Author of "Three Weeks"
"His Hour" is called in England and Russia "When the Hour Came."
With grateful homage and devotion I dedicate this book to
Her Imperial Highness The Grand Duchess Vladimir Of Russia
In memory of the happy evenings spent in her gracious presence when reading to her these pages, which her sympathetic aid, in facilitating my opportunities for studying the Russian character, enabled me to write. Her kind appreciation of the finished work is a source of the deepest gratification to me.
St. Petersburg, May, 1910
The Sphinx was smiling its eternal smile. It was two o'clock in the morning. The tourists had returned to Cairo, and only an Arab or two lingered near the boy who held Tamara's camel, and then gradually slunk away; thus, but for Hafis, she was alone—alone with her thoughts and the Sphinx.
The strange, mystical face looked straight at her from the elevation where she sat. Its sensual mocking calm penetrated her brain. The creature seemed to be laughing at all humanity—and saying—"There is no beyond—live and enjoy the things of the present—Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow you die, and I—I who sit here and know, tell you there is no beyond. The things you can touch and hold to your bodies are the only ones worth grasping."
"No, no!" said Tamara, half aloud, "I will not—I will not believe it."
"Fool," said the Sphinx. "What is your soul? And if you have one, what have you done with it hitherto? Are you any light in the world?—No, you have lived upon the orders of others, you have let your individuality be crushed these twenty-four years—since the day you could speak. Just an echo it is—that fine thing, your soul! Show it then, if you have one! Do you possess an opinion? Not a bit of it. You simply announce platitudes that you have been taught were the right answers to all questions! Believe me, you have no soul. So take what you can—a body! You certainly have that, one can see it—well, snatch what it can bring you, since you have not enough will to try for higher things. Grasp what you may, poor weakling. That is the wisdom sitting here for eternity has taught me."
Tamara stirred her hands in protest—but she knew the indictment was true. Yes, her life had been one long commonplace vista of following leads—like a sheep.
But was it too late to change? Had she the courage? Dared she think for herself? If not, the mystic message of the Sphinx's smile were better followed: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow you die."
The blue of the sky seemed to soothe her, and speak of hope. Could any other country produce a sky of so deep a sapphire as the night sky of Egypt? All around was intense sensuous warmth and stillness almost as light as day.
How wise she had been to break through the conventionality which surrounded her—and it had required some nerve—so as to be able to come here alone, on this one of her last nights in Egypt.
She half smiled when she thought of Millicent Hardcastle's face when she had first suggested it.
"My dear Tamara, what—what an extraordinary thing for a woman to do! Go to the Sphinx all alone at two o'clock in the morning. Would not people think it very strange?"
Tamara felt a qualm for a second, but was rebellious.
"Well, perhaps—but do you know, Millicent, I believe I don't care. That carven block of stone has had a curious effect upon me. It has made me think as I have never done before. I want to take the clearest picture away with me—I must go."
And even Mrs. Hardcastle's mild assertion that it could equally well be viewed and studied at a more reasonable hour did not move Tamara, and while her friend slumbered comfortably in her bed at Mena House, she had set off, a self-conscious feeling of a truant schoolboy exalting and yet frightening her.
Tamara was a widow. James Loraine had been everything that a thoroughly respectable English husband ought to be. He had treated her with kindness, he had given her a comfortable home—he had only asked her to spend ten months of the year in the country, and he had never caused her a moment's jealousy.
She could not remember her heart having beaten an atom faster—or slower—for his coming or going. She had loved him, and her sisters and brother, and father, all in the same devoted way, and when pneumonia had carried him off nearly two years before, she had grieved with the measure the loss of any one of them would have caused her—that was sincerely and tenderly.
They were such a nice family, Tamara's!
For hundreds of years they had lived on the same land, doing their duty to their neighbors and helping to form that backbone of England of which we hear so much nowadays, in its passing away.
They had been members of Parliament, of solid Whig, and later of Unionist, views. They had been staunch Generals, Chairmen of Quarter-Sessions, riders to hounds, subscribers to charities, rigid church-goers, disciplined, orthodox, worthy members of society.
Underdown was their name, and Underwood their home.
That Tamara should have been given that Russian appellation, in a group of Gladys, Mabels and Dorothys, must have surely indicated that fate meant her to follow a line not quite so mapped out as that of her sisters'. The very manner of her entry into the world was not in accordance with the Underdown plan.
Her mother, Lady Gertrude Underdown, had contracted a friendship with the wife of the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy.
Foreigners were not looked upon with favor in the home circle, and instead of staying only the two months of May and June, as she was fully entitled to, in London, she had insisted upon remaining for July as well that year—to be near her friend Vera and enjoy the gay world.
The Squire had grumbled, but acquiesced, though when afterward a fourth daughter was presented to him with a request that she might have Princess Vera for a godmother and a Russian name to be called by, he felt himself justified in carping at fate.
"Foreign fandangoes," he designated such ideas. However, Lady Gertrude was very ill, and had to be humored, so the affair took place, and Tamara the baby was christened, with due state.
There were no more Russian suggestions in the family; the son and heir who arrived a year later became plain Tom, and then Lady Gertrude Underdown made her bow to the world and retired to the family vault in Underwood Church.
They were all estimably brought up by an aunt, and hardly ever left the country until each one came up in turn to be presented at Court, and go through a fairly dull season among country neighbors on the same bent.
Two of them, including Tamara, had secured suitable husbands, and at the age of twenty-three years the latter had been left a well-dowered widow.
She had worn mourning for just the right period, had looked after her affairs—handed James' place over with a good grace to James' brother and an unliked sister-in-law, and finally, when she was wearing grays and mauves, two years almost after her loss, she had allowed herself to be persuaded into taking a trip to Egypt with her friend, Millicent Hardcastle, who was recovering from influenza.
It had caused the greatest flutter at Underwood, this journey abroad! None of them had been further than Dresden, where each girl had learned German for a year or so before her presentation.
And what had Egypt done for Tamara? Lifted just one pretty white eyelid, perhaps. Stirred something which only once or twice in her life she had been dimly conscious of. Everything had been a kind of shock to her. A shock of an agreeable description. And once driving at night in the orange groves of Ghezireh, after some open-air fte, the heavy scent and intoxicating atmosphere had made her blood tingle. She felt it was almost wrong that things should so appeal to her senses. Anything which appealed deliberately to the senses had always been considered as more than almost wrong at Underwood Chase.
The senses were improper things which Aunt Clara for her part never quite understood why the Almighty should have had the bad taste to permit in human beings.
But the Sphinx was again talking to Tamara—only this time in the voice of a young man—who without a word of warning had risen from a bank of sand where he had been stretched motionless and unperceived.
"A fine goddess, is she not, Madame," he said. And to add to the impertinence of a stranger's addressing her at all, Tamara was further incensed by the voice being that of a foreigner!
But it was an extraordinarily pleasant voice, deep and tuneful, and the "Insolent" stood over six feet high and was as slender as Tamara herself almost—in spite of his shoulders and air of strength.
She hardly knew what to answer, he had spoken with such ease and assurance, almost with the tone of one who hails a fellow worshiper and has a right to exchange sympathy.
Tamara had been startled, too, by the sudden rising of the man when she thought she was alone, but at last she answered slowly, "Yes."
"I often come here at night," he went on, "when those devils of tourists have gone back in their devil of a tramway. Then you get her alone—and she says things to you. You think so, too, isn't it?"
"Yes," again said Tamara, convulsed with wonder at herself for speaking at all.
"At first I was angry when I saw your camel against the sky and saw you come and dismount and sit and look, I like to have her all to myself. But afterwards when I watched you I saw you meant no harm—you aren't a tourist, and so you did not matter."
"Indeed," said Tamara, the fine in her grasping the situation, the Underdown training resenting its unconventionality.
"Yes," he continued, unconcerned. "You can't look at that face and feel we any of us matter much—can you?"
"No," said Tamara.
"How many thousand years has she been telling people that? But it drives me mad, angry, furious, to see the tourists! I want to strangle them all!"
He clenched his hand and his eyes flashed.
Tamara peeped up at him—he was not looking at her—but at the Sphinx. She saw that he was extremely attractive in spite of having un-English clothes, which were not worn with ease. Gray flannel of unspeakable cut, and boots which would have made her brother Tom shriek with laughter. The Underdown part of her whispered, could he be quite a gentleman? But when he turned his face full upon her in the moonlight, that doubt vanished completely. He might even be a very great gentleman, she thought.
"Would you like to see a bit of the Arabian Nights?" he asked her.
Tamara rose. This really ought not to go on, this conversation—and yet—
"Yes, I would," she said.
"Well, the spell is broken of the Sphinx," he continued. "She can't talk to me with you there, and she can't talk to you with me near, so let us go and see something else that is interesting together."
"What?" asked Tamara.
"The Sheikh's village down below. Half the people who come don't realize it is there, and the other half would be afraid to ride through it at night—but they know me and I will take care of you."
Without the least further hesitation he called Hafis and the camel, spoke to them in Arabic, and then stood ready to help Tamara up. She seemed hypnotized, when she was settled in the high saddle. She began to realize that she was going into the unknown with a perfect stranger, but she did not think of turning back.
"What do you ride?" she asked.
"See," he said, and he made a strange low whistle, which was instantly answered by an equally strange low whinny of a horse, and a beautiful Arab appeared from the foot of the rocks—where all things were in shadow—led by a little brown boy.
"I am taking him back with me," he said, "Isn't he a beauty. I only bought him a week ago, and he already knows me."
Then he was in the saddle with the lightest bound, and Tamara, who had always admired Tom on a horse, knew that she had never seen anyone who seemed so much a part of his mount as this quaint foreigner. "I suppose he is an Austrian," she said to herself, and then added with English insular arrogance, "Only Austrians are like us."
The young man appeared quite indifferent to anything she thought. He prepared to lead the way down beyond the Sphinx, apparently into the desert.
Now that he was in front of her, Tamara could not help admiring the lines of his figure. He was certainly a very decent shape, and certainly knew how to ride.
Then it came to her that this was a most singular adventure, and the faint pink mounted to her clear cheeks when she remembered how dreadfully shocked Millicent would be—or any of the family! But it was her night of rebellion, so things must take their course.
The young man rode in front until they were on the flat desert, then he drew rein and waited for her.
"You see," he said, "we skirt these rocks and then we shall ride through the village. One can very well imagine it has been the same always."
They entered the little town. The streets were extremely narrow and the dark houses gave an air of mystery—a speculation—what could be going on behind those closed shutters? Here and there a straight blue-clad figure slunk away round a corner. There was a deep silence and the moonlight made the shadows sharp as a knife. Then a shaft of red light would shoot from some strange low hovel as they passed, and they could see inside a circle of Arab Bedouins crouching over a fire. There seemed no hilarity, their faces were solemn as the grave.
Presently, in the narrowest and darkest street, there was a sound of tom-toms, strains of weird music and voices, and through the chinks of the half-opened shutters light streamed across the road—while a small crowd of Arabs were grouped about the gate in the wall holding donkeys and a camel.
"A wedding," said the young man. "They have escorted the bride. What pleasure to raise a veil and see a black face! But each one to his taste."
Tamara looked up at the window. She wondered what could be happening within—were the other wives there as well? She would have liked to have asked.
The young man saw her hesitation and said laconically—
"They are having a party," Tamara replied, with lame obviousness.
"Of course," said the young man. "Weddings and funerals—equally good occasions for company. They are so wise they leave all to fate; they do not tear their eyes out for something they cannot have—and fight after disappointment. They are philosophers, these Arabs."
The little crowd round the gate now barred the road, half good humoredly, half with menace.
"So, so," said the young man, riding in front. Then he laughed, and putting his hand in his pocket, brought out a quantity of silver and flung it among them with merry words in Arabic, while he pointed to the windows of the house.
Then he seized the bridle of Tamara's camel and started his horse forward. The crowd smiled now and began scrambling for the baksheesh, and so they got through in peace.
Neither spoke until they were in a silent lane again.
"Sometimes they can be quite disagreeable," he said, "but it is amusing to see it all. The Sheikh lives here—he fancies the pyramids belong to him, just as the Khedive fancies all Egypt is his—life is mostly imagination."
Now Tamara could see his face better as he looked up to her superior height on the camel. He had a little moustache and peculiarly chiseled lips—too chiseled for a man, she thought for a moment, until she noticed the firm jaw. His eyes were sleepy—slightly Oriental in their setting, and looked very dark, and yet something made her think that in daylight they might be blue or gray.
He did not smile at all; as he spoke his face was grave, but when something made him laugh as they turned the next corner, it transformed him. It was the rippling spontaneous gaiety of a child.
Two goats had got loose from opposite hovels and were butting at one another in the middle of the road.
He pulled up his horse and watched.
"I like any fight," he said.
But the goats fled in fear of him, so they went on.
Tamara was wondering why she felt so stupid. She wanted to ask her strange companion a number of questions. Who he was? What he was doing at the Sphinx?—and indeed in Egypt. Why he had spoken to her at all?—and yet appeared absolutely indifferent as they rode along! He had not asked her a single question or expressed the least curiosity. For some reason she felt piqued.
Presently they emerged at the end of the village where there was a small lake left by the retirement of the Nile. The moon, almost full, was mirrored in it. The scene was one of extreme beauty. The pyramids appeared an old rose pink, and everything else in tones of sapphire—not the green-blue of moonlight in other countries. All was breathlessly still and lifeless. Only they two, and the camel boys, alone in the night.
The dark line of trees which border the road faced them, and they rode slowly in that direction.
"You are going to the hotel, I suppose?" he said. "I will see you safely to it."
And they climbed the bank on to the avenue from Cairo.
"And you?" Tamara could not prevent herself from asking. "Where do you go?"
"To hell, sometimes," he answered, and his eyes were full of mist, "but tonight I shall go to bed for a change."
Tamara was nonplussed. She felt intensely commonplace. She was even a little cross with herself. Why had she asked a question?
The Arab horse now took it into his head to curvet and bound in the air for no apparent reason, but the young man did not stir an inch—he laughed.
"Go on, my beauty," he said. "I like you to be so. It shows you are alive."
As they approached the hotel, Tamara began to hope no one would see them. No one who could tell Millicent that she had a companion. She bent down and said rather primly to the young man who was again at her side:
"I am quite safe now, thank you. I need not trouble you any further. Good-bye! and I am so obliged to you for showing me a new way home."
He looked up at her, and his whole face was lit with a whimsical smile.
"Yes, at the gate," he said. "Don't be nervous. I will go at the gate."
Tamara did not speak, and presently they came to the turning into the hotel. Then he stopped.
"I suppose we shall meet again some day," he said. "They have a proverb here, 'Meet before dawn—part not till dawn.' They see into the future in a few drops of water in any hollow thing. Well, good-night"—and before she could answer he was off beyond the hotel up the road and then turning to the right on a sand-path, galloped out of sight into what must be the vast desert.
Where on earth could he be going to?—possibly the devil—if one knew.
When Tamara woke in the morning the recollection of her camel ride seemed like a dream. She sat for a long time at the window of her room looking out toward the green world and Cairo. She was trying to adjust things in her mind. This stranger had certainly produced an effect upon her.
She wondered who he was, and how he would look in daylight—and above all whither he had galloped into the desert. Then she wondered at herself. The whole thing was so out of her line—so bizarre—in a life of carefully balanced proprieties. And were the thoughts the Sphinx had awaked in her brain true? Yes, certainly she had been ruled by others always—and had never developed her own soul.
She was very sensitive—that last whimsical smile of the unknown had humiliated her. She felt he had laughed at her prim propriety in wishing to get rid of him before the gate. Indeed, she suddenly felt he might laugh at a good many of the things she did. And this ruffled her serenity. She put up her slender hands and pushed the thick hair back from her forehead with an impatient gesture. It all made her dissatisfied with herself and full of unrest.
"You don't tell me a thing about your Sphinx excursion last night, Tamara," Millicent Hardcastle said at breakfast, rather peevishly. They were sipping coffee together in the latter's room in dressing-gowns. "Was it nice, and had the tourists quite departed?"
"It was wonderful!" and Tamara leant back and looked into distance. "There were no tourists, and it made me think a number of new things—we seem such ordinary people, Millicent."
Mrs. Hardcastle glanced up surprised, not to say offended, with coffee cup poised in the air.
"Yes—you may wonder, but it is true, Milly—we do the same things every day, and think the same thoughts, and are just thoroughly commonplace and uninteresting."
"And you came to these conclusions from gazing at the Sphinx?" Mrs. Hardcastle asked.
"Yes," said Tamara, the pink deepening for a moment in her cheeks. In her whole life she hardly ever had had a secret. "I sat there, Millicent, in the sand opposite the strange image, and it seemed to smile and mock at all little things; it appeared perfectly ridiculous that we pay so much attention to what the world says or thinks. I could not help looking back to the time when you and I were at Dresden together. What dull lives we have both led since! Yours perhaps more filled than mine has been, because you have children; but really we have both been browsing like sheep."
Mrs. Hardcastle now was almost irritated.
"I cannot agree with you," she said. "Our lives have been full of good and pleasant things—and I hope, dear, we have both done our duty."
This, of course, ended the matter! It was so undoubtedly true—each had done her duty.
After breakfast they started for a last donkey-ride, as they must return to Cairo in time for the Khedive's ball that night, which, as distinguished English ladies, they were being taken to by their compatriots at the Agency. Then on the morrow they were to start for Europe. Mrs. Hardcastle could not spare more time away from her babies. Their visit had only been of four short weeks, and now it was December 27, and home and husband called her.
For Tamara's part, she could do as she pleased; indeed, for two pins she would have stayed on in Egypt.
But that was not the intention of fate!
"Do let us go up that sand-path, Millicent," she said, when they turned out of the hotel gate. "We have never been there, and I would like to see where it leads to—perhaps we shall get quite a new vista from the top——"
And so they went.
What she expected to find she did not ask herself. In any case they rode on, eventually coming out at a small enclosure where stood a sort of bungalow in those days—it is probably pulled down now, but then it stood with a wonderful view over the desert, and over the green world. Tamara had vaguely observed it in the distance before, but imagined it to be some water-tower of the hotel, it was so bare and gaunt. It had been built by some mad Italian, they heard afterward, for rest and quiet.
It was a quaint place with tiny windows high up, evidently to light a studio, and there was a veranda to look at the view towards the Nile.
When they got fairly close they could see that on this veranda a young man was stretched at full length. A long wicker chair supported him, while he read a French novel. They—at least Tamara—could see the yellow back of the book, and also, one regrets to add, she was conscious that the young man was only clothed in blue and white striped silk pyjamas!—the jacket of which was open and showed his chest—and one foot, stretched out and hanging over the back of another low chair, was—actually bare!
Mrs. Hardcastle touched her donkey and hurried past—the path went so very near this unseemly sight! And Tamara followed, but not before the young man had time to raise himself and frown with fury. She almost imagined she heard him saying "Those devils of tourists!" Then with the corner of her eye ere they got out of sight, she perceived that a blue-clad Arab brought coffee on a little tray.
She glowed with annoyance. Did he think she had come to look at him? Did he—he certainly was quite uninterested, for he must have recognized her; but perhaps not; people look so different in large straw hats to what they appear with scarves of chiffon tied over their heads. But why had she come this way at all? She wished a thousand times she had suggested going round the pyramids instead.
"Tamara," said Mrs. Hardcastle, when they were safely descending the further sand-path, with no unclothed young giant in view, "did you see there was a man in that chair? What a dreadful person to be lying on the balcony—undressed!"
"I never noticed," said Tamara, without a blush. "I am surprised at you having looked, Millie—when this view is so fine."
"But, my dear child, I could not possibly help seeing him. How you did not notice, I can't think; he had pyjamas on, Tamara—and bare feet!"
Mrs. Hardcastle almost whispered the last terrible words.
"I suppose he felt hot," said Tamara; "it is a grilling day."
"But really, dear, no nice people, in any weather, remain—er— undressed at twelve o'clock in the day for passers-by to look at—do they?"
"Well, perhaps he isn't a nice person," allowed Tamara. "He may be mad. What was he like, since you saw so much, Millicent?"
Mrs. Hardcastle glanced over her shoulder reproachfully. "You really speak as though I had looked on purpose," she said. "He seemed very long—and not fat. I suppose, as his hair was not very dark, he must be an Englishman."
"Oh, dear, no!" exclaimed Tamara. "Not an Englishman." Then seeing her friend's expression of surprise, "I mean, it isn't likely an Englishman would lie on his balcony in pyjamas—at least not the ones we see in Cairo; they—they are too busy, aren't they?"
This miserably lame explanation seemed to satisfy Millicent. It was too hot and too disagreeable, she felt, clinging to the donkey while it descended the steep path, to continue the subject further, having to turn one's head over the shoulder like that; but when they got on the broad level she began again:
"Possibly it was a madman, Tamara, sent here with a keeper—in that out-of-the-way place. How fortunate we had the donkey boys with us!"
"You dear goose, Millie, he couldn't have eaten us up, you know; and he was not doing the least harm, poor thing. We should not have gone that way; it may have been his private path."
"Still, no one should lie about undressed," Mrs. Hardcastle protested. "It is not at all nice. Girls might have been riding with us, and how dreadful it would have been then."
"Let us forget it, pet!" Tamara laughed, "and trot on and get some real exercise."
So off they started.
Just as they were turning out of the hotel gate, late in the same afternoon, a young man on an Arab horse passed the carriage. He was in ordinary riding dress, and looked a slim, graceful sight as he trotted ahead.
He never glanced their way. But while Tamara felt a sudden emotion of sorts, Mrs. Hardcastle exclaimed:
"Look, look! I am sure that is he—the mad man who wore those pyjamas."
The Khedive's ball was a fairly fine sight, Tamara thought, but driving through the streets took such a ridiculously long time, the crowd was so great. The palace itself was, and probably is still, like all other palaces that are decorated in that nondescript style of Third Empire France—not a thing of beauty. But the leve uniforms of the officers gave an air of brilliance contrasted with the civilians of the Government of Egypt. Tamara thought their dress very ugly, it reminded her of a clergyman's at a children's party, where he has been decorated with caps and sham orders from the crackers to amuse the little guests. It seemed strange to see the English faces beneath the fez. She and Millicent Hardcastle walked about and talked to their friends. There were many smart young gallants in the regiments then quartered in Cairo, who enjoyed dancing with the slender, youthful widow with the good jewels and pretty dress, and soon Tamara found herself whirling with a gay hussar.
"Let us stop near the Royalties and look at the Russians," he said. "You know, a Grand Duke arrived to-day, and must be here to-night."
They came to a standstill close to the little group surrounding the Khedive, and amid the splendid uniforms of the Grand Duke's suite there was one of scarlet, the like of which Tamara had never seen before.
Afterward she learned it was a Cossack of the Emperor's escort, but at the moment it seemed like a gorgeous fancy dress. The high boots and long, strangely graceful coat, cut with an Eastern hang, the white under-dress, the way the loose scarlet sleeves fell at the wrist, showing the white tight ones, the gold and silver trimmings and the arms, stuck in the quaint belt, all pleased her eye extremely; and then she recognized its wearer as the young man of the Sphinx.
How dress changes a person! she thought. He looked at ease now in this gorgeous garment, and a very prince for a fairy tale. That accounted for the dreadful gray flannel—he was a soldier and unaccustomed to wearing ordinary clothes. She had heard that in foreign countries even the officers wore their uniforms habitually; not as the English do, merely as an irksome duty.
He did not appear to see her, but when she began dancing again, and paused once more for breath, she was close to him as he stood some way apart and alone.
Their eyes met. His had the same whimsical provoking smile in them which angered and yet attracted her. He made no move to bow to her, nor did he take any steps to be introduced. She burnt with annoyance.
"He might at least have been presented; it is too impertinent otherwise!" she thought.
She knew she was looking her best: a fair, distinguished woman as young and fresh as a girl. Hardly a man in the room was unconscious of her presence. Anger lent an extra brightness to her eyes and cheeks. She went on dancing wildly.
The next time she was near the stranger was some half an hour later, although not once was she able to banish the scarlet form from her view. He did not dance. He talked now and then to his Prince, and then he was presented to the official ladies, with the rest of the suite. He looked bored.
Tamara would not ask his name, which she could have done with ease, as every one was interested in the Russians and glad to talk about them. She avoided the English group of bigwigs where they were standing, and where she had her place—And when they passed the tall Cossack again she turned upon him a witheringly unconscious glance.
However, this was not to continue the whole night, for presently she was requested by one of the attachs to come and be presented to the Grand Duke, and when she had made her curtsey the suite came up in turn.
"Prince Milaslvski," and she heard one of his friends call him "Gritzko." The name fell pleasantly on her ears—"Gritzko"! Why was he such a wretch as to humiliate her so? She felt horribly small. She ought never to have let him speak to her at the Sphinx. She was being thoroughly punished for her unconventionality now!
She said a few words in French to each of the others, and then, as he still stood there with that provoking smile in his splendid eyes, she turned away almost biting her lip with shame and rage.
Before she knew it she was dancing with a fierce count in green and silver. Their conversation was interesting.
"You are here since long, Madame?"
"No, Monsieur, only a few weeks, and I go to-morrow."
"Ah! you dance beautifully!"
"Do I? I am glad——"
The Russian Count held her very tightly, and they stopped quite out of breath, where the screened windows half-hid the poor ladies of the harem, who watched the throng from their safe retreat.
The Count bowed—and Tamara bowed. A section, not the whole dance, was evidently the Russian custom.
Then a voice said close to her ear:
"May I, too, have the honor of a turn, Madame?" and she looked up into the eyes of the Prince.
For a second she hesitated. Her first impulse was to scornfully say no, but she quickly realized that would be undignified and absurd; so she said yes, coldly, and let him place his arm about her. The band was playing a particularly sensuous valse, which drove all young people mad that year, and—if the Count had danced well—this man's movements were heaven. Tamara did not speak a word. She purposely did not look at him, but drooped her proud head so that the flashing diamonds of her tiara were all he could have seen of her.
He put no special meaning into the way he held her; he just danced divinely; but there was something in the creature himself of a perfectly annoying attractiveness—or so it seemed to Tamara.
They at last paused for a moment, and then he spoke. He made not the slightest allusion to the Sphinx incident. He spoke gravely of Cairo, and the polo, and the races, and said that his Grand Duke had arrived that day. He was not on his staff, but was indeed travelling in Egypt for his own amusement and delectation, he said.
He had been there since November, it seemed, and had been up the Nile, and had fortunately been able to secure a little bungalow at Mena, where he could spend some hours of peace.
Then Tamara laughed. She remembered Millicent Hardcastle's consternation over those unfortunate pyjamas. She wondered if Millicent would realize that she—Tamara—was dancing with their wearer now! When she laughed he put his arm around her once more and began dancing. This time he held her rather closely, and suddenly as she laughed again to herself provokingly, he clasped her tight.
"If you laugh like that I will kiss you—here in the room," he said.
Tamara stopped dead short. She blazed with anger.
"How dare you be so impertinent?" she said.
They were up in a corner; everyone's back was turned to them happily, for in one second he had bent and kissed her neck. It was done with such incredible swiftness and audacity that even had they been observed it must only have looked as though he bent to pick up something she had dropped. But the kiss burned into Tamara's flesh.
She could hardly keep the tears of outraged pride from her eyes.
"How dare you! How dare you!" she hissed. "Truly you are making me ashamed of having let you speak to me last night!"
"Last night?" he said, while he forcibly drew her hand within his arm and began walking toward the group of her friends. "Last night you were afraid some should see me from the hotel, and to-night you dare me. Do it once more and I will kiss your lips!"
Tamara went dead white; she felt as if the ground were sinking beneath her feet; her knees trembled. In all her smooth, conventionally ordered life she had never experienced such a strong emotion.
The Prince glanced at her, and the fierceness went out of his eyes. He bowed gravely with the most courtly homage, and left her standing by Millicent's side.
Then Tamara remembered she was a lady, and that tenue was expected of her; so she turned to her friend gaily and said how she was enjoying the ball; but her fine nostrils quivered at intervals for the rest of the night.
"Thank God!" she said to herself, when a few hours later she got into bed—"Thank God! we are going tomorrow. I shall never see him again, and no one shall ever know."
Next day they started, escorted to the station by a troup of gushing friends. Their compartment was a bower of flowers, and as each moment went by Tamara's equanimity was restored by the thought that she would soon be out of the land of her disgrace.
It is a tiresome journey to Alexandria—dusty and glaring and not of great interest. They hurried on board the ship when they arrived, without even glancing at their fellow passengers following in the gangway. Neither woman was a perfect sailor and both were quite overcome with fatigue. It promised to be a disagreeable night, too, so they retired at once to their cabins, and were soon asleep.
The next day, which was Sunday, the wind blew, but by the afternoon calmed down again, and Tamara decided to dress and go on deck.
"Mrs. Hardcastle went up some hours ago; she was ready for luncheon, ma'am," her maid told her.
"She left a message for you to join her when you woke."
The ship was the usual sort of ship that goes from Alexandria to Trieste, and the two English ladies had secured places for their chairs in the most protected spot. Tamara rather looked forward to being able to sit there in the moonlight and enjoy the Mediterranean.
Her maid preceded her with her rug and cushion and book, and it was not until she was quite settled that she took cognizance of an empty chair at her other side.
"You lazy child!" Millicent Hardcastle said. "To sleep all day like this! It has been quite beautiful since luncheon, and I have had a most agreeable time. That extremely polite nice young Russian Prince we met at the Khedive's ball is here, dear; indeed, that is his chair next you. He is with Stephen Strong. We have been talking for hours."
Tamara felt suddenly almost cold.
"I never saw him in the train or coming on board," she said, with almost a gasp.
"Nor did I, and yet he must have been just behind us. Our places at meals are next him, too. So fortunate he was introduced, because one could not talk to a strange man, even on a boat. I never can understand those people who pick up acquaintances promiscuously; can you, dear?"
"No," said Tamara, feebly.
She was pondering what to do. She could not decline to know the Prince without making some explanation to Millicent. She also could not flatter him so much. She must just be icily cold, and if he should be further impertinent she could remain in her cabin.
But what an annoying contretemps! And she had thought she should never see him again!—and here until Wednesday afternoon, she would be constantly reminded of the most disgraceful incident in her career. All brought upon herself, too, by her own action in having lapsed from the rigid rules in which Aunt Clara had brought her up.
If she had not answered him at the Sphinx—he could not have—but she refused to dwell upon the shame of this recollection.
She had quite half an hour to grow calm before the cause of her unrest came even into sight, and when he did, it was to walk past in the company of their old friend, Stephen Strong.
The Prince raised his cap gravely, and Tamara comforted herself by noticing again how badly his clothes fitted him! How unsuitable, and even ridiculous, they were to English eyes—That gave her pleasure! Also she must have a little fun with Millicent.
"Has it struck you, Millie, the Prince is the same young man we saw in the pyjamas on the veranda? I am surprised at your speaking to such a person, even if he has been introduced!"
Mrs. Hardcastle raised an aggrieved head.
"Really, Tamara," she said, "I had altogether forgotten that unpleasant incident. I wish you had not reminded me of it. He is a most respectful, modest, unassuming young man. I am sure he would be dreadfully uncomfortable if he were aware we had seen him so."
"I think he looked better like that than he does now," Tamara rejoined, spitefully. "Did you ever see such clothes?"
Mrs. Hardcastle whisked right round in her chair and stared at her friend. She was shocked, in the first place, that Tamara should speak so lightly of a breach of decorum; and, secondly, she was astonished at another aspect of the case.
"I thought you never saw him at all that morning!" she exclaimed.
Tamara was nettled.
"Your description was so vivid; besides, I looked back!"
"You looked back! Tamara! after I had told you he wasn't dressed! My dear, how could you?"
"Well, I did.—Hush! he is coming toward us," and Tamara hurriedly opened a book and looked down.
"At last Mrs. Loraine has arrived on deck," she heard Millicent say; and then, for convention's sake she was obliged to glance up and bow coldly.
The young man did not seem the least impressed; he sat down and pulled his rug round his knees and gazed out at the sea. The sun had set, and the moon would soon rise in all her full glory.
There was hardly twilight and the ship's electric lights were already being lit. The old Englishman, Stephen Strong, greeted her and took the chair at Mrs. Hardcastle's other side. That lady was in one of her chatty moods, when each nicely expressed sentence fell from her lips directly after the other—all so pleasant and easy to understand. No one ever felt with Millicent he need use an atom of brain. These are the women men like.
Tamara pretended to read her book, but she was conscious of the near proximity of the Prince. Nothing so magnetic in the way of a personality had ever crossed her path as yet.
He sat as still as a statue gazing at the sea. An uncontrollable desire to look at him shook Tamara, but she dominated it. The discomfort at last grew so great that she almost trembled.
Then he spoke:
"Have you cat's eyes?" he asked.
Now, when there was a legitimate chance to look at him, she found her orbs glued to her book.
"Of course not!" she said, icily.
"Then of what use to pretend you are reading in this gloom? The miserable lantern is not good for a gleam."
Tamara was silent. She even turned a page. She would be irritating, too!
"That ball was a sight," he continued. "Did you see the harem ladies peeping from their cage? They looked fat and ugly enough to be wisely kept there. What a lot of fools they must have thought us, cavorting for their amusement."
"Poor women!" said Tamara. Her voice was the primmest thing in voices she had ever heard.
"Why poor women?" he asked. "They have all the pleasures of the body, and no anxieties; nothing but the little excitement of trying now and then to poison their rivals! It is the poor Khedive!—Think of his having to wade through all that fat mass to find one pretty one!"
The tone of this conversation displeased Tamara. She did not wish to enter into the ethics of the harem. She wished he would be silent again, only that deep voice of his was so pleasant! His English was wonderful, too, with hardly the least accent; and when she did allow herself to look at him she could not help admiring the way his hair grew, back from a forehead purely Greek. His nose was short and rather square, while those too beautifully chiseled lips of his had an expression of extraordinary charm. His whole personality breathed attraction, every human being who approached him was conscious of it. As for his eyes, they were enormous, with broad full lids, mystical, passionate, and yet unconcerned. Always they suggested something Eastern, though on the whole he was fair. Tamara's own soft brown hair was only a shade lighter than his.
She was not sure yet, but now thought his eyes were gray.
She could have asked him a number of questions she wanted answered, but she refrained. He suddenly turned and looked at her full in the face. He had been gazing fixedly at the sea, and these movements of quickness were disconcerting, especially as Tamara found herself caught in the act of studying his features.
"What on earth made you go to the Sphinx?" he asked.
Anger rose in Tamara; the inference was not flattering, in his speech, or the tone in which he uttered it.
"To count the number of stones the creature is made of, of course," she said. "Those technical things are what one would go for at that time of night."
And now her companion rippled with laughter, infectious, joyous laughter.
"Ah, you are not so stupid as I thought!" he said, frankly. "You looked poetic and fine with that gauze scarf around your head sitting there— and then afterwards. Wheugh! It was like a pretty wax doll. I regretted having wasted the village on you. All that is full of meaning for me."
Tamara was interested in spite of her will to remain reserved, although she resented the wax-doll part.
"You can learn all the lessons you want in life from the Sphinx," he went on. "What paltry atoms you and I are, and how little we matter to anyone but ourselves! She is cruel, too, and does not hesitate to tear one in pieces if she wishes and she could make one ready to get drunk on blood."
Tamara rounded her sweet eyes.
"Then the village there, full of men with the passions of animals, living from father to son forever the same, wailing for a death, rejoicing at a birth, taking strong physical pleasure in their marriage rights and their women, and beating them when they are tired; but you are too civilized in your country to understand any of these things."
Tamara was stirred; she felt she ought to be shocked.
Contrary to her determination, she asked a question:
"Then you are not civilized in yours?"
"Not nearly so badly," he said. "The primitive forces of life still give us emotions, when we are not wild; when we are then it is the jolliest hell."
Tamara was almost repulsed. How could one be so odd as this man? she thought. Was he a type, or was he mad, or just only most annoyingly attractive and different from any one else? She found herself thrilled. Then with a subtle change he turned and almost tenderly wrapped the rug, which had blown a little down, more securely round her.
"You have such a small white face," he said, the words a caress. "One must see that you are warm and the naughty winds do not blow you away."
Tamara shivered; she could not have told why.
After this the conversation became general.
Millicent joined in with her obvious remarks. The sea was much smoother; they would be able to eat some dinner; she had heard there was a gipsy troupe on board in the third-class, and how nice it would be to have some music!
And something angered Tamara in the way the Prince assisted in all this, out-commonplacing her friend in commonplaces with the suavest politeness, while his grave face betrayed him not even by a twinkle in the eye. Only when he caught hers; then he laughed a sudden short laugh, and he whispered:
"What a perfect woman! everything in the right place. Heaven! at the best times she would do her knitting, and hand one a child every year! I'll marry when I can find a wife like that!"
Tamara was furious. She resented his ridicule of Millicent, and she was horrified at the whole speech; so, gathering her rug together, she said she was cold, and asked Mr. Strong to pace the deck with her. Nor would she take the faintest further notice of the Prince, until they all went below to the evening meal.
At dinner he seemed to be practically a stranger again. He was Tamara's neighbor, but he risked no startling speeches; in fact, he hardly spoke to her, contenting himself with discussing seafaring matters with the captain, and an occasional remark to Stephen Strong, who sat beyond Mrs. Hardcastle. It was unnecessary for her to have decided beforehand to snub him; he did not give her the chance.
On Monday they heard they would arrive at Brindisi on the Tuesday morning, and Tamara persuaded Mrs. Hardcastle to agree to disembarking there instead of going on to Trieste.
"We shall be home all the sooner," she said. And so it was settled. But there was still all Monday to be got through.
It was a perfect day, the blue Mediterranean was not belying its name. Tamara felt in great spirits, as she came on deck at about eleven o'clock, to find Millicent taking a vigorous walk round and round with the Russian Prince. They seemed to be laughing and chattering like old friends. Again Tamara resented it.
"He is only making fun of poor Millie," she thought, "who never sees a thing," and she settled herself in her chair and let her eyes feast on the blue sea——
What should she do with her life? This taste of change and foreign skies had unsettled her. How could she return to Underwood and the humdrum everyday existence there? She seemed to see it mapped out on a plain as one who stood on a mountain. She seemed to realize that always there had been dormant in her some difference from the others. She remembered now how often she perceived things that none of them saw, and she knew it was because of this that it had grown into a habit with her from early childhood to suppress the expression of her thoughts, and keep them to herself—until outwardly, at all events, she was of the same stolid mould as her family. The dears! they could not help it.
But about one point she was determined. She would think and act for herself in future. Aunt Clara's frown should not prohibit any book or any action. The world should teach her what it could.
Tamara had received a solid education; now she would profit by it, and instead of letting all her knowledge lie like a bulb in a root-house, she would plant it and tend it, and would hope to see sweet flowers springing forth.
"Next summer I shall be twenty-five years old," she said to herself, "and the whole thing has been a waste."
Each time the energetic promenaders passed her chair she heard a few words of their conversation, on hunting often, and the dogs, and the children, Bertie's cleverness, and Muriel's chickenpox, but always the Prince seemed interested and polite.
Presently the old man, Stephen Strong, came up and took Mrs. Hardcastle's chair.
"May I disturb your meditations?" he said. "You look so wise."
"No, I am foolish," Tamara answered. "Now you who know the world must come and talk and teach me its meaning."
He was rather a wonderful old man, Stephen Strong, purely English to look at, and purely cosmopolitan in habits and life. He had been in the diplomatic service years ago, and had been in Egypt in the gorgeous Ismail time; then a fortune came his way, and he traveled the earth over. There were years spent in Vienna and Petersburg and Paris, and always the early winter back in the land of the Sphinx.
"The world," he said, as he arranged himself in the chair, "is an extremely pleasant place if one takes it as it is, and does not quarrel with it. One must not be intolerant, and one must not be hypercritical. See it all and make allowances for the weakness of the human beings who inhabit it."
"Yes," said Tamara, "I know you are right; but so many of us belong to a tribe who think their point of view the only one. I do, for instance; that is why I say I am foolish."
The walkers passed again.
"There is a type for you to study," Stephen Strong said. "Prince Milaslvski. I have known him for many years, since he was a child almost; he is about twenty-nine or thirty now, and really a rather interesting personality."
"Yes," said Tamara, honestly, "I feel that. Tell me about him?"
Stephen Strong lit a cigar and puffed for a few seconds, then he settled himself with the air of a person beginning a narrative.
"He came into his vast fortune rather too young, and lived rather fiercely. His mother was a Basmanoff; that means a kind of Croesus in Russia. He is a great favorite with the powers that be, and is in the Cossacks of the Escort. Something in their wild freedom appealed to him more than any other corps. He is a Cossack himself on the mother's side, and the blood is all rather wild, you know."
Tamara looked as she felt—interested.
"They tell the most tremendous stories about him," the old man went on, "hugely exaggerated, of course; but the fact remains, he is a fascinating, restless, dauntless character."
"What sort of stories?" asked Tamara, timidly.
"Not all fit for your ears, gentle lady," laughed Stephen Strong. "Sheer devilment, mostly. It was the amusement in the beginning to dare him to anything, the maddest feats. He ran off with a nun once, it is said, for a bet, and deposited her in the house of the man she had loved before her vows were taken. That was in Poland. Then he has orgies sometimes at his country place, when every one is mad for three days on end. It causes terrible scandal. Then he comes back like a lamb, and purrs to all the old ladies. They say he obeys neither God nor the Devil—only the Emperor on this earth."
"How dreadful!" force of habit made Tamara say, while her thoughts unconsciously ran into interested fascination.
"He is absolutely fearless, and as cool as an Englishman, and there are not any mean things told about him, though," Steven Strong continued, "and indeed sometimes he lives the simplest country life with his horses and dogs, and his own people worship him, I believe. But there is no wildest prank he is incapable of if his blood is up."
"I think he looks like it," said Tamara. "Is it because he habitually wears uniform that his ordinary clothes fit so badly? To our eyes he seems dressed like some commis voyageur."
"Of course," said Stephen Strong. "And even in Paris I don't suppose you would approve of him in that respect, but if you could see him in Petersburg, then I believe you would be like all the rest."
"All which rest?" asked Tamara.
"Women. They simply adore him. Bohemians, great ladies, actresses, dancers, and——"
He was just going to mention those of another world, when he felt Tamara would hardly understand him, so he stopped short.
Something in her rose up in arms.
"It shows how foolish they are," she said.
Stephen Strong glanced at her sideways, and if she could have read his thoughts they were:
"This sweet Englishwoman is under Gritzko's spell already, and how she is battling against it! She won't have a chance, though, if he makes up his mind to win."
But Tamara, for all her gentle features, was no weakling; only her life had been a long hibernation; and now the spring had come, and soon the time of the finding of honey and a new life.
"What can he be talking about to my friend, Mr. Strong?" she asked, as the two passed again. "Millicent is one of the last women he can have anything in common with; she would simply die of horror if she heard any of these stories—and he can't be interested in a word she says."
"He always does the unexpected," and Stephen Strong laughed as he said it. He himself was amused at this ill-matched pair.
"Mrs. Hardcastle is agreeable to look at, too," he continued.
Tamara smiled scornfully.
"That is the lowest view to take. One should be above material appearance."
"Charming lady!" said Stephen Strong. "Yes, indeed you do not know the world."
Tamara was not angry. She looked at him and smiled, showing her beautiful teeth.
"Of course you think me a goose," she said, "but I warned you I was one. Tell me, shall I ever grow out of it—tell me, you who know?"
"If the teacher is young and handsome enough to make your heart beat," said her old companion. And then Millicent and the Prince joined them.
Mrs. Hardcastle's round blue eyes were flashing brightly, and her fresh face was aglow with exercise and enjoyment.
"Tamara dear, you are too incorrigibly lazy. Why do you sit here instead of taking exercise? and you have no idea of the interesting things the Prince has been telling me. All about a Russian poet called—oh, I can't pronounce the name, but who wrote of a devil—not exactly Faust, you know, though something like it."
Tamara noticed that amused, whimsical, mocking gleam in the Cossack's great eyes, but Millicent went gaily on, unconscious of anything but herself.
"I mean those mythical, strange sort of devils who come to earth, you know, and—and—make love to ladies—a sort of Satan like in Marie Corelli's lovely book. You remember, Tamara, the one you were so funny about, laughing when you read it."
"You mean 'The Demon' of Lermontoff, probably, Millicent, don't you?" Tamara said. "A friend of my mother's translated it into English, and I have known it since I was a child. I think it must be very fine in the original," and she looked at the Prince.
In one moment his face became serious and sympathetic.
"You know our great poet's work, then?" he said, surprised. "One would not have thought it!"
Then again Tamara's anger rose. There was always the insinuation in his remarks, seemingly unconscious, and therefore the more irritating, that she was a commonplace fool.
"Her name—the heroine's—is the same as my own," she said, gravely; but there was a challenge in her eyes.
"Tamara!" he said. "Well—it could be—a devil might come your way, but you would kneel and pray, and eat bonbons, and not listen to him."
"It would depend upon the devil," she said.
"Those who live the longest will see the most," and the Prince put back his head and laughed with real enjoyment at his thoughts, just as he had done when the two goats had butted at one another in the road.
Tamara felt her cheeks blaze with rage, but she would not enter the lists, in spite of the late challenge in her eyes.
Mr. Strong had vacated Millicent's chair and taken his own. The party soon settled into their legitimate places, and Tamara again took up her book.
"No, don't read," the Prince said. "You get angry at once with me when we talk, and the red comes into your cheeks, and I like it."
Exasperation was almost uncontrollable in Tamara. She remained silent, only the little ear next the Prince burned scarlet.
"Some day you will come to Russia," he said, "and then you will learn many things."
"I have no desire to go there," said Tamara, lying frankly, as it had always been her great wish, and indeed her godmother, who never forgot her, had often begged her to visit that northern clime; but Russia!—as well have suggested the moon at Underwood.
"It would freeze you, perhaps, or burn you—who can tell?" the Prince said. "One would see when you got there. I have an old lady, a dear friend, with white hair and a mole on her cheek—someone who sees straight. She would be good for your education."
Tamara thought it would be wiser not to show any further annoyance, so she said lightly:
"Yes, I am only sixteen, and have never left the schoolroom; it would be delightful to be taught how to live."
He turned and smiled at her.
"You hardly look any more—twenty, perhaps, and—never kissed!"
A memory rose up of a scorched neck, and suddenly Tamara's long eyelashes rested on her cheek.
Then into his splendid eyes came a fierce, savage, passionate gleam, which she did not see, but dimly felt, and he said in a low voice a little thick:
"And—as—yet—never really kissed."
"Milly," said Tamara, as calmly as she could, "what time do we get into Brindisi to-morrow morning? And think of it, on Thursday night we shall be at home."
Home seemed so very safe!
The Prince did not come in to luncheon, something was the matter with his Arab horse, and he had gone to see to it just before—a concern on his face as of the news of illness to his nearest kin.
Tamara was gay and charming, and laughed with Stephen Strong and the captain in quite an unusual way for her. They both thought her an adorable woman. Poor Tamara! and so she really was.
About tea-time Prince Milaslvski turned up again.
"He is all right now," he said, sure that his listeners were in perfect sympathy with him. "It was those fools down there. I have made them suffer, I can say," and then he turned to Stephen Strong. "Among the steerage there is an Alexandrian gipsy troupe. I have ordered them up to sing to us to-night, since Madame wished it," and he turned upon Millicent an air of deep devotion.
"Common ragged creatures, but one with some ankles and one with a voice. In any case, we must celebrate these ladies' last night."
And thus the terrible present end to their acquaintance fell about!
Nothing could have been more charming than the Prince was until dinner-time, and indeed through that meal, only he made Stephen Strong change places with him, so that he might be next Mrs. Hardcastle, much to that lady's delight.
"He is really too fascinating," she said, as she came into Tamara's cabin to fetch her for the evening meal. "I hardly think Henry would like his devotion to me. What do you think, dear?"
"I am sure he would be awfully jealous, Milly darling; you really must be careful," Tamara said. And with a conscious air of complacent pleasantly tickled virtue Mrs. Hardcastle led the way to the saloon.
It was not possible, Tamara thought, that anything so terribly unpleasant as the Prince's having too much champagne at dinner, could have accounted for his simply scandalous behavior after; and yet surely that would have been the kindest thing to say. But, no, it was not that.
This was, in brief, the scene which was enacted on the upper deck:
With the permission of the captain, the gipsy troupe were brought, and began their performance, tame enough at the commencement until the Prince gave orders for them to be supplied with unlimited champagne, and then the wildest dancing began. They writhed and gesticulated and undulated in a manner which made Millicent cling on to her chair, grow crimson in the face, and finally start to her feet.
But the worst happened when the Prince rose and, taking a tambourine, began, with a weird shriek, to beat it wildly, his eyes ablaze and his lips apart.
Then, seizing the chief dancer and banging it upon her head, he held his arm about her heaving breast, as she turned to him with a serpentine movement of voluptuous delight.
In a second he had caught hold of her, and had lifted and swung her far out over the dark blue waters, then, with a swirl to the side, held her suspended in the air above the open deck below.
"Ha, ha!" yelled the troupe, in frenzied pleasure, and, nimble as a cat, one rough dark man rushed down the ladder and caught the hanging woman in his arms. Then they all clapped and cheered and shrieked with joy, while the Prince, putting his hands in his pockets, pulled out heaps of gold and flung it among them.
"Back to hell, rats!" he shouted, laughing. "See, you have frightened the ladies. You should all be killed!"
For Tamara and Millicent had risen, and with stately steps had quitted the scene.
It was all too terrible and too vulgarly melodramatic, Tamara thought, especially that touching of the woman and that flinging of the gold, the latter caused by the same barbaric instinct which made him throw the silver in the Sheikh's village by the moonlit Sphinx, only this was worse a thousandfold.
The next morning the two ladies left the ship at Brindisi before either the Prince or Stephen Strong was awake. Both were silent upon the subject of the night before, until Millicent at last said when they were in the train:
"Tamara—you won't tell Henry or your family, will you, dear? Because really, last night he was so fascinating—but that dancing! I am sure you feel, with me, we could have died of shame."
When Tamara reached Underwood and saw a letter from her Russian godmother among the pile which awaited her, she felt it was the finger of fate, and when she read it and found it contained not only New Year's wishes, but an invitation couched in affectionate and persuasive terms that she should visit St. Petersburg, she suddenly, and without consulting her family, decided she would go.
"There is something drawing me to Russia," she said to herself. "One gets into the current of things. I felt it in the air. And why should I hesitate now I am free? Why should I not accept, just because one Russian man has horrified me. It is, I suppose, a big city, and perhaps I shall never see him there."
So she announced her decision to the dumfounded household, and in less than a week took the Nord Express.
"The Court, alas! is in mourning,"—her godmother had written,— "so you will see no splendid Court balls, but I daresay we can divert you otherwise, Tamara, and I am so anxious to make the acquaintance of my godchild."
The morning after she left them Aunt Clara expressed herself thus at breakfast:
"I see a great and most unwelcome change in dear Tamara since she returned from Egypt, I had hoped Millicent Hardcastle would be all that was steadying and well-balanced as a companion for her, but it seems this modern restlessness has got into her blood. I tremble to think what ideas she will bring from Russia. Almost savages they are there!— She may be sent to Siberia or something dreadful, and we may never see her again."
"Oh! come Aunt Clara!" Tom Underdown protested, as he buttered his toast. "I think you are a little behind the times. There is a Russian at Oxford with me and he is the decentest chap in the world. You speak as though they almost lived on raw fish!"
"My dear Tom," said Miss Underdown, severely. "I was reading only yesterday, in the 'Christian Clarion,' how one of their Emperors cut off everyone's head. Dreadful customs they have, it seems; and one of their Empresses—Catherine, I think; her name was. Well, dear, it is too shocking to speak of—and most people were sent to the mines!"
"Oh! hang it all, Aunt Clara, you can't have looked at the date! You can hunt up just those jolly kind of stories about our Henry VIII. if you want to, you know, and our Elizabeth wasn't the saint they made out. And as for Siberia, I am going there myself some day, on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Tamara will be all right. I wish to heavens she had taken me with her. We have got dry rot in this house, that is what is the matter with us!"
"Tom!" almost gasped Miss Underdown. "Your manners are extremely displeasing, and the tone of your remarks is far from what one could wish!"
Meanwhile Tamara was speeding on her way to the North, her interest and excitement in her journey deepening with each mile.
The snow and the vast forests impressed her from the train windows. Every smallest shade made its effect upon her brain. Tamara was sensitive to all form and color. She was a person who apprehended things, and from the habit of keeping all her observations to herself perhaps the faculty of perception had grown the keener.
The silence seemed to be the first thing she remarked on reaching the frontier. The porters were so grave and quiet, with their bearded kindly faces, many of them like the saints and Biblical characters in Sunday-school picture books at home.
And finally she arrived at St. Petersburg, and found her godmother waiting for her on the platform. They recognized each other immediately. Tamara had several photographs of the Princess Ardcheff.
"Welcome, ma filleule," that lady cried, while she shook her hand. "After all these years I can have you in my house."
They said all sorts of mutually agreeable things on their way thither, and they looked at each other shyly.
"She is not beautiful," ran the Princess' comments. "Though she has a superb air of breeding—that is from her poor mother—but her eyes are her father's eyes. She is very sweet, and what a lovely skin—yes, and eyelashes—and probably a figure when one can see beneath the furs— tall and very slender in any case. Yes, I am far from disappointed— far."
And Tamara thought:
"My godmother is a splendid looking lady! I like her bright brown eyes and that white hair; and what a queer black mole upon her left cheek, like an early eighteenth-century beauty spot. Where have I heard lately of someone with a mole———?
"You fortunately see our city with a fresh mantle of snow, Tamara," the Princess said, glancing from the automobile window as they sped along. "It is not, alas! always so white as this."
It appeared wonderful to Tamara—so quite unlike anything she had imagined. The tiny sleighs seemingly too ridiculously small for the enormously padded coachman on the boxes—the good horses with their sweeping tails—the unusual harness. And, above all, again the silence caused by the snow.
Her first remark was almost a childish one of glee and appreciation, and then she stopped short. What would her godmother think of such an outburst! She must return to the contained self-repression of the time before her visit to the Sphinx—surely in this strange land!
The Princess Ardcheff's frank face was illuminated with a smile.
"She is extremely young," she thought, "in spite of her widowhood, but I like her, and I know we shall be friends."
Just then they arrived at her house in the Serguiefskaia. It had not appeared to Tamara that they were approaching any particularly fashionable quarter. A fine habitation seemed the neighbor of quite a humble one, and here there was even a shop a few doors down, and except for the very tall windows there was nothing exceptionally imposing on the outside. But when they entered the first hall and the gaily- liveried suisse and two footmen had removed their furs, and the Princess' snow boots, then Tamara perceived she was indeed in a glorious home.
Princess Ardcheff's house was, and is, perhaps the most stately in all Petersburg.
As they ascended the enormous staircase dividing on the first landing, and reaching the surrounding galleries above in two sweeps, a grave major-domo and more footmen met them, and opened wide the doors of a lofty room. It was full of fine pictures and objets d'art, and though the furniture dated from the time of Alexander II., and even a little earlier—when a flood of frightful taste pervaded all Europe—still the stuffs and the colors were beautiful and rich, and time had softened their crudity into a harmonious whole.
Be the decorations of a house what they will, it is the mistress of it who gives the rooms their soul. If hers is vulgar, so will the rooms be, even though Monsieur Nelson himself has but just designed them in purest Louis XVI. But the worst of all are those which look as though their owner constantly attended bazaars, and brought the superfluous horrors she secured there back with her. Then there are vapid rooms, and anaemic rooms, and fiddly, and messy rooms, and there are monuments of wealth with no individuality at all.
Tamara felt all these nuances directly, and she knew that here dwelt a woman of natural refinement and a broad outlook.
She sank into an old-fashioned sofa, covered with silk a quarter of an inch thick, and the atmosphere seemed to breathe life and completeness.
Tea and quantities of different little bonnes bouches awaited them. But if there was a samovar she did not recognize it as such; in fact, she had seen nothing which many writers describe as "Russian."
The Princess talked on in a fashion of perfect simplicity and directness. She told her that her friends would all welcome her and be glad that an Englishwoman should really see their country, and find it was not at all the grotesque place which fancy painted it.
"We are so far away that you do not even imagine us," she said. "You English have read that there was an Ivan the Terrible and a Peter the Great, who crushed through your Evelyn's hedges, and was a giant of seven foot high! Many of you believe wolves prowl in the streets at night, and that among the highest society Nihilists stalk, disguised as heaven knows what! While the sudden disappearance of a member of any great or small family can be accounted for by a nocturnal visit of police, and a transportation in chains to Siberian mines! Is it not so, Tamara?"
Tamara laughed. "Yes, indeed," she said. "I am sure that is what Aunt Clara thinks now! Are we not a ridiculously insular people, Marraine?"
She said the last word timidly and put out her hand. "May I call you Marraine, Princess?" she asked. "I never knew my mother, and it sounds nice."
"Indeed, yes!" the Princess said, and she rose and kissed Tamara. "Your mother was very dear to me, long ago, before you were born, we spent a wild season together of youth and happiness. You shall take the place of my child Tamara, if she had lived."
Before they had finished drinking their tea, other guests came in—a tall old General in a beautiful uniform, and two ladies, one young and the other old. They all spoke English perfectly, and were so agreeable and sans faon, Tamara's first impression was distinctly good.
Presently she heard the elder lady say to her godmother:
"Have you seen Gritzko since his return, Vera? One hears he has a wild fit on and is at Milaslv with———" the rest of the words were almost whispered. Tamara found herself unpleasantly on the alert—how ridiculous, though, she thought—Gritzko!—there might be a dozen Gritzkos in Petersburg.
"No, he returns tonight," Princess Ardcheff said; "but I never listen to these tales, and as no matter what he does we all forgive him, and let him fly back into our good graces as soon as he purses up that handsome mouth of his—it is superfluous to make critiques upon his conduct—it seems to me!"
The lady appeared to agree to this, for she laughed, and they talked of other things, and soon all left.
And when they were gone—"Tonight I have one or two of my nicest friends dining," the Princess said, "whom I wish you to know, so I thought if you rested now you would not be too tired for a little society," and she carried Tamara off to her warm comfortable bedroom, an immense apartment in gorgeous Empire taste, and here was a great bunch of roses to greet her, and her maid could be seen unpacking in the anti-chamber beyond.
The company, ten or twelve of them, were all assembled when Tamara reached one of the great salons, which opened from the galleries surrounding the marble hall. She came in—a slender willowy creature, with a gentle smile of contrition—was she late?
And then the presentations took place. What struck her first was that dark or fair, fat-faced or thin, high foreheads or low, all the ladies wore coiffes exactly the same—the hair brushed up from the forehead and tightly onduls. It gave a look of universal distinction, but in some cases was not very becoming. They were beautifully dressed in mourning, and no one seemed to have much of a complexion, from an English point of view, but before the end of the evening Tamara felt she had never met women with such charm. Surely no other country could produce the same types, perfectly simple in manner—perfectly at ease. Extremely highly educated, with a wide range of subjects, and a knowledge of European literature which must be unsurpassed. Afterwards when she knew them better she realized that here was one place left in Europe where there were no parvenues and no snobs—or if there were any, they were beautifully concealed. Such absolute simplicity and charm can only stay in a society where no one is trying "to arrive," all being there naturally by birth. There could be no room for the mtier adopted by several impecunious English ladies of title—that of foisting anyone, however unsuitable, upon society and their friends for a well-gilded consideration.
In Russia, at least, it is the round peg in the round hole. No square peg would have a chance of admission. Thus there are the ease and elegance of one large and interesting family.
It seemed to Tamara that each one was endowed with natural fascination. They made no "frais" for her. There were no compliments or gushing welcomes. They were just casual and delightful and made her feel at home and happy with them all.
They took "Zacouska" in an ante-room. Such quantities of strange dishes! There seemed enough for a whole meal, and Tamara wondered how it would be possible to eat anything further! At dinner she sat between a tall old Prince and a diplomat. The uniforms pleased her and the glorious pearls of the ladies. Such pearls—worth a king's ransom!
Then she was interested to see the many different sorts of wine, and the extreme richness of the food, and finally the shortness of the meal.
The pretty custom of the men kissing the hostess' hand as they all left the dining-room together, she found delightful.
They were drinking coffee in the blue salon, and most of the party had retired to the bridge tables laid out, and Tamara, who played too badly, sat by the fire with her godmother and another lady, when suddenly the door opened and, with an air of complete insouciance and assurance, Prince Milaslvski came in.
"I want some coffee, Tantine," he said, kissing the Princess' hand, while he nodded to everyone else. "I was passing and so came in to get it."
"Gritzko—back again!" the whole company cried, and the Princess, beaming upon him fond smiles, gave him the coffee, while she murmured her glad welcome.
The society now began to chaff him as to his doings, which he took with the utmost sang froid.
"That old cat of a Marianne Mariuski sets about as usual one of her stories. I am having an orgie at Milaslv, and this time with a seraglio of Egyptian houris—the truth being I only brought back by the merest chance one small troupe of Alexandrian dancers, and two performing bears. They made us laugh for three days, Serge, Sasha, and the rest!"
"Gritzko, will you never learn wisdom," said one lady, the Princess Shbanoff, plaintively, while the others all laughed. "Were they pretty, and what were they like?" they asked.
"The bears?—little angels, especially Fatima,—and with the manners of Princesses," and he bowed to an old lady who was surveying him severely through her pince-nez, while she held her cards awry. "Which reminds me we are failing in ours, Tantine, you have not presented me to the English lady, who is, I perceive, a stranger."
During all this Tamara had sat cold and silent. She was angry with herself that this man's entrance should cause her such emotion—or rather commotion and sensation. Why should he make her feel nervous and stupid, unsure of herself, and uncertain what to do. Invariably he placed her at some disadvantage, and left the settling of their relations to himself. Whereas all such regulations ought to have been in her hands. Now she was without choice again, she could only bow stiffly as her godmother said his name and her name, and Prince Milaslvski took a chair by her side and began making politenesses as though he were really a stranger.
Had she just arrived? Did she find Russia very cold? Was she going to stay long? etc., etc.
To all of which Tamara answered in monosyllables, while two bright spots of rose color burned in her cheeks.
The Prince was astonishingly good looking in his Cossack's uniform, and his eyes had a laugh in them, but a shadow round as if bed had not seen him for several nights.
His whole manner to Tamara was different from any shade it had formerly worn. It was as if a courtly Russian were welcoming an honored guest in his aunt's house.
He did not mock or tease, or announce startling truths; he was pleasant and ordinary and serene.
He and the Princess Ardcheff were no real blood relations; the first wife of her late husband had been his mother's sister, but the tradition of aunt had gone on in the family and the Princess loved him almost as a son. He had always called her "Tantine" as though she had been his real aunt.
"What did you think of Gritzko Milaslvski, Tamara?" she asked, when all the guests were gone, and the two had retired to Tamara's room. "He is one of the dearest characters when you know him—but a terrible tease."
"He seemed very pleasant," Tamara said blankly, while she picked up a book. Even to speak of him caused her unease.
"He is not at all the type of an ordinary Russian," the Princess continued. "He has traveled so much, he is so fin there is almost a French touch in him. I am afraid you will find our young men rather dull as a rule. They are very hard worked at their military duties, and have not much time for les dames du monde."
"No?" said Tamara. "Well, the women seem to make up for it. I have never met so many clever delightful ones."
"It is our education," the Princess said. "You see from babyhood we learn many languages, and thus the literatures of countries are open to us before we begin to analyze anything, and English especially we know well, because in that language there are so many books for young girls."
"In England," said Tamara, "what may be given to young girls seems to rule everything, no one is allowed a thought for herself, every idea almost is brought down to that dead level—one rebels after a while— but tell me, Marraine, if I may ask, what makes them all so tired and gray looking, the people I have seen tonight I mean. Do they sit up very late at parties, or what is it?"
"In the season, yes, but it is not that, it is our climate and our hot closed-up rooms, and the impossibility of taking proper exercise. In the summer you will not know them for the same faces."
And then she kissed her goddaughter good-night, but just at the door she paused. "You were not shocked about the Alexandrian dancers, I hope, child?" she said. "If one knew the truth, they were poor people who were starving, probably, and Gritzko paid them money and helped them out of the kindness of his heart—those are the sort of things he generally does I find when I investigate, so I never pay attention to what he says."
Tamara, left to herself, gazed into the glowing embers of her wood fire.
"I wonder—I wonder," she said. But what she wondered she hardly dared admit—even to herself.
The next day was the last of the Russian old year—the 13th of January new style—and when Tamara appeared about ten o'clock in her godmother's own sitting-room, a charming apartment full of the most interesting miniatures and bibelots collected by the great Ardcheff, friend of Catherine II., she found the Princess already busy at her writing table.
"Good-morning, my child," she said. "You behold me up and working at a time when most of my countrywomen are not yet in their baths. We keep late hours here in the winter, while it is dark and cold. You will get quite accustomed to going to bed at two and rising at ten; but to-night, if it pleases you to fall in with what is on the tapis for you, I fear it will be even four in the morning before you sleep. Prince Milaslvski has telephoned that he gives a party at his house on the Fontonka, to dine first and then go on to a caf to hear the Bohemians sing. It is a peculiarity of the place these Bohemians—we shall drink in the New Year and then go. It will not bore you. No? Then it is decided," and she pressed a lovely little Faberger enamel bell which lay on the table near, and one of the innumerable servants, who seemed to be always waiting in the galleries, appeared. She spoke to him in Russian, and then took up the telephone by her side, and presently was in communication with the person she had called.
"It is thou, Gritzko? Awake? Of course she is awake, and here in the room. Yes, it is arranged—we dine—not until nine o'clock?—you cannot be in before. Bon. Now promise you will be good.—Indeed, yes.—Of course any English lady would be shocked at you—So!—I tell you she is in the room—pray be more discreet," and she smiled at Tamara, and then continued her conversation. "No, I will not talk in Russian, it is very rude.—If you are not completely sage at dinner we shall not go on.— I am serious! Well, good-bye,"—and with a laugh the Princess put the receiver down.
"He says nothing would shock you—he is sure you understand the world! Well, we must amuse ourselves, and try and restrain him if he grows too wild."
"He is often wild, then?" Tamara said.
The Princess rose and stood by the window looking out on the thickly falling snow.
"I am afraid—a little—yes, though never in the wrong situation; above all things Gritzko is a gentleman; but sometimes I wish he would take life less as a game. One cannot help speculating how it can end."
"Has he no family?" Tamara asked.
"No, everyone is dead. His mother worshipped him, but she died when he was scarcely eighteen, and his father before that. His mother is his adored memory. In all the mad scenes which he and his companions, I am afraid, have enacted in the Fontonka house, there is one set of rooms no one has dared to enter—her rooms—and he keeps flowers there, and an ever-burning lamp. There is a strange touch of sentiment and melancholy in Gritzko, and of religion too. Sometimes I think he is unhappy, and then he goes off to his castle in the Caucasus or to Milaslv, and no one sees him for weeks. Last year we hoped he would marry a charming Polish girl—he quite paid her attention for several nights; but he said she laughed one day when he felt sad, and answered seriously when he was gay, and made crunching noises with her teeth when she eat biscuits!—and her mother was fat and she might grow so too! And for these serious reasons he could not face her at breakfast for the rest of his life! Thus that came to an end. No one has any influence upon him. I have given up trying. One must accept him as he is, or leave him alone—he will go his own way."
Tamara had ceased fighting with herself about the interest she took in conversations relating to the Prince. She could not restrain her desire to hear of him, but she explained it now by telling herself he was a rather lurid and unusual foreign character, which must naturally be an interesting study for a stranger.
"It was an escape for the girl at least, perhaps," she said, when the Princess paused.
"Of that I am not sure; he is so tender to children and animals, and his soul is full of generosity and poetry—and justice too. Poor Gritzko," and the Princess sighed.
Then Tamara remembered their conversation during their night ride from the Sphinx, and she felt again the humiliating certainty of how commonplace he must have found her.
Presently the Princess took her to see the house. Every room filled with relics of the grand owners who had gone before. There were portraits of Peter the Great, and the splendid Catherine, in almost every room.
"An Empress so much misjudged in your country, Tamara," her godmother said. "She had the soul and the necessities of a man, but she was truly great."
Tamara gazed up at the proud dbonnaire face, and she thought how at home they would think of the most unconventional part of her character, to the obliteration of all other aspects, and each moment she was realizing how ridiculous and narrow was the view from the standpoint from which she had been made to look at life.
For luncheon quite a number of guests arrived, the Princess, she found afterward, was hardly ever alone.
"I don't care to go out, Tamara, as a rule, to djeuner," she said, "but I love my house to be filled with young people and mirth."
The names were very difficult for Tamara to catch, especially as they all called each other by their petits noms—all having been friends since babyhood, if not, as often was the case, related by ties of blood; but at last she began to know that "Olga" was the Countess Glboff, and "Sonia," the Princess Solentzeff-Zasiekin—both young, under thirty, and both attractive and quite sans gne.
"Olga" was little and plump, with an oval face and rather prominent eyes, but with a way of saying things which enchanted Tamara's ear. Her manner was casualness itself, and had a wonderful charm; and another thing struck her now that she saw them in daylight, not a single woman present—and there were six or seven at least—had even the slightest powder on her face. They were as nature made them, not the faintest aid from art in any way. "They cannot be at all coquette like the French," she thought, "or even like us in England, or they could not all do their hair like that whether it suits them or no! But what charm they have—much more than we, or the French, or any one I know."
They were all so amusing and gay at lunch and talked of teeny scandals with a whimsical humor at themselves for being so small, which was delightful, and no one said anything spiteful or mean. Quantities of pleasant things were planned, and Tamara found her days arranged for a week ahead.
That night, as they drove to Prince Milaslvski's dinner, an annoying sense of excitement possessed Tamara. She refused to ask herself why. Curiosity to see the house of this strange man—most likely—in any case, emotion enough to make her eyes bright.
It was one of the oldest houses in Petersburg, built in the time of Catherine, about 1768, and although in a highly florid rococo style of decoration, as though something gorgeous and barbaric had amalgamated with the Louis XV., still it had escaped the terrible wave of 1850 vandalism, and stood, except for a few Empire rooms, a monument of its time.
Everything about it interested Tamara. The strange Cossack servants in the hall; the splendid staircase of stone and marble, and then finally they reached the salons above.
"One can see no woman lives here," she thought, though the one they entered was comfortable enough. Huge English leather armchairs elbowed some massively gilt seats of the time of Nicholas I., and an ugly English high fender with its padded seat, surrounded the blazing log fire.
The guests were all assembled, but host, there was not!
"What an impertinence to keep them waiting like this," Tamara thought! However, no one seemed to mind but herself, and they all stood laughing or sitting on the fender in the best of spirits.
"I will bet you," said Olga Glboff, in her attractive voice, "that Gritzko comes in with no apology, and that we shall none of us be able to drag from him where he has been!"
As she spoke he entered the room.
"Ah! you are all very early," he said, shaking their hands in frank welcome. "So good of you, dear friends. Perhaps I am a little late, you will forgive me, I know; and now for Zacouska, a wolf is tearing at my vitals, I feel, and yours too. It is nine o'clock!"
Then the dining-room doors at the side opened and they all went in en bande, and gathered round the high table, where they began to eat like hungry natural people, selecting the dishes they wanted. Some of the men taking immense spoonfuls of caviare, and spreading them on bread, like children with jam. All were so joyous and so perfectly without ceremony. Nothing could be more agreeable than this society, Tamara thought.