I thought that night, as I lay cosily in my dusky room, of those old storie_y Wilkie Collins that had once upon a time so deeply engrossed m_nterest—stories in which, because some one has disappeared on a snowy night, or painted his face blue, or locked up a room and lost the key, or broken dow_n his carriage on a windy night at the cross-roads, dozens of people ar_nvolved, diaries are written, confessions are made, and all the character_ove along different roads towards the same lighted, comfortable Inn. That i_he kind of story that intrigues me, whether it be written about out-sid_ysteries by Wilkie Collins or inside mysteries by the great creator of "Th_olden Bowl" or mysteries of both kinds, such as Henry Galleon has given us. _emember a friend of mine, James Maradick, once saying to me, "It's no us_rying to keep out of things. As soon as they want to put you in—you're in.
The moment you're born, you're done for."
It's just that spectacle of some poor innocent being suddenly caught into som_ffair, against his will, without his knowledge, but to the most seriou_lteration of his character and fortunes, that one watches with a deligh_lmost malicious—whether it be _The Woman in White, The Wings of the Dove,_r _The Roads_ that offer it us. Well, I had now to face the fact tha_omething of this kind had happened to myself.
I was drawn in—and I was glad. I luxuriated in my gladness, lying there in m_oom under the wavering, uncertain light of two candles, hearing the churc_ells clanging and echoing mysteriously beyond the wall. I lay there with _onsciousness of being on the very verge of some adventure, with th_ssurance, too, that I was to be of use once more, to play my part, to flin_side, thank God, that old cloak of apathetic disappointment, of selfis_etrayal, of cynical disbelief. Semyonov had brought the old life back to m_nd I had shrunk from the impact of it; but he had brought back to me, too, the presences of my absent friends who, during these weary months, had bee_ost to me. It seemed to me that, in the flickering twilight, John and Mari_ere bringing forward to me Vera and Nina and Jerry and asking me to loo_fter them…. I would do my best.
And while I was thinking of these things Vera Michailovna came in. She wa_uddenly in the room, standing there, her furs up to her throat, her body i_hadow, but her large, grave eyes shining through the candlelight, her mout_miling.
"Is it all right?" she said, coming forward. "I'm not in the way? You're no_leeping?"
I told her that I was delighted to see her.
"I've been almost every day, but Marfa told me you were not well enough. Sh_does_ guard you—like a dragon. But to-night Nina and I are going t_ozanov's, to a party, and she said she'd meet me here…. Shan't I worry you?"
"Worry me! You're the most restful friend I have—" I felt so glad to see he_hat I was surprised at my own happiness. She sat down near to me, ver_uietly, moving, as she always did, softly and surely.
I could see that she was distressed because I looked ill, but she asked me n_iresome questions, said nothing about my madness in living as I did (alway_o irritating, as though I were a stupid child), praised the room, admired th_enois picture, and then talked in her soft, kindly voice.
"We've missed you so much, Nina and I," she said. "I told Nina that if sh_ame to-night she wasn't to make a noise and disturb you."
"She can make as much noise as she likes," I said. "I like the right kind o_oise."
We talked a little about politics and England and anything that came into ou_inds. We both felt, I know, a delightful, easy intimacy and friendliness an_rust. I had never with any other woman felt such a sense of friendship, something almost masculine in its comradeship and honesty. And to-night thi_ond between us strengthened wonderfully. I blessed my luck. I saw that ther_ere dark lines under her eyes and that she was pale.
"You're tired," I said.
"Yes, I am," she acknowledged. "And I don't know why. At least, I do know. I'_oing to use you selfishly, Durdles. I'm going to tell you all my troubles an_sk your help in every possible way. I'm going to let you off nothing."
I took her hand.
"I'm proud," I said, "now and always."
"Do you know that I've never asked any one's help before? I was rathe_onceited that I could get on always without it. When I was very small _ouldn't take a word of advice from any one, and mother and father, when I wa_iny, used to consult me about everything. Then they were killed and I _had_o go on alone…. And after that, when I married Nicholas, it was I again wh_ecided everything. And my mistakes taught me nothing. I didn't want them t_each me."
She spoke that last word fiercely, and through the note that came into he_oice I saw suddenly the potentialities that were in her, the other creatur_hat she might be if she were ever awakened.
She talked then for a long time. She didn't move at all; her head rested o_er hand and her eyes watched me. As I listened I thought of my other frien_arie, who now was dead, and how restless she was when she spoke, moving abou_he room, stopping to demand my approval, protesting against my criticism, laughing, crying out…. Vera was so still, so wise, too, in comparison wit_arie, braver too—and yet the same heart, the same charity, the same nobility.
But she was my friend, and Marie I had loved…. The difference in that! And ho_uch easier now to help than it had been then, simply because one's own sou_was_ one's own and one stood by oneself!
How happy a thing freedom is—and how lonely!
She told me many things that I need not repeat here, but, as she talked, I sa_ow, far more deeply than I had imagined, Nina had been the heart of the whol_f her life. She had watched over her, protected her, advised her, warned her, and loved her, passionately, jealously, almost madly all the time.
"When I married Nicholas," she said, "I thought of Nina more than any on_lse. That was wrong…. I ought to have thought most of Nicholas; but I kne_hat I could give her a home, that she could have everything she wanted. An_till she would be with me. Nicholas was only too ready for that. I thought _ould care for her until some one came who was worthy of her, and who woul_ook after her far better than I ever could.
"But the only person who had come was Boris Grogoff. He loved Nina from th_irst moment, in his own careless, conceited, opinionated way."
"Why did you let him come so often to the house if you didn't approve of him?"
"How could I prevent it?" she asked me. "We Russians are not like the English.
In England I know you just shut the door and say, 'Not at home.'
"Here if any one wanted to come he comes. Very often we hate him for coming, but still there it is. It is too much trouble to turn him out, besides i_ouldn't be kind—and anyway they wouldn't go. You can be as rude as you lik_ere and nobody cares. For a long while Nina paid no attention to Boris. Sh_oesn't like him. She will never like him, I'm sure. But now, these las_eeks, I've begun to be afraid. In some way, he has power over her—not muc_ower, but a little—and she is so young, so ignorant—she knows nothing.
"Until lately she always told me everything. Now she tells me nothing. She'_trange with me; angry for nothing. Then sorry and sweet again—then suddenl_ngry…. She's excited and wild, going out all the time, but unhappy too…. _know_ she's unhappy. I can feel it as though it were myself."
"You're imagining things," I said. "Now when the war's reached this perio_e're all nervous and overstrung. The atmosphere of this town is enough t_ake any one fancy that they see anything. Nina's all right."
"I'm losing her! I'm losing her!" Vera cried, suddenly stretching out her han_s though in a gesture of appeal. "She must stay with me. I don't know what'_appening to her. Ah, and I'm so lonely without her!"
There was silence between us for a little, and then she went on.
"Durdles, I did wrong to marry Nicholas—wrong to Nina, wrong to Nicholas, wrong to myself, I thought it was right. I didn't love Nicholas—I never love_im and I never pretended to. He knew that I did not. But I thought then tha_ was above love, that knowledge was what mattered. Ideas—saving the world—an_e had _such_ ideas! Wonderful! There was, I thought, nothing that he woul_ot be able to do if only he were helped enough. He wanted help in every way.
He was such a child, so unhappy, so lonely, I thought that I could give hi_verything that he needed. Don't fancy that I thought that I sacrifice_yself. I felt that I was the luckiest girl in all the world—and still, no_hen I see that he is not strong enough for his ideas I care for him as I di_hen, and I would never let any trouble touch him if I could help it. Bu_f—if—"
She paused, turned away from me, looking towards the window.
"If, after all, I was wrong. If, after all, I was meant to love. If love wer_o come now… real love… now…."
She broke off, suddenly stood up, and very low, almost whispering, said:
"I have fancied lately that it might come. And then, what should I do? Oh, what should I do? With Nicholas and Nina and all the trouble there is now i_he world—and Russia—I'm afraid of myself—and ashamed…."
I could not speak. I was utterly astonished. Could it be Bohun of whom she wa_peaking? No, I saw at once that the idea was ludicrous. But if not—.
I took her hand.
"Vera," I said. "Believe me. I'm much older than you, and I know. Love'_lways selfish, always cruel to others, always means trouble, sorrow, an_isappointment. But it's worth it, even when it brings complete disaster. Lif_sn't life without it."
I felt her hand tremble in mine.
"I don't know," she said, "I know nothing of it, except my love for Nina. I_sn't that now there's anybody. Don't think that. There is no one—no one. Onl_y self-confidence is gone. I can't see clearly any more. My duty is to Nin_nd Nicholas. And if they are happy nothing else matters—nothing. And I'_fraid that I'm going to do them harm."
She paused as though she were listening. "There's no one there, is there?" sh_sked me—"there by the door?"
"There are so many noises in this house. Don't they disturb you?"
"I don't think of them now. I'm used to them—and in fact I like them."
She went on: "It's Uncle Alexei of course. He comes to see us nearly ever_ay. He's very pleasant, more pleasant than he has ever been before, but h_as a dreadful effect on Nicholas—"
"I know the effect he can have," I said.
"I know that Nicholas has been feeling for a long time that his inventions ar_o use. He will never own it to me or to any one—but I can tell. I know it s_ell. The war came and his new feeling about Russia carried him along. He pu_verything into that. Now that has failed him, and he despises himself fo_aving expected it to do otherwise. He's raging about, trying to fin_omething that he can believe in, and Uncle Alexei knows that and plays o_hat…. He teases him; he drives him wild and then makes him happy again. H_an do anything with him he pleases. He always could. But now he has som_lan. I used to think that he simply laughed at people because it amused hi_o see how weak they can be. But now there's more than that. He's been hur_imself at last, and that has hurt his pride, and he wants to hurt back…. It'_ll in the dark. The war's in the dark… everything…." Then she smiled and pu_er hand on my arm. "That's why I've come to you, because I trust you an_elieve you and know you say what you mean."
Once before Marie had said those same words to me. It was as though I hear_er voice again.
"I won't fail you," I said.
There was a knock on the door, it was flung open as though by the wind, an_ina was with us. Her face was rosy with the cold, her eyes laughed under he_ittle round fur cap. She came running across the room, pulled herself up wit_ little cry beside the bed, and then flung herself upon me, throwing her arm_round my neck and kissing me.
"My dear Nina!" cried Vera.
She looked up, laughing.
"Why not? Poor Durdles. Are you better? _Biédnie_ … give me your hands.
But—how cold they are! And there are draughts everywhere. I've brought yo_ome chocolates—and a book."
"My dear!…" Vera cried again. "He won't like _that_ ," pointing to a work o_iction by a modern Russian literary lady whose heart and brain are of th_ucculent variety.
"Why not? She's very good. It's lovely! All about impossible people! Durdles, _dear_! I'll give up the party. We won't go. We'll sit here and entertain you.
I'll send Boris away. We'll tell him we don't want him."
"Boris!" cried Vera.
"Yes," Nina laughed a little uneasily, I thought. "I know you said he wasn'_o come. He'll quarrel with Rozanov of course. But he said he would. And s_ow was one to prevent him? You're always so tiresome, Vera…. I'm not a bab_ow, nor is Boris. If he wants to come he shall come."
Vera stood away from us both. I could see that she was very angry. I had neve_een her angry before.
"You know that it's impossible, Nina," she said. "You know that Rozanov hate_im. And besides—there are other reasons. You know them perfectly well, Nina."
Nina stood there pouting, tears were in her eyes.
"You're unfair," she said. "You don't let me do anything. You give me n_reedom, I don't care for Boris, but if he wants to go he shall go. I'm grow_p now. You have your Lawrence. Let me have my Boris."
"My Lawrence?" asked Vera.
"Yes. You know that you're always wanting him to come—always looking for him.
I like him, too. I like him very much. But you never let me talk to him. Yo_ever—"
"Quiet, Nina." Vera's voice was trembling. Her face was sterner than I'd eve_een it. "You're making me angry."
"I don't care how angry I make you. It's true. You're impossible now. Wh_houldn't I have my friends? I've nobody now. You never let me have anybody.
And I like Mr. Lawrence—"
She began to sob, looking the most desolate figure.
"You don't know what you've said, Nina, nor how you've hurt…. You can go t_our party as you please—"
And before I could stop her she was gone.
Nina turned to me a breathless, tearful face. She waited; we heard the doo_elow closed.
"Oh, Durdles, what have I done?"
"Go after her! Stop her!" I said.
Nina vanished and I was alone. My room was intensely quiet.