The devouring in a dismal forest of a luckless Lithuanian dog by my
granduncle Nicholas B. in company of two other military and famished
scarecrows, symbolized, to my childish imagination, the whole horror of
the retreat from Moscow, and the immorality of a conqueror's ambition.
An extreme distaste for that objectionable episode has tinged the views
I hold as to the character and achievements of Napoleon the Great. I
need not say that these are unfavourable. It was morally reprehensible
for that great captain to induce a simple-minded Polish gentleman to eat
dog by raising in his breast a false hope of national independence. It
has been the fate of that credulous nation to starve for upward of a
hundred years on a diet of false hopes and--well--dog. It is, when one
thinks of it, a singularly poisonous regimen. Some pride in the national
constitution which has survived a long course of such dishes is really
But enough of generalizing. Returning to particulars, Mr. Nicholas B.
confided to his sister-in-law (my grandmother) in his misanthropically
laconic manner that this supper in the woods had been nearly "the death
of him." This is not surprising. What surprises me is that the story
was ever heard of; for granduncle Nicholas differed in this from the
generality of military men of Napoleon's time (and perhaps of all time)
that he did not like to talk of his campaigns, which began at Friedland
and ended some where in the neighbourhood of Bar-le-Duc. His admiration
of the great Emperor was unreserved in everything but expression. Like
the religion of earnest men, it was too profound a sentiment to be
displayed before a world of little faith. Apart from that he seemed as
completely devoid of military anecdotes as though he had hardly ever
seen a soldier in his life. Proud of his decorations earned before he
was twenty-five, he refused to wear the ribbons at the buttonhole in the
manner practised to this day in Europe and even was unwilling to display
the insignia on festive occasions, as though he wished to conceal them
in the fear of appearing boastful.
"It is enough that I have them," he used to mutter. In the course of
thirty years they were seen on his breast only twice--at an auspicious
marriage in the family and at the funeral of an old friend. That the
wedding which was thus honoured was not the wedding of my mother
I learned only late in life, too late to bear a grudge against
Mr. Nicholas B., who made amends at my birth by a long letter of
congratulation containing the following prophecy: "He will see better
times." Even in his embittered heart there lived a hope. But he was not
a true prophet.
He was a man of strange contradictions. Living for many years in his
brother's house, the home of many children, a house full of life, of
animation, noisy with a constant coming and going of many guests, he
kept his habits of solitude and silence. Considered as obstinately
secretive in all his purposes, he was in reality the victim of a most
painful irresolution in all matters of civil life. Under his taciturn,
phlegmatic behaviour was hidden a faculty of short-lived passionate
anger. I suspect he had no talent for narrative; but it seemed to afford
him sombre satisfaction to declare that he was the last man to ride over
the bridge of the river Elster after the battle of Leipsic. Lest some
construction favourable to his valour should be put on the fact he
condescended to explain how it came to pass. It seems that shortly after
the retreat began he was sent back to the town where some divisions
of the French army (and among them the Polish corps of Prince Joseph
Poniatowski), jammed hopelessly in the streets, were being simply
exterminated by the troops of the Allied Powers. When asked what it was
like in there, Mr. Nicholas B. muttered only the word "Shambles." Having
delivered his message to the Prince he hastened away at once to render
an account of his mission to the superior who had sent him. By that time
the advance of the enemy had enveloped the town, and he was shot at from
houses and chased all the way to the river-bank by a disorderly mob of
Austrian Dragoons and Prussian Hussars. The bridge had been mined early
in the morning, and his opinion was that the sight of the horsemen
converging from many sides in the pursuit of his person alarmed the
officer in command of the sappers and caused the premature firing of the
charges. He had not gone more than two hundred yards on the other
side when he heard the sound of the fatal explosions. Mr. Nicholas B.
concluded his bald narrative with the word "Imbecile," uttered with the
utmost deliberation. It testified to his indignation at the loss of so
many thousands of lives. But his phlegmatic physiognomy lighted up when
he spoke of his only wound, with something resembling satisfaction. You
will see that there was some reason for it when you learn that he was
wounded in the heel. "Like his Majesty the Emperor Napoleon himself," he
reminded his hearers, with assumed indifference. There can be no
doubt that the indifference was assumed, if one thinks what a very
distinguished sort of wound it was. In all the history of warfare there
are, I believe, only three warriors publicly known to have been wounded
in the heel--Achilles and Napoleon--demigods indeed--to whom the
familial piety of an unworthy descendant adds the name of the simple
mortal, Nicholas B.
The Hundred Days found Mr. Nicholas B. staying with a distant relative
of ours, owner of a small estate in Galicia. How he got there across the
breadth of an armed Europe, and after what adventures, I am afraid will
never be known now. All his papers were destroyed shortly before his
death; but if there was among them, as he affirmed, a concise record
of his life, then I am pretty sure it did not take up more than a
half sheet of foolscap or so. This relative of ours happened to be
an Austrian officer who had left the service after the battle of
Austerlitz. Unlike Mr. Nicholas B., who concealed his decorations, he
liked to display his honourable discharge in which he was mentioned as
un schreckbar (fearless) before the enemy. No conjunction could seem
more unpromising, yet it stands in the family tradition that these two
got on very well together in their rural solitude.
When asked whether he had not been sorely tempted during the Hundred
Days to make his way again to France and join the service of his beloved
Emperor, Mr. Nicholas B. used to mutter: "No money. No horse. Too far to
The fall of Napoleon and the ruin of national hopes affected adversely
the character of Mr. Nicholas B. He shrank from returning to his
province. But for that there was also another reason. Mr. Nicholas B.
and his brother--my maternal grand father--had lost their father early,
while they were quite children. Their mother, young still and left
very well off, married again a man of great charm and of an amiable
disposition, but without a penny. He turned out an affectionate and
careful stepfather; it was unfortunate, though, that while directing the
boys' education and forming their character by wise counsel, he did his
best to get hold of the fortune by buying and selling land in his own
name and investing capital in such a manner as to cover up the traces
of the real ownership. It seems that such practices can be successful if
one is charming enough to dazzle one's own wife permanently, and brave
enough to defy the vain terrors of public opinion. The critical time
came when the elder of the boys on attaining his majority, in the year
1811, asked for the accounts and some part at least of the inheritance
to begin life upon. It was then that the stepfather declared with
calm finality that there were no accounts to render and no property to
inherit. The whole fortune was his very own. He was very good-natured
about the young man's misapprehension of the true state of affairs, but,
of course, felt obliged to maintain his position firmly. Old friends
came and went busily, voluntary mediators appeared travelling on most
horrible roads from the most distant corners of the three provinces;
and the Marshal of the Nobility (ex-officio guardian of all well-born
orphans) called a meeting of landowners to "ascertain in a friendly
way how the misunderstanding between X and his stepsons had arisen and
devise proper measures to remove the same." A deputation to that effect
visited X, who treated them to excellent wines, but absolutely refused
his ear to their remonstrances. As to the proposals for arbitration he
simply laughed at them; yet the whole province must have been aware
that fourteen years before, when he married the widow, all his
visible fortune consisted (apart from his social qualities) in a smart
four-horse turnout with two servants, with whom he went about visiting
from house to house; and as to any funds he might have possessed at that
time their existence could only be inferred from the fact that he was
very punctual in settling his modest losses at cards. But by the magic
power of stubborn and constant assertion, there were found presently,
here and there, people who mumbled that surely "there must be some thing
in it." However, on his next name-day (which he used to celebrate by
a great three days' shooting party), of all the invited crowd only two
guests turned up, distant neighbours of no importance; one notoriously
a fool, and the other a very pious and honest person, but such a
passionate lover of the gun that on his own confession he could not have
refused an invitation to a shooting party from the devil himself. X met
this manifestation of public opinion with the serenity of an unstained
conscience. He refused to be crushed. Yet he must have been a man
of deep feeling, because, when his wife took openly the part of her
children, he lost his beautiful tranquillity, proclaimed himself
heartbroken, and drove her out of the house, neglecting in his grief to
give her enough time to pack her trunks.
This was the beginning of a lawsuit, an abominable marvel of chicane,
which by the use of every legal subterfuge was made to last for many
years. It was also the occasion for a display of much kindness and
sympathy. All the neighbouring houses flew open for the reception of the
homeless. Neither legal aid nor material assistance in the prosecution
of the suit was ever wanting. X, on his side, went about shedding
tears publicly over his stepchildren's ingratitude and his wife's blind
infatuation; but as at the same time he displayed great cleverness
in the art of concealing material documents (he was even suspected of
having burned a lot of historically interesting family papers) this
scandalous litigation had to be ended by a compromise lest worse should
befall. It was settled finally by a surrender, out of the disputed
estate, in full satisfaction of all claims, of two villages with the
names of which I do not intend to trouble my readers. After this lame
and impotent conclusion neither the wife nor the stepsons had anything
to say to the man who had presented the world with such a successful
example of self-help based on character, determination, and industry;
and my great-grandmother, her health completely broken down, died a
couple of years later in Carlsbad. Legally secured by a decree in the
possession of his plunder, X regained his wonted serenity, and went on
living in the neighbourhood in a comfortable style and in apparent peace
of mind. His big shoots were fairly well attended again. He was never
tired of assuring people that he bore no grudge for what was past;
he protested loudly of his constant affection for his wife and
stepchildren. It was true, he said, that they had tried to strip him as
naked as a Turkish saint in the decline of his days; and because he had
defended himself from spoliation, as anybody else in his place would
have done, they had abandoned him now to the horrors of a solitary old
age. Nevertheless, his love for them survived these cruel blows.
And there might have been some truth in his protestations. Very soon he
began to make overtures of friendship to his eldest stepson, my maternal
grandfather; and when these were peremptorily rejected he went on
renewing them again and again with characteristic obstinacy. For years
he persisted in his efforts at reconciliation, promising my grandfather
to execute a will in his favour if he only would be friends again to the
extent of calling now and then (it was fairly close neighbourhood for
these parts, forty miles or so), or even of putting in an appearance for
the great shoot on the name-day. My grandfather was an ardent lover of
every sport. His temperament was as free from hardness and animosity as
can be imagined. Pupil of the liberal-minded Benedictines who directed
the only public school of some standing then in the south, he had also
read deeply the authors of the eighteenth century. In him Christian
charity was joined to a philosophical indulgence for the failings of
human nature. But the memory of those miserably anxious early years, his
young man's years robbed of all generous illusions by the cynicism of
the sordid lawsuit, stood in the way of forgiveness. He never succumbed
to the fascination of the great shoot; and X, his heart set to the last
on reconciliation, with the draft of the will ready for signature kept
by his bedside, died intestate.
The fortune thus acquired and augmented by a wise and careful management
passed to some distant relatives whom he had never seen and who even did
not bear his name.
Meantime the blessing of general peace descended upon Europe. Mr.
Nicholas B., bidding good-bye to his hospitable relative, the "fearless"
Austrian officer, departed from Galicia, and without going near his
native place, where the odious lawsuit was still going on, proceeded
straight to Warsaw and entered the army of the newly constituted Polish
kingdom under the sceptre of Alexander I, Autocrat of all the Russias.
This kingdom, created by the Vienna Congress as an acknowledgment to a
nation of its former independent existence, included only the central
provinces of the old Polish patrimony. A brother of the Emperor, the
Grand Duke Constantine (Pavlovitch), its Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief,
married morganatically to a Polish lady to whom he was fiercely
attached, extended this affection to what he called "My Poles" in
a capricious and savage manner. Sallow in complexion, with a Tartar
physiognomy and fierce little eyes, he walked with his fists clenched,
his body bent forward, darting suspicious glances from under an enormous
cocked hat. His intelligence was limited, and his sanity itself was
doubtful. The hereditary taint expressed itself, in his case, not by
mystic leanings as in his two brothers, Alexander and Nicholas (in their
various ways, for one was mystically liberal and the other mystically
autocratic), but by the fury of an uncontrollable temper which generally
broke out in disgusting abuse on the parade ground. He was a passionate
militarist and an amazing drill-master. He treated his Polish army as a
spoiled child treats a favourite toy, except that he did not take it to
bed with him at night. It was not small enough for that. But he played
with it all day and every day, delighting in the variety of pretty
uniforms and in the fun of incessant drilling. This childish passion,
not for war, but for mere militarism, achieved a desirable result. The
Polish army, in its equipment, in its armament, and in its battle-field
efficiency, as then understood, became, by the end of the year 1830, a
first-rate tactical instrument. Polish peasantry (not serfs) served in
the ranks by enlistment, and the officers belonged mainly to the smaller
nobility. Mr. Nicholas B., with his Napoleonic record, had no difficulty
in obtaining a lieutenancy, but the promotion in the Polish army was
slow, because, being a separate organization, it took no part in the
wars of the Russian Empire against either Persia or Turkey. Its first
campaign, against Russia itself, was to be its last. In 1831, on the
outbreak of the Revolution, Mr. Nicholas B. was the senior captain of
his regiment. Some time before he had been made head of the remount
establishment quartered outside the kingdom in our southern provinces,
whence almost all the horses for the Polish cavalry were drawn. For the
first time since he went away from home at the age of eighteen to begin
his military life by the battle of Friedland, Mr. Nicholas B. breathed
the air of the "Border," his native air. Unkind fate was lying in wait
for him among the scenes of his youth. At the first news of the rising
in Warsaw all the remount establishment, officers, "vets.," and the
very troopers, were put promptly under arrest and hurried off in a body
beyond the Dnieper to the nearest town in Russia proper. From there they
were dispersed to the distant parts of the empire. On this occasion poor
Mr. Nicholas B. penetrated into Russia much farther than he ever did in
the times of Napoleonic invasion, if much less willingly. Astrakan was
his destination. He remained there three years, allowed to live at
large in the town, but having to report himself every day at noon to the
military commandant, who used to detain him frequently for a pipe and
a chat. It is difficult to form a just idea of what a chat with Mr.
Nicholas B. could have been like. There must have been much compressed
rage under his taciturnity, for the commandant communicated to him
the news from the theatre of war, and this news was such as it could
be--that is, very bad for the Poles. Mr. Nicholas B. received these
communications with outward phlegm, but the Russian showed a warm
sympathy for his prisoner. "As a soldier myself I understand your
feelings. You, of course, would like to be in the thick of it. By
heavens! I am fond of you. If it were not for the terms of the military
oath I would let you go on my own responsibility. What difference could
it make to us, one more or less of you?"
At other times he wondered with simplicity.
"Tell me, Nicholas Stepanovitch" (my great-grandfather's name
was Stephen, and the commandant used the Russian form of polite
address)--"tell me why is it that you Poles are always looking for
trouble? What else could you expect from running up against Russia?"
He was capable, too, of philosophical reflections.
"Look at your Napoleon now. A great man. There is no denying it that he
was a great man as long as he was content to thrash those Germans and
Austrians and all those nations. But no! He must go to Russia looking
for trouble, and what's the consequence? Such as you see me; I have
rattled this sabre of mine on the pavements of Paris."
After his return to Poland Mr. Nicholas B. described him as a "worthy
man but stupid," whenever he could be induced to speak of the conditions
of his exile. Declining the option offered him to enter the Russian
army, he was retired with only half the pension of his rank. His nephew
(my uncle and guardian) told me that the first lasting impression on
his memory as a child of four was the glad excitement reigning in his
parents' house on the day when Mr. Nicholas B. arrived home from his
detention in Russia.
Every generation has its memories. The first memories of Mr. Nicholas
B. might have been shaped by the events of the last partition of Poland,
and he lived long enough to suffer from the last armed rising in 1863,
an event which affected the future of all my generation and has coloured
my earliest impressions. His brother, in whose house he had sheltered
for some seventeen years his misanthropical timidity before the
commonest problems of life, having died in the early fifties, Mr.
Nicholas B. had to screw his courage up to the sticking-point and come
to some decision as to the future. After a long and agonizing hesitation
he was persuaded at last to become the tenant of some fifteen hundred
acres out of the estate of a friend in the neighbourhood.
The terms of the lease were very advantageous, but the retired situation
of the village and a plain, comfortable house in good repair were, I
fancy, the greatest inducements. He lived there quietly for about ten
years, seeing very few people and taking no part in the public life
of the province, such as it could be under an arbitrary bureaucratic
tyranny. His character and his patriotism were above suspicion; but
the organizers of the rising in their frequent journeys up and down the
province scrupulously avoided coming near his house. It was generally
felt that the repose of the old man's last years ought not to
be disturbed. Even such intimates as my paternal grandfather,
comrade-in-arms during Napoleon's Moscow campaign, and later on a fellow
officer in the Polish army, refrained from visiting his crony as the
date of the outbreak approached. My paternal grandfather's two sons and
his only daughter were all deeply involved in the revolutionary work; he
himself was of that type of Polish squire whose only ideal of patriotic
action was to "get into the saddle and drive them out." But even he
agreed that "dear Nicholas must not be worried." All this considerate
caution on the part of friends, both conspirators and others, did not
prevent Mr. Nicholas B. being made to feel the misfortunes of that
Less than forty-eight hours after the beginning of the rebellion in that
part of the country, a squadron of scouting Cossacks passed through the
village and invaded the homestead. Most of them remained, formed between
the house and the stables, while several, dismounting, ransacked the
various outbuildings. The officer in command, accompanied by two men,
walked up to the front door. All the blinds on that side were down.
The officer told the servant who received him that he wanted to see his
master. He was answered that the master was away from home, which was
I follow here the tale as told afterward by the servant to my
granduncle's friends and relatives, and as I have heard it repeated.
On receiving this answer the Cossack officer, who had been standing in
the porch, stepped into the house.
"Where is the master gone, then?"
"Our master went to J----" (the government town some fifty miles off)
"the day before yesterday."
"There are only two horses in the stables. Where are the others?"
"Our master always travels with his own horses" (meaning: not by post).
"He will be away a week or more. He was pleased to mention to me that he
had to attend to some business in the Civil Court."
While the servant was speaking the officer looked about the hall.
There was a door facing him, a door to the right, and a door to the
left. The officer chose to enter the room on the left, and ordered the
blinds to be pulled up. It was Mr. Nicholas B.'s study, with a couple of
tall bookcases, some pictures on the walls, and so on. Besides the
big centre-table, with books and papers, there was a quite small
writing-table, with several drawers, standing between the door and the
window in a good light; and at this table my granduncle usually sat
either to read or write.
On pulling up the blind the servant was startled by the discovery that
the whole male population of the village was massed in front, trampling
down the flower-beds. There were also a few women among them. He was
glad to observe the village priest (of the Orthodox Church) coming up
the drive. The good man in his haste had tucked up his cassock as high
as the top of his boots.
The officer had been looking at the backs of the books in the bookcases.
Then he perched himself on the edge of the centre table and remarked
"Your master did not take you to town with him, then?"
"I am the head servant, and he leaves me in charge of the house. It's a
strong, young chap that travels with our master. If--God forbid--there
was some accident on the road, he would be of much more use than I."
Glancing through the window, he saw the priest arguing vehemently in the
thick of the crowd, which seemed subdued by his interference. Three or
four men, however, were talking with the Cossacks at the door.
"And you don't think your master has gone to join the rebels maybe--eh?"
asked the officer.
"Our master would be too old for that, surely. He's well over seventy,
and he's getting feeble, too. It's some years now since he's been on
horseback, and he can't walk much, either, now."
The officer sat there swinging his leg, very quiet and indifferent. By
that time the peasants who had been talking with the Cossack troopers at
the door had been permitted to get into the hall. One or two more left
the crowd and followed them in. They were seven in all, and among them
the blacksmith, an ex-soldier. The servant appealed deferentially to the
"Won't your honour be pleased to tell the people to go back to their
homes? What do they want to push themselves into the house like this
for? It's not proper for them to behave like this while our master's
away and I am responsible for everything here."
The officer only laughed a little, and after a while inquired:
"Have you any arms in the house?"
"Yes. We have. Some old things."
"Bring them all here, onto this table."
The servant made another attempt to obtain protection.
"Won't your honour tell these chaps. . . ?"
But the officer looked at him in silence, in such a way that he gave it
up at once and hurried off to call the pantry-boy to help him collect
the arms. Meantime, the officer walked slowly through all the rooms in
the house, examining them attentively but touching nothing. The peasants
in the hall fell back and took off their caps when he passed through.
He said nothing whatever to them. When he came back to the study all the
arms to be found in the house were lying on the table. There was a pair
of big, flint-lock holster pistols from Napoleonic times, two cavalry
swords, one of the French, the other of the Polish army pattern, with a
fowling-piece or two.
The officer, opening the window, flung out pistols, swords, and guns,
one after another, and his troopers ran to pick them up. The peasants in
the hall, encouraged by his manner, had stolen after him into the study.
He gave not the slightest sign of being conscious of their existence,
and, his business being apparently concluded, strode out of the house
without a word. Directly he left, the peasants in the study put on their
caps and began to smile at each other.
The Cossacks rode away, passing through the yards of the home farm
straight into the fields. The priest, still arguing with the peasants,
moved gradually down the drive and his earnest eloquence was drawing the
silent mob after him, away from the house. This justice must be rendered
to the parish priests of the Greek Church that, strangers to the country
as they were (being all drawn from the interior of Russia), the majority
of them used such influence as they had over their flocks in the cause
of peace and humanity. True to the spirit of their calling, they tried
to soothe the passions of the excited peasantry, and opposed rapine and
violence, whenever they could, with all their might. And this conduct
they pursued against the express wishes of the authorities. Later on
some of them were made to suffer for this disobedience by being removed
abruptly to the far north or sent away to Siberian parishes.
The servant was anxious to get rid of the few peasants who had got into
the house. What sort of conduct was that, he asked them, toward a man
who was only a tenant, had been invariably good and considerate to the
villagers for years, and only the other day had agreed to give up two
meadows for the use of the village herd? He reminded them, too, of Mr.
Nicholas B.'s devotion to the sick in time of cholera. Every word of
this was true, and so far effective that the fellows began to scratch
their heads and look irresolute. The speaker then pointed at the window,
exclaiming: "Look! there's all your crowd going away quietly, and you
silly chaps had better go after them and pray God to forgive you your
This appeal was an unlucky inspiration.
In crowding clumsily to the window to see whether he was speaking the
truth, the fellows overturned the little writing-table. As it fell over
a chink of loose coin was heard. "There's money in that thing," cried
the blacksmith. In a moment the top of the delicate piece of furniture
was smashed and there lay exposed in a drawer eighty half imperials.
Gold coin was a rare sight in Russia even at that time; it put the
peasants beside themselves. "There must be more of that in the house,
and we shall have it," yelled the ex-soldier blacksmith. "This is
war-time." The others were already shouting out of the window, urging
the crowd to come back and help. The priest, abandoned suddenly at the
gate, flung his arms up and hurried away so as not to see what was going
In their search for money that bucolic mob smashed everything in the
house, ripping with knives, splitting with hatchets, so that, as the
servant said, there were no two pieces of wood holding together left in
the whole house. They broke some very fine mirrors, all the windows, and
every piece of glass and china. They threw the books and papers out
on the lawn and set fire to the heap for the mere fun of the thing,
apparently. Absolutely the only one solitary thing which they left whole
was a small ivory crucifix, which remained hanging on the wall in
the wrecked bedroom above a wild heap of rags, broken mahogany, and
splintered boards which had been Mr. Nicholas B.'s bedstead. Detecting
the servant in the act of stealing away with a japanned tin box, they
tore it from him, and because he resisted they threw him out of the
dining-room window. The house was on one floor, but raised well above
the ground, and the fall was so serious that the man remained lying
stunned till the cook and a stable-boy ventured forth at dusk from their
hiding-places and picked him up. But by that time the mob had departed,
carrying off the tin box, which they supposed to be full of paper money.
Some distance from the house, in the middle of a field, they broke it
open. They found in side documents engrossed on parchment and the two
crosses of the Legion of Honour and For Valour. At the sight of these
objects, which, the blacksmith explained, were marks of honour given
only by the Tsar, they became extremely frightened at what they had
done. They threw the whole lot away into a ditch and dispersed hastily.
On learning of this particular loss Mr. Nicholas B. broke down
completely. The mere sacking of his house did not seem to affect him
much. While he was still in bed from the shock, the two crosses were
found and returned to him. It helped somewhat his slow convalescence,
but the tin box and the parchments, though searched for in all the
ditches around, never turned up again. He could not get over the loss of
his Legion of Honour Patent, whose preamble, setting forth his services,
he knew by heart to the very letter, and after this blow volunteered
sometimes to recite, tears standing in his eyes the while. Its terms
haunted him apparently during the last two years of his life to such an
extent that he used to repeat them to himself. This is confirmed by
the remark made more than once by his old servant to the more intimate
friends. "What makes my heart heavy is to hear our master in his room at
night walking up and down and praying aloud in the French language."
It must have been somewhat over a year afterward that I saw Mr. Nicholas
B.--or, more correctly, that he saw me--for the last time. It was, as I
have already said, at the time when my mother had a three months' leave
from exile, which she was spending in the house of her brother, and
friends and relations were coming from far and near to do her honour.
It is inconceivable that Mr. Nicholas B. should not have been of the
number. The little child a few months old he had taken up in his arms on
the day of his home-coming, after years of war and exile, was confessing
her faith in national salvation by suffering exile in her turn. I do not
know whether he was present on the very day of our departure.
I have already admitted that for me he is more especially the man who
in his youth had eaten roast dog in the depths of a gloomy forest of
snow-loaded pines. My memory cannot place him in any remembered scene.
A hooked nose, some sleek white hair, an unrelated evanescent impression
of a meagre, slight, rigid figure militarily buttoned up to the throat,
is all that now exists on earth of Mr. Nicholas B.; only this vague
shadow pursued by the memory of his grandnephew, the last surviving
human being, I suppose, of all those he had seen in the course of his
But I remember well the day of our departure back to exile. The
elongated, bizarre, shabby travelling-carriage with four post-horses,
standing before the long front of the house with its eight columns,
four on each side of the broad flight of stairs. On the steps, groups
of servants, a few relations, one or two friends from the nearest
neighbourhood, a perfect silence; on all the faces an air of sober
concentration; my grandmother, all in black, gazing stoically; my uncle
giving his arm to my mother down to the carriage in which I had been
placed already; at the top of the flight my little cousin in a short
skirt of a tartan pattern with a deal of red in it, and like a
small princess attended by the women of her own household; the head
gouvernante, our dear, corpulent Francesca (who had been for thirty
years in the service of the B. family), the former nurse, now outdoor
attendant, a handsome peasant face wearing a compassionate expression,
and the good, ugly Mlle. Durand, the governess, with her black eyebrows
meeting over a short, thick nose, and a complexion like pale-brown
paper. Of all the eyes turned toward the carriage, her good-natured eyes
only were dropping tears, and it was her sobbing voice alone that
broke the silence with an appeal to me: "_N'oublie pas ton francais, mon
cheri_." In three months, simply by playing with us, she had taught me
not only to speak French, but to read it as well. She was indeed an
excellent playmate. In the distance, half-way down to the great gates, a
light, open trap, harnessed with three horses in Russian fashion, stood
drawn up on one side, with the police captain of the district sitting in
it, the vizor of his flat cap with a red band pulled down over his eyes.
It seems strange that he should have been there to watch our going so
carefully. Without wishing to treat with levity the just timidites of
Imperialists all the world over, I may allow myself the reflection that
a woman, practically condemned by the doctors, and a small boy not quite
six years old, could not be regarded as seriously dangerous, even for
the largest of conceivable empires saddled with the most sacred of
responsibilities. And this good man I believe did not think so, either.
I learned afterward why he was present on that day. I don't remember any
outward signs; but it seems that, about a month before, my mother became
so unwell that there was a doubt whether she could be made fit to
travel in the time. In this uncertainty the Governor-General in Kiev was
petitioned to grant her a fortnight's extension of stay in her brother's
house. No answer whatever was returned to this prayer, but one day at
dusk the police captain of the district drove up to the house and told
my uncle's valet, who ran out to meet him, that he wanted to speak with
the master in private, at once. Very much impressed (he thought it was
going to be an arrest), the servant, "more dead than alive with fright,"
as he related afterward, smuggled him through the big drawing-room,
which was dark (that room was not lighted every evening), on tiptoe, so
as not to attract the attention of the ladies in the house, and led him
by way of the orangery to my uncle's private apartments.
The policeman, without any preliminaries, thrust a paper into my uncle's
"There. Pray read this. I have no business to show this paper to you. It
is wrong of me. But I can't either eat or sleep with such a job hanging
That police captain, a native of Great Russia, had been for many years
serving in the district.
My uncle unfolded and read the document. It was a service order issued
from the Governor-General's secretariat, dealing with the matter of the
petition and directing the police captain to disregard all remonstrances
and explanations in regard to that illness either from medical men or
others, "and if she has not left her brother's house"--it went on to
say--"on the morning of the day specified on her permit, you are
to despatch her at once under escort, direct" (underlined) "to the
prison-hospital in Kiev, where she will be treated as her case demands."
"For God's sake, Mr. B., see that your sister goes away punctually on
that day. Don't give me this work to do with a woman--and with one of
your family, too. I simply cannot bear to think of it."
He was absolutely wringing his hands. My uncle looked at him in silence.
"Thank you for this warning. I assure you that even if she were dying
she would be carried out to the carriage."
"Yes--indeed--and what difference would it make--travel to Kiev or back
to her husband? For she would have to go--death or no death. And mind,
Mr. B., I will be here on the day, not that I doubt your promise, but
because I must. I have got to. Duty. All the same my trade is not fit
for a dog since some of you Poles will persist in rebelling, and all of
you have got to suffer for it."
This is the reason why he was there in an open three-horse trap pulled
up between the house and the great gates. I regret not being able to
give up his name to the scorn of all believers in the right of conquest,
as a reprehensibly sensitive guardian of Imperial greatness. On the
other hand, I am in a position to state the name of the Governor-General
who signed the order with the marginal note "to be carried out to the
letter" in his own handwriting. The gentleman's name was Bezak. A high
dignitary, an energetic official, the idol for a time of the Russian
Each generation has its memories.