I must have received this letter, I think, late on Sunday afternoon, because I was, I remember, up and dressed, and walking about my room. It was written on flimsy grey paper in pencil, which made it difficult to read. There were sentences unfinished, words misspelt, and the whole of it in the worst of Russian handwritings. Certain passages, I am, even now, quite unable to interpret:
It ran as follows:
Dear Ivan Andreievitch—Vera tells me that you are ill again. She has been round to enquire, I think. I did not come because I knew that if I did I should only talk about my own troubles, the same as you've always listened to, and what kind of food is that for a sick man? All the same, that is just what I am doing now, but reading a letter is not like talking to a man; you can always stop and tear the paper when perhaps it would not be polite to ask a man to go. But I hope, nevertheless, that you won't do that with this—not because of any desire I may have to interest you in myself, but because of something of much more importance than either of us, something I want you to believe—something you must believe.... Don't think me mad. I am quite sane sitting here in my room writing.... Every one is asleep. Every one but not everything. I've been queer, now and again, lately... off and on. Do you know how it comes? When the inside of the world goes further and further within dragging you after it, until at last you are in the bowels of darkness choking. I've known such moods all my life. Haven't you known them? Lately, of course, I've been drinking again. I tell you, but I wouldn't own it to most people. But they all know, I suppose.... Alexei made me start again, but it's foolish to put everything on to him. If I weren't a weak man he wouldn't be able to do anything with me, would he? Do you believe in God, and don't you think that He intended the weak to have some compensation somewhere, because it isn't their fault that they're weak, is it! They can struggle and struggle, but it's like being in a net. Well, one must just make a hole in the net large enough to get out of, that's all. And now, ever since two days ago, when I resolved to make that hole, I've been quite calm. I'm as calm as anything now writing to you. Two days ago Vera told me that he was going back to England.... Oh, she was so good to me that day, Ivan Andreievitch. We sat together all alone in the flat, and she had her hand in mine, just as we used to do in the old days when I pretended to myself that she loved me. Now I know that she did not, but the warmer and more marvellous was her kindness to me, her goodness, and nobility. Do you not think, Ivan Andreievitch, that if you go deep enough in every human heart, there is this kernel of goodness, this fidelity to some ideal. Do you know we have a proverb: "In each man's heart there is a secret town at whose altars the true prayers are offered!" Even perhaps with Alexei it is so, only there you must go very deep, and there is no time.
But I must tell you about Vera. She told me so kindly that he was going to England, and that now her whole life would be led in Nina and myself. I held her hand very close in mine and asked her, Was it really true that she loved him. And she said, yes she did, but that that she could not help. She said that she had spoken with him, and that they had decided that it would be best for him to go away. Then she begged my forgiveness for many things, because she had been harsh or cross,—I don't know what things.... Oh, Ivan Andreievitch, she to beg forgiveness of me!
But I held her hand closer and closer, because I knew that it was the last time that I would be able so truly to hold it. How could she not see that now everything was over—everything—quite everything! Am I one to hold her, to chain her down, to keep her when she has already escaped? Is that the way to prove my fidelity to her?
Of course I did not speak to her of this, but for the first time in all our years together, I felt older than her and wiser. But of course Alexei saw it. How he heard I do not know, but that same day he came to me and he seemed to be very kind.
I don't know what he said, but he explained that Vera would always be unhappy now, always, longing and waiting and hoping.... "Keep him here in Russia!" he whispered to me. "She will get tired of him then—they will tire of one another; but if you send him away...." Oh! he is a devil, Ivan Andreievitch, and why has he persecuted me so? What have I ever done to him? Nothing... but for weeks now he has pursued me and destroyed my inventions, and flung Russia in my face and made Nina, dear Nina, laugh at me, and now, when the other things are finished, he shows me that Vera will be unhappy so long as I am alive. What have I ever done, Ivan Andreievitch? I am so unimportant, why has he taken such a trouble? To-day I gave him his last chance... or last night... it is four in the morning now, and the bells are already ringing for the early Mass. I said to him:
"Will you go away? Leave us all for ever? Will you promise never to return?"
He said in that dreadful quiet sure way of his: "No, I will never go away until you make me."
Vera hates him. I cannot leave her alone with him, can I? I (here there are three lines of illegible writing)... so I will think again and again of that last time when we sat together and all the good things that she said. What greatness of soul, what goodness, what splendour! And perhaps after all I am a fortunate man to be allowed to be faithful to so fine a grandeur! Many men have poor ambitions, and God bestows His gifts with strange blindness, I often think. But I am tired, and you too will be tired. Perhaps you have not got so far. I must thank you for your friendship to me. I am very grateful for it. And you, if afterwards you ever think of me, think that I always wished to... no, why should you think of me at all? But think of Russia! That is why I write this. You love Russia, and I believe that you will continue to love Russia whatever she will do. Never forget that it is because she cares so passionately for the good of the world that she makes so many mistakes. She sees farther than other countries, and she cares more. But she is also more ignorant. She has never been allowed to learn anything or to try to do anything for herself.
You are all too impatient, too strongly aware of your own conditions, too ignorant of hers! Of course there are wicked men here and many idle men, but every country has such. You must not judge her by that nor by all the talk you hear. We talk like blind men on a dark road.... Do you believe that there are no patriots here? Ah! how bitterly I have been disappointed during these last weeks! It has broken my heart... but do not let your heart be broken. You can wait. You are young. Believe in Russian patriotism, believe in Russian future, believe in Russian soul.... Try to be patient and understand that she is blindfolded, ignorant, stumbling... but the glory will come; I can see it shining far away!... It is not for me, but for you—and for Vera... for Vera... Vera....
Here the letter ended; only scrawled very roughly across the paper the letters N.M....
As soon as I had finished reading the letter I went to the telephone and rang up the Markovitches' flat. Bohun spoke to me. I asked him whether Nicholas was there, he said, "Yes, fast asleep in the arm-chair," Was Semyonov there? "No, he was dining out that night." I asked him to remind Vera that I was expecting to take her to the meeting next day, and rang off. There was nothing more to be done just then. Two minutes later there was a knock on my door and Vera came in.
"Why!" I cried. "I've just been ringing up to tell you that, of course, I was coming on Monday."
"That is partly what I wanted to know," she said, smiling. "And also I thought that you'd fancied we'd all deserted you."
"No," I answered. "I don't expect you round here every time I'm ill. That would be absurd. You'll be glad to know at any rate that I've decided to give up these ridiculous rooms. I deserve all the illness I get so long as I'm here."
"Yes, that's good," she answered. "How you could have stayed so long—" She dropped into a chair, closed her eyes and lay back. "Oh, Ivan Andreievitch, but I'm tired!"
She looked, lying there, white-faced, her eyelids like grey shadows, utterly exhausted. I waited in silence. After a time she opened her eyes and said, suddenly:
"We all come and talk to you, don't we? I, Nina, Nicholas, Sherry (she meant Lawrence), even Uncle Alexei. I wonder why we do, because we never take your advice, you know.... Perhaps it's because you seem right outside everything."
I coloured a little at that.
"Did I hurt you?... I'm sorry. No, I don't know that I am. I don't mind now whether I hurt any one. You know that he's going back to England?"
I nodded my head.
"He told you himself?"
"Yes," I said.
She lay back in her chair and was silent for a long time.
"You think I'm a noble woman, don't you. Oh yes, you do! I can see you just thirsting for my nobility. It's what Uncle Alexei always says about you, that you've learnt from Dostoieffsky how to be noble, and it's become a habit with you."
"If you're going to believe—" I began angrily.
"Oh, I hate him! I listen to nothing that he says. All the same, Durdles, this passion for nobility on your part is very irritating. I can see you now making up the most magnificent picture of my nobility. I'm sure if you were ever to write a book about us all, you'd write of me something like this: 'Vera Michailovna had won her victory. She had achieved her destiny.... Having surrendered her lover she was as fine as a Greek statue!' Something like that.... Oh, I can see you at it!"
"You don't understand—" I began.
"Oh, but I do!" she answered. "I've watched your attitude to me from the first. You wanted to make poor Nina noble, and then Nicholas, and then, because they wouldn't either of them do, you had to fall back upon me: memories of that marvellous woman at the Front, Marie some one or other, have stirred up your romantic soul until it's all whipped cream and jam—mulberry jam, you know, so as to have the proper dark colour."
"Why all this attack on me?" I asked. "What have I done?"
"You've done nothing," she cried. "We all love you, Durdles, because you're such a baby, because you dream such dreams, see nothing as it is.... And perhaps after all you're right—your vision is as good as another. But this time you've made me restless. You're never to see me as a noble woman again, Ivan Andreievitch. See me as I am, just for five minutes! I haven't a drop of noble feeling in my soul!"
"You've just given him up," I said. "You've sent him back to England, although you adore him, because your duty's with your husband. You're breaking your heart—"
"Yes, I am breaking my heart," she said quietly. "I'm a dead woman without him. And it's my weakness, my cowardice, that is sending him away. What would a French woman or an English woman have done? Given up the world for their lover. Given up a thousand Nicholases, sacrificed a hundred Ninas—that's real life. That's real, I tell you. What feeling is there in my soul that counts for a moment beside my feeling for Sherry? I say and I feel and I know that I would die for him, die with him, happily, gladly. Those are no empty words.
"I who have never been in love before, I am devoured by it now until there is nothing left of me—nothing.... And yet I remain. It is our weakness, our national idleness. I haven't the strength to leave Nicholas. I am soft, sentimental, about his unhappiness. Pah! how I despise myself.... I am capable of living on here for years with husband and lover, going from one to another, weeping for both of them. Already I am pleading with Sherry that he should remain here. We will see what will happen. We will see what will happen! Ah, my contempt for myself! Without bones, without energy, without character.
"But this is life, Ivan Andreievitch! I stay here, I send him away because I cannot bear to see Nicholas suffer. And I do not care for Nicholas. Do you understand that? I never loved him, and now I have a contempt for him—in spite of myself. Uncle Alexei has done that. Oh yes! He has made a fool of Nicholas for months, and although I have hated him for doing that, I have seen, also, what a fool Nicholas is! But he is a hero, too. Make him as noble as you like, Ivan Andreievitch. You cannot colour it too high. He is the real thing and I am the sham.... But oh! I do not want to live with him any more, I am tired of him, his experiments, his lamentations, his weakness, his lack of humour—tired of him, sick of him. And yet I cannot leave him, because I am soft, soft without bones, like my country, Ivan Andreievitch.... My lover is strong. Nothing can change his will. He will go, will leave me, until he knows that I am free. Then he will never leave me again.
"Perhaps I will get tired of his strength one day—it may be—just as now I am tired of Nicholas's weakness. Everything has its end.
"But no! he has humour, and he sees life as it is. I shall be able always to tell him the truth. With Nicholas it is always lies...."
She suddenly sprang up and stood before me.
"Now, do you think me noble?" she cried.
"Yes," I answered.
"Ah! you are incorrigible! You have drunk Dostoieffsky until you can see nothing but God and the moujik! But I am alive, Ivan Andreievitch, not a heroine in a book! Alive, alive, alive! Not one of your Lisas or Annas or Natashas. I'm alive enough to shoot Uncle Alexei and poison Nicholas—but I'm soft too, soft so that I cannot bear to see a rabbit killed... and yet I love Sherry so that I am blind for him and deaf for him and dead for him—when he is not there. My love—the only one of my life—the first and the last—"
She flung out her arms:
"Life! Now! Before it is too late! I want it, I want him, I want happiness!"
She stood thus for a moment, staring out to the sea. Then her arms dropped, she laughed, fastening her cloak—
"There's your nobility, Ivan Andreievitch—theatrical, all of it. I know what I am, and I know what I shall do. Nicholas will live to eighty; I also. I shall hate him, but I shall he in an agony when he cuts his finger. I shall never see Sherry again. Later, he will marry a fresh English girl like an apple.... I, because I am weak, soft putty—I have made it so."
She turned away from me, staring desperately at the wall. When she looked back to me her face was grey.
She smiled. "What a baby you are!... But take care of yourself. Don't come on Monday if it's bad weather. Good-bye."
After a bad, sleepless night, and a morning during which I dozed in a nightmareish kind of way, I got up early in the afternoon, had some tea, and about six o'clock started out.
It was a lovely evening; the spring light was in the air, the tufted trees beside the canal were pink against the pale sky, and thin layers of ice, like fragments of jade, broke the soft blue of the water. How pleasant to feel the cobbles firm beneath one's feet, to know that the snow was gone for many months, and that light now would flood the streets and squares! Nevertheless, my foreboding was not raised, and the veils of colour hung from house to house and from street to street could not change the realities of the scene.
I climbed the stairs to the flat and found Vera waiting for me. She was with Uncle Ivan, who, I found to my disappointment, was coming with us.
We started off.
"We can walk across to the Bourse," she said. "It's such a lovely evening, and we're a little early."
We talked of nothing but the most ordinary things; Uncle Ivan's company prevented anything else. To say that I cursed him is to put it very mildly. He had been, I believe, oblivious of all the scenes that had occurred during the last weeks. If the Last Judgement occurred under his very nose, and he had had a cosy meal in front of him, he would have noticed nothing. The Revolution had had no effect on him at all; it did not seem strange to him that Semyonov should come to live with them; he had indeed fancied that Nicholas had not "been very well" lately, but then Nicholas had always been an odd and cantankerous fellow, and he, as he told me, never paid too much attention to his moods. His one anxiety was lest Sacha should be hindered from her usual shopping on the morrow, it being May Day, when there would be processions and other tiresome things. He hoped that there was enough food in the house.
"There will be cold cutlets and cheese," Vera said.
He told me that he really did not know why he was going to this meeting. He took no interest in politics, and he hated speeches, but he would like to see our Ambassador. He had heard that he was always excellently dressed....
Vera said very little. Her troubles that evening must have been accumulating upon her with terrible force—I did not know, at that time, about her night-scene with Nicholas. She was very quiet, and just as we entered the building she whispered to me:
"Once over to-morrow—"
I did not catch the rest. People pressed behind us, and for a moment we were separated; we were not alone again. I have wondered since what she meant by that, whether she had a foreboding or some more definite warning, or whether she simply referred to the danger of riots and general lawlessness. I shall never know now.
I had expected a crowded meeting, but I was not prepared for the multitude that I found. We entered by a side-door, and then passed up a narrow passage, which led us to the reserved seats at the side of the platform. I had secured these some days before. In the dark passage one could realise nothing; important gentlemen in frock-coats, officers, and one or two soldiers, were hurrying to and fro, with an air of having a great deal to do, and not knowing at all how to do it. Beyond the darkness there was a steady hum, like the distant whirr of a great machine. There was a very faint smell in the air of boots and human flesh. A stout gentleman with a rosette in his buttonhole showed us to our seats. Vera sat between Uncle Ivan and myself. When I looked about me I was amazed. The huge hall was packed so tightly with human beings that one could see nothing but wave on wave of faces, or, rather, the same face, repeated again and again and again, the face of a baby, of a child, of a credulous, cynical dreamer, a face the kindest, the naivest, the cruellest, the most friendly, the most human, the most savage, the most Eastern, and the most Western in the world.
That vast presentation of that reiterated visage seemed suddenly to explain everything to me. I felt at once the stupidity of any appeal, and the instant necessity for every kind of appeal. I felt the negation, the sudden slipping into insignificant unimportance of the whole of the Western world—and, at the same time, the dismissal of the East. "No longer my masters" a voice seemed to cry from the very heart of that multitude. "No longer will we halt at your command, no longer will your words be wisdom to us, no longer shall we smile with pleasure at your stories, and cringe with fear at your displeasure; you may hate our defection, you may lament our disloyalty, you may bribe us and smile upon us, you may preach to us and bewail our sins. We are no longer yours—WE ARE OUR OWN—Salute a new world, for it is nothing less that you see before you!..."
And yet never were there forces more unconscious of their destiny—utterly unselfconscious as animals, babies, the flowers of the field. Still there to be driven, perhaps to be persuaded, to be whipped, to be cajoled, to be blinded, to be tricked and deceived, drugged and deafened—but not for long! The end of that old world had come—the new world was at hand—"Life begins to-morrow!"
The dignitaries came upon the platform, and, beyond them all, in distinction, nobility, wisdom was our own Ambassador. This is no place for a record of the discretion and tact and forbearance that he had shown during those last two years. To him had fallen perhaps the most difficult work of all in the war. It might seem that on broad grounds the Allies had failed with Russia, but the end was not yet, and in years to come, when England reaps unexpected fruit from her Russian alliance, let her remember to whom she owed it. No one could see him there that night without realising that there stood before Russia, as England's representative, not only a great courtier and statesman, but a great gentleman, who had bonds of courage and endurance that linked him to the meanest soldier there.
I have emphasised this because he gave the note to the whole meeting. Again and again one's eyes came back to him and always that high brow, that unflinching carriage of the head, the nobility and breeding of every movement gave one reassurance and courage. One's own troubles seemed small beside that example, and the tangled morality of that vexed time seemed to be tested by a simpler and higher standard.
It was altogether a strange affair. At first it lacked interest, some member of the Italian Embassy spoke, I think, and then some one from Serbia. The audience was apathetic. All those bodies, so tightly wedged together that arms and legs were held in an iron vice, stayed motionless, and once and again there would be a short burst of applause or a sibilant whisper, but it would be something mechanical and uninspired. I could see one soldier, in the front row behind the barrier, a stout fellow with a face of supreme good humour, down whose forehead the sweat began to trickle; he was patient for a while, then he tried to raise his hand. He could not move without sending a ripple down the whole front line. Heads were turned indignantly in his direction. He submitted; then the sweat trickled into his eyes. He made a superhuman effort and half raised his arm; the crowd pushed again and his arm fell. His face wore an expression of ludicrous despair....
The hall got hotter and hotter. Soldiers seemed to be still pressing in at the back. The Italian gentleman screamed and waved his arms, but the faces turned up to his were blank and amiably expressionless.
"It is indeed terribly hot," said Uncle Ivan.
Then came a sailor from the Black Sea Fleet who had made himself famous during these weeks by his impassioned oratory. He was a thin dark-eyed fellow, and he obviously knew his business. He threw himself at once into the thick of it all, paying no attention to the stout frock-coated gentlemen who sat on the platform, dealing out no compliments, whether to the audience or the speakers, wasting no time at all. He told them all that they had debts to pay, that their honour was at stake, and that Europe was watching them. I don't know that that Face that stared at him cared very greatly for Europe, but it is certain that a breath of emotion passed across it, that there was a stir, a movement, a response....
He sat down, there was a roar of applause; he regarded them contemptuously. At that moment I caught sight of Boris Grogoff. I had been on the watch for him. I had thought it very likely that he would be there. Well, there he was, at the back of the crowd, listening with a contemptuous sneer on his face, and a long golden curl poking out from under his cap.
And then something else occurred—something really strange. I was conscious, as one sometimes is in a crowd, that I was being stared at by some one deliberately. I looked about me, and then, led by the attraction of the other's gaze, I saw quite close to me, on the edge of the crowd nearest to the platform, the Rat.
He was dressed rather jauntily in a dark suit with his cup set on one side, and his hair shining and curled. His face glittered with soap, and he was smiling in his usual friendly way. He gazed at me quite steadily. My lips moved very slightly in recognition. He smiled and, I fancy, winked.
Then, as though he had actually spoken to me, I seemed to hear him say:
"Well, good-bye.... I'm never coming to you again. Good-bye, good-bye."
It was as definite a farewell as you can have from a man, more definite than you will have from most, as though, further, he said: "I'm gone for good and all. I have other company and more profitable plunder. On the back of our glorious Revolution I rise from crime to crime.... Good-bye."
I was, in sober truth, never to speak to him again. I cannot but regret that on the last occasion when I should have a real opportunity of looking him full in the face, he was to offer me a countenance of friendly good-humour and amiable rascality.
I shall have, until I die, a feeling of tenderness....
I was recalled from my observation of Grogoff and the Rat by the sensation that the waters of emotion were rising higher around me. I raised my eyes and saw that the Belgian Consul was addressing the meeting. He was a stout little man, with eye-glasses and a face of no importance, but it was quite obvious at once that he was most terribly in earnest. Because he did not know the Russian language he was under the unhappy necessity of having a translator, a thin and amiable Russian, who suffered from short sight and a nervous stammer.
He could not therefore have spoken under heavier disadvantages, and my heart ached for him. It need not have done so. He started in a low voice, and they shouted to him to speak up. At the end of his first paragraph the amiable Russian began his translation, sticking his nose into the paper, losing the place and stuttering over his sentences. There was a restless movement in the hall, and the poor Belgian Consul seemed lost. He was made, however, of no mean stuff. Before the Russian had finished his translation the little man had begun again. This time he had stepped forward, waving his glasses and his head and his hand, bending forward and backward, his voice rising and rising. At the end of his next paragraph he paused and, because the Russian was slow and stammering once again, went forward on ids own account. Soon he forgot himself, his audience, his translator, everything except his own dear Belgium. His voice rose and rose; he pleaded with a marvellous rhythm of eloquence her history, her fate, her shameful devastation. He appealed on behalf of her murdered children, her ravished women, her slaughtered men.
He appealed on behalf of her Arts, her Cathedrals, and libraries ruined, her towns plundered. He told a story, very quietly, of an old grandfather and grandmother murdered and their daughter ravished before the eyes of her tiny children. Here he himself began to shed tears. He tried to brush them back. He paused and wiped his eyes.... Finally, breaking down altogether, he turned away and hid his face....
I do not suppose that there were more than a dozen persons in that hall who understood anything of the language in which he spoke. Certainly it was the merest gibberish to that whole army of listening men. Nevertheless, with every word that he uttered the emotion grew tenser. Cries—little sharp cries like the bark of a puppy—broke out here and there. "Verrno! Verrno! Verrno! (True! True! True!)" Movements, like the swift finger of the wind on the sea, hovered, wavered, and vanished....
He turned back to them, his voice broken with sobs, and he could only cry the one word "Belgia... Belgia... Belgia"... To that they responded. They began to shout, to cry aloud. The screams of "Verrno... Verrno" rose until it seemed that the roof would rise with them. The air was filled with shouts, "Bravo for the Allies." "Soyousniki! Soyousniki!" Men raised their caps and waved them, smiled upon one another as though they had suddenly heard wonderful news, shouted and shouted and shouted... and in the midst of it all the little rotund Belgian Consul stood bowing and wiping his eyes.
How pleased we all were! I whispered to Vera: "You see! They do care! Their hearts are touched. We can do anything with them now!"
Even Uncle Ivan was moved, and murmured to himself "Poor Belgium! Poor Belgium!"
How delighted, too, were the gentlemen on the platform. Smiling, they whispered to one another, and I saw several shake hands. A great moment. The little Consul bowed finally and sat down.
Never shall I forget the applause that followed. Like one man the thousands shouted, tears raining down their cheeks, shaking hands, even embracing! A vast movement, as though the wind had caught them and driven them forward, rose, lifted them, so that they swayed like bending corn towards the platform, for an instant we were all caught up together. There was one great cry: "Belgium!"
The sound rose, fell, sunk into a muttering whisper, died to give way to the breathless attention that awaited the next speaker.
I whispered to Vera: "I shall never forget that. I'm going to leave on that. It's good enough for me."
"Yes," she said, "we'll go."
"What a pity," whispered Uncle Ivan, "that they didn't understand what they were shouting about."
We slipped out behind the platform; turned down the dark long passage, hearing the new speaker's voice like a bell ringing beyond thick walls, and found our way into the open.
The evening was wonderfully fresh and clear. The Neva lay before us like a blue scarf, and the air faded into colourless beauty above the dark purple of the towers and domes. Vera caught my arm: "Look!" she whispered. "There's Boris!" I knew that she had on several occasions tried to force her way into his flat, that she had written every day to Nina (letters as it afterwards appeared, that Boris kept from her). I was afraid that she would do something violent.
"Wait!" I whispered, "perhaps Nina is here somewhere."
Grogoff was standing with another man on a small improvised platform just outside the gates of the Bourse.
As the soldiers came out (many of them were leaving now on the full tide of their recent emotions) Grogoff and his friend caught them, held them, and proceeded to instruct their minds.
I caught some of Grogoff's sentences: "Tovaristchi!" I heard him cry, "Comrades! Listen to me. Don't allow your feelings to carry you away! You have serious responsibilities now, and the thing for you to do is not to permit sentiment to make you foolish. Who brought you into this war? Your leaders? No, your old masters. They bled you and robbed you and slaughtered you to fill their own pockets. Who is ruling the world now? The people to whom the world truly belongs? No, the Capitalists, the money-grubbers, the old thieves like Nicholas who is now under lock and key... Capitalists... England, France... Thieves, Robbers....
"Belgium? What is Belgium to you? Did you swear to protect her people? Does England, who pretends such loving care for Belgium, does she look after Ireland? What about her persecution of South Africa? Belgium? Have you heard what she did in the Congo?..."
As the men came, talking, smiling, wiping their eyes, they were caught by Grogoff's voice. They stood there and listened. Soon they began to nod their heads. I heard them muttering that good old word "Verrno! Verrno!" again. The crowd grew. The men began to shout their approval. "Aye! it's true," I heard a solder near me mutter. "The English are thieves"; and another "Belgium?... After all I could not understand a word of what that little fat man said."
I heard no more, but I did not wonder now at the floods that were rising and rising, soon to engulf the whole of this great country. The end of this stage of our story was approaching for all of us.
We three had stood back, a little in the shadow, gazing about to see whether we could hail a cab.
As we waited I took my last look at Grogoff, his stout figure against the purple sky, the masts of the ships, the pale tumbling river, the black line of the farther shore. He stood, his arms waving, his mouth open, the personification of the disease from which Russia was suffering.
A cab arrived. I turned, said as it were, my farewell to Grogoff and everything for which he stood, and went.
We drove home almost in silence. Vera, staring in front of her, her face proud and reserved, building up a wall of her own thoughts.
"Come in for a moment, won't you?" she asked me, rather reluctantly I thought. But I accepted, climbed the stairs and followed Uncle Ivan's stubby and self-satisfied progress into the flat.
I heard Vera cry. I hurried after her and found, standing close together, in the middle of the room Henry Bohun and Nina!
With a little sob of joy and shame too, Nina was locked in Vera's arms.
This is obviously the place for the story, based, of course, on the very modest and slender account given me by the hero of it, of young Bohun's knightly adventure. In its inception the whole affair is still mysterious to me. Looking back from this distance of time I see that he was engaged on one knightly adventure after another—first Vera, then Markovitch, lastly Nina. The first I caught at the very beginning, the second I may be said to have inspired, but to the third I was completely blind. I was blind, I suppose, because, in the first place, Nina had, from the beginning, laughed at Bohun, and in the second, she had been entirely occupied with Lawrence.
Bohun's knight-errantry came upon her with, I am sure, as great a shock of surprise as it did upon me. And yet, when you come to think of it, it was the most natural thing. They were the only two of our party who had any claim to real youth, and they were still so young that they could believe in one ideal after another as quick as you can catch goldfish in a bowl of water. Bohun would, of course, have indignantly denied that he was out to help anybody, but that, nevertheless, was the direction in which his character led him; and once Russia had stripped from him that thin coat of self-satisfaction, he had nothing to do but mount his white charger and enter the tournament.
I've no idea when he first thought of Nina. He did not, of course, like her at the beginning, and I doubt whether she caused him any real concern, too, until her flight to Grogoff. That shocked him terribly. He confessed as much to me. She had always been so happy and easy about life. Nothing was serious to her. I remember once telling her she ought to take the war more deeply. I was a bit of a prig about it, I suppose. At any rate she thought me one.... And then to go off to a fellow like Grogoff!
He thought of it the more seriously when he saw the agony Vera was in. She did not ask him to help her, and so he did nothing; but he watched her efforts, the letters that she wrote, the eagerness with which she ravished the post, her fruitless visits to Grogoff's flat, her dejected misery over her failure. He began himself to form plans, not, I am convinced, from any especial affection for Nina, but simply because he had the soul of a knight, although, thank God, he didn't know it. I expect, too, that he was pretty dissatisfied with his knight-errantries. His impassioned devotion to Vera had led to nothing at all, his enthusiasm for Russia had led to a most unsatisfactory Revolution, and his fatherly protection of Markovitch had inspired apparently nothing more fruitful than distrust. I would like to emphasise that it was in no way from any desire to interfere in other people's affairs that young Bohun undertook these Quests. He had none of my own meddlesome quality. He had, I think, very little curiosity and no psychological self-satisfaction, but he had a kind heart, an adventurous spirit, and a hatred for the wrong and injustice which seemed just now to be creeping about the world; but all this, again thank God, was entirely subconscious. He knew nothing whatever about himself.
The thought of Nina worried him more and more. After he went to bed at night, he would hear her laugh and see her mocking smile and listen to her shrill imitations of his own absurdities. She had been the one happy person amongst them all, and now—! Well, he had seen enough of Boris Grogoff to know what sort of fellow he was. He came at last to the conclusion that, after a week or two she would be "sick to death of it," and longing to get away, but then "her pride would keep her at it. She'd got a devil of a lot of pride." He waited, then, for a while, and hoped, I suppose, that some of Vera's appeals would succeed. They did not; and then it struck him that Vera was the very last person to whom Nina would yield—just because she wanted to yield to her most, which was pretty subtle of him and very near the truth.
No one else seemed to be making any very active efforts, and at last he decided that he must do something himself. He discovered Grogoff's address, went to the Gagarinskaya and looked up at the flat, hung about a bit in the hope of seeing Nina. Then he did see her at Rozanov's party, and this, although he said nothing to me about it at the time, had a tremendous effect on him. He thought she looked "awful." All the joy had gone from her; she was years older, miserable, and defiant. He didn't speak to her, but from that night he made up his mind. Rozanov's party may be said to have been really the turning-point of his life. It was the night that he came out of his shell, grew up, faced the world—and it was the night that he discovered that he cared about Nina.
The vision of her poor little tired face, her "rather dirty white dress," her "grown-up" hair, her timidity and her loneliness, never left him for a moment. All the time that I thought he was occupied only with the problem of Markovitch and Semyonov, he was much more deeply occupied with Nina. So unnaturally secretive can young men be!
At last he decided on a plan. He chose the Monday, the day of the Bourse meeting, because he fancied that Grogoff would be present at that and he might therefore catch Nina alone, and because he and his fellow-propagandists would be expected also at the meeting and he would therefore be free of his office earlier on that afternoon. He had no idea at all how he would get into the flat, but he thought that fortune would be certain to favour him. He always thought that.
Well, fortune did. He left the office and arrived in the Gagarinskaya about half-past five in the evening. He walked about a little, and then saw a bearded tall fellow drive up in an Isvostchick. He recognised this man as Lenin, the soul of the anti-Government party, and a man who was afterwards to figure very prominently in Russia's politics. This fellow argued very hotly with the Isvostchick about his fare, then vanished through the double doors. Bohun followed him. Outside Grogoff's flat Lenin waited and rang the bell. Bohun waited on the floor below; then, when he heard the door open, he noiselessly slipped up the stairs, and, as Lenin entered, followed behind him whilst the old servant's back was turned helping Lenin with his coat. He found, as he had hoped, a crowd of cloaks and a Shuba hanging beside the door in the dark corner of the wall. He crept behind these. He heard Lenin say to the servant that, after all, he would not take off his coat, as he was leaving again immediately. Then directly afterwards Grogoff came into the hall.
That was the moment of crisis. Did Grogoff go to the rack for his coat and all was over; a very unpleasant scene must follow—a ludicrous expulsion, a fling or two at the amiable habits of thieving and deceit on the part of the British nation, and any hope of seeing Nina ruined perhaps for ever. Worst of all, the ignominy of it! No young man likes to be discovered hidden behind a coat-rack, however honest his original intentions!
His heart beat to suffocation as he peeped between the coats.... Grogoff was already wearing his own overcoat. It was, thank God, too warm an evening for a Shuba. The men shook hands, and Grogoff saying something rather deferentially about the meeting, Lenin, in short, brusque tones, put him immediately in his place. Then they went out together, the door closed behind them, and the flat was as silent as an aquarium. He waited for a while, and then, hearing nothing, crept into the hall. Perhaps Nina was out. If the old servant saw him she would think him a burglar and would certainly scream. He pushed back the door in front of him, stepped forward, and almost stepped upon Nina!
She gave a little cry, not seeing whom it was. She was looking very untidy, her hair loose down her back, and a rough apron over her dress. She looked ill, and there were heavy black lines under her eyes as though she had not slept for weeks.
Then she saw who it was and, in spite of herself, smiled.
"Genry!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," he said in a whisper, closing the door very softly behind him. "Look here, don't scream or do anything foolish. I don't want that old woman to catch me."
He has no very clear memory of the conversation that followed. She stood with her back to the wall, storing at him, and every now and again taking up a corner of her pinafore and biting it. He remembered that action of hers especially as being absurdly childish. But the overwhelming impression that he had of her was of her terror—terror of everything and of everybody, of everybody apparently except himself. (She told him afterwards that he was the only person in the world who could have rescued her just then because she simply couldn't be frightened of some one at whom she'd laughed so often.) She was terrified, of course, of Grogoff—she couldn't mention his name without trembling—but she was terrified also of the old servant, of the flat, of the room, of the clock, of every sound or hint of a sound that there was in the world. She to be so frightened! She of whom he would have said that she was equal to any one or anything! What she must have been through during those weeks to have brought her to this!... But she told him very little. He urged her at once that she must come away with him, there and then, just as she was. She simply shook her head at that. "No... No... No..." she kept repeating. "You don't understand."
"I do understand," he answered, always whispering, and with one ear on the door lest the old woman should hear and come in. "We've got very little time," he said. "Grogoff will never let you go if he's here. I know why you don't come back—you think we'll all look down on you for having gone. But that's nonsense. We are all simply miserable without you."
But she simply continued to repeat "No... No..." Then, as he urged her still further, she begged him to go away. She said that he simply didn't know what Grogoff would do if he returned and found him, and although he'd gone to a meeting he might return at any moment. Then, as though to urge upon him Grogoff's ferocity, in little hoarse whispers she let him see some of the things that during these weeks she'd endured. He'd beaten her, thrown things at her, kept her awake hour after hour at night making her sing to him... and, of course, worst things, things far, far worse that she would never tell to anybody, not even to Vera! Poor Nina, she had indeed been punished for her innocent impetuosities. She was broken in body and soul; she had faced reality at last and been beaten by it. She suddenly turned away from him, buried her head in her arm, as a tiny child does, and cried....
It was then that he discovered he loved her. He went to her, put his arm round her, kissed her, stroked her hair, whispering little consoling things to her. She suddenly collapsed, burying her head in his breast and watering his waistcoat with her tears....
After that he seemed to be able to do anything with her that he pleased. He whispered to her to go and get her hat, then her coat, then to hurry up and come along.... As he gave these last commands he heard the door open, turned and saw Masha, Grogoff's old witch of a servant, facing him.
The scene that followed must have had its ludicrous side. The old woman didn't scream or make any kind of noise, she simply asked him what he was doing there; he answered that he was going out for a walk with the mistress of the house. She said that he should do nothing of the kind. He told her to stand away from the door. She refused to move. He then rushed at her, caught her round the waist, and a most impossible struggle ensued up and down the middle of the room. He called to Nina to run, and had the satisfaction of seeing her dart through the door like a frightened hare. The old woman bit and scratched and kicked, making sounds all the time like a kettle just on the boil. Suddenly, when he thought that Nina had had time to get well away, he gave the old woman a very unceremonious push which sent her back against Grogoff's chief cabinet, and he had the comfort to hear the whole of this crash to the ground as he closed the door behind him. Out in the street he found Nina, and soon afterwards an Isvostchick. She crouched up close against him, staring in front of her, saying nothing, shivering and shivering.... As he felt her hot hand shake inside his, he vowed that he would never leave her again. I don't believe that he ever will.
So he took her home, and his Knight Errantry was justified at last.
These events had for a moment distracted my mind, but as soon as I was alone I felt the ever-increasing burden of my duty towards Markovitch.
The sensation was absolutely dream-like in its insistence on the one hand that I should take some kind of action, and its preventing me, on the other, from taking any action at all. I felt the strange inertia of the spectator in the nightmare, who sees the house tumbling about his head and cannot move. Besides, what action could I take? I couldn't stand over Markovitch, forbid him to stir from the flat, or imprison Semyonov in his room, or warn the police... besides, there were now no police. Moreover, Vera and Bohun and the others were surely capable of watching Markovitch. Nevertheless something in my heart insisted that it was I who was to figure in this.... Through the dusk of the streets, in the pale ghostly shadows that prelude the coming of the white nights, I seemed to see three pursuing figures, Semyonov, Markovitch, and myself. I was pursuing, and yet held.
I went back to my flat, but all that night I could not sleep. Already the first music of the May Day processions could be heard, distant trumpets and drums, before I sank into uneasy, bewildered slumber.
I dreamt then dreams so fantastic and irresolute that I cannot now disentangle them. I remember that I was standing beside the banks of the Neva. The river was rising, flinging on its course in the great tempestuous way that it always has during the first days of its release from the ice. The sky grew darker—the water rose. I sought refuge in the top gallery of a church with light green domes, and from here I watched the flood, first as it covered the quays, tumbling in cascades of glittering water over the high parapet, trickling in little lines and pools, then rising into sheeted levels, then billowing in waves against the walls of the house, flooding the doors and the windows, until so far as the eye could reach there were only high towers remaining above its grasp. I do not know what happened to my security, and saw at length the waters stretch from sky to sky, one dark, tossing ocean.
The sun rose, a dead yellow; slowly the waters sank again, islands appeared, stretches of mud and waste. Heaving their huge bodies out of the ocean, vast monsters crawled through the mud, scaled and horned, lying like logs beneath the dead sun. The waters sank—forests rose. The sun sank and there was black night, then a faint dawn, and in the early light of a lovely morning a man appeared standing on the beach, shading his eyes, gazing out to sea. I fancied that in that strong bearded figure I recognised my peasant, who had seemed to haunt my steps so often. Gravely he looked round him, then turned back into the forest....
Was my dream thus? Frankly I do not know—too neat an allegory to be true, perhaps—and yet there was something of this in it. I know that I saw Boris, and the Rat, and Vera, and Semyonov, and Markovitch, appearing, vanishing, reappearing, and that I was strongly conscious that the submerged and ruined world did not touch them, and was only a background to their own individual activities.... I know that Markovitch seemed to come to me again and cry, "Be patient... be patient.... Have faith... be faithful!"
I know that I woke struggling to keep him with me, crying out that he was not to leave me, that that way was danger.... I woke to find my room flooded with sunshine, and my old woman looking at me with disapproval.
"Wake up, Barin," she was saying, "it's three o'clock."
"Three o'clock?" I muttered, trying to pull myself together.
"Three in the afternoon... I have some tea for you."
When I realised the time I had the sensation of the wildest panic. I jumped from my bed, pushing the old woman out of the room. I had betrayed my trust! I had betrayed my trust! I felt assured 'that some awful catastrophe had occurred, something that I might have prevented. When I was dressed, disregarding my housekeeper's cries, I rushed out into the street. At my end of the Ekaterinsgofsky Canal I was stopped by great throngs of men and women returning homewards from the procession. They were marching, most of them, in ordered lines across the street, arm in arm, singing the "Marseillaise."
Very different from the procession a few weeks before. That had been dumb, cowed, bewildered. This was the movement of a people conscious of their freedom, sure of themselves, disdaining the world. Everywhere bands were playing, banners were glittering, and from the very heart of the soil, as it seemed, the "Marseillaise" was rising.
Although the sun only shone at brief intervals, there was a sense of spring warmth in the air. For some time I could not cross the street, then I broke through and almost ran down the deserted stretch of the Canal. I arrived almost breathless at the door in the English Prospect. There I found Sacha watching the people and listening to the distant bands.
"Sacha!" I cried, "is Alexei Petrovitch at home?"
"No, Barin," she answered, looking at me in some surprise. "He went out about a quarter of an hour ago."
"And Nicholas Markovitch?"
"He went out just now."
"Did he tell you where he was going?"
"No, Barin, but I heard Alexei Petrovitch tell him, an hour back, that he was going to Katerinhof."
I did not listen to more. I turned and went. Katerinhof was a park, ten minutes distant from my island; it was so called because there was there the wooden palace of Katherine the Great. She had once made it her place of summer residence, but it was now given over to the people and was, during the spring and summer, used by them as a kind of fair and pleasure-garden. The place had always been to me romantic and melancholy, with the old faded wooden palace, the deserted ponds, and the desolate trees. I had never been there in the summer. I don't know with what idea I hurried there. I can only say that I had no choice but to go, and that I went as though I were still continuing my dream of the morning.
Great numbers of people were hurrying there also. The road was thronged, and many of them sang as they went.
Looking back now it has entirely a dream-like colour. I stepped from the road under the trees, and was at once in a world of incredible fantasy. So far as the eye could see there were peasants; the air was filled with an indescribable din. As I stepped deeper into the shelter of the leafless trees the colour seemed, like fluttering banners, to mingle and spread and sway before my eyes. Near to me were the tub-thumpers now so common to us all in Petrograd—men of the Grogoff kind stamping and shouting on their platforms, surrounded by open-mouthed soldiers and peasants.
Here, too, were the quacks such as you might see at any fair in Europe—quack dentists, quack medicine-men, men with ointments for healing sores, men with pills, and little bottles of bright liquid, and tricks for ruptures and broken legs and arms. A little way beyond them were the pedlars. Here were the wildest men in the world. Tartars and Letts and Indians, Asiatics with long yellow faces, and strange fellows from Northern Russia. They had everything to sell, bright beads and looking-glasses and little lacquered trays, coloured boxes, red and green and yellow, lace and silk and cloths of every colour, purple and crimson and gold. From all these men there rose a deafening gabble.
I pressed farther, although the crowd now around me was immense, and so I reached the heart of the fair. Here were enormous merry-go-rounds, and I had never seen such glittering things. They were from China, Japan, where you will. They were hung in shining, gleaming colours, covered with tinsel and silver, and, as they went tossing round, emitting from their hearts a wild barbaric wail that may have been, in some far Eastern city, the great song of all the lovers of the world for all I know, the colours flashed and wheeled and dazzled, and the light glittered from stem to stem of the brown silent trees. Here was the very soul of the East. Near me a Chinaman, squatting on his haunches, was showing before a gaping crowd the exploits of his trained mice, who walked up and down little crimson ladders, poked their trembling noses through holes of purple silk, and ran shivering down precipices of golden embroidery. Near to him two Japanese were catching swords in their mouths, and beyond them again a great number of Chinese were tumbling and wrestling, and near to them again some Japanese children did little tricks, catching coloured balls in wooden cups and turning somersaults.
Around all these a vast mass of peasants pushed and struggled. Like children they watched and smiled and laughed, and always, like the flood of the dream, their numbers seemed to increase and increase....
The noise was deafening, but always above the merry-go-rounds and the cheap-jacks and the shrill screams of the Japanese and the cries of the pedlars I heard the chant of the "Marseillaise" carried on high through the brown leafless park. I was bewildered and dazzled by the noise and the light. I turned desperately, pushing with my hands as one does in a dream.
Then I saw Markovitch and Semyonov.
I had no doubt at all that the moment had at last arrived. It was as though I had seen it all somewhere before. Semyonov was standing a little apart leaning against a tree, watching with his sarcastic smile the movements of the crowd. Markovitch was a little way off. I could see his eyes fixed absolutely on Semyonov. He did not move nor notice the people who jostled him. Semyonov made a movement with his hand as though he had suddenly come to some decision. He walked slowly away in the direction of the palace. Markovitch, keeping a considerable distance from him, followed. For a moment I was held by the crowd around me, and when at last I got free Semyonov had disappeared, and I could just see Markovitch turning the corner of the palace.
I ran across the grass, trying to call out, but I could not hear my own voice. I turned the corner, and instantly I was in a strange place of peace. The old building with its wooden lattices and pillars stood melancholy guard over the dead pond on whose surface some fragments of ice still lay. There was no sun, only a heavy, oppressive air. All the noise was muffled as though a heavy door had swung to.
They were standing quite close to me. Semyonov had turned and faced us both. I saw him smile, and his lips moved. A moment later I saw Markovitch fling his hand forward, and in the air the light on the revolver twinkled. I heard no sound, but I saw Semyonov raise his arm, as though in self-defence. His face, lifted strangely to the bare branches, was triumphant, and I heard quite clearly the words, like a cry of joy and welcome:
"At last!... At last!"
He tumbled forward on his face.
I saw Markovitch turn the revolver on himself, and then heard a report, sharp and deafening, as though we had been in a small room. I saw Markovitch put his hand to his side, and his mouth, open as though in astonishment, was suddenly filled with blood. I ran to him, caught him in my arms; he turned on me a face full of puzzled wonder, I caught the word "Vera," and he crumpled up against my heart.
Even as I held him, I heard coming closer and closer the rough triumphant notes of the "Marseillaise."