Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel
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The following narrative falls naturally into three divisions, corresponding to distinct and clearly marked periods of Sophy's life. Of the first and second – her childhood at Morpingham and her sojourn in Paris – the records are fragmentary, and tradition does little to supplement them. As regards Morpingham, the loss is small. The annals of a little maid-servant may be left in vagueness without much loss. Enough remains to show both the manner of child Sophy was and how it fell out that she spread her wings and left the Essex village far behind her. It is a different affair when we come to the French period. The years spent in and near Paris, in the care and under the roof of Lady Margaret Duddington, were of crucial moment in Sophy's development. They changed her from what she had been and made her what she was to be. Without Paris, Kravonia, still extraordinary, would have been impossible.
Yet the surviving history of Paris and the life there is scanty. Only a sketch is possible. A record existed – and a fairly full one – in the Julia Robins correspondence; that we know from Miss Robins herself. But the letters written from Paris by Sophy to her lifelong friend have, with some few exceptions, perished. Miss Robins accounts for this – and in view of her careful preservation of later correspondence, her apology must be accepted – by the fact that during these years – from 1866 to 1870 – she was constantly travelling from town to town and from lodging to lodging, as a member of various theatrical companies; this nomadic existence did not promote the careful and methodical storage of her letters. It may, of course, be added that no such obvious interest attached to these records as gathered round Sophy's doings after she had exchanged Paris and the Rue de Grenelle for Slavna and the Castle of Praslok.
When this migration has been effected, the historian is on much firmer ground; he is even embarrassed sometimes by the abundance of material of varying value. Apart from public records and general memory (both carefully consulted on the spot), the two main sources flow from Sophy's own hand. They are the Robins correspondence and the diary. Nearly to the end the letters are very constant, very full, very instructive; but they are composed with an obvious view to the tastes and interests of their recipient, and by no means always devote most space to what now seems of greatest interest. In one point, however, Miss Robins's tastes prove of real service. This lady, who rose to a respectable, if not a high, position as a Shakespearian actress, was much devoted to the study of costume, and Sophy, aware of this hobby, never omits to tell her with minute care what she herself wore on every occasion, what the other ladies wore, and what were the uniforms, military or civil, in which the men were arrayed. Trivial, perhaps, yet of great value in picturing the scenes!
In her letters Sophy is also copious in depicting places, houses, and landscapes – matters on which the diary is naturally not so full.So that, in spite of their great faults, the letters form a valuable supplement to the diary. Yet what faults – nay, what crimes! Sophy had learned to talk French perfectly and to write it fairly well. She had not learned to write English well or even decently; the letters are, in fact, a charnel-house of murdered grammar and broken-backed sentences. Still there emerge from it all a shrewdness and a rural vigor and raciness which show that the child of the little Essex farm-house survived in the writer.
But for this Kravonian period – the great period – the diary is the thing. Yet it is one of the most unconscientious diaries ever written. It is full of gaps; it is often posted up very unpunctually; it is sometimes exasperatingly obscure – there may be some intention in that; she could not tell into what hands it might fall. But it covers most of the ground; it begins almost with Sophy's arrival in Slavna, and the last entry records her discovery of Lord Dunstanbury's presence in Kravonia. It is written for the most part in French, and she wrote French, as has been said, decently – nay, even forcibly, though not with elegance; yet she frequently relapses into English – often of a very colloquial order: this happens mostly under the influence of anger or some other strong emotion. And she is dramatic – that must be allowed to her. She concentrates her attention on what she conceives (nor is her instinct far out) to be her great scenes; she gives (or purports to give) a verbatim report of critical conversations, and it is only just to say that she allows her interlocutors fair play. She has candor – and that, working with the dramatic sense in her, forbids her to warp the scene. In the earlier parts of the story she shows keen appreciation of its lighter aspects; as times grow graver, her records, too, change in mood, working up to the tense excitement, the keen struggle, the burning emotions of her last days in Kravonia. Yet even then she always finds time for a laugh and a touch of gayety.
When Sophy herself ceases to be our guide, Lord Dunstanbury's notes become the main authority. They are supplemented by the recollection of Mr. Basil Williamson, now practising his profession of surgery in Australia; and this narrative is also indebted to Colonel Markart, sometime secretary to General Stenovics, for much important information which, as emanating from the enemy's camp, was not accessible to Sophy or her informants. The contributions of other actors in the drama, too numerous to mention here, will be easily identified in their place in the story.
A word seems desirable on one other subject, and no mean one; for it is certain that Sophy's physical gifts were a powerful ally to her ambition, her strong will, and her courage; it is certain, too, that she did not shrink from making the most of this reinforcement to her powers. All the authorities named above – not excepting Sophy herself – have plenty to say on the topic, and from their descriptions a portrait of her may be attempted. Of actual pictures one only exists – in the possession of the present Lord Dunstanbury, who succeeded his father – Sophy's Earl – a few years ago. It is a pastel, drawn just before she left Paris – and, to be frank, it is something of a disappointment; the taste of the 'sixties is betrayed in a simper which sits on the lips but is alien to the character of them. Still the outline and the color are there.
Her hair was very dark, long, and thick; her nose straight and fine, her lips firm and a trifle full. Her complexion was ordinarily very pale, and she did not flush save under considerable agitation of mind or exertion of body. She was above the middle height, finely formed, and slender. It was sometimes, indeed, objected that her shape was too masculine – the shoulders a trifle too square and the hips too small for a woman. These are, after all, matters of taste; she would not have been thought amiss in ancient Athens. All witnesses agree in describing her charm as lying largely in movement, in vivacity, in a sense of suppressed force trying to break out, or (as Mr. Williamson puts it) of "tremendous driving power."
The personality seems to stand out fairly distinct from these descriptions, and we need the less regret that a second picture, known to have been painted soon after her arrival in Kravonia, has perished either through carelessness or (more probably) by deliberate destruction; there were many in Kravonia not too anxious that even a counterfeit presentment of the famous "Red Star" and its wearer should survive. It would carry its memories and its reproach.
"The Red Star!" The name appears first in a letter of the Paris period – one of the few which are in existence. Its invention is attributed by Sophy to her friend the Marquis de Savres (of whom we shall hear again). He himself used it often. But of the thing we hear very early – and go on hearing from time to time. Sophy at first calls it "my mark," but she speedily adopts Monsieur le Marquis's more poetical term, and by that description it is known throughout her subsequent career. The polite artist of the 'sixties shirked it altogether by giving a half-profile view of his subject, thus not showing the left cheek where the "star" was situated.
It was, in fact, a small birth-mark, placed just below the cheek-bone, almost round, yet with a slightly indented outline. No doubt a lover (and M. de Savres was one) found warrant enough for his phrase. At ordinary times it was a very pale red in color, but (unlike the rest of her face) it was very rapidly sensitive to any change of mood or temper; in moments of excitement the shade deepened greatly, and (as Colonel Markart says in his hyperbolic strain) "it glowed like angry Venus." Without going quite that length, we are bound to allow that it was, at these moments, a conspicuous and striking mark, and such it clearly appeared to the eyes of all who saw it. "La dame ? l'?toile rouge," says the Marquis. "The Red-starred Witch," said the less courteous and more hostile citizens and soldiers of Kravonia. Sophy herself appears proud of it, though she feigns to consider it a blemish. Very probably it was one of those peculiarities which become so closely associated and identified with the personality to which they belong as at once to heighten the love of friends and to attract an increased dislike or hatred from those already disposed or committed to enmity. At any rate, for good or evil, it is as "Red Star" that the name of Sophy lives to-day in the cities and mountains of Kravonia.
So much in preface; now to the story. Little historical importance can be claimed for it. But amateurs of the picturesque, if yet there be such in this business-like world, may care to follow Sophy from Morpingham to Paris, to share her flight from the doomed city, to be with her in the Street of the Fountain, at venerable Praslok, on Volseni's crumbling wall, by the banks of the swift-flowing Krath at dawn of day – to taste something of the spirit that filled, to feel something of the love that moved, the heart of Sophy Grouch of Morpingham, in the county of Essex. Still, sometimes Romance beckons back her ancient votaries.