Frederick J. Whishaw.

Countess Ida online

. (page 8 of 17)
Online LibraryFrederick J. WhishawCountess Ida → online text (page 8 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

deserted village once again, but saw no further
horrors, of which I was glad enough, for the girl's
sake. A little beyond the village the road divided,
one portion being the highroad to Viatka, the other
sweeping round and up towards a great white build-
ing, of which I now caught sight for the first time.
We entered a huge wooden gate, and walked through

Digitized by



a fairly well-kept park for half a mUe before the house
was reached. This was a great ungainly structure of
wood painted a pale gray ; it was semicircular in
shape, after the fashion of old Russian country
houses, the horns at either e«id of the semicircle
extending quite forty yards beyond the receding
centre. The building was one-storied, and was
about as ugly as a house can be, though it carried
the appearance of imlimited ^pace within doors.

The ro<Mns, I foimd, were enormous — far too large
for real comfort, though they were fmnished richly
and in good taste. Servants there were in pro-
fusion ; they swarmed at every turn, both men and
women, but it was easy to see by their appearance
that they were, most of them, peasants, the native-
grown population of the barings villages, taken in and
taught, no doubt, out of kindness in time of famine,
or perhaps as members of families too large to
live upon the allotment of land which was or
should be their support.

Glad as I was to have drifted unexpectedly into
civilized quarters, I felt far from at my ease.

It was pleasant to be shown once again to a com-
fortable bedroom, and to feel that I was among
people of my own class ; but the jar came as soon
as one looked about automatically for one's port-
manteau in order to extract therefrom the much-
needed change of raiment, and remembered sud-

Digitized by



denly that one possessed neither trunk nor apparel,
save the soiled articles in which one stood I

Besides, I was a fraud. I was here under false
pretences. That is, no one had as yet inquired who
or what I was ; pos^bly they never would, but if
they should, or if I were to volunteer information, I
must necessarily deceive my kind host. I must
figure as Mr. Melnikof, the grain-dealer from St.
Petersburg, for that was my name as per passport.
For these reasons I did not feel comfortable in the
barings mansion, though both he and the pretty
Princess his daughter, like true Russians — the most
hospitable and attentive people upon this earth
towards those who are their guests— did their very
utmost in every possible way to secure my comfort.
I felt that I was a fraud, and thought continually of
that accursed brand on my shoulder, and of what
my host and his daughter wo^d say if my threadbare
coat-sleeve and the shirt beneath it were suddenly to
burst open and reveal the mark of shame !

Moreover, as the evening wore on, I began to feel
very imwell, and by the time we rose to disperse to
our rooms I was in such pain and felt so miserable
that I drew the doctor aside, and bade him for God's
sake take me to some outhouse and let me lie there ;
for I believed I had caught the plague, and I would
not for all the wor]^ be taken ill in the house.

Digitized by



* Holy Mother of the Lord !* exclaimed the doctor,
staring keenly in my face, * what is it, man ? Is it
cholera, think you ?'

* Heaven knows,* I gasped. * I feel like dying ;
it may be *

* Then, come quickly,' he said ; ' you will best
serve our host by sleeping out of the house— come
while you can. Make your bow, and we will go

I did my best. God knows I was not anxious to
subject these good, hospitable folks to any kind of
risk. I bade my host good-night without offering
my hand, and bowed to his daughter, who extended
hers. To her obvious surprise, I did not take it, but
repeated my good-night and turned' to go.

Just then a spasm of cramp seized me, and I
stumbled against a chair and nearly fell ; I suppose
I groaned also, for in a moment the girl Liuba, the
little Princess, was at my side, and had laid a hand
upon my arm.


Digitized by



*No, no/ I muttered, * don't touch me; let me
go !'

* Oh, what is it — ^what is the matter ? He is ill,
doctor. Look at him ; his features are pinched and
twisted — he is in pain !' she cried.

The doctor looked gloomy, but remained silent.

* Please let me depart,* I said ; ' I wish I had never
come ; I would not for all the world have exposed
you to risk.'

* Risk ! What ask ?' said the Prince. ' My God,

doctor!' he added, *can it be ' He took the

medico aside, and finished his sentence in a whisper.

I had sufficient sense left to overhear the doctor's
reply, which was to the effect that the fears of the
Prince were justified, and that I must be taken out
of the house and acconmiodated either in some shed
in the groimds or in one of the deserted huts of the

The Prince turned and gravely bade his daughter
go farther from the spot in which I stood and, in
spite of my efforts to remain unmoved, writhed with

* God help you, my poor friend !' he added, ad-
dressing me ; 'do not blame yourself, for we do not
blame you. You shall make him comfortable where
you will, doctor. There is the gardener's cottage ;
that would do well as a temporary hospital both for
him and for the poor village folks.'

Digitized by



' Father !' exclaimed Liuba — and I plainly dis-
cerned the note of reproach in which the word was
spoken — * father, he has sacrificed himself for our
poor people ; the plague took him while he minis-
tered to their wants, and shall we turn him from
our doors ?'

'God forgive me, no!' said the Prince. * My
daughter is right, doctor — we have never feared to
visit the sick, our own sick, she and I — He shall
remain, and his comfort shall be our care. God will
protect us ; sickness and health are in His hand.'

' This matter is urgent, barin,' said the doctor ;
* it would be foolish and wicked to run useless risks.
Ordinary sickness in the village — catarrhs and so on
— may be dealt with by you and the baruishnya ; but
a case of this kind necessitates special precautions.
This stranger must be housed in the village and his
clothes burned immediately. As for this room, I
shall disinfect it with sulphur, but even already
danger has been incurred.'

' Danger or no danger, he shall rest in this house
and nowhere else,' said the barin. ' Dooshinka, go
see that Gospodin Melnikof's room is ready and
comfortable ; God forgive me for even thinking of
turning a sick man into the road.'
Jj£:In spite of the anguish I was now suffering, a wave
of feeling rose and flowed through my heart as I
heard the good old barings speech and saw his


Digitized by



daughter leave the room instantly to carry out his
instructions. If there were many landlords of this
stamp scattered through Russia — and I may say
that I have since learned that the good Prince has
many companions in benevolence among his class —
then how gross are the calunmies which the reading
public of England are accustomed to swallow at the
hands of writers professedly acquainted with their
subject, who are in the habit of representing the
Russian manor-l^rds as neither willing nor legally
able to assist the wretched peasantry, their quondam
serfs, now their neighbours and co-proprietors of the
native soil ! ^

* God reward you, Prince, for your goodness !* I
gasped ; * but the doctor is right — I would rather go ;
I would not abuse your kindness. I will find a hut
and occupy it ; I *

I know not what else I may have said, or whether
I said anything more. I remember staggering
towards the door, and after this I can recall
nothing but a nightmare of agony and sickness,
during which I raved and perhaps blasphemed,
complaining that the Almighty had saved me from
the hell of the mines only to torment me with the
acuter anguish of the plague.
f But of my sufferings during that short period of
anguish and despair I do not intend to speak ; they
passed, and I was a convalescent. The doctor was

Digitized by



still about the place, for the wretched peasants,
those who had fled from the village, having carried
the cholera to their nearest neighbours, had been
stoned and cursed out of the place, and forced to
return to their own infected home, where many took
the disease — ^mostly from panic — and required atten-
tion. Whether the doctor — Perfilief by name — saw
anything of me during my few days of illness I cannot
say, for my consciousness, such as it was, had been
but a fogged thing at the time,*^ and I cannot dis-
tinguish between that which I actually saw and that
which I dreamed ; but he had plenty of work in the
neighbouring villages, and, as a#matter of fact, I
was looked after mostly by the Prince himself,
assisted by his daughter and Mashinka (all of whom
I have blessed in my thoughts many a hundred times
for their goodness). At any rate, it was the doctor
who superintended my disrobing and ' embedment '
in the first instance, and this I learned from a re-
markable conversation with Perfilief upon one of the
first days of my convalescence.

* Now that you are well enough,' said that worthy,
* it is my duty to speak to you very seriously upon
a matter which you will consider unpleasant.'
|£No sooner had the words left his mouth than my
thoughts began to hunt hither and thither, and I
remembered the detestable scar which disfigured
my shoulder. This must be the explanation of his


Digitized by



agitating remark ; he was in possession of my in-
criminating secret.

' I dare say I know what you mean,' I said ; * you
probably undressed me, or at least saw me un-
dressed ?'

' That is so,' he said ; * murder, you see, will out.
Of course, I must report what I observed to the

' Of course,' I murmured ; and to myself I added :
'And to that angel his daughter ! ' She who had
sat and talked to me this very morning, and I had
blessed her to her face for her goodness. What would
she think of me now ? Would she regret her angel's
work for so unworthy an object ? Oh no, that she
would not ; but her pity and interest in me would be
changed to' loathing and horror.

' I said nothing while you lay ill,' continued Per-
filief ; * but I can no longer, consistently with my
duty, forbear to tell your host upon how unworthy
an object he has expended his kindness and hospi-

' Tell him what you like,' I said hoarsely.

' You have a passport, I see, and therefore must
have served your time,' he continued ; * otherwise I
should suspect you of being a refugee. Are you
engaged in the grain trade under your own or under
an assumed name ?'

' Assumed,' I said.

Digitized by



* I thought so ; it would scarcely do to live under
one's own name with a branded shoulder, eh ?
Lord ! I should like to know your story and what
you were exiled for — swindling, probably ? No ?
Not murder, or you wouldn't be here at your age.'

* You are inquisitive,' I said. ' Would it surprise
you to learn that I was sent to Siberia under a
mistake ?'

' Very much,' said Perfilief, with a laugh. ' How-
ever, spare your inventive powers ; you will not, of
course, confide in a total stranger ; it is enough that
you are branded, and that the Prince must know
of it.'

' Why ?' I asked.

As a matter of fact, when the conversation began,
it had not occurred to me that the fellow might sup-
pose that I had served my time. I had assumed
as a matter of course that he would conclude that I
was an escaped convict. The case was therefore not
nearly so hopeless as it had at first appeared. But,
then, why must he mention my shame to these dear
folks ? Was he animated by spite ? I had certainly
done nothing to render sudi a thing possible. Could
it be jealousy ? Was the fellow in love with this
most charming little Princess Liuba, and did he
resent my presence under her roof, fearing rivalry ?

Reflecting thus, I did not, at the second time of
asking, assent to his proposition that the Prince

Digitized by



and his daughter must necessarily be told of my
shame, but answered unexpectedly, * Why ?*

' Because you have been taken in and kindly
treated under false pretences/ he said angrily ; ' the
Prince does not dream that he has harboured a
convict — ^perhaps a highway thief or a murderer !*

' And allowed his daughter to converse intimately
with him,* I added mischievously.

' You are right. She is too good to be con-
taminated by Siberian scum !' he snarled.

* Well, go and tell the Prince what you like,' I
said, ringing my handbell as I spoke. * Your con-
versation is not flattering to my self-esteem ;
Princess Liuba will be better company. You may
remain away as long as you like.'

As Liuba entered the room at this moment in
answer to my bell, PerfiUef was unable to vent his
rage in words ; but he glared at me before he left
the apartment, and I then and there determined to
take no more of this man's medicines, supposing
that he should order me any. I told Liuba that I
had a secret to tell her. As a matter of fact, I had
determined to anticipatei friend PerfiUef and his
possibly interested version of the afiair by telling
the girl some of the main points of my story, far
more than would cover all that he could tell or
suggest. To my surprise, Liuba laughed, and said
she, too, had a secret for me.

Digitized by



* Tell me yours first,' I said.

* Must I ?' she smiled.

* Invalid's privilege,' I protested ; ' I must not be
crossed ! Tell me yours, and you shall have mine
at once. I should like it to be all told before the
doctor returns.'

* Well, then,' she said, * I will obey you, Mr.
Englishman, and there you have my secret in a
single word !'

I started and changed colour.

* How in the world do you know that ?' I said.

* It is true, then ?'

* Perfectly, and forms part of the secret I was
about to tell you. But how do you know — ^who told
you — that I am English ?'

* Ah, a little bird,' she laughed. * People who
have secrets should not be delirious and rave in
foreign languages.'

Then I understood, and was not sorry to know
that I had imconsciously given evidence which would
support the truth of my story, which I was quite
determined now to tell her from the beginning.

And this I did, to he^ manifest amazement. I
told her all that I have set down here, only omitting
a few details of my escape ; for I did not feel justi-
fied in revealing what was clearly intended to be
most secret — namely, the mystery of the medal and
its brotherhood of mutual helpers.

Digitized by



* You must tell my father all this ; he will help you
to set yourself right with the wor^d,* said Liuba.

* Is it really possible that all this should have hap-
pened to an innocent man ?'

* Misfortune has hounded me on from trouble to
trouble, casting me eventually into the seething
cauldron of cholera, to sink or swim according to
my strength,* I said somewhat bitterly. * I am
perfectly innocent, yet I have suffered all this.
Probably Gregorief , who is the guilty one, grows fat
somewhere in prosperity, and experiences neither
pains nor perils.'

* It seems most imjust,' said Liuba ; * but we
cannot always discern the wisdom that underlies
God's apparent sternness. At any rate, your suffer-
ings are now, I trust, finished, and you will obtain
recognition and perhaps compensation for yoin: un-
deserved troubles. So you are an English ofl&cer,
and came to learn Russian ! You have accomplished
your purpose well indeed. I have scarcely noticed


Digitized by



that your accent is different from ours, though now
that I know^'you are a foreigner I observe it more, and
you have made, I now remember, one or two slips
in granmiar. I had set it down to the fact that
Russia is very wide, and the same Russian is not
spoken from end to end. You will tell my father

* Certainly ; but the doctor is — Heaven knows
why — already employed in poisoning his mind against
me. Is the good Perfilief in lovt with you, Princess ?'
I concluded, smiling.

Liuba blushed, and then laughed.

' He is a suitor,' she said. ' But why do you ask ?*

It was now my turn to be embarrassed.

* He may perhaps feel resentment in the presence
of a stranger in the house,' I said awkwardly,
' knowing well that every man who is human must
also be an admirer of the lovely Princess Liuba !
One can understand and respect his fears, and
forgive them, too, so long as he fails to poison your
mind and your father's against me.' ^

* He has quite failed, as far as my own is con-
cerned ; your tale has filled me with indignation for
the injustice of your sufferings, and — and with pity
for you !' she said, blushing. * What will you think
of poor Russia and of us Russians after this ?'

* Indeed,' I said, * I have met with much kindness
and goodness from Russians ; how should I grumble

Digitized by



at a destiny which has brought me, in the end, face
to face with a Princess Liuba who is a very angel of
goodness and unselfish courage ?'

As a matter of fact, I was beginning to reaUze that
this destiny against which I had inveighed so bitterly
was not in reality to be greatly abused. It had,
indeed, involved me in much suffering and many
perils ; but, then, it had always permitted me to pick
my way out of them again, and now it had shown
me this girl — surely gne of the most perfect things
that the workshop of Fate had ever produced.

Liuba laughed at my compliment.

* Men are terrible flatterers,' she said. * I am not
very old, but I have had time to discover that fact ;
but perhaps Englishmen are more sincere than their
Russian brethren ?'

* There are English, as there are Russians, of every
kind,' I said ; ' but you may beUeve this particular
specimen, at any rate, Princess ; for before God I
mean what I say when I declare to you that I shall
bless your name to my dying day for all the goodness
you have shown me !'

I was weak and emotional, and I dare say that
there were tears in my eyes and a sob in my voice as
I spoke. Liuba was moved ; she blushed and looked
at me with a most divine smile.

* I do believe you, and I thank you with all my
heart,' she said, * and I wish I more justly de-

Digitized by



served your praise,' she added, smiling ; ' but, you
know, in Russia a guest is a sacred trust, to be cared
for as one's own soul. We could not, as good
Russians, have done less for you as a guest in our
house ; my father will agree with me.'

' What if he believes PerfiUef's tale, which, of
course, is true as far as it goes, unless, indeed, he em-
broiders it with inventions of his own, which he would
scarcely do ? Your father may think it his duty to
deliver me into the hands of justice, or, at any rate,
turn me out of the house.'

' What ! while still barely convalescent !' ex-
claimed Liuba. *Ah, Mr. English oflftcer, you do
not know my father !*

* He will not know that I have escaped, and may
not, therefore, see cause to deliver me up into the
hands of justice,' I said ; ' but he will think that he
has allowed his daughter tb minister to a convict —
perhaps a murderer — and that such a thing is in-
tolerable and impossible. Moreover, he will think
me, rightly, a fraud. I am a fraud ; I am here under
false pretences *

* If you were the worst of malefactors, and fell
sick under his roof, he would see to it that you were
well treated,' she said. * And as for deception, you
did not mean to deceive, and why should you not
tell him all you have told me ?'

There was no reason, of course, and I soon found

Digitized by



an opportunity to cany out the advice of my sweet
little nurse.

The Prince came to my room looking very grave ;
he bade his daughter depart, for, he said, he had
matters of importance to discuss with me if I felt
strong enough to converse further.

* I can guess the nature of your business, Prince,*
I said ; * it is that the good doctor has seen the brand
upon my shoulder, and has informed you that I am
a wolf in sheep's clothing. It is true I have been a
convict, and had no right to accept your hospitality
and kindness ; and now you would have me go.
Am I right ?'

' God forbid !' said the Prince, crossing himself
piously. * To turn you from my doors because you
have suffered, and perhaps sinned, were a grievous
crime. It is true that the doctor has revealed to me
your secret. As to what "he has told me, however,
I should never have spoken ; you should have re-
covered and gone your way in peace and in ignorance
that I was aware of your secret. But the story
of Perfihef throws light — ^lurid light — on another

'Please explain,' I said, for I had not in^the
slightest degree understood the meaning of the Prince.

He pondered a moment or two.

' That you should have been a convict in Siberia
is a matter that I deplore, but which does not other-

Digitized by



wise concern me,' he continued ; * but that you
should be an escaped convict — ^if you should, indeed,
as I suspect, have escaped — that would be a matter
of which, in my position as one of the Under Ministers
of Internal Affairs, I should be bound to take notice,
and upon which I must inevitably report/

So I was found out at last, and would be delivered
up to the authorities, and marched back to the
nether regions ! Truly my luck was too abominable
to be thought about without anathema. What had
I done to deserve this ?

* I suppose Perfihef told you I escaped ?' I said.
* What proof has he in support of his statement ?
What does he know about my affairs ? I never saw
him, nor he me, before I fell ill of the plague but a
few days ago.*

* No, no ; it was not the doctor. He told me of the
brand upon your shoulder ; the rest I have deduced
for myself. Is it true that you have escaped ?
Come, I will not press the question if you would
rather remain silent, only in that case inquiries must
be made.'

* I did escape,' I said, ' though how you have dis-
covered the fact is to me a mystery. Is it my poverty
that has led you to suspect me ?'

* You are an Englishman,' said the barin unex-
pectedly — * that much I knew before hearing Per-
filief's tale — yet you travel as a Russian and as a

Digitized by



merchant of grain. For an Englishman to travel as
a Russian, if he will, is in itself nothing ; to have been
a Siberian convict is, though deplorable, nothing
also ; but the combination of these two things in
one and the same individual, and that individual
travelling westwards on foot, Mieary and worn and
penniless also, is significant. That is why I sus-
pected you. When you have told me your tale, if
you desire to do this, I shall be able to judge whether
it be my duty to act or to wait.*

I told the barin my story just as I had already un-
folded it to his daughter. He was much impressed,
and interrupted me many times with interjections
of amazement. I did not detail the manner of my
escape, for I could not, of course, betray the Governor
of the prison, who had befriended me. I said that
I had found a key wherewith to rid myself of my
fetters, which was, in a way, true, and I described
how I had climbed the wall and plunged into the
river, and how the sentries had made very poor
shooting with my head for target.

' Boj6 moy !' exclaimed the Prince ; * it is wonder-
ful indeed ! And your passport, batiushka — ^how
did you get that ?'

I said that I had bought it, which was also, in its
own fashion, true enough ; for I had been forced to
dole out many tips for this and other favours before
I had been permitted to depart.

Digitized by



' So that, as you contend, you came into Russia
to learn the language, being an officer of the Queen,
and that it was this Gregorief who murdered the
other, leaving you to fall under suspicion for the
crime. Was there no one who could have spoken to
your innocence, 05 identified you as not- Gregorief
but the young English officer ?'

' At any rate, no such witness was allowed to
appear,* I said, ' though I gave the names of several.

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryFrederick J. WhishawCountess Ida → online text (page 8 of 17)