The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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"This is rather treasonable talk for the Governor's palace," Olga put in, smiling quietly. "If we were not already in Tobolsk we might both, perhaps, imagine we should be sent to Siberia."
The Baron laughed, and showed his two rows of pearly white teeth to the best advantage. "They might send me to the mines," he said, "for aught I care, mademoiselle. I could get away easily enough from village to village to my own country; and once there, it would be easier for the Czar to take Constantinople and Bagdad and Calcutta than to track and dislodge Alexander Niaz in his mountain fortress."
Alexander Niaz! Olga noted the name to herself hurriedly. He was converted then! he was an orthodox Christian! That at least was a good thing, for so many of these Buriats are still nothing more than the most degraded Schamanists and heathens!
"But, mademoiselle," the young man went on again, playing more nervously now than ever with the jewelled hilt of his dress sword, "there is one thing still wanting to my happiness among our beautiful Siberian mountains. I have no lovely ch?telaine to help me guard my little feudal castle. Mademoiselle, the Buriat women are not fit allies for a man who has been brought up among the civilization and the learning of the great Western cities. He needs a companion who can sympathize with his higher tastes: who can speak with him of books, of life, of art, of music. Our Buriat women are mere household drudges; to marry one of them would be utterly impossible. Mademoiselle, my father and my grandfather came away from their native wilds to seek a lady who would condescend to love them, in the polite society of Tobolsk. I have gone farther afield: I have sought in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg. But I saw no lady to whose heart my heart responded, till I came back once more to old Tobolsk. There, mademoiselle, there I saw one whom I recognized at once as fashioned for me by heaven. Mademoiselle Davidoff, – I tremble to ask you, but – I love you, – will you share my exile?"
Olga looked at the handsome young man with unconcealed joy and admiration. "Your exile!" she murmured softly, to gain time for a moment. "And why your exile, M. le Baron?"
"Mademoiselle," the young Buriat continued very earnestly, "I do not wish to woo or wed you under false pretences. Before you give me an answer, you must understand to what sort of life it is that I venture to invite you. Our mountains are very lonely: to live there would be indeed an exile to you, accustomed to the gaieties and the vortex of London." (Olga smiled quietly to herself, as she thought for a second of the little drawing-room at The Laurels, Clapham.) "But if you can consent to live in it with me, I will do my best to make it as easy for you as possible. You shall have music, books, papers, amusements – but not society – during the six months of summer which we must necessarily pass at my mountain village; you shall visit Tobolsk, Moscow, Petersburg, London – which you will – during the six months of holiday in winter; above all, you shall have the undying love and devotion of one who has never loved another woman – Alexander Niaz… Mademoiselle, you see the conditions.Can you accept them? Can you condescend of your goodness to love me – to marry me?"
Olga Davidoff lifted her fan with an effort and answered faintly, "M. le Baron, you are very flattering. I – I will try my best to deserve your goodness."
Niaz took her pretty little hand in his with old-fashioned politeness, and raised it chivalrously to his trembling lips. "Mademoiselle," he said, "you have made me eternally happy. My life shall be passed in trying to prove my gratitude to you for this condescension."
"I think," Olga answered, shaking from head to foot, "I think, M. le Baron, you had better take me back into the next room to my mother."
Olga Davidoff's wedding was one of the most brilliant social successes of that Tobolsk season. Davidoff p?re surpassed himself in the costliness of his exotics, the magnificence of his presents, the reckless abundance of his Veuve Clicquot. Madame Davidoff successfully caught the Governor and the General, and the English traveller from India vi? the Himalayas. The Baron looked as gorgeous as he was handsome in his half Russian, half Tartar uniform and his Oriental display of pearls and diamonds. Olga herself was the prettiest and most blushing bride ever seen in Tobolsk, a simple English girl, fresh from the proprieties of The Laurels at Clapham, among all that curious mixed cosmopolitan society of semi-civilized Siberians, Catholic Poles, and orthodox Russians.
As soon as the wedding was fairly over, the bride and bridegroom started off by toross to make their way across the southern plateau to the Baron's village.
It was a long and dreary drive, that wedding tour, in a jolting carriage over Siberian roads, resting at wayside posting-houses, bad enough while they were still on the main line of the Imperial mails, but degenerating into true Central-Asian caravanserais when once they had got off the beaten track into the wild neighbourhood of the Baron's village. Nevertheless, Olga Davidoff bore up against the troubles and discomforts of the journey with a brave heart, for was not the Baron always by her side? and who could be kinder, or gentler, or more thoughtful than her Buriat husband? Yes, it was a long and hard journey, up among those border mountains of the Chinese and Tibetan frontier; but Olga felt at home at last when, after three weeks of incessant jolting, they arrived at the Buriat mountain stronghold, under cover of the night; and Niaz led her straightway to her own pretty little European boudoir, which he had prepared for her beforehand at immense expense and trouble in his upland village.
The moment they entered, Olga saw a pretty little room, papered and carpeted in English fashion, with a small piano over in the corner, a lamp burning brightly on the tiny side-table, and a roaring fire of logs blazing and crackling upon the simple stone hearth. A book or two lay upon the shelf at the side: she glanced casually at their titles as she passed, and saw that they were some of Tourg?nieff's latest novels, a paper-covered Zola fresh from Paris, a volume each of Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, and Swinburne, a Demidoff, an Emile Augier, a Revue des Deux Mondes, and a late number of an English magazine. She valued these things at once for their own sakes, but still more because she felt instinctively that Niaz had taken the trouble to get them there for her beforehand in this remote and uncivilized corner. She turned to the piano: a light piece by Sullivan lay open before her, and a number of airs from Chopin, Schubert, and Mendelssohn were scattered loosely on the top one above the other. Her heart was too full to utter a word, but she went straight up to her husband, threw her arms tenderly around his neck, and kissed him with the utmost fervour. Niaz smoothed her wavy fair hair gently with his hand, and his eyes sparkled with conscious pleasure as he returned her caress and kissed her forehead.
After a while, they went into the next room to dinner – a small hall, somewhat barbaric in type, but not ill-furnished; and Olga noticed that the two or three servants were very fierce and savage-looking Buriats of the most pronounced Tartar type. The dinner was a plain one, plainly served, of rough country hospitality; but the appointments were all European, and, though simple, good and sufficient. Niaz had said so much to her of the discomforts of his mountain stronghold that Olga was quite delighted to find things on the whole so comparatively civilized, clean, and European.
A few days' sojourn in the fort – it was rather that than a castle or a village – showed Olga pretty clearly what sort of life she was henceforth to expect. Her husband's subjects numbered about a hundred and fifty (with as many more women and children); they rendered him the most implicit obedience, and they evidently looked upon him entirely as a superior being. They were trained to a military discipline, and regularly drilled every morning by Niaz in the queer old semi-Chinese courtyard of the mouldering castle. Olga was so accustomed to a Russian military r?gime that this circumstance never struck her as being anything extraordinary; she regarded it only as part of the Baron's ancestral habits as a practically independent Tartar chieftain.
Week after week rolled away at the fort, and though Olga had absolutely no one to whom she could speak except her own husband (for the Buriats knew no Russian save the word of command), she didn't find time hang heavily on her hands in the quaint, old-fashioned village. The walks and rides about were really delightful; the scenery was grand and beautiful to the last degree; the Chinese-looking houses and Tartar dress were odd and picturesque, like a scene in a theatre. It was all so absurdly romantic. After all, Olga said to herself with a smile more than once, it isn't half bad being married to a Tartar chieftain up in the border mountains, when you actually come to try it. Only, she confessed in her own heart that she would probably always be very glad when the winter came again, and she got back from these mountain solitudes to the congenial gaiety of Tobolsk or Petersburg.
And Niaz – well, Niaz loved her distractedly. No husband on earth could possibly love a woman better.
Still, Olga could never understand why he sometimes had to leave her for three or four days together, and why during his absence, when she was left all alone at night in the solitary fort with those dreadful Buriats, they kept watch and ward so carefully all the time, and seemed so relieved when Niaz came back again. But whenever she asked him about it, Niaz only looked grave and anxious, and replied with a would-be careless wave of the hand that part of his duty was to guard the frontier, and that the Czar had not conferred a title and an order upon him for nothing. Olga felt frightened and disquieted on all such occasions, but somehow felt, from Niaz's manner, that she must not question him further upon the matter.
One day, after one of these occasional excursions, Niaz came back in high spirits, and kissed her more tenderly and affectionately than ever. After dinner, he read to her out of a book of French poems a grand piece of Victor Hugo's, and then made her sit down to the piano and play him his favourite air from Der Freisch?tz twice over. When she had finished, he leant back in his chair and murmured quietly in French (which they always spoke together), "And this is in the mountains of Tartary! One would say a soir?e of St. Petersburg or of Paris."
Olga turned and looked at him softly. "What is the time, dearest Niaz?" she said with a smile. "Shall I be able to play you still that dance of Pinsuti's?"
Niaz pulled out his watch and answered quickly, "Only ten o'clock, darling. You have plenty of time still."
Something in the look of the watch he held in his hand struck Olga as queer and unfamiliar. She glanced at it sideways, and noticed hurriedly that Niaz was trying to replace it unobserved in his waistcoat pocket. "I haven't seen that watch before," she said suddenly; "let me look at it, dear, will you?"
Niaz drew it out and handed it to her with affected nonchalance; but in the undercurrent of his expression Olga caught a glimpse of a hang-dog look she had never before observed in it. She turned over the watch and looked on the back. To her immense surprise, it bore the initials "F. de K." engraved upon the cover.
"These letters don't belong to you, Niaz," she said, scanning it curiously.
Niaz moved uneasily in his chair. "No," he answered, "not to me, Olga. It's – it's an old family relic – an heirloom, in fact. It belonged to my mother's mother. She was – a Mademoiselle de K?rouac, I believe, from Morbihan, in Brittany."
Olga's eyes looked him through and through with a strange new-born suspicion. What could it all mean? She knew he was telling her a falsehood. Had the watch belonged – to some other lady? What was the meaning of his continued absences? Could he – but no. It was a man's watch, not a lady's. And if so – why, if so, then Niaz had clearly told her a falsehood in that too, and must be trying to conceal something about it.
That night, for the first time, Olga Davidoff began to distrust her Buriat husband.
Next morning, getting up a little early and walking on the parapet of the queer old fortress, she saw Niaz in the court below, jumping and stamping in a furious temper upon something on the ground. To her horror, she saw that his face was all hideously distorted by anger, and that as he raged and stamped the Tartar cast in his features, never before visible, came out quite clearly and distinctly. Olga looked on, and trembled violently, but dared not speak to him.
A few minutes later Niaz came in to breakfast, gay as usual, with a fresh flower stuck prettily in the button-hole of his undress coat and a smile playing unconcernedly around the clear-cut corners of his handsome thin-lipped mouth.
"Niaz," his wife said to him anxiously, "where is the watch you showed me last night?"
His face never altered for a moment as he replied, with the same bland and innocent smile as ever, "My darling, I have broken it all to little pieces. I saw it annoyed you in some way when I showed it to you yesterday, and this morning I took it out accidentally in the lower courtyard. The sight of it put me in a violent temper. 'Cursed thing,' I said, 'you shall never again step in so cruelly between me and my darling. There, take that, and that, and that, rascal!' and I stamped it to pieces underfoot in the courtyard."
Olga turned pale, and looked at him horrified. He smiled again, and took her wee hand tenderly in his. "Little one," he said, "you needn't be afraid; it's only our quick Buriat fashion. We lose our tempers sometimes, but it is soon over. It is nothing. A little whirlwind – and, pouf, it passes."
"But, Niaz, you said it was a family heirloom!"
"Well, darling, and for your sake I ground it to powder. Voil?, tout! Come, no more about it; it isn't worth the trouble. Let us go to breakfast."
Some days later Niaz went on an expedition again, "on the Czar's service for the protection of the frontier," and took more than half his able-bodied Tartars on the journey with him. Olga had never felt so lonely before, surrounded now by doubt and mystery in that awful solitary stronghold. The broken watch weighed gloomily upon her frightened spirits.
Niaz was gone for three days, as often happened, and on the fourth night, after she had retired to her lonely bedroom, she felt sure she heard his voice speaking low somewhere in the courtyard.
At the sound she sprang from her bed and went to the window. Yes, there, down in the far corner of the yard, without lights or noise, and treading cautiously, she saw Niaz and his men filing quietly in through the dim gloom, and bringing with them a number of boxes.
Her heart beat fast. Could it be some kind of smuggling? They lay so near the passes into Turkestan and China, and she knew that the merchant track from Yarkand to Semi-palatinsk crossed the frontier not far from Niaz's village.
Huddling on her dress hastily, she issued out alone and terrified, into the dark courtyard, and sought over the whole place in the black night for sight of Niaz. She could find him nowhere.
At last she mounted the staircase to the mouldering rampart. Generally the Tartar guards kept watch there constantly, but to-night the whole place seemed somehow utterly deserted. She groped her way along till she reached the far corner by a patch of ground which Niaz had told her was the Tartar burial-place.
There she came suddenly upon a great crowd of men below on the plain, running about and shouting wildly, with links and torches. Niaz stood in the midst, erect and military, with his Russian uniform gleaming fitfully in the flickering torchlight. In front of him six Turcoman merchants, with their hands bound behind their backs, knelt upon the ground, and beside him two Tartars held by either arm a man in European dress, whom Olga recognized at once as the English traveller from India by way of the Himalayas. Her heart stood still within her with terror, and she hung there, mute and unseen, upon the rampart above, wondering what in Heaven's name this extraordinary scene was going to end in. What could it mean? What could Niaz be doing in it? Great God, it was too horrible!
A Tartar came forward quietly from the crowd with a curved sword. At a word from Niaz he raised the sword aloft in the air. One second it glanced bright in the torchlight; the next second a Turcoman's head lay rolling in the dust, and a little torrent of blood spurted suddenly from the still kneeling corpse. Olga opened her mouth to scream at the horrid sight, but happily her voice at once forsook her as in a dream, and she stood fixed to the spot in a perfect fascination of awe and terror.
Then the Tartar moved on, obedient to a word and a nod from Niaz, and raised his sword again above the second Turcoman. In a moment, the second head too rolled down quietly beside the other. Without a minute's delay, as though it formed part of his everyday business, the practised headsman went on quietly to the next in order, and did not stop till all six heads lay grim and ghastly scattered about unheeded in the dust together. Olga shut her eyes, sickening, but still could not scream for very horror.
Next, Niaz turned to the English traveller, and said something to him in his politest manner. Olga couldn't catch the words themselves because of the distance, but she saw from his gestures that he was apologizing to the Englishman for his rough treatment. The Englishman in reply drew out and handed to Niaz a small canvas bag, a purse, and a watch. Niaz took them, bowing politely. "Hands off," he cried to the Tartars in Russian, and they loosed their prisoner. Then he made a sign, and the Englishman knelt. In a minute more his head lay rolling in the dust below, and Niaz, with a placid smile upon his handsome face, turned to give orders to the surrounding Tartars.
Olga could stand it no more. She dared not scream or let herself be seen; but she turned round, sick at heart, and groped her way, half paralyzed by fear, along the mouldering rampart, and then turned in at last to her own bedroom, where she flung herself upon the bed in her clothes, and lay, tearless but terrified, the whole night through in blinding misery.
She did not need to have it all explained to her. Niaz was nothing more, after all, than a savage Buriat robber chieftain.
What a terribly long hypocrisy and suspense those six weeks of dreary waiting, before an answer to her letter could come from Tobolsk, and the Governor could send a detachment of the military to rescue her from this nest of murderous banditti!
How Olga hated herself for still pretending to keep on terms with Niaz! How she loathed and detested the man with whom she must yet live as wife for that endless time till the day of her delivery!
And Niaz couldn't help seeing that her manner was changed towards him, though he flattered himself that she had as yet only a bare suspicion, and no real knowledge of the horrible truth. What a sad thing that she should ever even have suspected it! What a pity if he could not keep her here to soothe and lighten his winter solitude! – for he loved her: yes, he really loved her, and he needed sympathy and companionship in all the best and highest instincts of his inner nature. These Buriats, what were they? a miserable set of brutal savages: mere hard-working robbers and murderers, good enough for the practical rough work of everyday life (such as knocking Turcoman merchants on the head), but utterly incapable of appreciating or sympathizing with the better tastes of civilized humanity. It was a hard calling, that of chieftain to these Tartar wretches, especially for a man of musical culture brought up in Paris; and he had hoped that Olga might have helped him through with it by her friendly companionship. Not, of course, that he ever expected to be able to tell her the whole truth: women will be women; and coming to a rough country, they can't understand the necessities laid upon one for rough dealing. No, he could never have expected her to relish the full details of a borderer's profession, but he was vexed that she should already begin to suspect its nature on so very short an acquaintance. He had told her he was like a Highland chieftain of the old times: did she suppose that the Rob Roys and Roderick Dhus of real life used to treat their Lowland captives with rose-water and chivalry? After all, women have really no idea of how things must be managed in the stern realities of actual existence.
So the six weeks passed slowly away, and Olga waited and watched, with smiles on her lips, in mute terror.
At last, one day, in broad daylight, without a moment's warning, or a single premonitory symptom, Olga saw the courtyard suddenly filled with men in Russian uniforms, and a friend of hers, a major of infantry at Tobolsk, rushing in at the head of his soldiers upon the Tartar barrack.
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