I was to meet Jerry Lawrence sooner than I had expected. And it was in thi_ay.
Two days after the evening that I have just described I was driven to go an_ee Vera Michailovna. I was driven, partly by my curiosity, partly by m_epression, and partly by my loneliness. This same loneliness was, I believe, at this time beginning to affect us all. I should be considered perhaps to b_peaking with exaggeration if I were to borrow the title of one of Mrs.
Oliphant's old-fashioned and charming novels and to speak of Petrograd a_lready "A Beleaguered City"—beleaguered, moreover, in very much the sam_ense as that other old city was. From the very beginning of the war Petrogra_as isolated—isolated not by the facts of the war, its geographical positio_r any of the obvious causes, but simply by the contempt and hatred with whic_t was regarded. From very old days it was spoken of as a German town. "If yo_ant to know Russia don't go to Petrograd." "Simply a cosmopolitan town lik_ny other." "A smaller Berlin"—and so on, and so on. This sense of outsid_ontempt influenced its own attitude to the world. It was always at war wit_oscow. It showed you when you first arrived its Nevski, its ordered squares, its official buildings as though it would say: "I suppose you will take th_ame view as the rest. If you don't wish to look any deeper here you are. I'_ot going to help you."
As the war developed it lost whatever gaiety and humour it had. After the fal_f Warsaw the attitude of the Russian people in general became fatalistic.
Much nonsense was talked in the foreign press about "Russia coming back agai_nd again." "Russia, the harder she was pressed the harder she resisted," an_he ghost of Napoleon retreating from Moscow was presented to every home i_urope; but the plain truth was that, after Warsaw, the temper of the peopl_hanged. Things were going wrong once more as they had always gone wrong i_ussian history, and as they always would go wrong. Then followe_ewilderment. What to do? Whose fault was it all? Shall we blame our blood o_ur rulers? Our rulers, certainly, as we always, with justice, have blame_hem—our blood, too, perhaps. From the fall of Warsaw, in spite of momentar_lashes of splendour and courage, the Russians were a blindfolded, nake_eople, fighting a nation fully armed. Now, Europe was vast continents away, and only Germany, that old Germany whose soul was hateful, whose practica_pirit was terribly admirable, was close at hand. The Russian people turne_ither and thither, first to its Czar, then to its generals, then to it_emocratic spirit, then to its idealism—and there was no hope anywhere. The_ppealed for Liberty. In the autumn of 1916 a great prayer from the whol_ountry went up that the bandage might be taken from its eyes, and soon, les_hen the light did at last come the eyes should be so unused to it that the_hould see nothing. Nicholas had his opportunity—the greatest opportunit_erhaps ever offered to man. He refused it. From that moment the easiest wa_as closed, and only a most perilous rocky path remained.
With every week of that winter of 1916, Petrograd stepped deeper and deepe_nto the darkness. Its strangeness grew and grew upon me as the days file_hrough. I wondered whether my illness and the troubles of the preceding yea_ade me see everything at an impossible angle—or it was perhaps my isolate_odging, my crumbling rooms, with the grey expanse of sea and sky in front o_hem that was responsible. Whatever it was, Petrograd soon came to be to me _lace with a most terrible secret life of its own.
There is an old poem of Pushkin's that Alexandre Benois has most marvellousl_llustrated, which has for its theme the rising of the river Neva in Novembe_824. On that occasion the splendid animal devoured the town, and in Pushkin'_oem you feel the devastating power of the beast, and in Benois' pictures yo_an see it licking its lips as it swallowed down pillars and bridges an_treets and squares with poor little fragments of humanity clutching an_rying and fruitlessly appealing.
This poem only emphasised for me the suspicion that I had originally had, tha_he great river and the marshy swamp around it despised contemptuously th_uildings that man had raised beside and upon it, and that even the building_n their turn despised the human beings who thronged them. It could only b_ome sense of this kind that could make one so repeatedly conscious that one'_eet were treading ancient ground.
The town, raised all of a piece by Peter the Great, could claim no ancien_istory at all; but through every stick and stone that had been laid ther_tirred the spirit and soul of the ground, so that out of one of the sluggis_anals one might expect at any moment to see the horrid and scaly head of som_alaeolithic monster with dead and greedy eyes slowly push its way up that i_ight gaze at the little black hurrying atoms as they crossed and recrosse_he grey bridge. There are many places in Petrograd where life is utterl_ead; where some building, half-completed, has fallen into red and gree_ecay; where the water lies still under iridescent scum and thick clotte_eeds seem to stand at bay, concealing in their depths some terrible monster.
At such a spot I have often fancied that the eyes of countless inhabitants o_hat earlier world are watching me, and that not far away the waters of Nev_re gathering, gathering, gathering their mighty momentum for some instant, when, with a great heave and swell, they will toss the whole fabric of bric_nd mortar from their shoulders, flood the streets and squares, and then sin_ranquilly back into great sheets of unruffled waters marked only with reed_nd the sharp cry of some travelling bird.
All this may be fantastic enough, I only know that it was sufficiently real t_e during that winter of 1916 to be ever at the back of my mind; and I believ_hat some sense of that kind had in all sober reality something to do wit_hat strange weight of uneasy anticipation that we all of us, yes, the mos_nimaginative amongst us, felt at this time.
Upon this afternoon when I went to pay my call on Vera Michailovna, the rea_now began to fall. We had had the false preliminary attempt a fortnigh_efore; now in the quiet persistent determination, the solid soft resilienc_eneath one's feet, and the patient aquiescence of roofs and bridges an_obbles one knew that the real winter had come. Already, although it was onl_our o'clock in the afternoon, there was darkness, with the strange almos_etallic glow as of the light from an inverted looking-glass that snow make_pon the air. I had not far to go, but the long stretch of the Ekateringofsk_anal was black and gloomy and desolate, repeating here and there the pal_ellow reflection of some lamp, but for the most part dim and dead, with th_ulks of barges lying like sleeping monsters on its surface. As I turned int_nglisky Prospect I found stretched like a black dado, far down the street, against the wall, a queue of waiting women. They would be there until th_arly morning, many of them, and it was possible that then the bread would no_e sufficient. And this not from any real lack, but simply from the mistake_f a bungling, peculating Government. No wonder that one's heart was heavy.
I found Vera Michailovna to my relief alone. When Sacha brought me into th_oom she was doing what I think I had never seen her do before, sittin_noccupied, her eyes staring in front of her, her hands folded on her lap.
"I don't believe that I've ever caught you idle before, Vera Michailovna," I said.
"Oh, I'm glad you've come!" She caught my hand with an eagerness ver_ifferent from her usual calm, quiet greeting. "Sit down. It's a_xtraordinary thing. At that very moment I was wishing for you."
"What is it I can do for you?" I asked. "You know that I would do anything fo_ou."
"Yes, I know that you would. But—well. You can't help me because I don't kno_hat's the matter with me."
"That's very unlike you," I said.
"Yes, I know it is—and perhaps that's why I am frightened. It's so vague; an_ou know I long ago determined that if I couldn't define a trouble and have i_here in front of me, so that I could strangle it—why I wouldn't bother abou_t. But those things are so easy to say."
She got up and began to walk up and down the room. That again was utterl_nlike her, and altogether I seemed to be seeing, this afternoon, some quit_ew Vera Michailovna, some one more intimate, more personal, more appealing. _ealised suddenly that she had never before, at any period of our friendship, asked for my help—not even for my sympathy. She was so strong and reliant an_ndependent, cared so little for the opinion of others, and shut down s_losely upon herself her private life, that I could not have imagined he_sking help from any one. And of the two of us, she was the man, the stron_etermined soul, the brave and self-reliant character. It seemed to m_udicrous that she should ask for my help. Nevertheless I was greatly touched.
"I would do anything for you," I said.
She turned to me, a splendid figure, her head, with its crown of black hair, lifted, her hands on her hips, her eyes gravely regarding me.
"There are three things," she said, "perhaps all of them nothing…. And yet al_f them disturbing. First my husband. He's beginning to drink again."
"Drink?" I said; "where can he get it from?"
"I don't know. I must discover. But it isn't the actual drinking. Every one i_ur country drinks if he can. Only what has made my husband break his resolve?
He was so proud of it. You know how proud he was. And he lies about it. H_ays he is not drinking. He never used to lie about anything. That was not on_f his faults."
"Perhaps his inventions," I suggested.
"Pouf! His inventions! You know better than that, Ivan Andreievitch. No, no.
It is something…. He's not himself. Well, then, secondly, there's Nina. Th_ther night did you notice anything?"
"Only that she lost her temper. But she's always doing that."
"No, it's more than that. She's unhappy, and I don't like the life she'_eading. Always out at cinematographs and theatres and restaurants, and with _ot of boys who mean no harm, I know—but they're idiotic, they're no good….
Now, when the war's like this and the suffering…. To be always at th_inematograph! But I've lost my authority over her, Ivan Andreievitch. Sh_oesn't care any longer what I say to her. Once, and not so long ago, I mean_o much to her. She's changed, she's harder, more careless, more selfish. Yo_now, Ivan Andreievitch, that Nina's simply everything to me. I don't tal_bout myself, do I? but at least I can say that since—oh, many, many years, she's been the whole world and more than the whole world to me. Our mother an_ather were killed in a railway accident coming up from Odessa when Nina wa_ery small, and since then Nina's been mine—all mine!"
She said that word with sudden passion, flinging it at me with a fierc_esture of her hands. "Do you know what it is to want that something shoul_elong to you, belong entirely to you, and to no one else? I've been too prou_o say, but I've wanted that terribly all my life. I haven't had children, although I prayed for them, and perhaps now it is as well. But Nina! She'_nown she was mine, and, until now, she's loved to know it. But now she'_scaping from me, and she knows that too, and is ashamed. I think I could bea_nything but that sense that she herself has that she's being wrong—I hate he_o be ashamed."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "it's time that she went out into the world now an_orked. There are a thousand things that a woman can do."
"No—not Nina. I've spoilt her, perhaps; I don't know. I always liked to fee_hat she needed my help. I didn't want to make her too self-reliant. That wa_rong of me, and I shall be punished for it."
"Speak to her," I said. "She loves you so much that one word from you to he_ill be enough."
"No," Vera Michailovna said slowly. "It won't be enough now. A year ago, yes.
But now she's escaping as fast as she can."
"Perhaps she's in love with some one," I suggested.
"No. I should have seen at once if it had been that. I would rather it wer_hat. I think she would come back to me then. No, I suppose that this had t_appen. I was foolish to think that it would not. But it leaves one alone—it—"
She pulled herself up at that, regarding me with sudden shyness, as though sh_ould forbid me to hint that she had shown the slightest emotion, or made i_ny way an appeal for pity.
I was silent, then I said:
"And the third thing, Vera Michailovna?"
"Uncle Alexei is coming back." That startled me. I felt my heart give on_rantic leap.
"Alexei Petrovitch!" I cried. "When? How soon?"
"I don't know. I've had a letter." She felt in her dress, found the letter an_ead it through. "Soon, perhaps. He's leaving the Front for good. He'_isgusted with it all, he says. He's going to take up his Petrograd practic_gain."
"Will he live with you?"
"No. God forbid!"
She felt then, perhaps, that her cry had revealed more than she intended, because she smiled and, trying to speak lightly, said:
"No. We're old enemies, my uncle and I. We don't get on. He thinks m_entimental, I think him—but never mind what I think him. He has a bad effec_n my husband."
"A bad effect?" I repeated.
"Yes. He irritates him. He laughs at his inventions, you know."
I nodded my head. Yes, with my earlier experience of him I could understan_hat he would do that.
"He's a cynical, embittered man," I said. "He believes in nothing and i_obody. And yet he has his fine side—"
"No, he has no fine side," she interrupted me fiercely. "None. He is a ba_an. I've known him all my life, and I'm not to be deceived."
Then in a softer, quieter tone she continued:
"But tell me, Ivan Andreievitch. I've wanted before to ask you. You were wit_im on the Front last year. We have heard that he had a great love affai_here, and that the Sister whom he loved was killed. Is that true?"
"Yes," I said, "that is true."
"Was he very much in love with her?"
"I believe terribly."
"And it hurt him deeply when she was killed?"
"But what kind of woman was she? What type? It's so strange to me. Uncle Alexei… with his love affairs!"
I looked up, smiling. "She was your very opposite, Vera Michailovna, i_verything. Like a child—with no knowledge, no experience, no self- reliance—nothing. She was wonderful in her ignorance and bravery. We al_hought her wonderful."
"And she loved _him?_ "
"Yes—she loved him."
"How strange! Perhaps there is some good in him somewhere. But to us at an_ate he always brings trouble. This affair may have changed him. They say h_s very different. Worse perhaps—"
She broke out then into a cry:
"I want to get away, Ivan Andreievitch! To get away, to escape, to leave Russia and everything in it behind me! To escape!"
It was just then that Sacha knocked on the door. She came in to say that ther_as an Englishman in the hall inquiring for the other Englishman who had com_esterday, that he wanted to know when he would be back.
"Perhaps I can help," I said. I went out into the hall and there I found Jerry Lawrence.
He stood there in the dusk of the little hall looking as resolute an_nconcerned as an Englishman, in a strange and uncertain world, is expected t_ook. Not that he ever considered the attitudes fitting to adopt on certai_ccasions. He would tell you, if you inquired, that "he couldn't stand thos_ellows who looked into every glass they passed." His brow wore now a simpl_nd innocent frown like that of a healthy baby presented for the first tim_ith a strange and alarming rattle. It was only later that I was to arrive a_ome faint conception of Lawrence's marvellous acceptance of anything tha_ight happen to turn up. Vice, cruelty, unsuspected beauty, terror, remorse, hatred, and ignorance—he accepted them all once they were there in front o_im. He sometimes, as I shall on a later occasion, show, allowed himself _ree expression of his views in the company of those whom he could trust, bu_hey were never the views of a suspicious or a disappointed man. It was no_hat he had great faith in human nature. He had, I think, very little. Nor wa_e without curiosity—far from it. But once a thing was really there he waste_o time over exclamations as to the horror or beauty or abomination of it_ctual presence. There was as he once explained to me, "precious little tim_o waste." Those who thought him a dull, silent fellow—and they were many—mad_f course an almost ludicrous mistake, but most people in life are, I take it, too deeply occupied with their own personal history to do more than estimat_t its surface value the appearance of others… but after all such _ispensation makes, in all probability for the general happiness….
On this present occasion Jerry Lawrence stood there exactly as I had seen hi_tand many times on the football field waiting for the referee's whistle, hi_hick short body held together, his mouth shut and his eyes on guard. He di_ot at first recognise me.
"You've forgotten me," I said.
"I beg your pardon," he answered in his husky good-natured voice, like th_umble of an amiable bull-dog.
"My name is Durward," I said, holding out my hand. "And years ago we had _utual friend in Olva Dune."
That pleased him. He gripped my hand very heartily and smiled a big ugl_mile. "Why, yes," he said. "Of course. How are you? Feeling fit? Damned lon_go all that, isn't it? Hope you're really fit?"
"Oh, I'm all right," I answered. "I was never a Hercules, you know. I hear_hat you were here from Bohun. I was going to write to you. But it's excellen_hat we should meet like this."
"I was after young Bohun," he explained. "But it's pleasant to find there'_nother fellow in the town one knows. I've been a bit at sea these two days.
To tell you the truth I never wanted to come." I heard a rumble in his throa_hat sounded like "silly blighters."
"Come in," I said. "You must meet Madame Markovitch with whom Bohun i_taying—and then wait a bit. He won't be long, I expect."
The idea of this seemed to fill Jerry with alarm. He turned back toward th_oor. "Oh! I don't think… she won't want… better another time…" his mouth wa_illed with indistinct rumblings.
"Nonsense." I caught his arm. "She is delightful. You must make yourself a_ome here. They'll be only too glad."
"Does she speak English?" he asked.
"No," I answered. "But that's all right."
He backed again towards the door.
"My Russian's so slow," he said. "Never been here since I was a kid. I'_ather not, really—"
However, I dragged him in and introduced him. I had quite a fatherly desire, as I watched him, that "he should make good." But I'm afraid that that firs_nterview was not a great success. Vera Michailovna was strange tha_fternoon, excited and disturbed as I had never known her, and I could se_hat it was only with the greatest difficulty that she could bring herself t_hink about Jerry at all.
And Jerry himself was so unresponsive that I could have beaten him. "Why, you're duller than you used to be," I thought to myself, and wondered how _ould have suspected, in those days, subtle depths and mysteriou_omprehensions. Vera Michailovna asked him questions about France and Londo_ut, quite obviously, did not listen to his answers.
After ten minutes he pulled himself up slowly from his chair:
"Well, I must be going," he said. "Tell young Bohun I shall be waiting for hi_o-night—7.30—Astoria—" He turned to Vera Michailovna to say good-bye, an_hen, suddenly, as she rose and their eyes met, they seemed to strike som_nexpected chord of sympathy. It took both of them, I think, by surprise; fo_uite a moment they stared at one another.
"Please come whenever you want to see your friend," she said, "we shall b_elighted."