I’ve been preoccupied all my life with love and history. My interest in love arose because it has been denied to me. In the matter of history, the opposite is the case. I’ve lived through too much history. My great-great-whatever-he-is, Slavochka, tells me that Russia is making history even at this moment. He is filling my room with fruit, flowers and cigarettes – the smell is wonderful! “Now that’s history!” he says. I believe him. The only thing he doesn’t realise is that history is like a currency: too much of it and it loses its value. We Russians have had seventy-odd years of history (more than ninety, in my case) and what can you buy with it?
My father had no sense of history, and he was crushed by his ignorance. He did experience love, but it destroyed him.
In the beginning, however, we were filled with hope. Human ingenuity was going to engineer a future from which want would be banished. We would uncover the laws of history and society, and order our affairs rationally. There were even the beginnings of the science of love.
Science, however, held out no hope for me. The doctors told my father they expected I would die young. It would be a blessing.
Nikolai was straight away attracted to the girl because she reminded him of a boy with whom he had once been in love.
They had been cadets together at the Alexandrovsky Military School in Moscow, he and Felix. Nikolai was the older by two years and had stayed on at the academy beyond the normal age, intending to make a career of the Army: possibly to complete his education at the Sergievsky where he could study heavy artillery, the queen of the modern battlefield. At the Alexandrovsky the cadets made love to the ballerinas and each other promiscuously. Then – one could only speculate as to the source of the disease – Felix had been struck down swiftly and brutally by syphilis and that put an end to loving. A little way out of Moscow was a clinic for shameful diseases run by a Prussian Jew called Stein.
He had something of a reputation with the Imperial Court. He helped women out of what were referred to as “difficulties”. In various ladies’ magazines advertisements for his potions appeared:
DISCREET REMEDIES FOR FEMALE IRREGULARITY
DR STEIN’S HAEMOTEMPORAL CAPSULES
CURE FOR FEMALE ABDOMINAL COMPLAINTS,SICKNESS
AND UNDESIRED WEIGHT GAIN.
By appointment to the Imperial German Academy of Medicine.
Mail orders accepted. Patented.
Dr Stein held that cold fresh air was a sovereign remedy for all sorts of malady and, except when the winter was at its most bitter, his patients could be seen in the dreary gardens of the clinic in the care of male nurses, discharged soldiers for the most part.
Felix disappeared suddenly. Enquiries of his family elicited only vague references to “medical treatment” and a need for quietness.
“He’s got the pox!” said Tsipliakov cheerfully. “Pox! Clap! Venus’ roses! In short, the Polish disease! I’ve seen him limping around, touching his you-know-what, dipping it in carbolic I shouldn’t wonder. If you do get to see him, Nikolenka, you might ask where he picked it up, so that we more prudent fellows don’t collect love bites from the same shop.”
Visiting the Prussian’s establishment, Nikolai was directed to the gardens. Although there was snow on the ground, the patients could be seen here and there, their invalid carriages hidden like camouflaged batteries among the trees, each poor soul tended by his gun-crew of one. Nikolai had to search the clearings and the wooded alleys until, in the shelter of some Scots pines where the snow lay only thinly, he found Felix alone.
“Where is your nurse?”
“Oh, hullo, Kolya. You surprised me.” Felix was mostly disguised by black leather covers that reached to his chest and formed a carriage hood. His gloved hands were placed on the tiller that steered the machine. His pale face with its fair moustache was masked by a curious knitted cap – doubtless the doctor’s invention. In fact Nikolai had scarcely recognised him.
“Your nurse?” he repeated, cross for no reason. “Oh, Hans? Isn’t he here? Has he wedged the wheels? He sometimes forgets, and accidents happen that way. He’s an alcoholic, of course. All the male nurses are. He’s probably gone to relieve himself. I am glad to see you, Kolya.”
“And I you,” Nikolai said gently. “My family … no visitors.”
“Shall we go for a walk or are you happy here?”
“The views are much the same everywhere. But if it would make you more comfortable to walk.”
It was twilight and the oil lamps in the house were being lit. Across an open expanse of garden where the snow lay blue, Nikolai could see a lamp being carried along the upper storey, appearing first in one window and then another. The windows were barred. Sometimes the silence of the cold afternoon was broken by a mad cry like the barking of a farmyard dog at evening.
“How is the cure progressing?” Nikolai asked.
“They give me mercury and something else, potassium iodide, I think. And fresh air! Lots of it! The doctor is a scientist, but as a concession to religion there’s a chapel where we can supplement his cures with prayers.” Felix smiled one of the perfect smiles that made Nikolai love him so much. He went on: “But the prayers don’t work. You see, there’s no Virgin of Venereal Diseases. I’ve asked the priest but he pretends not to understand. He claims we’re here only because of ‘nervous weakness’. Ha ha! Ha ha!”
“But you’re getting better.”
“I can’t walk. I could when I came here but now I can’t. My muscles are all shakey. My limbs ache. Don’t look too closely at my face. I said don’t!”
“No! I couldn’t bear it, Kolya.” Felix shook his head.
Other carriages were now rolling out of the trees as if deploying to bombard the house. Felix said: “I can’t bear being looked at. I never thought I was vain, but apparently I am. My looks are all gone. Do you remember how the ballerinas used to love me?”
“Not any more. Love, beauty, perfection – it all decays, Kolya.”
“I suppose so.”
“I never thought of ugliness as an active principle. Yet I’ve been invaded. I’m being eaten up by ugliness.”
“Don’t speak like that, cheri.”
“It’s true! My flesh is being eaten away.” Surprising himself Felix went on: “Like Carnival! Isn’t that what Carnival means? A farewell to flesh?”
“I haven’t studied languages,” Nikolai answered humbly. “Carnival – is that Latin or Greek?” Along with Felix’s beauty he had admired his friend’s superior accomplishments. Felix spoke several languages, rode, fenced, shot and sailed excellently. In company he knew how to be harsh or tender, attentive or disdainful according to its class or mood. He was perfect.
It was not possible to continue this conversation since Hans, the male nurse, now came charging towards them swearing profusely. Recognising his dereliction of duty, the former soldier was determined to make up for it by sticking closely to his charge.
After exchanging some further words about their families, Felix gave Nikolai’s hand a parting squeeze and wrung from him a promise to visit again.
Distressed, Nikolai went to see the physician in charge of his friend’s case. He would admit that he had a slight prejudice against Jews. However, Dr Stein seemed an amiable and sympathetic man. He received Nikolai into his consulting room.
“Yes, yes, a shock. I know, a shock. What can one say?”
“Is it possible that he’ll recover?”
“Perhaps. By applying science. Great progress is being made on the pharmacological front. We must all place our hopes in science. A drink? A cigarette?”
Nikolai accepted both.
“Your name is?”
“Uspensky – Nikolai Ilych.”
“I understand that you were a fellow cadet of my patient.”
For want of other things to say, Nikolai asked several questions about the disease and its progress.
“Spirochetes,” said the doctor. “Imagine them as animaliculae infecting the blood and body tissues, colonising them if you will. You are familiar with Darwin, I suppose?”
“And you have no religious objections to receiving his truth? Good, I supposed not. Well, you must conceive that Nature wages war in our bodies. You must consider the spirochetes as an enemy, and, between us and them, the fitter will survive. There is no sin involved, merely the blind operations of Nature.”
He could see that Nikolai’s interest was not purely technical. Delicately he said, “Could it be that you and my patient have been sharing the favours of the same belle amie? Or, at least, you fear so?” Nikolai nodded. “The initial symptoms are the appearance of a chancre or ulcer on the –ah – affected member. It appears very shortly after infection. Have you experienced any such matter?” The young man shook his head.
Relieved, the doctor said, “Believe me, you would know! However, if you wish it, I could take a sample of blood and examine it under the microscope. In confidence, of course. Oh yes, in confidence!”
A few weeks later, before Nikolai could honour his word to visit Felix again, his friend died. Or perhaps he became mad and paralysed, and his death was merely a story put about by his family.
In spring of that same year, 1899, Nikolai returned to Moscow. He received a report from Dr Stein which pronounced that he had nothing to concern himself with in respect of ‘urinary infection’. That should have satisfied him but did not. Perhaps because he was a military cadet, the doctor’s analogy of the disease and a military campaign struck him forcefully. Considering the tactics of war, and the body as a fortress, the latter were commonly taken not by direct assault but by slow siege. The besieging army dug trenches and advanced them obliquely to offer no target to the citadel’s defences. Proceeding by mine and counter – mine it sapped the walls until they gave way and a sudden storming would take the place. It was difficult to come by text books describing the progress of syphilis. The subject was shameful. The descriptions might excite the prurient and had to be disguised by Latin and Greek. However Nikolai understood that the disease, in most cases, advanced in a similar manner, by feint and stratagem, so that the victim might think himself free of it for long periods. Yet it lay in wait.
Nikolai was unconvinced by the doctor’s assurances. He imagined his body invaded by the fatal spirochetes. He displayed only an imitation of health. His case was hopeless. There was no cure.
It was impossible to live like this, conscious of his uncleanliness. His life was a lie. He was ashamed to meet people – to touch them with so much as a handshake. His words (“How are you?” – “I’m fine.”) were at variance with his thoughts. Many of his friends admired him: his good looks and splendid physical appearance. Even his enemies admitted his fine qualities. But they were all a sham, he thought. No matter how many years he might continue with the appearance of health, the reality would always be otherwise.
He began to drink heavily. It was noticed. Tsipliakov warned him: “You can’t go on like this. I don’t care what your private feelings for Felix were. He was a sweetheart, everybody’s darling. But these things have to be kept within the bounds of reason. People will begin to talk.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. The whole of life depends on our pretending that it’s other than it is. Reality isn’t glorious. It’s a shameful secret.”
Nikolai decided to resign from the academy and the Army. He wrote to his father stating that he intended to come home.
There was no direct train from Moscow to Nikolaevsk. Passengers changed at Smolensk and took the regional service. It was now the time of the spring melt and everywhere the ice was cracking on the rivers, the trees shed their burdens of snow, and the fields and roads were heavy in mud. Nikolai discarded his cadet’s uniform and travelled in the clothes of a young bourgeois. He wore an ulster and galoshes over his fine leather shoes as protection against the weather.
He found himself seated opposite a young man of his own age who wore a brown serge suit, a soft-collared shirt with an unsuitable tie, and heavy shoes with hob nails. His hair was dark, his eyes bright, and he had a moustache and a goatee beard. He looked like a travelling salesman selling something not very prestigious, such as agricultural machinery; an intelligent man who might be attempting to better himself.
by taking a correspondence course in bookkeeping or shorthand. The stranger introduced himself:
“Grodsky – Alexei Antonovich.”
“Uspensky – Nikolai Ilych.”
“I’m going as far as Orsha. You?”
“I’ve been there. Trains, brickworks, tannery. What a dump! No offence.”
“You don’t like industry?”
“On the contrary! Industrialisation is our hope for the future. More to the point, it’s inevitable. No, what grieves me is to see what we’ve done with all that technology. We have the means to make paradise and instead we’ve made a species of hell. What a waste!”
Telegraph wires were strung along the line of the railroad. Coaling points, watering towers, signal boxes. When the train paused at points or halts, other trains would go by pulling long lines of goods wagons loaded with timber and machinery. And Nikolai would look out of the window to the muddy fields of rye, where peasants in sheepskin coats and matted hair stood still at the sight of an engine, as if they too had grown out of the earth and were puzzled at the sunlight.
The stranger was reading a badly-printed journal. Nikolai suspected it contained seditious material but did not care. There were stories that the Tsar’s own police, the Okhrana, printed this stuff. Certainly there was no shame in reading it and normally no real risk.
“Are you a socialist?” Nikolai asked at length.
Grodsky looked up and smiled. “It took you a while to work that one out.”
“I’m not political.”
“Everyone’s political. I don’t know what you do for a living, but you look prosperous enough. If I was to try to take some of your property you’d be political soon enough.”
“I’d call the police.”
“That’s a political act.”
“Nonsense, I’d just be maintaining law and order.”
“Your law and your order.”
Nikolai did not see this. Everyone had an investment in law and order. The alternative was anarchy. It did not depend on one’s political point of view.
The train stopped alongside a stetl that did not merit a station. Nikolai noted the dilapidated wooden cottages with their mossy roofs and a larger building he supposed was a synagogue. He thought vaguely that the Jews ought to tidy the place up. They were clever enough. That they did not must be attributable to some defect of character. Grodsky seemed troubled by the sight.
“Talking about your politics – which you don’t have – what do you think of this place?”
“I don’t think much about it. It’s their business, I suppose,” answered Nikolai.
“So you believe in personal responsibility?”
“Yes, of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Poverty, misery – they’re all the fault of the individual?”
Nikolai nodded. He believed that in general that was true. Naturally there were exceptions: the infirm, for example.
“Don’t you think that political and economic systems have properties of their own that don’t depend on the will of individuals? That perhaps these systems operate according to their own laws?”
“If that were true, it would be a very depressing idea. We’d simply be cogs in a machine. We’d have no cause for hope.”
“Not at all!” exclaimed Grodsky with an enthusiasm Nikolai found uncomfortable. “It’s the very impersonality of these systems that gives us ground for hope. The individual, considered alone, is too weak, ignorant and selfish to achieve anything. Science and industry are driving the system. Your factories in Nikolaevsk didn’t arise because people wanted them. They happened because the operations of machinery demand that people be collected together under one roof. Think of the train. It was invented to carry goods, not people – in fact the authorities didn’t want people to travel, since it would only broaden their horizons and make them restless. But, still, here we are: passengers in a train. The capital investment in the railway demanded that it had to carry passengers in order to generate an adequate profit. Science and industry – not people. There’s your hope!”
Nikolai felt unsettled and returned to his newspaper. Grodsky took out a pipe and filled it with coarse mahorka from a sealskin pouch. He offered a fill to Nikolai, who declined in favour of his own Virginia cigarettes.
“So that’s Virginia tobacco,” said Grodsky. “Can’t say I’ve smelled it before. It’s not so … aromatic. I imagine it’s expensive?”
Nikolai admitted it was. Grodsky used this admission as grounds for probing the other man’s personal life.
Although he did not recognise it at the time, a change came over Nikolai. Despite his suspicions of the stranger, he decided that he liked him. Grodsky’s questions might be pointed – even provocative – but there was something jolly in his manner. And he was interested in Nikolai, who took an innocent pleasure in the fact; was flattered, perhaps. After Felix … well, there was no purpose in thinking about that. Nikolai did not want to think about his loneliness because it was shameful. He was prevented from introspection, cut off from a true inner life by shame. As a substitute he could talk to Grodsky, whom he would never meet again.
The Uspenskys – he said – were nobody as such. The founder of the family, his grandfather, Feodor Gavrilovich, had been born a serf back in Alexander the first’s time. His owner had sent him to work in Moscow under the usual arrangement whereby he returned part of his earnings to his master and kept part for himself.
“I’ve heard of that system,” said Grodsky to encourage his new friend. “Serfs could even become rich men, running their own business, but still bound to their masters.”
That was true. Feodor Gavrilovich had grown rich. But in his case he bought his freedom long before the general Emancipation.
“Did you know him?”
Nikolai shook his head. “I was five years old when he died. I’ve a vague memory but nothing much. An old man like other old men – or perhaps like an ideal old man: white hair, white beard, smiling face.”
“Stop it, you’ll make me weep!” Grodsky said ironically but sympathetically.
“You asked the question, not I,” answered Nikolai with a smile.
Feodor Gavrilovich had a shrewd eye and invested in railways. He saw the need for a point on the Moscow-Brest line where a repair shop for the rolling stock might be needed and bought land and built at Nikolaevsk.
“Oh, so you’re those Uspenskys!” said Grodsky.
“We don’t run the workshop any more,” Nikolai told him. “We’re just investors.” “What do you do now then? Own land?”
Nikolai admitted that his father had not been interested in business and so had bought an estate at Babushkino. Grodsky seemed delighted at being proved right in his guess.
“Nothing personal, Nikolai Ilych, but it’s so predictable. Your grandfather leaves the land to go to the city and your father abandons industry in order to buy an estate and ape the nobility. I think I prefer your grandfather, even though he was probably as hard as flint.”
“My father’s a good man. He has progressive ideas about agriculture and tries a great deal to help the peasants.”
“I dare say he does,” answered Grodsky agreeably. “But you’ll remember that I told you that individuals don’t count – certainly not their moral qualities. Old Feodor Gavrilovich did more good killing peasants to build his railway than your father will ever do teaching a few of them to raise turnips. Oh, but I don’t want to quarrel with you, Nikolai Ilych! I’ve said too much. Forgive me. Tell me about your rural paradise. Who lives there?”
Nikolai’s parents lived there and the four other surviving children, his sisters Agnessa and Adalia, and his younger brothers, Dimitri and Sergei. There was also a cousin, Alexander, who was Nikolai’s own age. They were brought up like brothers since Alexander’s father had been killed in the Turkish war just before his son was born.
“What bliss!” said Grodsky.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“No – seriously. I’m not.” He came over solemn. “I rather envy you, in fact. I like the sound of your family.”
“I thought you didn’t care for individuals.”
Grodsky was silent for a moment and then said, “After all you don’t understand me, do you? I like people well enough – too much at times. But they don’t count for anything in the scales of history and that’s a scientific fact.”
A few minutes later the train stopped. It was at a place where the railway crossed a mire on an embankment. Nikolai looked down upon the sedge poking through snow that was rusty with the skeletons of entrapped leaves. A road of cord-wood covered in a mulch of leaves and green moss ran parallel to the embankment. Standing on it was a horse-drawn van and a droshky. “I have a feeling we’re going to be here a while,” said Nikolai. “I think I’ll stretch my legs.” He descended from the carriage onto the embankment, meaning to stroll the length of the train.
Others had had the same idea. The guard in his red cap was trying to usher them back into the carriages. Nikolai lit a cigarette and noticed that two policemen and a civilian in an overcoat and felt hat had got out of the droshky and were even now climbing up to the train. He asked the guard, “Why have we stopped?”
“The signal’s against us.”
Nikolai looked toward the droshky again. The horses were country-raised, not used to the noise of the engine. Instinctively they shied away and had to be held. Then he heard the two policemen and the detective asking for the papers of the other passengers.
Returning to his seat he had a generous instinct. He said to his companion, “I thought I’d mention it, Alexei Antonovich. There are police outside. They seem to be searching the train for someone.”
Grodsky looked up from his journal unconcerned. “So? This is Russia, the world’s largest prison.”
Nikolai moved to go outside again but was stopped on the steps by the two policemen. They were simple rural gendarmes. The detective was a city fellow who disliked the mud on his shoes and the spatters on the skirt of his coat.
Nikolai fumbled for a while in the pockets of his jacket until the other men grew impatient. He apologised.
“I think I must have left them in my case.”
He was escorted to his seat. Grodsky was gone. His cardboard suitcase and small leather cap had also vanished.
“Is that him there?” one of the policemen asked of the detective, ignoring Nikolai and pointing through the window. “I can’t see in this fog. Where’s it come from?”
In the cold air the steam from the idling engine was rolling in banks down the slope and filling the gaps between sedge and alders with a white veil. A little way off, making heavy going of the soft ground, a lightly-built man was attempting to run away. Fascinated, Nikolai watched him.
Moments later he heard several gunshots, muted by the damp day and the panting of the train. But these were of no effect and the figure, now several hundred metres away, disappeared into the mist.
His cousin Alexander was waiting at the station, there in the press of muzhiks with their chickens and baskets of eggs, soldiers on leave, lovers, salesmen and the general riff-raff of a booming town; there among the Swiss governesses, the German hurdy-gurdy players, the Scots selling their machinery, the French floating their railway loans, the Lithuanians, Letts, Estonians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Turks, Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, Azeris, Armenians, Khazaks, Jews and gypsies, all out to make money from the industrialisation of the Empire, whether as bankers or labourers or by the humble expedient of defrauding others through a pea and thimble trick played from a tray held around the neck of the trickster.
Tall and well-made, Alexander had light brown hair and moustache and a coat of fine English cloth. His eyes were blue, his face pleasant rather than handsome, with a nose rather too broad, lips rather too thick.
The cousins hugged each other. Alexander produced a flask of vodka and they drank a toast on the spot.
“How are you, Kolya? God, but it’s good to see you! Have you been unwell? Why have you left the Alexandrovsky? We couldn’t tell from your letters.”
“I’m well. Yes, I’m well. I’ll tell you all about everything later. How is my mother – and my father, what was his reaction to the news I was coming home?”
“Your mother’s fine; so are the girls, in fact everyone. Ilya Feodorovich took the news all right. He’s obsessed at the moment with modernising the estate. The old herd has gone and he’s bought some Holsteins. And the place is full of Prussians building a new milk parlour: so clean you could eat off the floor. You should have seen our muzhiks staring at their reflections in the tiles and taking their hats off as if they were in church! In fact I could swear that when one of them first saw the electric light he knelt down in front of it, crossed himself and looked around for the icon!”
Arms linked and followed by a porter with Nikolai’s baggage, they stepped out of the station into the square, where Nikolai noticed their coachman with the carriage. His cousin, however, pointed to a building on the south side beyond the statue of Alexander II.
“What do you think?” he asked with a note of pride.
Nikolai was distracted by his recollection of the incident with Grodsky and his first impression now was not the sight of a fine new construction but of a sour tang in the air from the brickworks and foundry, and an unpleasant, savoury note from the tannery. Gathering his concentration he said, “Oh! That wasn’t there six months ago, was it?”
“Don’t you remember? The old Miliutin house stood there until it was damaged in the storm.”
The new building was not quite complete. The facade was partly covered in wooden scaffolding lashed with rope and workmen were going in and out of the entrance. The style was grandiose, with Dutch gables, bell towers and domes, moulded medallions, statues of the Arts and Sciences, Commerce and Industry.
“Who owns it?” Nikolai asked.
“The Rossiya Insurance Company. Would you believe it has elevators, the first in Nikolaevsk? And telephones, that goes without saying.”
“Did you have anything to do with it?”
Alexander had just commenced practice as an architect. “My firm designed it,” he answered modestly.
Zofim, the coachman, bade Nikolai good day.
The main street of Nikolaevsk was named after Alexander the Liberator. The younger people called it ‘Alex’; their elders ‘Smolenskaya’. It was metalled and new electric tramcars in red and yellow livery ran along it from a terminus near the railway workshops to Pushkin Square, a distance of about two versts. On the left, bordering the station square with its statue, a couple of banks, an hotel, the Church of the Redemption, and, now, the new insurance building, was a barracks housing a reserve infantry battalion. Among the newer buildings were Livanov’s Theatre, which exhibited serious drama and concerts, and Merkulov’s Theatre, a recent addition, put up by a smart entrepreneur from Moscow, which catered for more vulgar spectacles. Some of the shops and cafes were spanking new and others were under construction, but many of the buildings were still built of wood and there were still occasional cottages that had not yet been cleared for development. Between these older buildings were narrow lanes. One of them was Tailor’s Lane, better known as ‘Jew Alley’.
“They’re planning to run the trams down Lermontov Street,” said Alexander.
“What on earth for?”
“If we continue building, that’s where the up and coming area will be. Anyone with sense is buying land there.”
“Are you buying land there?”
“Yes,” said Alexander complacently.
“No, of course not. Every spare rouble he can get is invested at Babushkino. I tell him that he’d get a better return from building land, but he isn’t interested.”
Nikolai nodded, more in sympathy with his father.
In Pushkin Square they had to wait while a tram made a circuit before returning down Alex. Their horses, mostly used about the estate, were still nervous of machines except for the steam thresher. Turning right, up the northern section of Lermontov Street, the droshky passed the technical school and the public gardens where the cafe and the small wooden booths were still shuttered for the winter season, all excepting one that hired ice skates. Not far beyond the pond adjacent to the gardens, the metalled road surface ended and the carriage slowed as mud clogged its wheels.
“No signs of their laying a good road then,” commented Nikolai.
“There’s talk of building a spur to the railway.”
“How would the peasants pay to ship their produce? Most of them don’t see cash from one year’s end to the next.”
Alexander was disdainful. “You don’t understand economics. If they can get stuff to market, they can sell it for enough cash to pay for transportation. The system is self-reinforcing.”
Nikolai fell silent, humbled again by a superior intellect like that of Felix.
Passing the Karamzim estate he noticed that the bridge where the road crossed the river had been repaired, some alders and rushes cleared and a landing stage built. Beyond the river was an unfamiliar open vista.
“Am I mistaken or has old man Karamzim been felling trees?”
Of course he was not mistaken. A gang of men was in the clearing, levering out the stumps and piling them to be burned later in the year when it was drier.
“He’s extending his pasture. Another herd of Holsteins – they’re quite the rage, as fashionable as this year’s hat.”
“I thought the old man was dead set against change?”
Karamzim was a famous reactionary, cruel to his people and opposed to all change. The two families kept on good neighbourly terms.
“Your father persuaded him.”
Nikolai waited to be told again of the inexorable laws of economics. There was something cruel in Alexander’s rigorous intelligence. Now he thought about it, there was a resemblance to that strange fellow, Grodsky.
They came to a familiar beech spinney where wood sorrel grew. Nikolai suspected the horses could smell home for their trot picked up. Could he not smell it himself, a subtle change in the air?
“I met a man on the train,” he said casually. His companion was watching the road.
“You don’t say? Zofim, will we make it up the hill? I didn’t like the look of those ruts as we were coming down. Didn’t one of the carts break an axle there only last week?”
“He did, your honour.”
“He was a bank robber,” Nikolai continued. Alexander looked at him sceptically. “Which bank?”
“In Smolensk – I didn’t catch the name. He was one of a gang.”
“He told you this?”
“Of course not.” Nikolai smiled. “The police stopped the train and the fellow ran away. The detective told me the story.”
“So what’s the point? You’re trying to make some point.”
Put like that, Nikolai felt intimidated. He could not tell Alexander bluntly that in some ways he resembled a bank robber.
“There was more to it than stealing,” he tried to explain. “It was political. He was some kind of terrorist.”
“Oh, I couldn’t tell you which kind. We were chatting…”
“You talked to a terrorist?”
“He was sitting opposite me. I wasn’t to know he was a criminal. He was going on about socialism and economics.”
Alexander shook his head. Nikolai sensed he was exasperated. Then his cousin put an arm around his shoulder and murmured affectionately: “Welcome home!”
And indeed he was home.
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