A capital tale of a simple Russian peasant, and how he met the Tsar.
PETER PETERVITCH* lived in a little hut by the side of the railway. His hair was fair and his beard was golden, and he had tired blue eyes that were filled with the weariness which comes to the eyes of men who have far horizons to scan. He wore a red shirt which flapped in the wind, and topboots of soft leather, and in the winter he had a big sheepskin coat with the woolly part worn inside and a fur hat. He did not wear the fur hat except furtively, for it had fallen from an open window of the train, and it was unusually valuable.
* The correct form of this name is "Pyótr Petróvich."
It marked the beginning of an ambition, the fur cap. Because it was very evident that if one fur cap could so fall, others also might be displaced by a puff of wind, or the accidental jogging of an elbow. And it might not be a fur cap, but a wallet filled with a hundred rouble notes, as—so legend said—such a wallet had fallen between Tomsk and Irkutsk.
It had been seen by an officer of the railway, and the signalman had derived little benefit therefrom.
Since the new well had been sunk at the back of the hut, however, no officer of the railway had ever come; once a week on a slow train there came an insulting clerk from Irkutsk to throw the weekly salary which Peter’s post carried, and to demand when the old well would be bricked over—a task they had set the indolent Peter.
Peter Petervitch was in his hut drinking tea and eating his midday meal of black bread and sausage, when far away ho heard the shriek of an engine.
He wiped his beard with his red shirt sleeve and took down the green flag which hung on two hooks under the lithograph of the Tsar.
He crossed himself before the gaudy little ikon near the door, and went out to do his duty.
The line was a straight ribbon of steel, stretching from cast to west. It crossed a flat and featureless desert, and there was nothing to obstruct the view from horizon to horizon.
Somewhere to the westward, where the two parallels of steel rail met in a quivering heat mist, he saw the black speck of the onrushing express. A verst* away a tiny figure of a man stood with a green flag before a little white hut—another atom of humanity.
Russian: верст, an obsolete unit of measurement equal to 3,500 feet or 1,067 meters)
Peter glanced eastward. Between his post and the next the line was clear. He unfolded his green flag and solemnly extended it.
The express went roaring past.
There was one saloon of unusual colour and size.
It was pure white, magnificently proportioned, and the big windows were very big.
Peter saw a child by an open window. He caught a glimpse of her fair young face, saw, in a flash, the smile on her lips as she talked over her shoulder with an officer who stood behind her. Then the train was gone.
He looked long and earnestly at the disappearing rear carriage, its outlines obscured by the cloud of dust which chased it madly, refolded his flag and mechanically threw a glance along the side of the ballasted road.
There was no fur cap, no wallet—nothing.
Nothing? Peter walked slowly along the railside. He stooped and picked up a handkerchief.
It was a dainty affair, all lace and fine cambric, and as he turned it over with his big strong hands, there rose to his nostrils a faint and beautiful fragrance.
Peter sniffed at it, inhaled the delicate loveliness of it. There was a design worked in one corner. A design incomprehensible to Peter. It was a raised design, and had eagles and lions and swords, and such things.
Peter had seen handkerchiefs before, in the big stores at Irkutsk. But then you may see everything at Irkutsk because it is the most wonderful city in the world, and has electric light and beautiful churches, and people wear white shirts—even common people. But never before had he seen such a thing as this.
He was embarrassed more than a little with his find. A fur cap you may wear on holy days. A wallet full of hundred rouble notes can be spent at Irkutsk, though God knows a hundred roubles is a great deal of money, and would require some ingenuity to spend! But a spider-web of cambric, with edgings of something as unsubstantial as smoke. Peter shook his head in perplexity and carried the wonder into his cabin.
Beneath the ikon was a little niche where a candle may stand and did stand when candles were plentiful. Peter cleaned the niche of grease, placed the handkerchief in its place, made the sign of the cross twice, and said, “Christ have mercy!” Then he went back to his tea, his sausage and his thoughts. He was not a great thinker. His mind moved slowly—like one of those big-wheeled tarantass* that carry country people in summer-time, across the bad roads of Siberia. He was elementary and naturally indolent, the scope of his mentality was bound by the deeps of hunger and the supreme height to which a man rises who gets drunk on beer.
* Russian: тарантас, a four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle on a long longitudinal frame, reducing road jolting on long-distance travel. It was widely used in Russia in the first half of the 19th century. It generally carried four passengers. (Wikipedia).
Considering the matter for three days he came to the conclusion that the handkerchief was suitably employed as an object of offering.
Summer passed and the winter came, and with winter he wore two shubas,* a sheepskin hat, and the fingerless gloves which a paternal government supplied.
* Russian: шуба, a fur coat.
Day by day he would stand in the biting blast to pass the trains eastward or westward, and six times a week he would search the line for the jettison of the Trans-Siberian express.
The winter went, the spring came, and Peter, shedding his shubas cautiously, came by easy stages to the red shirt and the soft leather boots of summer.
He had a brother, one Andrew, who had worked at Irkutsk for a skin merchant and earned seven roubles a week, which is about fourteen shillings, and is good pay. But Andrew was at once a source of sorrow and pride to the good Peter, for this town-haunting brother was a Socialist in his sluggish way, and did not believe in God. Else how could a man calmly relinquish so excellent a position as chief porter to a skin merchant and go wandering to the unknown cities of the west—to Moscow, even as far north as Riga?
From time to time letters came to Peter—bombastic letters. Andrew was prosperous. He wore white linen, and he had gone so far in his magnificence to promise that some day he would send Peter a five-rouble note. Beyond that he did not go.
Peter, saying his prayers before the little ikon, often prayed that the five-rouble note would come along, and when he had crossed himself he would touch the handkerchief for luck. The wisp of linen had grown somewhat grimy from overmuch touching, but the scent, which was peculiarly its very own, still clung about it when the adventure came to Peter.
He had just finished his frugal ablutions and had given “all clear” to a slow passenger train when he saw a fast tarantass being driven along the rough road which bordered the line. It was coming towards him, bumping and jolting over the uneven surface, and Peter took off his hat and quaked a little, fearing that this might be an official of the line.
The steaming horses were pulled up with a jerk a dozen yards from the cabin, and a gentleman stepped down.
He wore red boots up to his knees, and his clothes were of velveteen, and Peter, who knew he was no representative of Government because he was innocent of uniform, thought possibly that this was the millionaire who had lost the fur cap, and quaked again.
“Peter Petervitch!” roared the newcomer in a boisterous voice. “Come and kiss me, for I am your brother!”
And indeed it was!
Peter ran forward and took the man in his arms, kissing him on both cheeks, on the forehead and on the chin.
“God bless you!” said Peter. “You are a rich man, as I see. Now I am glad, for you will give me the five-rouble note which you promised me.”
Andrew laughed again as the other led the way into the hut. He laughed long and readily, as a stoutish man with a red face will laugh.
“You shall have a sackful of five-rouble notes, my little brother,” he said, patting Peter upon the back, “for I have come to make you rich.”
They sat down together and ate. Though Peter had had one breakfast, he found no difficulty in eating another, for he had never eaten a satisfying meal in his economical life.
“Now,” said Andrew as he dived into his pocket and produced a handful of cigarettes, “we will talk.”
He smiled his cheerful contempt of his brother as Peter said his devotions to the ikon behind the door—those devotions which invariably follow every meal in the peasant’s hut.
“Gospodi pomiluj!” sneered Andrew. “Lord have mercy on you! Whilst you pray, fat hogs feed on your richest food. I think you are a fool. What is that?”
He pointed to the soiled little handkerchief.
“That is a blessed object which came to me,” said Peter gravely, “from a little child who had a face like an angel. It is scented with the incense of God.”
Andrew clicked his lips impatiently, then he laughed.
“Sit down, O saint,” he said ironically, “and I will give you incense which smells sweeter.”
He thrust his hand into an inside pocket and drew forth a thick bunch of banknotes.
He laid them out on the table one by one, till they covered its surface. They were five-rouble notes, and there were many—so many that in places they lay two, one upon the other.
Peter gasped in silence at the display of wealth, and when Andrew stood on one side with the triumphant gesture of a showman. Petervitch came forward fearfully, touching the notes gingerly with his fingers.
“My brother,” he said huskily, “praise be to God, for you are a rich man!”
Andrew looked at him as his fingers moved from note to note, and a little smile trembled at the corner of his mouth, for there was little more than five hundred roubles on the table, and Andrew had been given two thousand to accomplish the work.
He went to the door of the hut, opened it, and looked out. There was no soul in sight save the driver of the tarantass. He shut the door and came back into, the hut.
“Peter,” he asked in a low voice, “do you ever think about Russia?”
Peter stroked his golden beard and looked at the other in astonishment.
“God save you, Andrew,” he said in amazement, “why should I think about Russia?”
“Do you think of the devils who torture men and women?” asked Andrew, with simulated ferocity, for Peter did not inspire the natural zealous flow of wrath which is rightly the accompaniment to such a proposition as he had to make.
“I have heard of the domovýe,”* Peter answered dubiously, “and also of the rusálki,† those beautiful maidens who wait by the lakes and tickle girls to death, also the vedni‡ who milk cows.”
домовые, pl., spirits of the
hearth, brownie-like fairies.
† Russian: русалки pl., spirits of the rivers and lakes.
‡ vedni (sic). Wallace may have meant vodyány (Russian: водяный), the fairy king of waterways, or, perhaps ved'mý (Russian: ведьмы), witches.
“You are a fool, Peter,” said his brother, struggling to preserve a straight face. He could not afford to laugh in view of the seriousness of his mission. “You are just a brute fool, Peter,” he went on vigorously, “as thousands of others of your kind are—content to sit and suffer and watch these other and stronger brutes trample over you, and oppress your women and your children.”
“God save you!” gasped Peter in consternation. “He who told you I had a woman or children has lied!”
Andrew wrung his hands helplessly.
“What can I do with this fool?” he muttered. Then: “I am not speaking of you,” he said, “but of the men you know. Listen to me. Would you like your brother to be a happy man?”
“You know that I would, Andrew,” said Peter, “so why do you ask?”
“Would you like yourself to be rich and to ride in fine carriages and to wear cloth coats and sleep in beds with sheets?” Peter had no desire to sleep in beds with sheets; he had once tried the experiment in a reckless moment, and had never ceased to regret the chill contracted on that occasion.
But his brother went on:
“We are near Heaven, Peter. In a few months Russia will be free of the yoke which is round her neck. We will terrify these masters of ours so that they will give us what we ask. And you”—he slapped the other on the shoulder with his heavy hand, and stepped back with a look of admiration upon his face—“you shall free us!”
“I shall free you?” said Peter in bewilderment. “Now you are talking madness, my brother. I know nothing of what you mean. How can I help you—you who are so rich and have so many friends?”
“Sit down.” Andrew caught him by the arm and dragged him to a stove by his side.
He spoke concisely and earnestly, and Peter listened; at first uncomprehending the trend of the other’s speech. Then, as it slowly dawned upon his dull mind, he rose with a gasp of horror, and his face went white.
“What!” he stammered. “Wreck the train of our holy master! Andrew, you are mad.”
“Don’t shout!” hissed the other. “Do you want the whole of the world to know what we are talking about? You have got to do it, do you hear? If you don’t I shall lose my life. I have sworn to my society to carry out its orders, and if I fail my comrades will kill me. You have to decide whether the life of your own brother or the life of the Tsar is more precious to you. To-morrow there will come news to you that the imperial train is going to Tomsk. The Tsar remains for the great festival and then returns. Nothing is to be done until the return journey. I will arrange everything, Peter; you need do no more than wave your green flag. I will have a fast tarantass ready to take you off, and you shall be kept in a small village until the matter is forgotten.”
It was an airy proposition that Andrew Petervitch put before his brother—condemning him to death as he did knowingly and without remorse, that he himself might benefit to the extent of a few thousand roubles. Peter’s detection was sure. Andrew himself might reasonably hope to escape in the confusion, if indeed he had not prepared a way for himself before the catastrophe. A few sticks of dynamite on the line could be carefully timed, might even be fired from a safe distance; the slow-willed Peter could either fly or wait and take his chance.
Peter listened as the plan was unfolded—listened with bulging eyes and ashen cheek, hypnotised by the plausibility of the other, scarcely understanding one half that was said save that he was called upon to commit a deed which was more dreadful than Peter in his wildest moments had imagined. He had thought at times, when the dull monotony of his life had driven him to mild desperation, of terrible crimes which he might commit, such as striking the clerk of the Irkutsk Station who was so rude to him, or making faces at the occupants of the slow-moving passenger trains, or even—the very thought left him breathless!—of setting fire to his hut one deadly day when the monotony of his loneliness had almost driven him mad.
“What is one life?” argued Andrew. “And what is one man’s life more than another?” He did not explain by what miracle the outrage would destroy only the life he sought. “Some day there will come to you the knowledge—the great knowledge that the killing of a man is nothing!” He waved his large hands in contempt. “That day will come soon, and you will only be proud of your work.”
Peter listened in silence to his brother’s hearty farewell, and watched the tarantass as it jerked its way over the lumpy road to the distant flat line of the horizon. Then he went back to his hut and prayed. He made no reference in his prayers to the awful proposal which had been made; he felt it was not a moment to take God into his confidence until he himself had a clear idea as to what it was all about, and his fingers rested a little longer upon the cambric in the niche. He strove with greater earnestness, holding the little gossamer near his nose to catch the perfume. Then he went back to his work at the well—work he hated because it was unjust that he, a signalman, should be called upon to perform the labour of other and higher paid men.
All night long he lay awake thinking.
At dawn there came a light engine carrying an official of the line even as Andrew had predicted. A loud-mouthed, noisy, bullying official, none other than that objectionable clerk from Irkutsk Station, who gave him certain instructions about a mysterious train which would pass at noon. It was a train of the highest and the greatest importance, this much the clerk impressed upon him, calling him pig and fool, and little bear to point out the importance. And Peter listened, nodding his head, and the engine went speeding down the section to the next section-house, where it halted to repeat the instructions.
Peter was more than ordinarily careful with his ablutions that morning; he washed himself with great thoroughness, and took from the little box beneath his bed a blue blouse, washed and rough dried, but of a more brilliant blue than any of its fellows. He even combed his beard, and used the broken-toothed instrument to bring some kind of order to his tangled hair. One thing was certain, the Tsar was coming—that great and God-like man, his master and the master of all the world by Peter’s reckoning, for he took no notice of the lies which were told, doubtless by interested people, that outside of Russia existed other territories dominated by other and less luminous Tsars.
As the hour got nearer he became more and more agitated. The day was a blazing one, the heat stifling and overpowering. Everything he touched that had been exposed to the sunlight was blisteringly hot, the whole landscape shimmered in a heat mist, and on the far horizon a dazzled brown mirage offered the illusory promise of shady trees and cool lakes.
Sometimes during a period of exceptional heat the sun would expand the rails to such an extent as to throw them out of the true. It was part of Peter’s duty to make a careful examination half-way as far as the next section-house once a day.
An hour before the Imperial special was due he walked along in the scorching sunlight, his eyes fixed solemnly upon the twin grey rails. There had been an expansion; you could not put an edge of paper between the place where rail met rail. He had walked two hundred yards when he stopped. It seemed even to his unobservant eye that there was a distinct warp in one line. For the purpose of making his rough calculation he carried a piece of knotted string in his pocket, and with this clumsy apparatus he took laborious measurements and gasped.
For the first time since he had been in the employ of the railway company he had made a discovery which carried with it a reward of five roubles. Yes, here it was, two inches out of the true in one place—almost three inches in another!
He crammed his string in his pocket and went running back along the permanent way to his hut. He was distracted; he could not think what was the right thing to be done under the circumstances.
All that he knew was that the Tsar was coming in his wonderful train, and that he must be there at his hut to signal him past. But now? It never occurred to him, strangely enough, that the bulging rail was quite sufficient to throw the train off the line and bring the disaster by accident which his brother had planned should come through design.
He started walking to the next section to warn Ivan Menshikoff, the signaller. Then, in a panic, he realised that Imperial trains are notoriously unpunctual, and that bullying, brow-beating clerks from the Irkutsk Station might tell him a lie purposely deceiving him for the better safety of the Tsar. With this in his mind he ran hastily back to his hut, an uncomfortable figure, his face wet with perspiration. It was fortunate that his brother had not visited him that morning, and that he had nothing to distract him from his duty.
Then his heart suddenly came into his mouth. Far away on the west horizon was a blur of smoke. There would be no whistling, since this was a special train. The blob of dun-coloured smoke was all the warning an alert signaller required. He went hurriedly into his hut and came out again with his red flag. Of course, this was the proper course. It was a source of satisfaction that he had thought out this duty of arresting the progress of the Imperial special.
He lifted his flag, the flag that he had never had to use since the day of his appointment, unrolled it proudly, and stood at the door. He was probably the only signalman on the line that had had to show the red flag to the Imperial special.
Nearer and nearer came the train. A fear assailed Peter that the driver would not see him, and he waved the red flag frantically at a time when the driver could not possibly have seen him without the aid of a telescope. Nearer and nearer it came, and then with a sudden grinding of brakes the Imperial train jarred to a standstill, the engine less than fifty yards from the danger point, the great white saloon immediately opposite Peter’s hut.
He stood there, his fur hat clutched in his hand, looking humbly, almost devotedly at the spotless car. He saw faces at the window and then he gasped, for one of the faces was that of a girl—the girl whom he had seen on the day he found the handkerchief. He had no time to speculate on this matter, for a uniformed officer, springing down the steps of the saloon, ran towards him.
“What is wrong?” he asked curtly.
Peter tried to speak, but could find no words, he was overcome at this tremendous moment.
“Speak, fool!” said the man.
“Gently, general!” said a voice.
The officer swung round with his hand at the salute, and stood rigidly facing the open window, which had been noiselessly lowered.
Peter looked up and saw a good-natured man with a little peaked beard, who turned his smiling eyes to the signalman.
“What is wrong, my friend?” he asked.
“Little father,” stammered Peter, “the sun has opened the rails. God forgive me for delaying the holy Tsar, but when the rails are open I must stop the train, and if your excellency looks upon the face of the Tsar let him know that I did this because it is my duty.”
It was a very long speech for Peter.
The kindly eyes were not moved from his.
“I am the Tsar,” he said simply.
“God have mercy on us!” gasped Peter, and fell on his knees.
He was still dazed when the little party descended from the saloon whilst mechanics were putting the rails straight—not a matter that required any great waste of time—dazed when the Tsar and the beautiful girl walked along the permanent way and stood before his hut.
“And do you live here always?” asked the Tsar.
Peter nodded; he had no words.
The Tsar slipped into the hut and looked round.
“It is very clean,” he said, as indeed it was, for Peter’s usual shyness of soap and water did not extend to his habitation.
“What is this?” asked the Tsar in surprise. He crossed himself before the ikon as Peter might have done, and, reaching out his hand, touched the little handkerchief. He lifted it from its niche and examined it curiously.
“Why,” he said, “this is yours, Vera.”
The girl took it with a little frown of surprise.
“Yes, that is mine, papa,” she said. “Look, there is my crest.” She pointed to the embroidery in the corner.
“I found it!” blurted out Peter in terror. “Little father, it was by the side of the line, and I did not know that I was doing wrong, but it seemed so beautiful a thing that I placed it here and said nothing to any man, worshipping it because of the angel who had dropped it.”
The Tsar threw back his head with a laugh, and turned to the officer behind him.
“See that this man receives a thousand roubles,” he said shortly. “And he may keep the handkerchief, may he not?”
The girl smiled on Peter, and handed the precious relic into his hands.
Five minutes later Peter Petervitch stood, a confused and wondering man watching the disappearing train.
He with his own hand had touched the Tsar, had felt the warm grip of his fingers in a handshake. It was unthinkable, unbelievable! He was still in his maze when his jovial brother came, this time on a bicycle, for he wanted no evidence to accumulate against him.
The bicycle was a strange machine to Peter. He regarded it with a frown as partaking in some degree of his brother’s revolutionary character.
Peter was engaged for the moment in drawing water from the new well—the well which had been sunk by the Government for his use—in order to mix the mortar with which to cover the old condemned well from whence he had drawn his supplies and from which incidentally his hapless predecessor on the section had met his death in the form of typhoid fever. Peter was in his red shirt, perspiring but immensely happy, singing in his great unmusical voice nothing more modern than an old folk-song he had learned at school.
Andrew dismounted from his bicycle and clapped the other on the shoulder. They kissed one another solemnly.
“Now come to the hut,” said Andrew, “and tell me all your thoughts, my brother.”
“I have no thoughts,” said Peter meekly. “But many wonderful things have happened.”
The other frowned. He looked round; there was no one in sight. Even the signalmen in the distant huts had retired to their midday meal.
“Tell me, Peter Petervitch,” he said, “that you will do what I ask and make me a happy man.”
“What do you ask?” asked the other.
“That you let me lay a mine on the rail.” The other put it bluntly. “That is all. That you do not fire your gun or make an alarm, and that you go before the train comes.”
“I will not do this thing,” said Peter simply.
He was standing by the old well and, lifting a lump of stone, he dropped it over the edge, and stood listening until a faint splash below told that it had reached the water. He was more interested in his work than his brother apparently, and the red-faced man grew almost purple in his rage.
“Listen,” he shouted. “Do you wish to see your brother dead or the Tsar dead?”
“I would rather see you dead,” said Peter calmly after a moment’s thought. And, stooping, he mixed water and lime with his curious bowl-shaped trowel.
Andrew looked at the man and a slow, cunning smile dawned on his face.
“If you do not help you are ruined,” he said, “for I will go away and denounce you to the police.”
That was a contingency upon which Peter had not speculated. To the police! And the news would go to the Tsar, and perhaps the little lady would want her handkerchief back from so unworthy a servant, who had listened to schemes for the destruction of her father.
He went pale at the thought. That he would also lose a thousand roubles did not distress him, because a thousand roubles was beyond his immediate comprehension.
“You will do this?” he stammered.
“Assuredly,” said the other heartily. “Now which do you choose—my death or the Tsar’s? Come, little brother, has not the day dawned when you see life as nothing?”
With surprising quickness for a man so lethargic Peter’s hand shot out. A steel-like grip grasped the city-wasted Andrew by the throat and flung him round.
“Your death, my brother,” murmured Peter, “go with God!”
He threw his weight forward, and, exercising the whole of his strength, he lifted the man bodily and flung him over the black edge of the well.
A despairing shriek came up as the man fell; a pause and a splash of water, and then silence.
Peter walked slowly to where the bicycle lay upon the ground, picked it up gingerly, and threw it down after the man. Then he went to work mixing mortar and carrying stones to cover over this place of death. And all the time he worked he whistled a tuneless song, for the possibilities of a thousand roubles was only at that moment dawning in his sluggish brain.