Today would be different, Sonya promised herself. This was her husband's Name Day, the day they would celebrate his turning 55. It was also their six-month anniversary.
She took his bifocal spectacles from the table beside the bed, and put them on. Looking up, everything was a blur. But looking down was like looking through a magnifying glass. She pulled back the covers to the foot of the bed. Then she stretched out, propped her head on her hand, and took a leisurely and loving look at the full length of the famous Professor Tannenbaum.
He was far taller than her father, the Prince General. As he slept, she examined the dark mole on his left cheek, the gentle wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, the curve of his nose, his long curly beard, black with streaks of white.
She still found it hard to believe that she, at 25, was married to this brilliant and charming man, whose deep compelling voice and bold thoughts had enraptured large audiences throughout European Russia.
Her eyes hovered between blue and green. Now, when she felt loving and playful, they flashed bright blue.
For weeks she had been planning a Name Day party for him, sending invitations to her family and friends as well as his. She knew that he dreaded socializing with her aristocratic connections, but they wouldn't come without coaxing, and she wasn't going to coax. She sent them invitations just to provoke and surprise the Professor and make him happy despite himself.
Her teasing irritated him, but he had told her repeatedly that he loved her to irritate him, that her headstrong and unpredictable ways brought him out of his pompous, professorial shell and made him feel decades younger.
She was sure that the more he dreaded this party, the more pleased he would be when he discovered that it was actually an intimate gathering with a few of his friends. She enjoyed pleasing him, unexpectedly, on her own terms.
She kissed him, and he awoke with a start.
She lowered the glasses to the tip of her nose and glanced at him over the top. "Are you ready for your party, Professor?" she asked.
He rubbed his eyes, raised himself on his elbows, and smiled. "Ready to play some more, my dear?" he answered, reaching round to pull her toward him.
"Not that kind of party," she said, tickling him and sliding free of his grip. "Your Name Day party."
"Not that again," he mumbled, dropping back on his pillow.
"It's high time that we mixed with real society, isn't it?" Sonya pursued. "You'll so enjoy meeting Colonel Molchanov and the Zinovievs and, of course, seeing my mother and father again."
She wanted him to bellow with annoyance and beg her to call it off, claiming the measles or cholera or anything, as he had begged her a dozen times before. Then she would tickle him until he couldn't hold back the laughter, and they would hug and cuddle.
"You mean you actually mean to go ahead with it? I thought you were joking, that this was just another of your fantasy games. But you really mean it, don't you? You actually did send those invitations?"
"Of course," she replied, trying hard to sound serious.
"Good God, woman!" he shouted at last.
It felt so good to fool him that for a few more moments she restrained the urge to tell him the truth, to savor his relief, and then give him whatever pleasure she could.
"It can't be true," he pleaded, softly now. He gave her a look of deep disappointment, as if she were a promising student who had failed an important test.
She hoped he would throw the pillow at her, and she'd laugh and confess, and it would be a beautiful day. Instead, he got up and pulled on his trousers, as if she weren't there. So she got up too, went straight to her dressing room, and sat in front of the mirror, brushing her long brown hair and making faces at herself, trying on this role, then that, trying to think of a way to punish him for that condescending look of his.
She called to him, "Maybe I should invite Sasha, too."
"Yes. You remember Sasha. Alex. Alexander Xavierevich Bulatovich. My former fiance. I hear he just returned from the war in China," she lied with a smile. "It would be so nice to see him again."
He stormed into the dressing room. "Grow up, young lady. Enough is enough. Use the telephone or send the servants. Make up any excuse, do anything to call off this party of yours."
Angry that he talked to her like a child, she lashed back, "So you're afraid to associate with people of real quality? Afraid they'll look down on the son of a moneylender and the grandson of a village peddlar? It would have been a lot simpler if I had married Alex," she added for effect. "He was a cavalry officer in my father's regiment, the finest regiment in the Russian army. He'd have no trouble associating with the Tsar himself."
Enraged, he raised his arm to strike her.
She jumped back to avoid the blow and fell, banging her hip, sharply on the corner of the dressing table.
"Elena... Lena... darling..." he said as he sank to his knees. Then, quickly, he corrected himself, "Sonya, darling..." and started babbling apologies.
That was their first fight. It was also the first time he had made the mistake of calling her by the name of his first wife.
would make sure that he remembered this occasion. Now, she would
do everything she could to make sure that her parents and their
friends actually did come to the party.
"I'm in no hurry!" shouted Sonya. But the cabbie paid no heed, cracking the whip again to force his dappled horse to dash through heavy traffic. "Slow down!" she shouted, as they passed a troika and a motor car and narrowly missed an on-coming sledge.
She took her hands out of her muff to hold onto her sable hat.
Counter to the fashion of her time, she didn't tie or knot or braid her hair. She wore it long and loose, with its natural gentle waves, and now it was blowing every which way, as they raced through the crowded city streets.
"Slow down!" she shouted again. But in the clatter of sleighs and bells and horses' hooves, he couldn't hear her or didn't want to. He probably didn't hear her and was hoping for a generous tip if he got her to the train station early.
The sun shone brightly, which was rare in St. Petersburg. The reds and greens and blues of private homes and cupola-topped churches reflected on icicles that dangled long and treacherous. A storm had just passed, leaving a foot of snow on the downtown streets and sidewalks.
The hard-packed snow and ice had made all the streets so smooth that the pavement didn't matter -- not like in the summer when cobblestones against carriage wheels made a nerve-jangling clatter, and with all the bouncing and shaking, on a little trip across town, even with the best springs and cushions, you were lucky to emerge unbruised. Far too few were the broad artistocratic thoroughfares, like Nevsky Prospekt, smoothly paved with blocks of wood or with asphalt.
In the spring and fall, if anyone had noticed her limping, she would have blamed her sore hip on such a ride. She would probably have elaborated on how the cabbie took a shortcut through a working class neighborhood, where the roads were nothing but dirt, and the horse had stumbled and nearly broken a leg in a pothole. She loved to invent stories like that.
She was glad it was winter. In spring and fall, the Neva River was a menace -- frequently flooding the low-lying areas of the city. Those were the districts where it was cheapest to live because of the danger and hence they were the most overcrowded, swarming with the poor who couldn't afford to live anywhere else.
And in the heat of the brief St. Petersburg summer, those same districts suffered from typhoid and cholera and other deadly diseases that seemed linked with the foul waters of that river and the swampy land around.
But in winter, from November to early April, travel in Petersburg was often a pleasure. The hard-packed snow and ice made all streets, regardless of their paving and regardless of the poverty of the neighborhood, a smooth and comfortable surface for sleighs to glide on. And the river itself, frozen smooth and hard two or three feet thick became a sparkling highway. Temporary roadways were marked across the ice -- complete with electric lights -- connecting the many islands of the city and making travel far more convenient.
Sonya lurched forward as the sleigh came to an abrupt halt.
"You're in time for the early train, ma'am," the cabbie announced proudly. "I'll wager you never figured on that."
"No, indeed," she replied with a forced smile. As she carefully stepped down onto the soft snow, her corset rubbed against the top of her hip bone, aggravating the bruise.
Seeing a crowd milling about in front of the station, she whispered to the cabbie, "Is that a political demonstration?"
"No, ma'am," he answered loudly. "Don't think so, ma'am. But there's no telling, with even students and teachers on strike."
"Thank you," she replied, hurriedly paying him the fare.
He joyfully exclaimed his thanks, "May the Lord bless you and your husband and all your young ones and..."
Sonya blushed, realizing she had given him three times too much. Then she hurried on through the crowd, limping slightly from her bruise. Near the entrance, she slowed, remembering her own words -- "I'm in no hurry." She was going to see her father. She missed the odor of cigar smoke that clung to his uniform, the cold brass buttons and scratchy gold braid as he held her close, the tickle of his bushy mustache as he kissed her cheek. But she had stayed away too long and been curt with him and distant even when she lived at home.
Her parents, from aristocratic families with ten and twelve children, had been pleased to have only one child so they could dote on her. Sonya, however, looked forward to having many children.
Having wandered far from the crowd, she stopped by a snow drift, tempted by its bluish sparkle in the shadow of the gate. She was in no hurry to catch the train to the town of her childhood, to the palaces, the parks, and the barracks of Tsarskoye Selo, to her father the Prince General. Rather, she had an urge to sit down in the freshly fallen snow, to stretch out on her back and look up at the glorious light-blue sky. Quietly, she laughed at herself for having such notions -- with all these people about, and now a swarm of soldiers emerging from the station. The impulse was so childish.
She checked the clock above the station entrance. The early train was due to leave in ten minutes. Her feet started forward, then stopped, and she let herself fall gently on the soft snow.
Up rushed an officer, and another, and another -- six of them, all anxious to help her to her feet.
"Are you all right?" asked one.
"That was a nasty fall," offered the next.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine, thank you. It wasn't an accident. The snow's so soft, I..." she started to explain, then blushed, realizing from their broad grins that they thought she had fallen deliberately to catch the attention of one or more of them; not only that, but that she was so brazen a flirt as to admit it to their faces. "How dare you think such thoughts!" she snapped, glaring at them. They laughed good-naturedly. She shook her arms free of their support and limped off quickly, into the station and onto the waiting train, without looking back.
Walking down the corridor of the first-class carriage, she passed everal empty cmopartments, but couldn't decide. At the end of the corridor, she entered a compartment that looked empty, only to discover that someone was there -- a venerable priest, inconspicuous in his cylindrical black hat and his long black robes.
"In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," he intoned softly, crossing himself. The words, so familiar, irked Sonya now. Hesitating there in the doorway, she almost said aloud, "Father and son; why always father and son? Why not mother and daughter or father and daughter?"
She'd have to talk to the Professor about this bitterness of hers toward the religion of her childhood. He'd understand. He had alienated himself from the Jewish religion of his ancestors.
"Ah, Princess Vassilchikova," the priest suddenly greeted her. "Lord be praised. You grow so beautiful. And your mother, she is well, I trust? Still active in her charity work? A fine energetic woman."
Sonya hesitated, then, recognizing him, she smiled broadly. "Father Theofan, so good to see you." She took his hands and felt their knobby roughness, then stroked the sagging muscles of his cheek and neck. His long curly white beard smelled of incense and the soft smoke of candles. He hugged her and she hugged back, tightly, surprised at her own surge of tenderness, remembering just such an embrace five, maybe six years ago at her parents' house. Her mother was always raising money for one cause or another. Father Theofan, then confessor of the Tsarina Alexandra, was a frequent guest. Was it when they were collecting for the Red Cross Mission to Ethiopia? On that occasion, Sonya had felt particularly close to her mother and her mother's friends because Alexander Bulatovich, her fiance, or rather the man she was then sure would soon be her fiance, had volunteered as a member of that Mission.
For a moment, Sonya felt like the overgrown tomboy and impish flirt she'd been back then. Her blue-green eyes flashed bright green with delight. She laughed to herself, thinking of how she must have looked sitting in the snow in front of the train station.
"Well, princess," Father Theofan continued, "How many suitors do you have now? And how's that favorite of yours -- that African explorer you were pining over -- what was his name?"
"Bulatovich, Staff-Rotmister Alexander Xavierevich Bulatovich," she replied, quickly covering her wedding ring. What harm? she thought. Why burden this nice old man with explanations? She was enjoying and wanted to prolong these few moments of return to a world that she had never realized she had missed.
opened her handbag, took out a comb and a mirror, and slipped
the ring inside. She smiled when she saw herself in the mirror
-- she always looked her best when, as of late, she took no
pains about her appearance. Her light brown hair hung long,
loose, and uncomplicated. He cheeks were naturally rosy from the
chill weather, and blue-green eyes glistened with nervousness as
she thought of tonight's party and her upcoming meeting with her
For five years now, Sonya had been drifting away from her family and the traditional role and pursuits of a Russian princess. She knew by uniform and by face all the "great princes and princesses" or grand dukes and duchesses -- brother and sisters, sons and daughters, and grandsons of tsars. She also knew many of the numerous other princes and princesses, like herself descendants of tsars or of ministers or high-ranking military officers. Her French was flawless. She played the piano, not brilliantly, but with a verve that many in her circle appreciated. She knew all the eligible young men of appropriate breeding, finances and prospects, and she had cultivated the fine art of flirtation and courtship, as was fitting. But instead of settling down with any of the fine young men who sought her out, she became absorbed in the study history and philosophy.
It was Bulatovich who had unintentionally aroused these interests, when he left his comfortable niche as an officer in her father's regiment to experience first-hand the mountains, jungles, and deserts of Ethiopia, and to learn the languages and cultures of the people who lived there. At first, Sonya shared his adventures vicariously and studied to make herself a better helpmate for him. She helped him organize his notes from his first trip into book form. She presumed that after they were married, his work in Ethiopia would continue, that she would go there with him. But there was little time for them to be together before he was sent by imperial order for a second and then a third trip to Ethiopia.
She continued to pursue her studies, ever more seriously, gaining confidence in her own intelligence and abilities, becoming familiar with the liberal and radical ideas that were then current at the university, losing all touch with her old friends as she made new ones from all social classes, no longer using the title "princess," not even thinking of herself as one.
Her parents had resisted this trend; but she insisted and had her way.
When she was younger, any form of resistance had just strengthened her will. Now she was more reasoned in her judgments, more certain in her convictions, and even more strong willed. She greatly admired Professor Tannenbaum in particular. She read all his works and frequented his lectures.
Bulatovich worte infrequently and coldly. When he returned from his third trip to Ethiopia, they had a brief rendezvous, shopping on Nevsky Prospekt, that left them both aggravated and distant. Shortly thereafter he had volunteered for the war in Manchuria, leaving her without any explanation or even a goodbye.
For months she had been too angry even to write to him. She didn't love him, she told herself. They had drifted far apart, she told herself. But it wounded her that he didn't seem to care at all. Finally, she wrote him a long passionate letter she was sure would win him back; not that she wanted him back, but she wanted him to want her, to need her -- only then could she, delicately and compassionately, finally break with him.
But Bulatovich didn't answer; and the Professor proposed; and, much to her own surprise, she accepted immediately.
In her younger days, she would have been flattered but indecisive if she had been offered such a proposal. She would have told her father and savored the drama and excitement of his disapproval. Maybe she would have gone ahead with it or maybe not.
But at the mature age of 24, she had simply married the Professor in a private ceremony, not even telling her parents until a week later, and then not even in person, but by telephone. She didn't give her parents a chance to be either resentful or understanding. She simply ignored them and their world as she immersed herself in the academic world of her husband. Her first Christmas away from her family had passed unmarked, almost unnoticed, while she helped her husband correct the galleys for his latest book on the revolutions of 1848. She had surprised herself with her indifference to traditions and memories she used to cherish.
less than a month later, on irrational impulse, she had decided
that this party would actually include not only the Proessor's
friends, but also her family and her old childhood friends as
well. Although she had made this decision partly to spite the
Professor, it pleased her as a sign of her growing
self-confidence that now she could deal with both the world of
her husband and the world of her parents at once.
As Sonya looked through train the window, they left behind the factory smoke that contaminated the air around Petersburg and raced through snow-covered fields and pastures. A few miles to the west, the frozen Gulf of Finland was a swirl of snow extending as far as the horizon.
Tsarskoye Selo, the Tsar's Village, lay on a range of hills just fifteen miles south of Petersburg. The train line, opened some 65 years before, was the oldest in Russia. It shuttled dignitaries, bureaucrats, and military men back and forth between their palaces, offices, and barracks.
The haze and the freshly fallen snow combined to make magical the wide straight streets, the villas and the palaces. Instead of hiring a cab at the station, despite her hip, Sonya decided to walk, as she often had, with her governess or her father, as a child.
To the right shone the five gilded cupolas of St. Catherine's Cathedral. She meandered, in no hurry, kicking at the snow with her black boots and watching mischievous boys run and wrestle in snow drifts.
A young officer, riding by on a white horse, tipped his hat to her, then smiled flirtatiously as he twisted the end of his mustache. She pretended to ignore him. Then as he rode away, she picked up a chunk of hard-packed snow, hit him on the back with it, and ducked around the corner, laughing quietly as she heard him curse and chase the boys.
Now she ran, not because she was in a hurry, but because, even with her bruised hip, she enjoyed the feel and sound of fresh snow crunching under her feet. She went far out of her way, along the high iron fence outside the imperial park, past the Alexander Palace, (favorite home of Tsar Nicholas) and the Catherine Palace, then along the perimeter of the artificial lake, to Volkovskaya Street and the long row of hussar Guard barracks.
Finally, she arrived at the headquarters of the Second Guard Cavalry Division, where her father, General-Prince Vassilchikov, was now chief of staff.
The waiting room was empty, except for two bedraggled peasants whose questions the orderly ignored as he led Sonya past them and into her father's office. As the General rose to greet her, she was struck by how short he was compared to Professor Tannenbaum. Of course, he was a cavalry officer, with the compact build of a jockey. He was no taller than her. But he looked magnificent in his uniform with all the medals and insignia, in this vast office, with its Persian rugs and paintings of the Tsar and Tsarina and previous Guard Division commanders and chiefs of staff.
Sonya felt proud to be his daughter, proud to be part of this beautiful, artificial world, with all its traditions and history. She looked at him, eyes moist with a hazy sense of regret, wanting to make up to him for having taken his love for granted, for selfishly forgetting his wants and sensitivities in her rush to become a "modern woman."
He hesitated, taken by surprise. So she ran up to him and threw her arms around him, ready to blurt out how happy she was to see him. But he looked at her hand before he looked her in the face, and cut short her exuberance, turning away, "I see that you don't even wear a wedding ring."
She blushed deeply, embarrassed to admit that she usually did and to explain why she had taken it off today. It was all so ridiculous.
"Father, why let such nonsense destroy a perfectly beautiful day? Here I've come all this way just to see you and to make sure that you and mother will be coming to St. Petersburg today."
"Of course, I'll be going to St. Petersburg."
"Fantastic!" she exclaimed, giving him a warm hug. "And mother, too?"
"What does your mother have to do with it?"
"Well, I invited you both, of course."
"Invited? What are you talking about?"
"The party, of course. The Professor's Name Day party."
"Don't be ridiculous. Your mother and I never gave that a second thought."
Sonya cringed and hesitated, then asked, "What are you going to St. Petersburg for?"
"There's an important military ceremony at the Tauride Palace this afternoon."
She forced a smile. "Then, surely, if you are already going to be in the city, you could stop by our house afterwards."
"You expect me to hobnob with those radical friends of yours from the University? You expect me to be seen in such company? When you honor none of our traditions -- not even wearing a wedding ring?" He rushed on, spitting words out quickly and hoarsely through the shaggy hairs of his mustache. For months he had been rehearsing his grievances, and now he wanted to say it all before she disappeared again or before he forgot his angry intent in a rush of weakness and tenderness. He had to have his say for her good as well as his. "You're my only child, and you will always be welcome here, no matter what. I don't mean to be gruff with you. But you need someone to drill sense into you. I should have done it long ago. I was too soft with you. I should never have let you go off to that hellish city and get mixed up with that crowd of radicals: strikers and revolutionaries, all of them. You should never have married that Professor," he bellowed, slapping the side of his desk with his calloused palm. "If you were going to marry below your station, you should at least have married a bright young man with prospects, who might make something of himself in government service. But no, you picked an old Jew..."
"Son of a converted Jew."
"No difference," he asserted with a short wave of his hand. He stared over her head at the wall beyond to keep control of his emotions. "He's an old man, as old as me. How could you possibly get along with such a man?"
Sonya blushed again, and turned away quickly, hoping he hadn't noticed. "We hope that you can come tonight," she said as firmly as she could, staring at the door through which she had entered. "If you can't... well, that's your affair. Good day, your highness." With that she left, none too quickly, deliberately leaving the door open behind her, hoping that he would call her back and take her in his arms, as he had when she was a little girl.
But he said nothing.
When she reached the orderly's desk at the far end of the waiting room, she turned and noticed again that two filthy pilgrims were waiting, humble and intimidated at the end of a long white bench. She looked back at her father across the expanse of both large rooms and loudly addressed the orderly, "What are these two gentlemen waiting for?"
The orderly reluctantly replied, "They are Cossacks from Siberia. They say that they knew Staff-Rotmister Bulatovich in Manchuria."
"Bulatovich is back?" asked Sonya.
"Yes," answered the orderly. "He has been, for six months or more. But he's not around today. That's why regimental headquarters sent these two here, and here they've sat for hours. I've told them repeatedly that Staff-Rotmister Bulatovich is out, but they insist on waiting for him. His Highness, your father, has been kind enough to let them wait here rather than outside in the snow."
"How kind," she replied sarcastically. "Gentlemen, how would you like to come to a party?"
They looked at each other and then around the room, then back at her, in disbelief.
"Yes, you," she smiled, looking them straight in the eye. "You look like you could use a meal. No point in letting good food go to waste. Come with me now, and we'll catch the next train to Petersburg."
Sonya had intended to visit her mother and Colonel Molchanov and the Zinovievs. But that was impossible now. Coming out of division headquarters, she walked briskly, with single-minded determination, straight up Volkovskaya Street toward the station. The peasants, with feet wrapped in rags and bundles over their shoulders, stumbled along behind her.
The street looked narrow now, and the snow more gray than white in the shadow of the guards barracks that loomed, tall, rectangular, stone.
The peasants were muttering unintelligibly, in the rhythm of prayer. She didn't know what to say to them. They had helped her stage a dramatic insult to her father -- far too dramatic. She must learn to curb her temper. She must learn humility, she told herself. She must cultivate the courage to admit her mistakes; to be considerate and tender and gracious. She should run back now and throw herself at his feet and beg for forgiveness. But thanks to her impulsive invitation, these filthy peasants, with their stink of horse manure, were at her heels. They stood between her and her father. She must get away from them at all costs.
She started to run toward the station. Her corset was too tight for her to breath properly. Her hip hurt. She kept tripping over her long skirt and petticoats.
An officer rode up -- the same one who had tipped his hat to her, the same one she had hit with a snowball. Sonya smiled at him warmly, as if he were an old friend. But he rode right by as if he hadn't seen her.
The peasants were close behind. She could smell them. The wind gusting at her back, wafted their pungent aroma at her, around her; she couldn't escape from it.
She nearly fell, but righted herself. The wind, stronger now, helped push her along.
She looked back as she ran, but the wind-driven snow swirled in her face. The world had changed in a matter of minutes. She could barely see her own boots. But back there, somewhere, all too close, she heard the dull thud of the peasants' rag-shod feet. She cursed herself for bringing this curse upon herself. She raised her coat, skirt, and petticoats and raced ahead.
At last she reached the shelter of the station. She had out-distanced them. With any luck, she could lose them here. They wouldn't have the fare to pass the gate, and she would be done with this nightmarish episode.
The line at the ticket window was short, but the clerk was unbearably slow.
"I'm in a hurry, can you please..."
"Just wait your turn, miss. I'll be with you in good time," the clerk replied, seeming to move even more slowly in reaction to her impatience.
"Please, my good man," she insisted, looking back anxously over her shoulder.
"No need to rush, miss. The train's not due to leave for another seven minutes."
"I'll gladly pay you three times the fare. Just let me through the gate."
"I beg your pardon, miss," protested the lackey of the woman ahead of her in line. "My mistress is the Countess of Courland. This gentleman is being so kind as to check her itinerary against his schedules. Surely, you understand..."
"But..." Sonya started to reply, but the Countess herself glared at her through a lorgnette with such disdain, that Sonya stared back at her, impudently, prepared to make a scene.
Then the Countess stiffened in shock. The lorgnette dropped from her hand.
Sonya smiled in triumph, until she realized the cause of the Countess' dismay. First she smelled the peasants. Then she heard their plodding and heavy breathing. In a few moments, they were standing on either side of her, and the Countess of Courland and her lackey were backing away from the ticket counter in disgust.
"Are these creatures bothering you, miss?" The clerk asked, poised to signal for the police.
"On the contrary, sir," replied Sonya, casting an angry glance at the Countess. "These are my travelling companions. I'd like three tickets to St. Petersburg. First class."
"I'm sorry, miss, but these... They can't ride first class. Here are two third class for them and a first for you."
"Then make that three third class," she replied, taking pleasure in the shock she caused the Countess.
"But surely, miss, you don't intend..." The clerk objected.
"I most certainly do. Thank you, good sir," snapped Sonya. Then she led the way onto the green third class coach.
The coach was crowded with construction workers and conscript soldiers, half on narrow wooden benches, the rest sitting on the muddy, wood floor. As Sonya and the peasants entered, everyone edged away from them, vacating the end of the bench, in deference to the lady and astonishment at her incongruous company.
The peasants, still winded from their run, collapsed on the floor and dropped their bundles beside them. The bearded one knelt, bent forward, and prayed. With his shortness of breath, the words, at first, were barely audible; but the liturgical rhythm was familiar. "The Lord be praised. Let us rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice always; pray constantly; give thanks in all circumstances." His solemn, educated tones belied the poverty of his filthy gray rags.
The other peasant lay down near Sonya's feet, leaned back against the wall, and rubbed his sweaty brow. His chin was smooth, as if he had never needed to shave, but his arms, seen through rips in the grimy cloths that covered them, were hairy like the arms of a bear. He had a scar on his forehead that pulled upward on the skin near the corner of his left eye, giving his face an oriental look.
Sonya took out a handkerchief and covered her nose with it, trying to block out the horse-manure stink, but unobtrusively, as if she were suffering from a cold.
Noticing that she was staring at him, the one with the scar stared back at her in wide-eyed wonderment.
She looked away -- everyone in the car was staring at her. She looked back -- the peasant was still staring, with that same look on his face. She shut her eyes. "Thank God they've been taught to keep their distance," she thought, shivering at the image of all these third-class passengers setting upon her to rob her and rape her. Only their superstitious respect, their reverence for their "betters" -- attitudes that she considered a bar to democracy, attitudes that she helped undermine with impulsive gestures like inviting these two to her party -- only that archaic mindset of theirs protected her now.
Finally, she asked the one with the scar, "Who are you?"
He mumbled inaudibly.
"What is your name?" she repeated sharply, surprised at how quickly she fell into the tone of a mistress disciplining a servant.
"Not fitting," he mumbled again.
"Answer me," she ordered with authority.
"Yakov Shemelin, your ladyship. Yakov the Cossack, from Trans-baikal."
"That's better. Now what's not fitting?"
"The likes of me riding and talking with the likes of you, begging your pardon."
"You told the orderly back at headquarters that you know a Staff-Rotmister Alexander Bulatovich. Is that so?"
"Aye, your ladyship."
"Well, if it's fitting for you to have dealings with him, it's fitting for you to have dealings with me."
"Begging your pardon, your ladyship, but he and us are comrades. We'd follow him to hell, and glad for it."
"From the looks of you, you've already been to hell."
"So you might say, your ladyship. We're pilgrims, Sofronov and me."
"You mean beggars, I'm sure."
"If you will, your ladyship. It's not fitting for me to tell you what is and what's not. We walk and pray and stop where folks want to pray with us and share a crust for a good word to God."
"Your highness," the other peasant intoned. His voice was cultivated, almost melodic, in contrast to the harsh tones of his friend. "Yakov is far too modest. With the Lord's grace, we have travelled from the farthest reaches of Siberia, many thousands of miles, mostly on foot. We have visited the greatest monasteries in Russia," he boasted. "The Lavra of the Caves in Kiev, the St. Sergius and Holy Trinity Lavra at Zagorsk, and the Pochaevsky Uspensky Lavra in Volynsky Province. Soon we will visit the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in Petersburg."
"And why, may I ask, are you doing this?" she inquired, scrutinizing his face, not weathered and scarred like the other's.
"For myself, it is a penance. Once I was a student at the Theological Academy in Kazan. But I fell away from the church. I was foolish and weak. I fell on hard times and volunteered for the war in Manchuria. There I met Yakov. There Yakov had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ. For weeks you could see the glory of the Lord reflected in Yakov's eyes," he recounted, his own eyes flashing with enthusiasm in the telling of it. "Through him I saw that glory, and like him I was reborn in Christ. Now I have come these many miles to do penance for my years of foolish sin."
"But why do you seek Bulatovich?" Sonya pursued, so curious now that she forgot her distaste and her fears, forgot that dozens of eyes were still trained on her.
"We would look for God, but don't know how," he replied. "So we look for the man who was near when God was near. We look for Bulatovich -- a man so blessed and cursed with luck he must be close to God."
The coach became dead quiet -- the only noise that of the train itself: the whistle, the steam released from brakes, steel scraping against steel, the distant slow chugging of the engine as it pulled out of the station.
drowsiness by the swaying rhythm of the train, Sonya grew
passive. Strange thoughts wandered through her mind. She
imagined her father standing on the platform at the station. The
relentless rattling race of the train was putting distance
between her and him. No, her father, as she imagined him,
wasn't alone. He was holding a naked baby. The baby was crying.
She could hear him from even this far away, above the whistle of
the train; the son she wished she could have. He was begging to
be born, to be a son and then a father himself: to be bound with
love, hate and regret to this whole mad world, from creation to
kingdom come. Amen.
[draft of April 8, 1989, revised March 1998]
That afternoon, Sonya's father, Prince General Sergei Vassilchikov, arrived in St. Petersburg. From the train station, he proceeded by cab -- past the Admiralty and the Winter Palace, beyond the bend in the Neva River to the Tauride Palace. There he and several hundred other high-ranking Guard officers gathered for an inspirational address from their titular Corps commander, Grand Duke Vladimir, uncle of the Tsar.
Outside, fur-wrapped children of aristocrats shrieked and laughed as they skated on the pond in the park. Inside, the officers filed quietly and respectfully through the Round Room, past a bust of Tsar Alesander II, liberator of the serfs, and into the white and gold Ball Room, where, over a hundred years before, Catherine the Great had danced with her lover Potemkin, conqueror of the Crimea or "Tauris."
Although a prince and a general, Sonya's father was only fifty-second in precedence in this glittering assemblage.
He stood aside, chatted with his old friend, the rotund and jovial Colonel Molchanov, and watched the others parade by. Well aware of the importance of pomp and tradition to morale, and the importance of morale to fighting readiness, he savored occasions like this.
The heavy cavalry -- the Guard Lancers or Uhlans -- marched past in their blue tunics with scarlet facings and gray-blue trousers, with the knee-high black boots and spurs that were standard in cavalry regiments. Next came the Chevalier or Cuirassier Guards, who resembled knights of old, with their white armor on chest and back, and their brass helmets topped with silver double-headed eagles. The Horse Grenadiers, renowned for their fencing ability, paraded in green tunics with red facings and black trousers. The Guard Cossacks, with the riding skills of circus acrobats, were decked out in bright red, blue and crimson.
Finally, filing into the far back of the hall, came officers of the two light cavalry or hussar regiments -- the best trained and disciplined military horsemen in the Empire. Against all the splendid attire displayed in this hall, their uniforms stood out as the most striking. Each had elaborate horizontal braid work across the front of the tunic -- characteristic of hussars, who were typically the best dressed soldiers in any army. The Grodno Hussars had dark green tunics with white braid and crimson trousers and dark green high cylindrical cloth hats or "busbies," each with a red cloth "busby bag" for ornament, and a white plume on top. Then last in precedence, first in excellence, Colonel Molchanov's regiment, the regiment Sonya's father had once commanded, the Emperor's Hussars or, more precisely, His Majesty's Life Guard Hussars -- in scarlet tunics with gold braid and gold waist sash, blue trousers, and short red caps with black visors.
The officers moved quickly, but ceremoniously, all in proper order, all to their proper places. Without rehearsal, each knew the protocol, knew the rank, the time in rank, and the degree of deference due to each of his fellow officers.
Across the middle of the Ball Room, above oil paintings of scenes from the Battle of Borodino and of skirmishes in the Caucasus, were draped banners with the imperial double-headed eagle in black on white. Up and down the aisles were unfurled the standards of each of the Guard regiments, replete with medals and ribbons betokening honors bestowed on the regiments by generations of grateful tsars.
The Preobrazhensky Regiment sat up front. The regimental commander occupied the first seat, and the seat beside him was deliberately left vacant as a proud reminder that the commander of their first battalion, by tradition from the days of Peter the Great, was the Tsar himself.
Facing this assemblage, on a raised platform, between a portrait of himself in younger days and a portrait of his nephew the Tsar, stood Grand Duke Vladimir, titular Guard Corps commander.
Taking his seat beside the Second Cavalry Division commander, Prince General Vassilchikov scanned the room. the younger officers attending such a rare gathering for the first time, sat rigid at attention, wide-eyed with excitement. He remembered himself at that age and beamed with pride that the traditions of the Corps, of the Division, and of his old beloved Regiment were entrusted to such fine men as these.
Then in the back of the hall, in the very last row of the Emperor's Hussars, he spotted the man he had wanted for a son-in-law. There sat Staff-Rotmister Alexander Xavierevich Bulatovich -- a short, tough bundle of unstoppable energy; a natural leader. If only this Bulatovich had stayed put in the Regiment, as he had advised him, instead of racing off from one corner of the world to another. Then Sonya wouldn't have gotten mixed up with that old Jew professor, and Bulatovich himself would be far more advanced in his military career. As it was, despite failing to cultivate influential connections, Bulatovich had recently been appointed commander of the Fifth Squadron. That was an important post that other officers with much better connections had contended for. This Bulatovich inspired respect. His military and leadership talents were too obvious to be overlooked. He could still go far, very far, if only he would polish his social and political skills.
the other newcomers here, Bulatovich betrayed no sign of
excitement. His red cap was tilted at an awkward, unmilitary
angle so the visor covered his bespectacled eyes. In fact, in
the midst of all this splendor, resting his beard on his hand
and his elbow on his lap, Bulatoivch had the unprecedented
audacity to fall asleep.
Ten years before, as an enlisted man, a volunteer aristocrat in training, a raw recruit with no military school background Alexander Bulatovich had learned from his fellow recruits the art of dozing off while sitting or standing or even riding. The other enlisted men were peasants, hand-picked from other units for their military demeanor and abilities, particularly their horsemanship. Aristocrats who served with them for training purposes were expected to remain aloof from them. But Alex rarely did what the others of his class considered "normal."
He found ceremonies, such as this, a waste of time. Try, as he sometimes did, he couldn't take them seriously, regardless of how exalted the personages involved. Not that he had a disrespectful attitude toward the Tsar or the Empire, but rather that he felt he could better serve them by doing something productive and practical. Besides, he was exhausted, having worked most of the night reviewing details of his latest scheme for the mechanized transport of troops.
"Pursue it in detail," his friend Colonel Molchanov always said. "Pursue it and again pursue it, piece by piece. Don't let yourself be intimidated by the immensity of the task. Take it apart and work the details one by one and thoroughly."
The advice was in tune with Alex' temperament, so he remembered it and often attributed his own persistence to the wisdom and influence of his friend. Molchanov's other admonitions, regarding regimental politics, he politely ignored.
Alex's goal was to modernize the Russian army, in particular the cavalry. To begin with, he wanted to transform the traditional, prestigious, socially elite Guard regiments into efficient fighting forces. At the moment, he was working out the details of how to make best use of bicycles and the newly invented motorized bicycles and motor cars for moving a squadron of cavalry.
A dozen years before, Mark Twain had mockingly suggested the military use of bicycles in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He had Sir Launcelot and the Knights of the Round Table ride bicycles instead of horses to race to the rescue of King Arthur and the Yankee. It was an excellent idea, deserving of serious consideration and experimentation. For Bulatovich, this meant selecting and procuring equipment, drilling his squadron in cycling in formation over rough terrain, and training them in vehicle maintenance. He foresaw using large motorized vehicles to move men and bicycles within a few miles of the front, and then cycling or motor cycling the rest of the way.
Although Alex loved horses and displays of military horsemanship, he recognized that they were only a means to an end. When two armies with equal numbers and armaments clashed, the side with the greater mobility usually won, because it could put its strength to the best use and disrupt the enemy's plans. For centuries, greater mobility had meant better trained cavalry. So the nations of Europe had invested their best efforts and resources to develop the discipline, esprit de corps and elan that can prompt men to charge on horseback in close formation, with orderly and suicidal daring -- the very qualities that made dead heroes of the British Light Brigade in the Crimea.
But, Alex reasoned, if technology created better means for moving troops, then forget the horses and get on with the real business of war. He asked his critics, "How can you know whether bicycles and motor vehicles are appropriate for battle unless you train and practice?" Horse-mounted units required unending, daily drill to reach and maintain the level of excellence in horsemanship and discipline necessary for an effective, closely coordinated cavalry charge. Success in the use of bicycles would require the same degree of persistence and attention to detail.
Fortunately, Colonel Molchanov, the regimental commander, sympathized with these notions and was able to release enough funds to equip two troops of sixteen men each. But the idea of the Emperor's Guards riding into battle on bicycles was politically dangerous. Not only was it a break with tradition, but it could also be considered demeaning, as a blemish to the dignity of the entire Guard Corps. So exercises to determine the optimum distances, techniques, and training for bicycle-mounted maneuvers had to be conducted surreptitiously inside the regimental hippodrome.
If the training were allowed to continue, Alex estimated that by summer they would be able to challenge any two cavalry troops in the Guard Corps in a test of mobility.
Meanwhile there were details to resolve, and political pettiness to deal with. Success was unlikely, and headaches were a certainty. What was the point of it all? he wondered, as weariness overtook him.
Sitting in the midst of this grand assemblage at the Tauride Palace, Alex drifted off to sleep..
He dreamt that he found a spring in the mountains. The clear fresh water rose abruptly from barren rock. It was a forbidding climate. There were no trees, no living creatures, no one and nothing to benefit from the clear cool waters.
He wondered, "Why here where no one can benefit from it? If there is a God, surely all things must have a purpose. But what's the purpose of this spring? Its water just slows and stops and dries in the desert."
Sitting beside it, he wondered if he himself had a purpose, or if all men and all things were just randomly scattered through time and space.
He took a drink, then stood up, determined to give the world a purpose, whether God had given it one or not. For he could not live in a world that was without order and purpose.
With his binoculars, he scanned the horizon for signs of life. Then he set out time and again, returning with his knapsack full of rich soil and seedlings gathered from far off. No matter how long it might take him, he would make this barren spot an oasis.
Climbing the mountain again with a birch tree strapped to his back, his side began to ache from the strain. He stopped. The ache was urgent. His body was rebelling at the futility of this immense task he had undertaken.
Someone was poking him with an elbow as he awoke. When he opened his eyes, he saw a chest laden with so many medals and ribbons that it could belong to no one other than the great black-bearded Grand Duke himself, standing just two feet away.
"What need does this army have for eccentrics?" boomed the Duke's deep, angry voice.
"But, your Imperial Highness," interceded Colonel Molchanov, respectfully bowing his bald head, as he edged his short rotund body between Bulatovich and this tall specter of doom, "there's a cause for this eccentricity -- a physical cause, that came in the line of duty."
"Indeed?" the Duke sneered.
"He wears his visor low over his eyes on doctor's orders to shield them from light. He was in a typhoon, you understand, in the Sea of Japan, off the coast of Manchuria; and the salt water did permanent damage to his eyes."
"Yes... oh, yes... salt water can be aggravating, I've heard. Sea of Japan? Indeed. Most interesting." His face softened for a moment, then he bellowed, "Staff-Rotmister Bulatovich!"
Alex jumped to his feet and snapped to attention, "Yes, your Imperial Highness."
to congratulate you -- now that you are finally awake -- for
having performed with distinction in the recent actions against
the Chinese. The Sovereign Emperor has assented to bestow on you
the Order of Saint Ann in the Second Degree with swords and the
Order of Saint Apostle-Like Prince Vladimir in the fourth degree
with swords and bow. I congratulate you on your narrow escapes
-- both in Manchuria and here; and on your having a commander so
loyal and devoted as to risk his neck for you. May you continue
to be so fortunate."
Two hours later, in a hurriedly hired room at a nearby restaurant, Molchanov, together with friends, dignitaries, and hangers-on, assembled to celebrate this honor that had come so close to disaster. Sonya's father was conspicuously absent.
Alex always felt uncomfortable in social gatherings. He would rather face an enemy in battle than engage in idle chatter with a politically important personage. Here, he stood apart from the crowd, focusing his attention on the scenes of ancient and modern Greece depicted on silken wallpaper, the black imperial eagle on the fine china, the clinking of crystal, the jangling of ornamental spurs.
"Congratulations, Alex," a stranger from the Cossack Guards threw his arm around Alex' shoulders and gave him a friendly squeeze. Alex smiled back non-commitally. This impromptu gathering that Molchanov had arranged was swarming with people Alex didn't know and had no desire to meet.
"You don't recognize me?" The Cossack Guard continued. "No wonder, I suppose. It's been four or five years. Krasnov, Addis Ababa.
"Yes, of course," Alex made an effort to remember. "Pyotr..."
"Yes. Nikolaevich. Those were the days, weren't they? The elephant hunts and those Amharic women. Have you kept in touch with any of the old crowd?"
"You know. The bunch of us from back in Ethiopia."
"Just Zelepukin and Kapnin."
"Zelepukin. They were my orderlies."
"But I meant the people who count," insisted Krasnov.
"Well, Kapnin saved my life. I consider that rather important," Alex smiled.
"But the officers," Krasnov laughed. "The real people. Have you kept in touch with any of them?"
"Can't say that I have."
"Well, they say Chertkov over in the Chevalier Guards is being groomed for the job of regimental commander. Just a matter of time, they say. And Artamanov, remember him? From the General Staff? He was in Manchuria, like you. Did you look him up there? That's an acquaintance it would be politic to follow up." Krasnov winked. "He's going places, I tell you. Made it to major general already. I tried to get to Manchuria myself, but I guess I didn't pull the right strings. As for you, I hear you'll be going to the Pavlovsky Military Institute for their accelerated course. That's a wise move, believe me."
"Colonel Molchanov has recommended that I do that, for promotion purposes," Alex admitted. "But I'm far too busy right now."
"Never too busy for that, believe me, Alex. As one friend to another. I went there myself, and politically..."
"Excuse me," Alex interjected, extricating himself from his "friend's" lingering embrace. "There's a matter I have to settle with the Colonel."
"Yes, of course, Alex, of course," replied Krasnov, somewhat put off, but recovering quickly. "You always were all business. But do keep in touch now, won't you? Come see me when you're in town. Our barracks are right across from the Alexander Nevsky Lavra."
With a few deft maneuvers through the crowd, Alex nearly succeeded in slipping out and away alone. But Molchanov, nervously jovial, his bald head glistening with sweat, caught Alex by the arm and walked with him to the cloak room. Outwardly casual, he shut the door behind him and quickly checked to make sure there wasn't an eavesdropper hidden among the racks of colorful military coats, capes, and scarves.
When he was sure they were alone, Molchanov insisted, "I hope to God you have enough sense not to bring that on us again. The Duke has a long memory, and he's not a forgiving man."
"Certainly," Alex replied uncertainly.
"Good," Molchanov sighed with relief. "Then consider the matter over and done with."
"What?" asked Alex, every muscle of his short athletic body tensed for danger.
"Your project, of course. Your unmentionable project... It's just as well, you know. Now you will have time for that formal military schooling you've put off far too long."
"But that project is far too important to interrupt," Alex protested. "I thought we had talked it all out."
"After your little performance today, you have no choice. You were within a hair of being court-martialed for insubordination and disrespect. In front of the whole assemblage of Guard officers, the Grand Duke announces the awarding of your medals, only to find that you yourself are sound asleep. Really," Molchanov chuckled nervously, "you're incorrigible. When will you learn the practical value of politics?"
"Practical?" asked Alex in a tone of sarcasm.
"Yes, practical," insisted Molchanov, gesturing for quiet and whispering himself. "You don't build a military career on cavalry charges and chasing from one corner of the world to another. You have spent too little time developing your connections here and have made no effort to capitalize on the acclaim your exploits should have entitled you to. All too often, you let opportunities slip by. Why, take that Vassilchikov girl -- or rather you should have taken her while you could. An excellent opportunity that. If you had married her, your career would have been assured. Not only is her father chief of staff of the division, but her cousin's acting commander of the entire Guard Corps. Aside from which, she's a beauty. And there she was mooning over you for years. But you simply let her drop, and some doddering old professor picked her up. What a shameful waste."
"But, sir, once I have the men trained and can put on a proper demonstration..."
"Nonsense," Molchanov continued, "facts alone will never convince the powers that be. Present them with bare facts, and they'll take it as an insult, a challenge to privilege and protocol and tradition. You'll be judged not on the merits of your case, but on your credentials within their system of beliefs. Who are you after all? Yes, you are the son of a general. But he was commander of a minor regiment off in the provinces. Besides, he was a Roman Catholic of Polish origin. Yes, he served the Tsar well; but under today's laws for the suppression of minorities, he would never have been allowed to make general. In fact, he would have been barred from holding any official position. Thank goodness your mother had the good sense to raise you as Orthodox.
"And sin of sins, you have had no formal military training. I've been pushing through the paperwork to get you officially confirmed as squadron commander and to get you your promotion to rotmister. No one questions your abilities and your leadership qualities, but time and again I get back notes of inquiry, 'Was this an oversight? Surely, he must have attended some military school?'
"In any dispute over tactics and policy, that's what will be foremost in their minds -- not the merits of your case, but rather 'how dare you discuss such matters when you've never so much as attended military school? Why should we take your arguments seriously when you don't take your profession and your career seriously enough to follow protocol.
"Go to that school. That's an order. It will get you away from here for six months -- six months for the notoriety of today's events to die down."
It was as
if in the middle of a race, his horse had tripped his horse,
sending sent him helpless to the ground. But Alex was a
professional solider. He knew how to disguise his personal pain
and frustration. He bowed politely, thanked Molchanov for his
help and advice, donned his coat and hat, left the restaurant,
and left behind an era of his life.
Out on the street, in the late afternoon sun, the snow looked extraordinarily fresh and white. Dozens of sleighs and a few motor cars battled with pedestrians in a clamor of shouts, honking horns, and anxious neighing of confused, impatient horses.
Alex adjusted his glasses and checked his pocket watch. There was no need now to hurry back to the squadron. No need to drill the men. Like it or not, he'd have to put in his six months at officer's school. Molchanov had already sent an orderly to register him. Classes would start in a few days.
Time to readjust his agenda -- to see to other responsibilities that he had neglected in his passion to make his project succeed. That was his strength -- the ability to focus all his energy on a single task. That was his failing as well -- his penchant for total involvement in a project to the exclusion of all else.
He looked at his pocket watch. Here he was in downtown St. Petersburg with plenty of time, just four blocks from his mother's apartment. It had been more than a month since he had last found time to stop there and visit Vaska, the Ethiopian boy he had rescued and brought back with him to Russia, Vaska who so often begged for a chance to visit at the regiment. Perhaps he could take Vaska today. And now he would need to be in town every day for months. He should rent rooms near the Institute. The boy could come and live with him. He would insist, cutting through all his mother's arguments for why she must continue to put up with the boy, because she and only she (who could never admit she loved the child) was the only one in a position to properly take care of him.
At that moment a snowball struck him on the head, knocking his hussar's cap off and nearly dislodging his glasses. A young soldier came running up, picked up and handed him the cap, half laughing, half mumbling an apology. Then the soldier scooped up more snow and tossed it at the young woman he was chasing and who was cheerfully throwing snow back at him.
Alex returned the hat to his head and the watch to his pocket. He carefully brushed himself off, then bellowed, "Attention!"
The soldier looked back over his shoulder, puzzled.
"Attention!" Alex repeated, impatiently.
The soldier snapped to attention and saluted, awkwardly, dropping snow in his own face. The swarm of pedestrians rushing about their business veered to avoid this soldier and Alex.
"Name!" demanded Alex, contemptuously returning the salute.
"We were only playing, sir. I apologize..."
"Please, sir. No harm meant," the man's voice cracked, shrill with anxiety.
Alex, eyes magnified by the thick lenses of his glasses, stared intently as if he could see through this young soldier and a mile beyond.
"Pyotr, sir," the soldier reluctantly admitted, "Pyotr..."
Alex heard no more. He continued to stare threateningly, but his mind was elsewhere. He remembered an old friend from the war in Manchuria -- Pyotr Zabelin, a boy of seventeen who had volunteered for war, just for the excitement of it.
He looked this soldier up and down several times, as if inspecting the shine of his boots and belt and buttons. He raised his hand, pointing his index finger at the soldier's chest, about to launch into a tirade.
The soldier gulped. Alex paused, then blinked, then winked. He couldn't get mad at anyone who reminded him of Pyotr Zabelin, the boy who had been like a son to him. Alex suddenly reached down, tossed a handful of snow at the startled soldier and laughed, "Okay, now we're even. Off with you. Hurry up and catch that woman of yours before she gets away."
Alex missed his days in Manchuria under General Orlov. The world was so simple to deal with -- facing swarms of poorly armed and poorly trained Chinese, who were fanatically determined to destroy all foreigners. You knew who your friends and your enemies were. There was no need to stand on ceremony, to get approval from this person or that, to curry favor. You did what you knew was right and necessary.
He missed Captain Smolyannikov, who had died there. And he missed his loyal troop of Cossacks: Pyotr and Trofim Zabelin from Lake Baikal, who had lost their older brother in the war; Yakov Shemelin, who believed he had seen Christ; Alexei Butorin, with his vivid superstitious imagination; Mihail Laperdin, the former medical student and avowed atheist; and Filimon Sofronov, the former theology student. Of them all, only tall, gray, steadfastly loyal Alexei Starodubov had stayed with him through everything, after he had recovered from his wounds -- had followed him to Japan, then back to the war in Manchuria, and then all the way to St. Petersburg.
Alex walked on. He passed the Barracks of the Gendarmerie, the Officers' Casino, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the Barracks of the First Brigade Artillery, Tselibeyer's Baths, the Administration of the Imperial Stud...
Just as he came to Zhukovsky Street, with its long row of massive stone hospitals, a troika full of joy-riding aristocrats careened round the corner and slammed into a one-horse ambulance. Both vehicles slid onto the sidewalk full of pedestrians. The snow banks helped cushion the crash, but several people lay bleeding on the street. A crowd gathered, feverishly telling one another what they had seen and who was to blame.
On this side of the street, the ponderous, stone institutional buildings all looked very much alike. But there was something familiar about one in particular.
On impulse, while his eyes scanned the other buildings, Alex stretched out his hand, but instead of a doorknob, he grabbed an arm... a man's arm... a priest's arm. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.
An old man, one side of his forehead bulging, probably from disease, looked up at him with serene gray eyes, not in anger, not even in impatience.
After an embarrassing interval, Alex let go and apologized profusely. The priest smiled, made the sign of the cross over him, and shuffled out into the snow, followed by a long retinue of assistants. Alex watched, transfixed by this vision, until they had crossed the street and entered the Hospital of the Dowager Empress Mariya.
Then out of the corner of his eye, he read the sign he must have seen before -- "Saint Pantelaimon Nursing Home." The name was familiar, although, at first, he couldn't place it. He entered.
Beyond the vestibule, there stretched a huge ward, like a barracks -- row after row of beds, occupied by invalids -- women, most of them elderly. As he walked up the center aisle, past odors of formaldehyde, ammonia, incense, and sickening sweet perfume, he was struck by the serenity he saw on face after face. Several of the patients were praying softly. Others lay quietly -- eyes shut, smiling.
A gentleman, evidently a visitor, saw him coming, noted his confusion, and offered to help.
"Are the patients always this calm?" asked Alex.
"No, unfortunately not," replied the tall portly gentleman. "Only after a visit from Father John."
"Ioann Sergiev, the priest of the Kronstadt Cathedral. Father John, everyone calls him. He just left. You must have passed him. You couldn't have missed him. Is there someone in particular you would like to see? I'm here so often with my wife, I know nearly everyone."
"No, I was just passing and I..." he awkwardly excused himself and started to leave.
As he neared the door, his eyes were caught by the eyes of a woman patient. He couldn't move. He could hardly breathe.
The woman lying there so near to him was Chinese, probably in her mid-thirties. Her arms were withered from paralytic inactivity, but her eyes shone with intensity.
In Manchuria he had met an extraordinary woman -- Chinese, raised by a Russian priest. She had the same name as his former fiancee -- Sonya. She was lively, provocative and tender. While he was unconscious, weak from wounds and from typhus, she had nursed him lovingly. When he awoke, he found out that she was dead, having caught typhus from him while saving him.
He told himself that this could not be Sonya, that Sonya would only be about eighteen, that Sonya was dead and buried. But those were Sonya's eyes, so disconcertingly, charmingly out of line with one another. His own eyes were drawn now to the one, now to the other.
He knelt by her bedside and took her warm but limp hand. He brushed the long black hair away from her eyes and rubbed her forehead between her eyebrows, where deep and permanent frown lines had developed. She seemed to respond to his touch, to recognize him, to welcome him.
He crossed himself and shut his eyes to pray, but could think of no words that were appropriate for this miracle.
"Sonya," he said aloud, leaning over her, his face near to hers.
"Her name is Mayling, sir," a doctor loudly informed him, in a tone of puzzlement and concern.
Alex cringed, as if slapped, and drew back, while the woman's eyes seemed to plead that he come closer.
"She's the wife of a Russian officer," continued the doctor. "But in the three years I've worked here, he's never visited. They say he's a mercenary now, stationed in..."
"Manchuria," Alex quickly interjected.
"Then you are..."
"I knew her husband, Captain Smolyannikov. We served together. We were friends." Again he leaned close to her. "He sends his love," he told her tenderly.
"I'm glad to hear the Captain is well," remarked the doctor. "We hadn't heard from him for some time and had begun to wonder."
Alex ignored the doctor, focusing his full attention on Mayling.
Smolyannikov had spent about twenty years in Manchuria, a mercenary defending Russian interests there. For the last few years he had been a captain in the railway guards, a private army with the task of guarding the Chinese Eastern Railway, the section of the Trans-Siberian Railway that passed through Manchuria on its way to Vladivostok.
When his Chinese bride fell seriously ill, he had sent her to this nursing home thousands of miles away in Petersburg. For five years, nearly all his pay had gone for her medical bills, leaving no money for him to make the long trip to visit her.
When the Boxer Rebellion broke out, Chinese attacked Russian railways and missionaries. The railway guards were forced to retreat into Russia, and detachments of the Russian army were sent to join them and put down the uprising. Having volunteered for duty at the front, Bulatovich, a cavalry officer, was assigned to the same detachment of Cossacks as Smolyannikov. Bulatovich had served under him on reconnaissance missions, riding in small groups near and around enemy encampments. In a few brief weeks they had become close friends.
Like most light cavalry officers, Smolyannikov was short; but twenty years older than Bulatovich, he was graying, more muscular in the shoulders and with a bulge about the waist.
Alex tried to remember him stretched out, relaxed on the rocky ground, staring up at the sky and talking about courage and Chinese culture, about the care of horses and the nature of man. But instead of that image, he remembered Smolyannikov's lifeless shape, as it was after the Battle of the Hsing-An Mountains -- the face smashed in, only the graying mustache left intact.
When they buried his friend, Alex had promised himself that he would visit the wife at the nursing home in St. Petersburg, that he would do what he could to help her. That was over a year ago, and it was six months now since he had returned to St. Petersburg. So much had happened in the meantime, and he had been so single-mindedly absorbed in his project to modernize the army, that he had forgotten her until now.
"Your husband is well," he lied as firmly as he could. "Soon he hopes to come to visit you. I am trying to get him transferred to Petersburg, to my own regiment or one of the others near here. It may take a while, but I'm sure I can make it happen," he elaborated, getting caught up in his own lie.
Her lips moved slightly. He put his ear close, straining to hear, if she was, in fact, talking; and closer still, until his ear touched her lips and felt the words, "Thank you. You are so kind. Your eyes please me. My life, sometimes it comes to me, then it flows away again. Now I am; now I am not. I flow with light. I flow with darkness. Sometimes darkness is long. Today is light. I rejoice that you are here."
So faint was the voice that he dared not move for fear that he would lose and this tenuous contact. He asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
He felt the reply, "Read to me, please. The book on the table. I listen. I remember. It brings peace."
The book was a Russian translation of The Analects of Confucius. He opened it at random and began to read.
After the surprises of the day, Alex' mind was exceptionally sharp, racing ahead, remembering, weighing and judging while his mouth formed the words of the book. Some of what he read sounded familiar because Smolyannikov had told him such things, and he had mulled them over often during his own convalescence a year ago.
Smolyannikov had spoken of "jen," the Chinese word for "man" which also means virtue and human kindness, because the true man is virtuous and kind. He also had spoken of the "rectification of names" -- living up to what your name is, being who you should be.
He had said, "It's not an easy matter for a man to be a man, or even to know what he should be."
Alex remembered the Ethiopian sun and the bug bites on the back of his neck the day the Oromo people awarded him the gold earring of a "true man" for his courage and prowess as a hunter. The hole in his earlobe had closed by now, and that moment seemed so distant it was hard for him to imagine how he could have felt so proud of it. Now he had other needs -- a need to care and to be cared for. "Humankindess" Smolyannikov would have called it.
He remembered all the people he should have cared for but hadn't. He thought of his many sins of omission -- toward his mother; toward Vaska, the little boy he had brought back with him from Ethiopia; toward Sonya Vassilchikova, whom he once thought he loved.
When he realized that he had stopped reading and that Mayling had fallen asleep, he kissed her gently on the forehead and left.
Near the vestibule, the doctor stopped him, and, smiling nervously, struck up a conversation. "You're the first contact we've had with the Captain in more than a year. That was when one of our orderlies joined us. He had served with the Captain as a common soldier, and when discharged after the war, he came straight here with words of encouragement for the wife. He used to be a medical student. He's very bright and hard working."
"Laperdin?" asked Alex.
"Yes, Mihail Laperdin. Do you know him?"
"He was in my squadron," he admitted, with a puzzled look. Laperdin, who outwardly pretended to be skeptical and cold, had gone far out of his way to be kind to a dying woman he had never met, had done what Alex wished he himself had done.
"You'll have to say hello next time you visit. Today's his day off. But you will come agin, won't you? In any case, I'm delighted to hear that the Captain, her husband, is still alive and well," the doctor noted. "Would you know where he can be reached?"
"I'm afraid he's dead, sir."
"Oh..." the doctor quickly recovered from this unexpected news. "Yes, of course. You wouldn't want to break such news to the widow. Her condition is too precarious. We don't know from one day to the next... It's a wonder she's lasted this long. Three years ago I wouldn't have given her more than six months to live. Yes, indeed... but that does leave us in a very awkward position. You see, this is a private establishment... The Captain always paid his bills and always in advance. But for over a year now we haven't heard form him, and the bills have been mounting. At first the administration presumed that there had been disruptions in the mail, that their inquiries went unanswered due to the hostilities in Manchuria. But recently we had come to fear the worst, which you have now confirmed. I'm sure that a man of your experience can appreciate how awkward our position is now."
"What do you intend to do with her?"
"We have no choice but to transfer her to some charitable institution, unless some way could be found to pay the bills."
An elderly orderly started mopping the floor nearby. His bucket smelled of vomit and ammonia. He had the stony, blank look of someone accustomed to dealing with corpses and near-corpses.
"What do you mean by a charitable institution?" asked Alex.
"To put it crassly, sir -- a poor house."
"But it looks like she needs constant medical attention."
"The best care, which is what we provide. Sadly, without such care, I believe she won't last a week. It's a most unpleasant moral quandary. We certainly don't want to send the poor woman to her death, but to keep her here, someone must pay the bills..." When Alex didn't pick up on that, the doctor quickly added, "It's especially sad considering that she probably won't live that much longer in any case -- six months, a year. We do wish we could make her last days as pleasant as possible. But we are accountable to the auditors and to the trustees... If only a alternate source of funds could be found..."
"How sizable is the unpaid balance?"
"Just a matter of a few hundred rubles, probably a trifle for a man of your standing," the doctor replied hopefully.
"I wish it were," replied Alex, thinking of Laperdin's generosity and his own year-long indifference. "Unlike the other officers in my regiment, I am not independently wealthy. I depend on my salary -- just a little over a thousand rubles a year -- which leaves little or nothing for emergencies such as this... Perhaps if someone else would help, I could scrape together something to contribute. But I couldn't afford to take on the whole debt."
"We had been considering that very question, you can be sure, although only tentatively, since he had no confirmation of the Captain's death. The most likely candidate is a banker named Sergei Solvyov. His wife is a patient here, completely paralyzed from an accident. When we approached him, only tentatively, of course, he was hesitant, but, I would say, receptive. After all, we can't let the woman die... He's that gentleman over on the left side of the ward. Perhaps the two of you could arrive at an understanding, before we are obliged to go ahead with our other sad alternative."
It was the same gentleman Alex had met on his way in -- a big burly man, with bushy graying sideburns, a handlebar mustache, and bifocal glasses. He was reading silently by his wife's bedside, but jumped to his feet and warmly greeted Alex when he saw him coming. "Welcome, Captain Smoyannikov. Why didn't you tell me? I'd have gladly directed you to your wife. Everyone here knows her and loves her. Her eyes are so expressive..."
"No, I am not the Captain," Alex explained. "But I was his friend."
"Yes, he died in action.
"Oh. How unfortunate," replied Solovyov somberly, sitting down again with the book on his lap.
"The doctor was just explaining to me how unfortunate it could prove to be. He said that he had broached the subject with you before..."
"Yes, money. Everyone expects a banker to have money, as if what we kept in the vaults were our personal property."
"I want to contribute," Alex hastened to add. "But my pay is but a pittance, a token sum appropriate for an independently wealthy gentleman, which I am not. If there is anything you could do to help... After all, we can't just let her die."
"And what is death?" mused Solovyov. "Sometimes I wonder here. Does eating and drinking and breathing a human being make? Many of these poor souls -- my wife included -- are hovering so close to death that it's hard to say if they're really alive or human anymore. Sometimes I wonder if we do them a service keeping them here like this or if it would be better to let them..." He quickly crossed himself. But as for Madame Smolyannikova, I can understand how you feel. She is an exceptional person. Sometimes I read to her -- from the Bible and from the writings of Father John, but ost of all she prefers that Confucius of hers. That look of gratitude in her eyes gives me such warmth. I wish there were something I could do for her."
"But you're a banker," suggested Alex. "Even if you don't have cash, surely it should be easy for you to borrow..."
"Yes, borrow," Solovyov smiled nervously, remembering his mounting debts -- his wife's hospital bills, his son's expensive schools, the needs of his good friend Tatiana and her daughter, the mounting temptation to "borrow" unofficially, and now this humanitarian cause that he could not in good conscience turn his back on. "Yes, I'm sure something can be arranged," he offered expansively. "I'll take care of two-third of it myself, if you'll handle the other third."
They shook on it.
"Thank you, sir. Thank you," Alex exclaimed.
"Don't thank me," laughed Solovyov. "Thank Father John. He put me in the mood for it: seeing him here today and reading his book of meditations." He offered the book Alex took it and quickly flipped through the pages.
"Who is this Father John?"
"Surely, you've heard of him? Thousands throng to Kronstadt every Sunday to hear him, to be near him. He has a way of calming troubled minds and bodies with a word, a touch, sometimes just his presence. When my wife had her accident... We were late for a business party that I felt was important for my advancement. She couldn't make up her mind what dress to wear. The coachman was sick. Everything was going wrong. I drove the sleigh myself and took a shortcut across the frozen Neva. A cold wind blew snow in my face. I could hardly see. Tonya begged me to turn back, but I was in a hurry. As I yelled at her for making us late, we collided head-on with another sleigh. I was only bruised, but Tonya has been paralyzed ever since.
guilt was overpowering. I couldn't think. I couldn't work. I
couldn't even cry. A friend told me about Father John. I went to
a service at his cathedral in Kronstadt, on Kotlin Island. I got
caught up in the spirit of the place and found myself confessing
out loud and weeping with the thousands of other sinners
assembled there. I don't know what I'd have done without him."
St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, March 1 (February 16 old style), 1902
[draft of April 8, 1989, revised March 1998]
Evgeniya Bulatovicha -- Jenny, the mother of Alex -- lived just beyond the Tauride Palace and the barracks of the Preobrazhensky Guard Regiment. She always complained about the cost of spending winters in Petersburg. Each year she threatened she would stay at Lutsikovka, the family estate in the Ukraine, and live out her last days there. But each winter she returned to Petersburg, like everyone else.
She was far more vigorous and wealthy than she led people to believe. Still under sixty, she had many years of life left in her; and with the income from the estate and the pension she received as a general's widow -- a "generalsha" -- she always seemed to have enough money for the things that she really wanted.
But she was careful and cautious. After thirty years of raising a family and managing an estate by herself, seeing bumper crops but also crop failures and declining grain prices, she didn't want to give away any more than she had to, so there would always be something left, just in case.
Alex tried to imagine what it must be like for Vaska to live with her. She was so hard on those she loved.
She and the governess she had hired had succeeded in teaching Vaska to speak proper Russian and had drilled him in good manners and the catechism and elements of religious doctrine they felt it was their duty to bestow on him.
Vaska was nearly eight years old now. But Alex remembered him best as he was four years ago at the temporary camp of the Ethiopian army near Lake Rudolph. Vaska had looked up at him with big brown eyes as he stopped the bleeding and cleaned and bandaged Vaska's wound. Vaska must have been in agony, but he didn't cry, just bit his lower lip and looked up with those big curious eyes.
Alex remembered the photograph he had used in his second book about Ethiopia -- the little boy wrapped in a white sheet, holding a big heavy bottle of water to his lips; his back bent backward, bow-shaped; his belly pushed forward as he balanced himself. A happy boy, at ease among strangers whose language he didn't understand. Unafraid.
Tadika, the leader of the native servants that had accompanied Alex on this Expedition, had asked in Amharic, "What are you doing, sir?"
"Obviously, I'm trying to save him."
"But why, sir?"
"He's just a boy," Alex had answered, annoyed by such ridiculous questions.
"But they took his manhood, sir. He'll never be a man. Better for him that he die."
Alex continued to wrap the bandages, more concerned about the life of this brave little boy than about local attitudes regarding the importance of sex organs.
"He is alone, sir," Tadika persisted. "Even if he finds his own people, they will despise him and cast him out. Better that he die."
"Never mind what they think. I'm taking him with me," replied Alex, looking up, seeing the surprise on Tadika's face, and realizing for the first time what his words meant and that that was indeed his intention.
"You mean you will sell him as a eunuch?" asked Tadika, trying to fathom the strange logic of this foreigner. "The demand for them for harems is quite high. They sell for four times as much as ordinary slaves. Or, perhaps you will give him as a gift to the Emperor Menelik?"
"No, Tadika, I will take him with me to Russia. I will raise him. He will be like a son to me."
it had seemed like the right word that day in that sweltering
tent in the barren wasteland. it had made the point clearly for
Tadika's benefit and ended any further quesiton of what he
intended to do with Vaska.
As Alex was on his way from Mayling's hospital to his mother's house, Vaska was getting his daily Bible lesson. Vaska sat still, on the edge of a mahogany dining-room chair,feet dangling not quite as far as the floor. Across the room from him in her favorite stuffed chair, with rose-petal embroidery, sat the general's widow, Bulatovich's mother, Jenny. Leaning back, she read aloud in harsh abrupt tones.
"The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter three," she intoned. "'And happy is the eunuch who has not transgressed the Law with his hand, nor imagined wicked things against the Lord, for special favor shall be shown him for his faith, and a more delightful share in the Lord's sanctuary.'"
Vaska wondered about the word "eunuch." He had heard it before, but no one had ever explained it to him. Back in Addis Ababa, at the court of the Emperor Menelik, there were creatures called "eunuchs," he remembered. Bulatovich had brought him to court before taking him to Russia. "Look carefully, " Bulatovich had said, with the help of an interpreter. "Look so that when you are far from here you will never forget the face of your emperor, the glory of his court, and the pride of your native land."
Vaska remembered the clamor and chaos as tens of thousands of troops greeted the emperor. But what he remembered most were the creatures with puffy faces and shrill voices waddling about the courtroom. Vaska had asked, pointing, "What are they?"
"Eunuchs," Bulatovich had answered in Russian.
"Eunuchs," Vaska had repeated and smiled. Names gave power. Once he knew the name, he need no longer fear these creatures. But now he wondered about the meaning of the word.
Listening to the Generalsha, he felt an uncomfortable pressure in the vicinity of his bladder, but dared not move, dared not disturb her while she read the Holy Bible. He prayed quietly, sincerely, for self-control. The Generalsha got so angry when he had his accidents. She made him feel so sinful that he dreaded going to bed at night for fear that he would wake up again to that hideous ammonia smell and that "filth" as she called it.
Masha, the maid who had to clean up such messes, didn't get that upset. To Masha, it was just more work to be done. But to the Generalsha, it meant she was losing a great moral battle.
Masha was in charge of bathing him and dressing him. The Generalsha insisted that he never show himself naked in her presence. But despite that insistence, she was very curious about his physical state. One of his earliest memories of life with her was overhearing the Generalsha ask Masha to describe the nature of his wound in great detail, and the expression of pity and horror on her face as she heard.
"Why should it be so horrible?" he had wondered. After all, it wasn't something important he had lost, like an arm or a leg. And the scar wasn't readily visible like a disfigurement of the nose or lip.
"Isaiah, chapter 56," she continued, "'Let not the eunuch say, "Behold I am a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep the sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off."'"
As the pressure grew in Vaska's bladder, he prayed with deeper concentration. The Generalsha said that merit derived from the conflict with oneself, the self-control that one learned, like muscle-building. In her view, the world was a stage for a vast battle between good and evil that was waged within the mind and body and soul of each man and woman. To be a true human being, one had to achieve, through struggle, a certain moral level. She spoke as if bladder control were the first rung of the ladder of moral advancement. She implied that if he couldn't go that high, he was no better than a beast. But sometimes -- and that hurt him more than her harshness -- she forgave him for his accidents, implying that his wound made that kind of control more difficult for him than for other boys, that he was a hopeless case and nothing should be expected of him.
The wound seemed very important to her. In public she introduced him as "that poor boy that my son rescued from the savages at Lake Rudolph." Then she added, in a whisper that penetrated deeper than a shout, "He was mutilated, you know." She pronounced that word "mutilated" with a special pitying grimace that made him cower with embarrassment.
Why couldn't she simply forget it? No one would notice if she didn't bring it up. Why all this pity for something so unimportant?
Sometimes, too, she would add a few cryptic words that would make him wonder if maybe there were something more he didn't know about, such as, "They do it to their enemies to make sure there won't be any future generations to contend with."
"Acts, chapter eight," the Generalsha continued her reading. "And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, 'Go up and join this chariot.'"
The bladder pressure was simply too great. He had to speak up now or it would be too late. Quickly, he blurted out, to his own surprise, "What is a eunuch?"
She turned red and white and red. She stared at him and said, "My God! No one's ever told you?"
"Told me what, ma'am?" he tried to contain his rising fear.
"Your wound, boy, your wound!" Her embarrassment made her abrupt and to the point. "Your manhood, boy. They cut off your manhood. You are not a man. No, you'll never become a man. You are a eunuch. A eunuch is what you are."
At that, she slammed the Bible shut. The noise startled her. The normally harsh expression on her face softened to a look of pity. Tears appeared in her eyes. She reached out her hands to hold him, to hug him, to comfort him.
This sudden show of tenderness frightened him more than any reprimand or threatened punishment. He fled the room and ran up the stairs, where he found Masha, who was making the beds. "What am I? What am I?" he asked her hurriedly.
"Well, you're a young boy, of course, and a very good one at that," she smiled.
"But... but... am I a eunuch?"
hesitated, "Well, I suppose you could say so. But I wouldn't
trouble my head much about that. What's done is done. And Lord
only knows, maybe it's for the best."
"Thank God, it's you," Jenny greeted Alex at the front door. "You couldn't have come at a better time. Vaska's been asking the most embarrassing questions. 'What's a eunuch?' he pops out with in the middle of our Bible lesson. How could you do this to me? How could you have never explained his condition to him? It was your responsibility."
Alex ran upstairs and then down, looking for Vaska. Finally, as he approached the library, Vaska saw him first and ran up to him gleefully to give him a hug.
"Father, you've come! It's been so long. Can I ride on your shoulders? Will you take me now to see the regiment, like you promised?"
"Yes, yes," Alex quickly replied, and with one easy motion lifted Vaska to his shoulders.
"Forward charge!" shouted the boy, with delight, as Alex raced round and round the room, finally collapsing in the big chair by the desk.
"What's this you've been reading?" Alex asked, in apparent innocence.
"Oh, and what in particular were you so curious about? Anything I can help with?"
"Well," Vaska admitted, "first I looked up "eunuch," then "puberty," then... I don't remember them all, father. The dictionary uses long words to tell about long words, and I was just going round in circles."
"What do you want to know?" Alex asked seriously, holding Vaska on his lap and looking the boy straight in the eye.
"The Generalsha says that I'm a eunuch. But I don't want to grow up like those creatures at the Emperor's court."
"What creatures do you mean?"
"In Ethiopia. Before you brought me here. They were puffy people with high shrill voices, and everybody despised them. I don't want to be like that. Don't let me be like that," the boy pleaded.
Alex hugged him and held him close.
"What is puberty?" the boy asked anxiously.
"Why is that so important?"
"That's when it happens, they say. Or that's what I think they say. I'll be like other boys until puberty; then I'll be a freak. What is this puberty? When is it? What can you do to make me a real boy? I want to be a real boy, not a eunuch."
"It's your wound, son. Nothing can be done about that. What you lost cannot be replaced."
"But it can! It can! I know it can," Vaska pounded with his fists on Alex's chest.
"Sometimes life isn't fair," Alex answered, troubled by the hollowness of his own words, wishing he could give the boy hope. Then he hugged Vaska hard again. "Sometimes it just seems unfair because we don't see and know everything. God has a way of balancing things. He takes and then He gives."
"God did this to me?"
"No, I didn't mean it that way. But I've seen a man lose a hand in battle and his other hand grew far stronger. And a man who lost an eye and his other eye become so keen he could see farther..."
"But, father, they had two hands, and lost only one of htem. What do I have that could grow strong?"
"I don't know," admitted Alex. "Some talent, some gift of yours. Maybe it's too early yet to know what it is." He groped for inspiration. "We'll have to try you at everything to find that special genius of yours," he affirmed. "Art, music, riding, yes riding -- today I'm going to take you to the regiment and let you ride..."
"Your horse? Your very own Medusa?" Vaska asked excitedly.
"No, better than that -- a motorized bicycle."
"Honest?" asked the wide-eyed boy.
"I swear by my sword," Alex answered solemnly.
Jenny appeared at the doorway, "You seem to have done quite a job of cheering the lad up. What did you promise him? Ten pounds of chocolate?"
"Mother, how long do you think it will take to get his things together?" Alex asked. "I'd like to take him back with me to Tsarskoye Selo in the morning."
"In the morning?" she asked.
"Yes. I'd like to catch the 8:30 train."
"Well, what's the hurry to pack? For a day trip, all he needs is his coat."
"But I mean for him to stay with me for good. Starting in a few days, I'll be living in Petersburg and going to officer school. There's no reason why I shouldn't take total charge of him now."
He lifted Vaska off his lap and told him, "Get Masha to help you pack. I'll join you in a few minutes." The boy hesitated so Alex added, "You do want to come live with me, don't you?"
"Oh, yes, father. I've always dreamed..."
"Well, hop to it. Pack up. Then go to bed. You'll have a chance to watch the squadron drill in the morning."
Vaska dashed out of the room.
"But this is so sudden... We had... I had intended... I've grown..." she started to say "attached," but fumbled, trying to find the best way to change his mind. "Remember, there's the governess, and all the other expenses. How could you possibly manage?"
"He won't need a governess. I'll teach him and use men from my squadron to teach him as well. As for the expense, I admit that that will be difficult. But he is my responsibility. So the only logical solution is for me to take the boy and for you to provide me with the money that you normally pay for his upkeep and education."
The words were unpremeditated. Just a short while ago he had made a generous gesture to help pay for Mayling's expenses -- even though, with his income, there was no way he could afford it. Now he was delighted with this spontaneous inspiration. If his mother paid for Vaska's upkeep, with economy he could have enough left over to take care of Mayling as well.
Sensing her reluctance, he added, "That way we can be sure that he is well cared for and yet you will not have to face these embarrassing moments when a young boy in his condition starts asking about intimate physical matters which are sure to concern him more as he approaches puberty."
"Puberty?" she asked. "But he's still just a child. I should keep him now, to avoid any sudden disruption in his education. Perhaps in a year or two or three..."
"And what will you say the next time he asks about eunuchs?" he replied. "Mother, I can tell how much these matters upset you. Why, you're still shaking, and that was just the first question. One question leads to another, inevitably. Soon he'll start getting his own answers from books and from other children. It will be very difficult to give him the right advice, to help him to accept his lot without shame."
buried her face in her hands, then blurted out, "It's so
difficult. You can't understand how difficult it is. What are
the moral implications of his condition? What does it mean for
his immortal soul? I've worried over it so often, reading the
Bible, looking for some clue of God's plan.
I was reading some of the passages to him today, passages about eunuchs, not realizing he didn't even udnertand the word, hoping tha the words of the Bible, unadorned by my humble thoughts, would help provide him with guidance in life. But the Bible is so far from clear.
She picked up the Bible from the table where she had left it. "Just listen. Deuteronomy, chapter 23, verse 1: 'He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.' Such harsh judgment.
"Then there are those passages in the New Testament that say just the opposite, that make it sound holy not only to be a eunuch, but to deliberately make yourself one. How am I to understand, much less teach the meaning of all this? Origen, the early church father, the theologian whose writings we revere, took Matthew and Paul literally and castrated himself. In the third century, a sect called the 'Valesi' castrated themselves and forcibly castrated their guests as well, in the belief that they were doing God's bidding. In our own days, in our own Russian villages, the Skoptsy do likewise.
"I'm lost in all this, son. Didn't God make us male and female? Didn't he intend for us to perpetuate the race? Isn't it an imperfection, a defect of nature if one of us is unable to multiply and fill the earth? What of The Wisdom of Solomon, here in chapter three: 'You love all things that exist, and abhor none of the things that You have made; for You would never have formed anything if You hated it. And how could anything hve endured, if You had not willed it, or what had not been called forth by You have been preserved? But You spare all, because you are Yours, Lord, lover of life, for Your imperishable spirit is in all things.'
"Oh, son, these years have been difficult for me. Don't you see, he is a walking, talking question mark. He questions by his very existence the foundations of my faith and morality, my notion of what it means to be a human being.
good -- except th
at cursed bladder problem of his -- good. If you could only understand how frustrating that can be. When you and your sister Meta were growing up, I believed that morality was a matter of struggling against temptation. I believed that by controlling yourself, by learning to rein your natural urges, you built the moral fortitude you'd need to last you through life. When you disobeyed to do something else, I was angry, but proud as well -- because your natural urges were strong, and I could sense that you were learning to control them, and at the end of it all I sensed you would arrive at a moral strength that we could be proud of. But how do you go about the moral education of someone who has no such urges, who seems immune to temptation?
"Of course, I'm gratified that he learns his catechism so well, and that he obeys me so readily. But I resent him for being so docile and tractable. Maybe I'm too aware of what his condition will lead to, and I read too much into his acts. I know he won't be subject to sexual temptation, and I see that defective innocence in what he does now. I would like to see him rebel. Rebellion would be a sign of manhood or raw energy to be harnessed for the cause of God, a worthy challenge for religious education.
"When he does my bidding, without complaint, time and again, however foolish or distasteful it is to him, I feel repelled, like there's something wrong, something not entirely human about him. It's like he's domed to be neither moral nor immoral, but amoral, like he's asexual. How can anyone be truly innocent or moral without temptation? It's simply luck that he is the way he is and acts the way he acts. He deserves none of the merit that comes from effort and achievement."
At that moment, they both realized that Vaska was standing in the doorway, watching and listening to them. There was no telling how long he had been there, but his crotch was soaking wet and there was a puddle at his feet.
threw her arms around Alex and sobbed, "Please be good to
him I love him. I do. Almost as much as I love you."
[draft of April 8, 1989, revised March 1998]
"Hurry up. We're late as it is," shouted Fedya, the university student, jumping off the crowded horse-drawn tram with his brother Gavril.
"All right, now, all right," answered Katya. "Remember, there's two of me."
"How could I forget, my love?" laughed Gavril. He lifted her, stole a kiss from her vodka-flavored lips, and took a whiff of her perfume (cheap, like sweat laced with sugar), before planting her gently, but firmly, on the icy sidewalk beside the University of Saint Petersburg.
As the tram pulled away with a metallic screech and a crackling of sparks, Gavril stepped back and stared at Katya, like at a work of art -- a small-framed girl of seventeen, with an upturned nose and bright green eyes.
He had spent hours with her hair, weaving a pearl necklace in and out of the long plaits twisted atop her head. But she had covered it with a red wool scarf, peasant style -- her favorite scarf that she would wear indoors as well as out because she wanted to "look her very best."
Katya was proud to attend a public lecture with these two handsome students.
They differed much in temperament, Gavril mocking the most serious subjects and Fedya taking even the most trivial subjects seriously. But, brothers separated only by a year, they looked very much alike -- both with high cheek bones, a long finely shaped nose, eyes set deep beneath dark thick eyebrows, and both with thin dark mustaches with waxed ends. They both disdained the uniform of a university student and wore it reluctantly. But Katya thought they looked "dashing" in their brimmed caps and high-collared dark gray jackets, with a multitude of brass buttons down the front.
The exaggerated importance Katya gve this event was the reason why Gavril, on a whim, had gone to such lengths with her coiffure. Anxiety over the student strike and the possibility of violence was why she had insisted on having "a drink or two" before they started.
"You're sure there won't be a ruckus? No red flags and revolution?" she asked, as she had many times before.
"I swear by all I hold dear," Gavril announced solemnly, right hand raised high.
"And what may that be?" she asked skeptically.
"You, of course, my love," he smiled, continuing to stare at her appreciatively.
Rather than a coat, she wore half a dozen shawls wrapped around her shoulders and half a dozen long woolen skirts, one atop the other, that extended from above her nine-month-pregnant belly to the ground. Over the shawls, she wore a sable stole, and in her hands she held a sable muff.
"Stop staring," she pouted. "Give me your arm. Let's get this over with."
"You sound like you're going to an execution," Gavril mocked her.
"I know, I asked for it -- it's so dull sitting by the stove, watching my belly and waiting. But it's scary, seeing as how I've never been in this part of town before, and what with all the tales you tell of the strike and, last week, the riots. Why is a professor giving lecturing with a strike on?"
"Making money," answered Gavril. "It's a public lecture, not part of the course of study."
"But the police, love, they'll be everywhere," she objected.
"Indeed. The Professor's no fool," he joked. "That's how to fill the lecture hall -- trick the police into keeping an eye on you and they'll pay full fee for dozens of plain-clothes agents. That's how it was at the People's Palace last week. I'd wager a third of the audience was police."
"And the rest they herded off to jail."
"Not all, my love."
"Some they took straight to the hospital," he grinned broadly.
"And to this you take a woman in my state?"
"There's nothing planned, my dear," he reassured her sincerely. "Believe me, I'm in a position to know."
"Well, let's get going, if we must."
"First, my dear, a gift for the occasion," he announced, waving his arms with a magician's flourish and producing a pair of earrings with large double loops of gold.
While Fedya clapped his hands and stomped back and forth to keep warm, Katya grabbed the earrings and pushed back her red scarf, exposing her ears to the bitter wind, to put them on and display them. "Are they real gold?" she asked eagerly.
"No more real than your pearls and your furs," Gavril answered with a wink.
"No matter," she answered, shutting her eyes and shaking her head to delight in the way the loops tinkled. "They sound like gold. Are you teasing me?" she added hopefully.
"They're brass," he laughed. "Pure brass."
"Why can't you lie, just once lie to me and tell me they're real? Let me believe. You're such a monster and such a dear at once -- I could scream."
"If you two are done with your games," Fedya interrupted, "we're so late now we'll be lucky if they let us in."
They started forward and turned the corner. Then Katya stopped abruptly, awed by the immensity of the four-hundred-meter-long stone structure that housed the University. "Mother of God," she muttered, crossing herself. Her eyes ran rapidly up and down both sides of the street -- packed with brightly colored sleighs and carriages, attended by liveried coachmen and footmen.
At the corner, a red motor car of French manufacture halted, unable to advance any further. A chauffeur hopped out and ceremoniously opened the rear door for a bejewelled lady in furs, and a gentleman with a top hat, who arm-in-arm, rapidly, but with dignity, strode toward the nearest entrance.
"Fedya, Gavril," Katya whispered anxiously. "Please go on ahead without me. I'm feeling so foolish, traipsing about in this state." She held her swollen belly. "Everybody'll be staring at me, thinkin' how I'm..."
"Nonsense," insisted Fedya, in an authoritative tone, "As I've told you many times before, your case is far from unusual. Why even by the official statistics, a quarter of the births in St. Petersburg are illegitimate. Right this moment there must be hundreds..."
"But, Fedya, those others aren't fool enough to be going to fine lectures and parties -- not in this state. There'll be important people -- students like you and rich folks come from all over to see your great Professor Tannenbaum. I'll stand out like a ..."
"Ripe watermelon, my dear," Gavril finished for her. "The most beautiful ripe watermelon in all of Petersburg." He turned her around, holding her by the hips from behind, and guided her up University Line.
She shook her head to hear the earrings tinkle, then turned and kissed Gavril on the nose. "Thank you. I love them. But someday, promise, please promise you'll give me real gold, anything, no matter how small -- just one real treasure to treasure."
"Never," he answered with a smile.
"You beast," she snapped. "You and your truth. When one sweet little lie could make me so happy."
He slapped her gently on the backside. "No more nonsense, pumpkin. Forward, waddle."
Gavril made a mockery of his love for Katya because he was embarrassed to admit that, contrary to his political convictions, he was susceptible to "bourgeois" sentiment and emotion. He had told her that the pearls were paste, but they had been his mother's and her mother's before her -- a valuable heirloom. He had told her the furs were cheap imitations, that she had better not wear them in the rain or the hair would fall out -- but they were real sable, just as the earrings were 24-karat gold.
These deceptions were for her own good, as well as for his ironic amusement, he told himself. Katya took him at his word and put little value in the gifts and used them often and enjoyed them, "pretending" they were real. If she had known they actually were gold and pearls and sable, she would never have worn them for fear that they'd be stolen. If she had known that Gavril truly loved her, she would have lost sleep worrying about him in his reckless exploits, when he posted inflammatory placards and distributed anti-government leaflets. As it was, she enjoyed his mocking camaraderie and their occasional physical intimacy, as brief and beautiful moments -- like a warm sunny October day in St. Petersburg -- a pleasant surprise with no future.
He made much of not marrying her, of not showing jealousy or claiming ownership of her in any way. On occasion he offered her to his brother Fedya, who was not indifferent to her charms. But Katya refused repeatedly and vehemently. She was deeply offended that he should suggest such sinful debauchery. She was his alone, whatever he might say.
On those occasions, Gavril would pretend surprise, insult her for her "ignorance" and "supersitition" and "bourgeois morality," while inwardly he glowed with pride that Katya was his more than marriage vows could ever make her.
The "Twelve Colleges" was built on a grand scale, with high ceilings and ornately carved mahogany woodwork. It had been designed in 1722 by order of Peter the Great, not as a university, but rather as an administrative center -- the "colleges" being his ministries. A hundred years later, Tsar Alexander I had founded the university that, with its four faculties -- History and Philology; Physics and Mathematics; Jurisprudence; and Oriental Languages -- now occupied the entire edifice.
Now, beyond the policemen in black uniforms with green facings, the hallway was packed solid with visitors. "We should have gotten here an hour ago," said Fedya. "It's mobbed like this every time Tannenbaum gives a public lecture."
Gavril and Fedya stationed themselves on either side of Katya, to protect her from the crush of the crowd, and guided and pulled her toward the winding staircase that led to the balcony.
"I simply can't understand how a mere historian could attract such an audience," lamented Fedya. "Now if it were Mendeleyev who were speaking, that would be another matter."
"Mendel who?" Katya interrupted, always curious, even when maneuvering in a mob to protect her belly.
"The great Mendeleyev," Fedya continued, "He taught here for over thirty years and still returns to give special lectures. The inventor of the Periodic Table of Elements."
"What's that?" asked Katya, tapping Gavril on the shoulder and pointing up at a crystal chandelier with dozens of electric light bulbs. But he was so preoccupied with shielding her from shoves that he couldn't hear her above the general hubbub. She didn't persist, easily distracted, in childlike awe and fear of everything new and unexpected. Despite her physical discomfort, she felt a tingle of excitement at what represented to her the danger and thrill of the unknown.
"The Table of Elements?" replied Fedya, misunderstanding her question. "That's a law of nature that can be used to predict the existence and the properties of elements that no one has yet discovered. It's like a map to unknown mysteries of the universe."
"Incredible," she sighed, breathing heavily from the exertion of standing so long. She found it hard to believe that she, the daughter of a poor village sexton, was here in the midst of all this elegance.
"Yes," Fedya went on, thinking he had caught her attenton. "Mendeleyev predicted gallium, scandium and germanium, and was soon vindicated by their discovery by other scientists."
Fedya continued, lost in his own thoughts, "Now he is working out the chemical composition of ether. That's the matter that fills the seeming vacuum of interstellar space and permeates all other matter, making possible the propagation of light and other electromagnetic radiation. He believes it consists of two elements of smaller atomic weight than hydrogen. He should be giving a lecture on it soon. Now that would be an occasion of importance..."
They squeezed into standing room near the balcony railing. From there they had a clear view of the lecture hall.
Down below, top hats were filing to the front, followed by felt and fur hats. Cadet and student caps and woolen hats were climbing the stairs to the balcony, where the seating was unreserved.
After she caught her breath, Katya wedged her way into a leaning position, with her foot on an armrest and her backside on a ledge where the railing met the wall.
A fellow student, squeezing by, whispered at Gavril, "Our brothers in Moscow were all expelled."
"Half of them were jailed," whispered another.
"And banished to outlying villages," offered a third.
"Fifteen of the leaders were shipped to Siberia," added the next.
"What did they do?" Katya whispered anxiously.
"Not much more than we did a week ago," Gavril answered. "They sang songs, waved flags, demanded freedom of speech and press, broke into some university buildings, and barricaded themselves in. The usual," he added offhandedly. "It's all just games until the workers join us."
Katya scanned the crowd nervously, wondering which were police in disguise and which others were paid by the police to spy on their friends. Soon she became itchy, uncomfortably aware of pressure on her bladder and pains in her legs. She wondered how she could survive the lecture -- much less the party they were to go to afterwards -- when, to resounding applause, the Professor approached the podium.
Tannenbaum was extremely tall and moderately portly, with a deep, booming voice. His spectacles were more often in his hand than in front of his eyes -- an extension of his hand as he stretched it out dramatically. He spoke with the authority of a giant among pygmies. Katya soon forgot her aches and itches and stared in wonder. Even those who were too far away to distinguish his words or, like Katya, too uneducated to understand them were moved by the tone of his voice.
Halfway through, a cadet stood on the balcony railing, waved a red flag and shouted over and over again, "Down with autocracy!"
"Silence," Gavril whispered to his neighbors. The word spread quickly. Students ignored the demonstrator.
To the pleasure of the crowd, Tannenbaum continued as if nothing had happened.
After a few minutes, police carried away the shouting cadet.
"As I thought," noted Gavril, glancing at his pocket watch. "Too long."
"What?" asked Katya.
"The police waited too long. They could have had him before he finished a sentence. He's one of theirs -- planted to provoke trouble. They should know better than to be so obvious."
After the lecture ended in wave after wave of applause, Katya, dazed by the experience, followed docilely as Fedya and Gavril led her, against the current of the exiting crowd, to the front of the hall, where admirers were clustered around the Professor.
"Why didn't you tell me?" whispered Katya. "I'd have never thought ... he's so tall and handsome."
"So old," laughed Gavril. "Old enough to be your father, maybe even your grandfather."
"Well, he's a fine figure of a man, with a voice to make angels forget they're angels."
Finally, Fedya caught the Professor's attention, "Sir, may we follow you?"
The Professor smiled, "Well, no one's ever been so formal about it, asking permission and such. But I suppose I do have a number of followers." He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, as if he were remembering and counting them.
"No, sir," answered Fedya. "What we mean is to follow you home."
"You see, your wife invited us to the party."
"For your name day?"
"Oh, yes, the party. But that's a small affair. Just a few of my friends and my wife's family and such. What did you say your name is?"
"Fedya Mikhailovich Schedrin. This is my brother Gavril and our friend Katya. We've been students of yours these last two years."
"Indeed? I didn't realize the University allowed girls, and in such a condition..."
"No, not Katya. Just Gavril and I are enrolled, but we do our best to pass on what we learn to her. That's why we brought her here today -- she so much wanted to see the famous Professor Tannenbaum."
flattered, I'm sure," he noted, putting on his spectacles to
give her a closer look: the turned-up nose, the full lips that
reached out as if she were trying to pronounce French or to blow
a kiss to a friend, the eyes that one moment withdrew in shy
innocence and the next flashed provocatively. "There's no
telling what my wife's up to," he explained. "She's a charming
creature, always full of surprises. A rare gem of a woman..." He
paused for a moment, then reached out his arms expansively,
"Yes, do come along, if you like; if you don't mind spending the
evening with a bunch of elderly snobs. There are sure to be
plenty of refreshments. There's no holding her back when it
comes to spending on entertainment. Yes, do come. You and the
young lady are sure to liven things up."
From the age of eight up until the previous May, Katya had worked twelve hours a day, six days a week at one of the many textile mills along the steam tram line that ran along the Neva, south from Petersburg. It was at the end of the line, in Murzinka, that she lived with her well-meaning but strict father, the sexton at the village church. Her mother had died when she was born.
For years, her father had lived in fear that she would become a "fallen woman." He kept her under close watch the few hours when she wasn't at the mill and unintentionally stimulated her imagination with his unfounded suspicions.
She turned over all of her earnings to him, and he saved every kopek for her, hoping that, with a substantial dowry, she might have the good fortune to marry a respectable shopkeeper and escape the poverty that had been the lot of their family for generations.
One day as she was having lunch with two other girls by the river just outside the mill, two gentlemen chanced upon them and struck up a conversation about the rights of women and workers and unions and other dangerous topics. Katya ran and hid behind a tree, afraid to be seen with them in case police should be about or in case these fine gentlemen themselves might be police in disguise, trying to provoke unsuspecting girls to "revolutionary" talk so they could haul them off to prison or, by the threat of prison, have their way with them.
While she watched, the other girls flirted and giggled, ignoring the politics. Soon each had paired off with a gentleman of her own. One couple settled in the tall grass near where Katya was hiding. The girl teased and played until her man was panting and pawing at her. Then she jumped up and ran off, laughing at him for wanting what she had wanted him to want.
Katya saw a chance to escape for good from her father's house. She ran out, took the gentleman by the hand and led him deeper into the tall grass.
The gentleman was Gavril. He followed her, laughing at her sudden willful passion. He was so excited already and so attracted by her frightened, active ardor and the quick nervous thrusts of her tongue through his teeth, that he took her virginity there in the grass as she wanted him to.
When they were done, her curiosity spent, she was shaken by wave after wave of fear, regret, and guilt. He cradled her in his arms comforting her with a gentle back rub and humming a lullaby to her.
Katya never returned to work that day or ever after. She went home and lay in bed, claiming she was sick and going over in her mind how she could use this incident to escape for good.
Gavril had told her where he lived; so a month and a half later she went to his lodgings and said she was going to have his child. She thought she was lying. She didn't expect him to marry her. She just wanted money, a place to stay, a start away from home.
He welcomed her, joking that she had laid a trap for him, making it clear that as a matter of principle he would never marry. But from the warmth that shone from his deep-set dark brown eyes, he was truly delighted that she had come into his life. That was his way with her -- never asking anything of her, forever mocking her and her emotions, but surprised and pleased, as if it were the fulfillment of a heartfelt wish, when she came to him unbidden in the night, with that same frightened and curious ardor.
She kept up her pretense of pregnancy -- claiming headaches, morning sickness, and moodiness. But soon the acting came all too easily. Then she wasn't acting at all, but actually feeling those symptoms.
The reality shocked her. One moment she was playing a game -- enjoying her freedom in the big city with a rich student to pay her bills and take care of her. A golden road stretched far ahead, for her to dally along and explore at leisure. But now that road had vanished. This unborn baby meant she would be trapped without past or future in an uncertain, endless present. Neither her father nor the foreman at the mill would forgive her. There was no going back.
considered having an abortion and asked Gavril if he knew anyone
who could do it. But he wouldn't listen to such talk. He treated
her kindly -- more kindly the more pregnant she became --
without, however, relenting in his mockery and without ever
telling her that he really cared for her.
The Professor led the way through the crowd, past all the elegant sleighs and motorcars, back to the tram stop.
The murky night sky was starless and moonless, but downtown Petersburg shone with an electric brilliance that Katya had never before experienced. She stared in wonder. Even the tall towers of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Petersburg Island had a fairy-tale quality, bathed in light against the black sky. "The Tsars are buried there," Gavril told her. "How appropriate that they should spend eternity in a prison."
Across the river on the mainland stood the Admiralty and the Winter Palace -- imposing stone structures that she had found forbidding and frightening in daylight but that now sparkled as if the snow trapped in crevices and window frames and roof tops were thousands upon thousands of diamonds.
Straight ahead the great gold dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral glistened. "I only wish it was real," Katya sighed.
"What?" asked the Professor, blowing on his hands to keep them warm.
"The gold," she said, pointing. "It's only paint, you know."
"Paint?" he asked in disbelief. "Why I assure you my dear, that's pure gold. Over two hundred pounds of it."
"But Gavril..." she started, then stopped, embarrassed. She glared at Gavril, who just smiled and winked at her. She quietly cursed him for making a fool of her.
Fortunately, they didn't have long to wait, and the tram was far less crowded than before. Fedya and Gavril sat on either side of Katya. The Professor insisted on standing. Katya stared up at him in wide-eyed admiration. He smiled back, and made fun of himself, "My height has been a great boon to my career. That and my voice. All people have to do is see me and hear me to know what a great man I am. I enjoy playing the professor and being looked up at. But, I must confess, I'd feel better about all this success if I thought people listened to what I say. For instance, you, my dear, what do you think I was talking about?"
She knitted her brows seriously, as if organizing a complex thought, then simply said, "History."
"Yes," he chuckled. "Indeed. History. Yes, it's not my profound and original thoughts that draw people to these lectures. My books have caused no great stir. I doubt that anyone reads them. Just my looks and my voice -- a fine basis for professorial acclaim, wouldn't you say, dear? And what will they think of me when those start to fade? So far nature has been kinder than I had any reason to expect," he chuckled again.
As the tram rattled past the Kronstadt pier out onto the Nicholas Bridge, a sudden gust of wind covered the windows with snow, totally blacking out the city from view. Then another stronger gust rocked the car, tipping it, for a moment, onto one set of wheels. Several passengers were thrown to the floor. Tannenbaum, holding tightly to an overhead strap, swung wildly, but stayed on his feet. Fedya clung to his seat with both hands. But Gavril, immediately, before there was time to think, dropped to his knees in front of Katya, caught her as she was flung forward, and held her and tenderly comforted her until the danger was past.
Soon the tram passed the Alexander Garden and turned onto the broad and brightly illuminated Nevsky Prospekt. They passed the construction site of the Singer Sewing Machine Building opposite the Cathedral of the Virgin of Kazan. and the Gostinniy Dvor with its multitude of shops.
But Katya was so enthusiastic at the sights that didn't mind riding in a tram again instead of, as she had hoped, in a fine carriage with velvet seats. She still imagined the Professor's house was in this the finest part of town. Perhaps it was as magnificent as these palaces that they were passing one after the other.
But on they went, over the Moika Canal, then over the Fontanka Canal, all the way to the end of the line at Znamenskaya Square. There they changed to another line, the line she was all too familiar with, with its steam-driven tram. They proceeded through the less fashionable lower end of the Prospekt. They passed the ominous shadowy shape of the vast monastery complex -- the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. Then they followed the river along Schlusselburg Prospekt, over the Obvodny Canal and beyond the city proper, into the suburbs.
Out the window, by intermittent moonlight, Katya could see the frozen Neva, and sleighs and sledges, drawn by little Finnish horses, bound for villages along its windy path as far as Lake Ladoga and the Schlusselburg fortress-prison, with its full complement of "revolutionaries." Soon the shadows of huge factories began to appear and the flimsy little shelters of workers.
"Where are we going?" Katya finally dared ask, shifting nervously in her seat. "We're halfway, now, to my father's village of Murzinka."
"It's not far now, dear," smiled Tannenbaum. "Not in the best of neighborhoods, I must confess. But a fine old house. Once it was elegant -- a country estate overlooking the river. But the coming of the factories and their smoke chased the rich away. But it's still a fine gem. Especially now that we've refit it with modern bathrooms and kitchen and central hot-water heat. You could fit a few hundred people in there, I'd wager, if you jammed them all together standing. Besides, it helps get me out of my books, keeps me in touch with the times, too, riding the tram like this with all the variety of inhabitants of our fair city."
When they finally arrived at their stop, even though it was only a short distance to the house, Katya was in such evident discomfort that the Professor hired a sleigh and solicitously helped her aboard.
For several blocks around, the streets were full of parked sleighs, like the street outside the University had been. Only now it was much colder, and the blanketed horses stomped about restlessly, trying to keep warm. Many of the drivers gathered about a fire they had built by the roadside.
"Are all the neighbors entertaining tonight?" Tannenbaum asked his driver.
"No, sir, just your house, sir," he answered. "I've driven a dozen or more parties there tonight, sir. I hear there's hundreds of 'em packed in there and all havin' a jolly good time of it, I'm sure, sir."
"Indeed. Most peculiar. But then again," he laughed, "my wife is always full of surprises."
Just outside the front door, stood a heavy-set gentleman with white bushy sideburns and a handlebar mustache. He was arguing loudly with a good-looking woman in her mid-thirties, who patiently ignored him, as if she were used to such tirades.
"I beg your pardon, sir," interrupted Tannenbaum. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"It's this party, sir, that apparently half the world has been invited to, and not the better half, I fear. Why there's no room to stand, much less sit, and the place is full of the most questionable characters. Why it's probably crawling with pickpockets."
"Indeed? That would be most unfortunate," offered the Professor, in good-humored sympathy. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Professor Tannenbaum."
"Goodness, sir. I didn't mean to malign you, or rather your party. But I've never seen such a motley set of people so jammed together. It rather put me off. My name is Solovyov, Sergei Vassilyevich Solovyov of the Russian and English Bank." They shook hands. "This is my friend, I mean my cousin, Tatiana Dmitrievna Titova. You see, we were invited by way of a friend of Tatiana's who has a daughter at the Smolny..."
The Professor cut his explanation short, shaking his hand heartily, "How do you do, sir. These are my students: Gavril and Fedya Schedrin, and their friend Katya..."
"Maslova," she answered for herself.
"You don't say," replied Solovyov, at a loss for words at the sight of a woman up and about at her advanced state of pregnancy.
Tannenbaum rang the bell, and the door was opened by a slender young woman as tall as himself, "Welcome home, father," she said. "Happy name day."
"Heavenly days!" he exclaimed at the sight of the crowd. "Where did they all come from?"
"It's Sonya's doing. I did my best to help, of course; but it was all her idea."
"Marvelous, simply marvelous. And what of the Tsarskoye Selo crowd?"
"Not a one of them would come. That's what inspired Sonya. She came home with two straggly pilgrims she had found outside her father's office, and turned them over to me and the servants to clean them up and put them into new clothes. Then she set to work like a madwoman to create this totally unforgettable gathering."
"But how did she do it?"
"She contacted everyone she had invited before -- your friends and students -- by phone, by messenger, however she could. She urged them to invite their friends and to have their friends invite friends. She borrowed servants from the neighbors, tripled and quadrupled her food orders and ordered 300 extra bottles of champagne. She was determined to pack the house."
"That she did, indeed. Simply marvelous." He turned to Katya, Gavril, and Fedya, "What did I tell you? She's a real gem of a woman, isn't she? But, Beth, what about the drivers out there in the cold? Surely, there's enough to go around?"
"Of course, I should have thought of that. Ilya!" she shouted back over the crowd.
"Ilya!" her father repeated in his booming voice.
"Yes, master?" the servant answered, squeezing with some difficulty toward the door.
"Please, go and talk to the drivers," requested Tannenbaum. "Tell them they are welcome to join in the party, or if they would feel more comfortable in the kitchen, there's warmth and food and drink there as well."
Solovyov stared in disbelief as Ilya ran by him and out the door. "You don't actually mean..." But before he could register his objection, the host and his daughter were swallowed by the noisy crowd.
"Hey, Gavril!" came a shout from the other end of the hall, near an icon of Christ.
"We're among friends," Gavril laughed reassuringly, for Katya's benefit. Then he surged ahead with her and Fedya in tow, past stinking cigars, wine-stained dinner jackets and low-cut gowns; stepping on and being stepped on by military boots and peasant footcloths; being jabbed by high heels and pointed toes, and brushed by a young woman's bare foot.
The current of the crowd carried them into the drawing room, where two dozen students -- the jackets of their uniforms unbuttoned -- were gathered round the piano, loudly bawling bawdy songs. By chance, a door opened as they were being swept by, and they found themselves propelled into the Professor's library -- one of the few islands of relative quiet.
"Welcome!" shouted the Professor, seated comfortably on top of his oak desk, legs crossed, champagne bottle in hand. "If you chance upon my wife among the multitudes, please convey to her my hearty thanks. All these lively people -- I haven't felt so good in thirty years. And would you believe I never suspected for a moment... But, come in, come in. There are still window sills to sit on. We were just solving all the world's ills.
"Gavril, Katya, Fedya, I'd like you to meet Professor Katkov, Captain Azbotkin, and ... I confess, I don't know everyone's name, and strongly suspect everyone doesn't know me. But I must point out the patriarch of us all, the one who makes us all feel young -- Prince Dmitry Dolgoruky: a real live Decembrist."
"Surely, you jest," interjected Gavril, incredulous. "That was seventy..."
"Yes," continued the Professor, "seventy-six years ago, in December of 1825, dozens of young Guards officers led their troops in revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. Dmitry here would have been among them, a last minute convert to the cause of constitutional monarchy, had he not had a bad cold that morning. That cold saved him from a lifetime of hardship in Siberia, and helped preserve him fit and alert to the advanced age of ninety-five so he could join us tonight in our momentous deliberations." He raised his bottle high, "To Dmitry, to the common cold, and to our common cause."
Evidently impressed, Gavril whistled, "Ninety-five!"
The elderly gentleman stood, did a short vigorous dance to the music that permeated the thick oak walls, then bowed to generous applause.
"Do you realize," announced Fedya, as if having made a great discovery, "that someone seventeen today, like Katya here, would be ninety-five in the year 1980. And a baby born tonight might even live to the year 2000."
"Mercy me!" exclaimed Katya, awed by the enormity of the thought. "That far off is more than my head can figure. I can no more see myself living then than living on the moon."
"Don't worry," Gavril jovially comforted her. "Things that matter don't change very fast, at least not in Russia."
"I'll drink to that," bellowed the Decembrist in a firm deep voice. "All that changes is the cut of the clothes and the number after the tsar's name."
"Yes," continued Gavril, "I suspect a trip to Russia eighty years from now would be like a trip to America today."
"Quite an optimist," commented Professor Tannenbaum.
"That backward heathen place?" objected Captain Azbotkin, twirling his well-waxed mustache and sneering in disdain. "God forbid. Didn't they just shoot their president again? How many does that make? Three or four assassinations? And now who do they have governing them? Some 'roughneck'?"
"'Rough rider,'" Gavril corrected him.
"Crude in any case," Azbotkin continued. "A lot of good democracy does them. Long live the tsar!" he toasted, and was joined by half a dozen others.
"Yes, we do so much better," added Gavril, joining the toast, with an ironic grin. "It's been more than twenty years since a tsar was murdered."
"Wasn't that the same year the Americans had their last assassination?" asked Fedya, as if on cue. "A President Garfield, I believe."
"And in the last hundred and fifty years the Russian succession has been settled without violence how many times, Fedya?"
"Just twice, I believe."
record of political stability. Indeed. To the Tsar!" proposed
While Tannenbaum settled the problems of the world, Sonya played the part of the gracious hostess. One minute she was in the kitchen, giving borrowed servants orders for more smoked sturgeon, herring fillets, salmon, meat pates, cakes and pastries, to be prepared on the spot or fetched from the homes of helpful neighbors. Next she assisted as half a dozen gentlemen in dinner jackets, including a doctor, attended to a corpulent, extravagantly be-jewelled, middle-aged woman who had fallen in the dining room.
All the while, Sonya stayed alert to comments and snatches of conversation around her, and tried to direct the more animated and eloquent of her guests to out-of-the-way rooms where they wouldn't be overly bothered by the shifting mob and the loud hum of everyday chatter.
Those with heated opinions about the peasant and land question she directed to her own bedroom upstairs, where an aide of Count Witte, the Finance Minister, was the center of attention.
In one of the guest rooms, Father Gapon explained and defended his celebrated proposal for workhouses and colonies for the unemployed.
Would-be actors and poets she consigned to the attic, encouraging them to make full use of the old clothes and discarded furniture as props for impromptu performances.
People she considered bores -- showing off their ideas, their accomplishments, their goods for sale -- she corralled into the rooms of Matryona the maid and Ilya the house servant. These included representatives of an English bicyle company, an American sewing machine company, and a French automobile manufacturer, along with an assemblage of conceited students and pompous professors. Many were mesmerized by a typewriter salesman who argued convincingly that his product would "totally revolutionize society."
Passing through the drawingroom during an intermission in the singing, Sonya spotted another bore -- this one unmannerly and boisterous: the heavy-set banker who had introduced himself as Sergei Solovyov.
"Impossible, utterly impossible," he muttered loudly, for everyone's benefit.
"What seems to be the trouble?" offered Sonya, intending to guide him to the servants' quarters.
"These people... this crowd of... Any minute I expect to have my pocket picked..."
"Hello, there, Sergei," a short thin man with a monocle approached him. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Ah, Dr. Chernikov, the first familiar face I've seen. I was just telling this young lady that I expect to lose my billfold to a pickpocket at any moment. I was brought here by my wife, I mean my cousin..."
"Certainly not your wife," chuckled the Doctor, "seeing as how she's an invalid. Unless, of course you have more than one," he winked, drunkenly.
"Indeed. I mean, no indeed. My cousin, my great-aunt's granddaughter, a charming lady, Tatiana Dmitrievna Titova -- she's a widow with a daughter nearly grown."
"I do believe I detect a touch of guilt," noted Chernikov.
"Why... why I..."
"Of course," laughed Chernikov. "You never could take a joke. I know Tatiana. We met at the Saltykov's a couple months ago. It was she who invited me here, knowing that you and I are friends. She said they'd said, 'Bring along whomever you like.'"
"My God! No wonder there's such a mob. And now they've invited all the cab drivers to join in the festivities, and I can't even bribe one of them to leave. So we're stuck here for the duration with this pack of radicals and revolutionaries -- yourself excepted, of course, and this charming young lady. What did you say your name was, dear?"
"Madame Tannenbauma. The Professor's wife."
"Oh, God help us," moaned Solovyov. "Then you're one of them, too. I only hope government spies aren't about, taking names and associating me with such people."
"It sounds like you need another glass of champagne to calm your nerves," Sonya offered cordially, trying to lead him away.
"Champagne?" he exclaimed, standing firm and gesticulating wildly as he launched into a tirade. "Yes. That's the very problem here. Serving champagne to cabbies and servants and impoverished students. It's too rich for their blood. They go away wanting more of the same, talking about higher wages and equality, and Lord knows what else."
"You sound like a government bureaucrat," replied Sonya. "You're worried sick over a few strikes and the supposed plots of a handful of exiles when the Empire as a whole is quite calm. You might even say that the Empire has reached new heights now that it has gobbled up Manchuria."
The doctor quickly countered, "You understand, of course, that we're only in Manchuria on a temporary basis."
"Of course," she smiled. "Only until we've been able to take Korea and force a showdown with Japan."
"You seem sadly misinformed, my dear," Dr. Chernikov pursued condescendingly. "Associating with these radicals has given you a distorted view of the world. If you had an opportunity to discuss such matters with high-ranking military officers who are in the know, you..."
"My father is a major general in the Second Guards Division."
"Suffice it to say," Sonya continued, "our government shows a heady self-confidence abroad; but at home, it is unduly cautious. Social issues, like how to give the peasants enough land so they won't starve..."
"Are taboo," Solovyov finished her sentence for her. "Leave the peasants and the workers alone. Don't go giving them fancy ideas and serving them champagne. The poor will be with us always, as the Bible says. Just let them be and they'll be content, as their forefathers were for thousands of years. By stirring up false hopes, you only breed discontent."
Sonya laughed. "You're actually afraid of a party like this, aren't you? Like our government bureaucrats -- so bold with the Chinese and so suspicious of their own people." The piano and the singing started up again, but Sonya was so riled by this pompous banker and his doctor friend that she kept talking, her voice becoming shrill as she raised it to make herself heard. "Ministers surround themselves with guards. Newspapers and books are closely censored. In the University and even at parties, people assume the secret police are everywhere. Really, gentlemen, isn't this absurd? Do you really believe I'm a bomb-throwing revolutionary?" she smiled flirtatiously.
"Why, no!" Solovyov yelled, then blushed, realizing that, with a lull in the music, his voice had carried throughout the room. "Of course not, miss, I mean, madame," he pursued in a softer ingratiating tone. This time his words were drowned out; so he angrily bellowed. "There must be limits! Dissatisfaction spreads by loose talk!"
"Nonsense," Sonya smiled confidently, pleased that she was able to maintain her equanimity while speaking loudly and clearly enough to be heard. "People always find ways to express their dissatisfaction. If they have intelligence, they do so artfullly, within disciplined limits, flirting with revolution, politely. Such double entendre enlivens social gatherings and gives banal ideas, like ours, an aura of profundity and daring."
Solovyov shouted back, "Then you should make better use of your intelligence. Form, my dear, is all important."
Sonya replied calmly, "I find it embarassingly bad form for anyone to take this drawing-room radicalism seriously. It's like a jealous husband making a fool of himself. Real revolution would be very different -- more like a raging passion."
"You talk of revolution like some virgin school girl talking of love."
Shocked, she backed away, turned away, and blushed. The words had hurt her more deeply than their superficial meaning would warrant.
"Is that gentleman giving you trouble?" asked Gavril, who, emerging from the library door in search of drink, seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.
Sonya blushed again that her embarrassment had been noticed. "He's an intolerable bore," she replied too loudly. "He's in mortal fear that he'll be tainted by all these radicals or that someone will steal his precious billfold. I almost wish someone would."
"What you need is another drink," Gavril suggested. "Katya!" he shouted, going back into the library and grabbing her from behind. "Forward, waddle!" he commanded, pushing her ahead, back into the drawing room.
"Waddle?" she complained. "Didn't I ask you not to use that word?" she rambled on as she plunged ahead and the people around, out of respect for her pregnant rotundity, pressed hard against one another, trying to back away.
"Why don't you take off that scarf and show off your hairdo and your pearls?" Gavril prompted playfully.
"They're very pretty, and I thank you for them," she leaned close and spoke tenderly, not wanting to hurt his feelings. "But among all these fine ladies with their Paris dresses and their real diamonds and pearls, I'd feel fooish, like pretending to be better than I am, with my bits of pearl-like paste."
Gavril laughed and winked.
As they rushed past, a tall stranger in a dress coat smiled at Katya and greeted her in a strange language. She stared back at him in bewilderment.
"An American," explained Gavril.
"But he can't be American. He's wearing Russian clothes."
"He could have bought that dress coat in London or New York or Tokyo or anywhere. As Fedya says, 'In our age, dress is a symbol of class, not nationality; just as class, not nationality, is the true enemy.'"
"What?" asked Katya, not hearing him clearly and not understanding what she did hear.
"Anyone who wears a dress coat is the enemy."
"Oh," she said, nodding her head, not wanting to seem stupid, determined to pretend she understood. "But," she pursued, leaning close to him to make sure he could hear, "if you weren't a student, you'd be dressed like that, too, wouldn't you?"
"Exactly," he replied, with an ironic grin, pleased at her desire to learn, and even more pleased at his ability to confuse her.
They soon arrived at a table with large, silver bowls full of ice and bottles of champagne. Gavril grabbed one.
"What's the idea?" Katya insisted. "Pushing me like that, in the state I'm in, just to get yourself a bottle?"
"Not for me, dear. But for our charming hostess," He leaned close, kissing her ear and nibbling her earlobe as he answered.
"Another woman, already, is it?" she began, flirtatiously. "But what's that in your hand there?" she added hurriedly.
"A banker's billfold... How much do you suppose a banker carries on him, a boisterous bore of a banker?"
"I don't rightly know. But how did you come by it?"
"Not so loud, my dear," he whispered loudly. "After all, you're my accomplice in this."
"Accomplish, you say?"
Just then the voice of the banker Solovyov bellowed forth from the other side of the room, "My God, it's stolen! They actually did it. Someone has taken my billfold. Pickpockets! There are pickpockets in the house!"
The music stopped abruptly.
"Lord have mercy!" Katya moaned softly. "And me accomplished and all."
"Well, how much do you think it is?" Gavril pursued.
Katya turned to look him in the eye, then leaned close to his ear, for fear of being overheard, "How can you joke, and us as good as on our way to Siberia, and me in my state..."
"Come on now, Katya. Take a guess," he urged, too loudly for Katya's comfort. "How much money is worth that much wind?"
"A thousand? Two thousand, maybe?" she answered quickly to shut him up.
"Ten, my dear," he took pity on her and whispered in her ear again. "Just one lonesome ten-ruble note. The man's afraid not because he's rich, but because he's poor. Let's take pity on the poor man."
"What are you doin'," she whispered back nervously.
"Giving alms to the poor."
"But that's a hundred ruble note you're putting in there. Where did you come by such a fortune?"
"My parents are sometimes generous."
"Don't go showing that thing where folks can see," she whispered even more nervously. "You must be sick in the head to go putting your money in his wallet. Now they'll say you stole that, too, and send us away for twice as long, Lord have mercy."
"About face, my dear."
"What!" she exclaimed, as he abruptly spun her around.
"Not that again," she whispered hoarsely, leaning backward, awkwardly, so only he could hear. "You're not going to swipe more of them, are you?"
Soon they reached the vicinity of Solovyov, where everyone was shuffling about, offering suggestions and sympathy, as he raged on, "Imagine inviting common cabbies and common workmen, and..."
"Common bankers?" offered Gavril.
"I believe you dropped this, sir."
"My God! My billfold! Where did you find it?"
"On the floor a few steps away. Perhaps you dropped it."
"More likely the thief's doing. Took the money and left the evidence behind -- the swine."
"Well, aren't you going to check to see if the money's still there?" Gavril suggested.
"Indeed, of course, yes," Solovyov blustered, shielding the billfold from the eyes of the many curious bystanders while he quickly checked the contents. His face reddened.
"Is something the matter, sir?" asked Gavril, in his most solicitous voice, aware, in the strained silence, that everyone in the room was listening.
Solovyov glanced again, then awkwardly stuffed the billfold into his pocket.
"Is anything missing?" Gavril pursued.
"No... I mean, yes."
"How much?" insisted Gavril, savoring the reactions of the audience. "I feel a certain responsibility, being the one who found it for you."
"Quite a substantial sum. Yes, quite a lot indeed, I assure you."
"But I couldn't help but notice that there was money still left in the wallet."
"You did? I mean, yes, of course, you would. I suppose the ruckus I raised frightened the thief. He grabbed a handful of money, dropped the wallet and ran, leaving behind a mere pittance, a hundred rubles or so," he added with a touch of pride.
"Well, sir, on behalf of the radical students and other politically questionable elements in this fair gathering, I wish to extend my sincerest apologies," declaimed Gavril with an elegant bow.
shouted, "Bravo!" The crowd laughed and applauded. The students
started singing "La Marseillaise," and the mood of the party
once again became jovial, open, and democratic.
Wanting to avoid any further confrontation, Sonya maneuvered far away from the banker, toward the front hall and up the main staircase. On the way she passed an elderly lady in bloomers -- loose Turkish trousers tucked into high boot tops, worn with a scant skirt coming just below the knees.
"They should have kept the ban on school girls wearing corsets," the old lady was lecturing her neighbors. "If women are so foolish as to punish themselves with devices like that..."
Sonya missed some of the words in the general hubbub, then heard, "It takes a strong government to bring about lasting reform. There are precedents: Peter the Great taxed the peasants for wearing beards... If the Minster of Education weren't so weak..."
Then again she heard , "... as bad as Chinese women binding their feet."
Sonya was tempted to turn back and join the discussion. She empathized with the ideas of the Dress Reform Movement, but not with the means they were now pursuing. It sounded so right and progressive that women should dress sensibly and comfortably, rather than constrict their breathing with corsets, weigh down their hips with heavy skirts that they could trip over, and distort their posture with high heeled, pointed toed shoes. Such talk had been all the rage when Sonya's mother was young. But fashion had prevailed over common sense. Over the years, the struggle for dress reform had become the discredited cause of a few old die-hards, who, unable to persuade the general public, still hoped to bring about reform by government edict. The Minister of Education had tried and failed to initiate such reforms for school girls -- before he was assassinated, just last summer.
Sonya shook her head and continued up the stairs, laughing at herself. Her hair was loose and free -- an outward protest against foolish fashion. But here she was in high heels, in a long dress with a train and flounces and frills, modeled after the latest Paris fashions; and, yes, she was wearing a tight corset that pushed her bosom high and full, up to the V of her neckline -- a corset that, as she ascended the stairs, kept aggravating that bruise on her hip from this morning.
doorbell rang, and Sonya turned to see her step-daughter, Beth,
glide toward the door, champagne bottle in hand.
Eighteen-year-old Beth seemed to delight in playing hostess, using a combination of smiles, sharp elbows, and imperious commands to move undaunted through one people-jam after another. With her exceptional intelligence and impulsive exuberance, she was in many respects a younger version of Sonya. But whereas Sonya was relatively short, Beth had her father's exceptional height. So she was easy to spot in a crowd such as this -- with her dark eyes and naturally curly black hair that, like Sonya and the lady in bloomers, and unlike every other woman at the party, she wore long and unrestrained.
Opening the door, Beth found a peasant in the scraggly, filthy state Shemelin and Sofronov had been in before they had been bathed and given new clothes. Her first inclination was to presume that this was an eccentric beggar attracted to the house by the glitter and noise of the party. She handed him the champagne bottle and sent him on his way with good wishes and a friendly gesture. But when she tried to shut the door, he blocked it with his foot, handed her back the bottle, and stared at her intensely and ominously, without saying a word, until she let go and let him pass into the vestibule.
He had a long, lean, swarthy face; smoked a crudely carved long-stemmed pipe; and had no coat, but rather layer upon layer of rags. Variegated filth-stained colors showed through the many rips in these make-shift clothes. On his head, instead of a hat, he wore more rags, like a poor man's version of an Indian turban or head bandages of an Egyptian mummy.
He plunged into the crowd as if he knew exactly where he was going, and the crowd parted in front of him, instinctively pressing back to get away from the filth.
Beth followed closely in his wake. He went straight to the base of the stairs, to Shemelin, who stared at him in shock, and backed away, crossing himself repeatedly and praying loudly, "Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy..."
The newcomer laughed and slapped him in the face. "Wake up, lad. I'm still flesh and bones, as you can feel." He slapped him again.
"So the living still call me."
Sonya fought her way down the stairs, through the wall of curious bystanders, following the newcomer as he moved into the dining room. "Beth," she called, "who is this person?"
"A friend of Shemelin's, it appears."
"Well, we must do something with him. Call the servants."
"Ilya! Matryona! Come quickly!" called Beth.
"We'll have you cleaned up in no time," Sonya told him in her friendliest voice.
"No one cleans me," he replied softly, but decisively.
"What was that?"
"I am who I am, and that's how I stay."
"Really, my good man. You are welcome here. But, to put it bluntly, your odor is offensive. And you should not be so rude as to impose that stench on these other guests. I strongly suggest that you go now with these servants. They will clean you up and give you..."
"No," he replied simply, and squatted on the floor, drawing a long-bladed knife from his foot cloths.
"Shemelin, who is this man?" insisted Sonya.
"Alexei Butorin, your ladyship. We were comrades, he and me and Bulatovich, in Manchuria together. He's been a bit strange since finding some bodies without heads, Russian bodies, comrades. He talks to the dead and reckons on things not of this world. Crazy or blessed or cursed -- God knows. But I wouldn't fool with him, your ladyship."
Sonya stared Butorin straight in the eye, and addressed her servant, "Matryona, go quickly and get candles and incense, the most pungent incense you can find. There's more than one way to deal with an odor."
Butorin laughed, "I like you, lady. You and the Amazon." Beth blushed. "Both beautiful ladies." He put away his knife, stood up, and strode toward Beth. She backed away. He laughed again, "Not you I want. Not now, my beautiful Amazon. Just that bottle you carry about."
She laughed back, in relief, and tossed it to him.
"To Mazeppy!" he shouted and took a deep swallow of champagne.
"That's what we call ourselves," explained Shemelin. "Followers of Mazeppa -- that's what we call our leader, Bulatovich."
"Who is this Bulatovich?" asked Beth.
"An officer," replied Shemelin, "a fine and noble officer, from one of the Tsar's own Guard regiments. He treats us common Cossacks like brothers and fights like Satan himself."
"He's charmed, my lady," added Butorin. "Black magic charmed. Magic from blackest Africa." He seemed to revel in the attention he drew.
"And where is he now?" pursued Beth.
"We thought he was off to Japan or America," answered Shemelin. "So he said, being as he was in trouble and likely to be charged with deserting and such."
"What do you mean?" Sonya interrupted defensively. "I never heard of any scandal."
"Do you know this Bulatovich they are talking about?" asked Beth.
"Never mind," Sonya cut her off. "Continue, please, quickly."
"He was in the right, your ladyship, God be praised," Shemelin continued. "He went off and saved a missionary from the heathen, when the general told him not to be leaving camp. But who was he to go against a general in time of war? Or so they'd have said in court, if it came to court. That was better than a year ago. Since then, Sofronov and me been walking the length of this great empire. And I came to know I need Mazeppa, need his strength, want to follow him, even if it be to hell. So we came to Petersburg to find what clue we could of him. Only today, miracle of miracles, I found him. Not in the flesh, not yet. But now we know he's back at his regiment and once again stands tall with honor."
"Vsyo moyo, skazalo zlato," intoned Butorin. "Vsyo moyo, skazal bulat. Vsyo kuplyu, skazalo zlato. Vyo vozmu, skazal bulat."
"What was that?" asked Sonya.
"An old saying, my lady," he explained. "'Everything's mine,'said gold. 'Everything's mine,' said steel. 'I can buy everything,' said gold. 'I can take everything,' said steel. 'Bulat' as in steel or saber. 'Bulat' as in Bulatovich. Our Bulatovich has a will of steel."
"Indeed," noted Sonya. "I never thought of his name that way. I rather like the gist of it. But for sound, I prefer the synonym -- 'Stalin.' It's easier to say."
Beth prodded Sonya and whispered to her, "Do you know this Bulatovich? You'll have to tell me more about this fascinating man."
For the next hour or more, there was a press of attentive guests in the vicinity of Butorin. He luxuriated in this attention and the free-flowing champagne; and he welcomed the use of incense as a way to heighten the magical aura he tried to project. He told wild tales of the adventures of the Mazeppy in Manchuria -- claiming that Bulatovich had used African magic to repel bullets and even artillery shells. He told, too, of how he himself had found the headless body of one of their comrades and how he had been haunted by the ghost ever since.
"And what do you do when you see your ghost?" asked Beth with skeptical playfulness.
"I dance," replied Butorin, suddenly vaulting over the back of a chair and onto the dining room table. There he did a few wild turns, while astonished bystanders scurried to move dishes and bowls of food out of his way. Then he stretched out his hand to Beth, "Come, my pretty Amazon, let's dance away the ghosts together."
She backed away from his odious smell, but he grabbed her firmly and hoisted her up onto the table with him. First he alone, then she, too, danced, getting caught up by his compelling rhythm and the response of the inebriated crowd, that clapped and stamped their feet in ever faster rhythm, until the two of them collapsed in a dizzy heap there on the tabletop.
"Show us the dead," she laughed loudly, as she disentangled her long hair from his rags.
"Give me a loaf of bread," he ordered. "A big round loaf."
One soon appeared, passed from hand to hand from the kitchen. He pulled his knife from inside his foot cloths and quickly carved out a mouth, nose and eyes, like a jack-o'lantern.
"And what do the dead say?" asked Beth.
"Bring me charcoal, bring me candles, five of them," ordered Butorin, getting caught up in his own performance.
Abruptly forcing Beth off the table, he used the charcoal to draw a perfect five pointed star on the white tablecloth, placed a lighted candle at each point, and ordered his spectators to shut out all other lights.
Suddenly the house, except for an occasional clinking of dishes in the kitchen, was quiet, and the crowd pressed forward to see what was going on.
Butorin sat cross-legged in the middle of the pentacle, the candles casting shifting, upward shadows across his face. He held the loaf of bread at arm's length, and in a deep serious voice began to speak.
he spouted gibberish and mumbo-jumbo, an amusing parody of a
seance. The crowd reacted, appreciatively, with intermittent and
then continuous loud laughter, until he suddenly dropped the
bread and stood up with his arms straight up in the air and
said, "The dead who are not dead tell me of a father who is not
a father, a wife who is not a wife. They speak of a
soldier who is no soldier, a monk who is no monk. They speak of
a man who is not a man and a woman who is not a woman with a boy
who is not a boy. They say there will be a turning and a
twisting till people and things find their proper names and go
their separate ways. Who is this man who is not a man? We would
follow him to hell, and he would leave us here.. I mean
there..." He shook himself, and looked around, as if surprised
to see all these people, then sat down and dangled his feet over
the edge of the table, with a mindless drunken grin on his face.
St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, March 1 (February 16 old style), 1902
[draft of April 8, 1989, revised March 1998]
Sonya stood quiet, at the far end of the main hall, away from the crush of the crowd, staring up at a candle-lit icon of Christ, one of the signs of Orthodoxy that the professor, not a religious man, had spread about the house for appearance sake. With a Jewish-sounding name, he had to be careful. If he were a practicing Jew or even suspected of being one, he could not hold his position as professor.
Butorin's words had affected Sonya strangely. She wanted to pray. She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. Instead, she shouted, "Avdotya! When did you arrive?" and lunged past the intervening people to greet the only one of her old friends who had come tonight.
"No, Dottie," her friend replied. "Everybody calls me 'Dottie' now. I like the foreign sound of it."
"Did you hear that man?" she asked, leading Dottie toward the quiet corner with the icon.
"Of course," laughed Dottie, sociably tipsy from champagne. "Is he a hired entertainer? I've never seen anything like it. But then, I've never seen a party anything like this before. You must have invited half of Petersburg. Why I've been here for two hours, and this is the first time I've seen you. And I have no idea where Nicky has disappeared to. Yes, a party to remember. And the entertainer was quite good."
"He was talking about me," Sonya wanted to say. But instead, she took her friend's hands and stepped back to look her up and down. "Well, Avdotya Zinovieva..."
"Of course. But I never knew Nicky that well. Your marriage was always a bit unreal to me."
"And far too real to me," Dottie laughed good-humoredly.
"How many years has it been since I last saw you? Five? Six?"
"And four new children."
"Goodness! That makes six altogether?"
"Yes. The oldest was seven last month."
"You have been busy, haven't you?"
"Have been? Am. Bearing them is the least of it, believe me."
Sonya smiled, "I so love children."
Dottie smiled back, "That's easy to say when you don't have any."
It had been so long since she last saw her childhood friend that Sonya wasn't sure how to take htat remark. "Seven years old, you say?" she asked tentatively, trying to remember Dottie as she had been when they were close friends. "We were no older than that when we first met at Tsarskoye Selo. Do you remember...?"
"How could I forget? It was the day my father died. Mother dropped me off at my aunt's, and she had you fetched to keep me company."
"Oh, yes," admitted Sonya. "How could I have forgotten the cirumstances..."
"Father was no older than Nicky is now," she looked at her empty glass somewhat wistfully.
"Can I fill that for you?" Sonya quickly interjected.
"No, I suppose nothing can fill it."
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Even after all these years... It seems so close... Some wounds never heal... It's hard to lose a father."
"Don't say such things," Sonya insisted too loudly, then, on impulse, threw her arms around her friend and held her close.
"Forgive me, Sonya. What sorrow of yours have I touched so carelessly?"
"Nothing, really, nothing," she sighed, resting her head on her friend's shoulder. "It's just, you're the only one of all my old friends who came tonight. And here you've come all the way from Viborg in Finland, a full hundred miles..."
"My parents, my relatives -- I invited them all, but you're the only one who came."
"Surely, your father would have come if he knew it was important to you. I always envied you, you know, for having such a fine, handsome, indulgent father. Why he'd let you do anything, and he'd do anything for you."
"That's not it," she tried to explain her distress to herself as well as to Dottie. "You see, the Professor and I had a disagreement this morning. We were talking about the party, rather heatedly, and he... You see, I fell and bruised my hip. It's irritated me all day -- that and this corset. It makes me short-tempered and emotional."
"And you were always so mild-mannered before," noted Dottie, with an ironic smile.
"Well, more than usual, I was abrupt today, and willful and headstrong. I went marching into my father's office, and when he didn't forgive me for neglecting him, when he didn't immediately throw his arms around me, I went dashing out of his office and invited to the party two of the filthiest pilgrims you've ever seen. They were sitting right there outside his office. I did it so he could see me do it, as a deliberate insult to him. If father wouldn't come, I'd pick the lowest of the low to take his place."
"You mean that man with the dance and his ravings wasn't a hired performer?"
"He's all too real. He's a friend of the ones I picked up, and a friend of Alexander Bulatovich, as well, it seems."
"That same Alex you were mooning over for years?"
"Yes, but that's not the point," insisted Sonya, shuffling about impatiently. "The real problem is this hip and this infernal corset that keeps rubbing it."
"Well, why don't you take it off?"
Sonya laughed, "Of course. Why didn't I think of something so simple as that? Come with me, quickly. You can help. I can't stand this thing a minute longer. I simply must get out of it."
She took her friend by the hand, led her upstairs, where the crowds were also thick; pounded on the bathroom door, until the occupant vacated; then pulled her friend in; and locked the door behind her.
Together, they unbuttoned her dress and untied the stays of her corset.
"Good Lord, Sonya, why do you wear a corset at all? If I had your figure, your childless, girlish figure, I wouldn't subject myself to it."
"Vanity," Sonya smiled. "I supposed I'd do far worse than this to pull my waist in an extra inch or two. But this infernal bruise..."
"Yes, it does look bad. Tell me, dear, honestly, how did it happen?"
"It was an accident, like I said," Sonya replied hurriedly, sucking in her belly and starting to button up.
"An accident, you say?" Dottie urged her, sitting on the edge of the white porcelain bathtub and staring up inquiringly at her friend. "There's no need to pretend. We're both married now."
"You don't have to play the innocent with me. When you've been married long enough to sport a bruise like that, you've been married long enough to think sensibly about men. Does he abuse you sexually?"
"Dottie! How much have you had to drink?"
"Enough to say what I think. And I think if he's that way, you should give him what he wants and more."
"Listen. It's just common sense. If you want a man to think about food, don't feed him. And if you want to get his mind off it, make sure he's sated. If a man doesn't get his sex, then, like a monk, he gets obsessed with it. Do it with him as often as he wants, and soon he'll stop thinking about it and leave you alone."
"My God, Dottie, you sound so cynical," remarked Sonya, trying to maintain her composure while checking her hair in the gilt-framed mirror over the sink.
"I suppose I have changed," Dottie admitted.
"You used to be such a romantic." Sonya walked over to the window-seat, sat and stared out into the darkness and the snow. "Remember the way you snared your Nicky, with that hurried wedding, as if you were pregnant, and everyone was so scandalized over it. Then you announced that you weren't pregnant at all."
"But I lied, Sonya."
"To Nicky, of course, that's what we all understood. That's how you caught him."
"No, at first I thought I was telling the truth -- I actually believed I was pregnant. Nicky led me to believe that, playing on my frightful ignorance of matters relating to sex. Why we had never even done what it would take to get me pregnant. Afterwards, to save face, I lied to you and even to my parents, pretending that I had deliberately fooled Nicky. But Nicky was the devious one. He wanted to get me any way he could. My father, you know, is wealthy, and might have been reluctant to approve. Dear old Nicky, he had no doubt of my innocence. On our wedding night, he had a jolly time -- mocking me and giving me lessons in anatomy and biology. I've never been so humiliated in my life."
"But that sounds so unlike him."
"On the contrary, he'd do antyhing to get what he wants. Over the years, I've learned to give him what he wants even before he knows he wants it -- so he doesn't look elsewhere for it; so I can keep him -- the selfish lovable bastard... But the question remains, my dear."
"How did you get the bruise?"
Sonya found herself looking into Dottie's eyes through the reflection in the window. "Like I said, we were talking about the party," she explained. "He'd give me those silent looks of disappointment -- he can be so irritating at times. I was teasing him, setting up a surprise for him. When he didn't react the way I wanted him to, I mentioned my old suitor, Alex."
"Did he hit you?"
"No. He didn't touch me. But he frightened me so badly that I fell over backwards and hurt my hip. Then he helped me to my feet and knelt in front of me and apologized. He blurted out something about his first wife. I couldn't understand it. I was too shocked. Do you have any idea what it's like to discover that the man you love has fits of temper, that he can suddenly become hateful?"
"But honestly, dear, is that all there was to it? One little flash of anger? Hardly anything to get upset about."
"But I'm not upset," Sonya insisted loudly. Just then someone knocked on the bathroom door. "Stop that pounding!" Sonya yelled, standing up and stomping angrily toward the door. "Don't bother us. We'll be out in good time. Someone's sick in here." Turning back to face Dottie, she accidentally knocked a glass off the sink, and dropped immediately to her knees, catching it in both hands, before it hit the floor. Then she picked up the glass, looked through it, tipsily, at her friend, and exclaimed, "Hell -- I hate that man!" She hurled the glass inot the corner, where it shattered on the tile floor. "Sometimes I don't know whether I should see a physician or a priest or a head doctor -- an alienist," she admitted, and lunged forward, sobbing, and buried her head in her friend's lap.
"It's all right, all right," her friend comforted her, stroking her long hair and rubbing the nape of her neck.
"You see, I have this little problem," Sonya tried to explain, "this problem that should be little, only I simply have to talk to somebody about it."
"It's all right..."
"I ought to be happy," Sonya tried to explain. "I love my husband, and he loves me. Normally, he's tender, kind, considerate; but... I'm still a virgin. Do you understand? Nearly six months married, and I'm still a virgin. Like that mad man said tonight -- I'm a wife who is not a wife, a woman who is not a woman. I want to be a woman, a wife. I want to have children -- maybe not right away, but I want to have them. Is that wrong?"
"Of course not, dear, of course not," insisted Dottie, taking her hand. "But what's the nature of the problem? Are you, is he... uninterested?"
" He's so handsome and brilliant, I feel drawn to him physically. I want to be with him physically. And he tries. He'd do anything for me, if he could. But it's limp, do you understand? And nothing I do makes any difference to it. He finds the situation amusing. He thinks I try so hard just for his pleasure. But it's for me I want it, for my pleasure. I need it, and I feel guilty for wanting it."
"Does he try in other ways to... please you?" asked Dottie, feeling awkward, but too curious to cut the conversation short.
"He does everything I dare to ask, but it must be very different, I'm sure, must be truly wonderful to be together the way God intended a man and wife to be together. I want the real thing. And I want a child as well. Sometimes I feel like I'm married to a eunuch. I want a real man who can make a real woman of me. Is that so wrong of me?"
She hurried on without waiting for a response, "This gentle man, this world-renowned scholar is willing to demean himself to try to satisfy me. And I feel so base, so corrupt for wanting what he can't provide me, for wanting what I've never experienced."
"What can I say?" replied Dottie. "That's no paradise you're missing. Just friction, really -- skin against skin. Nothing to get all wrought up about. I suppose you could say that Nicky 'made me a woman.' And I make sure he does it regularly, knowing how he needs it. And it can be good, I admit. But mostly, it's a nuisance. It even gets quite sore down there sometimes, the way he does it... speaking as one married woman to another," she added quickly, finding it difficult to believe that she was talking about such intimate matters while sitting on a bathtub in the midst of a party. "He just does his business, and that's that. I do it because it's a wife's duty, and he needs it. But I have none of that tenderness and closeness that you seem to have with your husband. I'd love for Nicky to do other things sometimes, but I'd never dare to ask him. Lord only knows what he'd do or say if I did. He'd think I was a whore or something... No, I didn't mean that. You should consider how fortunate you are."
"But you don't understand. That's not the half of it," insisted Sonya.
Just then, someone started knocking loudly at the bathroom door.
"Stop that pounding!" Sonya yelled. "Do you hear me?"
"Open up!" returned shouts from the hall. "Someone's having a baby!"
Sonya opened the door, and a half dozen men carried Katya into the bathroom.
"No, not here," ordered Sonya. "The bedroom. My bedroom. Quickly. Chase everyone else out. Is there a doctor in the house?"
"Here, Sonya!" shouted the Professor from the stairway. A path through the crowd quickly opened for him as he marched briskly toward Sonya's bedroom, pulling along Doctor Chernikov.
"Put me down this instant!" the Doctor shouted. "It's not my specialty. I am not an obstetrician."
"Well, baby doctor or not, I wager you know more about this birthing business than the rest of us," said the Professor, letting the Doctor go in front of the bedroom door. "Now get to it," he added with a seemingly gentle pat on the back that propelled the frail Doctor through the doorway.
Meanwhile, Tatiana, the banker's "cousin," pushed past Sonya into the bathroom, turned on the cold water, and splashed her face with it. Stained in wet streaks, her dress and petticoats clung to her legs in unseemly fashion. She was breathing hard and irregularly, gulping the air down.
"What happened?" asked Sonya, quickly forgetting her own troubles and coming to put her arm around Tatiana and to offer her aid and comfort.
"We were talking," Tatiana answered, absent-mindedly brushing at her dress. "This peasant girl was telling me how she became involved with that student of hers. Then I noticed a puddle at her feet. At first I thought... I don't know. I'm not used to dealing with that class of people. She had had quite a bit to drink, otherwise she wouldn't be telling me, a total stranger, such intimate things. When I saw this puddle, I thought, at first, that being pregnant and inebriated, she had lost control of her bladder. She must have seen the shock on my face. For a moment, she seemed more concerned about what I thought than about her own condition. 'It's just water ma'am, just water, honest ma'am,' she insisted. 'I'm so sorry ma'am,' she said. 'I shouldn't have come, me being in this state and all. And now I've wet all over your nice shoes and this nice rug. I'll clean it up, honest I will.' Then she dropped to her knees and started to wipe it up with the hem of her dress. But I got down on my knees and held her and started calling for help, because from the way she shook, she was having contractions. It really wasn't urine. Her water had broken. She was having a baby in the middle of a party, and she didn't even know it."
From the hall, they heard Doctor Chernikov stomp out of the bedroom, "It's nothing! She admits it herself. The slut just urinated on the floor. I've had enough of this mess," he added loudly.
Sonya and Dottie rushed past him into the bedroom. Sonya knelt by the bedside and took the girl's hand. The Doctor followed, with the aggravated look of a professional whose judgment has been challenged.
"It's true ma'am," sobbed Katya. "Lord have mercy, it's true. I'm so sorry, ma'am, for all this fuss. Lord forgive me, in my state and all, pissing all over your nice rug, and then lying too, just making it worse. I just want to crawl down into the ground."
Then she raised her legs up high and cringed.
The Doctor put one hand on her belly and with the other held his pocketwatch.
When the pain had passed, she blurted out, "Begging your pardon. Just my belly's a bit upset, what with the commotion and all."
"How often?" the Doctor asked Tatiana.
"That makes three I've seen. Maybe one every four or five minutes."
"It looks like I was a bit too hasty. We'll need..." he started.
"Here's some hot towels," boomed the Professor as he came through the door with an armful. "The maids are chasing up more. What else do you need?"
Sonya smiled. She couldn't help but be pleased with him, despite the things she had just told her friend. "For now," she told him, "the best you can do is guard the doorway. Keep everyone out. There's no telling how long this will take."
"Not too long," noted the Doctor, after the sound had subsided, trying to redeem himself with a show of knowledge and confidence. "It couldn't have been more than two minutes since the last one. Have you picked a name, dear?"
"If it's a boy, we're calling him Svoboda, because that means 'freedom.'"
"And if it's a girl?"
"Nayezhda -- 'hope.'"
"Excellent!" shouted the Professor from the doorway. "Freedom or Hope of Freedom. And on my name day at that. I'll root for the boy myself." He raised high his champagne glass. "May freedom reign!"
were repeated along the hall, down the stairs, and through the
house. In the drawing room, the students at the piano responded
by bursting into a loud rendition of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus,
and the whole house seemed to join in on the refrain, repeating
it in wave after wave, "And He shall reign forever and ever!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" No sooner did that subside than they
started up again with the "Hymn of Joy."
The Professor had led his friends from the library into his bedroom, adjoining Sonya's bedroom, so they could be near at hand for the imminently expected birth.
Dottie's husband, Captain Azbotkin, who was joyfully drunk, stretched out on the bed, laughing now and then, too loudly or inappropriately, with an absurd, self-satisfied grin.
The elderly Decembrist sat quietly beside him. He was normally so relaxed, often closing his eyes to concentrate on what was being said, that it was impossible to tell if he was awake or asleep until he spoke up.
Professor Katkov nursed a pipe by the window-seat.
Fedya examined the collection of books that, as in the library, covered all four walls, from floor to ceiling.
Gavril shuffled about in a corner near the room where Katya was in labor.
Father Gapon was in a chair in the corner, drinking a glass of tea.
The Professor himself sat, cross-legged, in the middle of the floor.
Tannenbaum observed, "It's not rational why anarchists go around killing government figures and, more often than not, getting themselves killed in the act.
"I don't just mean that murder of any kind is to be deplored," he continued. "I mean even from the pragmatic viewpoint of a revolutionary -- if one could imagine what they must think and why. For if they kill government officials or even tsars, one by one, there's always someone to succeed them, who will act very much the same. They do what they do not for not, not for immdiate logical gain, but rather to fostr som distant messianic future. The underlying notion is that you must suffer and sacrifice now for some glowing future. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the reward for future generations."
"Pagan nonsense," Father Gapon affirmed, "brought on by this influx of western notions of progress and money and economics -- the all-mighty dollar and pound and franc. The people are filled with longing for a better life for themselves and for their children. When they become infected with western notions, they become anarchists. All that energy and passion of theirs must be channeled and tempered and russified. Let them strive for their present well-being, for immediate, attainable ends -- not some Marxist Jewish messianic future. That's so typical of the Jews -- sacrifice everything for the children."
"Not entirely," objected Tannenbaum. "You seem to forget the story of Abraham and Isaac."
"I've never been able to understand the point of that story," confessed Father Gapon.
"Nor I," the Professor replied, "except insofar as we are called upon to love God even more than our children."
"But Abraham was the father of them all," Father Gapon countered. "The whole significance of his life, as told int he Bible, is as father of his race."
"Yes, indeed," the Decembrist boomed in, with the loudness of a man who doesn't hear well. "Sons and grandsons and great-grandsons give a man a sense of purpose, a link with the future, with the world that will be left behind when you die."
A series of sharp screams from the next room interrupted the conversation, then subsided. Then the screams came regularly, every five minutes. Talk shifted from future generations to the notion of historical progress and the negative vision of the future in H.G. Well's Time Machine; then to industrial progress and its antithesis in Samuel Butler's Erewhon. Soon they were discussing Napoleon and the industrial revolution in Western Europe.
"It's only in the last thirty or forty years that the industrial revolution has reached Germany and Italy," Fedya insisted, loud enough to be heard over the screams from the next room and the rushing about in the hallway. "And only in the last decade has it begun to play an important role in the Russian economy. So any talk about a cause and effect relationship with the Napoleonic Wars is nonsense."
"Yes, indeed," Tannenbaum affirmed. "Industrialization did not take place suddenly and uniformly throughout Europe. In fact, it was the unevenness of development that created the conditions for cataclysm. The economies of the nations of Europe are interdependent, like a set of motors and gears. If one part speeds up alone, it puts a strain on the others, forcing them to work faster than they were designed for. Eventually, the strain becomes so great that the whole system breaks down."
"Then you predict a new catastrophe?" asked Professor Katkov, poking about in the bowl of his pipe, trying unsuccessfully to ignite the tobacco.
"Not necessarily. But I do see a cyclic pattern. About fifty years after Napoleon, we had the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs; the Americans had their Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves; France and Germany were embroiled in the war that led to the collapse of the Second Empire and to the Paris Commune. That was a world-wide wave of political and economic change like in the days of the first Napoleon. And it will happen again."
"No! No!" screamed Katya from the next room. "I can't stand the pain. Make it stop! Make it stop! Do anything!"
Gavril rushed to the door where he was stopped by Sonya.
"Take it easy," insisted Sonya. "These things take time." She gently guided him back into the Professor's room. "Now, how you were going to solve the world's problems before the next generation in there so rudely interrupted you?" she asked with a smile.
After an uncomfortable pause while the moans subsided, Katkov replied, "Your husband maintains that the world falls apart regularly, every fifty years of so."
"I'm sure we'd all distrust a pattern as simple as that," Tannenbaum laughed. "But the unevenness of development ..."
"Indeed," Katkov hastened to agree. "Our greatest hope for long-lasting peace and prosperity is uniform development. You are right. If one part of the world advances faster than the rest, it risks triggering worldwide disaster."
"Then you lay the blame..." Tannenbaum began.
"On England and Germany," affirmed Katkov," and, yes, on the United States."
"You could just as easily blame the backward nations, like Russia," asserted Fedya. "The slowness of our development throws the whole system into disarray."
Tannenbaum interceded soothingly, "Blaming gets us nowhere. It will take a common effort to avert the next disaster. We in Russia must strive to lower the barriers that have slowed our economic development. And those in England, Germany, and America must recognize their responsibility to help promote development of the poorer nations. There can be no single winner. We all win together, or we all lose together."
"That's rather ominous," intoned Katkov, chewing on the pipe that refused to work.
"You could call it a 'Declaration of Interdependence,'" noted Tannenbaum, pleased with this new turn of phrase. "National rivalry is obsolete and self-destructive. The movement of goods and money throughout hte world has become far too complex for juvenile flag-waving games."
"Yes," agreed Katkov, "just considering modern weaponry -- the devastation that could come from machine guns and modern ordnance, the awesome power of a dreadnought -- large-scale war is utterly unthinkable."
"Indeed," added Tannenbaum. "And if this power of destruction continues to grow, one day there might be no next generation, no more mankind."
"Nationalism is a thing of the past," agreed Katkov. "It fosters war."
"Tell that to the pan-slavists," jeered Fedya. "And to the Zionists as well."
"And to the German junkers," shouted the old Decembrist.
"And the Yankees and the Brits and..." Fedya continued, until he was interrupted.
"Nonsense," noted Sonya, deliberately dropping a stack of clean towels and putting her hands on her hips to emphasize her point. "Not that what you're saying is nonsense, but that the way nations act is nonsense.
"The nations of the world act like children -- only it takes decades and centuries for them to grow up," she continued. "I wish I knew how old these children are right now. Have they gone through the two- and three-year-old independence stage -- shouting 'no' and throwing temper tantrums?"
"That's hardly a flattering description of the American Revolution," Fedya commented.
Sonya added, "Maybe the new nationalism is the seven-year old stage. They like slogans. They're moody and changeable. They try on one role after another and aren't satisfied with any of them. They imagine they are the greatest at this and at that, but they know full well they are not. If that's the stage of development of the nations of Europe, then we're in trouble. For that's a time of boasting and battling, even with friends, just because they need to prove themselves."
"That's a pessimistic view of the world," noted Katkov. "Rather like your husband's notion of fifty-year cycles of catastrophe."
"On the contrary," she objected. "I hope that in fifty or a hundred years, the nations of the world will reach maturity; and war will become a thing of the past."
"But children only play at war," Tannenbaum was quick to correct her. "It's adults who fight real wars. May the Lord preserve us from a world of 'mature' nations."
"All metaphors break down at some point," Sonya defended herself.
all civilizations," her husband concluded.
As Katya's labor continued, hour after hour, her screams and sobs became monotonous, weary, and desperate. The exhilaration and curiosity that had given the party new life and unity subsided. Guests started leaving in twos and threes. Downstairs, the remaining guests whispered among themselves, listening nervously for the next scream and hoping that the waiting and the tension would end.
Katya was cared for by Doctor Chernikov, assisted by Sonya, Dottie, Beth, and the maid Matryona.
In the drawing room, Dottie's husband Captain Azbotkin was asleep on one sofa; and Tatiana's cousin, the banker Solovyov was asleep on the other. In the Professor's room, all the guests had left except Fedya, who was asleep on the bed, and Gavril, who continued to pace, smoking cigarettes, one after another, even though he had never smoked before. Professor Tannenbaum himself, weary and inebriated, talked on and on to distract Gavril, eventually talking of personal matters that he had never told anyone before.
"My father's brother, Avram, came to me and said, 'You will say kaddish. I will say it with you.' I had never heard of kaddish. I only knew this uncle by name, by the hateful things father had said of him and his superstitious religion. Now father was dead. I was ten years old and frightened. This was my father's enemy. I said, 'No.' Now I wish I hadn't."
"Why?" asked Gavril, crushing one half-smoked cigarette and lighting another.
"I feel a tightness in my stomach. It's a fear of death, I suppose, or a fear that life -- not just my life, but all of life -- has no direction and no meaning. I need to belong to mankind, to feel a link with past and future generations, to feel that the world won't end when I end, anymore than it ended when my father died. It's not a matter of religion. I'm not about to convert Judaism. Rather it's a biological need to maintain a sense of purpose and continuity, a reason to live when you don't have much longer to live. Have you ever heard Kaddish."
"Nor have I. It wouldn't do for a professor to be seen in a synagogue. But a scholar is free to read what he will. Kaddish is a prayer, to be said on the death of a father by a son. The son has to be accompanied by other men -- at least ten, I believe. He prays not alone, but as part of a community. It is not a prayer of mourning. It's a joyful celebration, an affirmation of the community of mankind -- past, present, and future. At a time of anguish, when despondence and despair threaten to end the useful lives of loved ones left behind, the son and those who join him in prayer reaffirm over and over again that there is a God, that He has a plan for us, that mankind has a destiny to fulfill, and that this moment of grief is but nothing in the face of the vast effort of all the generations of man combined. It is an affirmation, too, that a man is responsible not just for his deeds, but for the consequences of his deeds as well -- and as long as his good deeds and the good deeds of his sons and son's sons continue to bear fruit, he is still, in some sense, alive. Sons, I say. Thank God, Beth can't hear me. She's sensitive to these archaic prejudices. And you could never ask for a finer, more brilliant, more devoted daughter. But despite all logic, I have this tightness in my stomach. The older I get, the more I regret that I was not more of a son to my father, and that I have no son of my own."
"So you got yourself a young wife," noted Gavril, with an ironic smile.
"Yes, I suppose that's one reason for my remarrying at my age. I'm not yet so old as Abraham. But even when I was younger, sometimes I felt this tightness; and there were opportunities -- intelligent, attractive women who were more than willing -- yet I stayed a widower for fifteen years. Sonya is a very special woman, not just fertile ground to sow seed in. She is a friend, a companion, an inspiration -- as well as a delight to the eye. I only wish..."
"What more could you wish?" Gavril asked, grimacing as he heard Katya moan again.
"It's me. She wants children, I know she does, though she doesn't talk of it for fear of hurting me, of making me feel inadequate. She is so understanding, so tender, so gentle. But I can't -- not with her. It doesn't happen. Do you understand how maddening that is? My first wife, Elena, was cold on the outside and warm underneath. You had to fight to break through that barrier. We'd have fiery disputes and then make up with fiery love. I loved her and hated her. Sometimes I forced her, and I think she loved me for forcing her. Once she got started she wanted it as much as me -- we had that in common, though, sometimes, she'd blame me after. Then, at the end, she became bitter. Pregnant with our second child -- it would have been a son -- she turned gravely ill. One specialist after another tried his hocus-pocus; but none of them knew what was wrong. She grew weaker every day, and cursed me for having made her pregnant against her will. She said she was dying because of my personal vanity of wanting a son.
"Sonya is so different -- so loving and lovable. Just thinking of her I feel a stirring. But when she's in my arms -- nothing; no matter how much I want it, I can't do anything. I try to laugh it off. She's so innocent, she has no idea what she's missing. I only hope that this too will pass, that, in time, I will be able to perform for her and give her the fulfillment she deserves as a woman and a wife."
Suddenly, a new scream was heard form the next room.
"It's a boy," shouted Sonya, even louder than Katya's groaning.
"Good God!" exclaimed Dottie, still louder.
Doctor, holding the baby close, ran out of the bedroom and into
the bathroom. Gavril and Tannenbaum quickly followed him.
Sonya knelt at Katya's side, and Matryona, the maid, stood at the foot of the bed. Beth, who had done much of the fetching and running, was asleep on a chair in the corner.
"It's all right, I'm sure," Sonya tried to calm the mother and to mask her own surprise and uncertainty at what she had seen. "You heard him cry yourself. It's a boy. A fine boy. They're just going to clean him up. You know, babies are always so..." She laughed nervously. "You know, I've never really seen one born before." Then she noticed that Katya wasn't paying any attention to her, that she was undergoing another wave of pain.
"The afterbirth, ma'am," explained Matryona, who, holding the umbilical cord, helped ease it out.
Katya's weary, sweaty face relaxed somewhat. "It's over?" she asked Sonya, hopefully.
"Yes, the child... they'll be bringing... you'll soon have a chance to hold..." Sonya stumbled anxiously over her words, but Katya didn't seem to notice.
"Thank the Lord!" exclaimed Katya in relief, then cringed and tensed again.
"That last pain was nothing to be worrying about, ma'am; nothing next to the others," Matryona explained. "And now it'll all be settling down inside there, all the pieces slipping back to where they ought to be."
Katya had a look of weary, drunken satisfaction.
Dottie and the Professor appeared at the door. Then came Shemelin, Sofronov, and Butorin, drunkenly singing "Hallelujh!" and carrying lighted candles. Soon Gavril hurried into the room and took Sonya's place on the floor beside Katya. He kissed Katya's hand and asked softly, "What would you say if I told you there was a little problem?"
"What kind of problem?" she asked, smiling groggily.
"Say, a problem with the baby."
"Baby? Yes, where is the baby? It's a boy, you know; they told me. Where is Svoboda? Let me hold him."
"Soon, dear, soon. I just want you to know that I love you, and love him -- that it's only the skin, mere appearance... It's the spirit that makes a person..."
"What's wrong?" she asked, sitting up, despite the pain. Suddenly, she screamed, louder than she had in the worst pangs of childbirth. The Doctor was standing at the door with the baby in his arms. In the middle of the baby's face, between the mouth and the nose, instead of an upper lip, there was a gaping hole.
"You have a fine son," the Doctor began, his face flushed, his voice shaking, trying to be calm, professional, and reassuring, but not succeeding. "There's just this one minor defect -- this cleft in the lip. It's only cosmetic. Only his looks are affected. He's a fine, healthy boy."
Katya stared at the Doctor and at the baby, bewildered and frightened.
Gavril quickly got up, took hold of his son, and brought him over to the bed, "He's a fine boy," he echoed. "Just this one minor defect."
"Take him away!" she shrieked, backing away and nearly falling off the other side of the bed. "He's cursed! I'm cursed for my sins, and he with me. Lord have mercy!"
"Silence!" came a command from the doorway. Butorin smiled, pleased to have an audience once again. Then he hesitated. The candle in his hand trembled. He grasped it with both hands, but it trembled still more. He stared at it, puzzled, then frightened. The candle and his hands swung left, then right. It was as if the candle were moving by itself and he were trying to restrain it. He moved forward as if pulled by the candle, and held it tight while it made the sign of the cross in front of Gavril, in front of Katya, and then in front of the squirming new-born.
Everyone was silent until Butorin himself solemnly intoned, "He is blessed!" Then he heaved a sigh of relief that this was right, that he had done what he should, and that the candle was once again an ordinary candle. Pleased, he repeated loudly, "Blessed!"
Then he took a drop of hot wax and placed it in the gap below the boy's nose. "Blessed," he whispered again.
And Gavril repeated it, and Sonya, and the Professor.
Then Katya reached out to take hold of her son, and bared her breast for him to suck.
"Just hold him for now," the Doctor reacted quickly and sympathetically. "He can't suck with that lip. No need to worry. There are other ways to feed him. But he doesn't need food right now -- just love, and lots of it."
A few hours later, Butorin, Shemelin, and Sofronov were already on a train to Tsarskoye Selo. Butorin talked endlessly, while his friends, curled up on nearby seats, tried to sleep. With the fine clothes and coats and boots that Sonya and Beth had provided, they all had been able to buy first class tickets. All three of them, nostalgic with memories of Manchuria, were anxious to find Bulatovich, and, if possible, join his squadron.
Back at the house, too tired to sleep, Sonya and her friend Dottie sat by the dining room table. Dottie's husband, Captain Azbotkin, lay in a drunken stupor on a nearby couch. Occasionally, they heard the baby cry upstairs.
All the servants except Matryona had long since gone to bed or returned home.
"Sonya," Dottie began, "you know that problem of yours? I've been thinking about it. I think you should pray for the wisdom to accept the things that you cannot change. When a man reaches a certain age, and some reach it before others..."
"But that's not the problem," Sonya started to reply, then stopped short.
"What was that?" Dottie asked wearily.
Sonya was too tired to explain. She leaned back and shut her eyes and half-dreamed, half-remembered. Yesterday morning, when the Professor was angry and looked like he was about to hit her, he had this bulge in his trousers. Remembering the scene, she could see it clearly, right near her face as she lay on the floor. He wasn't limp then. He had the capacity. Was it anger that aroused him, the desire to hurt her? Or was it the thought of his first wife? He had called her "Elena... Lena.. darling..." as he sank to his knees and started babbling apologies. His anger and his thoughts of his first wife had accomplished what she, with all her beauty and wiles and tenderness, had failed to do.
She woke up and realized that Dottie was talking to her and had been for some time.
"When we're young and inexperienced, we get these exalted notions of men and love, of what physical love will be like. And I suppose there's still a touch of the romantic in me. I need to dream. I suppose the older we get and the more certain we get that romance is a sham, the more we need to dream. I read lots of those kinds of novels now. We can enjoy dreams, but at the same time, we must remember that we are adults, and not confuse dreams with reality, not go moping about because reality doesn't live up to our naive expectations. We must be mature enough to accept our lot and thank God for it. When I heard you had maried an older man, I thought you had come to that conclusion, too; that you were through chasing after mad heroes, like that Bulatovich of yours, and had found a stable, substantial, caring man with whom you could be comfortable and content."
"But the Professor isn't old," Sonya replied emphatically. "His mind is vigorous and strong. And I love him -- truly I do." She felt tears dripping down her face as she realized that she meant what she was saying. "It's just this minor problem. It's me, really, I'm sure, not him. My wanting physical love is the problem. Love is more than just physical -- it has to be or I don't know who I am anymore."
"Then there isn't another man -- a 'real' man, as you put it?"
"No, of course not. How could you think..."
"Enough. I believe I get the picture, and I believe I have the advice, too. That's what you want, isn't it? Advice from an experienced old married woman like myself? Go to Kronstadt on the Island of Kotlin, to the Cathedral of St. Andrew, to the Piest, Father Ioann Sergiev -- 'Father John' most call him. You probably won't be able to speak to him in person. The cathedral is always full to capacity. Go early so you can find a place to kneel, close enough so you can see his face and hear his voice. It's easy this time of year. Just take the train to Oranienbaum, and then a sledge across the ice to Kronstadt. It's said that he has a way of moving the soul, purging it of guilt and inner troubles. People come thousands of miles to unburden themseles of their sins and troubles, seeking peace of mind and of body, as well -- for it's reputed that he has made miraculous cures of physical ailments."
"I can see you sending me to a priest, but why to him in particular?"
"Because there is no one else like him in the Orthodox Church. Because just to be there is an unforgettable, moving experience that can restore you faith. To be one with over five thousand people, all confessing aloud, many sobbing sincerely, praying to the Lord of forgiveness. Also, because you and he may have some affinity. He's married. As you know, all priests who are not monks, who minister to the public, are required to marry before they can be ordained. He wanted to devote his life to the poor and the hungry and the downtrodden; so he married and became a priest. But it's reputed that after nearly fifty years of marriage, he and his wife are both still virgins -- not from any physical defect, but from choice, a choice that is an expression of their respect for one another and their love of God. Go and see him, and sense in his presence what true Christian love can be."
St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, March 2 (February 17 old style), 1902
[draft of April 8, 1989, revised March 1998]
In a hired sleigh on the way to the train station, Vaska sat with his head nestled on Bulatovich's shoulder. At last he was being carried away from the cold confines of the Generalsha's house to visit the fabled "regiment" and to live forever with his beloved father.
But he must remember, he told himself, not to be too good. It wasn't good to be too good, though he couldn't fathom why. He must be mischievous at times. Real boys were mischievous.
Now he was just curious. "Who's in your squadron, father, now that you have your own squadron?"
Alex gave Vaska a gentle squeeze, then took off his own cap and put it on Vaska's head. "You remember Zelepukin?"
"My orderly, back when we were in Ethiopia."
"You must mean Mustache."
"He had this mustache that curled back on itself twice."
'He still does."
"It bounced so funny when he laughed. I'd pull it; and he'd laugh; and it would bounce. 'Mustache' is the first word of Russian I learned."
"It was? I thought it was 'more', as in 'give me more.'"
Vaska laughed, "Well, Mustache is the name I knew him by."
"He's a sergeant now in my squadron. And Kapnin, too. You'll see them today."
"Kapnin? I don't know him."
"He was my orderly on my last trip to Ethiopia. He saved my life -- shot an enraged elephant that was within inches of crushing me. I've known him and Zelepukin for years. We were recruits together before I became an officer."
"Wha does Kapnin look like, father? Tell me so I can shut my eyes and see him."
Alex took off his glasses and chewed on the frame. "Muscles and muscles on top of muscles. He never rests. He's always building up his body. He carries a rubber ball in his pocket to squeeze at odd moments. He would rather run in place than stand still. When he raises his eyebrows, I'm never sure if he's surprised, or if that's just another exercise."
"And the rest. Tell me about all of them."
"No, not all of them," chuckled Alex. "But I will tell you about the Mazeppy."
"Who are they?"
"Well, only one of them has been with me all along -- Starodubov, my orderly now. But when I telephoned the squadron this morning, they told me that two more had showed up yesterday, looking for me. From their descriptions, they sound like Sofronov and Shemelin or maybe Butorin. I gave orders to welcome them if they return; and I'd wager that they will soon. We might even see them at this morning's drill. Another, named Laperdin, is working in a nursing home in St. Petersburg. We may see him soon, too. They all fought under me in Manchuria. They're from Siberia, out beyond Lake Baikal -- the frontier country near the Chinese border. They called me 'Mazeppa" as my squadron here does."
Alex paused a moment. "I suppose it started here as an insult and a joke. I was in charge of the training detachment, and the men thought me a strict task master. Mazeppa was a rebel traitor in the days of Peter the Great. That was probably the nastiest name they could think of. At first it bothered me when I found out they were calling me that behind my back. But the next day when they were noisy at drill, I yelled at them in anger, 'Silence! Mazeppa wants silence!' They snapped to attention immediately. I don't know whether it was the new tone in my voice or that my use of the name let them know I knew of their insubordination. But there was fear in their eyes, and they obeyed me without hesitation. After that, whenever I was particularly serious, I adopted that tone and called myself by that name. I haven't had a discipline problem since. The name that started as a joke has become a mark of pride. They are proud to serve Mazeppa. And the name followed me even to Manchuria."
"How did a soldier from Manchuria end up in your squadron?"
"He followed me here, and I used my influence on his behalf."
"Well, tell me about Starodubov," Vaska insisted, shutting his eyes tight, so he could imagine better.
"He's a gray-haired peasant giant, awkward on a horse, but fearless in battle. He's a fine craftsman with a knife. He appreciates things of beauty, and is deft at stealing what he appreciates. He hovers about and worries over me as if I were his son. He stuck by me all through Manchuria, to Japan, and back to Manchuria again. When it was all over, he came back here with me. There's no getting rid of him, and no way I'd want to. A man couldn't ask for a better companion."
"And the rest? What are they like?"
"Shemelin is an excellent horseman and an earnest student -- a peasant who somehow taught himself to read and now wants to read everything."
"But what's he look like?"
"That depends on what side you look at him from. He has a scar over his left eye that gives that side of his face a fierce and oriental look. From the right side, he looks humble, like a servant. But looks don't mirror personality, at least not in his case. The scar was just an accident of war.
"Sofronov is altogether different. He is haughty, proud, and pedantic. His character shows from the way he holds his head high, the thin line of his ips, and the deep furrows in his brow that he seems to have cultivated as a sign of seriousness. Fortunately, like the rest of us, he has less control over himself than he would like. At times, he forgets how great he is. Then he can be a brave and unselfish comrade.
"Butorin has a long lean horse face with dark leathery skin, and he often has a mad look in his eye, like a shaman in touch with the dead. That's probably how he'd like people to see him. But despite all his showmanship, there is something uncanny about the things he knows without having been told or taught. In Manchuria, he was our guide and interpreter. Here I suspect he'll be our clown and soothsayer, a welcome addition to an otherwise serious set of career soldiers."
"You must know your men very well to describe them like that,"noted Vaska, trying to sound grownup.
"Not nearly well enough," replied Alex thoughtfully.
"And how would you describe yourself?"
"Ten feet tall, with a long green beard and seven arms."
"And how would you describe me?" asked Vaska, still maintaining a serious tone.
mischievous little rascal," Alex answered, grabbing him and
tickling him to the boy's infinite delight.
With the rhythmic rattling of the train to Tsarskoye Selo, it wasn't long before Alex, still weary, dozed off.
Once again he dreamt he was on a mountaintop beside the spring. Once again he labored to make that barren spot an oasis. But this time he was not alone. Dozens, no, hundreds of men were running in relays, passing along to one another sacks of soil and plum trees, rose bushes, lilies... an endless flow of vegetation -- as if this oasis were a Noah's Ark where all plants had to be represented.
The Mazeppy were there -- mad Butorin, earnest Shemelin, pompous Sofronov, towering gray Starodubov, over-anxious Pyotr, and Laperdin the political gadfly. The men of the fifth squadron were there too -- just the enlisted men, led by sergeants Kapnin and Zelepukin.
Then, instead of running, they were all riding bicycles, with their burdens tied to their backs -- an endless line of bicycles, as far as the eye could see -- and the work went far faster. Together they were transforming this one small piece of the planet, until Colonel Molchanov arrived...
"Bicycles!" Molchanov exclaimed. "Brilliant idea. Very efficient, I can see. But we must not forget the honor of the regiment. We are horsemen first and foremost."
Suddenly, the bicycles turned into horses, and, on the side of the mountain, there appeared stables and granaries and the shops of blacksmiths, harness makers, and wheelwrights. Soon the bags of dirt brought from many miles away were dumped near the stables, and oats were planted there, and other food corps for the multitide of people in the new town.
Soon there was a police station, a jail, a town hall, and government offices with names five and six words long. Then the town was so big the water of the spring and the food grown on the hillside were not enough for all those people and horses. Food and water had to be carted in at great expense.
As far as the eye could see, there was an endless line of horse-drawn carts, bringing supplies to the town. No one was left to carry anything up to the spring at the top of the mountain. No one had time to care for it or for the exotic plants which now withered and died in the harsh climate.
Then one day, a bright young man, who looked very much like Bulatovich, protested at the terrible waste of maintaining a town this size in the middle of nowhere. "What's the purpose of this town?" he asked.
"It's been here as long as anyone can remember," answered the town's people. "It's a time-honored tradition."
"If it has no purpose, it has no right to exist," insisted this dream Bulatovich. "It should be dismantled, and all this effort and expense should be put to use somewhere else, where it's truly needed."
He, the real Bulatovich, started to explain about the spring and its purpose and his purpose of giving it a purpose. But no one listened. Perhaps no one heard. He couldn't even hear himself -- yelling silently on a barren mountainside.
Father!" Vaska shook him anxiously until he awoke. "The train
has stopped. I think we're there."
Prince General Sergei Vassilchikov felt torn between his duty as an officer of the Guard and his instincts as a father. For nearly eight years, he had thought of Bulatovich as the future husband of his only child. He had watched him mature and toughen, had followed his triumphs and frustrations. Now that his daughter had gone her own headstrong way, he felt all the more attached to the man who should have been his son-in-law -- this bold and foolish younger copy of himself.
Just yesterday, in going through the attic, he had found an old photo of himself and been surprised to see that their faces were quite similar -- like members of the same family. They had the same rectangular head, high cheek bones, firm jaw, and thin lips set hard and straight. And, like everyone else chosen for His Majesty's Hussar Guards, they were short of stature, like jockeys.
In the incident with the Grand Duke, the Prince's first reaction had been shock at such a breech of decorum. He had held back while Molchanov stepped forward and risked his career in Bulatovich's defense.
After the ceremonies, there in the Tauride Palace and just outside, Bulatovich, who had been relatively unknown before, became notorious, as tales of his heroics and his defiance of authority quickly spread. One new and persistent rumor asserted that he was training his men on bicycles and doing it at the connivance of his commanding officer, right in the regimental hippodrome.
The first time the Prince heard of that project, he had laughed it off as a joke. But he soon realized that the tale was too much in character not to be true. So he refrained from defending Bulatovich from his detractors, and declined as well an invitation to the party Molchanov had hurriedly arranged. Best that he distance himself publicly from Bulatovich so if matters came to another crisis he could quietly use his influence to protect this almost son-in-law from these willful acts of self-destruction. By protecting Bulatovich, he reminded himself, he would be defending the reputation of the regiment.
The next morning, he went straight to the hippodrome, alone. Sergeant Zelepukin was standing guard.
"Good morning, your excellency," Zelepukin smartly saluted.
"Carry on," repied the Prince-General, returning the salute and moving toward the door.
But Zelepukin adroitly slid in front of him and apologized. "Excuse me, your excellency, but I have strict orders that no one is to disturb the drill in progress."
"And I am countermanding that order," replied the Prince-General, reaching for the doorknob.
Zelepukin firmly, but gently pushed his arm aside.
"I have my orders, your excellency."
"And I'll have your head!" bellowed the Prince-General. He was angry not at the soldier's thick-headed loyalty, but rather at Bulatovich because this unprecedented level of security seemed to confirm the rumors.
Just then, he heard from behind him a shrill shriek, "Hello, Mustache!" Before he had time to turn and look, his feet were knocked out from under him, and he fell over backwards on the ice.
He quickly jumped to his feet and drew his saber, "How dare you..." he began. Then he saw it was a little black boy who had slid into him. "Damnation! What are you doing here? This is no place for servant boys to be running about. Who do you belong to?"
The boy tried to smile his winningest smile, slowly, cautiously backing up; but he slipped again and sat in the snow.
"He's mine, Prince-General Vassilchikov!" came a shout from the distance.
"Ah! Bulatovich! Alexander Xavierevich. The man I've been looking for." The Prince-General hastened forward to meet him. "This sergeant of yours has unaccountably refused me access to the hippodrome," he explained, in mock surprise, indicating by his tone that he knew perfectly well what they had to hide.
"No probelm, you excellency."
"No problem?" the Prince-General continued, in the same knowing tone. "Indeed! For that act of insubordination he deserves at least a month in the guardhouse, and maybe a good flogging as well."
"Then I'm the one at fault, our excellency," Bulatovich humbly admitted.
"Indeed?" the Prince-General led him on, hoping for a quick confession and resolution of this potentially dangerous situation.
"He was following my orders... Let me explain," Alex offered, leading the Prince-General off to the side.
"What mischief are you up to this time? What deep dark secret do you have to hide in there?" the Prince-General prompted.
Bulatovich hesitated, glanced toward the black boy, then at the Prince-General with a look of inspiration. "It's a surprise, a special entertainment the men have been preparing for Vaska here. You remember Vaska, don't you, your excellency? The boy from Ethiopia? Zelepukin was just over-zealous in his execution of my orders."
The Prince-Geneal was amused and pleased that his "son" had so quickly invented so convenient a tale. Now they could avoid direct confrontation and both save face. Taking the cue, he asked, "What sort of entertainment?"
"Bicycles," Alex admitted.
"Bicylces?" asked the Prince-General in mock surprise.
"Yes," he elaborated. "Circus-like maneuers on bicycles... including a motor bicycle. The boy is wild about bicycles, and a number of the men are keenly competitive and quite proficient with them." The Prince-General was ominously silent, so Alex quickly added, "It's a hobby they've taken up... with my encouragement."
"Indeed? How very like the rumors I've heard."
"That you were conducting training on bicycles, which clearly you have. Unfortunately, there's been some misunderstanding regarding the purpose of the training. These rumors are most unfortunate, I'm sure that you can appreciate, reflecting as they do on the honor of the regiment."
"And what, precisely, has been rumored?" Alex asked cautiously.
The Prince-General wore a smile of condescension, as if proud to have so quickly taken command of a delicate political situation. "In substance, I'm sure the rumors are quite absurd -- that you, of all people, the finest horseman in the hussars, were conspiring -- yes, that's the word they used, 'conspiring' -- to have us all switch from horses to bicycles. I heard it first from a stable boy. He wanted to know if he would lose his job when the horses went, or if he could find work as a mechanic. Then I heard some indignant lieutenant protest that he, for one, would never parade in front of the Tsar on a bicycle, like a schoolboy; that he'd resign his commission rather than face such humiliation. Yes, it's gone quite far, quite far enough. Whatever your true intentions, I'm sure you recognize we must stop these rumors now. The hobby is finished."
"Yes, your excellency," replied Alex, maintaining his outward composure, despite his deep frustration and disappointment.
"You must show me this entertainment, this final entertainment of yours," the Prince-General continued expansively. "I've always had a keen interest in mechanical gadgetry. I'm even considering buying a motor car -- for my personal use, of course. As we all know, such things have no place in the military. But we all have our personal interests and hobbies. We just must remember not to let our enthusiasm for those hobbies to cloud our professional judgement, and not to allow our actions to become subject to misinterpretation and loose talk.
"But why am I telling you this? You were never one to put your personal interests above your duty. On the contrary, if anything, you err in the opposite direction -- chasing off to Ethiopia and Manchuria, rather than further your career here... and even rather than marry that daughter of mine," he added with a self-indulgent chuckle.
"How is Sonya, your excellency?"
"She's into more mischief. Damn it, boy, why didn't you marry her? She as good as threw herself at you. She was always such a hot-tempered filly. But you could have tamed her, if anyone could. I used too loose a rein on her. I let her find her own way. She is so full of lust for life. I didn't want to kill that in her. I loved her for that. It's so hard to be harsh to the ones you love, even when they need it -- especially when they need it. Her mother would have been harsher if I'd let her. A touch of jealousy there, I think; or a cooler head than mine.
"Now that damned fool husband of hers indulges her every whim. The doddering fool -- he's worse than her father, I'd say. He's at least as old as me, I'm sure.
"She has no judgment. She has all wit and no judgment. She needs someone strong, like you, to judge for her.
"That husband of hers let her throw a party last night that is already the talk and scandal of all Petersburg. Pickpockets among the guests. A mad magician. And the centerpiece was a girl of the streets who gave birth to a freak right in the drawing room, with everyone looking on. That part is so outrageous that no rumor-monger would have made it up. It's so absurd it, reeks of truth.
"But I'm holding you up and you have a party of your own here. Let's show the boy his surprise."
The hippodrome had been set up with a challening obstacle course, like a steeplechase. Two dozen men were racing around on bicycles, to the cheers of dozens more on the sidelines. There were steep ramps leading to jumps, deep ditch-like inclines, water hazards, inclines that twisted left then right, sudden turns, and a long straightaway to the finish.
The crowd cheered as the first hussar crossed the finish line.
"Is that Muscles?" asked Vaska.
"Yes, that's Kapnin," answered Alex.
"What kind of bicycles are these?" asked the Prince-General, taking hold of one that was parked near the entrance. "They don't look at all like the ones I rode as a child. Why, the front and back wheels are both the same size."
"Yes, there have been a number of improvements in recent years," Alex noted, with rising hope and enthusiasm. He straddled it to demonstrate its features. "This style is known as a 'safety.' It's made in England. The seat is far back so the rider can't be thrown forward over the handlebars. The motion is transmitted by this chain from the pedals to the sprockets on the back wheel. The tires are inflated rubber, for improved comfort and increased speed. This model has three gears, so the rider can alter the ratio between the speed of his pedalling and the speed of rotation of the driving wheel, to match the grade of the road."
"It seems remarkably sturdy."
"It's light as well -- less than twenty-five pounds."
"But we must remember," the Prince-General insisted, jovially, "it's only a toy."
"Some people have come to think differently," Alex ventured. "Why, it was nearly twenty years ago, before all these innovations, that Thomas Stevens rode a bicycle around the world and H.L.Cortis rode twenty miles in an hour."
"All downhill, I presume," added the Prince-General.
"Since then, there have been many proofs of the machine's durability," Alex continued, to press his point. "A couple years ago, E. Hale covered 32,496 miles in 313 days on a bicycle like this one. At the instigation of the manufacturers, many men have devoted themselves to cycling a hundred miles a day for many days on end."
"Indeed," noted the skeptical Prince-General, "if one could believe the statements of manufacturers and hucksters."
"The English take it quite seriously."
"As well they might. They take all their profitable ventures seriously. Theirs is a very commerce-driven society; and bicycles, as I understand it, are a booming business there."
"But, your excellency, even the military there takes them seriously. Why back in 1887, a Colonel Savile organized the first military cycle maneuvers, and the British army has been holding them regularly ever since."
"More politics, I'm sure," insisted the Prince-General. "Parliament and commerce and politics. I pity the true professional soldiers of that country for what they must put up with in the meddling of peddlers and parliamentarians. Thank God for autocracy and tradition and self-respect." He crossed himself quickly, but solemnly. "But you mentioned a motor-driven bicycle," he added with evident curiosity.
"Yes, your excellency," Alex replied, leading him to it, like a salesman showing goods to a prospective customer. "This is one of the very first. They just came on the market last year. It weighs about 200 pounds and operates at a maximum of 2,000 revolutions per minute. The gasoline engine relieves the rider of all physical exertion, except at starting. It's a powerful machine, but rather difficult to control" Vaska gleefully hopped onto the seat. "Rather like a young boy," Alex noted.
"It takes three levers to control the speed," he went on. "The throttle here; the extra air valve; and over here the spark advance... Don't touch," he quickly told Vaska. "The engine is air-cooled. On level ground, you can open the throttle and advance the spark for high speed, or partially close the throttle and retard the spark for slow speed. You can get extra power to go up a steep incline by partially closing the extra air opening... Don't touch," he told Vaska again. "But when you close that opening," he continued, "the cylinder walls can become overheated unless you move fast. Also, since the engine is unsteady at slow speed, you have to resort to pedaling for starting and for riding in slow traffic."
"Most interesting," the Prince-General noted hurriedly. He had recognized the two peasants who had sat in front of his office yesterday and whom his daughter had scandalously taken to her party. He was intrigued by the equipment and impressed by the skill displayed here; but peasants like these were unpredictable. If they recognized him, they might be so bold as to address him directly and bring that regrettable incident to everyone's attention. He preferred to avoid such embarrassment. So, with a show of generosity and firmness, he quickly concluded, "Perhaps one day, perhaps even in your lifetime, such machines may be far enough advanced to serve legitimate military purposes. Indeed, I hope that does come to pass -- in the fullness of time, of course, and after due deliberation, in a manner consistent with our pride and traditions. Far be it from me to stand in the way of progress. But for now, I'm sure you understand full well the importance of removing these contraptions from the premises of the regiment to avoid any further misunderstandings regarding their premature adoption. Good day to you, Alexander Xavierevich; and to you, too, Vaska. I hope you enjoy your entertainment." With that the Prince-General took his leave.
Meanwhile, the cycling exercises had continued unabated. A new team was racing around the course, while on the sidelines others practiced tricks, such as doing handstands on the seat and handlebars.
Suddenly, Starodubov faltered at a jump and fell sideways, knocking three others off course. They all tumbled to the ground. Shouts arose. A fight started.
"Halt!" ordered Alex, and the fighting stopped instantly. Starodubov lowered his burden to the ground, and the others untangled themselves.
"What's the meaning of this, Kapnin?" Alex insisted.
"This clumsy peasant doesn't belong in our regiment, sir. He's a hazard and a nuisance -- far too big for this kind of duty. That's the third bicycle Starodubov has wrecked this week. We're lucky he hasn't broken someone's neck with these accidents of his. And now you've asked us to take on three more like him."
"No, sir, begging your pardon, sir. Shemelin and Sofronov are learning fast, sir. And Butorin rides as if he knew how to all along, like he was born riding a bicycle."
"They treat us like scum," added Sofronov.
"It's a matter of the honor of the regiment," explained Kapnin. "It's not fitting that raw frontier peasants like these..."
Alex interrupted him, "It's not fitting that a sergeant second-guess his commanding officer. I judge and value men not by their appearance or their background..."
"Help!" They a high piercing cry and at the same time the roar of an engine from the other side of the hippodrome. Vaska, in his curiosity, had started the motor bicycle and was racing off on it along the obstacle course. In seconds, before anyone had a chance to react and run, he was at the jump and flying over the heads of astonished soldiers. As he landed -- miraculously on balance, clinging desperately to the handlebars -- he shouted, "How do I stop it?"
"Shut off the throttle!' shouted Alex and half a dozen others in unison. But Vaska was already far off, and, with the roar of the engine, he probably couldn't hear.
Kapnin and Butorin quickly grabbed their bicycles and raced off after him, but the engine carried Vaska far faster. Again he came to the jump, and made it again, screaming "Help!" so loudly that he couldn't hear their shouted instructions.
As he overtook Kapnin and Butorin from behind, he accidentally forced Kapnin to tumble sideways off a ramp. Seconds later, Butorin leapt, caught hold of the seat with one hand, and was dragged for twenty feet through dirt and sawdust before he let go.
Meanwhile, Alex grabbed hold of an exercise rope that dangled from the high ceiling. Just as Vaska successfully completed his third awkward jump, Alex swung overhead, landed on the seat behind him, shut off the throttle and brought the cycle to a halt.
After having completed that incredibly difficult feat, while dismounting, Alex slipped on a wet spot and fell into a water hazard.
Everyone in the squadron, including Alex himself, broke into a loud laugh of relief.
Kapnin and Butorin shook hands and compared bruises. Starodubov put Vaska on his shoulders and ran once around the course with him. Zelepukin brought Alex a towel.
When the commotion had settled down, Alex, the towel still over his shoulder, stood at the top of the jump and addressed them all, "That's it, men -- a fitting finish to our project."
"Finish?" they asked.
finish. We'll have to pack up the bicycles and forget it, at
least for now. Orders from on high. And as for me, I'll be gone,
too, at least for six months. They're packing me off to school
to teach me how to be a proper officer. While I'm gone,
however long that may be, there are a few things I want you to
remember. In battle, quality counts for more than quantity. All
men are born equal. That I firmly believe. We are all God's
slaves and, as such, equal the day we're born. But we don't stay
that way. Some, by self-control and talent and effort, rise
above the mediocrity of the crowd. You are such men. You
are the best. Hand-picked. The finest soldiers in the finest
regiment in the Russian army. If you should be called on
to serve in battle, it is your duty to set an example for the
rest, to be in the forefront, to inspire awe int he enemy and to
spur the rest of the army to emulate you. In cavalry formation,
your strength comes from your discipline, your uniformity, your
uniform excellence. But once your formation is broken, as
often happens in battle, you must fight as individuals. Remember
then that intensity and individual excellence far outweigh
numbers. Remember that true strength in battle comes not from
physical size, but form self-control and individual initiative.
Of course, a stray bullet may stop you no matter how good you
are -- and you are all good -- remember that and respect that,
every one of you. But luck might just as well be on your side;
and if it is, and you act decisively, concentrating your
attention and your efforts, not panicking, you each as
individuals can accomplish more than entire squadrons. Farewell.
And may God be with you."
[draft of April 8, 1989, revised March 1998]
As the train to Oranienbaum followed the coast, winding past the lunatic asylum and the Monastery of St. Sergius, Sonya tried to concentrate on her reading. But Dottie and Father Gapon kept chattering away. Why had she suggested that they come along? Or who had suggested it? Wasn't it Dottie who had reminded her that Father Gapon's orphanage depended on the charity of Father John of Kronstadt?
Father John had a large and enthusiastic following and received donations from Russians of all walks of life. These donations far exceeded even the fabulous income of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. But Father John chose to use that money not to embellish a monastery, but rather to care for the poor and the needy, feeding over a thousand destitute persons a day, and giving support to numerous charitable institutions, like Father Gapon's.
It would have been awkward for Sonya to go to Kronstadt alone. Sonya wasn't known for her religious fervor, and she couldn't explain to her husband that it was his impotence and her desire for children, and her unsatisfied lust as well, that had led to her moral quandary and her need for spiritual comfort. So here was Father Gapon, who had to make a trip to Kronstadt anyway, and exuberant, kind-hearted Dottie.
Dottie had stayed at Sonya's for several days after the party, helping with Katya and Katya's baby. Then she had visited other friends in Petersburg for a few weeks, after her husband returned to Finland.
Perhaps it was just as well that Dottie was along on this trip, listening to Father Gapon's pronouncements on the deplorable housing conditions of factory workers and to his boasting about his friends in "high places," and what General Kleigels or Vladimir Sabler thought about his various proposals.
He was a good sort. Sonya sympathized with his intents, but cringed at his vanity. She wished him well, but, above all, wished him quiet.
As the train passed the Imperial Palace at Peterhof, where Nicholas and Alexandra had spent the first summer of their marriage, Sonya concentrated on reading the passages on marriage and love in First Corinthians. The thirteenth chapter had long been a comfort and inspiration to her. "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things. Love never ends..."
That pure enduring love was the ideal toward which she strove.
But Paul's ascetic precepts clouded that pure vision. Why this perverse distinction between spiritual and sexual love? How could someone who wrote so eloquently of love have so little sympathy for and understanding of sex?
As she understood it, true love had to be more than physical, but it couldn't be just spiritual either. If God's creation was holy, so was reproduction. If God revealed His will through evolution and history and human progress, then it must be His will that we be fruitful and multiply. If God created us with these appetites, if He gave us these bodies that seek to be joined, how could it be wrong to join them?
Paul reluctantly conceded that most people did have sexual desires and recommended that those who could not control such desires should get married and confine that distasteful behavior to the marriage bed. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights..."
But what if the husband could not perform? Wasn't love without sex between a husband and a wife, or any man and woman who truly loved one another, as unnatural and degrading as sex without love?
"Do not refuse one another," said Paul, "except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again; lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control."
The train screeched to a halt just beyond Peterhof. Conductors raced back and forth, explaining to first class passengers that a snowdrift was blocking the track, and it would take a few minutes for workmen to clear the way.
Father Gapon kept talking, and Dottie kept listening as if nothing had happened. But Sonya grew restless. Would she arrive at Kronstadt in time for the service? She got up and walked to the end of the now-empty corridor, trying to get a better view of what was going on. Then, on her way back, she came to an abrupt halt.
An enormously tall, gray-haired peasant was standing in front of her compartment. With his head bent down to avoid hitting the ceiling, he seemed to glare down at her, threateningly.
"Help!" she screamed.
Frightened, the giant awkwardly tried to get by her.
Knocked off balance, she grabbed for a railing that wasn't there, caught hold of the end of his tunic, and, barely staying on her feet, was yanked down the corridor and into the next compartment.
"You brute! You thief!" she hollered, as she pummeled him from behind with her small fists and the pointed toes of her fur-lined boots.
Father Gapon came running out, "What's the meaning..." A back-swipe of the giant's forearm, sent him sprawling on the floor.
"Help!" screamed Sonya and Dottie, too, who had come running, wildly whacking at him with her handbag.
The peasant took Sonya in one arm and Dottie in the other, muffling their cries with his palms. "It's all right, ma'am. It's all right," he whispered anxiously. "I've done nothing like you say, ma'am." He held them close and restrained them, but gently, as if he were comforting a child in distress.
He let Sonya go first. She looked up at him and saw a kindly, weather-beaten face, with a long white beard. His blue eyes, so light they seemed transparent, drew her in, compelling trust, like the eyes of a saint on an icon.
Then she saw Father Gapon coming up behind him, wielding a metal bar. "Stop!" she hollered. "It's all right."
Gapon dropped the bar and crossed himself. "Thank God," he sighed.
"Who are you?" Sonya asked softly.
"Starodubov," the peasant replied, setting Dottie down cautiously, with a hand at the ready, to ward off new swings of the handbag. "Old Oak, if you will," he continued. "Some call me Old Blockhead or Old Thief."
"Then you are a thief," Dottie blurted out in surprise.
"No. Not now ma'am. I have no need to be stealing now," he reassured her, with an anxious, humble tone to his voice.
Sonya smiled. He smiled back. And Dottie and Father Gapon laughed in relief.
Just then, Sonya heard a voice from the next car, a familiar voice, though she couldn't place it. Footsteps came their way and the voice called, "Hey! Old Blockhead, haven't you found a better compartment by now? The whole car seems empty."
"Here, sir," the peasant replied, and stepped forward to meet him.
At the door appeared Staff-Rotmister Alexander Bulatovich, in full dress uniform.
To her surprise, Sonya felt as excited and self-conscious as she would have been in the presence of a celebrity or of the Tsar himself. She backed away quietly and quickly, taking a seat in a corner, hoping he hadn't seen her; watching his reflection in the window.
"What trouble have you gotten yourself into now?" he asked the peasant, seeing the priest with a metal bar at his feet and Dottie, her dress and hair all askew from the tussle. When there was no immediate answer, he quickly explained, "This is my orderly, Starodubov. Our compartment was drafty. I sent him looking for a new one. I hope he didn't frighten you. That's been known to happen before. I should have known better. He's rather large and inclined to be awkward in dealing with strangers."
Alex's beard wasn't as full and long as Sonya remembered it. He must have shaved it off, and it had not yet fully grown back. She liked him better with this short beard. It left intact the strong line of his jaw and chin, the natural harmony of his face.
He was wearing his red hussar's cap with the visor unusually low, covering the top of his wire-rimmed glasses and shading his eyes. His coat, draped about his shoulders, was open in front, displaying the full splendor of his dress uniform -- the scarlet tunic with gold braid, the gold sash about his waist, blue trousers and well-polished knee-high boots. He looked magnificent -- his muscular body pressing tightly against the clothes that contained it.
Sonya herself was wearing a brown cloth coat and a loose-fitting dress borrowed from her maid. In the cathedral, she would be shoulder-to-shoulder with peasants and working-class people. Dressing like them had helped put her in a penitent, receptive, Lenten frame of mind. But now she wished she had at least worn a simple gold cross on a chain or a white sash about the waist -- anything to make herself more presentable.
Reflected in the window she saw that Old Oak had stepped aside, and Alex was staring at her. She turned to face him.
"Sonya!" he exclaimed joyfully, taking her hands in his. "And beautiful, as always."
Blushing, she introduced him to the others. "Dottie, Father Gapon, I'd like you to meet Staff-Rotmister Alexander Xavierevich Bulatovich, of His Majesty's Hussar Guards, my father's old regiment. These are my friends Dottie Azbotkina and Father Georgii Apollonovich Gapon, who you may have heard of for his social work in the port districts."
Alex clicked his heels, military-style, bowed at the waist and kissed Dottie's hand. She smiled and beamed, but didn't say a word, awed by his presence.
"Ah, Dottie, it's been years," he said. "I had heard that you had married an officer. And how are Stepan and Mariya?" he turned to Sonya to explain, "Her parents and I were close friends before all my travelling, even before I met you. I seem to have lost touch with everyone."
As he paid his respects to Father Gapon, Sonya noted the sharp contrast in their clothes -- the priest's plain black against the bright colors of a Hussar Guards officer. But aside from their clothes, the two men were remarkably similar -- the same age, dark complexion, dark hair, black beard. They were the same height -- below average, but a good height for light cavalry. Sasha looked far more robust and stronger, but if Father Gapon had cut his hair short and trimmed his beard they looked enough alike to be from the same Guards regiment. They could have even been brothers.
It was traditional that each of the Guards regiments pick horses that matched and men that matched -- to give a totally uniform and impressive appearance. The Hussar Guards, including Alex and Sonya's father, were all short and dark. She had grown up with that as her masculine ideal.
Now, everyone, including Starodubov, took seats in Sonya's compartment.
"You have a Ukrainian accent," noted Alex.
"Yes," admitted Father Gapon, "I'm from a humble village in Poltava Province."
"Then we're countrymen. I come from Kharkov Province, near Sumy, next to the border with Poltava."
"And for a time you were both in the same business," added Sonya.
"And what was that?" asked Alex.
"Why charity, of course." She turned toward Gapon and explained, "When he graduated from the Lycee, Sasha here was offered a job in the offices of the Educational and Charitable Institutions of the Empress Mariya. But he decided it would be more fun to parade about in a pretty uniform."
"And a good thing, too," noted Alex with smile. "You'd have never looked at me twice if it weren't for the uniform."
"On the contrary," she joshed him, "you have the most handsome... glasses." She plucked them from his nose, looked at them closely, then put them on herself. "Why knowing you changed my whole outlook on life... made everything so bright and big and blurry." She looked at him over the tops of the rims. "Yes, being in love with you was an unforgettable experience."
"You were in love?" asked Father Gapon, in surprise.
"That's what we called it," confirmed Sonya. "To me, he was like a storybook hero. He was the finest horseman in Russia -- quite literally. He won the steeplechase year after year."
"Only twice," he interrupted, with an embarrassed grin.
"And then he went dashing off to Ethiopia. That was another charity case, wasn't it?" she asked Alex rhetorically, then turned toward Father Gapon. "You remember when the Ethiopians were battling the Italians. A poor little Christian country with nothing but spears to defend themselves; they were set upon by a modern European army -- and won. Everyone felt so badly for them and proud of them at once. Remember the Red Cross expedition to help the Ethiopian wounded? Alex volunteered. I was so proud of him."
"How long ago was that?" asked Father Gapon.
"Centuries, wasn't it, Sasha?"
"At least," Alex replied in the same light-hearted vein. "Perhaps a millenium."
"And he brought home a souvenir," Sonya continued. "Not that time, but another. He kept going back and forth. You see, I loved him, and he loved Ethiopia. It was a beautiful relationship." Both Alex and Sonya laughed.
"What kind of a souvenir?" asked Father Gapon.
"A child," replied Sonya.
"Oh!" exclaimed Father Gapon, scandalized.
"No, not his own," Sonya kept laughing. "An orphan. That's another way you're both in the same business, Father. You both take care of orphans? How is he, Sasha? How is your Vaska? I miss him."
"Oranienbaum!" called the conductor.
Sonya looked out the window in disbelief. She hadn't realized that the train had started, and now they had arrived already.
Outside, a dozen drivers awaited customers for the long sledge ride across the ice to Kronstadt. Led by Sonya, who was in a playful mood, the four of them dashed ahead, like children, to get to the first one. Starodubov came lumbering after them.
Sonya and Dottie sat in back facing forward; Alex and Gapon sat facing them and Starodubov up front with the driver. They bundled up tight with bearskins and wool blankets.
Soon the whip cracked, and the horses started trotting down the street. Then, with little perceptible change, the metal runners slid out onto the frozen Gulf of Finland.
Patches of greenish ice showed through the windswept snow. It was a long flat, otherworldly wasteland. Tall signal posts and pine trees, set in a row like Christmas trees for sale, marked the way through this otherwise featureless expanse.
Sonya shivered, pulling the blankets tight over her, wishing she had worn her fox or beaver instead of this cloth coat. Besides, her mood had changed since Bulatovich had appeared. This was more of a holiday excursion now, not a penitential pilgrimage.
At Kronstadt, Alex was the first to jump out of the sledge. Immediately, he was at her side, offering his arm, with the exaggerated smile and gestures of a child playing at being a gentleman.
She curtsied and took his arm, with similar mock seriousness.
The cathedral was packed, but all five of them managed to squeeze forward and find room toward the front. Everyone stood, as is proper in an Orthodox church.
It was dark inside the huge stone structure, except for hundreds of candles -- most of them up front where three aging priests conducted the service near a high gilded icon screen. Other candles were suspended in front of other icons and relics scattered in little niches and corners of the cathedral, where individuals from all walks of life prayed privately and kissed the icons and kissed the relics.
Kneeling by a wall, one old workman, who reeked of fish, repeated over and over with the fervor of a monk, "Gospodi pomiloy. Lord have mercy."
From a balcony at the rear, a choir of deep male voices boomed forth, in harmony with the voices of young boys, the responses to the faint but solemn liturgical chanting of the priests. The air was heavy with the smell and smoke of incense.
As one of the three gray-bearded priests walked toward the lectern, a nearby woman pointed him out to her son as "Father John himself." The boy crossed himself and knelt in awe.
The priest's gray eyes sparkled in the candle light as he stood by the Bible, not reading, rather looking upward toward the choir and beyond, toward heaven, speaking rapidly, but softly and gently, speaking the words of the Bible naturally, as if they were important thoughts that had just now occurred to him, as if he were talking to an old friend. Now and then he paused, as if expecting and as if receiving, in the silence, a reply.
As Father John finished the "reading," scattered murmurs were heard. Then gathering, wave upon wave, the congregation chanted, "Gospodi pomiloy," over and over, ever louder and confused with its own echoes off the cold stone walls, but compelling, catching in its rhythm even newcomers like Sonya, who first joined in softly and then with full voice.
Slowly, the chant changed to cacaphony as, one by one, people began to pray aloud, individually.
The old workman from the docks fell to the floor sobbing, much to the embarrassment of Sonya, who was unaccustomed to witnessing such public displays of emotion. "I killed her, Lord," the workman confessed aloud. "As if I had done it with my own hands, I killed her. Forgive me, Lord. Have mercy. Gospodi pomiloy!"
Others confessed publicly -- some softly, some loudly, speaking directly to God, oblivious of the people around them, who kept up the rhythmic chant of "Gospodi pomiloy."
Although Sonya had heard of such things happening here, it was an extraordinary experience not to be encountered anywhere else in the Orthodox Church. Despite the compelling rhythm of the chant and the emotion-packed atmosphere, she felt scandalized to be hearing snatches of intimate confessions shouted and echoed all about her.
"Have they no shame?" she said aloud, then realized she was alone, that the shifting crowd had separated her from the others. They couldn't be far, but she felt awkward and self-conscious among all these strangers who were acting so irrationally and emotionally.
"Before God we have shame," she heard behind her. She looked up to see a tall toothless middle-aged worker, with a scar that zigzagged from his left eye to his shoulder. "We are not ashamed before man," he went on, beginning to shake all over, "but before our Creator, before Christ his Only Begotten Son, who died for our sins, our shame is great. He knows we have sinned, and He will forgive, if only we have the strength to admit our guilt before him and beg for mercy. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, sinner that I am." He fell in a quivering heap on the floor beside Sonya, loudly confessing his sins.
Sonya backed away from him and from others who like him were bowing, kneeling, praying, groveling, and even banging their heads on the floor. She was frightened -- as if these were live electric cables with insulation worn and sparks flying.
Then she spotted Old Oak, behind her about ten feet away, towering high above the crowd, like a signal post. She squeezed her way toward him, but the press of the crowd was in the opposite direction, toward Father John in the hope of forgiveness and blessing and healing. Trapped, she pleaded and struggled, but the workers and old ladies blocking her way either didn't understand her or were blocked themselves.
She began to sob, collapsing on the floor. Those standing near her smiled at her comfortingly, making the sign of the cross above her. They assumed that she, too, was having a holy fit of guilt and confession. She sobbed even louder from embarrassment, then was plucked from the ground, lifted high above the crowd and held tight against a strong shoulder.
She tensed, kicked, scratched, then recognized the huge, rough and gentle hands that were soothing her. Starodubov. Old Oak. Old Thief. She hugged him joyfully, and he eased her down to the ground beside Alex, Dottie, and Father Gapon.
Here, too, several worshippers seemed to have taken leave of their senses. So in the press of the crowd, she cuddled close to Alex, resting her head on his shoulder and wrapping her arms around him his waist, as if she were afraid to let go. With one hand firmly planted in the small of her back, he held her tightly. With the other, he caressed her cheek, then rubbed and scratched her back to soothe her.
Before he had always been awkward and self-conscious around her, unable to express his emotions with either gesture or word. She had been attracted by his adolescent innocence and his total devotion to honor and duty. He was her Launcelot. And the great hero was so adorably helpless in her presence.
When he was half way around the world, she would write him wildly passionate letters. And when he returned -- this great all-conquering hero, who never flinched in the face of Ethiopian spears or Boxer rifles -- he was totally at her mercy. When he, in his own stumbling, inarticulate way was his most passionate, she had toyed with him and teased him, time and again. Then circumstances intervened. Too much time passed between visits. Too much happened to both of them. They drifted apart, never having officially become engaged, and never having been physically intimate.
This man who held her now so confident and tender, was both familiar and strange.
email@example.com privacy statement