The Czar: A Tale of the Time of the First Napoleon/Chapter 41
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Chapter XLI: From Afar
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"Here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come."
ONE afternoon, in the spring of 1821, Clémence sat in her boudoir, a bright, pleasant room of the palace on the Fontanka, tastefully but not gaudily furnished. A lovely boy between three and four years old lay on the floor playing with an ivory alphabet. He was dressed à la mujik, his long curls of gold fell over a miniature caftan of fine blue cloth, which a sash of crimson silk bound about his waist. A younger child, in a white frock of some warm soft material edged with fur, sat on his mother's knee; and a great deal of baby chatter went on, which was rendered still more unintelligible by being half Russian and half French.
On the table beside Clémence lay a pile of books, with which she had been occupying herself. They were copies of the Four Gospels in Russ; and it was her pleasant task to write in each the name of a mujik of Nicolofsky who had been enterprising enough to learn the art of reading, and also to mark such passages and verses as she thought would be particularly profitable for study. But little Feodor's fancy for suddenly grasping the pen in her hand had put a stop for the present to her labours.
Some one knocked at the door; and, thinking it was the children's nurse, she said, "Come in," without looking up. An attendant entered instead, announcing a visitor—"M. de Salgues."
In delighted amazement Clémence stood up, placed Feodor on the ground, and hastened to welcome a guest who seemed a part of her dear native land. "This is an unexpected pleasure, and a very great one," she said, warmly grasping the hand of Emile.
But Emile, with his old effrontery, saluted her on the cheek, saying, "Permettez-moi, madame ma cousine."
A few explanations followed. Clemence and Ivan knew already that Emile intended to visit them; for he was about to make the tour of the European capitals, and had, as he himself expressed it, every possible inducement not to omit St. Petersburg. But the time of his visit having been left uncertain, it had pleased him to surprise his friends by travelling rapidly and directly from Paris to the city of the Czar.
"You will be glad to hear that my grandmother's health has improved," he said in answer to the inquiries of Clémence. "Madame de Talmont also is very well; and your brother is flourishing, in every sense of the word. I have a portmanteau full of letters and packages for you. How is Prince Ivan?"
"Well, thank you. I am sorry he is out just now; but I expect him home in an hour or two.—My little son, ring the bell for thy mother."
The little mujik, who had been looking at the stranger with large, blue, wide-open eyes, instantly obeyed.
"Come here, my little man," said Emile, stretching out his arms to him. "What a fine boy! Ma cousine, is this your eldest?"
"My first-born is in heaven, as you know," said Clémence in a voice low and gentle, but not sad. "This is our eldest boy—Alexander."
The little Alexander came willingly to Emile, and considered it quite the proper thing to be kissed by him; for had he not just seen him bestow a similar attention upon "Maman"?
Emile looked admiringly at the child's handsome face, as he seated him on his knee and gave him a bunch of seals to play with. "He is like his father," said he; "while his brother resembles you," he added, glancing at Feodor. "There is no mistaking those soft dark eyes with the long silken lashes. What is his name, ma cousine?"
"Feodor; in memory of the noble old man who was to his father as a father."
Just then a servant entered; and Clemence, finding that Emile had left his luggage at a hotel, had it sent for, and gave the other directions hospitality required. Meanwhile, Emile carried on a conversation with the little mujik on his knee; who, not in the least shy, put his hand on the breast of his coat, and then tried to unbutton it, saying, "Where is your star the beautiful, shiny thing, all made of sparks of fire?"
"That must be a star of diamonds," laughed Emile. "Is that the sort of plaything you are accustomed to, my little prince?"
"That is what my godfather wears on his coat, and he gives it to me to play with when he comes here," said the little fellow, adding some unintelligible semi-Russian, which quite baffled Emile.
"He has the honour to be the Emperor's godson," Clémence explained.
"Then, my boy, you have a splendid godfather," said Emile.
"Et bon," the child added quickly.
At this moment the nurse appeared at the door. She was a stately personage in full Russian costume—a velvet "sarafan," or wide open robe, showing beneath it a close-fitting silken gown, its long sleeves clasped at the wrist with bands of gold, while the national head-dress, a kind of crescent-shaped diadem called a "kakoshnik," added to the magnificence of her appearance. She was a person of great importance in the establishment, and much beloved by the children, as they showed by going to her without reluctance even from their idolized "Maman" or "Matinka," as they called her indifferently.
Whilst Emile was doing justice to a repast, which, although prepared upon short notice, proved that Clémence had forgotten none of his boyish tastes, he gave her various items of family tidings, which were new to her, as she had not heard very recently from home.
"My grandmother has been rather fortunate," he said. "Some mines in which she invested a portion of her salvage from the wreck of the family fortunes have proved a grand success. So the good soul was desirous of purchasing an estate in the country upon which a certain 'mauvais sujet' of a grandson, who has given her more trouble than he is worth, might settle down at last and 'range himself,' as she says. By a singular piece of good luck, the ancestral estate of your branch of the Talmonts happened to be in the market, its late republican possessor having made the country too hot for himself."
Clémence uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure. "Has La Tante succeeded in obtaining it?" she asked eagerly and with sparkling eyes.
"Yes, ma cousine. And the first work undertaken by the promising young architect, M. de Talmont, is to be the restoration of the old chateau."
"Where we were born, he and I—where my mother spent the brief, bright days of her wedded life!" said the delighted Clémence. "Mon cousin, I rejoice to think that a place so dear to us all will be your home. You must soon bring a fair bride to grace it," she added with a smile.
But Emile's brow darkened, "I have no such thoughts at present," he answered hastily. "Nor ever will," he added in a lower voice.
Clémence saw that she had touched an open wound; and, to change the conversation, began to ask about Henri.
"He goes on splendidly," said Emile. "Some folk are born on the sunny side of the world, like your little lad, who plays with diamonds from his cradle."
This tone surprised Clemence. An ordinary observer would have thought both the past and present fortunes of Emile far more sunny than those of his cousin. "Henri has known much trouble," she said.
"He always gets out of his troubles on the right side," returned Emile. "He passed unscathed through that terrible Moscow campaign, which slew its tens of thousands, and ruined Napoleon himself. Then he changed his religion, and took the worst time to do it, too, just after the return of the Bourbons and the priests; but he only made a nine days' wonder for all his friends, who ended by being more attached to him than ever. He chose a profession which every one thought beneath his birth and his talents, and he is likely to find a career and a fortune in it. Finally, he is affianced to a beautiful young lady, with excellent prospects."
"You amaze me, Emile," said Clemence with a changing colour. "Who is it?"
"Some one you know very well. Guess," returned Emile, with a cheerfulness which Clemence thought a little forced.
As she paused for a moment before replying, he continued, like one in haste to finish the story, "I may as well tell you at once. It is Mademoiselle de Sartines."
"Stephanie!" Clémence exclaimed. "She is only a child."
"She is a very beautiful young lady," said Emile with emphasis. Going towards the window, he observed, "I am surprised to see so much snow on the ground at this season. Does it always linger so long?"
"No; this spring is an unusually late one," Clémence answered mechanically, while her thoughts were busy with matters far more interesting. An electric flash passed through her mind, linking together scattered hints, and transient, half-suppressed allusions. The boyish quarrels of Emile with clever little Stéphanie used to be the amusement of the household; and that a serious attachment had sprung out of them was not by any means improbable. A genuine compassion for her cousin awoke within her.—And Henri? So far as he was concerned, surprise as yet swallowed up every other feeling.
"Ah!" cried Emile with a brightening face, "here is Prince Ivan alighting from his drosky. I will go and meet him;" and he hastened from the room.
Emile was not demonstrative; but a warm and genuine friendship for Ivan had a place in his heart since the day when the young Russian answered his scoffs with generous words of counsel and expostulation. Ivan's advice and influence had saved him from much evil, and Ivan's character had unconsciously become his model of excellence.
But they had scarcely exchanged salutations when several guests came in also to share the family dinner. It was the habit of the "grands seigneurs" of St. Petersburg to hoist a flag over their palaces when they intended dining at home, as a sign that their friends would be welcome to join them; and Ivan adopted the hospitable customs of his class, while he avoided much of its lavish and ostentatious expenditure. His guests however departed early, as most of them were going to a ball at Gateschina, the residence of the Empress Mother; and after a whispered word to Clémence he said to Emile, "No doubt you smoke, as of old? I have a smoking-room for my friends, though I am not myself a votary of the fragrant weed. Come with me."
Emile was soon stretched at full length on a velvet-covered divan, and accommodated with a long amber-tipped pipe filled with the choicest tobacco. Ivan seated himself by the fire, and the friends talked together of many things; nor was their communion hindered by the fact that each had a secret care in his heart. Some things were said, or hinted, by Emile which Ivan rejoiced to hear. It soon became evident that the man was not the scoffing sceptic the lad had been: Ivan's words of counsel had gone home to his heart and been the means of keeping him from those "paths of the destroyer " into which there was once terrible danger his feet might wander.
After many other subjects had been discussed, Emile observed, "I am curious to know what you have been doing with the Army of Occupation, since its return from France."
"It is difficult to know what to do with it," Ivan admitted candidly. "Our enormous military forces threaten to become a perplexity, now that a European peace, which God grant may be enduring, renders them superfluous."
"I should think that army of yours something worse than a perplexity," said Emile laying aside his pipe, "at least to the Czar." His tone was so ominous that Ivan looked at him anxiously.
"I knew in Paris many of your countrymen, 'Messieurs les officiers russe' we used to call them," Emile resumed after a pause. "You remember, Prince Ivan, what an ardent Imperialist I used to be; and I think still that the exile of St. Helena would make a better ruler for France than any effete Bourbon or Orleans of them all. I should have plunged madly into the wildest intrigues of the secret societies of Paris had not a decanter of poisoned wine stopped me at the beginning."
"Poisoned wine, Emile? Oh yes—I remember."
"But do you remember the lecture you read me with that poisoned wine for a text?—To use assassination as a weapon against political foes is abominable, and all those who do so are cowardly villains! The murder of the Duc de Berri shows to what a length those knights of the dagger and pistol are prepared to go, and ought to frighten all honest people away from their intrigues. I am sorry to say, Prince Ivan, the army that has come back to you from France is deeply tainted with the spirit that has prompted such crimes. Most of your officers are members of secret societies and the wildest talk is rife amongst them. I have heard it said, by one who ought to know, that it would have been better for the Czar to drown his fine army in the Baltic than to bring it back to his own country."
Ivan grew visibly pale, but suppressed the emotion he felt. " The Czar is quite aware of the existence of these secret societies; he knows, too, that they have extended ramifications even in Russia," he said. "But have you any idea, Emile, from so much of their talk as may have reached your ears, what it is that these gentlemen really want?"
"Scarcely more than they have themselves, I dare say," Emile answered with a rather bitter laugh. "I suppose they would tell you, if you were admitted to their councils, that they want a constitution for Russia."
"What kind of a constitution?"
"Oh, every one differs as to that. I have heard it said that every Russian officer carries a constitution about in his pocket. I suppose, for the most part, they are like those constitutions of revolutionary France, which were excellent on paper, only they would not 'march.'"
"And, of course, every one of these gentlemen expects the Czar to satisfy his own particular aspirations. Suppose he fail to do it?"
"Suppose he fail to do it—" Instead of finishing his sentence, Emile heaved a long and bitter sigh, flung the ashes out of his pipe, sat up, and gazed sadly into the fire. Presently he resumed: "The iniquities of Alexander are twofold. He has not, as yet, bestowed upon Russia a perfect liberal constitution, as new and as faultless as a louis d'or fresh from the mint; and he has used, and is using, his enormous influence to repress in other countries the party of progress,—or of revolution, which you will,—such as the insurgents of Spain and the Carbonari of Italy. He even hesitates to assist the Greeks, who, by the way, seem really to deserve assistance and compassion."
"Ah," cried Ivan with excitement, "there indeed the Czar's perplexity is great. Every true Russian longs to trample in the dust that abominable Ottoman tyranny—cruel, cowardly, treacherous as it is—and to deliver our suffering fellow-Christians, from whom there is going up daily to the throne of God 'the cry of the oppressed that have no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter.' Need I tell you that the first of Russians longs for it more than any of his subjects? But hitherto it could only have been done at the price of another European war. And even then it might have been done in vain."
"Why so?" asked Emile.
"Because unless the Czar had a fleet in readiness to support his army, every Christian in Greece might be massacred before our troops could reach Constantinople."
"His position is a difficult one," said Emile.
"Difficult?" Ivan repeated with a heavy sigh. "Would it were only difficult! Sometimes it seems to me as if his way were so hedged about that it is impossible for him to do anything at all. First look abroad, upon the perplexed field of European politics. There his unceasing efforts to maintain the peace of the world have already cost him dear. While he endeavours with the one hand to repress the spirit of lawlessness and anarchy, he is trying with the other to move the 'powers that be' in the direction of justice, mercy, and moderation; and consequently he is misunderstood by both. Liberals revile him as a friend of tyrants, a renegade from the cause of freedom; princes accuse him of opening the flood-gates before the torrent of democracy, and say he has none but himself to thank if his own dominions are overwhelmed. Then look at home. There is raging the conflict of religious opinion; Photi, Seraphim, and zealots of their type, are for ever besieging his ear with the accusation that his own hands have undermined the Church of his country by giving his people the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue, and the education necessary to read them. There are going forward the plots and intrigues of the active, unscrupulous secret societies: if he tolerates these as the pardonable follies of harmless enthusiasts, he may be as one who stands idly watching the conflagration which will consume his own dwelling; if he allows Aratchaief and Miloradovitch to repress them with rigour, he will assuredly be execrated as a despot. Nor do his difficulties end here. The corruption that has eaten like a canker into every part of the administration of this enormous empire is the worst and sorest of them all. We are still but half civilized. Great as are the strides we have made, and are making, in the path of improvement, the faults of semi-barbarism cling to us yet. In the reign of the Empress Catherine everything was bought and sold, as too many things are even now in bitter shame and sorrow I say it. 'That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and the judge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desire: so they wrap it up.' When these things reach the ear of the Czar, he visits them with swift, sharp punishment; and so men begin to call stern, hard, and suspicious the tenderest hearted man that ever walked God's earth. Yet he cannot stay the evil."
"God help him!" said Emile.
"Amen," responded Ivan. He seemed about to add something more; but with a look of sadness very foreign to his bright young face he checked himself, and kept silence.
"When did you see him last?" asked Emile.
"I saw him to-day," said Ivan briefly. There the conversation ended: Ivan shortly afterwards accompanied his friend to his apartment, bade him a cordial good-night, and then went at once to the dressing-room, where Clémence was awaiting him, and reading meanwhile the letters Emile had given her.
The accounts of Stéphanie were particularly interesting to her. How the approbation of that young lady's guardian had ever been obtained by a suitor who had so small a portion of this world's goods to offer as Henri de Talmont, was certainly a mystery. The letters only solved it indirectly. That of Madame de Talmont was the most satisfactory. She observed that the will of Stéphanie's guardian was very weak, while that of Stéphanie herself was remarkably strong. When M. de Galmar informed her of Henri's proposal, adding, as a matter of course, that he would decline it for her, she was far too decorous and well-bred to make the smallest objection; but she told him very quietly that she had often thought of embracing a religious life, and that as her friend Madame de Krudener was now about to found a missionary community—she believed among the Tartars on the Danube—she wished to signify her intention of joining it as soon as she came of age. "Your cousin is a strange girl," M. de Galmar observed afterwards to his daughter Coralie. "But, after all, a Protestant is not as bad as a Tartar. Nor is dining upon three courses, instead of twelve, quite as bad as being dined upon oneself by cannibals in some of those savage countries. She had better take the young architect."
Clémence looked up from her letter with an air of amusement, which changed into one of grave anxiety as she saw the serious face of Ivan bending over her. She drew a chair for him near the fire, and said, "I am longing to hear all, Ivan. Why did the Czar send for you? How did you find him?"
Ivan answered the last question first: "Looking depressed and weary, and his deafness more apparent than ever. I had to sit quite close to him, and to raise my voice to make him hear. He spoke very mournfully of the state of things in Siberia, whence the Governor-General, Speranski, has just returned, bringing sad accounts of the prevalence of corruption and dishonesty in the public service. For the present the vigorous measures of Speranski have checked these evils, though at the expense of removing the governor from every province save one. He has sent these unfaithful governors here for their trial; and most of them will probably be sent back to Siberia as convicts. But now his own health has broken down, and he is obliged to quit his post. There is need—great need—of faithful and active men to continue and carry out the reforms he has begun."
Here Ivan paused, took the hand of Clémence in his, and with a look full of tenderness continued his narrative "The Czar said to me sadly, 'There are so few that I can trust. Will you help me in this thing, Prince Ivan Ivanovitch?'"
Clémence started, and her sweet face glowed with a sudden colour, then grew pale again as rapidly. "0 Ivan!" she exclaimed. "And what did you say to him?"
"What could I say? Is it amongst things possible—conceivable that my Czar should ask me to help him, and be refused?"
"No; nor that I should wish it. But, Ivan, this will bring a great change into our happy life."
"These were nearly his own words. He was very kind, he was even tenderly considerate for me and for you, Clémence. He would not, he said, ask from me more than a few years of my life. And for that time, could not your mother come to you?"
"Come to me?" Clémence repeated a little proudly. "Does he—or do you—suppose for one moment I would let you go to Siberia alone?"
"I don't believe he does," Ivan answered with a dawning smile upon his serious face. "He added, that should you prefer accompanying me, which indeed was what he expected, every possible comfort and luxury should be provided for you and for the children. 'A residence in Siberia is not so great a hardship as many men think,' he said. Still, Clémence, I tremble for our children. They are so young and tender."
"Children born in St. Petersburg are not likely to suffer much from the severity of any climate short of that of the North Pole," returned Clemence cheerfully. "God has made our way plain before us, Ivan. We cannot hesitate."
"So I told the Czar. He would have given me time to reflect, but I said it was needless. I knew that in this I was doing no wrong to you, Clémence, since your heart ever beats in mine."
"Did he say anything about the time of our departure?"
"Only that the summer is before us now, and that we must not lose it. He spoke with much feeling of the Siberian exiles, and also of the native tribes which are still heathen, and of the missionary work going on amongst them. He said that where he is sending me I would find many ways of promoting the kingdom of Christ."
"How did you answer him?"
"Just as I should have answered you, Clémence; but such words do not bear repeating. I said something about the joy of winning souls for Christ, and I shall never forget the sudden brightening of his sad face as he responded—'You are young now, but if after a long life of labour you should only succeed in leading one sinner to Christ, you will have reason to bless God, and to rejoice at it throughout eternity.'"
There were tears in the eyes of Clemence as she said, "He is right, dearest. We will go bravely and cheerfully, in the name of our God; for has He not said, 'My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest'?"
- This answer was really given by a child of his age, the little son of Madame de Choiseul-Gouffier.
- The army which Russia, in common with the other Allied Powers, left in France after the peace of 1815. It was withdrawn in the latter part of 1818.
- Words used by Alexander to a young Protestant missionary whom the Englishman, Lewis Way, brought to see him.