Frederick J. Whishaw.

Countess Ida online

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There was one, a young peasant woman of the village,
who, doubtless under instructions from him, identi-
fied me as Gregorief.'

* I see — I see. A question of screening her lover,
doubtless ?'

I agreed.

* Well,' continued the Prince, * the story is con-
sistent, and, though amazing, certainly plausible.
Mistakes may be made, no doubt. It seems unlikely
that you should have had reason to desire to murder
this man. Moreover, you do not look hke a
murderer. May I tell your story to my daughter,
and consult with her ? She is discreet ; I am in v
the habit of consulting her in many matters.'

' I have told her already,' I said.

'You have? Why?'

' Because I wished that she should know the true
version before hearing Perfilief 's, which I knew must
be guesswork, and I feared might be prejudiced.'

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* Again, why ?'

* Because your daughter is very beautiful and as
kind as the angels/ I said, ' and Perfilief is a man.
Perfilief would reflect that I, too, am a man ; he
would not go out of his way to whitewash me in
telling the Princess of his discovery.*

* Perhaps not — ^perhaps not,' said the barin.
* Well, at any rate, I shall do nothing at present. It
may be that I shall make inquiries as to the truth of
your story. You can supply me with references and
addresses in England ?'

* Oh, any number, Prince !' I cried, laughing
nervously. ' If you will only make inquiries in
England before beginning your researches at the
Siberian end, I am safe. Consult your daughter, I
beseech you, for she is an angel of kindness, and will
not suffer you to ruin me. For God's sake, do
nothing hastily that may end in my despatch to the
hell I escaped from ! I swear to you by all that is
holy that I am as innocent as yourself of this crime
for which I was made to suffer. Give me a chance.
Prince, for the love of God !'

' For the love of God and of justice and of suffering
humanity,' said the good old man, ' I shall see that
you are not sent back before I am assured of your
guilt ; and I heartily pray that that may never be !'

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I THINK I need not describe at any length my most
memorable and delightful convalescence. I fell in
love during that most precious fortnight. I hun-
gered for Liuba when she was not near me, and
when she was by I gazed in her face and lived upon
her words and smiles. I was, I say, in love. The
conference between father and daughter had ended
entirely in my favour. I knew it would. My
princess spoke for me. I knew she would, not
because she returned my love — for this I could not
and did not expect — ^but because her heart was of
pure gold, and she would have given a fair chance
even to the most strongly suspected of mortals, if
he should have appealed to her I

The Prince wrote to my parents, who lived near
Malvern, informing them that a young man daimmg
to be their son had suddenly appeared from Siberia,
whence he had escaped from one of the penal settle-
ments. He enclosed a list of questions bearing
upon my appearance, my object in coming to

163 II — 2

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Russia, and many other matters, all designed to
confirm my own assertions. I was not allowed to
write a letter, but as a specimen of my handwriting
I was permitted to write a few words upon a sheet
of paper, in order that my mother might see it and
pronounce upon the id^itity of the writer, if she

The letter of the Prince and the few words I had
written came to my poor parents like a message
from the grave, for they, hearing nothing of me, and
receiving no reply to their letters, had given me up
as dead, or completely and mysteriously lost. They
had written to Embassy and police in St. Peters-
burg, but had only learned that an Englishman
bearing my name, and answering to the description
given, had departed, presumably for England, in
the month of June, travelling per Finnish railway
vii Wiborg. Beyond the latter town nothing was
known of his movements. This, of course, was
Gregorief, who, armed with my passport, had thus
successfully escaped by personating myself. I had
instructed the Prince to write also to the Countess
Ida, asking her to state all she knew of the circum-
stances of Gregorief's crime, and inquiring whether
she would recognise the young English oflicer whom
she had known, Gregorief's companion, should that
individual be brought to St. Petersburg and con-
fronted with her.

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To my surprise, and at first consternation, Ida
replied that she had known the Enghshman so very
slightly that she would find it difficult to swear to
him ; but if he were brought to town and shown to
her she might know him again. As for the murder,
she had been greatly shocked to hear of it ; but
though the young Englishman had departed on the
very day of the crime, neither she nor anyone else
had thought of suspecting him of complicity.

I was annoyed, I say, at the first reading of Ida's
letter. At the second I smiled and winked, for I
realized then that the little Countess had reasons of
her own for not desiring to appear too intimate with
me, or to know too much about the murder of Gre-
gorief s rival. We were in Russia, where it is wise to
move very cautiously indeed in all matters connected
with crime of any kind, especially political crime.
Cautious Ida was obviously all for feeling her way.
She would know a little more first as to the bona
fides of this Prince, perhaps a well-known character
in his capacity of sub-Minister of the Interior. There
would be no doubt about Ida identifying me when
the proper moment arrived — that is, if it should
serve her end and mine to identify me.

So I wrote to the little Countess, and informed
her that it was really I, and no other, who had been
caught, and would be brought presently to town by
this good Prince. I had escaped, I said, thanks to

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the kind offices of a friend whose services to me I
could never repay, though I had promised, and now
gladly repeated my promise, to serve her however
and whenever the opportunity should arrive or she
should claim the performance of my vow. To this
I presently received an unsigned reply :

* For God's sake, do not write again ' (Ida wrote),
* or if you do, say nothing of your doings.'

But my dear parents wrote at once and volumin-
ously. They wrote in English, of course, which
language both the Prince and his daughter imder-
stood to some extent. They hailed him as the
saviour of their son, for it must indeed be he, they
said, from the description and from the scrap of
writing, which was undoubtedly from their boy's
own hand, and they rejoiced at great length over
me, as one who had returned from the grave. This
was very satisfactory, and the Prince expressed
himself as, for the present, fully justified in taking
no further steps.

He would, at all events, give me the benefit of
any doubt there might be as to my identity with
the son of these good English people who had rhap-
sodized over the news of me which he had sent them.
But, of course, he said, I had yet to prove that it
was Gregorief, and not I, who had committed the
murder. This might be difficult, and perhaps im-

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possible ; but when in town he would make inquiries
without prejudice to my safety.

Meanwhile, he must detain me (a most willing
and happy prisoner, in love with my chains I) ; and
a prisoner I remained until the family returned to
St. Petersburg, which event took place a few weeks
later. But since, as the Prince declared, idleness is
detrimental to a man of my age, I was given em-
ployment of various kinds about the estate as a sort
of secretary to the barin^ and for this I was liberally
paid,^ my work consisting chiefly in going from
village to village with a sanitary engineer from
Kazan, seeing what could be done to improve the
appalling conditions imder which the peasants lived,
in order to render a repetition of the cholera epidemic
less likely for the future. We went about and took
a vast number of notes, and made numerous esti-
mates ; but considering that there was not a village
in all Russia (at the time of which I write) which
was in possession of any, even the most elementary,
system of sanitary drainage, I did my work without
much hope that it would lead to any good results.

The peasants might, as I told the Prince, be
induced to adopt more cleanly habits, and to keep
their houses less filthy and better aired, and to
spend less of their time in the drink-shop and more
of it in the fields ; but as for starting a system of
scientific drainage, the project was hopeless, unless

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he were a multi-millionaire, and had no objection
to becoming a pauper.

I am afraid the benevolent barings estate remains
in statu quo, and the villages imdrained, like the rest
of the ramshackle groups of squalid huts standing
without order or beauty over the dominions of the
Tsar, and known as villages. Ivan Ivanitch is much
the same now as he was five himdred years ago, and
so are his habitations. And so he will remain until
education shall have fed his children from the tree
of the knowledge of good and evil, and taught them
to discern what a set of imcivilized pigs they are.

But there was another duty which devolved upon
me, and this was of a very different and far more
dehghtful nature.

I was privileged to give lessons in English to the
little Princess Liuba one hour every day, and that
hour was for me an hour spent in Paradise.

Oh I the deUght of watching her pretty red lips
trying to form the diflficult sounds which compose
some of our Enghsh words — difl&cult, that is, to a
foreigner. Liuba knew a little English — not very
much — and it was my delight to ask her to pro-
nounce such consonants as b and />, and such vowel
sounds as oo, because her Ups would then assume
the most fascinating position, as though she kissed
the air.

Now, this was a foolish and a most unprofitable

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entertainment, and after a whUe I decided that the
lesson would prove an easier function if such words
and sounds as these were not practised, and others
less suggestive of impossible delights were sub-

But all my foolishness and all the bliss of those
weeks soon passed by, and the time came to return
to St. Petersburg.

I had consulted with my good host as to my pass-
port. Should I continue to live imder my present
disguise as Mr. Melnikof , ' first-guild merchant of
St. Petersburg,' or boldly start life as my very
English self, without a passport to my name ?

The question was an awkward one, and largely
depended, as the Prince rightly pointed out, upon
whether there really existed a Mr. Melnikof, first-guild
merchant, or no. We therefore examined the com-
mercial list for the year, where we discovered that,
if I elected to live under the name of Melnikof, I
must do so under the disadvantage of possessing, a
double. In other words, there did exist a proto-
type of my name and occupation — Christian name,
patronymic, and surname, all complete. How my
friend the Governor had become possessed of his
passport was a mystery.

At any rate, it would not be safe to live as Mr.
Melnikof. I must therefore drag along as best I
could as my own imworthy self, passportless, and

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this is a more dangerous thing to do in Russia
than those who read my history will easily conceive,
for the man without a passport is a man without
civil rights, a man without a soul, and with less
right to his own body, according to the Departments,
than the Departments themselves, who may bag
him wherever they find him, and lode him up imtil
they shall have discovered his antecedents.

Well, had I been bagged and locked up, and my
antecedents examined into, those shady records
would have landed me quickly in places thousands
of miles distant, from which I had -escaped with so
much difficulty, and rather than return to which
I would now rather die a thousand deaths.

But why, it may be asked, could I not make shift
to escape to England — to take the train, unsus-
pected and uninterfered with, shaven and neat and
dean, and obviously English ? Who would dream
of stopping me to ask questions ? Or, if I preferred
sea-travel, there was Cronstadt, full of ocean-going
vessels. Could I not take the first little river-
steamer bound for the port, get on board one
of the Wilson liners, and snap my fingers at the
Departments ?

Well, ingenuous suggester of impossibilities, it
sounds very easy, but, as a matter of fact, it is im-
possible, or nearly so, to get out of Russia without
* papers.* I should arrive at the frontier, no doubt.

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safe and sound, but not a yard further should I be
permitted to journey. On the contrary, I should
be escorted back to St. Petersburg, and the Depart-
ments would desire to know the reason why I
travelled without passport. Result, another or
longer journey Eastwards — the mines, and hell
upon earth. Neither should I fare better if I
attempted to escape by sea. I might stow myself
away, certainly, among the coals or caiigo until
the officials were left bdiind and the good ship
in full swing for home, or I might get myself run
down in a small boat in the gulf in the track of an
outward-bound vessel, and be picked up and carried
on ; but both these plans were dangerous, and I did
not care to risk them. Besides, there was another
and potent reason why I should prefer, on the whole,
to remain in St. Petersburg until my identity and
innocence could be established, and I might face
the world again without fear, and the name of that
* reason ' was Liuba.

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Whether it was that I was so absorbed in my little
Russian ' Princess,* as the word is translated in
English (though, be it remembered, the title con-
veys no claim in Russia to kinship with the Imperial
family), that I had no thought for any other woman,
or whether I was, for conscientious reasons, some-
what disinclined to visit Countess Ida, my first
friend, and at one time something more than friend
— nay, at a certain crisis undoubtedly my bene-
factor and actual preserver — whatever the cause,
the fact remains that I did not immediately visit
her on my return to St. Petersburg.

It was ungrateful and despicable, I know, and I
confess the fault and hope for absolution on the
plea that I felt I ought to be in love with this woman,
or at least half in love with her, as once I had been,
and that I knew well enough that, as a matter of
fact, I cared nothing for her to-day.

A week after my arrival I called at the Embassy,
upon the advice of Prince Lebedef, my kind old


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host. The Prince recommended me to gain the
ear of the Ambassador, and to tell him my story
from beginning to end, in the hope that he would
* arrange ' my affairs for me, or get me at least sent
safely out of the country.

But the Ambassador, I found, was absent on sick
leave, and I gained no ear more inclined to bend
favourably to my petition than that of a very young
attach^, wl\pse name I forget, but who did not seem
in the least anxious to be either particularly cour-
teous or even moderately helpful. He listened to
my story, and then sat and reflected awhile. At
last he spoke.

* But, my dear sir,' he said, ' how am I to know that
all you have said is true ? Have you any proofs ?'

Of course, I had no proofs. It is diflicult for a
man to prove to the satisfaction of a judge, even at
home in England, that he is his very self. The
prover would require to bring forward persons who
could testify that they have always believed him to
be the individual in question, and so on. How
should a wretched refugee just back from Siberia,
without a passport, without a friend to declare
upon oath to his identity, prove that he is himself
or anyone else ?

* Well,' I said, rather angrily, for the attache's
manner irritated me, ' at least you can see that I'm
an Englishman I'

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* Oh yes,' he drawled, * I can see that much ; but
what of it ? You say you have been wrongly con-
victed of murder, have suffered exile, and have
escaped and returned. Very well ; but what do I
know of this murder ? You don't look like a mur-
derer, I admit ; but I cannot acquit you of the
crime, or send you out of the country on my own
responsibility. I can guarantee you a new trial,
and a fair one> however, if you like to ^ve yourself
up to the authorities.'

' I shall do nothing of the sort,' I said angrily.
* I'll see the authorities in Jericho first. How do
you suppose I'm to persuade these foreigners of my
innocence if one of my own countrymen, like your-
self, regards me with suspicion ?'

* My good man,' said the secretary, * what do
you expect of me ? I am not God, nor the Tsar.
I cannot write out a ukase announcing your inno-
cence of everything you may be accused of. I
know nothing about you. For all I know to the con-
trary you may be the greatest rascal unhimg, and
guilty of this very crime for which you suffered.
Bring me a tittle of evidence that you are the man
that you profess to be, and I shall have something
to go upon. Is your linen marked ? Can you give
me the address of friends in England ?'

I had a letter from my mother addressed to me,
and this I showed to the secretary.

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* Yes— well, that's something,' he said. *Now
give me the address of friends in England, and
perhaps I may find myself able to assist you, one
way or another.'

I gave him addresses of friends, and suggested that
he should ask for a photograph of me, for this would
at least prove that the individual who was photo-
graphed and I, the English refugee in St. Peters-
burg, were one and the same man.

Then the attach^ asked where a letter would find
me, and I gave him the aristocratic address of the
Lebedef mansion.

* Sta3dng with the Piince ?' he asked, and when I
nodded affirmatively he whistled.

' Well,* he said, * you are all right for the present,
I see. Meanwhile, I shall write to your friends, and
I dare say we may get as far as to establish your
identity before long. From that basis we may pro-
ceed further, though I can promise nothing. Let me
know if the police should arrest you on suspicion
or anything. How come you to be in with the
Lebedef s ?'

* I am tutor in the family,' I said, not wishing to
have it supposed that the Prince had befriended
me knowing me to be without passport, and an
acknowledged convict from Siberia.

*Well, I'll do what I can,' he ended, bowing
me out. *Take my advice, and be as quiet

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and unobtrusive as possible. Don't court atten-

The wheels of the diplomatic machine work very
slowly. It was nearly a month after this interview
when I was summoned to the Embassy to be com-
pared with my photograph, which had been obtained
from a relative in England. Fortunately, I was
recognisable by the portrait, and satisfied my

I suppose the exertions of my diplomatic friend
in reaching this point in my justification so exhausted
him that he had no 'energy for further efforts on my
behalf. At any rate, the matter ended here so far
as the Embassy was concerned. I fancy the excel-
lent young attach^ believed me to be the murderer
the judges had made me out, and was not too anxious
to contaminate his fingers by dipping them too
deeply in my pie. Perhaps he expected me to make
the next move. I heard no more from him.

Meanwhile, I went to see Countess Ida, and from
the hour of that visit began for me a second series
of nightmare incidents, grotesque and horrible. I
seemed to step suddenly into one of Destiny's whirl-
pools, a vortex in which a man is spun and whirled
helplessly hither and thither, the plaything of Fate,
within an arm's length of the shore, yet unable to
grasp it and save himself.

Countess Ida received me with some reserve.

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though she flushed with obvious excitement or
pleasure when I entered the room.

' You have come at last/ she said. * It is time I
Nearly a fortnight in town, and not to have been
near your best friend ! What do you deserve of

' Nothing, good Countess, I admit,' I said, * though
I owe so much to you already that any addition of
kindness would be an embarrassment. I owe you
my freedom, and perhaps my very life. How can I
ever repay you ?'

'We will speak of that another time. Mean-
while, you are in love. Is it true ?'

' How could anyone know Countess Ida and not
love ?' I replied weakly.

' Nonsense !' she frowned ; ' you have fallen in
love with the doU-faced little Lebedef girl. Now
see here, my friend: the Lebedefs are forbidden
fruit. Do you understand me ?'

* Not in the least,' I laughed. ' Forbidden fruit I
If I were so foolish as to fix my hopes upon Princess
Liuba, then, indeed, I should understand that, for
me, she is forbidden fruit ; but believe me, the
apple is far beyond my reach. I should never pre-
sume to aspire to pluck it.'

* Both father and daughter are forbidden fruit.
You will understand this one day, perhaps soon
enough. Meanwhile, it was I that saved you. You


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admit it ? You are not ungrateful ? You made a
promise. You will keep it ?'

* Most certainly !' I said, cordially enough.

I was irritated by the manner of my incompre-
hensible little friend to-day, but I put her annoy-
ance down to jealousy, and — well, I am a man — I
rather liked it. As for her services to me, therfe was
no question about them; they were unspeakably
real and great. I was most truly and sincerely

* I am prepared to carry out my promise to the
letter,' I added. * What will not a man do for one
who has brought him back from the very gates of

* Men are not always mindful of benefits received,'
she said, more graciously, ' but you may be different.
Come, sit by me and talk, as we used to in the
old time. You have been through many dangers.
Some I know, some I know not. Tell me of your
adventures from the moment of your interview with
the Governor. Tell me of him first. Is he well ?
Does he still — did he seem to soften in speaking of
me ? We are old friends. Ha, ha ! poor Alexis I
You may thank that for your escape.'

* Are all " medallists " those who have loved you,
Coimtess ?' I laughed.

She laughed also, and placed her hand upon my

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' Stop, frivolous one !' she said, * and tell me your
tale — about Governor Alexis first, then proceed with
the rest.'

I told my story. Countess Ida rarely interrupting
me until I came to my attack of cholera, and the
hiunane treatment which I received from the Prince
and his daughter. At this point she betrayed some

* Bah !' she said. * Kindness ! You were a
strange man and a gentleman, a godsend among so
many moujiks ! The little fool would naturally be
honey-sweet. You will find her different here where
the sea is full of good fish V

' The Princess is all that is kind, here as well as at
Krooglui Proot,' I said, somewhat irritated. ' She
could not be otherwise.*

* Ah ! love is blind, my friend. Remember, for
your good, it is forbidden fruit !'

' There is no talk of love, Countess. Let us pro-
ceed with my story. So, you see, we came at last
to St. Petersburg, and here I have been busy hunt-
ing for a way to justify myself or to escape un-
justified, and have found none.'

*Then you wouki have left Russia if you had
found opportunity, and without first seeing me ?'
said Ida.

She spoke quietly, and quite without passion or
raising of the voice ; but I observed a glow in the


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eyes that reminded me unpleasantly of angry tigers
and leopards and such beasts.

' Certainly not, Countess/ I said. * You must
think badly of me indeed to imagine me capable of
such a thing. You, my best friend and my pre-
server ! 1 '

* Ah ! if you only knew !' she murmured, then
added : * As for justification, banish all ideas of

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Online LibraryFrederick J. WhishawCountess Ida → online text (page 9 of 17)