One night, long after she had gone to bed there was a row downstairs, one of the scenes common enough between Semyonov and his women. Terrified, she went to the head of the stairs and heard the smash of falling glass and her uncle's voice raised in a scream of rage and vituperation. A great naked woman in a gold frame swung and leered at her in the lighted passage. She fled back to her dark room and lay, for the rest of that night, trembling and quivering with her head beneath the bed-clothes.
From that moment she feared her uncle as much as she hated him. Long afterwards came his influence over Nicholas. No one had so much influence over Nicholas as he. Nicholas himself admitted it. He was alternately charmed and frightened, beguiled and disgusted, attracted and repulsed. Before the war Semyonov had, for a time, seen a good deal of them, and Nicholas steadily degenerated. Then Semyonov was bored with it all and went off after other game more worthy of his doughty spear. Then came the war, and Vera devoutedly hoped that her dear uncle would meet his death at the hands of some patriotic Austrian. He did indeed for a time disappear from their lives, and it seemed that he might never come back again. Then on that fateful Christmas Day he did return, and Vera's worst fears were realised. She hated him all the more because of her impotence. She could do nothing against him at all. She was never very subtle in her dealings with people, and her own natural honesty made her often stupid about men's motives. But the thing for which she feared her uncle most was his, as it seemed to her, supernatural penetration into the thoughts of others.
She of course greatly exaggerated his gifts in that direction simply because they were in no way her gifts, and he, equally of course, discovered very early in their acquaintance that this was the way to impress her. He played tricks with her exactly as a conjurer produces a rabbit out of a hat....
When he announced his intention of coming to live in the flat she was literally paralyzed with fright. Had it been any one else she would have fought, but in her uncle's drawing gradually nearer and nearer to the centre of all their lives, coming as it seemed to her so silently and mysteriously, without obvious motive, and yet with so stealthy a plan, against this man she could do nothing....
Nevertheless she determined to fight for Nicholas to the last—to fight for Nicholas, to bring back Nina, these were now the two great aims of her life; and whilst they were being realised her love for Lawrence must be passive, passive as a deep passionate flame beats with unwavering force in the heart of the lamp....
They had made me promise long before that I would spend Easter Eve with them and go with them to our church on the Quay. I wondered now whether all the troubles of the last weeks would not negative that invitation, and I had privately determined that if I did not hear from them again I would slip off with Lawrence somewhere. But on Good Friday Markovitch, meeting me in the Morskaia, reminded me that I was coming.
It is very difficult to give any clear picture of the atmosphere of the town between Revolution week and this Easter Eve, and yet all the seeds of the later crop of horrors were sewn during that period. Its spiritual mentality corresponded almost exactly with the physical thaw that accompanied it—mist, then vapour dripping of rain, the fading away of one clear world into another that was indistinct, ghostly, ominous. I find written in my Diary of Easter Day—exactly five weeks after the outbreak of the Revolution—these words: "From long talks with K. and others I see quite clearly that Russians have gone mad for the time being. It's heartbreaking to see them holding meetings everywhere, arguing at every street corner as to how they intend to arrange a democratic peace for Europe, when meanwhile the Germans are gathering every moment force upon the frontiers."
Pretty quick, isn't it, to change from Utopia to threatenings of the worst sort of Communism? But the great point for us in all this—the great point for our private personal histories as well as the public one—was that it was during these weeks that the real gulf between Russia and the Western world showed itself! Yes, for more than three years we had been pretending that a week's sentiment and a hurriedly proclaimed Idealism could bridge a separation which centuries of magic and blood and bones had gone to build. For three years we tricked ourselves (I am not sure that the Russians were ever really deceived) ... but we liked the ballet, we liked Tolstoi and Dostoieffsky (we translated their inborn mysticism into the weakest kind of sentimentality), we liked the theory of inexhaustible numbers, we liked the picture of their pounding, steam-roller like, to Berlin... we tricked ourselves, and in the space of a night our trick was exposed.
Plain enough the reasons for these mistakes that we in England have made over that same Revolution, mistakes made by none more emphatically than by our own Social Democrats. Those who hailed the Revolution as the fulfilment of all their dearest hopes, those who cursed it as the beginning of the damnation of the world—all equally in the wrong. The Revolution had no thought for them. Russian extremists might shout as they pleased about their leading the fight for the democracies of the world—they never even began to understand the other democracies. Whatever Russia may do, through repercussion, for the rest of the world, she remains finally alone—isolated in her Government, in her ideals, in her ambitions, in her abnegations. For a moment the world-politics of her foreign rulers seemed to draw her into the Western whirlpool. For a moment only she remained there. She has slipped back again behind her veil of mist and shadow. We may trade with her, plunge into her politics, steal from her Art, emphasise her religion—she remains alone, apart, mysterious....
I think it was with a kind of gulping surprise, as after a sudden plunge into icy cold water, that we English became conscious of this. It came to us first in the form that to us the war was everything—to the Russian, by the side of an idea the war was nothing at all. How was I, for instance, to recognise the men who took a leading part in the events of this extraordinary year as the same men who fought with bare hands, with fanatical bravery through all the Galician campaign of two years before?
Had I not realised sufficiently at that time that Russia moves always according to the Idea that governs her—and that when that Idea changes the world, his world changes with it....
Well, to return to Markovitch....
I was on the point of setting out for the English Prospect on Saturday evening when there was a knock on my door, and to my surprise Nicholas Markovitch came in. He was in evening dress—rather quaint it seemed to me, with his pointed collar so high, his tail-coat so much too small, and his large-brimmed bowler hat. He explained to me confusedly that he wished to walk with me alone to the church... that he had things to tell me... that we should meet the others there. I saw at once two things, that he was very miserable, that he was a little drunk. His misery showed itself in his strange, pathetic, gleaming eyes, that looked so often as though they held unshed tears (this gave him an unfortunate ridiculous aspect), in his hollow pale cheeks and the droop of his mouth, not petulant nor peevish, simply unhappy in the way that animals or very young children express unhappiness. His drunkenness showed itself in quite another way. He was unsteady a little on his feet, and his hands trembled, his forehead was flushed, and he spoke thickly, sometimes running his words together. At the same time he was not very drunk, and was quite in control of his thoughts and intentions.
We went out together. It could not have been called a fine night—it was too cold, and there was a hint of rain in the air—and yet there is beauty, I believe, in every Russian Easter Eve. The day comes so wonderfully at the end of the long heavy winter. The white nights with their incredible, almost terrifying beauty are at hand, the ice is broken, the new world of sun and flowers is ready, at an instant's magic word, to be born. Nevertheless this year there was an incredible pathos in the wind. The soul of Petrograd was indeed stirring, but mournfully, ominously. There were not, for one thing, the rows of little fairy lamps that on this night always make the streets so gay. They hang in chains and clusters of light from street to street, blazing in the square, reflected star-like in the canals, misty and golden-veiled in distance. To-night only the churches had their lights; for the rest, the streets were black chasms of windy desolation, the canals burdened with the breaking ice which moved restlessly against the dead barges. Very strong in the air was the smell of the sea; the heavy clouds that moved in a strange kind of ordered procession overhead seemed to carry that scent with them, and in the dim pale shadows of the evening glow one seemed to see at the end of every street mysterious clusters of masts, and to hear the clank of chains and the creak of restless boards. There were few people about and a great silence everywhere. The air was damp and thick, and smelt of rotten soil, as though dank grass was everywhere pushing its way up through the cobbles and paving-stones.
As we walked Markovitch talked incessantly. It was only a very little the talk of a drunken man, scarcely disconnected at all, but every now and again running into sudden little wildnesses and extravagances. I cannot remember nearly all that he said. He came suddenly, as I expected him to do, to the subject of Semyonov.
"You know of course that Alexei Petrovitch is living with us now?"
"Yes. I know that."
"You can understand, Ivan Andreievitch, that when he came first and proposed it to me I was startled. I had other things—very serious things to think of just then. We weren't—we aren't—very happy at home just now... you know that... I didn't think he'd be very gay with us. I told him that. He said he didn't expect to be gay anywhere at this time, but that he was lonely in his flat all by himself, and he thought for a week or two he'd like company. He didn't expect it would be for very long. No.... He said he was expecting 'something to happen.' Something to himself, he said, that would alter his affairs. So, as it was only for a little time, well, it didn't seem to matter. Besides, he's a powerful man. He's difficult to resist—very difficult to resist...."
"Why have you given up your inventions, Nicolai Leontievitch?" I said to him, suddenly turning round upon him.
"My inventions?" he repeated, seeming very startled at that.
"Yes, your inventions."
"No, no.... Understand, I have no more use for them. There are other things now to think about—more important things."
"But you were getting on with them so well?"
"No—not really. I was deceiving myself as I have often deceived myself before. Alexei showed me that. He told me that they were no good—"
"But I thought that he encouraged you?"
"Yes—at first—only at first. Afterwards he saw into them more clearly; he changed his mind. I think he was only intending to be kind. A strange man... a strange man...."
"A very strange man. Don't you let him influence you, Nicholas Markovitch."
"Influence me? Do you think he does that?" He suddenly came close to me, catching my arm.
"I don't know. I haven't seen you often together."
"Perhaps he does... Mojet bweet... You may be right. I don't know—I don't know what I feel about him at all. Sometimes he seems to me very kind; sometimes I'm frightened of him, sometimes"—here he dropped his voice—"he makes me very angry, so angry that I lose control of myself—a despicable thing... a despicable thing... just as I used to feel about the old man to whom I was secretary. I nearly murdered him once. In the middle of the night I thought suddenly of his stomach, all round and white and shining. It was an irresistible temptation to plunge a knife into it. I was awake for hours thinking of it. Every man has such hours.... At the same time Alexei can be very kind."
"How do you mean—kind?" I asked.
"For instance he has some very good wine—fifty bottles at least—he has given it all to us. Then he insists on paying us for his food. He is a generous-spirited man. Money is nothing to us—"
"Don't you drink his wine," I said.
Nicholas was instantly offended.
"What do you mean, Ivan Andreievitch? Not drink his wine? Am I an infant? Can I not look after myself?—Blagadaryoo Vas.... I am more than ten years old." He took his hand away from my arm.
"No, I didn't mean that at all," I assured him. "Of course not—only you told me not long ago that you had given up wine altogether. That's why I said what I did."
"So I have! So I have!" he eagerly assured me. "But Easter's a time for rejoicing... Rejoicing!"—his voice rose suddenly shrill and scornful—"rejoicing with the world in the state that it is. Truly, Ivan Andreievitch, I don't wonder at Alexei's cynicism. I don't indeed. The world is a sad spectacle for an observant man." He suddenly put his hand through my arm, so close to me now that I could feel his beating heart. "But you believe, don't you, Ivan Andreievitch, that Russia now has found herself?" His voice became desperately urgent and beseeching. "You must believe that. You don't agree with those fools who don't believe that she will make the best of all this? Fools? Scoundrels! Scoundrels! That's what they are. I must believe in Russia now or I shall die. And so with all of us. If she does not rise now as one great country and lead the world, she will never do so. Our hearts must break. But she will... she will! No one who is watching events can doubt it. Only cynics like Alexei doubt—he doubts everything. And he cannot leave anything alone. He must smear everything with his dirty finger. But he must leave Russia alone... I tell him...."
He broke off. "If Russia fails now," he spoke very quietly, "my life is over. I have nothing left. I will die."
"Come, Nicolai Leontievitch," I said, "you mustn't let yourself go like that. Life isn't over because one is disappointed in one's country. And even though one is disappointed one does not love the less. What's friendship worth if every disappointment chills one's affection? One loves one's country because she is one's country, not because she's disappointing...." And so I went on with a number of amiable platitudes, struggling to comfort him somewhere, and knowing that I was not even beginning to touch the trouble of his soul.
He drew very close to me, his fingers gripping my sleeve—"I'll tell you, Ivan Andreievitch—but you mustn't tell anybody else. I'm afraid. Yes, I am. Afraid of myself, afraid of this town, afraid of Alexei, although that must seem strange to you. Things are very bad with me, Ivan Andreievitch. Very bad, indeed. Oh! I have been disappointed! yes, I have. Not that I expected anything else. But now it has come at last, the blow that I have always feared has fallen—a very heavy blow. My own fault, perhaps, I don't know. But I'm afraid of myself. I don't know what I may do. I have such strange dreams—Why has Alexei come to stay with us?"
"I don't know," I said.
Then, thank God, we reached the church. It was only as we went up the steps that I realised that he had never once mentioned Vera.
And yet with all our worries thick upon us it was quite impossible to resist the sweetness and charm and mystery of that service.
I think that perhaps it is true, as many have said, that people did not crowd to the churches on that Easter as they had earlier ones, but our church was a small one, and it seemed to us to be crammed. We stumbled up the dark steps, and found ourselves at the far end of the very narrow nave. At the other end there was a pool of soft golden light in which dark figures were bathed mysteriously. At the very moment of our entering, the procession was passing down the nave on its way round the outside of the church to look for the Body of Our Lord. Down the nave they came, the people standing on either side to let them pass, and then, many of them, falling in behind. Every one carried a lighted candle. First there were the singers, then men carrying the coloured banners, then the priest in stiff gorgeous raiment, then officials and dignitaries, finally the crowd. The singing, the forest of lighted candles, the sudden opening of the black door and the blowing in of the cold night wind, the passing of the voices out into the air, the soft, dying away of the singing and then the hushed expectation of the waiting for the return—all this had in it something so elemental, so simple, and so true to the very heart of the mystery of life that all trouble and sorrow fell away and one was at peace.
How strange was that expectation! We knew so well what the word must be; we could tell exactly the moment of the knock of the door, the deep sound of the priest's voice, the embracings and dropping of wax over every one's clothes that would follow it—and yet every year it was the same! There was truth in it, there was some deep response to the human dependence, some whispered promise of a future good. We waited there, our hearts beating, crowded against the dark walls. It was a very democratic assembly, bourgeoisie, workmen, soldiers, officers, women in evening dress and peasant women with shawls over their heads. No one spoke or whispered.
Suddenly there was a knock. The door was opened. The priest stood there, in his crimson and gold. "Christ is risen!" he cried, his voice vibrating as though he had indeed but just now, out there in the dark and wind, made the great discovery.
"He is risen indeed!" came the reply from us all. Markovitch embraced me. "Let us go," he whispered, "I can't bear it somehow to-night."
We went out. Everywhere the bells were ringing—the wonderful deep boom of St. Isaac's, and then all the other bells, jangling, singing, crying, chattering, answering from all over Petrograd. From the other side of the Neva came the report of the guns and the fainter, more distant echo of the guns near the sea. I could hear behind it all the incessant "chuck-chuck, chuck-chuck," of the ice colliding on the river.
It was very cold, and we hurried back to Anglisky Prospect. Markovitch was quite silent all the way.
When we arrived we found Vera and Uncle Ivan and Semyonov waiting for us (Bohun was with friends). On the table was the paskha, a sweet paste made of eggs and cream, curds and sugar, a huge ham, a large cake or rather, sweet bread called kulich, and a big bowl full of Easter eggs, as many-coloured as the rainbow. This would be the fare during the whole week, as there was to be no cooking until the following Saturday—and very tired of the ham and the eggs one became before that day. There was also wine—some of Semyonov's gift, I supposed—and a tiny bottle of vodka.
We were not a very cheerful company. Uncle Ivan, who was really distinguished by his complete inability to perceive what was going on under his nose, was happy, and ate a great deal of the ham and certainly more of the paskha than was good for him.
I do not know who was responsible for the final incident—Semyonov perhaps—but I have often wondered whether some word or other of mine precipitated it. We had finished our meal and were sitting quietly together, each occupied with his own thoughts. I had noticed that Markovitch had been drinking a great deal.
I was just thinking it was time for me to go when I heard Semyonov say:
"Well, what do you think of your Revolution now, Nicholas?"
"What do you mean—my Revolution?" he asked.
(The strange thing on looking back is that the whole of this scene seems to me to have passed in a whisper, as though we were all terrified of somebody.)
"Well—do you remember how you talked to me?... about the saving of the world and all the rest of it that this was going to be? Doesn't seem to be quite turning out that way, does it, from all one hears? A good deal of quarrelling, isn't there? And what about the army—breaking up a bit, isn't it?"
"Don't, Uncle Alexei," I heard Vera whisper.
"What I said I still believe," Nicholas answered very quietly. "Leave Russia alone, Alexei—and leave me alone, too."
"I'm not touching you, Nicholas," Semyonov answered, laughing softly.
"Yes you are—you know that you are. I'm not angry—not yet. But it's unwise of you—unwise...."
"Never mind. 'Below the silent pools there lie hidden many devils.' Leave me alone. You are our guest."
"Indeed, Nicholas," said Semyonov, still laughing, "I mean you no harm. Ask our friend Durward here whether I ever mean any one any harm. He will, I'm sure, give me the best of characters."
"No—no harm perhaps—but still you tease me.... I'm a fool to mind.... But then I am a fool—every one knows it."
All the time he was looking with his pathetic eyes and his pale face at Vera.
Vera said again, very low, almost in a whisper: "Uncle Alexei... please."
"But really, Nicholas," Semyonov went on, "you under-rate yourself. You do indeed. Nobody thinks you a fool. I think you a very lucky man. With your talents—"
"Talents!" said Nicholas softly, looking at Vera. "I have no talents."
"—And Vera's love for you," went on Semyonov—
"Ah! that is over!" Nicholas said, so low that I scarcely heard it. I do not know what then exactly happened. I think that Vera put out her hand to cover Nicholas'. At any rate I saw him draw his away, very gently. It lay on the table, and the only sound beside the voices was the tiny rattle of his nails as his hand trembled against the woodwork.
Vera said something that I did not catch.
"No..." Nicholas said. "No... We must be true with one another, Vera. I have been drinking too much wine. My head is aching, and perhaps my words are not very clear. But it gives me courage to say what I have in my mind. I haven't thought out yet what we must do. Perhaps you can help me. But I must tell you that I saw everything that happened here on that Thursday afternoon in the week of the Revolution—"
Vera made a little movement of distress
"Yes, you didn't know—but I was in my room—where Alexei sleeps now, you know. I couldn't help seeing. I'm very sorry."
"No, Nicholas, I'm very glad," Vera answered quietly.
"I would have told you in any case. I should have told you before. I love him and he loves me, just as you saw. I would like Ivan Andreievitch and Uncle Ivan and every one to know. There is nothing to conceal. I have never loved any one before, and I'm not ashamed of loving some one now.... It doesn't alter our life, Nicholas. I care for you just as I did care, and I will do just as you tell me. I will never see him again if that's what you wish, but I shall always love him."
"Ah, Vera—you are cruel." Nicholas gave a little cry like a hurt animal, then he went away from us, standing for a moment looking at us.
"We'll have to consider what we must do. I don't know. I can't think to-night.... And you, Alexei, you leave me alone...."
He went stumbling away towards his bedroom.
Vera said nothing to any of us. She got up slowly, looked about her for a moment as though she were bewildered by the light and then went after Nicholas. I turned to Semyonov.
"You'd better go back to your own place," I said.
"Not yet, thank you," he answered, smiling.
On the afternoon of Easter Monday I was reminded by Bohun of an engagement that I had made some weeks before to go that evening to a party at the house of a rich merchant, Rozanov by name. I have, I think, mentioned him earlier in this book. I cannot conceive why I had ever made the promise, and in the afternoon, meeting Bohun at Watkins' bookshop in the Morskaia, I told him that I couldn't go.
"Oh, come along!" he said. "It's your duty."
"Why my duty?"
"They're all talking as hard as they can about saving the world by turning the other cheek, and so on; and a few practical facts about Germany from you will do a world of good."
"Oh, your propaganda!" I said.
"No, it isn't my propaganda," he answered. "It's a matter of life and death to get these people to go on with the war, and every little helps."
"Well, I'll come," I said, shaking my head at the book-seller, who was anxious that I should buy the latest works of Mrs. Elinor Glyn and Miss Ethel Dell. I had in fact reflected that a short excursion into other worlds would be good for me. During these weeks I had been living in the very heart of the Markovitches, and it would be healthy to escape for a moment.
But I was not to escape.
I met Bohun at the top of the English Prospect, and we decided to walk. Rozanov lived in the street behind the Kazan Cathedral. I did not know very much about him except that he was a very wealthy merchant, who had made his money by selling cheap sweets to the peasant. He lived, I knew, an immoral and self-indulgent life, and his hobby was the quite indiscriminate collection of modern Russian paintings, his walls being plastered with innumerable works by Benois, Somoff, Dobeijinsky, Yakofflyeff, and Lanceray. He had also two Serovs, a fine Vrubel, and several Ryepins. He had also a fine private collection of indecent drawings.
"I really don't know what on earth we're going to this man for," I said discontentedly. "I was weak this afternoon."
"No, you weren't," said Bohun. "And I'll tell you frankly that I'm jolly glad not to be having a meal at home to-night. Do you know, I don't believe I can stick that flat much longer!"
"Why, are things worse?" I asked.
"It's getting so jolly creepy," Bohun said. "Everything goes on normally enough outwardly, but I suppose there's been some tremendous row. Of course I don't knew any-thing about that. After what you told me the other night though, I seem to see everything twice its natural size."
"What do you mean?" I asked him.
"You know when something queer's going on inside a house you seem to notice the furniture of the rooms much more than you ordinarily do. I remember once a fellow's piano making me quite sick whenever I looked at it. I didn't know why; I don't know why now, but the funny thing is that another man who knew him once said exactly the same thing to me about it. He felt it too. Of course we're none of us quite normal just now. The whole town seems to be turning upside down. I'm always imagining there are animals in the canals; and don't you notice what lots of queer fellows there are in the Nevski now, and Chinese and Japs—all sorts of wild men. And last night I had a dream that all the lumps of ice in the Nevski turned into griffins and went marching through the Red Square eating every one up on their way...." Bohun laughed. "That's because I'd eaten something of course—too much paskha probably.
"But, seriously, I came in this evening at five o'clock, and the first thing I noticed was that little red lacquer musical box of Semyonov's. You know it. The one with a sports-man in a top hat and a horse and a dog on the lid. He brought it with some other little things when he moved in. It's a jolly thing to look at, but it's got two most irritating tunes. One's like 'The Blue Bells of Scotland.' You said yourself the other day it would drive you mad if you heard it often. Well, there it was, jangling away in its self-sufficient wheezy voice. Semyonov was sitting in the armchair reading the newspaper, Markovitch was standing behind the chair with the strangest look on his face. Suddenly, just as I came in he bent down and I heard him say: 'Won't you stop the beastly thing?' 'Certainly,' said Semyonov, and he went across in his heavy plodding kind of way and stopped it. I went off to my room and then, upon my word, five minutes after I heard it begin again, thin and reedy through the walls. But when I came back into the dining-room there was no one there. You can't think how that tune irritated me, and I tried to stop it. I went up to it, but I couldn't find the hinge or the key. So on it went, over and over again. Then there's another thing. Have you ever noticed how some chairs will creak in a room, just as though some one were sitting down or getting up? It always, in ordinary times, makes you jump, but when you're strung up about something—! There's a chair in the Markovitches' dining-room just like that. It creaks more like a human being than anything you ever heard, and to-night I could have sworn Semyonov got up out of it. It was just like his heavy slow movement. However, there wasn't any one there. Do you think all this silly?" he asked.
"No, indeed I don't," I answered.
"Then there's a picture. You know that awful painting of a mid-Victorian ancestor of Vera's—a horrible old man with bushy eyebrows and a high, rather dirty-looking stock?"
"Yes, I know it," I said.
"It's one of those pictures with eyes that follow you all round the room. At least it has now. I usen't to notice them. Now they stare at you as though they'd eat you, and I know that Markovitch feels them because he keeps looking up at the beastly thing. Then there's—But no, I'm not going to talk any more about it. It isn't any good. One gets thinking of anything these days. One's nerves are all on edge. And that flat's too full of people any way."
"Yes, it is," I agreed.
We arrived at Rozanov's house, and went up in a very elegant heavily-gilt lift. Once in the flat we were enveloped in a cloud of men and women, tobacco smoke, and so many pictures that it was like tumbling into an art-dealer's. Where there weren't pictures there was gilt, and where there wasn't gilt there was naked statuary, and where there wasn't naked statuary there was Rozanov, very red and stout and smiling, gay in a tightly fitting black-tail coat, white waistcoat and black trousers. Who all the people were I haven't the least idea. There was a great many. A number of Jews and Jewesses, amiable, prosperous, and kindly, an artist or two, a novelist, a lady pianist, two or three actors. I noticed these. Then there was an old maid, a Mlle. Finisterre, famous in Petrograd society for her bitterness and acrimony, and in appearance an exact copy of Balzac's Sophie Gamond.
I noticed several of those charming, quiet, wise women of whom Russia is so prodigal, a man or two whom I had met at different times, especially one officer, one of the finest, bravest, and truest men I have ever known; some of the inevitable giggling girls—and then suddenly, standing quite alone, Nina!
Her loneliness was the first thing that struck me. She stood back against the wall underneath the shining frames, looking about her with a nervous, timid smile. Her hair was piled up on top of her head in the old way that she used to do when she was trying to imitate Vera, and I don't know why but that seemed to me a good omen, as though she were already on her way back to us. She was wearing a very simple white frock.
In spite of her smile she looked unhappy, and I could see that during this last week experience had not been kind to her, because there was an air of shyness and uncertainty which had never been there before. I was just going over to speak to her when two of the giggling girls surrounded her and carried her off.
I carried the little picture of her in my mind all through the noisy, strident meal that followed. I couldn't see her from where I sat, nor did I once catch the tones of her voice, although I listened. Only a month ago there would have been no party at which Nina was present where her voice would not have risen above all others.
No one watching us would have believed any stories about food shortage in Petrograd. I daresay at this very moment in Berlin they are having just such meals. Until the last echo of the last Trump has died away in the fastnesses of the advancing mountains the rich will be getting from somewhere the things that they desire! I have no memory of what we had to eat that night, but I know that it was all very magnificent and noisy, kind-hearted and generous and vulgar. A great deal of wine was drunk, and by the end of the meal every one was talking as loudly as possible. I had for companion the beautiful Mlle. Finisterre. She had lived all her life in Petrograd, and she had a contempt for the citizens of that fine town worthy of Semyonov himself. Opposite us sat a stout, good-natured Jewess, who was very happily enjoying her food. She was certainly the most harmless being in creation, and was probably guilty of a thousand generosities and kindnesses in her private life. Nevertheless, Mlle. Finisterre had for her a dark and sinister hatred, and the remarks that she made about her, in her bitter and piercing voice, must have reached their victim. She also abused her host very roundly, beginning to tell me in the fullest detail the history of an especially unpleasant scandal in which he had notoriously figured. I stopped her at last.
"It seems to me," I said, "that it would be better not to say these things about him while you're eating his bread and salt."
She laughed shrilly, and tapped me on the arm with a bony finger.
"Oh, you English!... always so moral and strict about the proprieties... and always so hypercritical too. Oh, you amuse me! I'm French, you see—not Russian at all; these poor people see through nothing—but we French!"
After dinner there was a strange scene. We all moved into the long, over-decorated drawing-room. We sat about, admired the pictures (a beautiful one by Somoff I especially remember—an autumn scene with eighteenth-century figures and colours so soft and deep that the effect was inexpressibly delicate and mysterious), talked and then fell into one of those Russian silences that haunt every Russian party. I call those silences "Russian," because I know nothing like them in any other part of the world. It is as though the souls of the whole company suddenly vanished through the windows, leaving only the bodies and clothes. Every one sits, eyes half closed, mouths shut, hands motionless, host and hostess, desperately abandoning every attempt at rescue, gaze about them in despair.
The mood may easily last well into the morning, when the guests, still silent, will depart, assuring everybody that they have enjoyed themselves immensely, and really believing that they have; or it may happen that some remark will suddenly be made, and instantly back through the windows the souls will come, eagerly catching up their bodies again, and a babel will arise, deafening, baffling, stupefying. Or it may happen that a Russian will speak with sudden authority, almost like a prophet, and will continue for half an hour and more, pouring out his soul, and no one will dream of thinking it an improper exhibition.
In fine, anything can happen at a Russian party. What happened on this occasion was this. The silence had lasted for some minutes, and I was wondering for how much longer I could endure it (I had one eye on Nina somewhere in the background, and the other on Bohun restlessly kicking his patent-leather shoes one against the other), when suddenly a quiet, ordinary little woman seated near me said:
"The thing for Russia to do now is to abandon all resistance and so shame the world." She was a mild, pleasant-looking woman, with the eyes of a very gentle cow, and spoke exactly as though she were still pursuing her own private thoughts. It was enough; the windows flew open, the souls came flooding in, and such a torrent of sound poured over the carpet that the naked statuary itself seemed to shiver at the threatened deluge. Every one talked; every one, even, shouted. Just as, during the last weeks, the streets had echoed to the words "Liberty," "Democracy," "Socialism," "Brotherhood," "Anti-annexation," "Peace of the world," so now the art gallery echoed. The very pictures shook in their frames.
One old man in a white beard continued to cry, over and over again, "Firearms are not our weapons... bullets are not our weapons. It's the Peace of God, the Peace of God that we need."
One lady (a handsome Jewess) jumped up from her chair, and standing before us all recited a kind of chant, of which I only caught sentences once, and again:
"Russia must redeem the world from its sin... this slaughter must be slayed... Russia the Saviour of the world... this slaughter must be slayed."
I had for some time been watching Bohun. He had travelled a long journey since that original departure from England in December; but I was not sure whether he had travelled far enough to forget his English terror of making a fool of himself. Apparently he had.... He said, his voice shaking a little, blushing as he spoke:
"What about Germany?"
The lady in the middle of the floor turned upon him furiously:
"Germany! Germany will learn her lesson from us. When we lay down our arms her people, too, will lay down theirs."
"Supposing she doesn't?"
The interest of the room was now centred on him, and every one else was silent.
"That is not our fault. We shall have made our example."
A little hum of applause followed this reply, and that irritated Bohun. He raised his voice:
"Yes, and what about your allies, England and France, are you going to betray them?"
Several voices took him up now. A man continued:
"It is not betrayal. We are not betraying the proletariat of England and France. They are our friends. But the alliance with the French and English Capitalistic Governments was made not by us but by our own Capitalistic Government, which is now destroyed."
"Very well, then," said Bohun. "But when the war began did you not—all of you, not only your Government, but you people now sitting in this room—did you not all beg and pray England to come in? During those days before England's intervention, did you not threaten to call us cowards and traitors if we did not come in? Pomnite?"
There was a storm of answers to this. I could not distinguish much of what it was. I was fixed by Mlle. Finisterre's eagle eye, gleaming at the thought of the storm that was rising.
"That's not our affair.... That's not our affair," I heard voices crying. "We did support you. For years we supported you. We lost millions of men in your service.... Now this terrible slaughter must cease, and Russia show the way to peace."
Bohun's moment then came upon him. He sprang to his feet, his face crimson, his body quivering; so desperate was his voice, so urgent his distress that the whole room was held.
"What has happened to you all? Don't you see, don't you see what you are doing? What has come to you, you who were the most modest people in Europe and are now suddenly the most conceited? What do you hope to do by this surrender?
"Do you know, in the first place, what you will do? You will deliver the peoples of three-quarters of the globe into hopeless slavery; you will lose, perhaps for ever, the opportunity of democracy; you will establish the grossest kind of militarism for all time. Why do you think Germany is going to listen to you? What sign has she ever shown that she would? When have her people ever turned away or shown horror at any of the beastly things her rulers have been doing in this war?... What about your own Revolution? Do you believe in it? Do you treasure it? Do you want it to last? Do you suppose for a moment that, if you bow to Germany, she won't instantly trample out your Revolution and give you hack your monarchy? How can she afford to have a revolutionary republic close to her own gates? What is she doing at this moment? Piling up armies with which to invade you, and conquer you, and lead you into slavery. What have you done so far by your Revolutionary orders? What have you done by relaxing discipline in the army? What good have you done to any one or anything? Is any one the happier? Isn't there disorder everywhere—aren't all your works stopping and your industries failing? What about the eighty million peasants who have been liberated in the course of a night? Who's going to lead them if you are not? This thing has happened by its own force, and you are sitting down under it, doing nothing. Why did it succeed? Simply because there was nothing to oppose it. Authority depended on the army, not on the Czar, and the army was the people. So it is with the other armies of the world. Do you think that the other armies couldn't do just as you did if they wished. They could, in half an hour. They hate the war as much as you do, but they have also patriotism. They see that their country must be made strong first before other countries will listen to its ideas. But where is your patriotism? Has the word Russia been mentioned once by you since the Revolution? Never once.... 'Democracy,' 'Brotherhood'—but how are Democracy and Brotherhood to be secured unless other countries respect you.... Oh, I tell you it's absurd!... It's more than absurd, it's wicked, it's rotten...."
Poor boy, he was very near tears. He sat down suddenly, staring blankly in front of him, his hands clenched.
Rozanov answered him, Rozanov flushed, his fat body swollen with food and drink, a little unsteady on his legs, and the light of the true mystic in his pig-like eyes. He came forward into the middle of the circle.
"That's perhaps true what you say," he cried; "it's very English, very honest, and, if you will forgive me, young man, very simple. You say that we Russians are conceited. No, we are not conceited, but we see farther than the rest of the world. Is that our curse? Perhaps it is, but equally, perhaps, we may save the world by it. Now look at me! Am I a fine man? No, I am not. Every one knows I am not. No man could look at my face and say that I am a fine man. I have done disgraceful things all my life. All present know some of the things I have done, and there are some worse things which nobody knows save myself. Well, then.... Am I going to stop doing such things? Am I now, at fifty-five, about to become instantly a saint? Indeed not. I shall continue to do the things that I have already done, and I shall drop into a beastly old age. I know it.
"So, young man, I am a fair witness. You may trust me to speak the truth as I see it. I believe in Christ. I believe in the Christ-life, the Christ-soul. If I could, I would stop my beastliness and become Christlike. I have tried on several occasions, and failed, because I have no character. But does that mean that I do not believe in it when I see it? Not at all. I believe in it more than ever. And so with Russia—you don't see far enough, young man, neither you nor any of your countrymen. It is one of your greatest failings that you do not care for ideas. How is this war going to end? By the victory of Germany? Perhaps.... Perhaps even it may be that Russia by her weakness will help to that victory. But is that the end? No.... If Russia has an Idea and because of her faith in that Idea, she will sacrifice everything, will be buffeted on both cheeks, will be led into slavery, will deliver up her land and her people, will be mocked at by all the world... perhaps that is her destiny.... She will endure all that in order that her Idea may persist. And her Idea will persist. Are not the Germans and Austrians human like ourselves? Slowly, perhaps very slowly, they will say to themselves: 'There is Russia who believes in the peace of the world, in the brotherhood of man, and she will sacrifice everything for it, she will go out, as Christ did, and be tortured and be crucified—and then on the third day she will rise again.' Is not that the history of every triumphant Idea?... You say that meanwhile Germany will triumph. Perhaps for a time she may, but our Idea will not die.
"The further Germany goes, the deeper will that Idea penetrate into her heart. At the end she will die of it, and a new Germany will be born into a new world.... I tell you I am an evil man, but I believe in God and in the righteousness of God."
What do I remember after those words of Rozanov? It was like a voice speaking to me across a great gulf of waters—but that voice was honest. I do not know what happened after his speech. I think there was a lot of talk. I cannot remember.
Only just before I was going I was near Nina for a moment.
She looked up at me just as she used to do.
"Durdles—is Vera all right?"
"She's miserable, Nina, because you're not there. Come back to us."
But she shook her head.
"No, no, I can't. Give her my—" Then she stopped. "No, tell her nothing."
"Can I tell her you're happy?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm all right," she answered roughly, turning away from me.
But the adventures of that Easter Monday night were not yet over. I had walked away with Bohun; he was very silent, depressed, poor boy, and shy with the reaction of his outburst.
"I made the most awful fool of myself," he said.
"No, you didn't," I answered.
"The trouble of it is," he said slowly, "that neither you nor I see the humorous side of it all strongly enough. We take it too seriously. It's got a funny side all right."
"Maybe you're right," I said. "But you must remember that the Markovitch situation isn't exactly funny just now—and we're both in the middle of it. Oh! if only I could find Nina back home and Semyonov away, I believe the strain would lift. But I'm frightened that something's going to happen. I've grown very fond of these people, you know, Bohun—Vera and Nina and Nicholas. Isn't it odd how one gets to love Russians—more than one's own people? The more stupid things they do the more you love them—whereas with one's own people it's quite the other way. Oh, I do want Vera and Nina and Nicholas to be happy!"
"Isn't the town queer to-night?" said Bohun, suddenly stopping. (We were just at the entrance to the Mariensky Square.)
"Yes," I said. "I think these days between the thaw and the white nights are in some ways the strangest of all. There seems to be so much going on that one can't quite see."
"Yes—over there—at the other end of the Square—there's a kind of mist—a sort of water-mist. It comes from the Canal."
"And do you see a figure like an old bent man with a red lantern? Do you see what I mean—that red light?"
"And those shadows on the further wall like riders passing with silver-tipped spears? Isn't it...? There they go—ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen...."
"How still the Square is? Do you see those three windows all alight? Isn't there a dance going on? Don't you hear the music?"
"No, it's the wind."
"No, surely.... That's a flute—and then violins. Listen! Those are fiddles for certain!"
"How still, how still it is!"
We stood and listened whilst the white mist gathered and grew over the cobbles. Certainly there was a strain of music, very faint and dim, threading through the air.
"Well, I must go on," said Bohun. "You go up to the left, don't you? Good-night." I watched Bohun's figure cross the Square. The light was wonderful, like fold on fold of gauze, but opaque, so that buildings showed with sharp outline behind it. The moon was full and quite red. I turned to go home and ran straight into Lawrence.
"Good heavens!" I cried. "Are you a ghost too?"
He didn't seem to feel any surprise at meeting me. He was plainly in a state of tremendous excitement. He spoke breathlessly.
"You're exactly the man. You must come back with me. My diggings now are only a yard away from here."
"It's very late," I began, "and—"
"Things are desperate," he said. "I don't know—" he broke off. "Oh! come and help me, Durward, for God's sake!"
I went with him, and we did not exchange another word until we were in his rooms.
He began hurriedly taking off his clothes. "There! Sit on the bed. Different from Wilderling's, isn't it? Poor devil.... I'm going to have a bath if you don't mind—I've got to clear my head."
He dragged out a tin bath from under his bed, then a big can of water from a corner. Stripped, he looked so thick and so strong, with his short neck and his bull-dog build, that I couldn't help saying,
"You don't look a day older than the last time you played Rugger for Cambridge."
"I am, though." He sluiced the cold water over his head, grunting. "Not near so fit—gettin' fat too.... Rugger days are over. Wish all my other days were over too."
He got out of the bath, wiped himself, put on pyjamas, brushed his teeth, then his hair, took out a pipe, and then sat beside me on the bed.
"Look here, Durward," he said. "I'm desperate, old man." (He said "desprite.") "We're all in a hell of a mess."
"I know," I said.
He puffed furiously at his pipe.
"You know, if I'm not careful I shall go a bit queer in the head. Get so angry, you know," he added simply.
"Angry with whom?" I asked.
"With myself mostly for bein' such a bloody fool. But not only myself—with Civilisation, Durward, old cock!—and also with that swine Semyonov."
"Ah, I thought you'd come to him," I said.
"Now the points are these," he went on, counting on his thick stubbly fingers. "First, I love Vera—and when I say love I mean love. Never been in love before, you know—honest Injun, never.... Never had affairs with tobacconists' daughters at Cambridge—never had an affair with a woman in my life—no, never. Used to wonder what was the matter with me, why I wasn't like other chaps. Now I know. I was waitin' for Vera. Quite simple. I shall never love any one again—never. I'm not a kid, you know, like young Bohun—I love Vera once and for all, and that's that..."
"Yes," I said. "And the next point?"
"The next point is that Vera loves me. No need to go into that—but she does."
"Yes, she does," I said.
"Third point, she's married, and although she don't love her man she's sorry for him. Fourth point, he loves her. Fifth point, there's a damned swine hangin' round called Alexei Petrovitch Semyonov.... Well, then, there you have it."
He considered, scratching his head. I waited. Then he went on:
"Now it would be simpler if she didn't want to be kind to Nicholas, if Nicholas didn't love her, if—a thousand things were different. But they must be as they are, I suppose. I've just been with her. She's nearly out of her mind with worry."
He paused, puffing furiously at his pipe. Then he went on:
"She's worrying about me, about Nina, and about Nicholas. And especially about Nicholas. There's something wrong with him. He knows about my kissing her in the flat. Well, that's all right. I meant him to know. Everything's just got to be above-board. But Semyonov knows too, and that devil's been raggin' him about it, and Nicholas is just like a bloomin' kid. That's got to stop. I'll wring that feller's neck. But even that wouldn't help matters much. Vera says Nicholas is not to be hurt whatever happens. 'Never mind us,' she says, 'we're strong and can stand it.' But he can't. He's weak. And she says he's just goin' off his dot. And it's got to be stopped—it's just got to be stopped. There's only one way to stop it."
He stayed: suddenly he put his heavy hand on my knee.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I've got to clear out. That's what I mean. Right away out. Back to England."
I didn't speak.
"That's it," he went on, but now as though he were talking to himself. "That's what you've got to do, old son.... She says so, and she's right. Can't alter our love, you know. Nothing changes that. We've got to hold on... Ought to have cleared out before...."
Suddenly he turned. He almost flung himself upon me. He gripped my arms so that I would have cried out if the agony in his eyes hadn't held me.
"Here," he muttered, "let me alone for a moment. I must hold on. I'm pretty well beat. I'm just about done."
For what seemed hours we sat there. I believe it was, in reality, only a few minutes. He sat facing me, his eyes staring at me but not seeing me, his body close against me, and I could see the sweat glistening on his chest through the open pyjamas. He was rigid as though he had been struck into stone.
He suddenly relaxed.
"That's right," he said; "thanks, old man. I'm better now. It's a bit late, I expect, but stay on a while."
He got into bed. I sat beside him, gripped his hand, and ten minutes later he was asleep.
The next day, Tuesday, was stormy with wind and rain. It was strange to see from my window the whirlpool of ice-encumbered waters. The rain fell in slanting, hissing sheets upon the ice, and the ice, in lumps and sheets and blocks, tossed and heaved and spun. At times it was as though all the ice was driven by some strong movement in one direction, then it was like the whole pavement of the world slipping down the side of the firmament into space. Suddenly it would be checked and, with a kind of quiver, station itself and hang chattering and clutching until the sweep would begin in the opposite direction!
I could see only dimly through the mist, but it was not difficult to imagine that, in very truth, the days of the flood had returned. Nothing could be seen but the tossing, heaving welter of waters with the ice, grim and grey through the shadows, like "ships and monsters, sea-serpents and mermaids," to quote Galleon's Spanish Nights.
Of course the water came in through my own roof, and it was on that very afternoon that I decided, once and for all, to leave this abode of mine. Romantic it might be; I felt it was time for a little comfortable realism. My old woman brought me the usual cutlets, macaroni, and tea for lunch; then I wrote to a friend in England; and finally, about four o'clock, after one more look at the hissing waters, drew my curtains, lit my candles, and sat down near my stove to finish that favourite of mine, already mentioned in these pages, De la Mare's The Return.
I read on with absorbed attention. I did not hear the dripping on the roof, nor the patter-patter of the drops from the ceiling, nor the beating of the storm against the glass. My candles blew in the draught, and shadows crossed and recrossed the page. Do you remember the book's closing words?—
"Once, like Lawford in the darkness at Widderstone, he glanced up sharply across the lamplight at his phantasmagorical shadowy companion, heard the steady surge of multitudinous rain-drops, like the roar of Time's winged chariot hurrying near, then he too, with spectacles awry, bobbed on in his chair, a weary old sentinel on the outskirts of his friend's denuded battlefield."
"Shadowy companion," "multitudinous rain-drops," "a weary old sentinel," "his friend's denuded battlefield"... the words echoed like little muffled bells in my brain, and it was, I suppose, to their chiming that I fell into dreamless sleep.
From this I was suddenly roused by the sharp noise of knocking, and starting up, my book clattering to the floor, I saw facing me, in the doorway, Semyonov. Twice before he had come to me just like this—out of the heart of a dreamless sleep. Once in the orchard near Buchatch, on a hot summer afternoon; once in this same room on a moonlit night. Some strange consciousness, rising, it seemed, deep out of my sleep, told me that this would be the last time that I would so receive him.
"May I come in?" he said.
"If you must, you must," I answered. "I am not physically strong enough to prevent you."
He laughed. He was dripping wet. He took off his hat and overcoat, sat down near the stove, bending forward, holding his cloak in his hands and watching the steam rise from it.
I moved away and stood watching. I was not going to give him any possible illusion as to my welcoming him. He turned round and looked at me.
"Truly, Ivan Andreievitch," he said, "you are a fine host. This is a miserable greeting."
"There can be no greetings between us ever again," I answered him. "You are a blackguard. I hope that this is our last meeting."
"But it is," he answered, looking at me with friendliness; "that is precisely why I've come. I've come to say good-bye."
"Good-bye?" I repeated with astonishment. This chimed in so strangely with my premonition. "I never was more delighted to hear it. I hope you're going a long distance from us all."
"That's as may be," he answered. "I can't tell you definitely."
"When are you going?" I asked.
"That I can't tell you either. But I have a premonition that it will be soon."
"Oh, a premonition," I said, disappointed. "Is nothing settled?"
"No, not definitely. It depends on others."
"Have you told Vera and Nicholas?"
"No—in fact, only last night Vera begged me to go away, and I told her that I would love to do anything to oblige her, but this time I was afraid that I couldn't help her. I would be compelled, alas, to stay on indefinitely."
"Look here, Semyonov," I said, "stop that eternal fooling. Tell me honestly—are you going or not?"
"Going away from where?" he asked, laughing.
"From the Markovitches, from all of us, from Petrograd?"
"Yes—I've told you already," he answered. "I've come to say good-bye."
"Then what did you mean by telling Vera—"
"Never you mind, Ivan Andreievitch. Don't worry your poor old head with things that are too complicated for you—a habit of yours, I'm afraid. Just believe me when I say that I've come to say good-bye. I have an intuition that we shall never talk together again. I may be wrong. But my intuitions are generally correct."
I noticed then that his face was haggard, his eyes dark, the light in them exhausted as though he had not slept.... I had never before seen him show positive physical distress. Let his soul be what it might, his body seemed always triumphant.
"Whether your intuition is right or no," I said, "this is the last time. I never intend to speak to you again if I can help it. The day that I hear that you have really left us, never to return, will be one of the happiest days of my life."
Semyonov gave me a strange look, humorous, ironical, and, upon my word, almost affectionate: "That's very sad what you say, Ivan Andreievitch—if you mean it. And I suppose you mean it, because you English always do mean what you say.... But it's sad because, truly, I have friendly feelings towards you, and you're almost the only man in the world of whom I could say that."
"You speak as though your friendship were an honour," I said hotly. "It's a degradation."
He smiled. "Now that's melodrama, straight out of your worst English plays. And how bad they can be!... But you hadn't always this vehement hatred. What's changed your mind?"
"I don't know that I have changed my mind," I answered. "I think I've always disliked you. But there at the Front and in the Forest you were brave and extraordinarily competent. You treated Trenchard abominably, of course—but he rather asked for it in some ways. Here you've been nothing but the meanest skunk and sneak. You've set out deliberately to poison the lives of some of the best-hearted and most helpless people on this earth.... You deserve hanging, if any murderer ever did!"
He looked at me so mildly and with such genuine interest that I was compelled to feel my indignation a whit melodramatic.
"If you are going," I said more calmly, "for Heaven's sake go! It can't be any pleasure to you, clever and talented as you are, to bait such harmless people as Vera and Nicholas. You've done harm enough. Leave them, and I forgive you everything."
"Ah, of course your forgiveness is of the first importance to me," he said, with ironic gravity. "But it's true enough. You're going to be bothered with me—I do seem a worry to you, don't I?—for only a few days more. And how's it going to end, do you think? Who's going to finish me off? Nicholas or Vera? Or perhaps our English Byron, Lawrence? Or even yourself? Have you your revolver with you? I shall offer no resistance, I promise you."
Suddenly he changed. He came closer to me. His weary, exhausted eyes gazed straight into mine: "Ivan Andreievitch, never mind about the rest—never mind whether you do or don't hate me, that matters to nobody. What I tell you is the truth. I have come to you, as I have always come to you, like the moth to the flame. Why am I always pursuing you? Is it for the charm and fascination of your society? Your wit? Your beauty? I won't flatter you—no, no, it's because you alone, of all these fools here, knew her. You knew her as no one else alive knew her. She liked you—God knows why! At least I do know why—it was because of her youth and innocence and simplicity, because she didn't know a wise man from a fool, and trusted all alike.... But you knew her, you knew her. You remember her and can talk of her. Ah, how I've hungered, hungered, to talk to you about her! Sometimes I've come all this way and then turned back at the door. How I've prayed that it might have been some other who knew her, some real man, not a sentimental, gloomy old woman like yourself, Ivan Andreievitch. And yet you have your points. You have in you the things that she saw—you are honest, you are brave.... You are like a good English clergyman. But she!... I should have had some one with wit, with humour, with a sense of life about her. All the things, all the little things—the way she walked, her clothes, her smile—when she was cross! Ah, she was divine when she was cross!... Ivan Andreievitch, be kind to me! Think for a moment less of your morals, less of your principles—and talk to me of her! Talk to me of her!"
He had drawn quite close to me; he looked like a madman—I have no doubt that, at that moment, he was one.
"I can't!... I won't!" I answered, drawing away. "She is the most sacred memory I have in my life. I hate to think of her with you. And that because you smirch everything you touch. I have no feeling of jealousy...."
"You? Jealousy!" he said, looking at me scornfully. "Why should you be jealous?"
"I loved her too," I said.
He looked at me. In spite of myself the colour flooded my face. He looked at me from head to foot—my plainness, my miserable physique, my lameness, my feeble frame—everything was comprehended in the scorn of that glance.
"No," I said, "you need not suppose that she ever realised. She did not. I would have died rather than have spoken of it. But I will not talk about her. I will not."
He drew away from me. His face was grave; the mockery had left it.
"Oh, you English, how strange you are!... In trusting, yes.... But the things you miss! I understand now many things. I give up my desire. You shan't smirch your precious memories.... And you, too, must understand that there has been all this time a link that has bound us.... Well, that link has snapped. I must go. Meanwhile, after I am gone, remember that there is more in life, Ivan Andreievitch, than you will ever understand. Who am I?... Rather ask, what am I? I am a Desire, a Purpose, a Pursuit—what you like. If another suffer for that I cannot help it, and if human nature is so weak, so stupid, it is right that it should suffer. But perhaps I am not myself at all, Ivan Andreievitch. Perhaps this is a ghost that you see.... What if the town has changed in the night and strange souls have slipped into our old bodies?
"Isn't there a stir about the town? Is it I that pursue Nicholas, or is it my ghost that pursues myself? Is it Nicholas that I pursue? Is not Nicholas dead, and is it not my hope of release that I follow?... Don't be so sure of your ground, Ivan Andreievitch. You know the proverb: 'There's a secret city in every man's heart. It is at that city's altars that the true prayers are offered.' There has been more than one Revolution in the last two months."
He came up to me:
"Do not think too badly of me, Ivan Andreievitch, afterwards. I'm a haunted man, you know."
He bent forward and kissed me on the lips. A moment later he was gone.
That Tuesday night poor young Bohun will remember to his grave—and beyond it, I expect.
He came in from his work about six in the evening and found Markovitch and Semyonov sitting in the dining-room. Everything was ordinary enough. Semyonov was in the armchair reading a newspaper; Markovitch was walking very quietly up and down the farther end of the room. He wore faded blue carpet slippers; he had taken to them lately. Everything was the same as it had always been. The storm that had raged all day had now died down, and a very pale evening sun struck little patches of colour on the big table with the fading table-cloth, on the old brown carpet, on the picture of the old gentleman with bushy eyebrows, on Semyonov's musical-box, on the old knick-knacks and the untidy shelf of books. (Bohun looked especially to see whether the musical-box were still there. It was there on a little side-table.) Bohun, tired with his long day's efforts to shove the glories of the British Empire down the reluctant throats of the indifferent Russians, dropped into the other armchair with a tattered copy of Turgenieff's House of Gentle-folks, and soon sank into a state of half-slumber.
He roused himself from this to hear Semyonov reading extracts from the newspaper. He caught, at first, only portions of sentences. I am writing this, of course, from Bohun's account of it, and I cannot therefore quote the actual words, but they were incidents of disorder at the Front.
"There!" Semyonov would say, pausing. "Now, Nicholas... What do you say to that? A nice state of things. The Colonel was murdered, of course, although our friend the Retch doesn't put it quite so bluntly. The Novaya Jezn of course highly approves. Here's another...." This went on for some ten minutes, and the only sound beside Semyonov's voice was Markovitch's padding steps. "Ah! here's another bit!... Now what about that, my fine upholder of the Russian Revolution? See what they've been doing near Riga! It says...."
"Can't you leave it alone, Alexei? Keep your paper to yourself!"
These words came in so strange a note, a tone so different from Markovitch's ordinary voice, that they were, to Bohun, like a warning blow on the shoulder.
"There's gratitude—when I'm trying to interest you! How childish, too, not to face the real situation! Do you think you're going to improve things by pretending that anarchy doesn't exist? So soon, too, after your beautiful Revolution! How long is it? Let me see... March, April... yes, just about six weeks.... Well, well!"
"Leave me alone, Alexei!... Leave me alone!"
Bohun had with that such a sense of a superhuman effort at control behind the words that the pain of it was almost intolerable. He wanted, there and then, to have left the room. It would have been better for him had he done so. But some force held him in his chair, and, as the scene developed, be felt as though his sudden departure would have laid too emphatic a stress on the discomfort of it.
He hoped that in a moment Vera or Uncle Ivan would come and the scene would end.
Semyonov, meanwhile, continued: "What were those words you used to me not so long ago? Something about free Russia, I think—Russia moving like one man to save the world—Russia with an unbroken front.... Too optimistic, weren't you?"
The padding feet stopped. In a whisper that seemed to Bohun to fill the room with echoing sound Markovitch said:
"You have tempted me for weeks now, Alexei.... I don't know why you hate me so, nor why you pursue me. Go back to your own place. If I am an unfortunate man, and by my own fault, that should be nothing to you who are more fortunate."
"Torment you! I?... My dear Nicholas, never! But you are so childish in your ideas—and are you unfortunate? I didn't know it. Is it about your inventions that you are speaking? Well, they were never very happy, were they?"
"You praised them to me!"
"Did I?... My foolish kindness of heart, I'm afraid. To tell the truth, I was thankful when you saw things as they were..."
"You took them away from me."
"I took them away? What nonsense! It was your own wish—Vera's wish too."
"Yes, you persuaded both Vera and Nina that they were no good. They believed in them before you came."
"You flatter me, Nicholas. I haven't such power over Vera's opinions, I'm afraid. If I tell her anything she believes at once the opposite. You must have seen that yourself."
"You took her belief away from me. You took her love away from me."
Semyonov laughed. That laugh seemed to rouse Markovitch to frenzy. He screamed out. "You have taken everything from me!... You will not leave me alone! You must be careful. You are in danger, I tell you."
Semyonov sprang up from his chair, and the two men, advancing towards one another, came into Bohun's vision.
Markovitch was like a madman, his hands raised, his eyes staring from his head, his body trembling. Semyonov was quiet, motionless, smiling, standing very close to the other.
"Well, what are you going to do?" he asked.
Markovitch stood for a moment, his hands raised, then his whole body seemed to collapse. He moved away, muttering something which Bohun could not hear. With shuffling feet, his head lowered, he went out of the room. Semyonov returned to his seat.
To Bohun, an innocent youth with very simple and amiable ideas about life, the whole thing seemed "beastly beyond words."
"I saw a man torture a dog once," he told me. "He didn't do much to it really. Tied it up to a tree and dug into it with a pen-knife. I went home and was sick.... Well, I felt sick this time, too."
Nevertheless his own "sickness" was not the principal affair. The point was the sense of danger that seemed now to tinge with its own faint stain every article in the room. Bohun's hatred of Semyonov was so strong that he felt as though he would never be able to speak to him again; but it was not really of Semyonov that he was thinking. His thoughts were all centred round Markovitch. You must remember that for a long time now he had considered himself Markovitch's protector. This sense of his protection had developed in him an affection for the man that he would not otherwise have felt. He did not, of course, know of any of Markovitch's deepest troubles. He could only guess at his relations with Vera, and he did not understand the passionate importance that he attached to his Russian idea. But he knew enough to be aware of his childishness, his simplicity, his naivete, and his essential goodness. "He's an awfully decent sort, really," he used to say in a kind of apologetic defence. The very fact of Semyonov's strength made his brutality seem now the more revolting. "Like hitting a fellow half your size"....
He saw that things in that flat were approaching a climax, and he knew enough now of Russian impetuosity to realise that climaxes in that country are, very often, no ordinary affairs. It was just as though there were an evil smell in the flat, he explained to me. "It seemed to hang over everything. Things looked the same and yet they weren't the same at all."
His main impression that "something would very soon happen if he didn't look out," drove everything else from his mind—but he didn't quite see what to do. Speak to Vera? To Nicholas? To Semyonov?... He didn't feel qualified to do any of these things.
He went to bed that night early, about ten o'clock. He couldn't sleep. His door was not quite closed and he could hear first Vera, then Uncle Ivan, lastly Markovitch go to bed. He lay awake then, with that exaggerated sense of hearing that one has in the middle of the night, when one is compelled, as it were, against one's will, to listen for sounds. He heard the dripping of the tap in the bathroom, the creaking of some door in the wind (the storm had risen again) and all the thousand and one little uncertainties, like the agitated beating of innumerable hearts that penetrate the folds and curtains of the night. As he lay there he thought of what he would do did Markovitch really go off his head. He had a revolver, he knew. He had seen it in his hand. And then what was Semyonov after? My explanation had seemed, at first, so fantastic and impossible that Bohun had dismissed it, but now, after the conversation that he had just overheard, it did not seem impossible at all—especially in the middle of the night. His mind travelled back to his own first arrival in Petrograd, that first sleep at the "France" with the dripping water and the crawling rats, the plunge into the Kazan Cathedral, and everything that followed.
He did not see, of course, his own progress since that day, or the many things that Russia had already done for him, but he did feel that such situations as the one he was now sharing were, to-day, much more in the natural order of things than they would have been four months before....
He dozed off and then was awakened, sharply, abruptly, by the sound of Markovitch's padded feet. There could be no mistaking them; very softly they went past Bohun's door, down the passage towards the dining-room. He sat up in bed, and all the other sounds of the night seemed suddenly to be accentuated—the dripping of the tap, the blowing of the wind, and even the heavy breathing of old Sacha, who always slept in a sort of cupboard near the kitchen, with her legs hanging out into the passage. Suddenly no sound! The house was still, and, with that, the sense of danger and peril was redoubled, as though the house were holding its breath as it watched....
Bohun could endure it no longer; he got up, put on his dressing-gown and bedroom slippers, and went out. When he got as far as the dining-room door he saw that Markovitch was standing in the middle of the room with a lighted candle in his hand. The glimmer of the candle flung a circle, outside which all was dusk. Within the glimmer there was Markovitch, his hair rough and strangely like a wig, his face pale yellow, and wearing an old quilted bed-jacket of a purple green colour. He was in a night-dress, and his naked legs were like sticks of tallow.
He stood there, the candle shaking in his hand, as though he were uncertain as to what he would do next. He was saying something to himself, Bohun thought.
At any rate his lips were moving. Then he put his hand into the pocket of his bed-coat and took out a revolver. Bohun saw it gleam in the candle-light. He held it up close to his eyes as though he were short-sighted and seemed to sniff at it. Then, clumsily, Bohun said, he opened it, to see whether it were loaded, I suppose, and closed it again. After that, very softly indeed, he shuffled off towards the door of Semyonov's room, the room that had once been the sanctuary of his inventions.
All this time young Bohun was paralysed. He said that all his life now, in spite of his having done quite decently in France, he would doubt his capacity in a crisis because, during the whole of this affair, he never stirred. But that was because it was all exactly like a dream. "I was in the dream, you know, as well as the other fellows. You know those dreams when you're doing your very damnedest to wake up—when you struggle and sweat and know you'll die if something doesn't happen—well, it was like that, except that I didn't struggle and swear, but just stood there, like a painted picture, watching...."
Markovitch had nearly reached Semyonov's door (you remember that there was a little square window of glass in the upper part of it) when he did a funny thing. He stopped dead as though some one had rapped him on the shoulder. He stopped and looked round, then, very slowly, as though he were compelled, gazed with his nervous blinking eyes up at the portrait of the old gentleman with the bushy eyebrows. Bohun looked up too and saw (it was probably a trick of the faltering candle-light) that the old man was not looking at him at all, but steadfastly, and, of course, ironically at Markovitch. The two regarded one another for a while, then Markovitch, still moving with the greatest caution, slipped the revolver back into his pocket, got a chair, climbed on to it and lifted the picture down from its nail. He looked at it for a moment, staring into the cracked and roughened paint, then hung it deliberately back on its nail again, but with its face to the wall. As he did this his bare, skinny legs were trembling so on the chair that, at every moment, he threatened to topple over. He climbed down at last, put the chair back in its place, and then once more turned towards Semyonov's door.
When he reached it he stopped and again took out the revolver, opened it, looked into it, and closed it. Then he put his hand on the door-knob.
It was then that Bohun had, as one has in dreams, a sudden impulse to scream: "Look out! Look out! Look out!" although, Heaven knows, he had no desire to protect Semyonov from anything. But it was just then that the oddest conviction came over him, namely, an assurance that Semyonov was standing on the other side of the door, looking through the little window and waiting. He could not have told, any more than one can ever tell in dreams, how he was so certain of this. He could only see the little window as the dimmest and darkest square of shadow behind Markovitch's candle, but he was sure that this was so. He could even see Semyonov standing there, in his shirt, with his thick legs, his head a little raised, listening...
For what seemed an endless time Markovitch did not move. He also seemed to be listening. Was it possible that he heard Semyonov's breathing?... But, of course, I have never had any actual knowledge that Semyonov was there. That was simply Bohun's idea....
Then Markovitch began very slowly, bending a little, as though it were stiff and difficult, to turn the handle. I don't know what then Bohun would have done. He must, I think, have moved, shouted, screamed, done something or other. There was another interruption. He heard a quick, soft step behind him. He moved into the shadow.
It was Vera, in her night-dress, her hair down her back.
She came forward into the room and whispered very quietly: "Nicholas!"
He turned at once. He did not seem to be startled or surprised; he had dropped the revolver at once back into his pocket. He came up to her, she bent down and kissed him, then put her arm round him and led him away.
When they had gone Bohun also went back to bed. The house was very still and peaceful. Suddenly he remembered the picture. It would never do, he thought, if in the morning it were found by Sacha or Uncle Ivan with its face to the wall. After hesitating he lit his own candle, got out of bed again, and went down the passage.
"The funny thing was," he said, "that I really expected to find it just as it always was, face outwards.... as though the whole thing really had been a dream. But it wasn't. It had its face to the wall all right. I got a chair, turned it round, and went back to bed again."
That night, whether as a result of my interview with Semyonov I do not know, my old enemy leapt upon me once again. I had, during the next three days, one of the worst bouts of pain that it has ever been my fortune to experience. For twenty-four hours I thought it more than any man could bear, and I hid my head and prayed for death; during the next twenty-four I slowly rose, with a dim far-away sense of deliverance; on the third day I could hear, in the veiled distance, the growls of my defeated foe....
Through it all, behind the wall of pain, my thoughts knocked and thudded, urging me to do something. It was not until the Friday or the Saturday that I could think consecutively. My first thought was driven in on me by the old curmudgeon of a doctor, as his deliberate opinion that it was simply insanity to stay on in those damp rooms when I suffered from my complaint, that I was only asking for what I got, and that he, on his part, had no sympathy for me. I told him that I entirely agreed with him, that I had determined several weeks ago to leave these rooms, and that I thought that I had found some others in a different, more populated part of the town. He grunted his approval, and, forbidding me to go out for at least a week, left me. At least a week!... No, I must be out long before that. Now that the pain had left me, weak though I was, I was wildly impatient to return to the Markovitches. Through all these last days' torments I had been conscious of Semyonov, seen his hair and his mouth and his beard and his square solidity and his tired, exhausted eyes, and strangely, at the end of it all, felt the touch of his lips on mine. Oddly, I did not hate Semyonov; I saw quite clearly that I had never hated him—something too impersonal about him, some sense, too, of an outside power driving him. No, I did not hate him, but God! how I feared him—feared him not for my own sake, but for the sake of those who had—was this too arrogant?—been given as it seemed to me,—into my charge.
I remembered that Monday was the 30th of April, and that, on that evening, there was to be a big Allied meeting at the Bourse, at which our Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, the Belgian Consul, and others, were to speak. I had promised to take Vera to this. Tuesday the 1st of May was to see a great demonstration by all the workmen's and soldiers' committees. It was to correspond with the Labour demonstrations arranged to take place on that day all over Europe, and the Russian date had been altered to the new style in order to provide for this. Many people considered that the day would be the cause of much rioting, of definite hostility to the Provisional Government, of anti-foreign demonstrations, and so on; others, idealistic Russians, believed that all the soldiers, the world over, would on that day throw down their arms and proclaim a universal peace....
I for my part believed that it would mark the ending of the first phase of the Revolution and the beginning of the second, and that for Russia at any rate it would mean the changing from a war of nations into a war of class—in other words, that it would mean the rising up of the Russian peasant as a definite positive factor in the world's affairs.
But all that political business was only remotely, at that moment, my concern. What I wanted to know was what was happening to Nicholas, to Vera, to Lawrence, and the others. Even whilst I was restlessly wondering what I could do to put myself into touch with them, my old woman entered with a letter which she said had been brought by hand.
The letter was from Markovitch.
I give this odd document here exactly as I received it. I do not attempt to emphasise or explain or comment in any way. I would only add that no Russian is so mad as he seems to any Englishman, and no Englishman so foolish as he seems to any Russian.