Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/My friend's wedding day
MY FRIEND’S WEDDING DAY.
The droshky took me safe enough to my old quarters at Grignard’s snug hotel, not a dozen yards from the Nevskoi itself. I always put up at Grignard’s, in preference to the much more pretentious and palatial edifices of which St. Petersburg has no lack. It was small, to be sure, but it was quiet, comfortable, and—cheap.
As I passed the wire cage which is common in the halls of foreign hotels, and through the slim bars of which the letters of expected guests peeped forth, as from a prison grating, I cast a cursory glance on the contents, and saw my own name, which I had not thought to find on the back of a letter there just yet. The eyes of Jules followed mine.
“Ah, pardon, M. Pearson,” said he, “pardon, one thousand times. I neglected to remember that a note came for Monsieur two days ago.”
And, whipping out his key, he opened the tiny safe, and handed the letter, with a deprecatory shrug and a bow, to its rightful owner. I broke it open at once, but as it was too long to be perused at a glance, in the quick way in which we extract the purport of most masculine epistles, I set it by to read after dinner. After dinner, then, as I sipped my Beaune in the trim salle of the hotel, I waded conscientiously through the letter. It was from a dear old friend, long settled in Russia, Ned Vaughan by name. The writer was a member of my own profession, and we had been educated together at the same Institute (they called it an Institute, but it was a school, though only for big boys who studied technical matters), and had been fast friends ever since. And now Vaughan, who had a leaning towards experimental agriculture, was right-hand man to a great Russian noble, deep in the interior, and was engaged to be married to the daughter of the Scotch superintendent of the prince’s cotton factory. Indeed the wedding-day had been fixed, and it was to invite me to be present at the ceremony that Vaughan had written. A long letter, such a one as no man would be justified in inflicting upon a friend, except at a time like that, when a new life, with all its novel cares, hopes, and joys, was about to begin. My friend was not to remain at his present station. He and his young wife were to remove to one of Prince Emindoff’s Asiatic estates, far more extensive than the European property on which Ned had been long employed, and there he was to have a liberal salary and full authority to change everything that impeded his plans, from the caftans of the peasantry to the shape of the ploughshares. He was full of buoyant hope, of praises of his Emma—that was her name, derived from her English mother, who had been dead some years—and of fair dreams of the future. But he vowed that the measure of his felicity would be incomplete, unless I were present to be “best man” at the wedding, to spend a month with him on the estate, and to bid them good speed when they should start for their honeymoon trip across the Oural range, and seek a new home.
Ned tried very hard to tempt me. He described the capital sport which he could give me, since the game in the prince’s well-stocked forest was, during the lord’s absence, at the joint disposal of the German steward and English engineer. He urged that this was a capital chance of seeing something of a little-visited part of Russia, where the peasantry retained customs and quaint peculiarities which I could not find in the better-known parts. And he raised my curiosity on the subject of the pictures, statues, and thousand articles rich and rare, collected by the father of the present prince, and now left neglected and unseen at Batschuvatz, in a palace inhabited by servants alone.
All this was very attractive, but two considerations presented themselves on the other hand. First, would not the expense be too great for my slender purse? secondly, had I the time to spare? It so happened that both these problems were solved in a manner which I considered satisfactory. On repairing to the office of the Ingrian Extension railway company, I was informed that in consequence of the non-arrival of some plant and rolling stock from England, my services would not be required for some weeks, during which time I might draw my salary, but might dispose of my time as I pleased. And a consultation with an experienced resident to whom I had brought introductions, satisfied me that a very moderate sum would serve to convey my person and portmanteau, in that bright summer weather, from Moscow to the government of Mohilew, where Vaughan lived.
“You’ll find plenty of dust and flies, but the roads will be easy to traverse, and posting, except when deep snow or mud renders many horses needful, is cheap in Russia,” said my informant.
“However, Mr. Pearson, you had better keep your eyes open to what goes on around you. The people are in a state of strange ferment, quite unlike the old torpor that used to mark Russian society, and the prestige of Government is much impaired. I should hardly care, were I you, to sojourn over long in the ruder provinces at present.”
I could hardly help smiling at this well-meant caution; but to all such hints I had consistently turned a deaf ear for years, and so it was now.
“A pretty life I should have led,” muttered I to myself, “had I always been gobemouche enough to swallow the rawhead and bloodybones stories told me by honest alarmists. What have I to fear, whatever the papers may say of chronic insurrection and discontent? Pshaw! I am neither Muscovite noble nor police spy, to dread the popular vengeance. I will go.”
And I did go. First by railway to Moscow, then behind the swift Troika, with their merry music of chiming bells and clanging hoofs, along the dusty summer roads that led to Batschuvatz, a place situated on the banks of the Dnieper, less than a hundred versts from the city of Mohilew. It was just the time of year when summer is mellowing gradually into autumn, and the long continuance of warm and dry weather had wrought a change in the aspect of the country. The swamps were dried so as to afford a passage over quagmires, which in most seasons could support no human tread, and the morasses were bright with berries,—the cranberry, the bilberry, the strawberry,—while rare wild flowers blossomed unheeded among the peaty hillocks beside the rush-grown pools. The pine forests were fragrant with the peculiar aromatic scent which the millions of resin-bearing stems exhaled; the rye and barley, the red wheat and the root crops all flourished bravely, ripening under the genial sunshine, and I saw gloomy Russia look her best, as it were, in that bright weather.
But there were other alterations in the land which rather perplexed me. The bearing of the people was not what it had been when I travelled through the Northern provinces, in the time of the former Czar. Then I had seen a good deal of degradation, harshness, and oppression, certainly, but also a good deal of careless mirth and jollity. The people were accustomed to sing and revel like negroes on a holiday. Now I heard no songs, except the plaintive chant which my drover addressed to his active horses, after the fashion of Russian post-boys, and did not observe the blithe groups gathered round the door of some tavern where the vodka and quass were in high repute. Hats no longer flew off when my equipage halted to change horses, as once was the case, when the humblest voyager in European attire was regarded as a possible nobleman, or, at any rate, as a privileged member of that official legion, the Tchinn. And yet it was not that the population had become apathetic or indifferent. On the contrary, I had never seen such large numbers of persons out of doors, so many knots of men in eager converse, such voluble assemblages of female gossips, or such keen, inquisitive glances as were bestowed on me in town and hamlet.
But there was no longer the old abject deference, or the stare of half-brutish wonder, to be read in those dark Mongolian eyes that met mine wherever a party of mujiks lounged beside the forge, or at the end of one of those creaking wooden bridges that span the countless streams of Russia. There was curiosity, there was the restless brightness of a suddenly aroused intelligence, and something more—an uneasy, craving wistfulness, as of those who battened on hope, and were sick of waiting for its fulfilment—though the village authorities seemed sullen and low-spirited, and the postmasters, whom I recollected as rough autocrats in their own domains, looked as if they were afraid of their own grooms and drivers.
At last I reached the boundary of Prince Emindoff’s large estates, and driving rapidly through forest glades and green meadows, among fields whose scientific tillage announced Vaughan’s teaching, and through hamlets rather neater than most of those I had traversed, reached the village and palace of Batschuvatz. It was so in this instance. The palace itself was a huge white pile in the Italian style, with marble columns and portico, and a vast frontage, where the glittering windows looked out upon a small park stocked with tame deer, a series of costly gardens, and the village. Those gardens were a study in themselves. The Jardin Anglais, so called, with its shrubbery, lawn, and wilderness, was the creation of the present lord of the soil; the French garden, with gleaming statues, fountains, clipped hedges, and formal terraces, was the fancy of the late prince, while a still older proprietor had indulged a whim for a Dutch garden, now much neglected. There were orangeries and hothouses, however, that must have cost an immense sum, and the stables were enormous. As for the village, it was a collection of wooden houses and turf huts, with a bath of handsome dimensions, and a church in the usual Byzantine style.
Besides these, there was a monstrous erection, the cotton factory, with its tall chimney, its many windows, and the long ranges of sheds about it, and at the angle of the park wall appeared what seemed to me a section of a Parisian street that had strayed somehow to these Muscovite solitudes. Three or four gaunt stone houses, shouldering one another, and contrasting oddly with the Oriental air of church and village.
The postilion pointed with his whip to this block of dwellings, and curtly informed me that the “foreign employés” lived there. A few moments more, and the horses whirled the light carriage up to the door of one of the houses, out of which came Vaughan, sunburnt and healthy of aspect, to bid me heartily welcome. I was inducted into a spacious suite of apartments, only half furnished, to be sure, but large enough to accommodate a numerous family.
“Choose your own rooms, George,” said my host, laughing; “for my part, I live in a corner of this big mansion, like a mouse in a cheese. It was a whim of Emindoff’s to lodge his staff in this exuberant fashion, but I have something more English here.”
And opening a door, he showed me a small, snug sitting-room, whose Turkey carpet and plain mahogany furniture possessed an air of neatness and comfort quite alien to the dusty splendours of the other apartments. At the other end of the passage were two other chambers, the door of one of which Vaughan jerked open, revealing as neat and cheery a bedroom as a bachelor could wish for.
“Can you make shift with these quarters, old fellow?—I thought so.—Ivan, put the portmanteau down, so.—I sleep opposite, and in general we leave the chief apartments to the undisturbed possession of the spiders.—I dare say you will not be sorry to dine in half an hour’s time.”
After dinner my friend took me to the superintendent’s house, and introduced me to Mr. Murray and his daughter. The latter I found to be a gentle, amiable girl enough, pretty perhaps, with her soft brown eyes and glossy brown hair, but not beautiful, nor, as far as I could judge, remarkably clever. Her father was a tall and stately old man, a little bowed with years, and with hair that was fast getting grey, but with a fine intelligent face. He had been very long a resident in Russia, by no means a healthy country for foreigners; but he was still vigorous and active, and I was not surprised when Vaughan informed me in a whisper that the old man’s strength had once been almost gigantic, and that no peasant in the province could match him in feats of force or address. I took a great fancy to old Mr. Murray. Shrewd as he looked, there was a kindly smile hovering about his firm lips, and no one could talk to him without entertaining respect for him.
A very different sentiment was inspired by the appearance and conversation of Herr Wohler, the German steward, who, with his wife and children, were taking a neighbourly cup of tea with the Murrays, on the occasion of my introduction to Vaughan’s future wife and father-in-law. One glance at this man’s fat yellow face was enough to inspire dislike, while his oily voice, and language of fulsome compliment, matched well enough with the falseness of his smile, and the restlessness of his cold eyes. Vaughan had warned me that I should not like Herr Wohler, who was one of those dishonest sycophants not uncommon in Russia, and who ground the poor as sedulously as they flattered the rich. He was no friend to Mr. Murray, having a jealous aversion to all who stood high in the prince’s esteem, but his bearing was bland enough, and the two families were on coldly civil terms. As for the Frau Wohler, she was one of those stolid housewives which Germany produces in such plenty, with very few ideas beyond scrubbing and cookery, and perfectly content to pass a life in silent knitting over a coffee-cup. She said little, and that little consisted in laments over the slovenliness of Russian servants, by whom her patience had been tested for fifteen years, and in regrets for her distant Rhineland.
“Ach, himmel! when shall I ever see it again!” said the poor woman with a sigh.
“Sooner than you dream of, perhaps, Lotchen,” returned her husband, in a moody tone.
Madame Wohler, who was evidently under great fear of her consort, turned her dull wondering eyes upon him, and I saw a gleam of hope steal over her heavy features. Poor thing! the sojourn in Russia had been a dreary banishment to her, far from the calm gossip, and tidy respectability, and cheap pleasures, of the Fatherland.
But Wohler said never a word more. He seemed to forget that the remark which had so affected his wife had been uttered at all, but sat with his eyes fixed in an abstracted way on the tall brass samovar, from the ornamented top of which the steam was lazily escaping, and let his tea cool unregarded for awhile, busy with his own thoughts. Then he abruptly rose, took leave of Mr. and Miss Murray, saying as little as might be, and departed with his obedient wife and pale children. We all seemed to breathe more freely when Wohler’s presence had been withdrawn.
“What is the matter with the steward, I wonder;” said Vaughan, carelessly; “he has been subject to these odd changes of mood, off and on, for months. Is it ill health, or is the old rogue’s remorse for past wrongs beginning to awake, and will he surprise the prince by sending him “conscience money,” as folks in England do to the Chancellor of the Exchequer?”
“That would be a good round sum, if all tales be true,” observed Mr. Murray, shaking his head incredulously. “I’m thinking the man jalouses Russia’s fast growing no longer the Russia for him, and that he’d best be off home with his savings, instead of stopping to feather his nest further.”
A long and desultory conversation ensued, in the course of which I learned that Wohler was presumed to be very well off indeed; having for eleven years been steward of the immense estate on which we then were, and whose owner was an absentee.
“I’ve nought but good to say of my employer, the young Prince Emindoff, who’s a brave, generous boy, and a promising boy, considering he’s a Russian,” said the old Scotchman; “but I fear he’s ganging the way to bring his noble to ninepence. He lives far away, in Rome, Paris, Baden, all about, and people stare at his fine horses and carriages, and think what a grand thing it must be to be a boyard of Muscovy, and spend gold as if it came out of Fortunatus’s purse. But I fear the gold’s fairy gold, sirs, and fast turnin’ to ivy leaves. The peasants won’t work, won’t pay obrok, nor rent, and the supplies are stopped.”
“Do you mean, Mr. Murray,” said I, much puzzled, “that the Prince receives nothing from this great estate? I had heard rumours of such things at St. Petersburg, but believed them to be exaggerated and absurd. Why, surely, if the serfs are set free, the land is still his.”
“Indeed, Mr. Pearson, if you can persuade the peasants of that fact, you’ll render our employer a very valuable service,” said Mr. Murray, taking snuff. “They’ve got a notion obstinately rooted in their heads, that the land is theirs. They say their bodies belonged to the Prince, but now their dear Papa Czar has set them free, and given them the soil too: or, rather, confirmed them in their right to it, and even Wohler can’t screw a copeck out of them.”
I asked if there were no legal remedy. Vaughan answered in the negative. The judges were distracted, and of various opinions, the inferior magistrates frightened, and to enforce a debt, except by the pressure of military execution, all but impossible. At the best of times, the tricky, evasive character of the Muscovite had rendered it difficult for a proprietor to get his exact due, though his subordinates often took much more, and now that the stimulus of the stick had been withdrawn, there was no remedy.
“This is no longer the Russia you remember, sir;” said old Mr. Murray; “no longer the Russia in which I’ve striven to guide my way honestly, without fear or favour, these forty years. The old system is dead—the Crimean war killed it outright. It was a bad system, but we haven’t got much beyond chaos in its place. The peasant has no self-respect, and it will take years before he learns to give another his due, merely because it’s owing. Fear was his mainspring, and now it’s snapped.”
I listened to this and other remarks with respect, but without conviction. Like most of my countrymen, I had heard with pleasure of the destruction of that system of serfage which bound the people to the soil, and held back Russia in the race of nations. And I was reluctant to believe that there could be a darker side to the fair picture of millions set free from a degrading bondage. But when I strolled next day with Vaughan through the village, and across a portion of the property, I saw cause to rejoice inwardly, that my lines had not fallen in Russia. There was a strange look on the faces of the people, not exactly defiant, not exactly disrespectful, or hostile, but discontented and uneasy. It was evident that they were beginning to think, and that their thoughts were not wholly pleasant. Perhaps, too, I missed the old lip-service, the homage which every mujik once paid to the traveller from the West, or still more to those who exercised authority in the name of his lord. If I were silly enough to be vexed at this, I was wrong. Far better that the freed peasants should pass at once from Oriental subserviency to American bluntness of bearing, than they should remain on the level of the brutes, and out of the excess of their own servility, confer on a plain English wayfarer the titles of excellency and baron.
Still they had an air which hardly pleased me. Their manner did not denote bluff independence so much as restless discontent, and they stood on their thresholds gazing at us with lowering looks, and made short and ungracious answers to Ned’s frank greeting.
“I’m not sorry to be moving eastwards,” said my friend with a sigh, as we crossed the meadows on our way back, “since I am told that the Tartars are teachable enough, and an ugly change has come over our mujiks here. And yet, poor creatures, it’s not their fault. They have been treated like beasts of burden for so long a time, that it is hardly wonderful that arguments meant for men fail to touch them. Come and see the cotton-mill; Murray has a right to be proud of it.”
The cotton-mill was indeed a very handsome factory, neat and well-organised, thanks to the keen vigilance of the Scottish manager, and the awe which the peasantry entertained for his acute and firm, yet rigidly honest character.
“And yet they don’t love him or understand him,” said Vaughan, sadly; “though he has been their best friend, since he has stood many a time between them and Wohler, when the steward wanted to defraud them of half their due. Many a mill is closed, since forced labour stops, and this brings in little profit; but it goes on, because the serfs trust Murray to pay them fairly for their work, and they own the mill is not theirs, as they fancy the fields are. But, oddly enough, ill as Wohler has served them, I imagine they like him better than my father-in-law that is to be—they can understand his character, and, in his place, would have put the screw on as he has done. But enough of this. Shall we have a day in the forest?”
We had not one, but several days of capital sport, killing quantities of feathered game, with several small deer, and a large “bag” of the dark-furred summer hares. But I was greatly disappointed at not having the chance of killing a bear, since I found that in the warm weather these animals are seldom to be found, since they retire to remote nooks in the tangled forest. Several boating trips down the Dnieper, and one or two picnics, served to pass away the time pleasantly, and as I saw more of Emma Murray, I felt less surprised at Vaughan’s attachment. She was not very pretty, to be sure, but was of a most unselfish and tender nature, with a temper and disposition that nothing seemed able to spoil. She had been educated at one of the most famous of those St. Petersburg schools where Russian girls acquire a varnish of Parisian accomplishments at great expense, but her innate simplicity and worth had triumphed even over that ordeal. She had been very glad to get back from the brilliant capital to her old father and the home of her youth, such as it was. And yet she must have had but a dull life of it at Batschuvatz, before Vaughan’s arrival, since she had no companions of her own age, the young Wohlers being considerably her juniors, while the people around her were divided from her in character and feeling as by a yawning gulf.
It is not easy in a country district of Russia to be the friend of the poor. It may be said that there are no poor. Every one has enough coarse food to eat, and rather too much brandy to drink. There is a dead level of rude plenty, above which the serf cannot easily rise, and below which, before the emancipation, he could not sink; and the people neither lacked alms, nor counsel, nor instruction. The gentle English girl could not win affection or confidence from the peasantry of Prince Emindoff’s estate. They took her presents willingly, but they never comprehended her interest in their welfare.
I must hurry on. The prince’s foresters and keepers were an exception to the general rule of the sullen demeanour of the peasantry. These well-clad fellows, in their neat sylvan garb, with their master’s badge in silver on their caps, were perfectly respectful, willing, and obedient. The explanation of this was simple—they received regular wages, and knew that their living depended on the prince’s retention of his property, whereas a kind of illogical communism was rampant among the tillers of the soil. Among the foresters was a young man, Paul Gregovitch by name, whom I had seen before, and who was grateful to me for a service done him in former times. It was not a great service, it had cost me nothing, but the marvel was that a Muscovite should have remembered it in the hour of need. Paul, then quite a lad, had been permitted to accompany his father to St. Petersburg, to work on the obrok system, paying tribute to his owner out of his wages; he had ignorantly transgressed some of the stringent police regulations, and I had interceded with an officer in his behalf, thus saving him from a severe application of the “stick.” Paul brightened up wonderfully at seeing me again, and was as fawningly attentive as a spaniel, poor fellow; for a Russian generally exaggerates every sentiment of hatred or liking; and in the hunting expeditions he constituted himself my special guide and attendant, addressed me as “count,” and never spoke to me without first pulling off his fur cap.
And yet I thought there were times when Paul’s sly dark eyes—he had the true Mongolian cast of features of his swarthy and flat-faced countrymen —were fixed on me with a mournful scrutiny not wholly reassuring, while I could not make out the cause of his curiosity as to the date of my departure.
“Are you in such a hurry to see the last of me, Paul?” I asked, one day, laughing, “that you are always hinting at my return to St. Petersburg?”
But Paul merely bowed, and begged pardon if he had offended me, saying that he was proud to wait on me, but that if he were “a great foreign lord like me, instead of a mujik,” he should travel in the fine countries far away, and not linger in poor Black Russia, that was all.
And now my stay at Batschuvatz really began to draw to a close, and the wedding-day came nearer and nearer, and constant preparations were made for the young couple’s journey to their new home in Asia. The Asiatic estates of the prince, once neglected, seemed now likely to afford his main source of revenue, since his European property, with the exception of some mines, paid nothing whatever. This was no isolated case. Far and near the same practical confiscation of property prevailed. Scarcely a rouble could be wrung from the peasants, nor could labour be exacted by even the most adroit steward. Absentee proprietors, far off in the gay cities of South Europe, received with dismay the tidings of ruin which came instead of the plentiful remittances of former days. Some owners of land, happy in the possession of capital and energy, gave up to the freed serfs the soil they claimed, and undertook to create new sources of profit for themselves by draining swamps, felling woods, and carving out fresh farms from the uncultivated portions of their domains. Others besieged the government with petitions for loans, with demands for some new law that should enforce their just dues, or with calls for compensation.
Stormy meetings of the nobility took place, and violent debates ensued, not that any one wished or hoped to turn back the resistless flood of progress, but that the whole class of landed proprietors felt their condition one of anarchy and ruin. And then came the grim rejoinder of the excited people to the cautious delays of government and the murmurs of the boyards—the incendiary fires.
Far and near over the vast empire the madness spread, like an epidemic, and in city and country, north and south, the torch was used unsparingly. Rumours of frightful conflagrations reached us from every quarter, and the efforts of the alarmed authorities failed utterly to discover the perpetrator. Martial law was proclaimed in many places, and troops were continually in motion; but as yet no mischief had been done in Prince Emindoff’s estate.
One day—it was the very day before that fixed for the wedding—we had some excitement at Batschuvatz. There had been burnings and outrages on the property of some neighbouring proprietors, the serfs had long refused to pay tribute, tax, or rent, in any form, and now a body of them had assembled, under a flag, and armed with guns and scythes, and were in open revolt, though for what exact purpose, perhaps even the insurgents did not know. And a regiment of dragoons from Mohilew, with two field pieces, marched through our village on their way to put an end to the disturbance. We all turned out to see them pass, and very imposing and picturesque they looked, with their brass helmets and embroidered saddle cloths, riding by threes in column of march, with carbines unslung, and skirmishers thrown out in advance. But there was an old expression on the faces of the officers, who looked perplexed and anxious, while the soldiers had an apathetic stolidity of countenance that told of anything but zeal. Old Archibald Murray shook his head as he glanced from the soldiers to the peasants in the village street, who stood staring on the martial pageant with sneering impatience rather than the awe they once showed at the sight of a uniform.
“I’m thinking those chiels in the green tunics and brass helmets have just remembered they are sib and rib with the people, and the serfs don’t fear the troops as they did. A better day’s dawning for Russia, I hope and trust, but ah! sirs, there’s a red and stormy morning to get through first, or I’m much mistaken.”
That evening was rather a melancholy one, as is generally the case before a parting. Every one tried to be gay, and failed dismally. Old Mr. Murray tried to talk hopefully of the time to come, when, a few years hence, Vaughan should have saved enough to establish him well at home, and they should all go to back to Britain, where the aged superintendent had always hoped to lay his bones at last.
On this evening the Wohlers had been invited to dine and pass the evening, for, though the steward was neither liked nor esteemed, Mr. Murray desired to avoid the very appearance of slighting a near neighbour. But the invitation was declined. The steward dropped in for a moment to excuse himself and his family, and mentioned that he had written to Prince Emindoff to announce his resignation, and that he should quit Russia for ever as soon as the prince had time to appoint a new intendant. Wohler was in wretchedly low spirits, and not disposed for conversation, but we gathered that fear of coming disturbance was the cause of his abrupt resolve.
“Eh, Mr. Pearson—eh, Edward man, but it’s an unchancy sign for a house when the rats rin from it,” said Mr. Murray, dryly, when the steward was gone, adding: “I’d like to spend my last days at home myself, nae doubt, and hope to do so yet, for we foreigners take no root in the Russian soil; but I’ve eaten Prince Emindoff’s bread ower long to desert him now. I’ll stay as long as I’m useful, though the mill just pays its way, and no more.”
As I looked from my bedroom window that night, I happened to observe something like a dark cluster of men under the park wall holding a stealthy, but excited conference, if I might judge by the violent gestures of one of them, a tall peasant, who stood out in the bright moonlight, and who seemed the principal speaker. Disturbed by a vague feeling of uneasiness, I called Vaughan, and pointed out this mysterious group.
“It looks suspicious, certainly,” said my friend, “and if I don’t mistake, that tall fellow is Black Ivan, a man of very indifferent character, lately discharged from the imperial guard. Some poaching or hen-roost robbery is a-foot, though, most likely—nothing worse. I’ll speak to the starosta in the morning.”
And in obedience to Vaughan’s summons, next morning, the starosta, or village mayor, a fine, respectable-looking elder, with flowing caftan and long silvery beard, was in attendance. He seemed rather perturbed at hearing that a number of men had been seen lurking about the park, and tried hard to make us believe that we were mistaken, or that if we had seen men at all, and not shadows of the waving fir-trees, they must have been strangers, gipsies, perhaps, or wandering Tartars, a party of whom had been recently seen there on their way back from the fair at Minsk. As for Black Ivan, the starosta assured us that he was quite a reformed character, and had been asleep in his hovel hours before the time we named.
The wedding-day had come, but disappointment came along with it. The clergyman who was to perform the ceremony, and who was chaplain at Riga, had agreed to stop at Batschuvatz for this purpose, on his way back from Moscow, whither he had gone by way of Archangel and St. Petersburg, in the course of a summer tour. But a letter announced that he was unavoidably detained, and could not possibly reach the Emindoff estate before the next day. It was necessary, therefore, to postpone the marriage, and it is hardly wonderful if Vaughan, generally the best-tempered fellow in the world, became testy and out of humour, insomuch that I was thrown very much on my own resources for amusement. I think it was not quite noon, when Paul Gregovitch, the young forester I have mentioned as having a regard for me, came to me with a face of great importance.
“Did not my Excellency wish to kill a bear? very well—then there was a capital chance.”
And he went on to tell me that a remarkably fine bear had been discovered, a few miles off, robbing the melon patch of a peasant of Paul’s acquaintance, that its lair in the wood was known, and that, if I liked, he, Paul, was ready, to guide me to the presence of the shaggy monster.
This news produced its effect. I had a great wish to be the triumphant possessor of a bearskin honestly won by my own prowess: the time hung heavily on my hands, and such a chance might never again occur. I readily consented, and by Paul’s suggestion I said nothing to my friends of the adventure in prospect, intending to surprise them by my return with an unmistakeable trophy of my abilities as a sportsman. To say the truth, Vaughan and I had both of us been the subjects of some dry, but good-humoured quizzing on Mr. Murray’s part, on the score of our lack of wood-craft. We were eager enough, and could both of us make up a fair bag of partridges and the black game of the swamps, but we were tyros in sylvan lore, never having slain bear or wolf, whereas the old Scot had once been famous for his skill as a hunter of large game, and had heaps of grey wolf-skins and brown bearskins in his possession.
Paul manifested much pleasure when I agreed to accompany him in quest of the bear; but I could not help thinking that he wasted a great deal of time in preparation. What with getting out the kibitka, harnessing the horses, and fetching the rifles and hunting-knives, the ammunition and the basket which contained the provisions, the quass-jar and the brandy-flask, he passed away a good deal of the afternoon, and it was late when we started.
I felt my own spirits revive when Paul chirruped to his wiry nags, and we went off at a gallop under the dark pine-boughs.
“Twenty roubles, Paul, if we kill him!”
“Ah! ah! lord Count—pardon me, sir, I know you always forbid me to call you Count, but it comes so natural—we will reckon finely with grandpapa bear, the sly old thief. So, so,—jump, horses—dear ones—quick, my pigeons!—ho! ho!”
And the young man broke out into one of those wildly sweet Muscovite airs which seem to exercise a magic power over the brute creation, while the horses dashed gaily along, for many a mile, through wood and waste. In quite a remote part of the woodland region we stopped before the door of a solitary hovel, over the door of which hung a withered fir-branch.
“They sell good vodka here!” said my guide, dropping the reins and springing out.
“But the bear?”
“Ah, Count, he is not far off. There, look you, is the melon-garden he robbed—there, before your eyes. I must ask the peasant if any news has been heard of him.”
And he went into the hut and came back, wiping his lips, to announce that the bear had been heard growling in the coppice, four hours ago, and that we had better put up the horses and cart, and plunge at once into the thickets. This was done; we shouldered our rifles, buckled the heavy hunting-knives to our belts, to which were already suspended the powder-horns and ball-pouches, and set off on foot into the forest. I own that my heart beat quicker than usual, as I approached the bear’s presumed haunt, and that I inwardly hoped my double-barrelled English rifle, which Paul had carefully loaded, would not miss fire or vibrate over much at the moment of encounter. But to give up the pursuit now would have covered me with ridicule for ever, and I pushed stoutly on. A pretty dance Paul led me, all the time professing to perceive traces of the bear’s passage, quite invisible to my eyes. Hours passed, twilight came to deepen the gloom of the woods, and still the quarry appeared as unattainable as ever. We plodded on, hot and tired, until after dusk, and then the suspicion that I was the object of a trick came upon me with such force that I taxed Paul with purposely misleading me. The young woodsman stopped short, and let the butt-end of his piece fall with a thud upon the moss at his feet, but he did not reply, and a pause ensued, only broken by the sorrowful hoot of the owl.
“Is there a bear at all?” I asked, peremptorily, but was startled by the cool reply:
“No, Count, there is no bear.”
No bear! I was the dupe of a hoax, then, and had been deluded into trotting for hours among swamps and brushwood for the amusement of my precious guide. I caught him roughly by the collar, but he never flinched from the expected blow.
“Englishman,” said he very quietly, “you have no reason to be angry with poor Paul Gregovitch. He deceived you, but it was for your own good. He owed a debt of kindness, and he has paid it. Better be here, in the forest, than in the grand stonehouse at Batschuvatz, to-night!”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Paul shook himself free from my grasp, folded his arms, and confronted me. When he spoke again there was a stern solemnity in his tone, quite unlike his usual voice.
“This is a cold, sad land, our poor Russia. Our peasants are ignorant and oppressed, our nobles are locusts; their foreign stewards are leeches that come from afar to fatten on our blood. But Russia will no longer be the milch cow of noble and foreigner. Thank the happy fate that made a Moskov peasant save you—you only. A night in the forest will do no harm.”
And he turned, sprang away, and in a moment would have been lost among the thickets, when his foot caught on a projecting root; he stumbled and fell; I ran instantly forward, and secured him.
“I will do you no harm;” said I, as I grasped my prisoner, whose struggles ceased when he found I was the stronger of the two; the rather that I gather from your hints that it is to benefit me that you have led me away from Batschuvatz. But I insist on your guiding me at once out of the wood, and on a full explanation of your dark meaning. Does peril beset my friends; if so, speak out.”
This, however, Paul refused to do. No threats or persuasions could elicit a word from him, beyond a vague assurance that he had risked his own life, already, to save mine. But he consented to lead me out of the forest, and so he did, though I suspect he made the route a purposely circuitous one, for it was black night long before we were in sight of the tavern where the cart had been left. Slowly, in spite of my impatience, the horses were harnessed, but when they were ready, Paul obstinately declined to accompany me.
“If you are wise,” he cried, “you will cut across into the Moscov road, and never see Batschuvatz again. In any case, I have done my part, and you are warned.”
So saying, he turned into the tavern, slammed the door, and barred it. I sprang into the kibitka, and lashed the active horses into a gallop that soon bore me, through a cloud of dust, homewards.
Never in my life did I flog so unmercifully, or whirl along so fast, but many a verst had to be traversed, the mettled horses flagged and panted, forcing me to relax my speed, and it was very late when I drew near Batschuvatz, and saw a crimson glow, as of sunset, bursting through the trees. When I got nearer, I perceived that it was a conflagration, and the smell of burning wood reached me; and presently, as I dashed into the village, clouds of smoke half-blinded me. The cotton mill was in flames, but I hastened on, and saw by the red glare over the pine-tops, that Prince Emindoff’s palace was also burning.
Then my horses snorted and trembled, and planting their feet firmly, refused to stir, and the wind drove down upon me a volley of eddying smoke, mixed with sparks, and through this I dimly saw that the block of stone houses was also in a blaze. Flames were gushing forth from the lower windows, against the doors were heaped a quantity of massive logs, so as to bar all egress, and round the conflagration surged a dark crowd of human forms, hoarsely murmuring, and waving torches here and there.
“The people,” thought I; “but why do they not extinguish the fire? Why—”
The half-unconscious question was answered by a roar that greeted the appearance on the roof of one of the houses of a number of persons, who had evidently been driven upwards by the flames, which now spouted forth in fiery cascades from even the upper windows. I recognised my friends, Emma Murray, pale and fainting, supported by Vaughan, her old white-haired father, who looked gigantic through the glare and glow of the yellow fire-light, the steward Wohler, and others. The yell that greeted them was fierce enough to have broken from the throats of exulting demons, and left no doubt that the fire was the work of incendiary hands, and that Paul had really saved me from the horrid doom impending over the rest of the foreign settlers.
I could not bear to see it. I rushed forward, forgetful of all risk to myself, and in my broken Russian appealed to the bystanders to aid those within, offering a reward for help, and menacing the recusants with the vengeance of the Government. A dreadful clamour arose; I was hustled, surrounded, and at one time in peril of being tossed, as Black Ivan proposed, into the fire. But at that very moment the walls bent, the roof crashed in, and while the unhappy group upon the burning house was lost for ever to view in the fiery gulf below, a mass of burning beams and brickwork rained around, scattering the multitude, and injuring many, and among others myself, for I was struck senseless by a falling piece of timber. When I recovered, I was on a bed in one of the forester’s huts, cared for by the rough inmates, who had picked me up, trampled and bloody, after the crowd of furious serfs had departed, and thanks to them I was enabled to reach Moscow, and, in due time, St. Petersburg. Martial law was proclaimed in the district of Mohilew, but I believe no punishment ever fell on the perpetrators of the cruel and wanton outrage I have chronicled.