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Chapter 8

  • 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?"
  • "Desperately deeply."
  • "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."
  • "Thank you," he answered simply, and went.
  • When he had gone she said to me:
  • "I like that man. One could trust him."
  • "Yes, one could," I answered her.