A MIXED ASSEMBLY

It was Sunday afternoon. The rather festive look of Petrovitch’s room,
in which he now sat alone, was not, however, due to any desire to
specialise the day. He had simply made his home as cheerful as possible
because he was about to entertain guests.

His table was spread with a snowy cloth, and with the preparations for
a tea of a distinctly convivial character. There was jam, and more than
one kind of cake; and the room was further brightened by bunches of
chrysanthemums. Chairs were drawn round the fire in an inviting-looking
circle. The least cheerful object in the room was the owner of it,
who sat in his usual chair between the fire and the writing-table. He
looked pale and weary, for the frosty weather had strongly renewed the
pain in a wound in his breast–an old wound, and a wound that had just
missed being a deadly one. Contrary to his usual custom, he was neither
reading nor writing. The pipe he had been smoking had gone out, and
his thoughts were far back in the past, among the memories which had
re-awakened with that aching in his breast. His thoughts went further
back than the date of that wound,–went back to the days before he had
lost friends, home, and country. He saw again in fancy the brilliant
gaiety of the winters in St Petersburg, he heard again the exquisite
music of the concerts and the opera,–the balls where Majesty itself
had deigned to be present, with anxious brow and uneasy, restless eyes.
His memory dwelt longest on a certain torchlight _fête_ on the Neva,
when the ice had been a yard thick, and when the _élite_ had been
shut off from the common herd by walls made of blocks of solid ice,
between which fir trees were planted; when coloured lamps and Chinese
lanterns had thrown indescribable magic over the crowd of bright
military uniforms and the exquisite toilettes of lovely women who had
never in all their lives been troubled by any thought of what their
dresses cost. And even at this distance he could not think without half
a pang of a certain fair-faced girl, with golden hair, who, in her
sapphire velvet and swansdown, had been the star of that _fête_ to his
boyish eyes. And she had been kind to him on this the last evening he
had spent near her before his new faiths and duties had separated him
from her for ever. That was the first loss his creed had cost him. He
wondered what would be the last–life itself perhaps. Then he fell to
thinking how these beliefs of his had grown up. How the reading of a
certain book–an English book–had done for his mind what a successful
operation for cataract does for one nearly blind–had shown him the
facts of life, no longer half hidden in a mist of falsity, but in all
their naked truth and ugliness. How for a time he had closed his eyes
again and had tried hard to live on in the life of luxury, beauty,
love, and (now he knew) selfishness which had been his by ‘right of
birth.’ He remembered the night when, belated miles from his home, and
overtaken by a snowstorm, he had sought refuge in a peasant’s hut, how
he had talked to his hosts, how one visit had led to many, and how what
he had learned from these miserable serfs had forbidden him to forget
or to set aside the teaching of the great author whose book had first
set him thinking. He remembered that time, perhaps the happiest in his
life, when he first began to write–when the ideas which had so long
been seething in his brain had found literary expression. He remembered
the joy with which he had corrected his first proof, the pride with
which he read his first article in a magazine. So thoroughly back in
the old time was he that he had stretched out his hand towards this
very magazine, which stood bound on a bookshelf, when a heavy foot
sounded on the stairs, and a moment after a knock at the door heralded
the entrance of Mr Toomey, whom Petrovitch came forward to greet with
an almost courtly welcome.

‘But your wife,’ he said; ‘can she not come? I trust all is well with
her?’

‘All’s well with her, and thanking you for the question; but all’s not
well with that young woman o’ yours.’

‘Of mine? I do not happen to possess a young woman, my good Toomey.’

‘I suppose you and me and my Mary Jane possesses about equal shares of
her, then, for I saved her from keeping company with the dead cats and
dogs, and you sent her to our place, and now my missus is let in for
looking arter her.’

‘Come to the fire. I hope it’s nothing serious.’

‘I don’t rightly know. My missus told me I should be better out of the
way, and I sent the doctor in as I came by.’

‘I am very sorry,’ said Petrovitch, ‘but I am sure poor Mrs Litvinoff
could not be in better hands than those of your good, kind wife.’

It was noticeable that he never spoke of Alice save as Mrs Litvinoff.

‘You’ve a snug little place up here, sir,’ said Toomey, looking round
him. ‘And do you _really_ like reading–those sort of books, I mean,’
pointing to Hegel’s ‘Logic,’ which lay open on the table.

‘I like doing better than reading, but one must read much to be able to
do little in the line of work I am on at present.’

‘Your line of work,’ said Toomey, glancing admiringly at his host, ‘is
a thing as I never can get to understand. How it’s done, I mean. Now,
paving is straightforward. When you’ve got a paving-stone you know
what it is you’ve got, and how far it’ll go, but words is such shifty
things, and how you manage to make ’em fit into each other so as to
make ’em mean what you mean is what gets over me.’

‘Perhaps I don’t always make them mean what I mean. Judging by the
way people misunderstand what I say–ah! here is Hirsch,’ as the door
opened, ‘and Pewtress too. How are you? Now we’re all here but Mr
Vernon.’

‘He’s coming upstairs now,’ said Pewtress, the stone-mason with the
intellectual forehead, who had been at Mrs Quaid’s at the last meeting
of the Cleon.

Mr Hirsch seemed to be in more genial mood than he had been in any of
those brief conversations which we hitherto had occasion to report. He
had shaved himself–he even appeared to have combed his hair–and he
shook hands with Toomey quite warmly and cordially.

The host had gone half-way down the stairs to meet his fourth guest–a
lame boy, whose crutches made it not easy for him to mount to the
height of Petrovitch’s nest. He now returned with him on his arm–and
after a general introduction of him to the others they all sat down to
tea.

Eustace Vernon was a lad of about eighteen, with a pale,
highbred-looking face–a rather shy but pleasant manner. He was an
enthusiastic admirer of Petrovitch, and since his first acquaintance
with the Socialist had made a point of being present at all the
meetings on social subjects that he could get to hear of, and could
find time to attend. For even the wild enthusiasm of the revolutionary
in his teens will not go the length of working a Buddhist miracle and
enabling the youthful devotee to be at more than one meeting at the
same time. Petrovitch was amused and a little touched by the lad’s
undisguised homage–and knowing himself to be responsible for the
inflammation of the young man’s mind, felt bound to keep watch lest he
should get into trouble before his newly-kindled fire had had time to
burn itself down into steadiness.

As the meal went on it was noticeable that Vernon’s love of liberty was
not inconsistent with a child-like devotion to strawberry jam.

Petrovitch might have kept a school of instruction for the benefit of
those who are always making such desperate efforts to ‘annihilate class
distinctions’–efforts which usually take place on Saturday afternoons,
and are mostly the dismallest of failures. Under his influence his four
guests–born in different parts of the world, and drawn from different
social grades–talked together with the ease of club acquaintances.

‘I had hoped,’ said Petrovitch by-and-by, ‘to have had a lady here to
pour tea out for you, but fate has been unpropitious; Mrs Toomey was
not able to come.’

‘I regret her,’ said Hirsch. ‘It always does me much pleasure to meet
our good friend’s good wife.’

Toomey looked flattered, but a little uncomfortable under this tribute.

‘She would have liked to come,’ said he, trying to look straight at the
other, but only succeeding in fixing one eye on the Austrian, while the
other searched the depths of the jam pot with an obstinacy which made
Vernon, who had the same in hand, simmer with warm awkwardness. ‘She
would have liked to come, but the young woman as lodges with us–that
Mrs Let-em-off–is ill, and the missus wouldn’t leave her.’

‘Ah, Mrs Litvinoff, it is you mean. I willed to ask you of her.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Vernon, glad to join in the conversation,
as a means of getting away from Toomey’s eye. ‘Is that any relation of
Count Litvinoff? I know him. Splendid fellow, isn’t he?’

‘I don’t think as she’s a blessed countess,’ said Toomey doubtfully,
while Hirsch cast a significant glance of question at his host.

‘Oh,’ said Petrovitch, ‘there are more Litvinoffs than one. It is not
an uncommon name. I myself know more than one family of that name.’

‘Of course you know the Count,’ said Vernon, turning to him. ‘What
wonderful adventures he has had. He seems to be a man of splendid
character. It must have cost him something to give up his social
position and go in for the Revolution.’

‘So far as I know Michael Litvinoff, he has never done more than his
clear duty.’

‘What does he do for the Revolution now?’ growled Hirsch.

‘Well, he does all that any one can do in England. There’s not much
else to be done besides talking.’

Vernon ended with a sigh, as of one who yearned for the barricades.

‘Oh, yes; he’ll _talk_,’ said Hirsch discontentedly, and took a large
bite of bread and butter.

‘You are quite right, Mr Vernon,’ said Petrovitch. ‘He talks, and talks
well; and, as you say, there is here no other means of helping the
cause. And where you have such freedom of speech as in England a man’s
tongue is his best weapon, and ought, under existing circumstances, to
be his only one.’

‘The great reforms,’ said Hirsch–‘have they been carried by the
tongue, or by the pike and the musket?’

‘In this England enough has been carried by the tongue to leave good
hopes for the future,’ said Petrovitch.

‘I am glad to hear you express those opinions,’ said Pewtress, who
spoke with some deliberation, and chose his words carefully. ‘I have
noticed that most of the foreigners I have had the pleasure of meeting
do not quite understand the condition of affairs here.’

‘Do not misunderstand me,’ said Petrovitch, rising from the table.
‘I consider force to be the last refuge of the oppressed and the
wretched–only to be tried when everything else has failed–but then
perfectly legitimate.’

‘Hear, hear,’ cried Vernon enthusiastically, as they all rose; ‘that’s
more like yourself, Petrovitch! And as for Count Litvinoff, I can’t
help admiring him, if it’s only for what he’s gone through.’

‘For that,’ said Hirsch, who seemed to have grown grumpier and grumpier
ever since Litvinoff’s name had been introduced, ‘you, Petrovitch, have
had adventures better to hear about than any of his. Did Mr Vernon ever
hear how you escaped from Tieff?’

‘If Mr Vernon has, I have not,’ said Pewtress, as they gathered round
the fire. ‘If our kind host will tell us the story, I am sure we shall
all follow it with a great deal of interest.’

‘I am quite willing to tell you about that little affair, but I fancy
I’ve told it once or twice before,’ said Petrovitch, handing round a
box of thick, short Russian cigarettes, to which his friends all helped
themselves; ‘and there is no greater bore than the man who will always
be telling of his own deeds and adventures.’

‘You, at any rate, never speak of yours,’ said Vernon, fixing his large
eyes on Petrovitch; ‘do tell us, please.’

‘I assure you I was not refusing “_pour me faire prier_,” and if we are
all comfortable I will tell you with pleasure the little there is to
tell. Toomey, you have no light.’

‘All right, sir,’ said Toomey, picking up a hot coal in his fingers and
lighting his cigarette therefrom as his host began.

‘During the year or so that I was in the fortress of Petro-Paolovski
I never encouraged the slightest hopes of escape, for in the first
place I, for a long time, suffered from a bad gunshot wound, and,
secondly, because it is known only too well among us that escape from
Petro-Paolovski is impossible. When, for some unknown reason, the
Government sent me to Tieff, my health was improved, and so were my
chances of getting away, and from the moment I entered the prison doors
I never lost an opportunity of making and maturing a plan of escape.
Escaping from a Russian prison is not quite such a desperate business
for one of us as it would be for one of you, for you would be like a
blind man in a strange house; but those of us who are judged to be the
most likely subjects for arrest make it a rule to have the plan of
every prison and fortress at our finger-tips.’

‘What a marvellous organisation yours is,’ said the stone-mason,
more as an excuse for escaping a moment from the martyrdom of the
unaccustomed cigarette than by way of saying anything original.

‘Yes, the war is fairly well organised on both sides,’ Petrovitch
replied; ‘but at present they have the big battalions.’

‘But your plans,’ struck in Vernon, impatient of the interruption.

‘Yes. Well, my knowledge of Tieff told me that there was one way, and
one way only, of leaving it, and that was by the way I had come in–by
the front gate, and to get to the front gate one had to cross the
courtyard, and between my cell and the courtyard lay obstacles too many
to be calculated and dangers too great to be faced.’

‘And you at once began to calculate them and to face them,’ cried
Vernon admiringly.

‘Rather to elude them,’ Petrovitch went on, ignoring the boy’s
compliment. ‘As I could not meet them in detail I thought it better to
surmount them in “the lump,” as I think I have heard you call it in
England. Now the thing that had given me most hope when I heard I was
coming to Tieff was that I happened to know that the resident doctor
of the prison was, not exactly one of us, but one who sympathised with
us secretly–there are many such, who are unwilling to take an active
part in the struggle, but who, short of that, help us in many ways–for
instance, with money, and especially by hiding those of us who happen
to be “wanted.” We call them the Ukrivatelli–the concealers.’

‘I hope there’s lots of them sort, sir,’ said Toomey, surreptitiously
abandoning his cigarette in favour of the more familiar but slightly
stronger smelling ‘cutty.’ ‘But don’t they get theirselves into
trouble?’

‘Yes, if they are found out,’ answered Petrovitch; ‘but they seldom
are. They are a very large class, and are often men whose official rank
or social position places them beyond suspicion. My wound still needed
attention, and I soon managed to convey to the doctor a suggestion that
daily exercise in a prison courtyard was a first-rate specific for
gunshot wounds. He seemed to think so too, and before the end of the
week I was told that I should have to walk every day for an hour in the
only place where a walk of a dozen consecutive yards was possible–in
the courtyard.’

‘It was no use getting into the courtyard unless I had some prospect of
getting out of it, and straight into some perfectly safe refuge. This
was a matter that took some weeks to arrange, and during that time I
never turned my eyes to the gate. The doctor, though he was willing to
help me, was not willing to risk his own safety by carrying too many
letters, and a whole code of signals had to be arranged. Luck seldom
favours the right side; but I think I was certainly lucky, for just
when I began to take my daily exercise the right wing of the prison had
to be repaired, and consequently the gates of the courtyard were open
all day for the carts of building materials, etc., which had to come
in and out. This must have seemed tolerably safe to the authorities,
as I was the only prisoner who “took exercise,” and there were two
sentries to whom was allotted the pleasing duty of watching me. They
had a pretty easy time of it for these three weeks, for I used to crawl
up and down the yard in a feeble and dejected sort of way, as though
I had hardly the strength to put one foot before the other. I always
leaned on a stick, and did my best to appear to be at my last gasp. I
was well-nigh tired of waiting, so often my escape seemed almost close
at hand, and then something happened, and all our plans had to be made
over again. Innumerable ideas were suggested, but abandoned for one
reason or another. At last it was definitely settled that at a certain
signal I was to make for the gate and rush out–that a carriage was to
be waiting just outside, and that one or two of our friends were to
be there promiscuously, to give false information in judicious doses,
as it might be called for. The gate was almost exactly in the middle
of the courtyard, and the beat of sentry No. 1 was from the gate to
the end of the yard and back, and that of sentry No. 2 from the other
end of the yard to the gate and back–thus the face of one of them was
always towards the gate. At length the day came when I might expect the
signal–this was to be nothing more dramatic and startling than the
smallest piece of paper that could well be seen–stuck on the shaft
of one of the builder’s carts. Cart after cart went by, my hour was
nearly up, and I began to feel pretty sure that either the signal was
not to be given that morning, or else that it had been given and I
had missed seeing it. This last alternative was becoming a maddening
certainty, when yet another cart came crawling in, and on the shaft,
luckily on the side to which my walk had now brought me, was lightly
stuck a little piece of white paper. Once more luck was my friend, for
the sentry on the same side of the gate as myself was marching _from_
the gate, and between me and the one walking _towards_ the gate was the
cart. Had any one not in the secret been watching me from one of the
prison windows at that moment he would certainly have thought that I
was the subject of a miraculous cure, for in what seemed to me about
half-a-dozen bounds I was at the side of the cart, out of the gate, and
in one of two carriages which were passing at the time.’

‘And what steps did the authorities take?’ asked Pewtress, in the
perfectly unexcited and matter-of-fact tone of a School Board inspector.

‘Well,’ said Petrovitch, laughing a little, ‘I was not there at the
time, but my friends told me that what followed was well worth seeing.
A few seconds after my disappearance the two sentries and the whole of
the guard from the guard-room inside the prison came swarming into the
street, and there was a most delightful hue-and-cry and clamour. About
a hundred yards away to the right a carriage was making off at a mad
pace, and after this went the whole _posse_; with the lieutenant of the
guard at their head. They must have been immensely relieved when they
saw it pull up opposite the house of a well-known and irreproachable
doctor. When, panting and exultant, they surrounded the carriage, they
found inside it a surprised and indignant gentleman, who had driven in
hot haste to fetch Dr. Seroff to his sick daughter, who had taken a
turn for the worse.’

‘And were you under the seat, Mr Peter Hitch?’ inquired the interested
Toomey.

‘Not exactly. I had been driven off in the other carriage, which went
at a quiet trot, eminently suited to my delicate state of health.’

‘The gentleman who went for the doctor, I presume, was “one of you”?’
put in Vernon.

‘He was of the Ukrivatelli,’ said Petrovitch, ‘and I am afraid he had a
bad time of it for a day or two. He was promptly taken where I had come
from, and I fear the young lady’s sick-room was invaded by a corporal’s
guard, but our friend and his family were so evidently innocent that
the authorities had nothing left but to put up with their loss, and to
grin and bear it, as you say.’

‘But where did the other carriage take you?’

‘Into the next street, to the most orthodox house in the town, the
residence of a district judge, whence after spending a week I made
for the frontier with passport quite in order, a clean chin, a strong
French accent, and very black eyebrows. So ends the story, which I am
afraid hasn’t been a very exciting one.’

‘The quite truth of it is its interest,’ said Hirsch; ‘to Count
Litvinoff must you go for pure excitement.’

‘You don’t seem to like this Count Let-em-off, Mr Hearse,’ said Toomey
curiously; ‘I thought he was a rare good ‘un.’

‘You’re right, Toomey. He’s done us good service.’ This Petrovitch
spoke with a certain emphasis, and with his eyes not on Toomey, but on
Hirsch.

‘I don’t know whether it’s indiscreet to ask,’ said Vernon, ‘but I wish
you would tell us how it was you got arrested.’

‘Ah! that’s a long story,’ returned Petrovitch, ‘and one which, as it
concerns others beside myself, I don’t feel justified in telling.’ Then
as the boy coloured and looked embarrassed, he added kindly, ‘There
wasn’t the slightest indiscretion in the question, and some other time,
perhaps, I shall be able to answer it. But, since adventures are the
order of the evening, you should get Hirsch to tell you some of his. He
has had more than Othello.’

The Austrian was beginning to protest that nothing had ever happened
to him, when a rustle of silk on the stairs outside silenced him, and
the men all looked at each other inquiringly in the moment that elapsed
before the door was opened and disclosed the velvet bonnet and abundant
flounces of Mrs Quaid. Mr Quaid was there, too, but he did not take the
eye or captivate the attention. That was Mrs Quaid’s department.

‘My _dear_ Mr Petrovitch, how can I apologise enough for our intrusion?
The maid gave us no _idea_ that you were entertaining. Ah! here’s Mr
Pewtress. How do you do? And Mr Vernon, too. How delightful! Why, we’re
all among friends. And you won’t think me quite an old marplot if I
stay for a few moments, for I really have something special to say to
you.’

‘It’s very good of you to honour me with a call,’ said Petrovitch,
wondering intensely what had brought her there.

‘We have been to see some friends at Regent’s Park, and we are going
on to dine with the Pagets–(you know the Pagets, Mr Petrovitch? No!
Ah, I must introduce you; they are such sweet people, quite devoted to
_our_ side)–and so we thought we would call as we passed to ask you if
you will come and dine with us on Tuesday. You’ll excuse an informal
invitation, I know. I thought if we came _ourselves_ to ask you we
should be more likely to succeed.’

‘You are very kind,’ said Petrovitch, wondering whether he could find
any means of evading an acceptance.

‘I _had_ hoped to have had your fellow-countryman, Count Litvinoff,
there to meet you; but I hear he has just gone to Derbyshire; so
unfortunate. I suppose he has gone to stay with the Stanleys. He saved
Mr Stanley’s life, you know–Mr Stanley–perhaps you remember his
daughter, the sweet girl who sat next you at our house.’

It appeared that Petrovitch did remember the lady in question.

The other men had formed a knot at the other side of the fire.

‘You know,’ said Mrs Quaid, lowering her voice discreetly, as she
glanced at them, ‘my daughter Cora thinks that there will be a match
there before long. I do so hope that dear interesting Count has not
lost all his property. From what I hear he is very well off.’

‘Gentlemen of your opinions ought not to marry,’ said Mr Quaid,
striking in, much to his wife’s surprise. He did not usually advance
independent opinions, being emphatically ‘Mrs Quaid’s husband,’ and
nothing more.

‘Why?’ asked Petrovitch, amused.

‘Because your lives are so constantly in danger.’

‘There’s not much danger in Derbyshire,’ broke in Hirsch, in spite of
Petrovitch’s restraining eye.

‘Ah, well,’ said Mrs Quaid, ‘I do hope, if anything _does_ come of it,
that he will settle down quietly in England. There is so much that
wants doing here. We want good, brave workers to strive to bridge over
the terrible gulf between the classes.’

Toomey, suddenly recalled to a sense of the ‘gulf’–which he had
quite lost sight of under the influence of Petrovitch’s tact–felt a
painfully renewed consciousness of his boots, his hands, and his Sunday
clothes.

Vernon, who knew Mrs Quaid, and delighted to ‘draw’ her, would not
for the world have missed such an opportunity of amusing himself
and his friends. By a skilful question or two he led the lady on to
her favourite subject–that of education. She could discuss this
question with eloquence, and at any length; but no matter how her
discussions began, they always ended by placing her and her hearers
in a difficulty. She was quite clear that before we could educate our
children we must be educated ourselves, which, on the face of it,
seemed reasonable; but, then, who was there to educate us? To that
question no answer could ever be found; and in the meantime, what was
to become of the rising generation? She had nearly reached this point
when her husband, who had been present before when she trotted round
this circle of argument, and for whom the repetition of the performance
had no charms, brought the conversation back to the world of
possibilities by renewing the invitation for Tuesday, which Petrovitch,
after a little hesitation, accepted.

When the gros grain silk had swept down the uncarpeted stairs, and
Petrovitch had accompanied it to the front door and received the
last nod of farewell from the imposing plume in the velvet bonnet,
he returned to his room, to find the spirits of his friends visibly
higher, except those of Vernon, who felt that he had been done out of
the cream of his proposed joke.

The evening slipped by pleasantly enough, but there were no more
adventures told, nor was Count Litvinoff mentioned again, until one by
one all the guests had departed except Hirsch.

He stayed on, smoking in silence, and his host, equally silent, sat on
the opposite side of the fire, regarding it fixedly.

‘Well,’ said Hirsch, at last turning his eyes towards the other, ‘what
of this marriage that the large lady speaks of so confidently–this
“sweet Clare” who is to be the Countess Litvinoff? That also is to be
for the cause? With that also you are satisfied? That also is to be
permitted, sanctioned, what you call approved?’

‘No,’ said Petrovitch slowly. ‘No; that is not to be.’