Author of "The House of De Mailly" "Istar of Babylon" Etc. Etc.
London and New York Harper & Brothers Publishers 1906 Copyright, 1906, by Harper & Brothers. All rights reserved. Published March, 1906.
TO MY BROTHER EDWARD CLEMENT POTTER
Prologue 3 I. The Czar's Ball 8 II. Michael 26 III. The Gregoriev Heir 42 IV. The Corps of Cadets 60 V. Death Joy 75 VI. Nathalie 90 VII. Spring and the Rose 105 VIII. In Camp 126 IX. "Half-gods Go" 156 X. Self-Destiny 184 XI. The Moscow Conservatoire 202 XII. The Gods Arrive 226 XIII. Student's Folly 255 XIV. The Third Section 272 XV. Engulfment 285 XVI. Joseph 302 XVII. Heritage 319 VIII. Joseph the Sower 337 XIX. His Harvest 353 XX. Madame Feodoreff 364 XXI. Tosca Regnant 381 XXII. The Lion 400 XXIII. The Hermit 427 Epilogue 446
Hark, ye Great, that withdraw yourselves from the Multitude! Loneliness is written for your word. Alone shall ye strive to solve the riddle of Creation.
Seek ye help of them that have gone before? Ye shall find it not. Dream ye of sympathy, of praise, from those that watch your work to-day? They shall give ye rather mockery. Finally, would ye leave to your children legacies of wisdom that shall be as gold unto them? Lo! Such desire, also, must be vain.
Dowered of Vision, Power or Wantonness, ye shall not escape this scourge of Fate. Alone shall ye cut your way through the rock of Destiny up to the High Place of Restitution. Yea! Solitary shall your labor be. But out of solitude cometh, in good time, that Understanding of the Law that all, at last, must seek—and find.
In the Western world of the revised calendar it was the evening of January twelfth. In Russia it was New Year's night, of the year 1840. The year was twenty-three hours old; for the bells of the three churches in Klin had just chimed eleven times. But in "Maidonovo," a country-place of the Gregorievs just outside the town, the mistress of the house, Princess Sophia, had not yet gone to bed. She had been alone in her bedroom for some time, and was now on her knees before a little shrine presided over by a great, golden ikon, with its flaring colors, and stiff, Byzantine figures of Mary and the infant Christ. There, before the World-Mother, knelt the loneliest of unhappy women: daughter of an old, impoverished Muscovite house, and wife, by necessity, of Michael Gregoriev, a man of millions, chief of the Third Section in Moscow: an official after the heart of the Iron Czar, and of Satan, his master, too.
For nearly an hour the Princess had knelt on a heavily rugged floor, her eyes lifted to the face of the Virgin, her lips revealing, in those whispers that had become part of her life, the ever-living anguish of her heart. She was in her thirty-third year, poor creature: had known now sixteen years of married life—sixteen years of revelation, of repulsion mental and physical, of misery not to be told. One by one her little illusions, fancies, hopes, and, with them, all the graces of her youth, had fallen from her, till there remained but a shadowy, faded creature, holding, in the depths of her bruised soul, just one more desire, one final hope, of which the very possibility was by this time all but extinguished.
Yet it was of this hope she was speaking to-night to that distant, shadowy Mary, who, her confessor had told her, can always understand and always pity. Here, in the chill silence of her lonely rooms, while the wide world without grew stiller and more still under its pale covering, the wife had gathered her last resolution together, and dared a demand of those High Immortals whose contact with humanity had ended so long ago. They had hitherto been pitiless enough with her; though this she would scarcely acknowledge even in her feeble rebellion. But she should ask them, at last, to make her a tardy restitution.
Sophia was unaware that her wish was a selfish one. It seemed so natural a thing she asked; and her mind, poor lady, was all upon herself, there being no other soul to think for her. That the helpless life she longed for would be ushered into a dreary world, too dark for bright innocence to face, never occurred to her. Her outlook had grown strangely one-sided during the past long years of constantly weakening defence.
"Mary-Mother—protect me! I have waited very long. I have done all Thy will. I have kept the fasts: have made my confessions and been absolved. I have striven so long for strength to endure—all that has been given me to endure! I have not avoided any pain, or abuse, or disgrace. I have borne without complaint all the isolation of his life, till my very family shuns me. Oh, Thy hand has lain heavy upon me, but I have not complained! Therefore, in this New Year, I come to Thee, Holy Mother, with my wish. Grant me, I beseech, that which has been given so many times to others! Give me at last a companion in my life: one that cannot leave me. Thou, holiest of women, intercede for me! Make me one with Thee! Give me, too, a child!"
Once more, and over and over again, did the frail woman make her request: so many times, indeed, and at last so fervidly, that her excitement grew, and tears came. Little by little she drooped towards the floor. Her face shone wet in the candle-light; and she clutched at the little shelf below the ikon, where a handful of flowers stood in a silver vase between the candles.
The minutes crept by. The few other lights in the big room burned low, flared, flickered, and went out. There was a vast, muffled stillness in the snow-filled air. The first night of the New Year was nearly dead. As the light in her room grew ghostlier, Princess Sophia's voice became gradually incoherent, dropped to a vague whisper, and finally ceased. She slid gently from her knees to a sitting posture, her head resting against the wall, under the little shrine. And then her eyes fell shut. She slept.
For a quarter of an hour there was no sound in the room. The last candle before the ikon at length followed the others, wavered high for an instant, and then went out. Yet, strangely, the room was not left in darkness. On the contrary, in the corner by the door had appeared a soft, misty radiance which, second by second, grew visibly more luminous. Far over the snow-fields came the clear chime of bells, ringing the midnight hour. As their echoes died, the Princess, without moving her body, opened her eyes again upon the form of a woman who had emerged from the mist and now stood near at hand, looking down at her.
Tall she was, and classically robed, this visitor. Her face, shaded by a drapery of dove blue, was as fair as sculptured marble. But there was a fire of deep compassion in her dark eyes, and her mouth was curved into the gentlest smile. The great pity in that wonderful face stirred Sophia with a sudden pang of joy; and it was long before her gaze moved from those features. But when they did, her lips parted in a faint cry; for she saw that the Mary-Mother was not alone. Her left hand was clasped by that of a child: a tiny, shadowy shape, sweet-faced and slender-limbed. Looking, Sophia's breath came fast; and leaning forward instinctively, she held out her arms. At that gesture, the stranger and her charge came forward a little more, and the holy woman spoke:
"Sophia, I come to answer your prayer, bringing with me the soul of your child."
The Princess bowed to the floor.
"Your eyes behold a little, lonely spirit, that is to be given into your care. Guard it and guide it; for the way of its life stretches far, and is difficult and long. Your paths meet for but a few years: for you are yourself nearing the end of your unhappy journey; and during these last years, comfort shall be given you. Look, then, upon the face of your son."
Swiftly the little spirit left the protecting shadow of its holy guide, and paused beside Sophia. She would have clasped the shadowy body in her eager arms, but a sense outside herself forbade this, and she could only gaze searchingly into the gentle, childish face.
"Thou art mine?—my son?" she whispered, softly.
The little creature looked up at Mary-Mother and then, at once, returned to the sad mortal at its side. The little face brightened with a smile, and the lips formed the dear word, "Mother!"
Then, immediately, darkness had fallen. The visitors from afar were gone. Sophia lay upon the bare floor beneath the ikon, fast asleep.
In a few moments the door from the hall opened hastily, and a woman's voice whispered in frightened haste:
"My lady! Khazyaceka! His Excellency Prince Michael is coming up-stairs! He is almost here!"
THE CZAR'S BALL
After the night of what she came gradually to call the Holy Dream, the years passed more swiftly, with less of inward tumult, for Sophia Ivanovna Gregoriev. It was now the close of the year 1851; and the reign of the Iron Czar was wavering towards its dark end. Meantime the son of the chief of the secret section in Moscow was eleven years and three months old: a straight-limbed, quiet child, the son of his mother. And all Sophia's recent life, that life which had entwined itself wholly about the promised babe, was mingled the inexplicable strangeness of her dream-memory. To her, New Year's night had become a sacred time; and she loved to keep a vigil through it in her own, lonely way. This year, however, it was to be marked in a different manner. For Michael Gregoriev had planned that, on the first night of 1852, he, and perforce his wife, should make a final effort to obtain that social recognition which had never been the accompaniment of his political advancement.
At this time—as, indeed, to-day, there stood, in the south-central part of trans-Moskva Moscow, only two private buildings of any note. One of these was the low-spreading palace of the Governor; the other that of Prince Michael Petrovitch Gregoriev. The first had stood in its gardens for a century and a half. The other was nearly fifty years older. The dwelling of the Gregorievs was at some distance from its stately neighbor, however; for it stood on the southeast corner of the Konnaia Square, approachable by carriage only through the Serpoukhovskaia. Its surroundings were of the humblest sort; for it was a long way south of the Merchants' quarter, and so far from the sacred precincts of the Kremlin that the voice of Ivan Veliki had melted into an echo ere it reached the Gregoriev gateway.
It is certain that neither age nor environment made this old place less grewsomely interesting: this ancient dwelling of a family whose unsavory annals were lost in the gloom of Tatar rule. The Gregorievs were closely bound to the gloomy stone pile; and would dwell there, in all probability, as long as their line continued. Michael, the present Prince, was loyal to his house. Yet its situation was one of the greatest of crosses to this man, who had known and cast away many a heavier burden during his career. Remote as he was from the fashionable districts, there was neither man nor woman in the city, from the proudest house in the Equerries' quarter to the outskirts of the Novaia Andronovka, but knew and shuddered, agreeably, at the Gregoriev reputation.
It was not strange, then, that the affair of New Year's night had become the sensation of the season. For on this night Prince Gregoriev had vowed a triumph over the massed society of the Mother City. He intended to accomplish now what his wedding with a daughter of one of the oldest and most honored families had failed to do: what no use of his unscrupulous power could force, what all Moscow society, for once banded unanimously together, had sworn he should never accomplish—enter their ranks, the ranks of the old nobility of the Empire.
By New Year's morning, however, the numbers were admitting, bitterly, their defeat. Once more Gregoriev was about to achieve the impossible. Eighteen years before, Moscow society had defeated him, superbly. At the time of his marriage to a daughter of the Blashkovs, the question of his admission into the "court circle" had been violently agitated. But at that time even his prospective father-in-law had not had the hardihood to suggest an informal presentation of this man to his Majesty. Nay, it was the bride, pale, pretty, sensitive Sophia, who, when it was seen that she had no slightest influence over her dread husband, had been, not, perhaps, without a sigh, dropped from their acquaintance by her former associates: nay, by her very family, all save one sister, a girl younger than herself.
For eighteen years, then, the Gregoriev palace had stood in its isolation, echoing only to the revelry that money can always obtain. For eighteen years its master, buying what the world had to sell, had been secretly planning to obtain what was not for sale: had faced, unmoved, an isolation which, to a nature less strong, would have been unbearable.
Now, at last, he was about to win. His amazing intrigue had succeeded. Its results were for the eyes of all men. For Moscow society had been suddenly commanded to his house, to a ball, given on New Year's night, in honor of his Imperial Majesty Nicholas I., who had decided, by his appearance, to honor the house of his subject and immediate servant.
* * * * *
It was eleven o'clock on that night of nights; and the bed and dressing rooms of the Princess Sophia were lighted to suffocation with smoking candles. Two maids and old Masha, general factotum of her mistress, were bustling importantly from one room to the other, bearing to her, piece by piece, their mistress's burden of jewels. At her dressing-table, pale, still wearing, as always in public, her mask of emotionless impenetrability, sat Sophia. Her neck and shoulders, which, according to the rigid etiquette of court-dress, were fully exposed, were white, and, considering her extreme slenderness, surprisingly round. A broad collar of sapphires and diamonds clasped above an Oriental necklace of pearls, successfully hid whatever there was to betray the too-visible marks of the "certain" age. On her head she bore the oddly becoming kakoshnik, which, in her case, was set with a triple row of superb diamonds. The face below this gleaming structure, the delicate, weary face, robbed of its customary frame of smoothly banded yellow hair, looked more sharply pointed than usual, but surprisingly pretty. For there was actually a fire—whether of pleasure, expectancy or nervousness—in her gray eyes; and there had come a delicate flush to the usually pallid cheeks. Sophia was, indeed, living with her dead to-night. Dreams of the old days held her in a kind of spell. The woman of memories—memories of a brief youth, a swiftly blighted flowering of life—had for once been forced back to a forgotten theme. And she found, recalling the days of her first balls, that the customary bitterness of contrast had suddenly disappeared. There was much that was new in this present situation: she was alive to sensations unfelt for years. There stirred in her heart what she was only to define after it had gone again: that which for most people forms the great staff of the inner life: on which she had been so long unaccustomed to lean—the great Phoenix, Hope.
At length they had fastened the last pin in her veil, the last hook in the heavy gown of cloth of silver. The maids stood off from her a little, whispering. But she herself remained motionless, gazing absently into her quaintly framed old mirror, lost in one of those reveries that her servants had learned not to disturb. The pause had lasted some five minutes when the door opening into the outer hall opened, vigorously, and the Princess started suddenly up, her face changing pathetically, a look of dread painfully contracting her features.
As their mistress rose, the three women shrank instinctively backward. To one understanding it, the act was pathetically familiar. An instant later, however, the Princess cried out, "Caroline! It is you, then?" and so turned deathly white and reeled a little till old Masha came to her support.
"Sophie! You are not ill—to-night!" The new-comer, who had spoken in French, halted near the door, an expression of dismay on her face.
Madame Gregoriev, however, laughed faintly, and the color began to creep back into her cheeks. As old Masha left her to hobble briskly out of the room, she continued, "No, no! I am perfectly well. It was only that you—startled me a little. I—I thought it was—Michael Petrovitch."
Once more the face of the other changed, but she said nothing as she came slowly forward, examining her companion the while with a critical eye. She was the Countess Dravikine, Sophia's younger sister, who, a year or two after Sophia's misalliance, had herself married remarkably well: a young diplomat of the capital, already high in the graces of the official world, and destined to rise steadily, through the clever management of his wife. The Countess Dravikine fitted her adopted world extremely well. She was a woman whose one tender sentiment was that which she held for the sister of her youth. Otherwise she had, not entirely without justice, been called heartless. She was, in any case, admirably adapted for the life she had chosen. And strife social and political, as well as every move in the great game of state intrigue, were as the breath of life to her. She had not come through the fires unsinged. There had been, nay, still were, whispers about her in her world. But they were whispers such as heightened rather than tarnished the brilliance of her reputation. For, whether wrongly or not, her name had more than once been linked with that of the Iron Ruler himself. This may or may not have been the reason for her presence to-night in Moscow, whither she had journeyed to stand beside her sister at the anticipated triumph. But whatever her motive, no one could deny that the evening would gain by her presence. Here, beside her glittering sister, she was superb, in her magnificently poised maturity, the voluminous gauzes of her Paris gown floating like clouds about her: the numberless opals in her hair and at her breast only continuing the delicate coloring of the green-and-white costume that was as unusual as it was becoming to her chic ugliness of feature. But to-night, for perhaps the first time in her life, Caroline Dravikine was more interested in the costume of another than in her own. She was determined that her sister's appearance should be even more perfect than hers. And to this end she went over the other's toilet detail by detail, only ending the silent scrutiny as Masha reappeared with a slender glass of wine for her mistress.
"Eh bien, Sophie,—yes! drink the wine. If you will not rouge you must keep what color you have!—the sapphires are not in the least too heavy. They have done you up very well. Sonya!" turning to one of the maids, "catch up that curl over the right ear of the Princess. It spoils the effect of severity that suits your face so well. So. Et maintenon, ma chere, renvoyez vos femmes de chambre. Je veux causer avec vous en particulier."
Sophia complied with the request: the maids, with the simple familiarity of the Russian serf, taking their dismissal reluctantly. But Madame Dravikine held them all in awe, and before her they did not dare the protest that their Princess might have listened to. When the sisters were alone, they crossed the room together and seated themselves on a great sofa upholstered in a beautifully faded old brocade, made before the birth of the great Catharine. And while Caroline, mindful of her fresh gauzes, sat upright, like a bird poised for flight, her sister lay back, wearily, crushing the veil of her headdress against a heap of pillows.
There was a moment's pause; then the Countess began, resolutely: "Has Michael Petrovitch seen you yet?"
"Oh no! He has not come up-stairs. I hope that he will not, Katrelka! He—he would not be satisfied, you know."
"Sophie! Sophie! sometimes I cannot wonder that the man is a terror in your life! Satisfied with you! Ciel! If Alexis Vassilyitch expressed dissatisfaction with a toilet of mine, I should not speak to him for a week. No! I should get him into such difficulties with the ministry that he would come to me on his knees in three days! I tell you again, Sophie, that you must assert yourself! Tell me—"
"Stop, Kasha, stop! I am too tired for all this just now. Say what you will to-morrow. You know the thing is a great strain. Tell me only this: Are you quite sure that his Majesty will come? Do you believe it possible that at last everything is to be right—that we are to have Moscow—our old Moscow—here again?"
Having with some little self-control waved aside the unusual rebuff of Sophia's first words, Madame Dravikine listened to the last with a smile, a trifle self-conscious; and in spite of her sister's look—a stare that suggested coldness, the expression remained with her as she answered: "Yes, at last you are safe, dear. You see—I am here from Petersburg; though it has meant leaving Nathalie with her nurses, and Alexis Vassilyitch to spend every night at the yacht-club at baccarat. Besides, Moscow always bores his Majesty; and even the Czarevitch isn't with him this time, you know."
"Caroline, I wish—" Madame Gregoriev's hesitating voice trailed into silence. She knew that it was scarcely the hour for remonstrance of that kind. After a moment she began again, "Do you remember how many years it is since we were all at home together, in the Nijny Kislovsky? I should hardly be able to name over the old families now. All the leaders of our day—Madame Apukhtin, Princess Osinin, the Dowager-Countess Parakoff—they are all dead. It is the wife of the younger Smirnoff—Alexander married a dancer who cannot be received—who keeps up the name. Eugen married Olga Lodoroff. She was a child when I was married. She wouldn't remember me at all now. But we have had not one excuse. They are all to come. Kasha, I am happy to-night! Think—"
"Of course, Sophie, they are coming. One would think you a parvenue, absolutely, to hear you!" broke in Caroline, sharply, still smarting a little at her reading of that unfinished sentence.
Sophia colored at her sister's appellation, but had no time for rejoinder; for at this moment an inner door was pushed gently open and a boy entered.
Sophia rose, hastily. "Ivan! You were asleep two hours ago!"
"But I woke up. And Masha said you were so splendid with the diamonds all on, that I came to see." He looked up at his mother, his big, black eyes shining with interest as he inspected her unusual array. His aunt, sharper-eyed than her sister, perceived that, under his eider-down wrapper, the boy wore no night-flannel, but a more or less complete suit of day-clothes. She said nothing, however, for, though she had no love for children, Ivan was quiet enough to have won her liking.
"Eh bien, mon fils, tu m'as vu. Allez vous en! Retournez immediatement au lit. Tu vas prendre un rhume! Allez! Vite!" Laughing, she kissed the boy—nor had far to stoop to reach his lips. Then, with a gentle hand, she led him back to the door. The boy moved reluctantly, and, ere he left the room, caught his mother round the neck and whispered in her ear a question which was answered by a determined shake of the head.
When he had gone, the Princess stood for an instant looking after him, all her heart in her unconscious eyes. Then, her eyes shining with a softened light, she turned again to her sister, saying, with a smile:
"Come, Katrelka, let us go down. The opera must be over by this time; and I must see the rooms before the first arrival."
"Just one moment more, then, Moussia." Madame Dravikine rose, crossed the room, and laid her hand caressingly on the other's arm. "If Michael Petrovitch should be out of temper when we meet him, do not be disturbed. Do not, for the sake of our family, Sophie, betray yourself by—by your face—to-night. Remember, if the scene should grow unbearable I can always—"
"Yes, yes, Kasha. Thank you. But let us not speak of it further—just now."
A moment's silence. Then suddenly, by a common impulse, the two women threw themselves into each other's arms and kissed fervently. When they had separated again, the eyes of the Countess were no less suspiciously wet than those of her sister, the wife of Michael Gregoriev.
It was a pity that functions of formal magnificence were affairs of such rarity in the Gregoriev palace; for no private dwelling in Russia was better adapted to the purpose. The grand entrance opened into a hall of royal dimensions, at the back of which rose a massive staircase, which, ascending to a broad marble landing, separated there into two parts, one of which wound upward to the right, the other to the left, to the upper floor. Upon this landing, facing the hall below, stood the figure of a Diana carved from Carrara marble, its exquisite Greek curves wreathed to-night in smilax and white roses, brought up from the southern estates of the Prince.
As the sisters descended the stairs together, each critically surveying the decorations of the rooms below, Prince Michael himself appeared from the direction of the great dining-room, accompanied by his major-domo, to whom he was giving some final orders concerning the reception of his Imperial Majesty.
A remarkable man was Michael Petrovitch, Prince Gregoriev; nominally a chief of the Third Section under Ryeleff; actually head of the secret police of the whole Moscow district; confidential adviser of the royal Governor-General; and privately and intimately known to the Czar, who had long been aware that he had at least one man in his Empire who would balk at no order that should be given him.
In Prince Michael, as so seldom happens, the story of the mind was plainly written upon the body. Six feet three inches he stood in his stockings—two inches more in his regular dress; his head large in proportion, and finely shaped; eyes black, glittering, and unfaceable; mustache jet-black and upstanding, as if made of wire, from the set, ugly mouth, below which jutted a square, blue-shaven chin. And the appearance thus presented was not to be overshadowed, in any feature, by the magnificence of the uniform he wore to-night. Tunic and trousers were of heavy white cloth, the first garment so long, and so heavily embroidered in gold, that his body seemed cased in a glittering sheath down to where the edge of the coat met the top of the boots of softly wrinkling black, that cased his legs almost to the thigh. On his breast were ranged half a dozen orders; conspicuous among them that of St. George, for gallant conduct on the field of action, won years before in the streets of thrice-sacked Warsaw.
As the two women halted, Gregoriev finished his orders; and, turning from the cringing serf, stood staring at his wife and her sister. Madame Dravikine was smiling brightly; but Sophia's face was set, her cheeks flaming, her burning eyes unwontedly hard.
"So! Madame, there is a hair-pin caught in the flounce below your right ankle."
Involuntarily the Princess quivered, stooped, and extricated the fine wire pin which even Caroline had not noted. Then she straightened up hastily, sought to meet her husband's sneer with something like resolution, faltered before him, and moved slowly away towards the reception-rooms. The Countess, however, turned to her brother-in-law, and covered her sister's retreat. Certainly Prince Michael gave her his attention; and his manner with women of station was unresentable. Nevertheless, the covert amusement in his voice and in the eyes that looked after his wife, set even Caroline's experienced teeth on edge. She talked with him on the prospects of the evening; and it was a theme so interesting to both of them that neither perceived the little figure, dressed in black velvet, that stole quietly down from the second floor and concealed himself on the landing behind the floral drapery that spread, star-fashion, from the statue of the goddess. An hour or two before Ivan, filled with a vague excitement, had bribed his old nurse to dress him in his best, and, having seen his mother and his aunt in their court-dress, he had been seized with the desire for more. After waiting in his room as long as he could, the boy had stolen down the staircase to a point whence he could see the progress of that great ball which was, in some mysterious way, to change the fortunes of his father's house, and, with them, the long loneliness of his own, dreamy days.
So he crouched there through the hours, well concealed, a figure unconsciously pathetic, his great, sad eyes—eyes begotten by his mother, and with all her own woe in their liquid depths—glowing brightly in the white, wistful, childish face; the suggestion of a smile on his straight, delicately chiselled mouth. He had been in his place barely ten minutes when the great doors opened to the first guests; and, during the hour that followed, they were scarcely shut. The opera was over. Fashionable Moscow, accustomed to live at night, swathed itself in furs, and, grumbling at the unwonted distance, had spun across the city, in open sleighs, to the distant Gregoriev palace.
Prince Michael, with his wife and his sister-in-law beside him, stood at the entrance to the gold drawing-room, welcoming the men and women who were announced in rapid succession: men and women whose names set Sophia's heart beating with memory. There were few, indeed, that any major-domo in Petersburg would not have shouted in his best voice. For all of them were members of the great Russian world: Apukhtin and Mirski, Chipraznik, Smirnoff and the omnipresent Nikitenko—names that had been the last to fade into, the first to reappear from, the baleful night of Tatar rule. Not one of them all but had once known Sophia Blashkov intimately: none but greeted Madame Dravikine as a familiar acquaintance of to-day. But, for the first time since his wedding-day, Michael Gregoriev felt himself slighted for that woman he had so long despised. One and all, women and men alike, they slid by him as rapidly as decency would permit, nor cared to notice him again, though, from far corners and discreet retreating-places, they bestowed on him glances that ran the gamut from curiosity to open horror. Not so did Sophia fare. There was for her at least one hour when the immediate past was blotted out, and her heart warmed and thrilled again as it had in that long-past, joyous winter of her presentation.
By half an hour past midnight the rooms were crowded and there had settled over the company a hush: that peculiar stillness of expectancy that is destruction to the nerves of a host. In this special pause, however, lay something beyond the ordinary: a discomfort, a palpable uneasiness, that sheathed a subtle threat. Sophia, with her woman's instinct, was no quicker to perceive it than her husband. They, with Countess Caroline and every other woman in the rooms, put the same interpretation upon that significant lull. It spoke thus: "It is late, and he whom we were commanded to meet is not here. His Imperial Majesty's name forced us to this house. Now he has not come. Is the thing a trick? Michael Petrovitch Gregoriev, have you been capable of this? Dared you dream that such folly of deceit could really help you?"
Such was the unmistakable sentiment in the air when, at a quarter before one, the sisters met in a corner of the dining-room, and there passed between them a white-faced look. Then Madame Dravikine whispered:
"Sophie, what does it mean? Did Nicholas promise?"
The question was a mistake. Princess Gregoriev's lips went white, and she seemed to speak with difficulty. "Caroline! Then you were not assured by him? You as well as Michael have deceived me?"
Madame Dravikine flushed scarlet. "I have never discussed your affairs with his Majesty," she returned, haughtily.
Sophia made no reply. Her face, if possible, grew a little more livid, her eyes a trifle more piteous.
Caroline, in spite of her resentment, was touched with pity and with fear; so that, presently, she burst out, impulsively: "Then you are ruined, Sophie! Absolutely ruined!"
Suddenly, Princess Sophia's lips curled into a bitter smile. "I have been ruined, as you call it, for eighteen years. This—this fiasco cannot make it any worse!" And, before that expressionless tone, Madame Dravikine was still.
A moment or two after this encounter, however, there came a sudden stir. Beyond the dining-room, in the central hall, was a visible flutter of excitement, and whispers sped rapidly through the rooms.
"He has really come!"
"The Czar is here!"
"After all, his Majesty has arrived."
"Where is he, then?"
"In his dressing-room. The royal sleigh is at the gate."
"Ah! Then we must remain!"
During the first seconds of the excitement, the Prince and Princess Gregoriev came together near the door of the specially prepared antechamber where his Majesty was to have his furs removed. Sophia's cheeks were flushed, her eyes burning again; but the face of Michael Petrovitch had become once more impenetrable. There were three minutes of the strained attention. Then, from the door of the antechamber, appeared a stately man, clad in a magnificent uniform, his breast covered with medals and crosses. When they were still many feet apart, a look passed between him and Prince Michael; and, in that look, a new, undying enmity was born in Gregoriev's fierce soul. For the guest from the Kremlin was not the Czar, but the Czar's most detested envoy: the notorious Count Alderberg, Minister of the Imperial Household. And his words to the host and hostess began with the infuriating, formal: "I regret—"
Even through that moment of greeting, Princess Sophia scarcely understood the full significance of this presence. Surely, if the Czar had sent a proxy, it meant, at least, recognition. But as the Count carried his cynical smile and gorgeous personality away in the direction of the dining-room, and the poor lady turned to her husband, she was stricken dumb at sight of the blind fury in his face. It was a look that she had known before—too well. Yet never, perhaps, had such a concentrated mixture of defeat, rage, and rebellion glared from those eyes or straightened that heavy mouth. Now, indeed, she knew that they were undone.
"Alderberg! Alderberg! By God and the devil, had I dreamed—" The low-muttered words trailed off and were bitten into silence, while, by a fierce contortion of the muscles, Michael straightened his face into a semblance of calm. But the hands hanging at his sides were clinched till the nails pierced his palms, and the veins started out, knotted and purple, from his flesh.
For some moments the Princess stood irresolute, terrified lest her guests should witness some part of this outbreak. Madame Dravikine was first to emerge from the throng; and she came towards them, dismay written in her face. She sent one glance at Michael; and then, biting her lip, took her sister's hand in a gentle clasp.
"Ah! You, too, Katrelka!" whispered Sophia. "You, too, think it so bad?"
Caroline shook her head sadly. "We are helpless, Sophie. A fit of Nicholas' laziness has lost the world to you. Look!"
There was no time for response; for, at this moment, the Prince and Princess Mirski came up with chill good-nights that were passively accepted. They were immediately followed by the Osinin, who barely looked towards Michael, but had the grace to murmur some excuse to his wife. On their heels hastened the Apukhtin, who played the few seconds of farce with angry hauteur. Then, injury to insult, Alderberg himself approached, having been in the rooms a bare five minutes. And, as he disappeared into the royal alcove, the throng in the rooms began to fly the house as from a spot plague-smitten.
At the instant of Alderberg's appearance in the hall, word of the defection of the Czar had swept like wildfire through the rooms. The Minister of the Imperial Household was nearly as unpopular among the court circle of Moscow as he was among the peasant class; and nothing could have been more unfortunate than the choice of him as the proxy of his Majesty. Within five minutes, whispers were everywhere. The drawing, dining, and dressing rooms were full of the rippling hiss of talk which in every case preceded either frowns or angry laughter. Ivan, from his hiding-place on the stairway, caught many phrases the significance of which he could not fathom; but which filled him with prescience of evil. His troubled eyes sought the face of his mother in the hall below; and he found there what he had feared. From his vantage-point he had a clear view of the quickening rush of departure. Crowds were pouring up-stairs to re-don their furs; though many of these people had not yet recovered from the chill of their long drive from the Grand Theatre. Soon the great staircase was so crowded that many who were still below made no effort to ascend, deputing the bringing of their wraps to friends who had forced an upward passage. For so bitter was the night that few had pursued the usual custom of leaving their sables outside, on the arms of patient footmen.
Ivan watched the good-nights to his father and mother; and noted also the lack of them. He beheld the drooping, weary figure of the Princess, in her blaze of gems, forcing piteous smiles of farewell. And he was glad that there were so many who, under cover of the throng, evaded the ordeal of the good-night, and slipped away from the brilliant rooms as from a dwelling haunted with evil.
There was but one consolation for this misery—it was very brief. The crowd that had taken a long hour to assemble, dispersed and melted away into the darkness of the city within the space of fifteen minutes. There had, indeed, been some who had arrived after his Excellency the Count. These, perceiving the crowd out-streaming, divined calamity, and, without so much as descending from their sleighs, turned about and departed as they had come.
By half-past one o'clock three figures stood alone in the great hall; while on the staircase, beside the motionless Diana, crouched a lonely, frightened child, who still stared, as if with enchanted eyes, at his mother's white, despairing face. Princess Sophia stood motionless, her head bent, her hands clasped tightly before her, persistently avoiding her husband's eyes. Caroline, with a half-protective air, was between her sister and her brother-in-law. Michael, his face as colorless as that of the statue, his eyes alight with the fire in his brain, stared straight before him, into some bitter world of his own. About them was the unbearable silence which Madame Dravikine, who alone was unaccustomed to it, finally broke in desperation:
"Come, Sophie! Come to bed. You are too tired to stay down here. You'll be ill."
But, at the moment, Sophia had, in her heart, the thought of another than herself. At sight of some unwonted suggestion in his face of a pain with which she had been long familiar, there had entered into her heart a sudden pity for the man she so feared. Imbued with a momentary courage, she advanced to her husband and took his hand. "Michael," she murmured, "I—am sorry."
The man started in amazement, and then drew away from her, at the same time turning upon her his burning eyes. "Sorry! Good God! Then get to your ikons and pray. For me—there's no sorrow for me. Nicholas has played his game. Now mine begins. Sorrow for him, if you like. For, by the help of Satan, he and Moscow shall know me yet!"
The low-spoken words ended with a snarl of inarticulate anger. And the moment they were uttered, he turned brusquely, and, without another word or look, disappeared in the direction of his offices, where, as his wife knew, he would probably work till far into the next day.
The two women watched him go. Then, after a pause, they found themselves clinging to each other, and in this fashion began the ascent of the stairs. Both of them were weeping: not loudly; rather as the reaction from the strain of the past hour. As they reached the landing, they were joined by another. Ivan came openly from his hiding-place, and barred their path, guilt-laden. But there was to be no rebuke to-night for his disobedience. On the contrary, his mother took him into her arms and clasped him close, as if his presence brought comfort for much immediate pain. And the boy, feeling the hot tears from her eyes fall upon his face, laid his arms about her neck, and yielded himself to a grief and a terror that he understood vaguely, but could not as yet define.
Up to the time of Prince Gregoriev's marriage, that peculiar man had used his huge dwelling as a gypsy uses a moor: he had wandered about, living for three months in the west wing, three more in the east, again for six high up in the central portion of the great building, taking with him the rather simple impedimenta of his state, and arranging them as he chose. The presence of Sophia had, however, made at least one change in his existence. Little either of time or attention as he gave her, Michael was driven, by mere consciousness of her proximity, to fix upon some certain suite of rooms for the pursuit of his personal labors and his peculiar recreations. And, after the first irritation of necessity had worn away, he found the arrangement to possess unforeseen advantages. Unlike his class, he was a man of simple, even austere habits in his working hours. Luxury at such times meant annoyance to him; and only the barest necessities of furniture and attire were admitted to his periods of solitary labor. Upon his establishment in his now permanently arranged suite in the eastern wing of the palace, he found that certain papers and written references—kept hitherto under lock and key, and guarded from every eye—could at last find a permanent place in that work-room which no one was permitted to enter, even for purposes of cleaning. For twenty-eight years, now, this had formed one of his six rooms, of which two on the second floor were connected with those below by a private staircase. By degrees, his habits had become as fixed at those of a woman. His many vices were as strong, as severe, as his few virtues; and more than one man had remarked that, so far as was known, there was not a single balancing weakness in the nature of this iron man.
At two o'clock on the morning after the ball, Michael had seated himself at the great table in his sanctum, and prepared for work. He had no idea of bed; for sleep in his present state, his brain afire with the fury of unwonted defeat, would have been impossible. But he could still pin his thoughts down to the composition of two or three state documents—reports requiring a liberal use of imagination—before allowing himself the luxury of setting about arranging his plan of retaliation: retaliation upon the great Czar, his master. Thus it was that dawn, the late, wintry dawn, rising seven hours later, fell upon his dishevelled figure stretched out in a chair beside the paper-piled table, his heavy brows drawn down in deep thought, his lungs filled with deep draughts of smoke drawn from the pipe between his teeth.
The passage which led down to this dread room of his, opened also into the office in which he conducted business with his colleagues, and which was decorated and furnished with Oriental magnificence. The inner room, of which only Piotr, his body-servant, had ever had so much as a glimpse—the room that had sheltered this master of men and of evil at the ebb and the flood of his power—was bare of ornament, and held not one unnecessary article. The two windows were uncurtained; but outside the customary double panes, the cracks of which were filled with pounded wool, stretched a significant iron net-work which was embedded far in the stones at the window-edges. Within, the four walls were covered with staring, yellow plaster; only one side of it, that opposite the working-chair, being partly covered—and that only by two big maps: one of the Russian Empire, with its dependencies; the other covered with a mass of line-tracery and unreadable jottings, written in what was evidently a cipher. The key to this was hidden in the brain of the man who had composed it.
Michael himself had dubbed this square of parchment a map: his map of men. And it contained mention of some members in almost every great family in the Empire. Nicholas himself was there, side by side with his valet—a man, indeed, of vast importance in that ministerial world to which a Gregoriev still aspired.
Finally, beside these things, high up in a corner of the east wall, was the inevitable, dingy little daub meant for the blessed and blessing Virgin: a superstitious but universal custom which even Michael submitted to, and which represented, perhaps, his single remaining shred of religion. For the rest, a huge table, a single chair, and two bookcases filled with a small, but remarkably well-chosen collection of reference-books, finished the characteristic arrangement of the room.
Here, this morning, the gray light of a winter dawn mingled with the dull flare of the hanging-lamp increasing the ghastliness of his appearance, sat Michael Gregoriev, in the stale bitterness of a night-old rage and mortification. On the floor, in an unceremonious heap, lay his heavily embroidered coat, with its medals still upon it. In its stead the Prince had wrapped himself in a worn robe of old brocade, fur-lined. Heavy felt slippers shod his feet. His hair was tumbled over his head in a leonine mass. His features were gray; but his eyes still glowed above the dark, purplish circles that shadowed his cheeks. His documents were finished. He had sat for two hours and more in this present brown study; and, tested as his endurance had been, his concentration was still absolute. On the table, near at hand, stood a flask of vodka, nearly empty, and a jar of water scarcely touched.
Nevertheless, the Prince of the lonely house was not drunk: was not even misty-headed. At a quarter after eight there came a knock at the door, and his hoarse, "Enter!" was as immediate as was the return to his reverie. Nor did he lift his eyes as Piotr entered softly, arranged the steaming samovar at his master's elbow, placed bread, fresh butter, and a dish of lentils beside it, and then departed as noiselessly as he had come.
For five minutes the man beside the table did not stir. Then he rose, still preoccupied, crossed the room to his cipher map, and ran his finger down a certain line of hieroglyphics till he found what he sought, and paused to read one passage carefully, twice. Then, when his face had straightened till his lips actually stretched themselves into the semblance of a sardonic smile, he dropped the subject of his thoughts, returned to the table, and made himself some tea. Glass after glass of this he drank, steaming hot. But no solid food passed his lips; and in twenty minutes he reseated himself and set about the writing of two letters, on the envelope of each of which he placed, in the lower corner, a peculiar mark—a sign of the Third Section, known to a few men, and signifying privacy and importance.
These letters were the result of his recent cogitation; and both concerned the affair of the previous night. He had realized his situation to the full; and he knew that it must be faced. His sensations were unfamiliar, however; for it was many years since he had had to acknowledge a defeat so absolute and so grave. Never before, however, had he pitted himself against a force that strong men will not take seriously because it is never to be logically reckoned with. Nevertheless, that force must, sooner or later, be acknowledged by every human being. Michael Gregoriev especially should have taken it into consideration long before; for it was many years since he began his preparations for what last night was to have brought him: a place in the last unconquered world of power. His preparation, however, had led him only through ways peopled by men: and for men and their deeds he was more than a match. Their caprices, their follies, their faithlessness, their treachery even, he had learned long since to calculate and to cope with. Women, also, he had known: many women; experienced, innocent, negative, or wicked. And those who had ventured upon his ground, he had not failed to conquer. It was in the knowledge of these experiences that he had stood; by its light preparing a coup that was to carry the last fortress of that upper world which still held out against him: that peculiar body of women and men called "society."
Years before, with this same purpose in his mind, he had married a daughter of this class, whose only dower was her birth, and whose only covetable possession her place among her kind. And this effort had failed, entirely. Sophia Blashkov, a quiet, gentle, blue-blooded, little debutante, had found herself utterly unequal to the task either of forcing a place in those glittering, scornful ranks for her black-blooded, much-condemned husband, or of keeping her own, now that she bore his name. True, her marriage had, probably, made possible her younger sister's exceptional and unhoped-for match. But Michael himself felt that he had sadly bungled a most important affair. Perceiving his wife's uselessness for his purpose, all the little admiration he had ever had for the fragile girl changed speedily into an angry despite. For the moment, he put her and his social ambitions away together, and turned back to that world of official intrigue and promotion which had actually occupied him from that distant time until within the last few weeks. The old defeat had long since been buried under a heap of newly gained official honors. But of these, alas! he had now had his fill. For the first time he was tasting to the full a measure of bitterness as rank as any the world has to offer. For there is something in the deliberate rejection by one's kind: a mortification, a sickening sense of helplessness, of rage, of revolt, that belongs to this experience alone. It is a kind of suffering in which women frequently become connoisseurs. But its taste is none the less nauseous to the man on whom Fate forces it.
Michael Gregoriev, then, a furious man of men, was to-day enduring that which has turned many a woman soul-sick and weary of existence. All the amazement of unforeseen repulse: the agonized acceptance of an unjust superiority, a scorn, a pitiless disdain; the totally capricious setting of one's self apart from one's fellows as something too despicable for consideration; above all, one's utter powerlessness against this arbitrary judgment—all these things he felt, and every one of them cut him to the quick. For Michael Gregoriev's egotism had grown with every year.
In his black hour he did not fail to indulge in the usual, useless revilement of the superior class: an act as natural as it is ridiculous. Was that society that he had sought out and thought to grasp so pure, so free from corruption, so spotlessly fair, that his, Prince Gregoriev's peccadilloes must needs bar him from its gatherings? Certainly this reputation of his was one thing that had kept the door he knocked on closed. But there were other reasons—innumerable ones, in fact; some of them adequate, others entirely inconsistent, that Princess Mirski or Madame Apukhtin might have named. Yet, in the final summing-up, there would probably have been a traditional indefiniteness about the wherefore of the Gregoriev ostracism. It was simply understood, instinctively, throughout Moscow, that no person of that name was knowable. And this fact, mirabile dictu, had, after long cogitation, been at last borne in upon Michael—man as he was.
Prince Gregoriev, though he was generally looked upon as a parvenu, had not, like most of that type, been born in the gutter. On the contrary, there was behind him a long line of recluses, eccentrics, hermits almost, bearing the strongest resemblance to one another by reason of their oddities. One special trait, stronger than any other, served to bind them all together, father and son, through generations. This was their constant and unconquerable sense of personal isolation: of loneliness. Crowds of friends and sycophants might surround the Gregoriev. He was none the less bitterly alone. It was, perhaps, a morbid perception of individuality, of the inevitable isolation of every soul. But whatever its cause, this sense, in more than one of the race, had developed into extreme stages of melancholia.
The palace in Konnaia Square had been founded in the year 1679, by the third of the line, Alexis Gregorievitch, who had purposely placed the dwelling of his race in this far corner of the city, out of the possible range of decent dwellings. And none of the succession of Peters and Mikhails that followed, ever thought to reproach this act of their ancestor. The details of the life of one of these men would have sufficed for all, until the breaking of the direct line. But the last Prince had died childless; and the estate descended by entail to Michael, eldest son of the dead Prince's dead brother. And though in the present Gregoriev the instincts of his race survived, they had been in a large measure altered and redirected. For when, at the age of twenty, Michael had come into his inheritance, he had, in the first hour of his new estate, set himself a certain goal, at the same time turning an iron will and dire traits towards its attainment. Russia was then just entering upon the rule of the Iron Czar. Iron men, therefore, were soon in demand, to replace the more vacillating officials who had served the first Alexander. Prince Gregoriev came forward at once with the request for a position. And immediately he became involved in that species of underhand, almost underground, business (necessary to most governments and to all absolute monarchies) which reached its extreme depth in the tyranny that ruled Russia during the next thirty years.
It did not take many months for Nicholas to perceive that there lived in Moscow a supreme performer of questionable transactions. Upon test, the man showed himself to be all the Czar had thought—and more. He was a man without a conscience. And the official world rejoiced, and put much work upon him: so much, that lo! a Gregoriev soon became necessary to the governmental world. And Michael had worked to more purposes than one. His great master had no fault to find with his performance of duty. Thus it was not until too late that more than one of the ministers discovered the fact that it may be better to have certain things bungled than to have them carried through by a man so clever that he can put knowledge amassed by the way to double—sometimes triple, uses. This was what Gregoriev could, and did, do. He was, par excellence, a man of his time: in many ways even in advance of it. And he had by no means begun to approach his goal before all the men with whom he came in daily contact, and many of those considerably above him, had come to stand in terrible fear of his accurate and tabulated knowledge of things they had believed to be unsuspected by any human being beyond themselves.
But there was one man in the Empire who, as yet, remained in ignorance of this trait of his official: who had never felt the faintest scratch beneath the velvet of his favorite cat's-paw. Thus it was that Michael's momentary defeat had come about. Czar Nicholas crossed him openly; put upon him an affront unbearable; lowered him in the eyes of three hundred puny men and women over whom he had no power for revenge. It was, then, as a result of this, that treason had begun to surge through the mind of a brilliantly wicked man. And had he been able to read certain thoughts passing through his subject's head, it is possible that the Iron One might have felt a certain uneasiness of mind at possibilities of the future; and a rather poignant regret at his negligence of the evening before.
* * * * *
Two hours had gone by since Piotr had carried his master's first meal to that master's work-room. Michael had finished his letters. His first anger was gone and his plan of "payment" already under way. With his mind thus relieved, then, he suddenly began to feel the fatigue of thirty hours of sleeplessness. With a comforting sense of relaxation, he ascended to his bedroom, partly undressed himself, lay down on the bed, and within five minutes had fallen into a sound sleep.
And it was two hours later and Ivan Veliki had rung the hour of eleven, when the silence of the room was broken by the entrance of Piotr, who, at sight of his master asleep at this unwonted hour, halted in surprise and confusion. It took him ten minutes to nerve himself to the waking of the Prince. But it was only ten more before Michael, who had sworn at his valet steadily, meantime, for the delay, entered his public office, fully dressed, to greet General Ryumin, a member of the Imperial staff, just now sent as an envoy from the Kremlin. Michael, who chose to greet him with all the courtesy he could command, hurried forward, his hands out-stretched, and gave the greetings of the day.
"So! I roused you from sleep, Prince? However, I come direct from the Kremlin; and his Majesty commands an audience of you at half-past noon. He is here ex-officio, of course, with only Alderberg, Zelanoi, and ourselves, on the matter of the forestry ukase. But about you—there's another matter he wants you for: the petition for the families of convict-exiles to follow them to Siberia. The Council has rejected it twice; but Benckendorf is still agitating the question. His Majesty still seems to object, strongly. You, too, I suppose?"
"If the wife or the daughter be pretty—of course," returned Gregoriev, lightly. And Ryumin, seeing that he was not to be drawn, hastily forced a laugh.
They passed thence into a discussion of local affairs in which they had recently acted as allies when Ryumin had been Lieutenant-Governor of the Moscow province. No undercurrent of enmity marred their intercourse. Gregoriev was certainly an adept at applying or loosening his screws. His guest had felt them sharply once or twice before to-day. He knew Gregoriev's power; and Michael asked no more. He had soon made the General entirely at his ease, and the half-hour passed most agreeably. At last, however, Ryumin rose, tacitly to remind his host of the Imperial audience. They had now, indeed, by driving as fast as possible, barely time to reach the Kremlin. Gregoriev, nevertheless, paid no attention to the other's movement.
"Come, Boris Vassilyitch, one more cigar! We may as well settle now the details of this Pahlen affair. You wish a conviction in any case, I understand?"
"My dear Prince, it can wait. His Majesty's wishes are more important than mine, you know."
Gregoriev leaned back in his chair and took three leisurely puffs before he observed, lazily: "I don't agree with you. However, I must not keep you if you have some other appointment. I shall hardly start for the Kremlin before one.
"But—but my dear Gregoriev! The Czar! Your audience!—You see you forget, my good fellow!"
"I forget nothing whatever, General: not even promises that are not kept."
Ryumin stared, open-mouthed, as Gregoriev's gloomy eyes met his. Then, with a thrill of wonder, he understood that the man before him had the superb audacity thus openly to rebuke his Emperor.
Certainly Gregoriev's suggestion was no empty threat. Nicholas Romanoff actually waited something more than an hour for the arrival of the Moscow police official. When at last Prince Gregoriev was ushered into the royal presence, the voice of the master of ceremonies shook as he announced the name; and, while he closed the door that shut this madman from his sight, he longed and yet dreaded to hear his Majesty's first words. Should he—had he time to—rush forth and spread abroad the news of Gregoriev's fall, before the broken man should issue from that ominously quiet room? Fortunately for himself, the master of ceremonies was hardly of an adventurous disposition. He cogitated the matter till he felt it too late to perform the errand and get back in time to see Gregoriev's expression as he emerged from the Presence. Nevertheless, minute after minute went by, till an hour had passed: time for a comprehensive reproof and dismissal, truly! But the feeble-minded one was prepared for anything by the time the miracle happened. It was three o'clock before he beheld, issuing from the audience-chamber, side by side and chatting together in tones of intimacy, Michael Petrovitch Gregoriev and Nicholas I., Emperor of Russia. Nor was that all. For it was the face not of the official but of his Imperial Majesty, that wore an expression of uneasiness, of disquietude, almost—of alarm.
Gregoriev left the Kremlin, by the Gate of the Saviour, on foot. He had dismissed his sleigh upon his arrival. But, though the afternoon was yet young, the light of the brief winter day was almost gone. Lights were appearing in the shop-windows of the Tverskaia as Michael, muffled comfortably in his sables, entered the celebrated street and walked along it, leisurely, in a direction leading directly away from his distant palace. He had no definite goal in mind. He was in the high humor of immediate success. Many-colored Moscow lay all about him: his city, wherein he was known to and feared by, nearly every man. Labyrinth though it was, there was scarcely a corner, an alley, a court-yard in that most jumbled of cities that he did not know. Moscow belonged to him as London to Dickens, Paris to Balzac. And, like the great novelists, his walks, always a delight, played also an important part in his profession. It was, however, rare that he issued forth in his present guise. The Iakiminskaia, for instance, saw him oftenest as a petty merchant; the Piatnitskaia as a Jewish or Tatar trader; the Basmanaia as a soldier, or petty officer off duty; other quarters as a member of a workingman's artel, a university hanger-on, or a loafer, as the neighborhood demanded. To-day, however, being himself, he directed his steps towards the fashionable part of the town, passing from the shopping district into the old Equerries' quarter lying behind, and west of, the Kremlin hill. It was possible that he had some hazy idea of startling his wife's family by an unwelcome visit; and from them gaining the latest gossip concerning last night's ball. But the idea remained nebulous. Nicholas had responded too readily to his touch, the few lines of cipher on his map had proved too disturbing to the royal mind, for the tormentor's pride not to have been restored by such evidence of his power. He knew well that their recent talk, in which he had played his difficult part with genius, had left his Majesty fearful, not of revelations concerning mere peculations or juggled laws, but of something touching his very seat upon the throne; a certain disclosure that might bring up again that old, forgotten matter of his unnatural accession to the throne in place of his elder brother Constantine. And Michael had an unfounded belief that the Czar would, therefore, in some unknown way, bring him, peaceably, the social power he now trebly desired. Therefore it was not difficult to turn him from his half-formed purpose.
Leaving the great street for the comparatively quiet Nikolskaia, he presently encountered one of the unofficial companions of his leisure hours: a retired army officer, with a reputation at cards which few gamblers cared to ignore. Colonel Lodoroff greeted the Prince with a customary effusion, and found little difficulty in drawing him on to a certain small club, maintained by twenty members, of which the very existence was unknown to outsiders. Here, by day or by night, could be found companions for any carousal, partners for any known game of skill or chance; in short, that species of person which the ordinary club does its best to exclude. The small building's exquisitely decorated rooms were not, however, unfamiliar to the eyes of certain members of the opposite sex, whose eligibility to admittance consisted only in certain powers of attraction and entertainment.
Within the discreet recesses of this nameless organization, Michael Petrovitch spent two or three agreeable hours. And finally, at six o'clock—more than an hour after despatching a short message to Piotr, in Konnaia Square—Gregoriev, with Lodoroff, three other men, and Mesdames Nathalie, Anna, and Celestine, whose last names were as changeable as their complexions, set off, in four public droschkies, for the Gregoriev palace.
Piotr, on receipt of his master's note, carried it at once to his wife, who was one of the half-dozen serfs educated through the influence of Princess Sophia. And upon her explanation of its contents he rushed off to set the kitchens in a hum of preparation. It was no novelty, this order: a dinner for eight to be served at an hour's notice in his excellency's dining-room, that the Princess need not be "disturbed." The chef—a Frenchman, not a serf, chattered with excitement and displeasure while he composed his hurried menu. Piotr and Sosha, the major-domo, set to work together in the round dining-room in the Prince's wing, both of them thinking drearily of the task that must be theirs in that same room on the following morning. And all through the servants' quarters might be heard, from time to time, a certain blasphemous little prayer, uttered in the expressionless tone that bespoke long familiarity: "God be merciful to us!"—the sign of the cross made in the air—"and cause the devil soon to take unto himself his own!"
But the lord of the underworld had evidently no present need of the soul of the head of the Gregoriev house. It was a quarter before seven when the Prince's special suite was invaded by the noisy party, already in the first state of reckless exhilaration induced by an extravagant use of golden fluid so dear to the Russian palate. Piotr, Sosha, and three or four of the older serfs who were accustomed to these entertainments, were in attendance, all of them drooping with the fatigue of the previous day, but none of them pausing to marvel at the vitality of their master. The table was satisfactorily decorated. The ladies were pleased to praise their corsage bouquets of camellias so hurriedly obtained; and all the party partook heartily of the hors d'oeuvres and liqueurs served on a side-table, according to the old Muscovite custom. Gregoriev was the only one of them all who appeared to be quite unaffected by what he had drunk. But he was, nevertheless, the evil genius of the company, flattering the women, taunting the men, to continually increasing libations.
Meantime, on the second floor of the palace, not far away from that dining-room beneath, a very different meal was in progress. Princess Gregoriev, her sister, and Ivan, her boy, sat together at a small, round table, waited on by women. Only one of the three made much pretence at eating. Madame Gregoriev, red-eyed, but very calm, sat beside her sister, whose face also bore traces of recent tears. Both of the ladies continually pressed food upon the boy, who, as he ate with boyish heartiness, talked to them with the pleasant and wonderful unconsciousness of childhood. The difficult hour was nearly over before sounds of the affair below first began to be audible to them. But at the first, muffled scream of laughter, Madame Gregoriev started, violently, all the color flying from her face, and a ghastly pallor taking its place. The Countess Dravikine, after one instant of puzzled consideration, leaned forward, and began a hastily animated conversation with her nephew, upon all sorts of boyish affairs. Fortunately the effort was needed only for a moment or two, for presently, Alexei, Ivan's special serf, a combination of playfellow and valet, who had been summoned by the tactful Masha appeared in the doorway, waiting an order to remove his young master. It was time. Madame Dravikine's voice could no longer override the noise from below. Moreover, Ivan had now ceased to eat, and was sitting motionless, his mouth drawn into a pitiful line, a spot of vivid red flaming from each pale cheek, his great eyes wistfully, anxiously, seeking those of his mother, which as persistently avoided them. Suddenly there came from below a piercing scream: a scream holding in it a note at which Caroline, forgetting everything else, sprang suddenly to her feet, crying:
"Sophia, the thing is unbearable! How can you possibly permit yourself to endure it? For God's sake, pull yourself up, and leave this—"
"Ivan! Alexei is waiting for you. Go at once!" broke in the Princess, sharply, her eyes fixed upon her sister with a light of bitter reproof in their weary depths. At the same time, she held out both hands to her son.
Without a word, the boy rose and went to his mother. A kiss passed between them. Then he turned and walked straight to the door. He did not once look back. But neither woman failed to perceive that his delicate hands were clinched so tightly that the bloodless knuckles were tinged with blue.
When the door closed behind him, Sophia Ivanovna answered her sister's unfinished question: "You think I should leave this house. Do you for an instant imagine that he would permit his son to go with me? Am I then to leave my child here—to that?"
With a low exclamation, Caroline went forward and fell upon her knees beside her sister, asking for pardon between her shaking sobs.
THE GREGORIEV HEIR
The west wing of the palace in the Serpoukhovskaia sheltered two beings whose outward and inner lives, though divergent in every detail, were nevertheless bound fast together by the most powerful tie of nature and of law. But it was at the other end of the huge building that there dwelt the solitary offspring of this unnatural union, a boy now in the eleventh year of childhood, companionless, physically inactive, mentally over-quick, perceptive, and quaintly imaginative.
Despite the fact that solitude was as much the keynote of his existence as of that of his father and mother, many eyes were concentrated upon the development, spiritual and mental, of Ivan Gregoriev. Upon him had been fastened the hopes even of the Gregoriev serfs, who were as devoted to him and to his mother as they were miserably afraid of their master. An hour's observation was enough to make plain the fact that Ivan had in him not one of his father's characteristics. For this reason he was said to resemble his mother. But as a matter of fact this statement was hardly more true than one of the paternal resemblance would have been. The boy certainly worshipped his mother; who had been his one staff during that fearful and lonely pilgrimage of his through dark caverns of speculation concerning the mysteries of his own and his mother's isolation: facts of which he had been cognizant at a startling age. From the first, indeed, he had stood, as it were, apart: a silent, observant young creature, not morbid nor markedly unnatural, yet holding within himself possibilities not to be found in the usual hobbledehoy of his age. And though it is probable that, in after years, he felt his aloofness far more keenly than at the present period, it was in his early boyhood that his sense of it was most apparent to others.
That Ivan should, from the first, have been a lonely child, was inevitable, considering his parentage. In the Russia of that day sons of noble families were not often kept under tutors. They were more frequently sent to select private schools, where they would meet only their own class, till they were of age to enter one or another of the "corps" or academies, started by Nicholas for the noble youths whom he wished to officer his army and people the royal households. Young Gregoriev, however, had, up to this time—the new year of 1852—worked, studied and dreamed by himself under the direction, first of his mother, recently of his tutor, Monsieur Ludmillo, the son of a Polish exile, educated in France, and only permitted to re-enter Russia upon the death of his father, in 1847. This man, a gentle, melancholy idealist, like so many of his race, had early taken a sincere liking for his young pupil, nor found, as the years passed, anything special to complain of in Ivan's performance of his tasks or his obedience during their many hours together. Of all, in short, who had to do with the young Prince, one person only, and that his father, felt any displeasure with him. But Prince Michael looked upon his son with a kind of bitter, resentful scorn as a creature of his mother's type: weak in character, and holding within him not one of those fierce and reckless traits which the traditional Gregoriev proudly claimed for his own.
From the time of his babyhood, Ivan had lived in the extreme eastern end of the house—as far as possible from his father's rooms. In this putting of him away even from her own proximity, Sophia had shown the self-sacrifice of devotion. During many a night had the unhappy woman lain thinking of her child, hungering for the pressure of his young head upon her breast, his little body by her side, nay, the sound of his sleeping breath in the same room with her. But she was determined to keep him as unfamiliar as possible with the details of his father's existence; and only in this way was it to be done. By day, however, she lived in the room that was first nursery, later school and living room, making herself the companion of her boy in his every occupation, patiently, from day to day, searching his childish face for incipient signs of unhappiness or melancholy. But it was not until she was too familiar with his every expression that such signs began to appear; and then, through very over-intimacy, she failed to perceive the marks of those peculiar characteristics that had already begun to mould his nature.
At eleven, Ivan was tall and well grown, shapely of limb, delicate of hand and foot, large-eyed, clear-skinned. In certain ways his face did suggest the face of his mother. But the fine chiselling of her features was augmented in the sensitiveness of his lip and nostril; and for the rest, his eyes, that resembled soft, black pansies, and his jet-black, stubborn hair, that grew like a thick, velvet cap above his smooth forehead, were all his own. His hands, likewise, were such as had never been seen upon a Blashkov. They were white and hard, but pliable as rubber, their fingers extraordinarily long. In fact, they were hands for which any musician, teacher or virtuoso, would, had such commodities been marketable, have bought at any price. And this fact had early been recognized by Ivan's tutor, and by him eagerly seized upon and used.
Monsieur Ludmillo was hardly the typical lazy, effeminate, creature whose only interests in life were holidays and the society of such ladies as would receive him. On the contrary he was conscientious, retiring to a point of absolute self-effacement, and able to forget himself only in his one great passion: music. He was a Pole of the Chopinesque type: and it was in spite of himself that he gave his pupil, besides the regular studies, a very thorough grounding in the classical masters, taught him something of the spirit of Schumann and Schubert, and even permitted in Ivan's repertoire such bits of Glinka and Serov as were to be managed by the boyish hands. Happily, Ludmillo had not lived enough in the fashionable world for him to endure the vapid floridities of the late Italian school; but there rose in him a secret delight when he heard his charge, left to himself, return again and again to the wild and haunting melodies of little Russia, Lithuania, and, above and beyond all, of rebellious, crushed, poetic Poland.
The instrument on which Ivan gained his first understanding of the art that he was to make his own, was one that had come into the palace upon the marriage of his mother. In the days before the complete stifling of her talents, Sophia had been wont often to dissipate the misery of her earlier disillusions in music. But there arrived a time when grief became too deep for such sentimental balm; and then the piano's painted cover had been closed, as she believed, for good, and the instrument, at her orders, carried away to the unused room where, years afterwards, Ludmillo discovered it and put it into some sort of order. Madame Gregoriev's assent to his timid request to have it moved to Ivan's rooms had been indifferently granted. But later, when, in the candle-lit dusk, Ivan and his tutor drew instinctively together before the instrument, they were more and more often joined by another figure, silently stealing, who would listen to the half-forgotten melodies of other years that were, for her, ghost-haunted, till further endurance became impossible, and she would leave the twain again, and, through the lonely night, weep away some of the still-rankling bitterness, the incurable smart, of her many wounds. Later, however, came days when the memories held less of sadness, and, in those rich, slow harmonies, she began to discern vague thoughts, faintest hopes that, somewhere, perhaps deep in the fire-heart of God, she should learn His excuse for suffering: be taught the wherefore of the present: receive that compensation that must exist, to balance the account held for her by eternity. In time she came even to think a little of the music-maker: that silent man to whom her own existence seemed a thing peaceful and fine in its absolute security from any form of want. She realized, through him, those other thousands in the world who had lived through lifetimes of conscious insignificance and unattainable desire, nor thought these serious evils. In short she was given a horizon whereon she began to see things properly proportioned. And there, at last, she beheld also her son, and all the possibilities in the future of those for whom the road of life lies all ahead. But even she, who knew him best of all, knew little of Ivan's inner self. She never surmised his strange consciousness of the mighty void within his soul: the aching gap that his life could never fill: the unspoken question that waited in him, fulminating, till he should at last demand his answer from the most high God.
In the face of such things it is difficult to reiterate the denial that Ivan was a morbid boy. True, he bore an inheritance from his mother. The life she had led before his birth had certainly left its mark upon him. But that instinctive sadness had in her been tinged with an inner joy: the joy of eager motherhood. And in Ivan this joy found its repetition in a vein of practical gayety. There were days when his mischief was as diabolical as one could wish it: when Ludmillo, tormented, was still brought to laugh at his piquant, irresistible nonsense. Nor was the boy without other traits of his sex and age. There were weeks when he was full of the wildest plans for his future career; being all for the joys of the physical, beside which mental labor was to play a most unimportant role. He would be an explorer. Siberia, North America, Central Africa, were to open before his determined efforts. Or the Celestial Empire might be penetrated to its innermost recesses by him in his undetectable disguise; and he was to come home by the caravan route laden with costliest treasures. Again it was all his wish to be another Nimrod: Indian tigers, American buffaloes, African elephants were to go down in thousands before his imaginary gun. While once more (this when his every spare moment was divided between Peter the Great and the Arabian Nights), he saw himself, at the head of a Cossack army, storming Constantinople and carrying away the most beautiful Princess ever enslaved in royal harem. And while the boy silently performed these great deeds, he was also engaged upon a few simpler, but more salutary physical feats in a neighboring gymnasium, whence he emerged with muscles fairly well-developed, and a hand and eye unusually quick at the foils.
His days were kept wisely full. At that time it was the custom to cram children rather unmercifully. But Sophia and Ludmillo together made saner disposal of Ivan's hours. He was made to know thoroughly what he knew. And it was their great effort to keep him busy enough to prevent a real appreciation of his isolated life. Their plans were made skilfully and carried out to the letter. Wherefore the fact that their end was not actually accomplished, could be charged only to the merciless quickness of the boy's own apperceptions.
How early it was that he learned the difference between himself and others, it would be nearly impossible to say. His mother, indeed, was probably spared the discovery of his knowledge. For he was reserved beyond his years, and a violent secret pride was his one unsuspected Gregoriev trait. However it happened, Ivan learned, as a very little boy, that only in his life was no provision ever made for visits to and from others of his kind. He knew that he had been left out of the lives of his class: that the young Mirskies, Blashkovs, Kropotkins, Osinin, visiting almost daily among themselves, never came to, never asked for, him. He even divined the one or two half-hearted attempts on his mother's part to obtain for him at least the occasional companionship of her own nephews and second-cousins. But what it was that hurt him so unconscionably about this knowledge he did not realize until after he had come into manhood. It was doubtful if even his mother, suffering for him, had a greater sense of unhappiness than he, in his blind sense of injustice somewhere. For to Sophia, ostracism had long since become a kind of second nature. But for her son it still had all the misery of perennial newness.
Nevertheless, despite the deadening of time, the mother-yearning over her child's loneliness never wholly left the poor Princess. In the case of the ball, for instance, if her labor for its success, if the care spent on its details, the summoning of Caroline from Petersburg, the unwonted extravagance of her Paris costume, had one and all been suggested by her husband, they had been carried out by her not for his sake nor for her own; but for the sake of all that it might afterwards accomplish for Ivan. Once she and Prince Michael were actually accepted, their son must naturally find his new place. Thus, for weeks before the event, she had seen Ivan, in her dreams, taking his place among as yet unknown companions: outstripping all rivals in brilliance and in popularity. And after the ball, though some of her dreary disappointment had, unquestionably, been for herself, the better part of it, also, had been for the child whose protector she had always been. It was almost a pity that she was so careful never to drag him into the shadows of her life. Had he once surmised them, the two, mother and son, might have found a companionship in sorrow that would mean more to them both than all their separate, painful pretence of happiness—or contentment.
Everything considered, Ivan saw much of his mother; and next to nothing of his father. And because of the apparent mystery with which the Prince was surrounded before his son: his mother's reluctance in speaking of him, the serfs' sign for avoidance of the evil-eye when the master was mentioned, even Monsieur Ludmillo's careful reticence on the subject, Michael came, by degrees, to play a foremost part in his son's imaginings: a part at once heroic and terrible. Ivan knew very well that his father was not a good man: that he frequently did hateful things that seriously hurt his mother. Nevertheless, there was a strong fascination about such a personality. Gigantic, fierce, wild, darkly omniscient, mysteriously terrible, he stalked in a mental lime-light through Ivan's dreams. His existence, in the boyish imagination, was more adventurous than that of any hero of Scheherazade. And perhaps the greatest charm of all was the fact that, in all seriousness, Ivan believed his father actually capable of most of the deeds he arranged in his thoughts.
The boy had been told of his father's importance to the Government; his power in Moscow. But this was a matter to be so much taken for granted that it brought little additional pride. Ivan's imaginary father had long been invested with greater honors than these. He would much have preferred a satisfactory explanation of the one point which troubled him mightily: which had filled many of his nights with unsuspected grief, and disturbed his day-dreams while he puzzled, anxiously, over known facts that had become too inconsistent with his beliefs for comfort. That scene enacted in his mother's rooms, at supper, on the evening after the ill-starred ball, when, at his mother's bidding, he had left her, knowing that she wished to keep him from questions that must not be asked, was neither the first such affair that he had seen, nor yet the tenth. He had left the room with hands clinched and his heart burning with anger: anger against—whom? what? The person who brought the look he could not bear into his mother's eyes; the thing that reopened those never-healed wounds he knew she bore within her. And these wounds?—the suffering in her look?—Well, he knew, well enough, of course, that they had all been made by his father! But the father of such deeds was not the embodiment of romance that he had created out of the stuff of dreams! There was, then, another; a reality: terrible, perhaps, but also despicable, and full of things so mean, so low, that he was hardly even to be hated? Already he could feel that hate was a strong passion, not unflattering to its object. But—a man who ill-treated women:—Incredible!