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Chapter 27

 

The snow rarely falls in Krasnoiarsk. It is a little oasis in the great winter desert of Siberia. Rezanov, his face turned to the window, could see the red banks on the opposite side of the river. The sun transformed the gilded cupolas and crosses into dazzling points of light, and the sky above the spires and towers, the stately square and narrow dirty streets of the bustling little capital, was as blue and unflecked as that which arched so high above a land where Castilian roses grew, and one woman among a gay and thoughtless people dreamed, with all the passion of her splendid youth, of the man to whom she had pledged an eternal troth. Rezanov's mind was clear in those last moments, but something of the serenity and the selfishness of death had already descended upon him. He heard with indifference the sobs of Jon, crouched at the foot of his bed. Tears and regrets were a part of the general futility of life, insignificant enough at the grand threshold of death.

No doubt that his great schemes would die with him, and were he remembered at all it would be as a dreamer; or as a failure because he had died before accomplishing what his brain and energy and enthusiasm alone could force to fruition. None realized better than he the paucity of initiative and executive among the characteristics of the Slav. What mattered it? He had had glimpses more than once of the apparently illogical sequence of life, the vanity of human effort, the wanton cruelty of Nature. He had known men struck down before in the maturity of their usefulness, cities destroyed by earthquake or hurricane in the fairest and most promising of their days: public men, priests, parents, children, wantons, criminals, blotted out with equal impartiality by a brutal force that would seem to have but a casual use for the life she flung broadcast on her planets. Man was the helpless victim of Nature, a calf in a tiger's paws. If she overlooked him, or swept him contemptuously into the class of her favorites, well and good; otherwise he was her sport, the plaything of her idler moments. Those that cried "But why?" "What reason?" "What use?" were those that had never looked over the walls of their ego at the great dramatic moments in the career of Nature, when she made immortal fame for herself at the expense of millions of pigmies.

And if his energies, his talents, his usefulness, were held of no account, at least he could look back upon a past when he would have seemed to be one of the few supreme favorites of the forces that shaped man's life and destiny. Until he had started from Kronstadt four years before on a voyage that had humiliated his proud spirit more than once, and undermined as splendid a physique as ever was granted to even a Russian, he had rolled the world under his foot. With an appearance and a personal magnetism, gifts of mind and manner and character that would have commanded attention amid the general flaccidity of his race and conquered life without the great social advantages he inherited, he had enjoyed power and pleasure to a degree that would have spoiled a coarser nature long since. True, the time had come when he had cared little for any of his endowments save as a means to great ends, when all his energies had concentrated in the determination to live a life of the highest possible usefulness--without which man's span was but existence--his ambitions had cohered and been driven steadily toward a permanent niche in history; then paled and dissolved for an hour in the glorious vision of human happiness.

And wholly as he might realize man's insignificance among the blind forces of nature, he could accept it philosophically and die with his soul uncorroded by misanthropy, that final and uncompromising admission of failure. The misanthrope was the supreme failure of life because he had not the intelligence to realize, or could not reconcile himself to, the incomplete condition of human nature. Man was made up of little qualities, and aspirations for great ones. Many yielded in the struggle and sank into impotent discontent among the small material things of life, instead of uplifting themselves with the picture of the inevitable future when development had run its course, and indulgently pitying the children of their own period who so often made life hateful with their greed, selfishness, snobbery--most potent obstacle to human endeavor--and injustice. The bad judgment of the mass! How many careers it had balked, if not ruined, with its poor ideals, its mean heroes, its instinctive avoidance of superior qualities foreign to itself, its contemptible desire to be identified with a fashion. It was this low standard of the crowd that induced misanthropy in many otherwise brave spirits who lacked the insight to discern the divine spark underneath, the persistence, sure of reward, to fight their way to this spark and reveal it to the gaze of astonished and flattered humanity. Rezanov's very arrogance had led him to regard the mass of mankind as but one degree removed from the nursery; his good nature and philosophical spirit to treat them with an indulgence that kept sourness out of his cynicism and inevitably recurring weariness and disgust; his ardent imagination had consoled itself with the vision of a future when man should live in a world made reasonable by the triumph of ideals that now lurked half ashamed in the high spaces of the human mind.

He looked back in wonder at the moment of wild regret and protest--the bitterer in its silence--when they had told him he must die; when in the last rally of the vital forces he had believed his will was still strong enough to command his ravaged body, to propel his brain, still teeming with a vast and complicated future, his heart, still warm and insistent with the image it cherished, on to the ultimates of ambition and love. How brief it had been, that last cry of mortality, with its accompaniment of furious wonder at his unseemly and senseless cutting off. In the adjustment and readjustment of political and natural forces the world ambled on philosophically, fulfilling its inevitable destiny.

If he had not been beyond humor, he would have smiled at the idea that in the face of all eternity it mattered what nation on one little planet eventually possessed a fragment called California. To him that fair land was empty and purposeless save for one figure, and even of her he thought with the terrible calm of dissolution. During these last months of illness and isolation he had been less lonely than at any time of his life save during those few weeks in California, for he had lived with her incessantly in spirit; and in that subtle imaginative communion had pressed close to a profound and complex soul, revealed before only in flashes to a vision astray in the confusion of the senses. He had felt that her response to his passion was far more vital and enduring than dwelt in the capacity of most women; he had appreciated her gifts of mind, her piquant variousness that scotched monotony, the admirable characteristics that would give a man repose and content in his leisure, and subtly advance his career. But in those long reveries, at the head of his forlorn caravan or in the desolate months of convalescence, he had arrived at an absolute understanding of what she herself had divined while half comprehending.

Theirs was one of the few immortal loves that reveal the rarely sounded deeps of the soul while in its frail tenement on earth; and he harbored not a doubt that their love was stronger than mortality and that their ultimate union was decreed. Meanwhile, she would suffer, no one but he could dream how completely, but her strong soul would conquer, and she would live the life she had visioned in moments of despair; not of cloistered selfishness, but of incomparable usefulness to her little world; and far happier, in her eternal youthfulness of heart, in that divine life of the imagination where he must always be with her as she had known him briefly at his best, than in the blunt commonplaceness of daily existence, the routine and disillusionment of the world. Perhaps--who knew?--he had, after all, given her the best that man can offer to a woman of exalted nature; instead of taking again with his left hand what his right had bestowed; completed the great gift of life with the priceless beacon of death.

How unlike was life to the old Greek tragedies! He recalled his prophetic sense of impending happiness, success, triumph, as he entered California, the rejuvenescence of his spirit in the renewal of his wasted forces even before he loved the woman. Every event of the past year, in spite of the obstacles that mortal must expect, had marched with his ambitions and desires, and straight toward a future that would have given him the most coveted of all destinies, a station in history. There had not been a hint that his brain, so meaningly and consummately equipped, would perish in the ruins of his body in less than a twelvemonth from that fragrant morning when he had entered the home of Concha Ar- guello tingling with a pagan joy in mere existence, a sudden rush of desire for the keen, wild happiness of youth--

His eyes wandered from the bright cross above the little cemetery where he was to lie, and contracted with an expression of wonder. Where had Jon found Castilian roses in this barren land? No man had ever been more blest in a servant, but could even he--here--With the last triumph of will over matter he raised his head, his keen, searching gaze noting every detail of the room, bare and unlovely save for its altar and ikons, its kneeling priests and nuns. His eyes expanded, his nostrils quivered. As he sank down in the embrace of that final delusion, his unconquerably sanguine spirit flared high before a vision of eternal and unthinkable happiness.

So died Rezanov; and with him the hope of Russians and the hindrance of Americans in the west; and the mortal happiness and earthly dross of the saintliest of California's women.

 

 

THE END.

 

 

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Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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