The Autobiography of a Slander
by Edna Lyall
MY SECOND STAGE
MY THIRD STAGE
MY FOURTH STAGE
MY FIFTH STAGE
MY SIXTH STAGE
MY SEVENTH STAGE
MY FIRST STAGE
At last the tea came up, and so
With that our tongues began to go.
Now in that house you're sure of knowing
The smallest scrap of news that's going.
We find it there the wisest way
To take some care of what we say.
RECREATION. JANE TAYLOR
I was born on the 2nd September, 1886, in a small, dull, country
town. When I say the town was dull, I mean, of course, that the
inhabitants were unenterprising, for in itself Muddleton was a
picturesque place, and though it laboured under the usual
disadvantage of a dearth of bachelors and a superfluity of spinsters,
it might have been pleasant enough had it not been a favourite resort
for my kith and kin.
My father has long enjoyed a world-wide notoriety; he is not,
however, as a rule named in good society, though he habitually
frequents it; and as I am led to believe that my autobiography will
possibly be circulated by Mr. Mudie, and will lie about on drawing-
room tables, I will merely mention that a most representation of my
progenitor, under his nom de theatre, Mephistopheles, may be seen now
in London, and I should recommend all who wish to understand his
character to go to the Lyceum, though, between ourselves, he strongly
disapproves of the whole performance.
I was introduced into the world by an old lady named Mrs. O'Reilly.
She was a very pleasant old lady, the wife of a General, and one of
those sociable, friendly, talkative people who do much to cheer their
neighbours, particularly in a deadly-lively provincial place like
Muddleton, where the standard of social intercourse is not very high.
Mrs. O'Reilly had been in her day a celebrated beauty; she was now
grey-haired and stout, but still there was something impressive about
her, and few could resist the charm of her manner and the pleasant
easy flow of her small talk. Her love of gossip amounted almost to a
passion, and nothing came amiss to her; she liked to know everything
about everybody, and in the main I think her interest was a kindly
one, though she found that a little bit of scandal, every now and
then, added a piquant flavour to the homely fare provided by the
commonplace life of the Muddletonians.
I will now, without further preamble, begin the history of my life.
"I assure you, my dear Lena, Mr. Zaluski is nothing less than a
The sound waves set in motion by Mrs. O'Reilly's words were
tumultuously heaving in the atmosphere when I sprang into being, a
young but perfectly formed and most promising slander. A delicious
odour of tea pervaded the drawing-room, it was orange-flower pekoe,
and Mrs. O'Reilly was just handing one of the delicate Crown Derby
cups to her visitor, Miss Lena Houghton.
"What a shocking thing! Do you really mean it?" exclaimed Miss
Houghton. "Thank you, cream but no sugar; don't you know, Mrs.
O'Reilly, that it is only Low-Church people who take sugar nowadays?
But, really, now, about Mr. Zaluski? How did you find it out?"
"My dear, I am an old woman, and I have learnt in the course of a
wandering life to put two and two together," said Mrs. O'Reilly. She
had somehow managed to ignore middle age, and had passed from her
position of renowned beauty to the position which she now firmly and
constantly claimed of many years and much experience. "Of course,"
she continued, "like every one else, I was glad enough to be friendly
and pleasant to Sigismund Zaluski, and as to his being a Pole, why, I
think it rather pleased me than otherwise. You see, my dear, I have
knocked about the world and mixed with all kinds of people. Still,
one must draw the line somewhere, and I confess it gave me a very
painful shock to find that he had such violent antipathies to law and
order. When he took Ivy Cottage for the summer I made the General
call at once, and before long we had become very intimate with him;
but, my dear, he's not what I thought him--not at all!"
"Well now, I am delighted to hear you say that," said Lena
Houghton, with some excitement in her manner, "for it exactly fits in
with what I always felt about him. From the first I disliked that
man, and the way he goes on with Gertrude Morley is simply dreadful.
If they are not engaged they ought to be--that's all I can say."
"Engaged, my dear! I trust not," said Mrs. O'Reilly. "I had
always hoped for something very different for dear Gertrude. Quite
between ourselves, you know, my nephew John Carew is over head and
ears in love with her, and they would make a very good pair; don't you
"Well, you see, I like Gertrude to a certain extent," replied Lena
Houghton. "But I never raved about her as so many people do. Still,
I hope she will not be entrapped into marrying Mr. Zaluski; she
deserves a better fate than that."
"I quite agree with you," said Mrs. O'Reilly, with a troubled look.
"And the worst of it is, poor Gertrude is a girl who might very
likely take up foolish revolutionary notions; she needs a strong wise
husband to keep her in order and form her opinions. But is it really
true that he flirts with her? This is the first I have heard of it.
I can't think how it has escaped my notice."
"Nor I, for indeed he is up at the Morleys' pretty nearly every
day. What with tennis, and music, and riding, there is always some
excuse for it. I can't think what Gertrude sees in him, he is not
"There is a certain surface good-nature about him," said Mrs.
O'Reilly. "It deceived even me at first. But, my dear Lena, mark my
words: that man has a fearful temper; and I pray Heaven that poor
Gertrude may have her eyes opened in time. Besides, to think of that
little gentle, delicate thing marrying a Nihilist! It is too
dreadful; really, quite too dreadful! John would never get over it!"
"The thing I can't understand is why all the world has taken him up
so," said Lena Houghton. "One meets him everywhere, yet nobody seems
to know anything about him. Just because he has taken Ivy Cottage for
four months, and because he seems to be rich and good- natured, every
one is ready to run after him."
"Well, well," said Mrs. O'Reilly, "we all like to be neighbourly,
my dear, and a week ago I should have been ready to say nothing but
good of him. But now my eyes have been opened. I'll tell you just
how it was. We were sitting here, just as you and I are now, at
afternoon tea; the talk had flagged a little, and for the sake of
something to say I made some remark about Bulgaria--not that I really
knew anything about it, you know, for I'm no politician; still, I knew
it was a subject that would make talk just now. My dear, I assure you
I was positively frightened. All in a minute his face changed, his
eyes flashed, he broke into such a torrent of abuse as I never heard
in my life before."
"Do you mean that he abused you?"
"Dear me, no! but Russia and the Czar, and tyranny and despotism,
and many other things I had never heard of. I tried to calm him down
and reason with him, but I might as well have reasoned with the
cockatoo in the window. At last he caught himself up quickly in the
middle of a sentence, strode over to the piano, and began to play as
he generally does, you know, when he comes here. Well, would you
believe it, my dear! instead of improvising or playing operatic airs
as usual, he began to play a stupid little tune which every child was
taught years ago, of course with variations of his own. Then he
turned round on the music-stool with the oddest smile I ever saw, and
said, "Do you know that air, Mrs. O'Reilly?"
"'Yes," I said; "but I forget now what it is.'"
"'It was composed by Pestal, one of the victims of Russian
tyranny," said he. "The executioner did his work badly, and Pestal
had to be strung up twice. In the interval he was heard to mutter,
'Stupid country, where they don't even know how to hang!'"
"Then he gave a little forced laugh, got up quickly, wished me
good- bye, and was gone before I could put in a word."
"What a horrible story to tell in a drawing-room!" said Lena
Houghton. "I envy Gertrude less than ever."
"Poor girl! What a sad prospect it is for her!" said Mrs. O'Reilly
with a sigh. "Of course, my dear, you'll not repeat what I have just
"Not for the world!" said Lena Houghton emphatically. "It is
perfectly safe with me."
The conversation was here abruptly ended, for the page threw open
the drawing-room door and announced 'Mr. Zaluski.'
"Talk of the angel," murmured Mrs. O'Reilly with a significant
smile at her companion. Then skilfully altering the expression of her
face, she beamed graciously on the guest who was ushered into the
room, and Lena Houghton also prepared to greet him most pleasantly.
I looked with much interest at Sigismund Zaluski, and as I looked I
partly understood why Miss Houghton had been prejudiced against him
at first sight. He had lived five years in England, and nothing
pleased him more than to be taken for an Englishman. He had had his
silky black hair closely cropped in the very hideous fashion of the
present day; he wore the ostentatiously high collar now in vogue; and
he tried to be sedulously English in every respect. But in spite of
his wonderfully fluent speech and almost perfect accent, there
lingered about him something which would not harmonise with that ideal
of an English gentleman which is latent in most minds. Something he
lacked, something he possessed, which interfered with the part he
desired to play. The something lacking showed itself in his
ineradicable love of jewellery and in a transparent habit of fibbing;
the something possessed showed itself in his easy grace of movement,
his delightful readiness to amuse and to be amused, and in a certain
cleverness and rapidity of idea rarely, if ever, found in an
He was a little above the average height and very finely built; but
there was nothing striking in his aquiline features and dark grey
eyes, and I think Miss Houghton spoke truly when she said that he was
'Not even good-looking.' Still, in spite of this, it was a face which
grew upon most people, and I felt the least little bit of regret as I
looked at him, because I knew that I should persistently haunt and
harass him, and should do all that could be done to spoil his life.
Apparently he had forgotten all about Russia and Bulgaria, for he
looked radiantly happy. Clearly his thoughts were engrossed with his
own affairs, which, in other words, meant with Gertrude Morley; and
though, as I have since observed, there are times when a man in love
is an altogether intolerable sort of being, there are other times when
he is very much improved by the passion, and regards the whole world
with a genial kindliness which contrasts strangely with his previous
"How delightful and home-like your room always looks!" he
exclaimed, taking the cup of tea which Mrs. O'Reilly handed to him.
"I am horribly lonely at Ivy Cottage. This house is a sort of oasis
in the desert."
"Why, you are hardly ever at home, I thought," said Mrs. O'Reilly,
smiling. "You are the lion of the neighbourhood just now; and I'm
sure it is very good of you to come in and cheer a lonely old woman.
Are you going to play me something rather more lively to-day?"
"Ah! Poor Pestal! I had forgotten all about our last meeting."
"You were very much excited that day," said Mrs. O'Reilly. "I had
no idea that your political notions--"
He interrupted her
"Ah! no politics to-day, dear Mrs. O'Reilly. Let us have nothing
but enjoyment and harmony. See, now, I will play you something very
much more cheerful."
And sitting down to the piano, he played the bridal march from
'Lohengrin,' then wandered off into an improvised air, and finally
treated them to some recollections of the 'Mikado.'
Lena-Houghton watched him thoughtfully as she put on her gloves; he
was playing with great spirit, and the words of the opera rang in her
For he's going to marry Yum-yum, Yum-yum,
And so you had better be dumb, dumb, dumb!
I knew well enough that she would not follow this moral advice, and
I laughed to myself because the whole scene was such a hollow
mockery. The placid benevolent-looking old lady leaning back in her
arm-chair; the girl in her blue gingham and straw hat preparing to go
to the afternoon service; the happy lover entering heart and soul into
Sullivan's charming music; the pretty room with its Chippendale
furniture, its aesthetic hangings, its bowls of roses; and the sound
of church bells wafted through the open window on the soft summer
Yet all the time I lingered there unseen, carrying with me all
sorts of dread possibilities. I had been introduced into the world,
and even if Mrs. O'Reilly had been willing to admit to herself that
she had broken the ninth commandment, and had earnestly desired to
recall me, all her sighs and tears and regrets would have availed
nothing; so true is the saying, "Of thy word unspoken thou art
master; thy spoken word is master of thee."
"Thank you." "Thank you." "How I envy your power of playing!"
The two ladies seemed to vie with each other in making pretty
speeches, and Zaluski, who loved music and loved giving pleasure,
looked really pleased. I am sure it did not enter his head that his
two companions were not sincere, or that they did not wish him well.
He was thinking to himself how simple and kindly the Muddleton people
were, and how great a contrast this life was to his life in London;
and he was saying to himself that he had been a fool to live a lonely
bachelor life till he was nearly thirty, and yet congratulating
himself that he had done so since Gertrude was but nineteen.
Undoubtedly, he was seeing blissful visions of the future all the
time that he replied to the pretty speeches, and shook hands with Lena
Houghton, and opened the drawing-room door for her, and took out his
watch to assure her that she had plenty of time and need not hurry to
Poor Zaluski! He looked so kindly and pleasant. Though I was only
a slander, and might have been supposed to have no heart at all, I
did feel sorry for him when I thought of the future and of the grief
and pain which would persistently dog his steps.
MY SECOND STAGE
Bear not false witness, slander not, nor lie;
Truth is the speech of inward purity.
THE LIGHT OF ASIA.
In my first stage the reader will perceive that I was a
comparatively weak and harmless little slander, with merely that
taint of original sin which was to be expected in one of such
parentage. But I developed with great rapidity; and I believe men of
science will tell you that this is always the case with low organisms.
That, for instance, while it takes years to develop the man from the
baby, and months to develop the dog from the puppy, the baby monad
will grow to maturity in an hour.
Personally I should have preferred to linger in Mrs. O'Reilly's
pleasant drawing-room, for, as I said before, my victim interested
me, and I wanted to observe him more closely and hear what he talked
about. But I received orders to attend evensong at the parish
church, and to haunt the mind of Lena Houghton.
As we passed down the High Street the bells rang out loud and
clear, and they made me feel the same slight sense of discomfort that
I had felt when I looked at Zaluski; however, I went on, and soon
entered the church. It was a fine old Gothic building, and the
afternoon sunshine seemed to flood the whole place; even the white
stones in the aisle were glorified here and there with gorgeous
patches of colour from the stained glass windows. But the strange
stillness and quiet oppressed me, I did not feel nearly so much at
home as in Mrs. O'Reilly's drawing-room--to use a terrestrial simile,
I felt like a fish out of water.
For some time, too, I could find no entrance at all into the mind
of Lena Houghton. Try as I would, I could not distract her attention
or gain the slightest hold upon her, and I really believe I should
have been altogether baffled, had not the rector unconsciously come
to my aid.
All through the prayers and psalms I had fought a desperate fight
without gaining a single inch. Then the rector walked over to the
lectern, and the moment he opened his mouth I knew that my time had
come, and that there was a very fair chance of victory before me.
Whether this clergyman had a toothache, or a headache, or a heavy
load on his mind, I cannot say, but his reading was more lugubrious
than the wind in an equinoctial gale. I have since observed that he
was only a degree worse than many other clerical readers, and that a
strange and delightfully mistaken notion seems prevalent that the
Bible must be read in a dreary and unnatural tone of voice, or with a
sort of mournful monotony; it is intended as a sort of reverence, but
I suspect that it often plays into the hands of my progenitor, as it
most assuredly did in the present instance.
Hardly had the rector announced, "Here beginneth the forty-fourth
verse of the sixteenth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel,"
than a sort of relaxation took place in the mind I was attacking.
Lena Houghton's attention could only have been given to the drearily
read lesson by a very great effort; she was a little lazy and did not
make the effort, she thought how nice it was to sit down again, and
then the melancholy voice lulled her into a vague interval of
thoughtless inactivity. I promptly seized my opportunity, and in a
moment her whole mind was full of me. She was an excitable,
impressionable sort of girl, and when once I had obtained an entrance
into her mind I found it the easiest thing in the world to dominate
her thoughts. Though she stood, and sat, and knelt, and curtseyed,
and articulated words, her thoughts were entirely absorbed in me. I
crowded out the Magnificat with a picture of Zaluski and Gertrude
Morley. I led her through more terrible future possibilities in the
second lesson than would be required for a three-volume novel. I
entirely eclipsed the collects with reflections on unhappy marriages;
took her off via Russia and Nihilism in the State prayers, and by the
time we arrived at St. Chrysostom had become so powerful that I had
worked her mind into exactly the condition I desired.
The congregation rose. Lena Houghton, still dominated by me, knelt
longer than the rest, but at last she got up and walked down the
aisle, and I felt a great sense of relief and satisfaction. We were
out in the open air once more, and I had triumphed; I was quite sure
that she would tell the first person she met, for, as I have said
before, she was entirely taken up with me, and to have kept me to
herself would have required far more strength and unselfishness than
she at that moment possessed. She walked slowly through the
churchyard, feeling much pleased to see that the curate had just left
the vestry door, and that in a few moments their paths must converge.
Mr. Blackthorne had only been ordained three or four years, and was
a little younger, and much less experienced in the ways of the world,
than Sigismund Zaluski. He was a good well-meaning fellow, a little
narrow, a little prejudiced, a little spoiled by the devotion of the
district visitors and Sunday School teachers; but he was honest and
energetic, and as a worker among the poor few could have equalled him.
He seemed to fancy, however, that with the poor his work ended, and
he was not always so wise as he might have been in Muddleton society.
"Good afternoon, Miss Houghton," he exclaimed. "Do you happen to
know if your brother is at home? I want just to speak to him about
the choir treat."
"Oh, he is sure to be in by this time," said Lena.
And they walked home together.
"I am so glad to have this chance of speaking to you," she began
rather nervously. "I wanted particularly to ask your advice."
Mr. Blackthorne, being human and young, was not unnaturally
flattered by this remark. True, he was becoming well accustomed to
this sort of thing, since the ladies of Muddleton were far more fond
of seeking advice from the young and good-looking curate than from
the elderly and experienced rector. They said it was because Mr.
Blackthorne was so much more sympathetic, and understood the
difficulties of the day so much better; but I think they
unconsciously deceived themselves, for the rector was one of a
thousand, and the curate, though he had in him the makings of a fine
man, was as yet altogether crude and young.
"Was it about anything in your district?" he asked, devoutly hoping
that she was not going to propound some difficult question about the
origin of evil, or any other obscure subject. For though he liked
the honour of being consulted, he did not always like the trouble it
involved, and he remembered with a shudder that Miss Houghton had
once asked him his opinion about the 'Ethical Concept of the Good.'
"It was only that I was so troubled about something Mrs. O'Reilly
has just told me," said Lena Houghton. "You won't tell any one that
I told you?"
"On no account," said the curate, warmly.
"Well, you know Mr. Zaluski, and how the Morleys have taken him
"Every one has taken him up," said the curate, with the least
little touch of resentment in his tone. "I knew that the Morleys were
his special friends; I imagine that he admires Miss Morley."
"Yes, every one thinks they are either engaged or on the brink of
it. And oh, Mr. Blackthorne, can't you or somebody put a stop to it,
for it seems such a dreadful fate for poor Gertrude?"
The curate looked startled.
"Why, I don't profess to like Mr. Zaluski," he said. "But I don't
know anything exactly against him."
"But I do. Mrs. O'Reilly has just been telling me."
"What did she tell you?" he asked with some curiosity.
"Why, she has found out that he is really a Nihilist--just think of
a Nihilist going about loose like this, and playing tennis at the
rectory and all the good houses! And not only that, but she says he
is altogether a dangerous, unprincipled man with a dreadful temper.
You can't think how unhappy she is about poor Gertrude, and so am I,
for we were at school together and have always been friends."
"I am very sorry to hear about it," said Mr. Blackthorne, "but I
don't see that anything can be done. You see, one does not like to
interfere in these sort of things. It seems officious rather, and
"Yes, that is the worst of it," she replied, with a sigh. "I
suppose we can do nothing. Still, it has been a great relief just to
tell you about it and get it off my mind. I suppose we can only hope
that something may put a stop to it all--we must just leave it to
This sentiment amused me not a little. Leave it to chance indeed!
Had she not caused me to grow stronger and larger by every word she
uttered? And had not the conversation revealed to me Mr.
Blackthorn's one vulnerable part? I knew well enough that I should
be able to dominate his thoughts as I had done hers. Finding me
burdensome, she had passed me on to somebody else with additions that
vastly increased my working powers, and then she talked of leaving it
to chance! The way in which mortals practise pious frauds on
themselves is really delightful! And yet Lena Houghton was a good
sort of girl, and had from her childhood repeated the catechism words
which proclaim that, "My duty to my neighbour is to love him as myself
. . . To keep my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering."
What is more, she took great pains to teach these words to a big
class of Sunday School children, and went, rain or shine, to spend two
hours each Sunday in a stuffy school-room for that purpose. It was
strange that she should be so ready to believe evil of her neighbour,
and so eager to spread the story. But my progenitor is clever, and
doubtless knows very well, whom to select as his tools.
By this time they had reached a comfortable-looking, red-brick
house with white stone facings, and in the discussion of the
arrangements for the choir treat I was entirely forgotten.
MY THIRD STAGE
Alas! such is our weakness, that we often more readily believe and
speak of another that which is evil than that which is good. But
perfect men do not easily give credit to every report; because they
know man's weakness, which is very prone to evil, and very subject
to fail in words.
THOMAS A KEMPIS.
All through that evening, and through the first part of the
succeeding day, I was crowded out of the curate's mind by a host of
thoughts with which I had nothing in common; and though I hovered
about him as he taught in the school, and visited several sick
people, and argued with an habitual drunkard, and worked at his
Sunday sermon, a Power, which I felt but did not understand, baffled
all my attempts to gain an entrance and attract his notice. I made a
desperate attack on him after lunch as he sat smoking and enjoying a
well-earned rest, but it was of no avail. I followed him to a large
garden-party later on, but to my great annoyance he went about talking
to every one in the pleasantest way imaginable, though I perceived
that he was longing to play tennis instead.
At length, however, my opportunity came. Mr. Blackthorne was
talking to the lady of the house, Mrs. Courtenay, when she suddenly
"Ah, here is Mr. Zaluski just arriving. I began to be afraid that
he had forgotten the day, and he is always such an acquisition. How
do you do, Mr. Zaluski?" she said, greeting my victim warmly as he
stepped on to the terrace. "So glad you were able to come. You know
Mr. Blackthorne, I think."
Zaluski greeted the curate pleasantly, and his dark eyes lighted up
with a gleam of amusement.
"Oh, we are great friends," he said laughingly. "Only, you know, I
sometimes shock him a little--just a very little."
"That is very unkind of you, I am sure," said Mrs. Courtenay,
"No, not at all," said Zaluski, with the audacity of a privileged
being. "It is just my little amusement, very harmless, very--what
you call innocent. Mr. Blackthorne cannot make up his mind about me.
One day I appear to him to be Catholic, the next Comtist, the next
Orthodox Greek, the next a convert to the Anglican communion. I am a
mystery, you see! And mysteries are as indispensable in life as in a
He laughed. Mrs. Courtenay laughed too, and a little friendly
banter was carried on between them, while the curate stood by feeling
rather out of it.
I drew nearer to him, perceiving that my prospects bid fair to
improve. For very few people can feel out of it without drifting
into a self-regarding mood, and then they are the easiest prey
imaginable. Undoubtedly a man like Zaluski, with his easy
nonchalance, his knowledge of the world, his genuine good-nature, and
the background of sterling qualities which came upon you as a surprise
because he loved to make himself seem a mere idler, was apt to eclipse
an ordinary mortal like James Blackthorne. The curate perceived this
and did not like to be eclipsed--as a matter of fact, nobody does. It
seemed to him a little unfair that he, who had hitherto been made much
of, should be called to play second fiddle to this rich Polish fellow
who had never done anything for Muddleton or the neighbourhood. And
then, too, Sigismund Zaluski had a way of poking fun at him which he
resented, and would not take in good part.
Something of this began to stir in his mind; and he cordially hated
the Pole when Jim Courtenay, who arranged the tennis, came up and
asked him to play in the next set, passing the curate by altogether.
Then I found no difficulty at all in taking possession of him;
indeed he was delighted to have me brought back to his memory, he
positively gloated over me, and I grew apace.
Zaluski, in the seventh heaven of happiness, was playing with
Gertrude Morley, and his play was so good and so graceful that every
one was watching it with pleasure. His partner, too, played well;
she was a pretty, fair-haired girl, with soft grey eyes like the eyes
of a dove; she wore a white tennis dress and a white sailor hat, and
at her throat she had fastened a cluster of those beautiful
orange-coloured roses known by the prosaic name of 'William Allan
If Mr. Blackthorne grew angry as he watched Sigismund Zaluski, he
grew doubly angry as he watched Gertrude Morley. He said to himself
that it was intolerable that such a girl should fall a prey to a
vain, shallow, unprincipled foreigner, and in a few minutes he had
painted such a dark picture of poor Sigismund that my strength
"Mr. Blackthorne," said Mrs. Courtenay, "would you take Mrs.
Milton- Cleave to have an ice?"
Now Mrs. Milton-Cleave had always been one of the curate's great
friends. She was a very pleasant, talkative woman of six-and-
thirty, and a general favourite. Her popularity was well deserved,
for she was always ready to do a kind action, and often went out of
her way to help people who had not the slightest claim upon her.
There was, however, no repose about Mrs. Milton-Cleave, and an acute
observer would have discovered that her universal readiness to help
was caused to some extent by her good heart, but in a very large
degree by her restless and over-active brain. Her sphere was
scarcely large enough for her, she would have made an excellent head
of an orphan asylum or manager of some large institution, but her
quiet country life offered far too narrow a field for her energy.
"It is really quite a treat to watch Mr. Zaluski's play," she
remarked as they walked to the refreshment tent at the other end of
the lawn. "Certainly foreigners know how to move much better than we
do: our best players look awkward beside them."
"Do you think so?" said Mr. Blackthorne. "I am afraid I am full of
prejudice, and consider that no one can equal a true-born Briton."
"And I quite agree with you in the main," said Mrs. Milton-Cleave.
"Though I confess that it is rather refreshing to have a little
The curate was silent, but his silence merely covered his
absorption in me, and I began to exercise a faint influence through
his mind on the mind of his companion. This caused her at length to
"I don't think you quite like Mr. Zaluski. Do you know much about
"I have met him several times this summer," said the curate, in the
tone of one who could have said much more if he would.
The less satisfying his replies, the more Mrs. Milton-Cleave's
"Now, tell me candidly," she said at length. "Is there not some
mystery about our new neighbour? Is he quite what he seems to be?"
"I fear he is not," said Mr. Blackthorne, making the admission in a
tone of reluctance, though, to tell the truth, he had been longing to
pass me on for the last five minutes.
"You mean that he is fast?"
"Worse than that," said James Blackthorne, lowering his voice as
they walked down one of the shady garden paths. "He is a dangerous,
unprincipled fellow, and into the bargain an avowed Nihilist. All
that is involved in that word you perhaps scarcely realise."
"Indeed I do," she exclaimed with a shocked expression. "I have
just been reading a review of that book by Stepniak. Their social
and religious views are terrible; free-love, atheism, everything that
could bring ruin on the human race. Is he indeed a Nihilist?"
Mr. Blackthorne's conscience gave him a sharp prick, for he knew
that he ought not to have passed me on. He tried to pacify it with
the excuse that he had only promised not to tell that Miss Houghton
had been his informant.
"I assure you," he said impressively, "it is only too true. I know
it on the best authority."
And here I cannot help remarking that it has always seemed to me
strange that even experienced women of the world, like Mrs. Milton-
Cleave, can be so easily hoodwinked by that vague nonentity, 'The
Best Authority.' I am inclined to think that were I a human being I
should retort with an expressive motion of the finger and thumb, "Oh,
you know it on the best authority, do you? Then THAT for your story!"
However, I thrived wonderfully on the best authority, and it would
be ungrateful of me to speak evil of that powerful though imaginary
At right angles with the garden walk down which the two were pacing
there was another wide pathway, bordered by high closely clipped
shrubs. Down this paced a very different couple. Mrs. Milton-
Cleave caught sight of them, and so did curate. Mrs. Milton-Cleave
"I am afraid he is running after Gertrude Morley! Poor girl! I
hope she will not be deluded into encouraging him."
And then they made just the same little set remarks about the
desirability of stopping so dangerous an acquaintance, and the
impossibility of interfering with other people's affairs, and the sad
necessity of standing by with folded hands. I laughed so much over
their hollow little phrases that at last I was fain to beat a retreat,
and, prompted by curiosity to know a little of the truth, I followed
Sigismund and Gertrude down the broad grassy pathway.
I knew of course a good deal of Zaluski's character, because my own
existence and growth pointed out what he was not. Still, to study a
man by a process of negation is tedious, and though I knew that he
was not a Nihilist, or a free-lover, or an atheist, or an
unprincipled fellow with a dangerous temper, yet I was curious to see
him as he really was.
"If you only knew how happy you had made me!" he was saying. And
indeed, as far as happiness went, there was not much to choose
between them, I fancy; for Gertrude Morley looked radiant, and in her
clove-like eyes there was the reflection of the love which flashed in
"You must talk to my mother about it," she said after a minute's
silence. "You see, I am still under age, and she and Uncle Henry my
guardian must consent before we are actually betrothed."
"I will see them at once," said Zaluski, eagerly.
"You could see my mother," she replied. "But Uncle Henry is still
in Sweden and will not be in town for another week."
"Must we really wait so long!" sighed Sigismund impatiently.
She laughed at him gently.
"A whole week! But then we are sure of each other. I do not think
we ought to grumble."
"But perhaps they may think that a merchant is no fitting match for
you," he suggested. "I am nothing but a plain merchant, and my I
people have been in the same business for four generations. As far
as wealth goes I might perhaps satisfy your people, but for the rest
I am but a prosaic fellow, with neither noble blood, nor the brain of
a genius, nor anything out of the common."
"It will be enough for my mother that we love each other," she said
"And your uncle?"
"It will be enough for him that you are upright and honourable--
enough that you are yourself, Sigismund."
They were sitting now in a little sheltered recess clipped out of
the yew-trees. When that softly spoken "Sigismund" fell from her
lips, Zaluski caught her in his arms and kissed her again and again.
"I have led such a lonely life," he said after a few minutes,
during which their talk had baffled my comprehension. "All my people
died while I was still a boy."
"Then who brought you up?" she inquired.
"An uncle of mine, the head of our firm in St. Petersburg. He was
very good to me, but he had children of his own, and of course I
could not be to him as one of them. I have had many friends and much
kindness shown to me, but love!--none till to-day."
And then again they fell into the talk which I could not fathom.
And so I left them in their brief happiness, for my time of idleness
was over, and I was ordered to attend Mrs. Milton-Cleave without a
MY FOURTH STAGE
Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
Mrs. Milton-Cleave had one weakness--she was possessed by an
inordinate desire for influence. This made her always eagerly
anxious to be interesting both in her conversation and in her
letters, and to this end she exerted herself with unwearying
activity. She liked influencing Mr. Blackthorne, and spared no pains
on him that afternoon; and indeed the curate was a good deal flattered
by her friendship, and considered her one of the most clever and
charming women he had ever met.
Sigismund and Gertrude returned to the ordinary world just as Mrs.
Milton-Cleave was saying good-bye to the hostess. She glanced at
"Good-bye, Gertrude," she said a little coldly. "Did you win at
"Indeed we did," said Gertrude, smiling. "We came off with flying
colours. It was a love set."
The girl was looking more beautiful than ever, and there was a
tell- tale colour in her cheeks and an unusual light in her soft grey
eyes. As for Zaluski, he was so evidently in love, and had the
audacity to look so supremely happy, that Mrs. Milton-Cleave was more
than ever impressed with the gravity of the situation. The curate
handed her into her victoria, and she drove home through the sheltered
lanes musing sadly over the story she had heard, and wondering what
Gertrude's future would be. When she reached home, however, the
affair was driven from her thoughts by her children, of whom she was
devotedly fond. They came running to meet her, frisking like so many
kittens round her as she went upstairs to her room, and begging to
stay with her while she dressed for dinner. During dinner she was
engrossed with her husband; but afterwards, when she was alone in the
drawing-room, I found my opportunity for working on her restless mind.
"Dear me," she exclaimed, throwing aside the newspaper she had just
taken up, "I ought to write to Mrs. Selldon at Dulminster about that
As a matter of fact she ought not to have written then, the letter
might well have waited till the morning, and she was over-tired and
needed rest. But I was glad to see her take up her pen, for I knew I
should come in most conveniently to fill up the second side of the
Before long Jane Stiggins, the member who had migrated from
Muddleton to Dulminster, had been duly reported, wound up, and made
over to the Archdeacon's wife. Then the tired hand paused. What
more could she say to her friend?
"We are leading our usual quiet life here," she wrote, "with the
ordinary round of tennis parties and picnics to enliven us. The
children have all been wonderfully well, and I think you will see a
great improvement in your god-daughter when you next come to stay
with us"--"Oh dear!" sighed Mrs. Milton-Cleave, "how dull and stupid
I am to-night! I can't think of a single thing to say." Then at
length I flashed into her mind, and with a sigh of relief and a
little rising flush of excitement she went on much more rapidly.
"It is such a comfort to be quite at rest about them, and to see
them all looking so well. But I suppose one can never be without
some cause of worry, and just now I am very unhappy about that nice
girl Gertrude Morley whom you admired so much when you were last
here. The whole neighbourhood has been dominated this year by a
young Polish merchant named Sigismund Zaluski, who is very clever and
musical and knows well how to win popularity. He has taken Ivy
Cottage for four mouths, and is, I fear, doing great mischief. The
Morleys are his special friends, and I greatly fear he is making love
to Gertrude. Now I know privately, on the very best authority, that
although he has so completely deceived every one and has managed so
cleverly to pose as a respectable man, that Mr. Zaluski is really a
Nihilist, a free-lover, an atheist, and altogether a most unprincipled
man. He is very clever, and speaks English most fluently, indeed he
has lived in London since the spring of 1881--he told me so himself.
I cannot help fancying that he must have been concerned in the
assassination of the late Czar, which you will remember took place in
that year early in March. It is terrible to think of the poor Morleys
entering blindfold on such an undesirable connection; but, at the same
time, I really do not feel that I can say anything about it. Excuse
this hurried note, dear Charlotte, and with love to yourself and
kindest remembrances to the Archdeacon,
"Believe me, very affectionately yours,
"P.S. It may perhaps be as well not to mention this affair about
Gertrude Morley and Mr. Zaluski. They are not yet engaged, as far as
I know, and I sincerely trust it may prove to be a mere flirtation."
I had now grown to such enormous dimensions that any one who had
known me in my infancy would scarcely have recognised me, while
naturally the more I grew the more powerful I became, and the more
capable both of impressing the minds which received me and of
injuring Zaluski. Poor Zaluski, who was so foolishly, thoughtlessly
happy! He little dreamed of the fate that awaited him! His whole
world was bright and full of promise; each hour of love seemed to
improve him, to deepen his whole character, to tone down his rather
flippant manner, to awaken for him new and hitherto unthought-of
But while he basked in his new happiness I travelled in my close
stuffy envelope to Dulminster, and after having been tossed in and
out of bags, shuffled, stamped, thumped, tied up, and generally
shaken about, I arrived one morning at Dulminster Archdeaconry, and
was laid on the breakfast table among other appetising things to
greet Mrs. Selldon when she came downstairs.
MY FIFTH STAGE
Also it is wise not to believe everything you hear, not immediately
to carry to the ears of others what you have either heard or
THOMAS A KEMPIS.
Though I was read in silence at the breakfast table and not passed
on to the Archdeacon, I lay dormant in Mrs. Selldon's mind all day,
and came to her aid that night when she was at her wits' end for
something to talk about.
Mrs. Selldon, though a most worthy and estimable person, was of a
phlegmatic temperament; her sympathies were not easily aroused, her
mind was lazy and torpid, in conversation she was unutterably dull.
There were times when she was painfully conscious of this, and would
have given much for the ceaseless flow of words which fell from the
lips of her friend Mrs. Milton-Cleave. And that evening after my
arrival chanced to be one of these occasions, for there was a
dinner-party at the Archdeaconry, given in honour of a well-known
author who was spending a few days in the neighbourhood.
"I wish you could have Mr. Shrewsbury at your end of the table,
Thomas," Mrs. Selldon had remarked to her husband with a sigh, as she
was arranging the guests on paper that afternoon.
"Oh, he must certainly take you in, my dear," said the Archdeacon.
"And he seems a very clever, well-read man, I am sure you will find
him easy to talk to."
Poor Mrs. Selldon thought that she would rather have had some one
who was neither clever nor well-read. But there was no help for her,
and, whether she would or not, she had to go in to dinner with the
Mr. Mark Shrewsbury was a novelist of great ability. Some twenty
years before, he had been called to the bar, and, conscious of real
talent, had been greatly embittered by the impossibility of getting
on in his profession. At length, in disgust, he gave up all hopes of
success and devoted himself instead to literature. In this field he
won the recognition for which he craved; his books were read
everywhere, his name became famous, his income steadily increased,
and he had the pleasant consciousness that he had found his vocation.
Still, in spite of his success, he could not forget the bitter years
of failure and disappointment which had gone before, and though his
novels were full of genius they were pervaded by an undertone of
sarcasm, so that people after reading them were more ready than before
to take cynical views of life.
He was one of those men whose quiet impassive faces reveal scarcely
anything of their character. He was neither tall nor short, neither
dark nor fair, neither handsome nor the reverse; in fact his
personality was not in the least impressive; while, like most true
artists, he observed all things so quietly that you rarely discovered
that he was observing at all.
"Dear me!" people would say, "Is Mark Shrewsbury really here?
Which is he? I don't see any one at all like my idea of a novelist."
"There he is--that man in spectacles," would be the reply.
And really the spectacles were the only noteworthy thing about him.
Mrs. Selldon, who had seen several authors and authoresses in her
time, and knew that they were as a rule most ordinary, hum-drum kind
of people, was quite prepared for her fate. She remembered her
astonishment as a girl when, having laughed and cried at the play,
and taken the chief actor as her ideal hero, she had had him pointed
out to her one day in Regent Street, and found him to be a most
commonplace-looking man, the very last person one would have supposed
capable of stirring the hearts of a great audience.
Meanwhile dinner progressed, and Mrs. Selldon talked to an empty-
headed but loquacious man on her left, and racked her brains for
something to say to the alarmingly silent author on her right. She
remembered hearing that Charles Dickens would often sit silent
through the whole of dinner, observing quietly those about him, but
that at dessert he would suddenly come to life and keep the whole
table in roars of laughter. She feared that Mr. Shrewsbury meant to
imitate the great novelist in the first particular, but was scarcely
likely to follow his example in the last. At length she asked him
what he thought of the cathedral, and a few tepid remarks followed.
"How unutterably this good lady bores me!" thought the author.
"How odd it is that his characters talk so well in his books, and
that he is such a stick!" thought Mrs. Selldon.
"I suppose it's the effect of cathedral-town atmosphere," reflected
"I suppose he is eaten up with conceit and won't trouble himself to
talk to me," thought the hostess.
By the time the fish had been removed they had arrived at a state
of mutual contempt. Mindful of the reputation they had to keep up,
however, they exerted themselves a little more while the entrees went
"Seldom reads, I should fancy, and never thinks!" reflected the
author, glancing at Mrs. Selldon's placid unintellectual face. "What
on earth can I say to her?"
"Very unpractical, I am sure," reflected Mrs. Selldon. "The sort
of man who lives in a world of his own, and only lays down his pen to
take up a book. What subject shall I start?"
"What delightful weather we have been having the last few days!"
observed the author. "Real genuine summer weather at last." The
same remark had been trembling on Mrs. Selldon's lips. She assented
with great cheerfulness and alacrity; and over that invaluable topic,
which is always so safe, and so congenial, and so ready to hand, they
grew quite friendly, and the conversation for fully five minutes was
An interval of thought followed.
"How wearisome is society!" reflected Mrs. Selldon. "It is hard
that we must spend so much money in giving dinners and have so much
trouble for so little enjoyment."
"One pays dearly for fame," reflected the author. "What a
confounded nuisance it is to waste all this time when there are the
last proofs of 'What Caste?' to be done for the nine-o'clock post
to-morrow morning! Goodness knows what time I shall get to bed to-
Then Mrs. Selldon thought regretfully of the comfortable easy chair
that she usually enjoyed after dinner, and the ten minutes' nap, and
the congenial needle-work. And Mark Shrewsbury thought of his
chambers in Pump Court, and longed for his type-writer, and his
books, and his swivel chair, and his favourite meerschaum.
"I should be less afraid to talk if there were not always the
horrible idea that he may take down what one says," thought Mrs.
"I should be less bored if she would only be her natural self,"
reflected the author. "And would not talk prim platitudes." (This
was hard, for he had talked nothing else himself.) "Does she think
she is so interesting that I am likely to study her for my next
"Have you been abroad this summer?" inquired Mrs. Selldon, making
another spasmodic attempt at conversation.
"No, I detest travelling," replied Mark Shrewsbury. "When I need
change I just settle down in some quiet country district for a few
months--somewhere near Windsor, or Reigate, or Muddleton. There is
nothing to my mind like our English scenery."
"Oh, do you know Muddleton?" exclaimed Mrs. Selldon. "Is it not a
charming little place? I often stay in the neighbourhood with the
"I know Milton-Cleave well," said the author. "A capital fellow,
quite the typical country gentleman."
"Is he not?" said Mrs. Selldon, much relieved to have found this
subject in common. "His wife is a great friend of mine; she is full
of life and energy, and does an immense amount of good. Did you say
you had stayed with them?"
"No, but last year I took a house in that neighbourhood for a few
months; a most charming little place it was, just fit for a lonely
bachelor. I dare say you remember it--Ivy Cottage, on the Newton
"Did you stay there? Now what a curious coincidence! Only this
morning I heard from Mrs. Milton-Cleave that Ivy Cottage has been
taken this summer by a Mr. Sigismund Zaluski, a Polish merchant, who
is doing untold harm in the neighbourhood. He is a very clever,
unscrupulous man, and has managed to take in almost every one."
"Why, what is he? A swindler? Or a burglar in disguise, like the
HOUSE ON THE MARSH fellow?" asked the author, with a little twinkle
of amusement in his face.
"Oh, much worse than that," said Mrs. Selldon, lowering her voice.
"I assure you, Mr. Shrewsbury, you would hardly credit the story if I
were to tell it you, it is really stranger than fiction." Mark
Shrewsbury pricked up his ears, he no longer felt bored, he began to
think that, after all, there might be some compensation for this
wearisome dinner-party. He was always glad to seize upon material
for future plots, and somehow the notion of a mysterious Pole
suddenly making his appearance in that quiet country neighbourhood
and winning undeserved popularity rather took his fancy. He thought
he might make something of it. However, he knew human nature too
well to ask a direct question.
"I am sorry to hear that," he said, becoming all at once quite
sympathetic and approachable. "I don't like the thought of those
simple, unsophisticated people being hoodwinked by a scoundrel."
"No; is it not sad?" said Mrs. Selldon. "Such pleasant, hospitable
people as they are! Do you remember the Morleys?"
"Oh yes! There was a pretty daughter who played tennis well."
"Quite so--Gertrude Morley. Well, would you believe it, this
miserable fortune-hunter is actually either engaged to her or on the
eve of being engaged! Poor Mrs. Milton-Cleave is so unhappy about
it, for she knows, on the best authority, that Mr. Zaluski is unfit
to enter a respectable house."
"Perhaps he is really some escaped criminal?" suggested Mr.
Mrs. Selldon hesitated. Then, under the cover of the general roar
of conversation, she said in a low voice:-
"You have guessed quite rightly. He is one of the Nihilists who
were concerned in the assassination of the late Czar."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Mark Shrewsbury, much startled. "Is
"Indeed, it is only too true," said Mrs. Selldon. "I heard it only
the other morning, and on the very best authority. Poor Gertrude
Morley! My heart bleeds for her."
Now I can't help observing here that this must have been the merest
figure of speech, for just then there was a comfortable little glow
of satisfaction about Mrs. Selldon's heart. She was so delighted to
have "got on well," as she expressed it, with the literary lion, and
by this time dessert was on the table, and soon the tedious ceremony
would be happily over.
"But how did he escape?" asked Mark Shrewsbury, still with the
thought of "copy" in his mind.
"I don't know the details," said Mrs. Selldon. "Probably they are
only known to himself. But he managed to escape somehow in the month
of March 1881, and to reach England safely. I fear it is only too
often the case in this world--wickedness is apt to be successful."
"To flourish like a green bay tree," said Mark Shrewsbury,
congratulating himself on the aptness of the quotation, and its
suitability to the Archediaconal dinner-table. "It is the strangest
story I have heard for a long time." Just then there was a pause in
the general conversation, and Mrs. Selldon took advantage of it to
make the sign for rising, so that no more passed with regard to
Shrewsbury, flattering himself that he had left a good impression
by his last remark, thought better not to efface it later in the
evening by any other conversation with his hostess. But in the small
hours of the night, when he had finished his bundle of proofs, he took
up his notebook and, strangling his yawns, made two or three brief,
pithy notes of the story Mrs. Selldon had told him, adding a further
development which occurred to him, and wondering to himself whether
"Like a Green Bay Tree" would be a selling title.
After this he went to bed, and slept the sleep of the just, or the
unbroken sleep which goes by that name.
MY SIXTH STAGE
But whispering tongues can poison truth.
London in early September is a somewhat trying place. Mark
Shrewsbury found it less pleasing in reality than in his visions
during the dinner-party at Dulminster. True, his chambers were
comfortable, and his type-writer was as invaluable a machine as ever,
and his novel was drawing to a successful conclusion; but though all
these things were calculated to cheer him, he was nevertheless
depressed. Town was dull, the heat was trying, and he had never in
his life found it so difficult to settle down to work. He began to
agree with the Preacher, that "of making many books there is no end,"
and that, in spite of his favourite "Remington's perfected No. 2,"
novel-writing was a weariness to the flesh. Soon he drifted into a
sort of vague idleness, which was not a good, honest holiday, but just
a lazy waste of time and brains. I was pleased to observe this, and
was not slow to take advantage of it. Had he stayed in Pump Court he
might have forgotten me altogether in his work, but in the soft luxury
of his Club life I found that I had a very fair chance of being passed
on to some one else.
One hot afternoon, on waking from a comfortable nap in the depths
of an armchair at the Club, Shrewsbury was greeted by one of his
"I thought you were in Switzerland, old fellow!" he exclaimed,
yawning and stretching himself.
"Came back yesterday--awfully bad season--confoundedly dull,"
returned the other. "Where have you been?"
"Down with Warren near Dulminster. Deathly dull hole."
"Do for your next novel. Eh?" said the other with a laugh.
Mark Shrewsbury smiled good-naturedly.
"Talking of novels," he observed, with another yawn, "I heard such
a story down there!"
"Did you? Let's hear it. A nice little scandal would do instead
of a pick-me-up."
"It's not a scandal. Don't raise your expectations. It's the
story of a successful scoundrel."
And then I came out again in full vigour--nay, with vastly
increased powers; for though Mark Shrewsbury did not add very much to
me, or alter my appearance, yet his graphic words made me much more
impressive than I had been under the management of Mrs. Selldon.
"H'm! that's a queer story," said the limp-looking young man from
Switzerland. "I say, have a game of billiards, will you?"
Shrewsbury, with prodigious yawn, dragged himself up out of his
chair, and the two went off together. As they left the room the only
other man present looked up from his newspaper, following them with
"Shrewsbury the novelist," he thought to himself. "A sterling
fellow! And he heard it from an Archdeacon's wife. Confound it all!
the thing must be true then. I'll write and make full inquiries about
this Zaluski before consenting to the engagement."
And, being a prompt, business-like man, Gertrude Morley's uncle sat
down and wrote the following letter to a Russian friend of his who
lived at St. Petersburg, and who might very likely be able to give
some account of Zaluski:-
Dear Leonoff,--Some very queer stories are afloat about a young
Polish merchant, by name Sigismund Zaluski, the head of the London
branch of the firm of Zaluski and Zernoff, at St. Petersburg. Will
you kindly make inquiries for me as to his true character and
history? I would not trouble you with this affair, but the fact is
Zaluski has made an offer of marriage to one of my wards, and before
consenting to any betrothal I must know what sort of man he really
is. I take it for granted that "there is no smoke without fire," and
that there must be something in the very strange tale which I have
just heard on the best authority. It is said that this Sigismund
Zaluski left St. Petersburg in March 1881, after the assassination of
the late Czar, in which he was seriously compromised. He is said to
be an out-and-out Nihilist, an atheist, and, in short, a dangerous,
disreputable fellow. Will you sift the matter for me? I don't wish
to dismiss the fellow without good reason, but of course I could not
think of permitting him to be engaged to my niece until these charges
are entirely disproved.
With kind remembrances to your father,
I am, yours faithfully,
MY SEVENTH STAGE
Yet on the dull silence breaking
With a lightning flash, a word,
Bearing endless desolation
On its blighting wings, I heard;
Earth can forge no keener weapon,
Dealing surer death and pain,
And the cruel echo answered
Through long years again.
A. A. PROCTER
Curiously enough, I must actually have started for Russia on the
same day that Sigismund Zaluski was summoned by his uncle at St.
Petersburg to return on a matter of urgent business. I learnt
afterwards that the telegram arrived at Muddleton on the afternoon of
one of those sunny September days and found Zaluski as usual at the
Morleys. He was very much annoyed at being called away just then, and
before he had received any reply from Gertrude's uncle as to the
engagement. However, after a little ebullition of anger, he regained
his usual philosophic tone, and, reminding Gertrude that he need not
be away from England for more than a fortnight, he took leave of her
and set off in a prompt, manly fashion, leaving most of his belongings
at Ivy Cottage, which was his for another six weeks, and to which he
hoped shortly to return.
After a weary time of imprisonment in my envelope, I at length
reached my destination at St. Petersburg and was read by Dmitry
Leonoff. He was a very busy man, and by the same post received
dozens of other letters. He merely muttered--"That well-known firm!
A most unlikely story!"--and then thrust me into a drawer with other
letters which had to be answered. Very probably I escaped his memory
altogether for the next few days: however, there I was--a startling
accusation in black and white; and, as everybody knows, St. Petersburg
is not London.
The Leonoff family lived on the third storey of a large block of
buildings in the Sergeffskaia. About two o'clock in the morning, on
the third day after my arrival, the whole household was roused from
sleep by thundering raps on the door, and the dreaded cry of "Open to
The unlucky master was forced to allow himself, his wife, and his
children to be made prisoners, while every corner of the house was
searched and every book and paper examined.
Leonoff had nothing whatever to do with the Revolutionary movement,
but absolute innocence does not free people from the police
inquisition, and five or six years ago, when the Search mania was at
its height, a case is on record of a poor lady whose house was
searched seven times within twenty-four hours, though there was no
evidence whatever that she was connected with the Nihilists; the
whole affair was, in fact, a misunderstanding, as she was perfectly
This search in Dmitry Leonoff's house was also a misunderstanding,
and in the dominions of the Czar misunderstandings are of frequent
Leonoff knew himself to be innocent, and he felt no fear, though
considerable annoyance, while the search was prosecuted; he could
hardly believe the evidence of his senses when, without a word of
explanation, he was informed that he must take leave of his wife and
children, and go in charge of the gendarmes to the House of
Being a sensible man, he kept his temper, remarked courteously that
some mistake must have been made, embraced his weeping wife, and went
off passively, while the pristav carried away a bundle of letters in
which I occupied the most prominent place.
Leonoff remained a prisoner only for a few days; there was not a
shred of evidence against him, and, having suffered terrible anxiety,
he was finally released. But Mr. Crichton-Morley's letter was never
restored to him, it remained in the hands of the authorities, and the
night after Leonoff's arrest the pristav, the procurator, and the
gendarmes made their way into the dwelling of Sigismund Zaluski's
uncle, where a similar search was prosecuted.
Sigismund was asleep and dreaming of Gertrude and of his idyllic
summer in England, when his bedroom door was forced open and he was
roughly roused by the gendarmes.
His first feeling was one of amazement, his second, one of
indignation; however, he was obliged to get up at once and dress, the
policeman rigorously keeping guard over him the whole time for fear he
should destroy any treasonable document.
"How I shall make them laugh in England when I tell them of this
ridiculous affair!" reflected Sigismund, as he was solemnly marched
into the adjoining room, where he found his uncle and cousins, each
guarded by a policeman.
He made some jesting remark, but was promptly reprimanded by his
gaoler, and in wearisome silence the household waited while the most
rigorous search of the premises was made.
Of course nothing was found; but, to the amazement of all,
Sigismund was formally arrested.
"There must be some mistake," he exclaimed, "I have been resident
in England for some time. I have no connection whatever with Russian
"Oh, we are well aware of your residence in England," said the
pristav. "You left St. Petersburg early in March 1881. We are well
aware of that."
Something in the man's tone made Sigismund's heart stand still.
Could he possibly be suspected of complicity in the plot to
assassinate the late Czar? The idea would have made him laugh had he
been in England. In St. Petersburg, and under these circumstances, it
made him tremble.
"There is some terrible mistake," he said. "I have never had the
slightest connection with the revolutionary party."
The pristav shrugged his shoulders, and Sigismund, feeling like one
in a dream, took leave of his relations, and was escorted at once to
the House of Preventive Detention.
Arrived at his destination, he was examined in a brief,
unsatisfactory way; but when he angrily asked for the evidence on
which he had been arrested, he was merely told that information had
been received charging him with being concerned in the assassination
of the late Emperor, and of being an advanced member of the Nihilist
party. His vehement denials were received with scornful incredulity,
his departure for England just after the assassination, and his
prolonged absence from Russia, of course gave colour to the
accusation, and he was ordered off to his cell "to reflect."
MY TRIUMPHANT FINALE
Words are mighty, words are living; Serpents with their venomous
stings, Or bright angels crowding round us, With heaven's light upon
their wings; Every word has its own spirit, True or false, that never
dies; Every word man's lips have uttered Echoes in God's skies. A.
My labours were now nearly at an end, and being, so to speak, off
duty, I could occupy myself just as I pleased. I therefore resolved
to keep watch over Zaluski in his prison.
For the first few hours after his arrest he was in a violent
passion; he paced up and down his tiny cell like a lion in a cage; he
was beside himself with indignation, and the blood leapt through his
veins like wildfire.
Then he became a little ashamed of himself and tried to grow quiet,
and after a sleepless night he passed to the opposite extreme and sat
all day long on the solitary stool in his grim abode, his head resting
on his hands, and his mind a prey to the most fearful melancholy.
The second night, however, he slept, and awoke with a steady
resolve in his mind.
"It will never do to give way like this, or I shall be in a brain
fever in no time," he reflected. "I will get leave to have books and
writing materials. I will make the best of a bad business."
He remembered how pleased he had been when Gertrude had once smiled
on him because, when all the others in the party were grumbling at
the discomforts of a certain picnic where the provisions had gone
astray, he had gaily made the best of it and ransacked the nearest
cottages for bread-and-cheese. He set to work bravely now; hoped
daily for his release; read all the books he was allowed to receive,
invented solitary games, began a novel, and drew caricatures.
In October he was again examined; but, having nothing to reveal, it
was inevitable that he could reveal nothing; and he was again sent
back to his cell "to reflect."
I perceived that after this his heart began to fail him.
There existed in the House of Preventive Detention a system of
communication between the luckless prisoners carried on by means of
tapping on the wall. Sigismund, being a clever fellow, had become a
great adept at this telegraphic system, and had struck up a
friendship with a young student in the next cell; this poor fellow
had been imprisoned three years, his sole offence being that he had
in his possession a book of which the Government did not approve, and
that he was first cousin to a well-known Nihilist.
The two became as devoted to each other as Silvio Pellico and Count
Oroboni; but it soon became evident to Valerian Vasilowitch that,
unless Zaluski was released, he would soon succumb to the terrible
restrictions of prison life.
"Keep up your heart, my friend," he used to say. "I have borne it
three years, and am still alive to tell the tale."
"But you are stronger both in mind and body," said Sigismund; "and
you are not madly in love as I am."
And then he would pour forth a rhapsody about Gertrude, and about
English life, and about his hopes and fears for the future; to all of
which Valerian, like the brave fellow he was, replied with words of
But at length there came a day when his friend made no answer to
his usual morning greeting.
"Are you ill?" he asked.
For some time there was no reply, but after a while Sigismund
rapped faintly the despairing words:-
Valerian felt the tears start to his eyes. It was what he had all
along expected, and for a time grief and indignation and his
miserable helplessness made him almost beside himself. At last he
remembered that there was at least one thing in his power. Each day
he was escorted by a warder to a tiny square, walled off in the
exercising ground, and was allowed to walk for a few minutes; he
would take this opportunity of begging the warder to get the doctor
for his friend.
But unfortunately the doctor did not think very seriously of
Zaluski's case. In that dreary prison he had patients in the last
stages of all kinds of disease, and Sigismund, who had been in
confinement too short a time to look as ill as the others, did not
receive much attention. Certainly, the doctor admitted, his lungs
were affected; probably the sudden change of climate and the lack of
good food and fresh air had been too much for him; so the solemn
farce ended, and he was left to his fate. "If I were indeed a
Nihilist, and suffered for a cause which I had at heart," he
telegraphed to Valerian, "I could bear it better. But to be kept
here for an imaginary offence, to bear cold and hunger and illness
all to no purpose--that beats me. There can't be a God, or such
things would not be allowed."
"To me it seems," said Valerian, "that we are the victims of
violated law. Others have shown tyranny, or injustice, or cruelty,
and we are the victims of their sin. Don't say there is no God.
There must be a God to avenge such hideous wrong."
So they spoke to each other through their prison wall as men in the
free outer world seldom care to speak; and I, who knew no barriers,
looked now on Valerian's gaunt figure, and brave but prematurely old
face, now on poor Zaluski, who, in his weary imprisonment, had wasted
away till one could scarcely believe that he was indeed the same
lithe, active fellow who had played tennis at Mrs. Courtenay's
Day and night Valerian listened to the terrible cough which came
from the adjoining cell. It became perfectly apparent to him that
his friend was dying; he knew it as well as if he had seen the
burning hectic flush on his hollow cheeks, and heard the panting,
hurried breaths, and watched the unnatural brilliancy of his dark
At length he thought the time had come for another sort of comfort.
"My friend," he said one day, "it is too plain to me now that you
are dying. Write to the procurator and tell him so. In some cases
men have been allowed to go home to die."
A wild hope seized on poor Sigismund; he sat down to the little
table in his cell and wrote a letter to the procurator--a letter
which might almost have drawn tears from a flint. Again and again he
passionately asserted his innocence, and begged to know on what
evidence he was imprisoned. He began to think that he could die
content if he might leave this terrible cell, might be a free agent
once more, if only for a few days. At least he might in that case
clear his character, and convince Gertrude that his imprisonment had
been all a hideous mistake; nay, he fancied that he might live
through a journey to England and see her once again.
But the procurator would not let him be set free, and refused to
believe that his case was really a serious one.
Sigismund's last hope left him.
The days and weeks dragged slowly on, and when, according to
English reckoning, New Year's Eve arrived, he could scarcely believe
that only seventeen weeks ago he had actually been with Gertrude, and
that disgrace and imprisonment had seemed things that could never
come near him, and death had been a far-away possibility, and life
had been full of bliss.
As I watched him a strong desire seized me to revisit the scenes of
which he was thinking, and I winged my way back to England, and soon
found myself in the drowsy, respectable streets of Muddleton.
It was New Year's Eve, and I saw Mrs. O'Reilly preparing presents
for her grandchildren, and talking, as she tied them up, of that
dreadful Nihilist who had deceived them in the summer. I saw Lena
Houghton, and Mr. Blackthorne, and Mrs. Milton-Cleave, kneeling in
church on that Friday morning, praying that pity might be shown "upon
all prisoners and captives, and all that are desolate or oppressed."
It never occurred to them that they were responsible for the
sufferings of one weary prisoner, or that his death would be laid at
I flew to Dulminster, and saw Mrs. Selldon kneeling in the
cathedral at the late evening service and rigorously examining herself
as to the shortcomings of the dying year. She confessed many things
in a vague, untroubled way; but had any one told her that she had
cruelly wronged her neighbour, and helped to bring an innocent man to
shame, and prison, and death, she would not have believed the
I sought out Mark Shrewsbury. He was at his chambers in Pump Court
working away with his type-writer; he had a fancy for working the old
year out and the new year in, and now he was in the full swing of that
novel which had suggested itself to his mind when Mrs. Selldon
described the rich and mysterious foreigner who had settled down at
Ivy Cottage. Most happily he laboured on, never dreaming that his
careless words had doomed a fellow-man to a painful and lingering
death; never dreaming that while his fingers flew to and fro over his
dainty little keyboard, describing the clever doings of the
unscrupulous foreigner, another man, the victim of his idle gossip,
tapped dying messages on a dreary prison wall.
For the end had come.
Through the evening Sigismund rested wearily on his truckle-bed.
He could not lie down because of his cough, and, since there were no
extra pillows to prop him up, he had to rest his head and shoulders
against the wall. There was a gas-burner in the tiny cell, and by
its light he looked round the bare walls of his prison with a blank,
hopeless, yet wistful gaze; there was the stool, there was the table,
there were the clothes he should never wear again, there was the door
through which his lifeless body would soon be carried. He looked at
everything lingeringly, for he knew that this desolate prison was the
last bit of the world he should ever see.
Presently the gas was turned out.
He sighed as he felt the darkness close in upon him, for he knew
that his eyes would never again see light--knew that in this dark
lonely cell he must lie and wait for death. And he was young and
wished to live, and he was in love and longed most terribly for the
presence of the woman he loved.
The awful desolateness of the cell was more than he could endure;
he tried to think of his past life, he tried to live once again
through those happy weeks with Gertrude; but always he came back to
the aching misery of the present--the cold and the pain, and the
darkness and the terrible solitude.
His nerveless fingers felt their way to the wall and faintly rapped
"Valerian!" he said, "I shall not live through the night. Watch
The faint raps sounded clearly in the stillness of the great
building, and Valerian dreaded lest the warders should hear them, and
deal out punishment for an offence which by day they were forced to
But he would not for the world have deserted his friend. He drew
his stool close to the wall, wrapped himself round in all the clothes
he could muster, and, shivering with cold, kept watch through the long
"I am near you," he telegraphed. "I will watch with you till
From time to time Sigismund rapped faint messages, and Valerian
replied with comfort and sympathy. Once he thought to himself, "My
friend is better; there is more power in his hand." And indeed he
trembled, fearing that the sharp, emphatic raps must certainly
attract notice and put an end to their communion.
"Tell my love that the accusation was false--false!" the word was
vehemently repeated. "Tell her I died broken-hearted, loving her to
"I will tell her all when I am free," said poor Valerian, wondering
with a sigh when his unjust imprisonment would end. "Do you suffer
much?" he asked.
There was a brief interval. Sigismund hesitated to tell a
falsehood in his last extremity.
"It will soon be over. Do not be troubled for me," he replied.
And after that there was a long, long silence.
Poor fellow! he died hard; and I wished that those comfortable
English people could have been dragged from their warm beds and
brought into the cold dreary cell where their victim lay, fighting
for breath, suffering cruelly both in mind and body. Valerian,
listening in sad suspense, heard one more faint word rapped by the
"God be with you!" he replied, unable to check the tears which
rained down as he thought of the life so sadly ended, and of his own
He heard no more. Sigismund's strength failed him, and I, to whom
the darkness made no difference, watched him through the last dread
struggle; there was no one to raise him, or hold him, no one to
comfort him. Alone in the cold and darkness of that first morning of
the year 1887, he died.
Valerian did not hear through the wall his last faint gasping cry,
but I heard it, and its exceeding bitterness would have made mortals
"Gertrude!" he sobbed. "Gertrude!"
And with that his head sank on his breast, and the life, which but
for me might have been so happy and prosperous, was ended.
Prompted by curiosity, I instantly returned to Muddleton and sought
out Gertrude Morley. I stole into her room. She lay asleep, but her
dreams were troubled, and her face, once so fresh and bright, was worn
with pain and anxiety.
Scarcely had I entered the room when, to my amazement, I saw the
spirit of Sigismund Zaluski.
I saw him bend down and kiss the sleeping girl, and for a moment
her sad face lighted up with a radiant smile.
I looked again; he was gone. Then Gertrude threw up both her arms
and with a bitter cry awoke from her dream.
"Sigismund!" she cried. "Oh, Sigismund! Now I know that you are
For a long, long time she lay in a sort of trance of misery. It
seemed as if the life had been almost crushed out of her, and it was
not until the bells began to ring for the six o'clock service,
merrily pealing out their welcome of the new year morning, that full
consciousness returned to her again. But, as she clearly realised
what had happened, she broke into such a passion of tears as I had
never before witnessed, while still in the darkness the new year
bells rang gaily, and she knew that they heralded for her the
beginning of a lonely life.
And so my work ended; my part in this world was played out.
Nevertheless I still live; and there will come a day when Sigismund
and Gertrude shall be comforted and the slanderers punished.
For poor Valerian was right, and there is an Avenger, in whom even
my progenitor believes, and before whom he trembles.
There will come a time when those self-satisfied ones, whose hands
are all the time steeped in blood, shall be confronted with me, and
shall realise to the full all that their idle words have brought
For that day I wait; and though afterwards I shall be finally
destroyed in the general destruction of all that is unmitigatedly
evil, I promise myself a certain satisfaction and pleasure (a feeling
I doubtless inherit from my progenitor), when I watch the shame, and
horror, and remorse of Mrs. O'Reilly and the rest of the people to
whom I owe my existence and rapid growth.