TALKING THINGS OVER

Before the echo of that cry had died away, the man who had uttered it
swayed sideways, his face grew deadly white, the clasp of his arms
loosened, and only the sudden firm grip of the other saved him from
falling. Petrovitch laid him on the sofa. Then he passed into the
adjoining bedroom, and came back with a wet sponge.

‘What a fellow it is,’ he said to himself, as he applied it to the
hands and face of the insensible man. ‘As brave as a lion, and as
hysterical as a schoolgirl.’ But he looked very kindly on the pale face
as he administered his remedies.

In a little while the eyes opened, and the younger man struggled into a
sitting position, and looked into the face that bent over him.

‘Litvinoff, it _is_ you, then?’ he said in a low voice, and covered
his face with his hands. The joy of seeing once more the man he had
loved seemed to be swallowed up in the shame of meeting the man he had
wronged.

‘Yes, Percival, it is I,’ said Petrovitch; ‘but let this be the last
time you call me Litvinoff, and I must not call you Percival either.
I think I have a right to ask that. You have chosen to put on the
Prophet’s Mantle, and for all our sakes you must wear it a little
longer.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean simply that you must still be Count Litvinoff, and I must still
be Petrovitch.’

‘Then _you_ are Petrovitch! Why did you take a false name to mislead
me?’ he groaned. ‘Why did you let me go on wearing your name, and
spending your money? Why not have let me know at once, when every day
made things worse? I would have gone out of life long ago rather than
face this meeting.’

‘And yet you seemed glad to see me, too?’ said Petrovitch, looking at
him curiously. ‘But I took no false name; my name is really Petrovitch.
My father’s name was Peter, you know. You ought to remember that. You
have heard me called by it often enough.’

‘I never thought of you by it, though; and besides, I thought you were
dead. You know that I thought you were dead?’ with a sudden, quick
doubt in his voice.

‘Of course!’

‘You know, don’t you,’ he went on eagerly, ‘that I would gladly have
given my life for yours, and that I never hoped for anything so good in
this world as to see you alive? Yes, in spite of everything, though I
can’t expect you to believe it,’ he ended bitterly.

‘I have never doubted it,’ Petrovitch answered; and with a sudden
thrill of pity for the despair, the remorse, the longing, and the
wretchedness in the other’s face, he added, ‘Come, old friend, don’t
take this so much to heart. It is nothing that cannot be put right. You
will see when we come to talk it over quietly. Can’t we have some tea?’

Petrovitch knew well enough that when the heart’s cords are stretched
almost unbearably by the strain of an intense emotion, it sometimes
stems as though they could only be saved from giving way altogether by
the direction of the mind to some utterly trivial detail of everyday
life. Many a woman’s heart has been saved from breaking by the
necessity of getting the children’s dinner, and many a tragedy has
been averted by the chief actor’s having to take in the afternoon’s
milk.

Petrovitch repeated the question, ‘Can’t we have some tea?’

The other rose mechanically, went to a cupboard, and brought out a
plated kettle and spirit-lamp, a small china tea set, and a plate of
lemons, with a silver knife. He put these appliances on the table in
an unmethodical, untidy sort of way, and was proceeding to light the
spirit-lamp, when Petrovitch, who had been watching him with a smile,
took the match-box out of his hand.

‘Here, let me make tea. I see you are just as unsystematic as ever.’
He lighted the lamp, and with a few deft touches put the rest of the
tea-things in order, as the other, leaving the matter in his hands,
strode up and down the room.

‘Oh, what is to be the end of all this?’ he said at length; ‘how long
am I to go on bearing your name?’

‘All this will soon be at an end, as far as I am concerned. I have
nearly completed my arrangements for getting back to Russia, and when
I’m there you may guess it won’t matter to me who bears my name. I
shall not wish to use it. But while I am here I wish to be Petrovitch.
Indeed, you can serve me best by letting it be as widely known as
possible that Count Litvinoff is–well, where you are and not where I
am, and after all it’s nobody’s business but yours and mine.’

‘Does no one else know of it at all?’

‘Only two men in St Petersburg, and one in London.’

‘And he is?’

‘Hirsch, whom you’ve seen, I think.’

‘Why the devil didn’t he tell every one then?’

‘Because I asked him not to, and he considers himself under some sort
of obligation to me.’

‘Like everyone else you come across. But how came _he_ to know it?’

‘He had to be told when I came here. There was certain work I had to
do; I can tell you about it another time, and he was the only man who
could put me in the way of it. Now Count Litvinoff, the tea is ready.’

The other stopped in his walk.

‘Curse it!’ he said passionately. ‘Call me a villain or a forger, or
any other pretty name you like; I can stand that, but not your lips
calling me by your name. It’s a cruel revenge.’

‘Ah, we owe too much to our enemies for there to be any thought of
revenge between friends, and I must teach myself to call you that.
Besides, what is there to revenge? You have only used the name I did
not need.’

‘No, I forged your name as well as stole it. You don’t know all.’

‘Yes, I do, or pretty nearly all. As far as your taking my name goes,
that has done no harm; rather good; and as for the money, that would
have gone to you. You know, if I had had the giving of it, it would
have gone to you. And I know you would never have touched it if you had
not thought I was dead.’

‘I wish I had never left you, though I did think it, and at the mercy
of those curs. If only I had died by you!’

‘You know well enough our rule is that none should be sacrificed
without reason. Why should you have given those hounds two lives
instead of one?’

‘I wish I had died that night under the orange trees at Monte Carlo.
You did yourself a bad turn when you saved my life. I have done no good
with it. I have only weighted myself with unpardonable sins.’

‘As far as I am concerned,’ Petrovitch said, ‘if there is anything to
forgive, it is freely forgiven–freely and fully; and now let us shake
hands after your English fashion, and of forgiveness let us talk no
more. We are _friends_, and between such it is no question of pardon.
And there are many other things we must speak of.’

He held his hand out, and the younger man grasped it. There was a
moment’s pause. Then,–

‘Let me give you some fresh tea–that is cold,’ said Petrovitch
cheerfully, pouring out another cup; ‘don’t you want to hear what
happened to me after I was killed?’

‘I can hardly realise yet that you are _not_ killed.’

‘Well, I’ll tell you about it. The officer of that troop added medicine
to his other accomplishments, besides which he was a distant relation
of my mother’s, and he insisted on seeing whether I could not be
conjured back to life. I believe I gave them a good deal of trouble,
but I seem to be a die-hard. My capture was kept very quiet, thanks to
my family name, for the Government didn’t care about having it known
that the head of the Litvinoffs had tried to atone for the crimes of
his family by taking the side of the people. My wound was a bad one,
and even now troubles me sometimes. I used sometimes almost to wish it
had settled me. Fancy being in prison, and a Russian prison, with a
wound like that.’

‘But how did you get away?’

For answer Petrovitch told him the story of his escape as he had told
it to Hirsch and to his other friends, intentionally making the recital
a long one, so that his companion might have time to get used to the
new situation before they began to talk of the future.

‘And now,’ he said, when he had ended, ‘tell me how it fared with the
Secretary.’

‘I hate to think of it,’ said the man who had borne the Litvinoff
name for three years, and who, it seemed, was to bear it a little
while longer. ‘Whenever I think of that night, I see nothing but your
face–dead, as I thought–turned up from the snow in the hateful
dawn. Oh, my friend!’ his voice faltered, and he held his hand out to
Petrovitch again. After a pause, he resumed, ‘I tried all I knew to
revive you, but you were as cold as ice, and your heart did not beat.
I stayed by you a long, long time. It did not occur to me to leave
you, but at last, in a flash, I realised that you were _gone_–that I
was there in the snow _alone_. And then I thought of escape. I said
good-bye to your body. I felt as if your self was far away somewhere,
and then I sprang up and dashed off in the direction we had been
taking. It was broad daylight then, but I saw nothing of the soldiers,
though I knew afterwards they must have found you, because when we
sent, your body was gone. I must have kept pretty straight, for I came
to a house at last, and I went straight up to it. I thought it must be
Teliaboff’s, and if it wasn’t I felt I didn’t much care. I went right
in, asked for the master of the house, and when he came to me I told
him all. It was Teliaboff. He was very good to me, and kept me there
nearly a fortnight. We could hear nothing of you–nothing at all.
By the way, it was he who first, unconsciously, gave me the idea of
personating you, for when I entered his house on that horrible morning
he greeted me by your name. I undeceived him at once, but the idea
took root and bore fruit later. He was kindness itself, and his little
daughter–she was only twelve, I think–took a fancy to me. I believe
that child’s companionship saved me from going mad.

‘Then he got me a passport, and gave me money enough to get to Vienna.
When I got there I was penniless, and I knew you had had money there.
I did not feel somehow that I was robbing _you_ when I forged your
name–Heaven knows that was easily done, I knew your signature so
well–and went on to Paris with your money as Count Michael Litvinoff.
When I took your money I meant honestly to spend it all in the cause
you had worked for, and for a time I did. But–I don’t know how to
explain it–I suppose the Revolution had not really taken hold of
me. It was _you_ I had cared for, and your creed I had held, not for
itself, but because it was _yours_. And when your personal influence
was not near me I grew careless and idle, and worked for Liberty only
by fits and starts. It used to seem too much trouble to do things for
the cause. It had been your approval I cared for, I think. You are so
strong, I can’t expect you to understand the imbecilities of such a
weak fool as I am. From the moment when I ceased to spend all my time
and all your money on your work, I seemed utterly degraded in my own
eyes, and it did not seem to matter what I did, so I have gone on from
bad to worse, and the principles _you_ would die for, have only been
will-o’-the-wisp lights to lead me into direr troubles than I should
ever have known without them. I have not kept Michael Litvinoff’s name
clean. And the evil I have done is nothing to what I have tried to do.
I sent Teliaboff his money back, but I have never heard from him. Have
you? Do you know whether he is all right?’

‘Haven’t you heard?’ Petrovitch asked gravely.

‘Heard? No! What? Anything wrong?’

‘Hanged,’ was the brief reply.

‘Hanged!’

‘Yes, and his little daughter–she was fourteen, then, I think–was
hanged with him.’

‘For–for helping me?’ gasped Litvinoff.

‘No, for having “The Prophetic Vision” in her room.’

‘My God!’ cried Litvinoff, springing up. ‘How long will men bear it?
Let us go back this very day, and kill and kill and kill these fiends
as long as we have an arm to strike or a finger to pull a trigger.’

‘We are going back,’ Petrovitch said quietly. ‘As for that deed, it is
avenged. The man who was responsible for that murder got his sentence
of death and his notice of it two days later. He lived through three
months of terror, and then shot himself, to escape execution at the
hands of some of us. Don’t talk more of him.’

The two men sat silent for a little while, but Litvinoff’s eyes still
blazed with excitement. Petrovitch smoked quietly.

‘How was it,’ Litvinoff asked presently, turning from the other subject
with evident effort, ‘that you did not let me know directly you came
over?’

‘I did not see any good to be gained by it,’ answered Petrovitch, who
did not choose to tell his friend that he had waited to see with what
grace the Prophet’s Mantle was worn. ‘I heard you speak at the Agora.
I read your writings. You seemed to be doing good. Besides, it made
concealment of my purposes more easy not to be known as Litvinoff.’

‘Then what made you decide to tell me now?’ was the very natural
question.

Petrovitch hesitated, but only for a moment. Then he said,–

‘Frankly, because I thought you were meditating an action that would
afterwards cause you more regret than anything else you have done, and
I wished to prevent it.’

‘And that action was?’

‘Taking another wife while your first wife still lived and still loved
you.’

Petrovitch spoke slowly and distinctly.

Litvinoff leaned forward in his chair and looked at him amazedly.

‘By Heaven!’ he said, leaning back with a sort of sigh, ‘you seem to
know everything.’

‘I have made it my business to know.’

‘Not quite everything in this case, though,’ Litvinoff added,
correcting himself, ‘for I have no wife.’

Petrovitch’s eyes flashed angrily.

‘I was not speaking in the phrase of your London society. I did not
suppose that you were going to commit an illegal act. I merely imagined
that you had intended to commit a crime. I am not mistaken in supposing
that you always led the woman in question to believe that you looked
upon her as your wife?’

‘You are not mistaken–you are right. I did contemplate a crime,’ he
said, walking over to the bookcase, and standing so that his face was
not to be seen. ‘I have no defence to offer; but at the time I first
contemplated it I deceived myself with the idea that I had. But my
wife left me. I did not leave her. I never could have left her; and
if she had not left me that vile idea of marrying another woman would
never have entered my head. However, that’s all at an end now, I’m
thankful to say, and I mean to find my wife’–there was no hesitation
in his voice this time–‘and legalise her position with bell, book, and
candle, and any other rites that may seem to her desirable.’

‘Regardless of principles?’ said Petrovitch, with the faintest possible
sneer.

‘Damn principles!’ Litvinoff cried, turning round, stung by the tone.
‘I would have sacrificed them for a woman I merely admired, and they
sha’n’t stand between me and the woman I love.’

‘How do you propose to find her?’

‘I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you know where she is?’ he added
sharply.

‘Do you remember giving £10 to a man named Hirsch in the autumn?’ was
the counter-question.

‘I do?’ with an inquiring look.

‘That was for your wife!’

Litvinoff drew a long breath. ‘Go on!’ he said, simply.

Then Petrovitch told him all that he knew of Alice, and Litvinoff
listened intently. When Petrovitch spoke of the night on Blackfriars’
Bridge, he leaned forward breathing heavily, then rose suddenly, and,
crossing to a couch, flung himself, face downwards, on it. Petrovitch
paused.

‘Go on! Go on! Go on!’ said an impatient, stifled voice from the couch.

So Petrovitch resumed.

When the tale was told, Litvinoff rose. He was very pale, his lips
trembled a little, and his dark eyes were shining and wet.

‘When can I see you to-morrow? I am going to Chislehurst now. I
don’t thank you; it would be absurd. Thanks are idiotic under some
circumstances. You saved my life–which I didn’t care about–and now
it seems you’ve saved what I do care for, as much as such a scamp as
I can care for anything. But you don’t need my words. I believe you
understand me–if any one does.’

Petrovitch rose and laid his hand on his shoulder.

‘Do not go to-night,’ he said. ‘She is not strong yet, and you are too
excited to meet her calmly. Wait till to-morrow. You may trust her
safely where she is for another night. Besides, there is very, very
much to be said between us–both of the past and future.’

‘Well, you have a right to command me,’ Litvinoff answered, frowning
and a little stiffly, and then was silent a moment. Then he said
suddenly, flinging himself into his chair with the frown quite gone,
‘You’re right–you always are, and there _is_ much to be said. I wish
to God there could be some way of wiping out the past, or rather of
atoning for it. Do you know, it seems to me that I shall have a chance
of seeing my way to doing something _worth_ doing now you have come
back. I could almost swear at this moment that I believed as heartily
as ever in liberty, humanity, progress, and all the other things you
taught me to swear by, but in my soul I know it is _you_ I believe
in–always have believed in– I’ve never believed in anything but you
for more than three months at a time. Peculiar, isn’t it?’

‘You haven’t altered in the least,’ said Petrovitch smiling. ‘You were
never sure of your beliefs except when you were fighting for them.
You should be back in Russia. Persecution is a splendid antidote to
religious doubt. Men like you ought not to live in England. There is
too much freedom in the air and it doesn’t agree with you. You get to
think there is nothing worth fighting for here. There is, though, and
some Englishmen are beginning to find it out.’

‘You are going back to Russia?’ Litvinoff said, interrogatively.

‘Yes.’

‘Let me come with you,’ he cried, impulsively. ‘Give your Secretary
another chance.’

‘Ah, my days of quiet writing are over now. The battle grows hot. I
don’t want a Secretary, I want a comrade in arms. Will you go to Servia
for me?’

‘I’ll go to hell, if you like,’ was the direct reply.

‘The two will soon be synonymous, if all I hear is correct. But what
about your wife?’

‘It used to be one of your principles,’ Litvinoff said, using the word,
as it were, reluctantly, ‘that if a man believes in anything enough to
place himself in danger for it, he should not hesitate to risk all he
holds precious for the same end; and my wife is not a coward, she would
go with me.’

‘Poor little woman,’ said Petrovitch; ‘but that was and is one of my
principles. If you go to Servia under my name I shall have a far better
chance of getting back to St Petersburg under someone else’s. And the
risk to your wife is of the slightest, for it is a peaceful errand I
will send you on.’

‘I hate peaceful errands.’

‘I dare say there’ll be a little excitement thrown in–but don’t rush
into danger. There is no need there, and it can do no good. I know hard
fighting is the easiest; but our business is to do the thing which has
to be done, be it peace or be it war.’

‘Ah!’ said Litvinoff, with enthusiasm; ‘to act up to that ideal is easy
enough for men like you, but you must remember that such men as you
are as far above the rest of us as the Christian martyrs are above the
average church-goer. You are the Saints of the New Religion.’

‘Don’t you think we’d better go and have some dinner?’ said Petrovitch,
drily.