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Read 65 Short Stories Part 64

65 Short Stories is a Webnovel completed by W. Somerset Maugham.
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When Ashenden went on deck and saw before him a low-lying coast and a white town he felt a pleasant flutter of excitement. It was early and the sun had not long risen, but the sea was and the sky was blue; it was warm already and one knew that the day would be sweltering. Vladivostok. It really gave one the sensation of being at the end of the world. It was a long journey that Ashenden had made from New York to San Francisco, across the Pacific in a j.a.panese boat to Yokohama, then from Tsuruki in a Russian boat, he the only Englishman on board, up the Sea ofj.a.pan. From Vladivostok he was to take the Trans-Siberian to Petrograd. It was the most important mission that he had ever had and he was pleased with the sense of responsibility that it gave him. He had no one to give him orders, unlimited funds (he carried in a belt next to his skin bills of exchange for a sum so enormous that he was staggered when he thought of them), and though he had been set to do something that was beyond human possibility he did not know this and was prepared to set about his task with confidence. He believed in his own astuteness. Though he had both esteem and admiration for the sensibility of the human race, he had little respect for their intelligence: man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden did not much look forward to ten days on a Russian train, and in Yokohama he had heard rumours that in one or two places bridges had been blown up and the line cut. He was told that the soldiers, completely out of hand, would rob him of everything he possessed and turn him out on the steppe to shift for himself It was a cheerful prospect. But the train was certainly starting and whatever happened later (and Ashenden had always a feeling that things never turned out as badly as you expected) he was determined to get a place on it. His intention on landing was to go at once to the British Consulate and find out what arrangements had been made for him; but as they neared the sh.o.r.e and he was able to discern the untidy and bedraggled town he felt not a little forlorn. He knew but a few words of Russian. The only man on the ship who spoke English was the purser and though he promised Ashenden to do anything he could to help him, Ashenden had the impression that he must not too greatly count upon him. It was a relief then, when they docked, to have a young man, small and with a mop of untidy hair, obviously a Jew, come up to him and ask if his name was Ashenden.

‘Mine is Benedict. I’m the interpreter at the British Consulate. I’ve been told to look after you. We’ve got a place on the train tonight.’

Ashenden’s spirits went up. They landed. The little Jew looked after his luggage and had his examined and then, getting into a car that waited for them, they drove off to the Consulate.

‘I’ve had instructions to offer you every facility,’ said the Consul, ‘and you’ve only got to tell me what you want. I’ve fixed you up all right on the train, but G.o.d knows if you’ll ever get to Petrograd. Oh, by the way, I’ve got a travelling companion for you. He’s a man called Harrington, an American, and he’s going to Petrograd for a firm in Philadelphia. He’s trying to fix up some deal with the Provisional Government.’

‘What’s he like?’ asked Ashenden.

‘Oh, he’s all right. I wanted him to come with the American Consul to luncheon, but they’ve gone for an excursion in the country. You must get to the station a couple of hours before the train starts. There’s always an awful scrimmage and if you’re not there in good time someone will pinch your seat.’

The train started at midnight and Ashenden dined with Benedict at the station restaurant, which was, it appeared, the only place in that slatternly town where you could get a decent meal. It was crowded. The service was intolerably slow. Then they went on to the platform, where, though they had still two hours to spare, there was already a seething mob. Whole families, sitting on piles of luggage, seemed to be camped there. People rushed to and fro, or stood in little groups violently arguing. Women screamed. Others were silently weeping. Here two men were engaged in a fierce quarrel. It was a scene of indescribable confusion. The light in the station was wan and cold and the white faces of all those people were like the white faces of the dead waiting, patient or anxious, distraught or penitent, for the judgement of the last day. The train was made up and most of the carriages were already filled to overflowing. When at last Benedict found that in which Ashenden had his place a man sprang out of it excitedly.

‘Come in and sit down,’ he said. ‘I’ve had the greatest difficulty in keeping your seat. A fellow wanted to come in here with a wife and two children. My Consul has just gone off with him to see the stationmaster.’

‘This is Mr Harrington,’ said Benedict.

Ashenden stepped into the carriage. It had two berths in it. The porter stowed his luggage away. He shook hands with his travelling companion.

Mr John Quincy Harrington was a very thin man of somewhat less than middle height. He had a yellow, bony face, with large, pale-blue eyes, and when he took off his hat to wipe his brow wet from perturbation he had endured he showed a large, bald skull; it was very bony and the ridges and protuberances stood out disconcertingly. He wore a bowler-hat, a black coat and waistcoat, and a pair of striped trousers; a very high white collar, and a neat, un.o.btrusive tie. Ashenden did not know precisely how you should dress in order to take a ten days’ journey across Siberia, but he could not but think that Mr Harrington’s costume was eccentric. He spoke with precision in a high-pitched voice and in an accent that Ashenden recognized as that of New England.

In a minute the stationmaster came accompanied by a bearded Russian, suffering evidently from profound emotion, and followed by a lady holding two children by the hand. The Russian, tears running down his face, was talking with quivering lips to the stationmaster, and his wife between her sobs was apparently telling him the story of her life. When they arrived at the carriage the altercation became more violent and Benedict joined in with his fluent Russian. Mr Harrington did not know a word of the language, but being obviously of an excitable turn broke in and explained in voluble English that these seats had been booked by the Consuls of Great Britain and the United States respectively, and though he didn’t know about the King of England, he could tell them straight and they could take it from him that the President of the United States would never permit an American citizen to be done out of a seat on the train that he had duly paid for. He would yield to force, but to nothing else, and if they touched him he would register a complaint with the Consul at once. He said all this and a great deal more to the stationmaster, who of course had no notion what he was talking about, but with much emphasis and a good deal of gesticulation made him in reply a pa.s.sionate speech. This roused Mr Harrington to the utmost pitch of indignation, for shaking his fist in the stationmaster’s face, his own pale with fury, he cried out: ‘Tell him I don’t understand a word he says and I don’t want to understand. If the Russians want us to look upon them as a civilized people, why don’t they talk a civilized language? Tell him that I am Mr John Quincy Harrington and I’m travelling on behalf of Messrs Crew and Adams of Philadelphia with a special letter of introduction to Mr Kerensky and if I’m not left in peaceful possession of this carriage Mr Crewe will take the matter up with the Administration in Washington.’

Mr Harrington’s manner was so truculent and his gestures so menacing that the stationmaster, throwing up the sponge, turned on his heel without another word and walked moodily away. He was followed by the bearded Russian and his wife arguing heatedly with him and the two apathetic children. Mr Harrington jumped back into the carriage.

‘I’m terribly sorry to have to refuse to give up my seat to a lady with two children,’ he said. ‘No one knows better than I the respect due to a woman and a mother, but I’ve got to get to Petrograd by this train if I don’t want to lose a very important order and I’m not going to spend ten days in a corridor for all the mothers in Russia.’

‘I don’t blame you,’ said Ashenden.

‘I am a married man and I have two children myself I know that travelling with your family is a difficult matter, but there’s nothing that I know to prevent you from staying at home.’

When you are shut up with a man for ten days in a railway carriage you can hardly fail to learn most of what there is to know about him, and for ten days (for eleven to be exact) Ashenden spent twenty-four hours a day with Mr Harrington. It is true that they went into the dining-room three times a day for their meals, but they sat opposite to one another; it is true that the train stopped for an hour morning and afternoon so that they were able to have a tramp up and down the platform, but they walked side by side. Ashenden made acquaintance with some of his fellow-travellers and sometimes they came into the compartment to have a chat, but if they only spoke French or German Mr Harrington would watch them with acidulous disapproval and if they spoke English he would never let them get a word in. For Mr Harrington was a talker. He talked as though it were a natural function of the human being, automatically, as men breathe or digest their food; he talked not because he had something to say, but because he could not help himself, in a high-pitched, nasal voice, without inflexion, at one dead level of tone. He talked with precision, using a copious vocabulary and forming his sentences with deliberation; he never used a short word when a longer one would do; he never paused. He went on and on. It was not a torrent, for there was nothing impetuous about it, it was like a stream of lava pouring irresistibly down the side of a volcano. It flowed with a quiet and steady force that overwhelmed everything that was in its path.

Ashenden thought he had never known as much about anyone as he knew about Mr Harrington, and not only about him, with all his opinions, habits, and circ.u.mstances, but about his wife and his wife’s family, his children and their schoolfellows, his employers and the alliances they had made for three or four generations with the best families in Philadelphia. His own family had come from Devonshire early in the eighteenth century and Mr Harrington had been to the village where the graves of his forebears were still to be seen in the churchyard. He was proud of his English ancestry, but proud too of his American birth, though to him America was a little strip of land along the Atlantic coast and Americans were a small number of persons of English or Dutch origin whose blood had never been sullied by foreign admixture. He looked upon the Germans, Swedes, Irish, and the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe who for the last hundred years have descended upon the United States, as interlopers. He turned his attention away from them as a maiden lady who lived in a secluded manor might avert her eyes from the factory chimneys that had trespa.s.sed upon her retirement.

When Ashenden mentioned a man of vast wealth who owned some of the finest pictures in America Mr Harrington said: ‘I’ve never met him. My great-aunt Maria Penn Warrington always said his grandmother was a very good cook. My great-aunt Maria was terribly sorry when she left her to get married. She said she never knew anyone who could make an apple pancake as she could.’

Mr Harrington was devoted to his wife, and he told Ashenden at unbelievable length how cultivated and what a perfect mother she was. She had delicate health and had undergone a great number of operations all of which he described in detail. He had had two operations himself, one on his tonsils and one to remove his appendix and he took Ashenden day by day through his experiences. All his friends had had operations and his knowledge of surgery was encyclopedic. He had two sons, both at school, and he was seriously considering whether he would not be well-advised to have them operated on. It was curious that one of them should have enlarged tonsils, and he was not at all happy about the appendix of the other. They were more devoted to one another than he had ever seen two brothers be, and a very good friend of his, the brightest surgeon in Philadelphia, had offered to operate on them both together so that they should not be separated. He showed Ashenden photographs of the boys and their mother. This journey of his to Russia was the first time in their lives that he had been separated from them, and every morning he wrote a long letter to his wife telling her everything that had happened and a good deal of what he had said during the day. Ashenden watched him cover sheet after sheet of paper with his neat, legible, and precise handwriting.

Mr Harrington had read all the books on conversation and knew its technique to the last detail. He had a little book in which he noted down the stories he heard and he told Ashenden that when he was going out to dinner he always looked up half a dozen so that he should not be at a loss. They were marked with a G if they could be told in general society and with an M (for men) if they were more fit for rough masculine ears. He was a specialist in that peculiar form of anecdote that consists in narrating a long serious incident, piling detail upon detail, till a comic end is reached. He spared you nothing, and Ashenden, foreseeing the point long before it arrived, would clench his hands and knit his brows in the strenuous effort not to betray his impatience and at last force from his unwilling mouth a grim and hollow laugh. If someone came into the compartment in the middle Mr Harrington would greet him with cordiality.

‘Come right in and sit down. I was just telling my friend a story. You must listen to it, it’s one of the funniest things you ever heard.’

Then he would begin again from the very beginning and repeat it word for word, without altering a single apt epithet, till he reached the humorous end. Ashenden suggested once that they should see whether they could find two people on the train who played cards so that they might while away the time with a game of bridge, but Mr Harrington said he never touched cards and when Ashenden in desperation began to play patience he pulled a wry face.

‘It beats me how an intelligent man can waste his time card-playing, and of all the unintellectual pursuits I have ever seen it seems to me that solitaire is the worst It kills conversation. Man is a social animal and he exercises the highest part of his nature when he takes part in social intercourse.’

‘There is a certain elegance in wasting time,’ said Ashenden. ‘Any fool can waste money, but when you waste time you waste what is priceless. Besides,’ he added with bitterness, ‘you can still talk.’

‘How can I talk when your attention is taken up by whether you are going to get a black seven to put on a red eight? Conversation calls forth the highest powers of the intellect and if you have made a study of it you have the right to expect that the person you’re talking to will give you the fullest attention he is capable of.’

He did not say this acrimoniously, but with the good-humoured patience of a man who has been much tried. He was just stating a plain fact and Ashenden could take it or leave it. It was the claim of the artist to have his work taken seriously.

Mr Harrington was a diligent reader. He read pencil in hand, underlining pa.s.sages that attracted his attention, and on the margin making in his neat writing comments on what he read. This he was fond of discussing and when Ashenden himself was reading and felt on a sudden that Mr Harrington, book in one hand and pencil in the other, was looking at him with his large pale eyes he began to have violent palpitations of the heart. He dared not look up, he dared not even turn the page, for he knew that Mr Harrington would regard this as ample excuse to break into a discourse, but remained with his eyes fixed desperately on a single word, like a chicken with its beak to a chalk line, and only ventured to breathe when he realized that Mr Harrington, having given up the attempt, had resumed his reading. He was then engaged on a History of the American Const.i.tution in two volumes, and for recreation was perusing a stout volume that purported to contain all the great speeches of the world. For Mr Harrington was an after-dinner speaker and had read all the best books on speaking in public. He knew exactly how to get on good terms with his audience, just where to put in the serious words that touched their hearts, how to catch their attention by a few apt stories, and finally with what degree of eloquence, suiting the occasion, to deliver his peroration.

Mr Harrington was very fond of reading aloud. Ashenden had had frequent occasion to observe the distressing propensity of Americans for this pastime. In hotel drawing-rooms at night after dinner he had often seen the father of a family seated in a retired corner and surrounded by his wife, his two sons, and his daughter, reading to them. On ships crossing the Atlantic he had sometimes watched with awe the tall, spare gentleman of commanding aspect who sat in the centre of fifteen ladies no longer in their first youth and in a resonant voice read to them the history of Art. Walking up and down the promenade deck he had pa.s.sed honeymooning couples lying on deck-chairs and caught the unhurried tones of the bride as she read to her young husband the pages of a popular novel. It had always seemed to him a curious way of showing affection. He had had friends who had offered to read to him and he had known women who had said they loved being read to, but he had always politely refused the invitation and firmly ignored the hint. He liked neither reading aloud nor being read aloud to. In his heart he thought the national predilection for this form of entertainment the only flaw in the perfection of the American character. But the immortal G.o.ds love a good laugh at the expense of human beings and now delivered him, bound and helpless, to the knife of the high priest. Mr Harrington flattered himself that he was a very good reader and he explained to Ashenden the theory and practice of the art. Ashenden learned that there were two schools, the dramatic and the natural: in the first you imitated the voices of those who spoke (if you were reading a novel), and when the heroine wailed you wailed and when emotion choked her you choked too; but in the other you read as impa.s.sively as though you were reading the price-list of a mail-order house in Chicago. This was the school Mr Harrington belonged to. In the seventeen years of his married life he had read aloud to his wife, and to his sons as soon as they were old enough to appreciate them, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, d.i.c.kens, the Bront sisters, Thackeray, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and W. D. Howells. Ashenden came to the conclusion that it was second nature with Mr Harrington to read aloud, and to prevent him from doing so made him as uneasy as cutting off his tobacco made the confirmed smoker. He would take you unawares.

‘Listen to this,’ he would say, ‘you must listen to this,’ as though he were suddenly struck by the excellence of a maxim or the neatness of a phrase. ‘Now just tell me if you don’t think this is remarkably well put. It’s only three lines.’

He read them and Ashenden was willing to give him a moment’s attention, but having finished them, without pausing for a moment to take breath, he went on. He went right on and on. In his measured high-pitched voice, without emphasis or expression, he read page after page. Ashenden fidgeted, crossed and uncrossed his legs, lit cigarettes and smoked them, sat first in one position, then in another. Mr Harrington went on and on. The train went leisurely through the interminable steppes of Siberia. They pa.s.sed villages and crossed rivers. Mr Harrington went on and on. When he finished a great speech by Edmund Burke he put down the book in triumph.

Now that in my opinion is one of the finest orations in the English language. It is certainly a part of our common heritage that we can look upon with genuine pride.’

‘Doesn’t it seem to you a little ominous that the people to whom Edmund Burke made that speech are all dead?’ asked Ashenden gloomily.

Mr Harrington was about to reply that this was hardly to be wondered at since the speech was made in the eighteenth century, when it dawned upon him that Ashenden (bearing up wonderfully under affliction as any unprejudiced person could not fail to admit) was making a joke. He slapped his knee and laughed heartily.

‘Gee, that’s a good one,’ he said. ‘I’ll write that down in my little book. I see exactly how I can bring it in one time when I have to speak at our luncheon club.’

Mr Harrington was a highbrow; but that appellation, invented by the vulgar as a term of abuse, he had accepted like the instrument of a saint’s martyrdom, the gridiron of Saint Laurence for instance or the wheel of Saint Catherine, as an honorific t.i.tle. He gloried in it.

‘Emerson was a highbrow,’ he said. ‘Longfellow was a highbrow. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a highbrow. James Russell Lowell was a highbrow’ Mr Harrington’s study of American literature had taken him no farther down the years than the period during which those eminent, but not precisely thrilling, authors flourished.

Mr Harrington was a bore. He exasperated Ashenden, and enraged him; he got on his nerves, and drove him to frenzy. But Ashenden did not dislike him. His self-satisfaction was enormous but so ingenuous that you could not resent it; his conceit was so childlike that you could only smile at it. He was so well-meaning, so thoughtful, so deferential, so polite that though Ashenden would willingly have killed him he could not but own that in that short while he had conceived for Mr Harrington something very like affection. His manners were perfect, formal, a trifle elaborate perhaps (there is no harm in that, for good manners are the product of an artificial state of society and so can bear a touch of the powdered wig and the lace ruffle), but though natural to his good breeding they gained a pleasant significance from his good heart He was ready to do anyone a kindness and seemed to find nothing too much trouble if he could thereby oblige his fellow-man. He was eminently serviable. And it may be that this is a word for which there is no exact translation because the charming quality it denotes is not very common among our practical people. When Ashenden was ill for a couple of days Mr Harrington nursed him with devotion. Ashenden was embarra.s.sed by the care he took of him and though racked with pain could not help laughing at the fussy attention with which Mr Harrington took his temperature, from his neatly packed valise extracted a whole regiment of tabloids and firmly doctored him; and he was touched by the trouble he gave himself to get from the dining-car the things that he thought Ashenden could eat. He did everything in the world for him but stop talking.

It was only when he was dressing that Mr Harrington was silent, for then his maidenly mind was singly occupied with the problem of changing his clothes before Ashenden without indelicacy. He was extremely modest. He changed his linen every day, neatly taking it out of his suitcase and neatly putting back what was soiled; but he performed miracles of dexterity in order during the process not to show an inch of bare skin. After a day or two Ashenden gave up the struggle to keep neat and clean in that dirty train, with one lavatory for the whole carriage, and soon was as grubby as the rest of the pa.s.sengers; but Mr Harrington refused to yield to the difficulties. He performed his toilet with deliberation notwithstanding the impatient persons who rattled the door-handle, and returned from the lavatory every morning washed, shining, and smelling of soap. Once dressed, in his black coat, striped trousers, and well-polished shoes, he looked as spruce as though he had just stepped out of his tidy little red-brick house in Philadelphia and was about to board the street-car that would take him downtown to his office. At one point of the journey it was announced that an attempt had been made to blow up a bridge and that there were disturbances at the next station over the river; it might be that the train would be stopped and the pa.s.sengers turned adrift or taken prisoner. Ashenden, thinking he might be separated from his luggage, took the precaution to change into his thickest clothes so that if he had to pa.s.s the winter in Siberia he need suffer as little as necessary from the cold; but Mr Harrington would not listen to reason; he made no preparations for the possible experience and Ashenden had the conviction that if he spent three months in a Russian prison he would still preserve that smart and natty appearance. A troop of Cossacks boarded the train and stood on the platform of each carriage with their guns loaded, and the train rattled gingerly over the damaged bridge; then they came to the station at which they had been warned of danger, put on steam and dashed straight through it. Mr Harrington was mildly satirical when Ashenden changed back into a light summer suit.

Mr Harrington was a keen business man. It was obvious that it would need someone very astute to overreach him, and Ashenden was sure that his employers had been well-advised to send him on this errand. He would safeguard their interests with all his might and if he succeeded in driving a bargain with the Russians it would be a hard one. His loyalty to his firm demanded that. He spoke of the partners with affectionate reverence. He loved them and was proud of them; but he did not envy them because their wealth was great. He was quite content to work on a salary and thought himself adequately paid; so long as he could educate his boys and leave his widow enough to live on, what was money to him? He thought it a trifle vulgar to be rich. He looked upon culture as more important than money. He was careful of it and after every meal put down in his note-book exactly what it had cost him. His firm might be certain that he would not charge a penny more for his expenses than he had spent. But having discovered that poor people came to the station at the stopping places of the train to beg and seeing that the war had really brought them to dest.i.tution he took care before each halt to supply himself with ample small change and in a shame-faced way, mocking himself for being taken in by such impostors, distributed everything in his pocket.

‘Of course I know they don’t deserve it,’ he said, ‘and I don’t do it for them. I do it entirely for my own peace of mind. I should feel so terribly badly if I thought some man really was hungry and I’d refused to give him the price of a meal.’

Mr Harrington was absurd, but lovable. It was inconceivable that anyone should be rude to him, it would have seemed as dreadful as. .h.i.tting a child; and Ashenden, chafing inwardly but with a pretence of amiability, suffered meekly and with a truly Christian spirit the affliction of the gentle, ruthless creature’s society. It took eleven days at that time to get from Vladivostok to Petrograd, and Ashenden felt that he could not have borne another day. If it had been twelve he would have killed Mr Harrington.

When at last (Ashenden tired and dirty, Mr Harrington neat, sprightly and sententious) they reached the outskirts of Petrograd and stood at the windowlooking at the crowded houses of the city, Mr Harrington turned to Ashenden and said: ‘Well, I never would have thought that eleven days in the train would pa.s.s so quickly. We’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve enjoyed your company and I know you’ve enjoyed mine. I’m not going to pretend I don’t know that I’m a pretty good conversationalist. But now we’ve come together like this we must take care to stay together. We must see as much of one another as we can while I’m in Petrograd.’

‘I shall have a great deal to do,’ said Ashenden. ‘I’m afraid my time won’t be altogether my own.’

‘I know,’ answered Mr Harrington cordially. ‘I expect to be pretty busy myself, but we can have breakfast together anyway and we’ll meet in the evening and compare notes. It would be too bad if we drifted apart now’

‘Too bad,’ sighed Ashenden.

When Ashenden found himself alone in his bedroom for the first time, he sat down and looked about him. It had seemed an age. He had not the energy to start immediately to unpack. How many of these hotel bedrooms had he known since the beginning of the war, grand or shabby, in one place and one land after another! It seemed to him that he had been living in his luggage for as long as he could remember. He was weary. He asked himself how he was going to set about the work that he had been sent to do. He felt lost in the immensity of Russia and very solitary. He had protested when he was chosen for this mission, it looked too large an order, but his protests were ignored. He was chosen not because those in authority thought him particularly suited for the job, but because there was no one to be found who was more suited. There was a knock at the door and Ashenden, pleased to make use of the few words of the language he knew, called out in Russian. The door was opened. He sprang to his feet.

‘Come in, come in,’ he cried. ‘I’m awfully glad to see you.’

Three men entered. He knew them by sight, since they had travelled in the same ship with him from San Francisco to Yokohama, but following their instructions no communications had pa.s.sed between them and Ashenden. They were Czechs, exiled from their country for their revolutionary activity and long settled in America, who had been sent over to Russia to help Ashenden in his mission and put him in touch with Professor Z., whose authority over the Czechs in Russia was absolute. Their chief was a certain Dr Egon Orth, a tall thin man, with a little grey head; he was minister to some church in the Middle West and a doctor of divinity; but had abandoned his cure to work for the liberation of his country, and Ashenden had the impression that he was an intelligent fellow who would not put too fine a point on matters of conscience. A parson with a fixed idea has this advantage over common men, that he can persuade himself of the Almighty’s approval for almost any goings-on. Dr Orth had a merry twinkle in his eye and a dry humour.

Ashenden had had two secret interviews with him in Yokohama and had learnt that Professor Z., though eager to free his country from the Austrian rule and, since he knew that this could only come about by the downfall of the Central Powers, with the Allies, body and soul, yet had scruples; he would not do things that outraged his conscience, all must be straightforward and above board, and so some things that it was necessary to do had to be done without his knowledge. His influence was so great that his wishes could not be disregarded, but on occasion it was felt better not to let him know too much of what was going on.

Dr Orth had arrived in Petrograd a week before Ashenden and now put before him what he had learned of the situation. It seemed to Ashenden that it was critical and if anything was to be done it must be done quickly. The army was dissatisfied and mutinous, the Government under the weak Kerensky was tottering and held power only because no one else had the courage to seize it, famine was staring the country in the face, and already the possibility had to be considered that the Germans would march on Petrograd. The Amba.s.sadors of Great Britain and the United States had been apprised of Ashenden’s coming, but his mission was secret even from them, and there were particular reasons why he could demand no a.s.sistance from them. He arranged with Dr Orth to make an appointment with Professor Z. so that he could learn his views and explain to him that he had the financial means to support any scheme that * seemed likely to prevent the catastrophe that the Allied governments foresaw of Russia’s making a separate peace. But he had to get in touch with influential persons in all Mr Harrington with his business proposition and his letters to Ministers of State would be thrown in contact with members of the Government and Mr Harrington wanted an interpreter. Dr Orth spoke Russian almost as well as his own language and it struck Ashenden that he would be admirably suited to the post. He explained the circ.u.mstances to him and it was arranged that while Ashenden and Mr Harrington were at luncheon Dr Orth should come in, greeting Ashenden as though he had not seen him before, and be introduced to Mr Harrington; then Ashenden, guiding the conversation, would suggest to Mr Harrington that the heavens had sent in Dr Orth the ideal man for his purpose.

But there was another person on whom Ashenden had fixed as possibly useful to him and now he said: ‘Have you ever heard of a woman called Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov? She’s the daughter of Alexander Denisiev.’

‘I know all about him of course.’

‘I have reason to believe she’s in Petrograd. Will you find out where she lives and what she’s doing?’


Dr Orth spoke in Czech to one of the two men who accompanied him. They were sharp-looking fellows, both of them, one was tall and fair and the other was short and dark, but they were younger than Dr Orth, and Ashenden understood that they were there to do as he bade them. The man nodded, got up, shook hands with Ashenden and went out.

‘You shall have all the information possible this afternoon.’

‘Well, I think there’s nothing more we can do for the present,’ said Ashenden. ‘To tell you the truth I haven’t had a bath for eleven days and I badly want one.’ Ashenden had never quite made up his mind whether the pleasure of reflection was better pursued in a railway carriage or in a bath. So far as the act of invention was concerned he was inclined to prefer a train that went smoothly and not too fast, and many of his best ideas had come to him when he was thus traversing the plains of France; but for the delight of reminiscence or the entertainment of embroidery upon a theme already in his head he had no doubt that nothing could compare with a hot bath. He considered now, wallowing in soapy water like a water-buffalo in a muddy pond, the grim pleasantry of his relations with Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov.

In these stories no more than the barest suggestion has been made that Ashenden was capable on occasions of the pa.s.sion ironically called tender. The specialists in this matter, those charming creatures who make a business of what philosophers know is but a diversion, a.s.sert that writers, painters, and musicians, all in short who are connected with the arts, in the relation of love cut no very conspicuous figure. There is much cry but little wool. They rave or sigh, make phrases and strike many a romantic att.i.tude, but in the end, loving art or themselves (which with them is one and the same thing) better than the object of their emotion, offer a shadow when the said object, with the practical common sense of the s.e.x, demands a substance. It may be so and this may be the reason (never before suggested) why women in their souls look upon art with such a virulent hatred. Be this as it may Ashenden in the last twenty years had felt his heart go pit-a-pat because of one charming person after another. He had had a good deal of fun and had paid for it with a great deal of misery, but even when suffering most acutely from the pangs of unrequited love he had been able to say to himself, albeit with a wry face, after all, it’s grist to the mill.

Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov was the daughter of a revolutionary who had escaped from Siberia after being sentenced to penal servitude for life and had settled in England. He was an able man and had supported himself for thirty years by the activity of a restless pen and had even made himself a distinguished position in English letters. When Anastasia Alexandrovna reached a suitable age she married Vladimir s.e.m.e.novich Leonidov, also an exile from his native country, and it was after she had been married to him for some years that Ashenden made her acquaintance. It was at the time when Europe discovered Russia. Everyone was reading the Russian novelists, the Russian dancers captivated the civilized world, and the Russian composers set shivering the sensibility of persons who were beginning to want a change from Wagner. Russian art seized upon Europe with the virulence of an epidemic of influenza. New phrases became the fashion, new colours, new emotions, and the highbrows described themselves without a moment’s hesitation as members of the intelligentsia. It was a difficult word to spell but an easy one to say. Ashenden fell like the rest, changed the cushions of his sitting-room, hung an icon on the wall, read Chekhov and went to the ballet.

Anastasia Alexandrovna was by birth, circ.u.mstances, and education very much a member of the intelligentsia. She lived with her husband in a tiny house near Regent’s Park and here all the literary folk in London might gaze with humble reverence at pale-faced bearded giants who leaned against the wall like caryatids taking a day off they were revolutionaries to a man and it was a miracle that they were not in the mines of Siberia. Women of letters tremulously put their lips to a gla.s.s of vodka. If you were lucky and greatly favoured you might shake hands there with Diaghilev, and now and again, like a peach-blossom wafted by the breeze, Pavlova herself hovered in and out. At this time Ashenden’s success had not been so great as to affront the highbrows, he had very distinctly been one of them in his youth, and though some already looked askance, others (optimistic creatures with a faith in human nature) still had hopes of him. Anastasia Alexandrovna told him to his face that he was a member of the intelligentsia. Ashenden was quite ready to believe it. He was in a state when he was ready to believe anything. He was thrilled and excited. It seemed to him that at last he was about to capture that illusive spirit of romance that he had so long been chasing. Anastasia Alexandrovna had fine eyes and a good, though for these days too voluptuous, figure, high cheek-bones and a snub nose (this was very Tartar), a wide mouth full of large square teeth, and a pale skin. She dressed somewhat flamboyantly. In her dark melancholy eyes Ashenden saw the boundless steppes of Russia, and the Kremlin with its pealing bells, and the solemn ceremonies of Easter at St Isaac’s, and forests of silver beeches, and the Nevsky Prospekt; it was astonishing how much he saw in her eyes. They were round and shining and slightly protuberant like those of a Pekinese. They talked together of Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, of Natasha in War and Peace, of Anna Karenina, and of Fathers and Sons.

Ashenden soon discovered that her husband was quite unworthy of her and presently learned that she shared his opinion. Vladimir s.e.m.e.novich was a little man with a large, long head that looked as though it had been pulled like a piece of liquorice, and he had a great shock of unruly Russian hair. He was a gentle, un.o.btrusive creature and it was hard to believe that the Czarist government had really feared his revolutionary activities. He taught Russian and wrote for papers in Moscow. He was amiable and obliging. He needed these qualities, for Anastasia Alexandrovna was a woman of character: when she had a toothache Vladimir s.e.m.e.novich suffered the agonies of the d.a.m.ned, and when her heart was wrung by the suffering of her unhappy country Vladimir s.e.m.e.novich might well have wished he had never been born. Ashenden could not help admitting that he was a poor thing, but he was so harmless that he conceived quite a liking for him, and when in due course he had disclosed his pa.s.sion to Anastasia Alexandrovna and to his joy found it was returned he was puzzled to know what to do about Vladimir s.e.m.e.novich. Neither Anastasia Alexandrovna nor he felt that they could live another minute out of one another’s pockets, and Ashenden feared that, with her revolutionary views and all that, she would never consent to marry him; but somewhat to his surprise, and very much to his relief, she accepted the suggestion with alacrity.

‘Would Vladimir s.e.m.e.novich let himself be divorced, do you think?’ he asked, as he sat on the sofa, leaning against cushions the colour of which reminded him of raw meat just gone bad, and held her hand.

‘Vladimir adores me,’ she answered. ‘It’ll break his heart.’

‘He’s a nice fellow, I shouldn’t like him to be very unhappy. I hope he’ll get over it.’

‘He’ll never get over it. That is the Russian spirit. I know that when I leave him he’ll feel that he has lost everything that made life worth living for him. I’ve never known anyone so wrapped up in a woman as he is in me. But of course he wouldn’t want to stand in the way of my happiness. He’s far too great for that. He’ll see that when it’s a question of my own self-development I haven’t the right to hesitate. Vladimir will give me my freedom without question.’

At that time the divorce law in England was even more complicated and absurd than it is now and in case she was not acquainted with its peculiarities Ashenden explained to Anastasia Alexandrovna the difficulties of the case. She put her hand gently on his.

‘Vladimir would never expose me to the vulgar notoriety of the divorce court. When I tell him that I have decided to marry you he will commit suicide.’

‘That would be terrible,’ said Ashenden.

He was startled, but thrilled. It was really very much like a Russian novel and he saw the moving and terrible pages, pages and pages, in which Dostoyevsky would have described the situation. He knew the lacerations his characters would have suffered, the broken bottles of champagne, the visits to the gipsies, the vodka, the swoonings, the catalepsy, and the long, long speeches everyone would have made. It was all very dreadful and wonderful and shattering.

‘It would make us horribly unhappy,’ said Anastasia Alexandrovna, ‘but I don’t know what else he could do. I couldn’t ask him to live without me. He would be like a ship without a rudder or a car without a carburettor. I know Vladimir so well. He will commit suicide.’

‘How?’ asked Ashenden, who had the realist’s pa.s.sion for the exact detail. ‘He will blow his brains out.’

Ashenden remembered Rosmersholm. In his day he had been an ardent Ibsenite and had even flirted with the notion of learning Norwegian so that he might, by reading the master in the original, get at the secret essence of his thought. He had once seen Ibsen in the flesh drink a gla.s.s of Munich beer.

‘But do you think we could ever pa.s.s another easy hour if we had the death of that man on our conscience?’ he asked. ‘I have a feeling that he would always be between us.’

‘I know we shall suffer, we shall suffer dreadfully,’ said Anastasia Alexandrovna, ‘but how can we help it? Life is like that. We must think of Vladimir. There is his happiness to be considered too. He will prefer to commit suicide.’

She turned her face away and Ashenden saw that the heavy tears were coursing down her cheeks. He was much moved. For he had a soft heart and it was dreadful to think of poor Vladimir lying there with a bullet in his brain. These Russians, what fun they have!

But when Anastasia Alexandrovna had mastered her emotion she turned to him gravely. She looked at him with her humid, round, and slightly protuberant eyes.

‘We must be quite sure that we’re doing the right thing,’ she said. ‘I should never forgive myself if I’d allowed Vladimir to commit suicide and then found I’d made a mistake. I think we ought to make sure that we really love one another.’

‘But don’t you know?’ exclaimed Ashenden in a low, tense voice. ‘I know’

‘Let’s go over to Paris for a week and see how we get on. Then we shall know’ Ashenden was a trifle conventional and the suggestion took him by surprise.

But only for a moment. Anastasia was wonderful. She was very quick and she saw the hesitation that for an instant troubled him.

‘Surely you have no bourgeois prejudices?’ she said.

‘Of course not,’ he a.s.sured her hurriedly, for he would much sooner have been thought knavish than bourgeois, ‘I think it’s a splendid idea.’

‘Why should a woman hazard her whole life on a throw? It’s impossible to know what a man is really like till you’ve lived with him. It’s only fair to give her the opportunity to change her mind before it’s too late.’

‘Quite so,’ said Ashenden.

Anastasia Alexandrovna was not a woman to let the gra.s.s grow under her feet and so having made their arrangements forthwith on the following they started for Paris.

‘I shall not tell Vladimir that I am going with you,’ she said. ‘It would only distress him.’

‘It would be a pity to do that,’ said Ashenden.

‘And if at the end of the week I come to the conclusion that we’ve made a mistake he need never know anything about it.’

‘Quite so,’ said Ashenden. They met at Victoria Station. ‘What cla.s.s have you got?’ she asked him. ‘First.’

‘I’m glad of that. Father and Vladimir travel third on account of their principles, but I always feel sick on a train and I like to be able to lean my head on somebody’s shoulder. It’s easier in a first-cla.s.s carriage.’

When the train started Anastasia Alexandrovna said she felt dizzy, so she took off her hat and leaned her head on Ashenden’s shoulder. He put his arm round her waist.

‘Keep quite still, won’t you?’ she said.

When they got on to the boat she went down to the ladies’ cabin and at Calais was able to eat a very hearty meal, but when they got into the train she took off her hat again and rested her head on Ashenden’s shoulder. He thought he would like to read and took up a book.

‘Do you mind not reading?’ she said.’ I have to be held and when you turn the pages it makes me feel all funny.’


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