heart, poor shrivelled limbs, an enormous nose, a hot mouth with no eyes at all. This stranger had usurped my clothes and he refused to move. He was tied to the wall and he would not obey me.
Bohun looked at me. "I say, Durward, come on, it's only a step. We must get to the Astoria."
But the picture of the Astoria did not stir me. I should have seen Nina and Vera waiting there, and that should have at once determined me. So it would have been had I been myself. This other man was there.... Nina and Vera meant nothing to him at all. But I could not explain that to Bohun. "I can't go..." I saw Bohun's eyes—I was dreadfully ashamed. "You go on..." I muttered. I wanted to tell him that I did not think that I could endure to feel again that awful expansion of my back and the turning my feet into toads.
"Of course I can't leave you," he said.
And suddenly I sprang back into my own clothes again. I flung the charlatan out and he flumped off into air.
"Come on," I said, and I ran. No bullets whizzed past us. I was ashamed of running, and we walked quite quietly over the rest of the open space.
"Funny thing," I said, "I was damned frightened for a moment."
"It's the silence and the houses," said Bohun.
Strangely enough I remember nothing between that moment and our arrival at the Astoria. We must have skirted the Canal, keeping in the shadow of the wall, then crossed the Saint Isaac's Square. The next thing I can recall is our standing, rather breathless, in the hall of the Astoria, and the first persons I saw there were Vera and Nina, together at the bottom of the staircase, saying nothing, waiting.
In front of them was a motley crowd of Russian officers all talking and gesticulating together. I came nearer to Vera and at once I said to myself, "Lawrence is here somewhere." She was standing, her head up, watching the doors, her eyes glowed with anticipation, her lips were a little parted. She never moved at all, but was so vital that the rest of the people seemed dolls beside her. As we came towards them Nina turned round and spoke to some one, and I saw that it was Semyonov who stood at the bottom of the staircase, his thick legs apart, stroking his beard with his hand.
We came forward and Nina began at once—
"Durdles—tell us! What's happened?"
"I don't know," I answered. The lights after the dark and the snow bewildered me, and the noise and excitement of the Russian officers were deafening.
Nina went on, her face lit. "Can't you tell us anything? We haven't heard a word. We came just in an ordinary way about four o'clock. There wasn't a sound, and then, just as we were sitting down to tea, they all came bursting in, saying that all the officers were being murdered, and that Protopopoff was killed, and that—"
"That's true anyway," said a young Russian officer, turning round to us excitedly. "I had it from a friend of mine who was passing just as they stuck him in the stomach. He saw it all; they dragged him out of his house and stuck him in the stomach—"
"They say the Czar's been shot," said another officer, a fat, red-faced man with very bright red trousers, "and that Rodziancko's formed a government..."
I heard on every side such words as "People—Rodziancko —Protopopoff—Freedom," and the officer telling his tale again. "And they stuck him in the stomach just as he was passing his house..."
Through all this tale Vera never moved. I saw, to my surprise, that Lawrence was there now, standing near her but never speaking. Semyonov stood on the stairs watching.
Suddenly I saw that she wanted me.
"Ivan Andreievitch," she said, "will you do something for me?" She spoke very low, and her eyes did not look at me, but beyond us all out to the door.
"Certainly," I said.
"Will you keep Alexei Petrovitch here? Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Bohun can see us home. I don't want him to come with us. Will you ask him to wait and speak to you?"
I went up to him. "Semyonov," I said, "I want a word with you, if I may—"
"Certainly," he said, with that irritating smile of his, as though he knew exactly of what I was thinking.
We moved up the dark stairs. As we went I heard Vera's clear, calm voice:
"Will you see us home, Mr. Lawrence?... I think it's quite safe to go now."
We stopped on the first floor under the electric light. There were two easy-chairs there, with a dusty palm behind them. We sat down.
"You haven't really got anything to say to me," he began.
"Oh yes, I have," I said.
"No... You simply suggested conversation because Vera asked you to do so."
"I suggested a conversation," I answered, "because I had something of some seriousness to tell you."
"Well, she needn't have been afraid," he went on. "I wasn't going home with them. I want to stop and watch these ridiculous people a little longer.... What had you got to say, my philosophical, optimistic friend?"
He looked quite his old self, sitting stockily in the chair, his strong thighs pressing against the cane as though they'd burst it, his thick square beard more wiry than ever, and his lips red and shining. He seemed to have regained his old self-possession and confidence.
"What I wanted to say," I began, "is that I'm going to tell you once more to leave Markovitch alone. I know the other day—that alone—"
"Oh that!" he brushed it aside impatiently. "There are bigger things than that just now, Durward. You lack, as I have always said, two very essential things, a sense of humour and a sense of proportion. And you pretend to know Russia whilst you are without those two admirable gifts!
"However, let us forget personalities.... There are better things here!"
As he spoke two young Russian officers came tumbling up the stairs. They were talking excitedly, not listening to one another, red in the face and tripping over their swords. They went up to the next floor, their voices very shrill.
"So much for your sentimental Russia," said Semyonov. He spoke very quietly. "How I shall love to see these fools all toppled over, and then the fools who toppled them toppled in their turn.
"Durward, you're a fool too, but you're English, and at least you've got a conscience. I tell you, you'll see in these next months such cowardice, such selfishness, such meanness, such ignorance as the world has never known—and all in the name of Freedom! Why, they're chattering about freedom already downstairs as hard as they can go!"
"As usual, Semyonov," I answered hotly, "you believe in the good of no one. If there's really a Revolution coming, which I still doubt, it may lead to the noblest liberation."
"Oh, you're an ass!" he interrupted quietly. "Nobility and the human race! I tell you, Ivan Andreievitch of the noble character, that the human race is rotten; that it is composed of selfishness, vice, and meanness; that it is hypocritical beyond the bounds of hypocrisy, and that of all mean cowardly nations on this earth the Russian nation is the meanest and most cowardly!... That fine talk of ours that you English slobber over!—a mere excuse for idleness, and you'll know it before another year is through. I despise mankind with a contempt that every day's fresh experience only the more justifies. Only once have I found some one who had a great soul, and she, too, if I had secured her, might have disappointed me.... No, my time is coming. I shall see at last my fellowmen in their true colours, and I shall even perhaps help them to display them. My worthy Markovitch, for example—"
"What about Markovitch?" I asked sharply.
He got up, smiling. He put his hand on my shoulder.
"He shall be driven by ghosts," he answered, and turned off to the stairs.
He looked back for a moment. "The funny thing is, I like you, Durward," he said.
I remember very little of my return to my island that night. The world was horribly dark and cold, the red moon had gone, and a machine-gun pursued me all the way home like a barking dog. I crossed the bridge frankly with nerves so harassed, with so many private anxieties and so much public apprehension, with so overpowering a suspicion that every shadow held a rifle that my heart leapt in my breast, and I was suddenly sick with fear when some one stepped across the road and put his hand on my arm. You see I have nothing much to boast about myself. My relief was only slightly modified when I saw that it was the Rat. The Rat had changed! He stood, as though on purpose under the very faint grey light of the lamp at the end of the bridge, and seen thus, he did in truth seem like an apparition. He was excited of course, but there was more in his face than that. The real truth about him was, that he was filled with some determination, some purpose. He was like a child who is playing at being a burglar, his face had exactly that absorption, that obsessing pre-occupation.
"I've been waiting for you, Barin," he said in his hoarse musical voice.
"What is it?" I asked.
"This is where I live," he said, and he showed me a very dirty piece of paper. "I think you ought to know."
"Why?" I asked him.
"Kto snaiet? (who knows?) The Czar's gone and we are all free men...."
I felt oddly that suddenly now he knew himself my master. That was now in his voice.
"What are you going to do with your freedom?" I asked.
"I shall have my duties now," he said. "I'm not a free man at all. I obey orders for the first time. The people are going to rule. I am the people."
He paused. Then he went on very seriously. "That is why, Barin, I give you that paper. I have friendly feelings towards you. I don't know what it is, but I am your brother. They may come and want to rob your house. Show them that paper."
"Thank you very much," I said. "But I'm not afraid. There's nothing I mind them stealing. All the same I'm very grateful."
He went on very seriously.
"There'll be no Czar now and no police. We will stop the war and all be rich." He sighed. "But I don't know that it will bring happiness." He suddenly seemed to me forlorn and desolate and lonely, like a lost dog. I knew quite well that very soon, perhaps directly he had left me, he would plunder and murder and rob again.
But that night, the two of us alone on the island and everything so still, waiting for great events, I felt close to him and protective.
"Don't get knocked on the head, Rat," I said, "during one of your raids. Death is easily come by just now. Look after yourself."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Shto boodet, boodet (what will be, will be). Neechevo (it's of no importance)." He had vanished into the shadows.
I realise that the moment has come in my tale when the whole interest of my narrative centres in Markovitch. Markovitch is really the point of all my story as I have, throughout, subconsciously, recognised. The events of that wonderful Tuesday when for a brief instant the sun of freedom really did seem to all of us to break through the clouds, that one day in all our lives when hopes, dreams, Utopias, fairy tales seemed to be sober and realistic fact, those events might be seen through the eyes of any of us. Vera, Nina, Grogoff, Semyonov, Lawrence, Bohun and I, all shared in them and all had our sensations and experiences. But my own were drab and ordinary enough, and from the others I had no account so full and personal and true as from Markovitch. He told me all about that great day afterwards, only a short time before that catastrophe that overwhelmed us all, and in his account there was all the growing suspicion and horror of disillusion that after-events fostered in him. But as he told me, sitting through the purple hours of the night, watching the light break in ripples and circles of colour over the sea, he regained some of the splendours of that great day, and before he had finished his tale he was right back in that fantastic world that had burst at the touch like bubbles in the sun. I will give his account, as accurately as possible in his own words. I seldom interrupted him, and I think he soon forgot that I was there. He had come to me that night in a panic, for reasons which will he given later and I, in trying to reassure him, had reminded him of that day, when the world was suddenly Utopia.
"That did exist, that world," I said. "And once having existed it cannot now be dead. Believe, believe that it will come back."
"Come back!" He shook his head. "Even if it is still there I cannot go back to it. I will tell you, Ivan Andreievitch, what that day was... and why now I am so bitterly punished for having believed in it. Listen, what happened to me. It occurred, all of it, exactly as I tell you. You know that, just at that time, I had been worrying very much about Vera. The Revolution had come I suppose very suddenly to every one; but truly to myself, because I had been thinking of Vera, it was like a thunder-clap. It's always been my trouble, Ivan Andreievitch, that I can't think of more than one thing at once, and the worry of it has been that in my life there has been almost invariably more than one thing that I ought to think of.... I would think of my invention, you know, that I ought to get on with it a little faster. Because really—it was making a sort of cloth out of bark that I was working at; as every day passed, I could see more and more clearly that there was a great deal in this particular invention, and that it only needed real application to bring it properly forward. Only application as you know is my trouble. If I could only shut my brain up...."
He told me then, I remember, a lot about his early childhood, and then the struggle that he had had to see one thing at once, and not two or three things that got in the way and hindered him from doing anything. He went on about Vera.
"You know that one night I had crept up into your room, and looked to see whether there were possibly a letter there. That was a disgraceful thing to do, wasn't it? But I felt then that I had to satisfy myself. I wonder whether I can make you understand. It wasn't jealousy exactly, because I had never felt that I had had any very strong right over Vera, considering the way that she had married me; but I don't think I ever loved her more than I did during those weeks, and she was unattainable. I was lonely, Ivan Andreievitch, that's the truth. Everything seemed to be slipping away from me, and in some way Alexei Petrovitch Semyonov seemed to accentuate that. He was always reminding me of one day or another when I had been happy with Vera long ago—some silly little expedition we had taken—or he was doubtful about my experiments being any good, or he would recall what I had felt about Russia at the beginning of the war.... All in a very kindly way, mind you. He was more friendly than he had ever been, and seemed to be altogether softer-hearted. But he made me think a great deal about Vera. He talked often so much. He thought that I ought to look after her more, and I explained that that wasn't my right.
"The truth is that ever since Nina's birthday-party I had been anxious. I knew really that everything was right. Vera is of course the soul of honour—but something had occurred then which made me....
"Well, well, that doesn't matter now. The only point is that I was thinking of Vera a great deal, and wondering how I could make her happy. She wasn't happy. I don't know how it was, but during those weeks just before the Revolution we were none of us happy. We were all uneasy as though we expected something were going to happen—and we were all suspicious....
"I only tell you this because then you will see why it was that the Revolution broke upon me with such surprise. I had been right inside myself, talking to nobody, wanting nobody to talk to me. I get like that sometimes, when words seem to mean so much that it seems dangerous to throw them about.... And perhaps it is. But silence is dangerous too. Everything is dangerous if you are unlucky by nature....
"I had been indoors all that Monday working at my invention, and thinking about Vera, wondering whether I'd speak to her, then afraid of my temper (I have a bad temper), wanting to know what was the truth, thinking at one moment that if she cared for some one else that I'd go away...and then suddenly angry and jealous, wishing to challenge him, but I am a ludicrous figure to challenge any one, as I very well know. Semyonov had been to see me that morning, and he had just sat there without saying anything. I couldn't endure that very long, so I asked him what he came for and he said, 'Oh, nothing.' I felt as though he were spying and I became uneasy. Why should he come so often now? And I was beginning to think of him when he wasn't there. It was as though he thought he had a right over all of us, and that irritated me.... Well, that was Monday. They all came late in the afternoon and told me all the news. They had been at the Astoria. The whole town seemed to be in revolt, so they said.
"But even then I didn't realise it. I was thinking of Vera just the same. I looked at her all the evening just as Semyonov had looked at me. And didn't say anything.... I never wanted her so badly before. I made her sleep with me all that night. She hadn't done that for a long time, and I woke up early in the morning to hear her crying softly to herself. She never used to cry. She was so proud. I put my arms round her, and she stopped crying and lay quite still. It wasn't fair what I did, but I felt as though Alexei Petrovitch had challenged me to do it. He always hated Vera I knew. I got up very early and went to my wood. You can imagine I wasn't very happy....
"Then suddenly I thought I'd go out into the streets, and see what was happening. I couldn't believe really that there had been any change. So I went out.
"Do you know of recent years I've walked out very seldom? What was it? A kind of shyness. I knew when I was in my own house, and I knew whom I was with. Then I was never a man who cared greatly about exercise, and there was no one outside whom I wanted very much to see. So when I went out that morning it was as though I didn't know Petrograd at all, and had only just arrived there. I went over the Ekateringofsky Bridge, through the Square, and to the left down the Sadovaya.
"Of course the first thing that I noticed was that there were no trams, and that there were multitudes of people walking along and that they were all poor people and all happy.' And I was glad when I saw that. Of course I'm a fool, and life can't be as I want it, but that's always what I had thought life ought to be—all the streets filled with poor people, all free and happy. And here they were!... with the snow crisp under their feet, and the sun shining, and the air quite still, so that all the talk came up, and up into the sky like a song. But of course they were bewildered as well as happy. They didn't know where to go, they didn't know what to do—like birds let out suddenly from their cages. I didn't know myself. That's what sudden freedom does—takes your breath away so that you go staggering along, and get caught again if you're not careful. No trams, no policemen, no carriages filled with proud people cursing you.... Oh, Ivan Andreievitch, I'd be proud myself if I had money, and servants to put on my clothes, and new women every night, and different food every day.... I don't blame them—but suddenly proud people were gone, and I was crying without knowing it—simply because that great crowd of poor people went pushing along, all talking under the sunny sky as freely as they pleased.
"I began to look about me. I saw that there were papers posted on the walls. They were those proclamations, you know, of Rodziancko's new government, saying that while everything was unsettled, Milyukoff, Rodziancko, and the others would take charge in order to keep order and discipline. It seemed to me that there was little need to talk about discipline. Had beggars appeared there in the road I believed that the crowd would have stripped off their clothes and given them, rather than that they should want.
"I stood by one proclamation and read it out to the little crowd. They repeated the names to themselves, but they did not seem to care much. 'The Czar's wicked they tell me,' said one man to me. 'And all our troubles come from him.'
"'It doesn't matter,' said another. 'There'll be plenty of bread now.'
"And indeed what did names matter now? I couldn't believe my eyes or my ears, Ivan Andreievitch. It looked too much like Paradise and I'd been deceived so often. So I determined to be very cautious. 'You've been taken in, Nicolai Leontievitch, many many times. Don't you believe this?' But I couldn't help feeling that if only this world would continue, if only the people could always be free and happy and the sun could shine, perhaps the rest of the world would see its folly and the war would stop and never begin again. This thought would grow in my mind as I walked, although I refused to encourage it.
"Motor lorries covered with soldiers came dashing down the street. The soldiers had their guns pointed, but the crowd cheered and cheered, waving hands and shouting. I shouted too. The tears were streaming down my face. I couldn't help myself. I wanted to hold the sun and the snow and the people all in my arms fixed so that it should never change, and the world should see how good and innocent life could be.
"On every side people had asked what had really happened, and of course no one knew. But it did not matter. Every one was so simple. A soldier, standing beside one of the placards was shouting: 'Tovaristchi! What we must have is a splendid Republic and a good Czar to look after it.'
"And they all cheered him and laughed and sang. I turned up one of the side streets on to the Fontanka, and here I saw them emptying the rooms of one of the police. That was amusing! I laugh still when I think of it. Sending everything out of the windows,—underclothes, ladies' bonnets, chairs, books, flower-pots, pictures, and then all the records, white and yellow and pink paper, all fluttering in the sun like so many butterflies. The crowd was perfectly peaceful, in an excellent temper. Isn't that wonderful when you think that for months those people had been starved and driven, waiting all night in the street for a piece of bread, and that now all discipline was removed, no more policemen except those hiding for their lives in houses, and yet they did nothing, they touched no one's property, did no man any harm. People say now that it was their apathy, that they were taken by surprise, that they were like animals who did not know where to go, but I tell you, Ivan Andreievitch, that it was not so. I tell you that it was because just for an hour the soul could come up from its dark waters and breathe the sun and the light and see that all was good. Oh, why cannot that day return? Why cannot that day return?..."
He broke off and looked at me like a distracted child, his brows puckered, his hands beating the air. I did not say anything. I wanted him to forget that I was there.
He went on: "... I could not be there all day, I thought that I would go on to the Duma. I flowed on with the crowd. We were a great river swinging without knowing why, in one direction and only interrupted, once and again, by the motor lorries that rattled along, the soldiers shouting to us and waving their rifles, and we replying with cheers. I heard no firing that morning at all. They said, in the crowd, that many thousands had been killed last night. It seemed that on the roof of nearly every house in Petrograd there was a policeman with a machine-gun. But we marched along, without fear, singing. And all the time the joy in my heart was rising, rising, and I was checking it, telling myself that in a moment I would be disappointed, that I would soon be tricked as I had been so often tricked before. But I couldn't help my joy, which was stronger than myself....
"It must have been early afternoon, so long had I been on the road, when I came at last to the Duma. You saw yourself, Ivan Andreievitch, that all that week the crowd outside the Duma was truly a sea of people with the motor lorries that bristled with rifles for sea-monsters and the gun-carriages for ships. And such a babel! Every one talking at once and nobody listening to any one.
"I don't know now how I pushed through into the Court, but at last I was inside and found myself crushed up against the doors of the Palace by a mob of soldiers and students. Here there was a kind of hush.
"When the door of the Palace opened there was a little sigh of interest. At intervals armed guards marched up with some wretched pale dirty Gorodovoi whom they had taken prisoner—"
Nicholas Markovitch paused again and again. He had been looking out to the sea over whose purple shadows the sky pale green and studded with silver stars seemed to wave magic shuttles of light, to and fro, backwards and forwards.
"You don't mind all these details, Ivan Andreievitch? I am trying to discover, for my own sake, all the details that led me to my final experience. I want to trace the chain link by link...nothing is unimportant..."
I assured him that I was absorbed by his story. And indeed I was. That little, uncouth, lost, and desolate man was the most genuine human being whom I had ever known. That quality, above all others, stood forth in him. He had his secret as all men have their secret, the key to their pursuit of their own immortality....But Markovitch's secret was a real one, something that he faced with real bravery, real pride, and real dignity, and when he saw what the issue of his conduct must be he would, I knew, face it without flinching.
He went on, but looking at me now rather than the sea—looking at me with his grave, melancholy, angry eyes. "...After one of these convoys of prisoners the door remained for a moment open, and I seeing my chance slipped in after the guards. Here I was then in the very heart of the Revolution; but still, you know, Ivan Andreievitch, I couldn't properly seize the fact, I couldn't grasp the truth that all this was really occurring and that it wasn't just a play, a pretence, or a dream... yes, a dream... especially a dream... perhaps, after all, that was what it was. The Circular Hall was piled high with machine-guns, bags of flour, and provisions of all kinds. There were some armed soldiers of course and women, and beside the machine guns the floor was strewn with cigarette ends and empty tins and papers and bags and cardboard boxes and even broken bottles. Dirt and Desolation! I remember that it was then when I looked at that floor that the first little suspicion stole into my heart—not a suspicion so much as an uneasiness. I wanted at once myself to set to work to clean up all the mess with my own hands.
"I didn't like to see it there, and no one caring whether it were there or no.
"In the Catherine Hall into which I peered there was a vast mob, and this huge mass of men stirred and coiled and uncoiled like some huge ant-heap. Many of them, as I watched, suddenly turned into the outer hall. Men jumped on to chairs and boxes and balustrades, and soon, all over the place there were speakers, some shouting, some shrieking, some with tears rolling down their cheeks, some swearing, some whispering as though to themselves... and all the regiments came pouring in from the station, tumbling in like puppies or babies with pieces of red cloth tied to their rifles, some singing, some laughing, some dumb with amazement... thicker and thicker and thicker... standing round the speakers with their mouths open and their eyes wide, pushing and jostling, but good-naturedly, like young dogs.
"Everywhere, you know, men were forming committees, committees for social right, for a just Peace, for Women's Suffrage, for Finnish Independence, for literature and the arts, for the better treatment of prostitutes, for education, for the just division of the land. I had crept into my corner, and soon as the soldiers came thicker and thicker, the noise grew more and more deafening, the dust floated in hazy clouds. The men had their kettles and they boiled tea, squatting down there, sometimes little processions pushed their way through, soldiers shouting and laughing with some white-faced policeman in their midst. Once I saw an old man, his Shuba about his ears, stumbling with his eyes wide open, and staring as though he were sleep-walking. That was Stuermer being brought to judgement. Once I saw a man so terrified that he couldn't move, but must be prodded along by the rifles of the soldiers. That was Pitirim....
"And the shouting and screaming rose and rose like a flood. Once Rodziancko came in and began shouting, 'Tovaristchi! Tovaristchi!...' but his voice soon gave away, and he went back into the Salle Catherine again. The Socialists had it their way. There were so many, and their voices were so fresh and the soldiers liked to listen to them. 'Land for everybody!' they shouted. 'And Bread and Peace! Hurrah! Hurrah!' cried the soldiers.
"'That's all very well,' said a huge man near me. 'But Nicholas is coming, and to-morrow he will eat us all up!'
"But no one seemed to care. They were all mad, and I was mad too. It was the drunkenness of dust. It got in our heads and our brains. We all shouted. I began to shout too, although I didn't know what it was that I was shouting.
"A grimy soldier caught me round the neck and kissed me. 'Land for everybody!' he cried. 'Have some tea, Tovaristch!' and I shared his tea with him.
"Then through the dust and noise I suddenly saw Boris Grogoff! That was an astonishing thing. You see I had dissociated all this from my private life. I had even, during these last hours, forgotten Vera, perhaps for the very first moment since I met her. She had seemed to have no share in this,—and then suddenly the figure of Boris showed me that one's private life is always with one, that it is a secret city in which one must always live, and whose gates one will never pass through, whatever may be going on in the world outside. But Grogoff! What a change! You know, I had always patronised him, Ivan Andreievitch. It had seemed to me that he was only a boy with a boy's crude ideas. You know his fresh face with the way that he used to push back his hair from his forehead, and shout his ideas. He never considered any one's feelings. He was a complete egoist, and a man, it seemed to me, of no importance. But now! He stood on a bench and had around him a large crowd of soldiers. He was shouting in just his old way that he used in the English Prospect, but he seemed to have grown in the meantime, into a man. He did not seem afraid any more. I saw that he had power over the men to whom he was speaking.... I couldn't hear what he said, but through the dust and heat he seemed to grow and grow until it was only him whom I saw there.
"'He will carry off Nina' was my next thought—ludicrous there at such a time, in such a crowd, but it is exactly like that that life shifts and shifts until it has formed a pattern. I was frightened by Grogoff. I could not believe that the new freedom, the new Russia, the new world would be made by such men. He waved his arms, he pushed back his hair, the men shouted. Grogoff was triumphant: 'The New World... Novaya Jezn, Novaya Jezn!' (New Life!) I heard him shout.
"The sun before it set flooded the hall with light. What a scene through the dust! The red flags, the women and the soldiers and the shouting!
"I was suddenly dismayed. 'How can order come out of this?' I thought. 'They are all mad.... Terrible things are going to happen.' I was dirty and tired and exhausted. I fought my way through the mob, found the door. For a moment I looked back, to that sea of men lit by the last light of the sun. Then I pushed out, was thrown, it seemed to me, from man to man, and was at last in the air.... Quiet, fires burning in the courtyard, a sky of the palest blue, a few stars, and the people singing the 'Marseillaise.'
"It was like drinking great draughts of cold water after an intolerable thirst....
"...Hasn't Tchekov said somewhere that Russians have nostalgia but no patriotism? That was never true of me—can't remember how young I was when I remember my father talking to me about the idea of Russia. I've told you that he was by any kind of standard a bad man. He had, I think, no redeeming points at all—but he had, all the same, that sense of Russia. I don't suppose that he put it to any practical use, or that he even tried to teach it to his pupils, but it would suddenly seize him and he would let himself go, and for an hour he would be a fine master—of words. And what Russian is ever more than that at the end?
"He spoke to me and gave me a picture of a world inside a world, and this inside world was complete in itself. It had everything in it—beauty, wealth, force, power; it could be anything, it could do anything. But it was held by an evil enchantment as though a wicked magician had it in thrall, and everything slept as in Tchaikowsky's Ballet. But one day, he told me, the Prince would come and kill the Enchanter, and this great world would come into its own. I remember that I was so excited that I couldn't bear to wait, but prayed that I might be allowed to go out and find the Enchanter... but my father laughed and said that there were no Enchanter now, and then I cried. All the same I never lost my hope. I talked to people about Russia, but it was never Russia itself they seemed to care for—it was women or drink or perhaps freedom and socialism, or perhaps some part of Russia, Siberia, or the Caucasus—but my world they none of them believed in. It didn't exist they said. It was simply my imagination that had painted it, and they laughed at me and said it was held together by the lashes of the knout, and when those went Russia would go too. As I grew up some of them thought that I was revolutionary, and they tried to make me join their clubs and societies. But those were no use to me. They couldn't give me what I wanted. They wanted to destroy, to assassinate some one, or to blow up a building. They had no thought beyond destruction, and that to me seemed only the first step. And they never think of Russia, our revolutionaries. You will have noticed that yourself, Ivan Andreievitch. Nothing so small and trivial as Russia! It must be the whole world or nothing at all. Democracy... Freedom... the Brotherhood of Man! Oh, the terrible harm that words have done to Russia! Had the Russians of the last fifty years been born without the gift of speech we would be now the greatest people on the earth!
"But I loved Russia from end to end. The farthest villages in Siberia, the remotest hut beyond Archangel, from the shops in the Sadovaya to the Lavra at Kieff, from the little villages on the bank of the Volga to the woods round Tarnopol—all, all one country, one people, one world within a world. The old man to whom I was secretary discovered this secret hope of mine. I talked one night when I was drunk and told him everything. I mentioned even the Enchanter and the Sleeping Beauty! How he laughed at me! He would never leave me alone. 'Nicolai Leontievitch believes in Holy Russia!' he would say. 'Not so much Holy, you understand, as Bewitched. A Fairy Garden, ladies, with a sleeping beauty in the middle of it. Dear me, Nicolai Leontievitch, no wonder you are heart-free!'
"How I hated him and his yellow face and his ugly stomach! I would have stamped on it with delight. But that made me shy. I was afraid to speak of it to any one, and I kept to myself. Then Vera came and she didn't laugh at me. The two ideas grew together in my head. Vera and Russia! The two things in my life by which I stood—because man must have something in life round which he may nestle as a cat curls up by the fire.
"But even Vera did not seem to care for Russia as Russia. 'What can Siberia be to me?' she would say. 'Why, Nicholas, it is no more than China.'
"But it was more than China; when I looked at it on the map I recognised it as though it were my own country. Then the war came and I thought the desire of my heart was fulfilled. At last men talked about Russia as though she truly existed. For a moment all Russia was united, all classes, rich and poor, high and low. Men were patriotic together as though one heart beat through all the land. But only for a moment. Divisions came, and quickly things were worse than before. There came Tannenburg and afterwards Warsaw.
"All was lost.... Russia was betrayed, and I was a sentimental fool. You know yourself how cynical even the most sentimental Russians are—that is because if you stick to facts you know where you are, but ideas are always betraying you. Life simply isn't long enough to test them, that's all, and man is certainly not a patient animal.
"At first I watched the war going from bad to worse, and then I shut myself in and refused to look any longer. I thought only of Vera and my work. I would make a great discovery and be rich, and then Vera at last would love me. Idiot! As though I had not known that Vera would not love for that kind of reason.... I determined that I would think no more of Russia, that I would be a man of no country. Then during those last weeks before the Revolution I began to be suspicious of Vera and to watch her. I did things of which I was ashamed, and then I despised myself for being ashamed.
"I am a man, I can do what I wish. Even though I am imprisoned I am free.... I am my own master. But all the same, to be a spy is a mean thing, Ivan Andreievitch. You Englishmen, although you are stupid, you are not mean. It was that day when your young friend, Bohun, found me looking in your room for letters, that in spite of myself I was ashamed.
"He looked at me in a sort of way as though, down to his very soul he was astonished at what I had done. Well, why should I mind that he should be astonished? He was very young and all wrong in his ideas of life. Nevertheless that look of his influenced me. I thought about it afterwards. Then came Alexei Petrovitch. I've told you already. He was always hinting at something. He was always there as though he were waiting for something to happen. He hinted things about Vera. It's strange, Ivan Andreievitch, but there was a day just a week before the Revolution, when I was very nearly jumping up and striking him. Just to get rid of him so that he shouldn't be watching me....Why even when I wasn't there he....
"But what's that got to do with my walk? Nothing perhaps. All the same, it was all these little things that made me, when I walked out of the Duma that evening so queer. You see I'd been getting desperate. All that I had left was being taken from me, and then suddenly this Revolution had come and given me back Russia again. I forgot Alexei Petrovitch and your Englishman Lawrence and the failure of my work—I remembered, once again, just as I had those first days of the war, Vera and Russia.
"There, in the clear evening air, I forgot all the talk there had been inside the Duma, the mess and the noise and the dust. I was suddenly happy again, and excited, and hopeful.... The Enchanter had come after all, and Russia was to awake.
"Ah, what a wonderful evening that was! You know that there have been times—very, very rare occasions in one's life—when places that one knows well, streets and houses so common and customary as to be like one's very skin—are suddenly for a wonderful half-hour places of magic, the trees are gold, the houses silver, the bricks jewelled, the pavement of amber. Or simply perhaps they are different, a new country of new colour and mystery... when one is just in love or has won some prize, or finished at last some difficult work. Petrograd was like that to me that night; I swear to you, Ivan Andreievitch, I did not know where I was. I seem now on looking back to have been in places that night, magical places, that by the morning had flown away. I could not tell you where I went. I know that I must have walked for miles. I walked with a great many people who were all my brothers. I had drunk nothing, not even water, and yet the effect on me was exactly as though I were drunk, drunk with happiness, Ivan Andreievitch, and with the possibility of all the things that might now be.
"We, many of us, marched along, singing the 'Marseillaise' I suppose. There was firing I think in some of the streets, because I can remember now on looking back that once or twice I heard a machine-gun quite close to me and didn't care at all, and even laughed.... Not that I've ever cared for that. Bullets aren't the sort of things that frighten me. There are other terrors....All the same it was curious that we should all march along as though there were no danger and the peace of the world had come. There were women with us—quite a number of them I think—and, I believe, some children. I remember that some of the way I carried a child, fast asleep in my arms. How ludicrous it would be now if I, of all men in the world, carried a baby down the Nevski! But it was quite natural that night. The town seemed to me blazing with light. Of course that it cannot have been; there can have only been the stars and some bonfires. And perhaps we stopped at the police-courts which were crackling away. I don't remember that, but I know that somewhere there were clouds of golden sparks opening into the sky and mingling with the stars—a wonderful sight, flocks of golden birds and behind them a roar of sound like a torrent of water... I know that, most of the night, I had one man especially for my companion. I can see him quite clearly now, although, whether it is all my imagination or not I can't say. Certainly I've never seen him since and never will again. He was a peasant, a bigly made man, very neatly and decently dressed in a workman's blouse and black trousers. He had a long black beard and was grave and serious, speaking very little but watching everything. Kindly, our best type of peasant—perhaps the type that will one day give Russia her real freedom... one day... a thousand years from now....
"I don't know why it is that I can still see him so clearly, because I can remember no one else of that night, and even this fellow may have been my imagination. But I think that, as we walked along, I talked to him about Russia and how the whole land now from Archangel to Vladivostock might be free and be one great country of peace and plenty, first in all the world.
"It seemed to me that every one was singing, men and women and children....
"We must, at last, have parted from most of the company. I had come with my friend into the quieter streets of the city. Then it was that I suddenly smelt the sea. You must have noticed how Petrograd is mixed up with the sea, how suddenly, where you never would expect it, you see the masts of ships all clustered together against the sky. I smelt the sea, the wind blew fresh and strong and there we were on the banks of the Neva. Everywhere there was perfect silence. The Neva lay, tranquil, bound under its ice. The black hulks of the ships lay against the white shadows like sleeping animals. The curve of the sky, with its multitude of stars, was infinite.
"My friend embraced me and left me and I stayed alone, so happy, so sure of the peace of the world that I did what I had not done for years, sent up a prayer of gratitude to God. Then with my head on my hands, looking down at the masts of the ships, feeling Petrograd behind me with its lights as though it were the City of God, I burst into tears—tears of happiness and joy and humble gratitude.... I have no memory of anything further."
So much for the way that one Russian saw it. There were others. For instance Vera....
I suppose that the motive of Vera's life was her pride. Quite early, I should imagine, she had adopted that as the sort of talisman that would save her from every kind of ill. She told me once that when she was a little girl, the story of the witch who lured two children into the wood and then roasted them in her oven had terrified her beyond all control, and she would lie awake and shiver for hours because of it. It became a symbol of life to her—the Forest was there and the Oven and the Witch—and so clever and subtle was the Witch that the only way to outwit her was by pride. Then there was also her maternal tenderness; it was through that that Markovitch won her. She had not of course loved him—she had never pretended to herself that she had—but she had seen that he wanted caring for, and then, having taken the decisive step, her pride had come to her aid, had shown her a glimpse of the Witch waiting in the Forest darkness, and had proved to her that here was her great opportunity. She had then, with the easy superiority of a young girl, ignorant of life, dismissed love as of something that others might care for but that would, in no case, concern herself. Did Love for a moment smile at her or beckon to her Pride came to her and showed her Nina and Nicholas, and that was enough.
But Love knows its power. He suddenly put forth his strength and Vera was utterly helpless—far more helpless than a Western girl with her conventional code and traditional training would have been. Vera had no convention and no tradition. She had only her pride and her maternal instinct and these, for a time, fought a battle for her... then they suddenly deserted her.
I imagine that they really deserted her on the night of Nina's birthday-party, but she would not admit defeat so readily, and fought on for a little. On this eventful week when the world, as we knew it, was tumbling about our ears, she had told herself that the only thing to which she must give a thought was her fixed loyalty to Nina and Nicholas. She would not think of Lawrence....She would not think of him. And so resolving, thought of him all the more.
By Wednesday morning her nerves were exhausted. The excitements of this week came as a climax to many months of strain. With the exception of her visit to the Astoria she had been out scarcely at all and, although the view from her flat was peaceful enough she could imagine every kind of horror beyond the boundaries of the Prospect—and in every horror Lawrence figured.
There occurred that morning a strange little conversation between Vera, Semyonov, Nicholas Markovitch, and myself. I arrived about ten o'clock to see how they were and to hear the news. I found Vera sitting quietly at the table sewing. Markovitch stood near to her, his anxious eyes and trembling mouth perched on the top of his sharp peaky collar and his hands rubbing nervously one within another. He was obviously in a state of very great excitement. Semyonov sat opposite Vera, leaning his thick body on his arms, his eyes watching his niece and every once and again his firm pale hand stroking his beard.
When I joined them he said to me:
"Well, Ivan Andreievitch, what's the latest news of your splendid Revolution?"
"Why my Revolution?" I asked. I felt an especial dislike this morning of his sneering eyes and his thick pale honey-coloured beard. "Whose ever it was he should be proud of it. To see thousands of people who've been hungry for months wandering about as I've seen them this morning and none of them touching a thing—it's stupendous!"
Semyonov smiled but said nothing. His smile irritated me. "Oh, of course you sneer at the whole thing, Alexei Petrovitch!" I said. "Anything fine in human nature excites your contempt as I know of old."
I think that that was the first time that Vera had heard me speak to him in that way, and she looked up at me with sudden surprise and I think gratitude.
Semyonov treated me with complete contempt. He answered me slowly: "No, Ivan Andreievitch, I don't wish to deprive you of any kind of happiness. I wouldn't for worlds. But do you know our people, that's the question? You haven't been here very long; you came loaded up with romantic notions, some of which you've discarded but only that you may pick up others....I don't want to insult you at all, but you simply don't know that the Christian virtues that you are admiring just now so extravagantly are simply cowardice and apathy....Wait a little! Wait a little! and then tell me whether I've not been right."
There was a moment's pause like the hush before the storm, and then Markovitch broke in upon us. I can see and hear him now, standing there behind Vera with his ridiculous collar and his anxious eyes. The words simply pouring from him in a torrent, his voice now rising into a shrill scream, now sinking into a funny broken bass like the growl of a young baby tiger. And yet he was never ridiculous. I've known other mortals, and myself one of the foremost, who, under the impulse of some sudden anger, enthusiasm, or regret, have been simply figures of fun.... Markovitch was never that. He was like a dying man fighting for possession of the last plank. I can't at this distance of time remember all that he said. He talked a great deal about Russia; while he spoke I noticed that he avoided Semyonov's eyes, which never for a single instant left his face.
"Oh, don't you see, don't you see?" he cried. "Russia's chance has come back to her? We can fight now a holy, patriotic war. We can fight, not because we are told to by our masters, but because we, of our own free will, wish to defend the soil of our sacred country. Our country! No one has thought of Russia for the last two years—we have thought only of ourselves, our privations, our losses—but now—now. O God! the world may be set free again because Russia is at last free!"
"Yes," said Semyonov quietly (his eyes covered Markovitch's face as a searchlight finds out the running figure of a man). "And who has spoken of Russia during the last few days? Russia! Why, I haven't heard the word mentioned once. I may have been unlucky, I don't know. I've been out and about the streets a good deal... I've listened to a great many conversations.... Democracy, yes, and Brotherhood and Equality and Fraternity and Bread and Land and Peace and Idleness—but Russia! Not a sound...."
"It will come! It will come!" Markovitch urged. "It must come! You didn't walk, Alexei, as I did last night, through the streets, and see the people and hear their voices and see their faces.... Oh! I believe that at last that good has come to the world, and happiness and peace; and it is Russia who will lead the way.... Thank God! Thank God!" Even as he spoke some instinct in me urged me to try and prevent him. I felt that Semyonov would not forget a word of this, and would make his own use of it in the time to come. I could see the purpose in Semyonov's eyes. I almost called out to Nicholas, "Look out! Look out!" just as though a man were standing behind him with a raised weapon....
"You really mean this?" asked Semyonov.
"Of course I mean it!" cried Markovitch. "Do I not sound as though I did?"
"I will remind you of it one day," said Semyonov.
I saw that Markovitch was trembling with excitement from head to foot. He sat down at the table near Vera and put one hand on the tablecloth to steady himself. Vera suddenly covered his hand with hers as though she were protecting him. His excitement seemed to stream away from him, as though Semyonov were drawing it out of him.
He suddenly said:
"You'd like to take my happiness away from me if you could, Alexei. You don't want me to be happy."
"What nonsense!" Semyonov said, laughing. "Only I like the truth—I simply don't see the thing as you do. I have my view of us Russians. I have watched since the beginning of the war. I think our people lazy and selfish—think you must drive them with a whip to make them do anything. I think they would be ideal under German rule, which is what they'll get if their Revolution lasts long enough... that's all."
I saw that Markovitch wanted to reply, but he was trembling so that he could not.
He said at last: "You leave me alone, Alexei; let me go my own way."
"I have never tried to prevent you," said Semyonov.
There was a moment's silence.
Then, in quite another tone, he remarked to me: "By the way, Ivan Andreievitch, what about your friend Mr. Lawrence? He's in a position of very considerable danger where he is with Wilderling. They tell me Wilderling may be murdered at any moment."
Some force stronger than my will drove me to look at Vera. I saw that Nicolai Leontievitch also was looking at her. She raised her eyes for an instant, her lips moved as though she were going to speak, then she looked down again at her sewing.
Semyonov watched us all. "Oh, he'll be all right," I answered. "If any one in the world can look after himself it's Lawrence."
"That's all very well," said Semyonov, still looking at Markovitch. "But to be in Wilderling's company this week is a very unhealthy thing for any one. And that type of Englishman is not noted for cowardice."
"I tell you that Lawrence can look after himself," I insisted angrily.
Semyonov knew and Markovitch knew that I was speaking to Vera. No one then said a word. There was a long pause. At last Semyonov saw fit to go.
"I'm off to the Duma," he said. "There's a split, I believe. And I want to hear whether it's true that the Czar's abdicated."
"I believe you'd rather he hadn't, Alexei Petrovitch," Markovitch broke in fiercely.
He laughed at us all and said, "Whose interests am I studying? My own?... Holy Russia's?... Yours?... When will you learn, Nicholas my friend, that I am a spectator, not a participator?"
Vera was alone during most of that day; and even now, after the time that has passed, I cannot bear to think of what she suffered. She realised quite definitely and now, with no chance whatever of self-deception, that she loved Lawrence with a force that no denial or sacrifice on her part could alter. She told me afterwards that she walked up and down that room for hours, telling herself again and again that she must not go and see whether he were safe. She did not dare even to leave the room. She felt that if she entered her bedroom the sight of her hat and coat there would break down her resolution, that if she went to the head of the stairs and listened she must then go farther and then farther again. She knew quite well that to go to him now would mean complete surrender. She had no illusions about that. The whole of her body was quivering with desire for his embrace, for the warm strength of his body, for the kindness in his eyes, and the compelling mastery of his hands.
She had never loved a man before; but it seemed to her now that she had known all these sensations always, and that she was now, at last, her real self, and that the earlier Vera had been a ghost. And what ghosts were Nina and Markovitch!
She told me afterwards that, on looking back, this seemed to her the most horrible part of the horrible afternoon. These two, who had been for so many years the very centre of her life, whom she had forced to hold up, as it were, the whole foundation of her existence, now simply were not real at all. She might call to them, and their voices were like far echoes or the wind. She gazed at them, and the colours of the room and the street seemed to shine through them.... She fought for their reality. She forced herself to recall all the many things that they had done together, Nina's little ways, the quarrels with Nicholas, the reconciliations, the times when he had been ill, the times when they had gone to the country, to the theatre... and through it all she heard Semyonov's voice, "By the way, what about your friend Lawrence?... He's in a position of very considerable danger... considerable danger... considerable danger..."
By the evening she was almost frantic. Nina had been with a girl friend in the Vassily Ostrov all day. She would perhaps stay there all night if there were any signs of trouble. No one returned. Only the clock ticked on. Old Sacha asked whether she might go out for an hour. Vera nodded her head. She was then quite alone in the flat.
Suddenly, about seven o'clock, Nina came in. She was tired, nervous, and unhappy. The Revolution had not come to her as anything but a sudden crumbling of all the life that she had known and believed in. She had had, that afternoon, to run down a side street to avoid a machine-gun, and afterwards on the Morskaia she had come upon a dead man huddled up in the snow like a piece of offal. These things terrified her and she did not care about the larger issues. Her life had been always intensely personal—not selfish so much as vividly egoistic through her vitality. And now she was miserable, not because she was afraid for her own safety, but because she was face to face, for the first time, with the unknown and the uncertain.
She came in, sat down at the table, put her head into her arms and burst into tears. She must have looked a very pathetic figure with her little fur hat askew, her hair tumbled—like a child whose doll is suddenly broken.
Vera was at her side in a moment. She put her arms around her.
"Nina, dear, what is it?... Has somebody hurt you? Has something happened? Is anybody—killed?"
"No!" Nina sobbed. "Nobody—nothing—only—I'm frightened. It all looks so strange. The streets are so funny, and—there was—a dead man on the Morskaia."
"You shouldn't have gone out, dear. I oughtn't to have let you. But now we can just be cosy together. Sacha's gone out. There's no one here but ourselves. We'll have supper and make ourselves comfortable."
Nina looked up, staring about her. "Has Sacha gone out? Oh, I wish she hadn't!... Supposing somebody came."
"No one will come. Who could? No one wants to hurt us! I've been here all the afternoon, and no one's come near the flat. If anybody did come we've only got to telephone to Nicholas. He's with Rozanov all the afternoon."
"Nicholas!" Nina repeated scornfully. "As though he could help anybody." She looked up. Vera told me afterwards that it was at that moment, when Nina looked such a baby with her tumbled hair and her flushed cheeks stained with tears, that she realised her love for her with a fierceness that for a moment seemed to drown even her love for Lawrence. She caught her to her and hugged her, kissing her again and again.
But Nina was suspicious. There were many things that had to be settled between Vera and herself. She did not respond, and Vera let her go. She went into her room, to take off her things.
Afterwards they lit the samovar and boiled some eggs and put the caviare and sausage and salt fish and jam on the table. At first they were silent, and then Nina began to recover a little.
"You know, Vera, I've had an extraordinary day. There were no trams running, of course, and I had to walk all the distance. When I got there I found Katerina Ivanovna in a terrible way because their Masha—whom they've had for years, you know—went to a Revolutionary meeting last evening, and was out all night, and she came in this morning and said she wasn't going to work for them any more, that every one was equal now, and that they must do things for themselves. Just fancy! When she's been with them for years and they've been so good to her. It upset Katerina Ivanovna terribly, because of course they couldn't get any one else, and there was no food in the house."
"Perhaps Sacha won't come back again."
"Oh, she must! She's not like that... and we've been so good to her. Nu... Patom, some soldiers came early in the afternoon and they said that some policeman had been firing from Katya's windows and they must search the flat. They were very polite—quite a young student was in charge of them, he was rather like Boris—and they went all over everything. They were very polite, but it wasn't nice seeing them stand there with their rifles in the middle of the dining-room. Katya offered them some wine. But they wouldn't touch it. They said they had been told not to, and they looked quite angry with her for offering it. They couldn't find the policeman anywhere of course, but they told Katya they might have to burn the house down if they didn't find him. I think they just said it to amuse themselves. But Katya believed it, and was in a terrible way and began collecting all her china in the middle of the floor, and then Ivan came in and told her not to be silly."
"Weren't you frightened to come home?" asked Vera.
"Ivan wanted to come with me but I wouldn't let him. I felt quite brave in the flat, as though I'd face anybody. And then every step I took outside I got more and more frightened. It was so strange, so quiet with the trams not running and the shops all shut. The streets are quite deserted except that in the distance you see crowds, and sometimes there were shots and people running.... Then suddenly I began to run. I felt as though there were animals in the canals and things crawling about on the ships. And then, just as I thought I was getting home, I saw a man, dead on the snow.... I'm not going out alone again until it's over. I'm so glad I'm back, Vera darling. We'll have a lovely evening."
They both discovered then how hungry they were, and they had an enormous meal. It was very cosy with the curtains drawn and the wood crackling in the stove and the samovar chuckling. There was a plateful of chocolates, and Nina ate them all. She was quite happy now, and sang and danced about as they cleared away most of the supper, leaving the samovar and the bread and the jam and the sausage for Nicholas and Bohun when they came in.
At last Vera sat down in the old red arm-chair that had the holes and the places where it suddenly went flat, and Nina piled up some cushions and sat at her feet. For a time they were happy, saying very little, Vera softly stroking Nina's hair. Then, as Vera afterwards described it to me, "Some fright or sudden dread of loneliness came into the room. It was exactly as though the door had opened and some one had joined us... and, do you know, I looked up and expected to see Uncle Alexei."
However, of course, there was no one there; but Nina moved away a little, and then Vera, wanting to comfort her, tried to draw her closer, and then of course, Nina (because she was like that) with a little peevish shrug of the shoulders drew even farther away. There was, after that, silence between them, an awkward ugly silence, piling up and up with discomfort until the whole room seemed to be eloquent with it.
Both their minds were, of course, occupied in the same direction, and suddenly Nina, who moved always on impulse and had no restraint, burst out:
"I must know how Andrey Stepanovitch (their name for Lawrence, because Jeremy had no Russian equivalent) is—I'm going to telephone."
"You can't," Vera said quietly. "It isn't working—I tried an hour ago to get on to Nicholas."
"Well then, I shall go off and find out," said Nina, knowing very well that she would not.
"Oh, Nina, of course you mustn't.... You know you can't. Perhaps when Nicholas comes in he will have some news for us."
"Why shouldn't I?"
"You know why not. What would he think? Besides, you're not going out into the town again to-night."
"Oh, aren't I? And who's going to stop me?"
"I am," said Vera.
Nina sprang to her feet. In her later account to me of this quarrel she said, "You know, Durdles, I don't believe I ever loved Vera more than I did just then. In spite of her gravity she looked so helpless and as though she wanted loving so terribly. I could just have flung my arms round her and hugged her to death at the very moment that I was screaming at her. Why are we like that?"
At any rate Nina stood up there and stamped her foot, her hair hanging all about her face and her body quivering. "Oh, you're going to keep me, are you? What right have you got over me? Can't I go and leave the flat at any moment if I wish, or am I to consider myself your prisoner?... Tzuineeto, pajalueesta... I didn't know. I can only eat my meals with your permission, I suppose. I have to ask your leave before going to see my friends.... Thank you, I know now. But I'm not going to stand it. I shall do just as I please. I'm grown up. No one can stop me...."
Vera, her eyes full of distress looked helplessly about her. She never could deal with Nina when she was in these storms of rage, and to-day she felt especially helpless.
"Nina, dear... don't.... You know that it isn't so. You can go where you please, do what you please."
"Thank you," said Nina, tossing her head. "I'm glad to hear it."
"I know I'm tiresome very often. I'm slow and stupid. If I try you sometimes you must forgive me and be patient.... Sit down again and let's be happy. You know how I love you. Nina, darling... come again."
But Nina stood there pouting. She was loving Vera so intensely that it was all that she could do to hold herself back, but her very love made her want to hurt.... "It's all very well to say you love me, but you don't act as though you do. You're always trying to keep me in. I want to be free. And Andrey Stepanovitch...."
They both paused at Lawrence's name. They knew that that was at the root of the matter between them, that it had been so for a long time, and that any other pretence would be false.
"You know I love him—" said Nina, "and I'm going to marry him."
I can see then Vera taking a tremendous pull upon herself as though she suddenly saw in front of her a gulf into whose depths, in another moment, she would fall. But my vision of the story, from this point, is Nina's.
Vera told me no more until she came to the final adventure of the evening. This part of the scene then is witnessed with Nina's eyes, and I can only fill in details which, from my knowledge of them both, I believe to have occurred. Nina, knew, of course, what the effect of her announcement would be upon Vera, but she had not expected the sudden thin pallor which stole like a film over her sister's face, the withdrawal, the silence. She was frightened, so she went on recklessly. "Oh, I know that he doesn't care for me yet.... I can see that of course. But he will. He must. He's seen nothing of me yet. But I am stronger than he, I can make him do as I wish. I will make him. You don't want me to marry him and I know why."
She flung that out as a challenge, tossing her head scornfully, but nevertheless watching with frightened eyes her sister's face. Suddenly Vera spoke, and it was in a voice so stern that it was to Nina a new voice, as though she had suddenly to deal with some new figure whom she had never seen before.
"I can't discuss that with you, Nina. You can't marry because, as you say, he doesn't care for you—in that way. Also if he did it would be a very unhappy marriage. You would soon despise him. He is not clever in the way that you want a man to be clever. You'd think him slow and dull after a month with him.... And then he ought to beat you and he wouldn't. He'd be kind to you and then you'd be ruined. I can see now that I've always been too kind to you—indeed, every one has—and the result is, that you're spoilt and know nothing about life at all—or men. You are right. I've treated you as a child too long. I will do so no longer."
Nina turned like a little fury, standing back from Vera as though she were going to spring upon her. "That's it, is it?" she cried. "And all because you want to keep him for yourself. I understand. I have eyes. You love him. You are hoping for an intrigue with him.... You love him! You love him! You love him!... and he doesn't love you and you are so miserable...."
Vera looked at Nina, then suddenly turned and burying her head in her hands sobbed, crouching in her chair. Then slipping from the chair, knelt catching Nina's knees, her head against her dress.
Nina was aghast, terrified—then in a moment overwhelmed by a surging flood of love so that she caught Vera to her, caressing her hair, calling her by her little name, kissing her again and again and again.
"Verotchka—Verotchka—I didn't mean anything. I didn't indeed. I love you. I love you. You know that I do. I was only angry and wicked. Oh, I'll never forgive myself. Verotchka—get up—don't kneel to me like that...!"
She was interrupted by a knock on the outer hall door. To both of them that sound must have been terribly alarming. Vera said afterwards, that "at once we realised that it was the knock of some one more frightened than we were."
In the first place, no one ever knocked, they always rang the rather rickety electric bell—and then the sound was furtive and hurried, and even frantic; "as though," said Vera, "some one on the other side of the door was breathless."
The sisters stood, close together, for quite a long time without moving. The knocking ceased and the room was doubly silent. Then suddenly it began again, very rapid and eager, but muffled, almost as though some one were knocking with a gloved hand.
Vera went then. She paused for a moment in the little hall, for again there was silence and she fancied that perhaps the intruder had given up the matter in despair. But, no—there it was again—and this third time seemed to her, perhaps because she was so close to it, the most urgent and eager of all. She went to the door and opened it. There was no light in the passage save the dim reflection from the lamp on the lower floor, and in the shadow she saw a figure cowering back into the corner behind the door.
"Who is it?" she asked. The figure pushed past her, slipping into their own little hall.
"But you can't come in like that," she said, turning round on him.
"Shut the door!" he whispered. "Bozhe moi! Bozhe moi.... Shut the door."
She recognised him then. He was the policeman from the corner of their street, a man whom they knew well. He had always been a pompous little man, stout and short of figure, kindly so far as they knew, although they had heard of him as cruel in the pursuit of his official duties. They had once talked to him a little and he explained: "I wouldn't hurt a fly, God knows," he had said, "of myself, but a man likes to do his work efficiently—and there are so many lazy fellows about here."
He prided himself, they saw, on a punctilious attention to duty. When he had to come there for some paper or other he was always extremely polite, and if they were going away he helped them about their passports. He told them on another occasion that "he was pleased with life—although one never knew of course when it might come down upon one—"
Well, it had come down on him now. A more pitiful object Vera had never seen. He was dressed in a dirty black suit and wore a shabby fur cap, his padded overcoat was torn.
But the overwhelming effect of him was terror. Vera had never before seen such terror, and at once, as though the thing were an infectious disease, her own heart began to beat furiously. He was shaking so that the fur cap, which was too large for his head, waggled up and down over his eye in a ludicrous manner.
His face was dirty as though he had been crying, and a horrid pallid grey in colour.
His collar was torn, showing his neck between the folds of his overcoat.
Vera looked out down the stairs as though she expected to see something. The flat was perfectly still. There was not a sound anywhere. She turned back to the man again, he was crouching against the wall.
"You can't come in here," she repeated. "My sister and I are alone. What do you want?... What's the matter?"
"Shut the door!... Shut the door!... Shut the door!..." he repeated.
She closed it. "Now what is it?" she asked, and then, hearing a sound, turned to find that Nina was standing with wide eyes, watching.
"What is it?" Nina asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," said Vera, also whispering. "He won't tell me."
He pushed past them then into the dining-room, looked about him for a moment, then sank into a chair as though his legs would no longer support him, holding on to the cloth with both hands.
The sisters followed him into the dining-room.
"Don't shiver like that!" said Vera, "tell us why you've come in here?"...
His eyes looked past them, never still, wandering from wall to wall, from door to door.
"They're after me..." he said. "That's it—I was hiding in our cupboard all last night and this morning. They were round there all the time breaking up our things.... I heard them shouting. They were going to kill me. I've done nothing—O God! what's that?"
"There's no one here," said Vera, "except ourselves."
"I saw a chance to get away and I crept out. But I couldn't get far.... I knew you would be good-hearted... good-hearted. Hide me somewhere—anywhere!... and they won't come in here. Only until the evening. I've done no one any harm.... Only my duty...."
He began to snivel, taking out from his coat a very dirty pocket-handkerchief and dabbing his face with it.
The odd thing that they felt, as they looked at him, was the incredible intermingling of public and private affairs. Five minutes before they had been passing through a tremendous crisis in their personal relationship. The whole history of their lives together, flowing through how many years, through how many phases, how many quarrels, and happiness and adventures had reached here a climax whose issue was so important that life between them could never be the same again.
So urgent had been the affair that during that hour they had forgotten the Revolution, Russia, the war. Moreover, always in the past, they had assumed that public life was no affair of theirs. The Russo-Japanese War, even the spasmodic revolt in 1905, had not touched them except as a wind of ideas which blew so swiftly through their private lives that they were scarcely affected by it.
Now in the person of that trembling, shaking figure at their table, the Revolution had come to them, and not only the Revolution, but the strange new secret city that Petrograd was... the whole ground was quaking beneath them.
And in the eyes of the fugitive they saw what terror of death really was. It was no tale read in a story-book, no recounting of an adventure by some romantic traveller, it was here with them in the flat and at any moment....
It was then that Vera realised that there was no time to lose—something must be done at once.
"Who's pursuing you?" she asked, quickly. "Where are they?"
He got up and was moving about the room as though he was looking for a hiding-place.
"All the people.... Everybody!" He turned round upon them, suddenly striking, what seemed to them, a ludicrously grand attitude. "Abominable! That's what it is. I heard them shouting that I had a machine-gun on the roof and was killing people. I had no machine-gun. Of course not. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I had one. But there they were. That's what they were shouting! And I've always done my duty. What's one to do? Obey one's superior officer? Of course, what he says one does. What's life for?... and then naturally one expects a reward. Things were going well with me, very well indeed—and then this comes. It's a degrading thing for a man to hide for a day and a night in a cupboard." His teeth began to chatter then so that he could scarcely speak. He seemed to be shaking with ague.
He caught Vera's hand. "Save me—save me!" he said. "Put me somewhere.... I've done nothing disgraceful. They'll shoot me like a dog—"
The sisters consulted.
"What are we to do?" asked Nina. "We can't let him go out to be killed."
"No. But if we keep him here and they come in and find him, we shall all be involved.... It isn't fair to Nicholas or Uncle Ivan...."
"We can't let him go out."
"No, we can't," Vera replied. She saw at once how impossible that was. Were he caught outside and shot they would feel that they had his death for ever on their souls.
"There's the linen cupboard," she said.
She turned round to Nina. "I'm afraid," she said, "if you hide here, you'll have to go into another cupboard. And it can only be for an hour or two. We couldn't keep you here all night."
He said nothing except "Quick. Take me." Vera led him into her bedroom and showed him the place. Without another word he pressed in amongst the clothes. It was a deep cupboard, and, although he was a fat man, the door closed quite evenly.
It was suddenly as though he had never been, Vera went back to Nina.
They stood close to one another in the middle of the room, and talked in whispers.
"What are we going to do?"
"We can only wait!"
"They'll never dare to search your room, Vera."
"One doesn't know now... everything's so different."
"Vera, you are brave. Forgive me what I said just now.... I'll help you if you want—"
"Hush, Nina dear. Not that now. We've got to think—what's best...."
They kissed very quietly, and then they sat down by the table and waited. There was simply nothing else to do.
Vera said that, during that pause, she could see the little policeman everywhere. In every part of the room she found him, with his fat legs and dirty, streaky face and open collar. The flat was heavy, portentous with his presence, as though it stood with a self-important finger on its lips saying, "I've got a secret in here. Such a secret. You don't know what I've got...."
They discussed in whispers as to who would come in first. Nicholas or Uncle Ivan or Bohun or Sacha? And supposing one of them came in while the soldiers were there? Who would be the most dangerous? Sacha? She would scream and give everything away. Suppose they had seen him enter and were simply waiting, on the cat-and-mouse plan, to catch him? That was an intolerable thought.
"I think," said Nina, "I must go and see whether there's any one outside."
But there was no need for her to do that. Even as she spoke they heard the steps on the stairs; and instantly afterwards there came the loud knocking on their door. Vera pressed Nina's hand and went into the hall.
"Kto tam... Who's there?" she asked.
"Open the door!... The Workmen and Soldiers' Committee demand entrance in the name of the Revolution."
She opened the door at once. During those first days of the Revolution they cherished certain melodramatic displays.
Whether consciously or no they built on all the old French Revolution traditions, or perhaps it is that every Revolution produces of necessity the same clothing with which to cover its nakedness. A strange mixture of farce and terror were those detachments of so-called justice. At their head there was, as a rule, a student, often smiling and bespectacled. The soldiers themselves, from one of the Petrograd regiments, were frankly out for a good time and enjoyed themselves thoroughly, but, as is the Slavonic way, playfulness could pass with surprising suddenness to dead earnest—with, indeed, so dramatic a precipitance that the actors themselves were afterwards amazed. Of these "little, regrettable mistakes" there had already, during the week, been several examples. To Vera, with the knowledge of the contents of her linen-cupboard, the men seemed terrifying enough. Their leader was a fat and beaming student—quite a boy. He was very polite, saying "Zdrastvuite," and taking off his cap. The men behind him—hulking men from one of the Guards regiments—pushed about in the little hall like a lot of puppies, joking with one another, holding their rifles upside down, and making sudden efforts at a seriousness that they could not possibly sustain.
Only one of them, an older man with a thick black beard, was intensely grave, and looked at Vera with beseeching eyes, as though he longed to tell her the secret of his life.
"What can I do for you?" she asked the student.
"Prosteete... Forgive us." He smiled and blinked at her, then put on his cap, clicked his heels, gave a salute, and took his cap off again. "We wish to be in no way an inconvenience to you. We are simply obeying orders. We have instructions that a policeman is hiding in one of these flats.... We know, of course, that he cannot possibly be here. Nevertheless we are compelled... Prosteete.... What nice pictures you have!" he ended suddenly. It was then that Vera discovered that they were by this time in the dining-room, crowded together near the door and gazing at Nina with interested eyes.
"There's no one here, of course," said Vera, very quietly. "No one at all."
"Tak Tochno (quite so)," said the black-bearded soldier, for no particular reason, suddenly.
"You will allow me to sit down?" said the student, very politely. "I must, I am afraid, ask a few questions."
"Certainly," said Vera quietly. "Anything you like."
She had moved over to Nina, and they stood side by side. But she could not think of Nina, she could not think even of the policeman in the cupboard.... She could think only of that other house on the Quay where, perhaps even now, this same scene was being enacted. They had found Wilderling.... They had dragged him out.... Lawrence was beside him.... They were condemned together.... Oh! love had come to her at last in a wild, surging flood! Of all the steps she had been led until at last, only half an hour before in that scene with Nina, the curtains had been flung aside and the whole view revealed to her. She felt such a strength, such a pride, such a defiance, as she had not known belonged to human power. She had, for many weeks, been hesitating before the gates. Now, suddenly, she had swept through. His death now was not the terror that it had been only an hour before. Nina's accusation had shown her, as a flash of lightning flings the mountains into view, that now she could never lose him, were he with her or no, and that beside that truth nothing mattered.
Something of her bravery and grandeur and beauty must have been felt by them all at that moment. Nina realised it.... She told me that her own fear left her altogether when she saw how Vera was facing them. She was suddenly calm and quiet and very amused.
The student officer seemed now to be quite at home. He had taken a great many notes down in a little book, and looked very important as he did so. His chubby face expressed great self-satisfaction. He talked half to himself and half to Vera. "Yes... Yes... quite so. Exactly. And your husband is not yet at home, Madame Markovitch.... Nu da.... Of course these are very troublesome times, and as you say things have to move in a hurry.
"You've heard perhaps that Nicholas Romanoff has abdicated entirely—and refused to allow his son to succeed. Makes things simpler.... Yes.... Very pleasant pictures you have—and Ostroffsky—six volumes. Very agreeable. I have myself acted in Ostroffsky at different times. I find his plays very enjoyable. I am sure you will forgive us, Madame, if we walk through your charming flat."