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the generosity of his future foe. Could a brother have done for him
more! He sought to seize the hand of the French officer, but the latter
remained wrapped up closely in his cloak. Possibly in the dark he had
not noticed the attempt. He moved back a bit and in his self-possessed
voice of a man of the world, as though he were speaking across a card
table or something of the sort, he called Tomassov's attention to
the fact that if he meant to make use of the warning the moments were

"'Indeed they are,' agreed the awed Tomassov. 'Good-bye then. I have
no word of thanks to equal your generosity; but if ever I have an
opportunity, I swear it, you may command my life....'

"But the Frenchman retreated, had already vanished in the dark lonely
street. Tomassov was alone, and then he did not waste any of the
precious minutes of that night.

"See how people's mere gossip and idle talk pass into history. In all
the memoirs of the time if you read them you will find it stated that
our envoy had a warning from some highly placed woman who was in love
with him. Of course it's known that he had successes with women, and in
the highest spheres, too, but the truth is that the person who warned
him was no other than our simple Tomassov - an altogether different sort
of lover from himself.

"This then is the secret of our Emperor's representative's escape
from arrest. He and all his official household got out of France all
right - as history records.

"And amongst that household there was our Tomassov of course. He had,
in the words of the French officer, the soul of a warrior. And what more
desolate prospect for a man with such a soul than to be imprisoned
on the eve of war; to be cut off from his country in danger, from his
military family, from his duty, from honour, and - well - from glory, too.

"Tomassov used to shudder at the mere thought of the moral torture he
had escaped; and he nursed in his heart a boundless gratitude to the two
people who had saved him from that cruel ordeal. They were wonderful!
For him love and friendship were but two aspects of exalted perfection.
He had found these fine examples of it and he vowed them indeed a sort
of cult. It affected his attitude towards Frenchmen in general, great
patriot as he was. He was naturally indignant at the invasion of his
country, but this indignation had no personal animosity in it. His was
fundamentally a fine nature. He grieved at the appalling amount of human
suffering he saw around him. Yes, he was full of compassion for all
forms of mankind's misery in a manly way.

"Less fine natures than his own did not understand this very well. In
the regiment they had nicknamed him the Humane Tomassov.

"He didn't take offence at it. There is nothing incompatible between
humanity and a warrior's soul. People without compassion are the
civilians, government officials, merchants and such like. As to the
ferocious talk one hears from a lot of decent people in war time - well,
the tongue is an unruly member at best and when there is some excitement
going on there is no curbing its furious activity.

"So I had not been very surprised to see our Tomassov sheathe
deliberately his sword right in the middle of that charge, you may say.
As we rode away after it he was very silent. He was not a chatterer as
a rule, but it was evident that this close view of the Grand Army had
affected him deeply, like some sight not of this earth. I had always
been a pretty tough individual myself - well, even I... and there was
that fellow with a lot of poetry in his nature! You may imagine what he
made of it to himself. We rode side by side without opening our lips. It
was simply beyond words.

"We established our bivouac along the edge of the forest so as to get
some shelter for our horses. However, the boisterous north wind had
dropped as quickly as it had sprung up, and the great winter stillness
lay on the land from the Baltic to the Black Sea. One could almost feel
its cold, lifeless immensity reaching up to the stars.

"Our men had lighted several fires for their officers and had cleared
the snow around them. We had big logs of wood for seats; it was a
very tolerable bivouac upon the whole, even without the exultation of
victory. We were to feel that later, but at present we were oppressed by
our stern and arduous task.

"There were three of us round my fire. The third one was that adjutant.
He was perhaps a well-meaning chap but not so nice as he might have been
had he been less rough in manner and less crude in his perceptions. He
would reason about people's conduct as though a man were as simple a
figure as, say, two sticks laid across each other; whereas a man is much
more like the sea whose movements are too complicated to explain, and
whose depths may bring up God only knows what at any moment.

"We talked a little about that charge. Not much. That sort of thing does
not lend itself to conversation. Tomassov muttered a few words about a
mere butchery. I had nothing to say. As I told you I had very soon let
my sword hang idle at my wrist. That starving mob had not even _tried_
to defend itself. Just a few shots. We had two men wounded. Two!... and
we had charged the main column of Napoleon's Grand Army.

"Tomassov muttered wearily: 'What was the good of it?' I did not wish
to argue, so I only just mumbled: 'Ah, well!' But the adjutant struck in

"'Why, it warmed the men a bit. It has made me warm. That's a good
enough reason. But our Tomassov is so humane! And besides he has been in
love with a French woman, and thick as thieves with a lot of Frenchmen,
so he is sorry for them. Never mind, my boy, we are on the Paris road
now and you shall soon see her!' This was one of his usual, as we
believed them, foolish speeches. None of us but believed that the
getting to Paris would be a matter of years - of years. And lo! less than
eighteen months afterwards I was rooked of a lot of money in a gambling
hell in the Palais Royal.

"Truth, being often the most senseless thing in the world, is sometimes
revealed to fools. I don't think that adjutant of ours believed in his
own words. He just wanted to tease Tomassov from habit. Purely from
habit. We of course said nothing, and so he took his head in his hands
and fell into a doze as he sat on a log in front of the fire.

"Our cavalry was on the extreme right wing of the army, and I must
confess that we guarded it very badly. We had lost all sense of
insecurity by this time; but still we did keep up a pretence of doing
it in a way. Presently a trooper rode up leading a horse and Tomassov
mounted stiffly and went off on a round of the outposts. Of the
perfectly useless outposts.

"The night was still, except for the crackling of the fires. The raging
wind had lifted far above the earth and not the faintest breath of it
could be heard. Only the full moon swam out with a rush into the sky and
suddenly hung high and motionless overhead. I remember raising my hairy
face to it for a moment. Then, I verily believe, I dozed off, too, bent
double on my log with my head towards the fierce blaze.

"You know what an impermanent thing such slumber is. One moment you
drop into an abyss and the next you are back in the world that you would
think too deep for any noise but the trumpet of the Last Judgment.
And then off you go again. Your very soul seems to slip down into a
bottomless black pit. Then up once more into a startled consciousness. A
mere plaything of cruel sleep one is, then. Tormented both ways.

"However, when my orderly appeared before me, repeating: 'Won't your
Honour be pleased to eat?... Won't your Honour be pleased to eat?...' I
managed to keep my hold of it - I mean that gaping consciousness. He was
offering me a sooty pot containing some grain boiled in water with a
pinch of salt. A wooden spoon was stuck in it.

"At that time these were the only rations we were getting regularly.
Mere chicken food, confound it! But the Russian soldier is wonderful.
Well, my fellow waited till I had feasted and then went away carrying
off the empty pot.

"I was no longer sleepy. Indeed, I had become awake with an exaggerated
mental consciousness of existence extending beyond my immediate
surroundings. Those are but exceptional moments with mankind, I am glad
to say. I had the intimate sensation of the earth in all its enormous
expanse wrapped in snow, with nothing showing on it but trees with their
straight stalk-like trunks and their funeral verdure; and in this aspect
of general mourning I seemed to hear the sighs of mankind falling to die
in the midst of a nature without life. They were Frenchmen. We didn't
hate them; they did not hate us; we had existed far apart - and suddenly
they had come rolling in with arms in their hands, without fear of God,
carrying with them other nations, and all to perish together in a long,
long trail of frozen corpses. I had an actual vision of that trail:
a pathetic multitude of small dark mounds stretching away under the
moonlight in a clear, still, and pitiless atmosphere - a sort of horrible

"But what other peace could there be for them? What else did they
deserve? I don't know by what connection of emotions there came into my
head the thought that the earth was a pagan planet and not a fit abode
for Christian virtues.

"You may be surprised that I should remember all this so well. What is
a passing emotion or half-formed thought to last in so many years of a
man's changing, inconsequential life? But what has fixed the emotion
of that evening in my recollection so that the slightest shadows remain
indelible was an event of strange finality, an event not likely to be
forgotten in a life-time - as you shall see.

"I don't suppose I had been entertaining those thoughts more than five
minutes when something induced me to look over my shoulder. I can't
think it was a noise; the snow deadened all the sounds. Something it
must have been, some sort of signal reaching my consciousness. Anyway, I
turned my head, and there was the event approaching me, not that I knew
it or had the slightest premonition. All I saw in the distance were two
figures approaching in the moonlight. One of them was our Tomassov. The
dark mass behind him which moved across my sight were the horses which
his orderly was leading away. Tomassov was a very familiar appearance,
in long boots, a tall figure ending in a pointed hood. But by his side
advanced another figure. I mistrusted my eyes at first. It was amazing!
It had a shining crested helmet on its head and was muffled up in a
white cloak. The cloak was not as white as snow. Nothing in the world
is. It was white more like mist, with an aspect that was ghostly and
martial to an extraordinary degree. It was as if Tomassov had got hold
of the God of War himself. I could see at once that he was leading this
resplendent vision by the arm. Then I saw that he was holding it
up. While I stared and stared, they crept on - for indeed they were
creeping - and at last they crept into the light of our bivouac fire and
passed beyond the log I was sitting on. The blaze played on the helmet.
It was extremely battered and the frost-bitten face, full of sores,
under it was framed in bits of mangy fur. No God of War this, but a
French officer. The great white cuirassier's cloak was torn, burnt full
of holes. His feet were wrapped up in old sheepskins over remnants
of boots. They looked monstrous and he tottered on them, sustained by
Tomassov who lowered him most carefully on to the log on which I sat.

"My amazement knew no bounds.

"'You have brought in a prisoner,' I said to Tomassov, as if I could not
believe my eyes.

"You must understand that unless they surrendered in large bodies we
made no prisoners. What would have been the good? Our Cossacks either
killed the stragglers or else let them alone, just as it happened. It
came really to the same thing in the end.

"Tomassov turned to me with a very troubled look.

"'He sprang up from the ground somewhere as I was leaving the outpost,'
he said. 'I believe he was making for it, for he walked blindly into my
horse. He got hold of my leg and of course none of our chaps dared touch
him then.'

"'He had a narrow escape,' I said.

"'He didn't appreciate it,' said Tomassov, looking even more troubled
than before. 'He came along holding to my stirrup leather. That's what
made me so late. He told me he was a staff officer; and then talking in
a voice such, I suppose, as the damned alone use, a croaking of rage
and pain, he said he had a favour to beg of me. A supreme favour. Did I
understand him, he asked in a sort of fiendish whisper.

"'Of course I told him that I did. I said: _oui, je vous comprends_.'

"'Then,' said he, 'do it. Now! At once - in the pity of your heart.'

"Tomassov ceased and stared queerly at me above the head of the

"I said, 'What did he mean?'

"'That's what I asked him,' answered Tomassov in a dazed tone, 'and he
said that he wanted me to do him the favour to blow his brains out. As a
fellow soldier he said. 'As a man of feeling - as - as a humane man.'

"The prisoner sat between us like an awful gashed mummy as to the face,
a martial scarecrow, a grotesque horror of rags and dirt, with awful
living eyes, full of vitality, full of unquenchable fire, in a body
of horrible affliction, a skeleton at the feast of glory. And suddenly
those shining unextinguishable eyes of his became fixed upon Tomassov.
He, poor fellow, fascinated, returned the ghastly stare of a suffering
soul in that mere husk of a man. The prisoner croaked at him in French.

"'I recognize, you know. You are her Russian youngster. You were
very grateful. I call on you to pay the debt. Pay it, I say, with one
liberating shot. You are a man of honour. I have not even a broken
sabre. All my being recoils from my own degradation. You know me.'

"Tomassov said nothing.

"'Haven't you got the soul of a warrior?' the Frenchman asked in an
angry whisper, but with something of a mocking intention in it.

"'I don't know,' said poor Tomassov.

"What a look of contempt that scarecrow gave him out of his unquenchable
eyes. He seemed to live only by the force of infuriated and impotent
despair. Suddenly he gave a gasp and fell forward writhing in the
agony of cramp in all his limbs; a not unusual effect of the heat of a
camp-fire. It resembled the application of some horrible torture. But
he tried to fight against the pain at first. He only moaned low while we
bent over him so as to prevent him rolling into the fire, and muttered
feverishly at intervals: '_Tuez moi, tuez moi_...' till, vanquished by
the pain, he screamed in agony, time after time, each cry bursting out
through his compressed lips.

"The adjutant woke up on the other side of the fire and started swearing
awfully at the beastly row that Frenchman was making.

"'What's this? More of your infernal humanity, Tomassov,' he yelled
at us. 'Why don't you have him thrown out of this to the devil on the

"As we paid no attention to his shouts, he got up, cursing shockingly,
and went away to another fire. Presently the French officer became
easier. We propped him up against the log and sat silent on each side
of him till the bugles started their call at the first break of day. The
big flame, kept up all through the night, paled on the livid sheet
of snow, while the frozen air all round rang with the brazen notes of
cavalry trumpets. The Frenchman's eyes, fixed in a glassy stare, which
for a moment made us hope that he had died quietly sitting there between
us two, stirred slowly to right and left, looking at each of our faces
in turn. Tomassov and I exchanged glances of dismay. Then De Castel's
voice, unexpected in its renewed strength and ghastly self-possession,
made us shudder inwardly.

"'_Bonjour, Messieurs_.'

"His chin dropped on his breast. Tomassov addressed me in Russian.

"'It is he, the man himself...' I nodded and Tomassov went on in a tone
of anguish: 'Yes, he! Brilliant, accomplished, envied by men, loved by
that woman - this horror - this miserable thing that cannot die. Look at
his eyes. It's terrible.'

"I did not look, but I understood what Tomassov meant. We could do
nothing for him. This avenging winter of fate held both the fugitives
and the pursuers in its iron grip. Compassion was but a vain word before
that unrelenting destiny. I tried to say something about a convoy being
no doubt collected in the village - but I faltered at the mute glance
Tomassov gave me. We knew what those convoys were like: appalling mobs
of hopeless wretches driven on by the butts of Cossacks' lances, back to
the frozen inferno, with their faces set away from their homes.

"Our two squadrons had been formed along the edge of the forest. The
minutes of anguish were passing. The Frenchman suddenly struggled to his
feet. We helped him almost without knowing what we were doing.

"'Come,' he said, in measured tones. 'This is the moment.' He paused
for a long time, then with the same distinctness went on: 'On my word of
honour, all faith is dead in me.'

"His voice lost suddenly its self-possession. After waiting a little
while he added in a murmur: 'And even my courage.... Upon my honour.'

"Another long pause ensued before, with a great effort, he whispered
hoarsely: 'Isn't this enough to move a heart of stone? Am I to go on my
knees to you?'

"Again a deep silence fell upon the three of us. Then the French officer
flung his last word of anger at Tomassov.


"Not a feature of the poor fellow moved. I made up my mind to go and
fetch a couple of our troopers to lead that miserable prisoner away to
the village. There was nothing else for it. I had not moved six paces
towards the group of horses and orderlies in front of our squadron
when... but you have guessed it. Of course. And I, too, I guessed it,
for I give you my word that the report of Tomassov's pistol was the most
insignificant thing imaginable. The snow certainly does absorb sound. It
was a mere feeble pop. Of the orderlies holding our horses I don't think
one turned his head round.

"Yes. Tomassov had done it. Destiny had led that De Castel to the man
who could understand him perfectly. But it was poor Tomassov's lot to be
the predestined victim. You know what the world's justice and mankind's
judgment are like. They fell heavily on him with a sort of inverted
hypocrisy. Why! That brute of an adjutant, himself, was the first to set
going horrified allusions to the shooting of a prisoner in cold blood!
Tomassov was not dismissed from the service of course. But after the
siege of Dantzig he asked for permission to resign from the army, and
went away to bury himself in the depths of his province, where a vague
story of some dark deed clung to him for years.

"Yes. He had done it. And what was it? One warrior's soul paying its
debt a hundredfold to another warrior's soul by releasing it from a fate
worse than death - the loss of all faith and courage. You may look on
it in that way. I don't know. And perhaps poor Tomassov did not know
himself. But I was the first to approach that appalling dark group on
the snow: the Frenchman extended rigidly on his back, Tomassov kneeling
on one knee rather nearer to the feet than to the Frenchman's head. He
had taken his cap off and his hair shone like gold in the light drift
of flakes that had begun to fall. He was stooping over the dead in a
tenderly contemplative attitude. And his young, ingenuous face, with
lowered eyelids, expressed no grief, no sternness, no horror - but was
set in the repose of a profound, as if endless and endlessly silent,


"Events which happened seventy years ago are perhaps rather too far off
to be dragged aptly into a mere conversation. Of course the year 1831 is
for us an historical date, one of these fatal years when in the presence
of the world's passive indignation and eloquent sympathies we had once
more to murmur '_Vo Victis_' and count the cost in sorrow. Not that
we were ever very good at calculating, either, in prosperity or
in adversity. That's a lesson we could never learn, to the great
exasperation of our enemies who have bestowed upon us the epithet of

The speaker was of Polish nationality, that nationality not so much
alive as surviving, which persists in thinking, breathing, speaking,
hoping, and suffering in its grave, railed in by a million of bayonets
and triple-sealed with the seals of three great empires.

The conversation was about aristocracy. How did this, nowadays
discredited, subject come up? It is some years ago now and the precise
recollection has faded. But I remember that it was not considered
practically as an ingredient in the social mixture; and I verily
believed that we arrived at that subject through some exchange of ideas
about patriotism - a somewhat discredited sentiment, because the delicacy
of our humanitarians regards it as a relic of barbarism. Yet neither the
great Florentine painter who closed his eyes in death thinking of his
city, nor St. Francis blessing with his last breath the town of Assisi,
were barbarians. It requires a certain greatness of soul to interpret
patriotism worthily - or else a sincerity of feeling denied to the
vulgar refinement of modern thought which cannot understand the august
simplicity of a sentiment proceeding from the very nature of things and

The aristocracy we were talking about was the very highest, the great
families of Europe, not impoverished, not converted, not liberalized,
the most distinctive and specialized class of all classes, for which
even ambition itself does not exist among the usual incentives to
activity and regulators of conduct.

The undisputed right of leadership having passed away from them, we
judged that their great fortunes, their cosmopolitanism brought about by
wide alliances, their elevated station, in which there is so little to
gain and so much to lose, must make their position difficult in times
of political commotion or national upheaval. No longer born to
command - which is the very essence of aristocracy - it becomes difficult
for them to do aught else but hold aloof from the great movements of
popular passion.

We had reached that conclusion when the remark about far-off events was
made and the date of 1831 mentioned. And the speaker continued:

"I don't mean to say that I knew Prince Roman at that remote time. I
begin to feel pretty ancient, but I am not so ancient as that. In fact
Prince Roman was married the very year my father was born. It was in
1828; the 19th Century was young yet and the Prince was even younger
than the century, but I don't know exactly by how much. In any case
his was an early marriage. It was an ideal alliance from every point
of view. The girl was young and beautiful, an orphan heiress of a great
name and of a great fortune. The Prince, then an officer in the
Guards and distinguished amongst his fellows by something reserved
and reflective in his character, had fallen headlong in love with her
beauty, her charm, and the serious qualities of her mind and heart. He
was a rather silent young man; but his glances, his bearing, his whole
person expressed his absolute devotion to the woman of his choice, a
devotion which she returned in her own frank and fascinating manner.

"The flame of this pure young passion promised to burn for ever; and for
a season it lit up the dry, cynical atmosphere of the great world of St.
Petersburg. The Emperor Nicholas himself, the grandfather of the present
man, the one who died from the Crimean War, the last perhaps of the
Autocrats with a mystical belief in the Divine character of his mission,
showed some interest in this pair of married lovers. It is true that
Nicholas kept a watchful eye on all the doings of the great Polish
nobles. The young people leading a life appropriate to their station
were obviously wrapped up in each other; and society, fascinated by the
sincerity of a feeling moving serenely among the artificialities of
its anxious and fastidious agitation, watched them with benevolent
indulgence and an amused tenderness.

"The marriage was the social event of 1828, in the capital. Just forty
years afterwards I was staying in the country house of my mother's
brother in our southern provinces.

"It was the dead of winter. The great lawn in front was as pure and
smooth as an alpine snowfield, a white and feathery level sparkling
under the sun as if sprinkled with diamond-dust, declining gently to
the lake - a long, sinuous piece of frozen water looking bluish and

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Online LibraryJoseph ConradTales Of Hearsay → online text (page 2 of 8)