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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDevereux - Book 5 - Chapter 2. The Entrance Into Petersburg
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Devereux - Book 5 - Chapter 2. The Entrance Into Petersburg Post by :DENA_WALKER Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :1769

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Devereux - Book 5 - Chapter 2. The Entrance Into Petersburg

BOOK V CHAPTER II. THE ENTRANCE INTO PETERSBURG.--A RENCONTRE WITH AN INQUISITIVE AND MYSTERIOUS STRANGER.--NOTHING LIKE TRAVEL


IT was certainly like entering a new world when I had the frigid felicity of entering Russia. I expected to have found Petersburg a wonderful city, and I was disappointed; it was a wonderful beginning of a city, and that was all I ought to leave expected. But never, I believe, was there a place which there was so much difficulty in arriving at: such winds, such climate, such police arrangements,--arranged, too, by such fellows! six feet high, with nothing human about them but their uncleanness and ferocity! Such vexatious delays, difficulties, ordeals, through which it was necessary to pass, and to pass, too, with an air of the most perfect satisfaction and content. By the Lord! one would have imagined, at all events, it must be an earthly paradise, to be so arduous of access, instead of a Dutch-looking town, with comfortless canals, and the most terrible climate in which a civilized creature was ever frozen to death. "It is just the city a nation of bears would build, if bears ever became architects," said I to myself, as I entered the northern capital, with my teeth chattering and my limbs in a state of perfect insensibility.

My vehicle stopped, at last, at an hotel to which I had been directed. It was a circumstance, I believe, peculiar to Petersburg, that, at the time I speak of, none of its streets had a name; and if one wanted to find out a house, one was forced to do so by oral description. A pleasant thing it was, too, to stop in the middle of a street, to listen to such description at full length, and find one's self rapidly becoming ice as the detail progressed. After I was lodged, thawed, and fed, I fell fast asleep, and slept for eighteen hours, without waking once; to my mind, it was a miracle that I ever woke again.

I then dressed myself, and taking my interpreter,--who was a Livonian, a great rascal, but clever, who washed twice a week, and did not wear a beard above eight inches long,--I put myself into my carriage, and went to deliver my letters of introduction. I had one in particular to the Admiral Apraxin; and it was with him that I was directed to confer, previous to seeking an interview with the Emperor. Accordingly I repaired to his hotel, which was situated on a sort of quay, and was really, for Petersburg, very magnificent. In this quarter, then or a little later, lived about thirty other officers of the court, General Jagoyinsky, General Cyernichoff, etc.; and, appropriately enough, the most remarkable public building in the vicinity is the great slaughter-house,--a fine specimen that of practical satire!

On endeavouring to pass through the Admiral's hall I had the mortification of finding myself rejected by his domestics. As two men in military attire were instantly admitted, I thought this a little hard upon a man who had travelled so far to see his admiralship, and, accordingly, hinted my indignation to Mr. Muscotofsky, my interpreter.

"You are not so richly dressed as those gentlemen," said he.

"That is the reason, is it?"

"If it so please Saint Nicholas, it is; and, besides, those gentlemen have two men running before them to cry, 'Clear the way!'"

"I had better, then, dress myself better, and take two _avant couriers_."

"If it so please Saint Nicholas." Upon this I returned, robed myself in scarlet and gold, took a couple of lacqueys, returned to Admiral Apraxin's, and was admitted in an instant. Who would have thought these savages so like us? Appearances, you see, produce realities all over the world!

The Admiral, who was a very great man at court--though he narrowly escaped Siberia, or the knout, some time after--was civil enough to me: but I soon saw that, favourite as he was with the Czar, that great man left but petty moves in the grand chessboard of politics to be played by any but himself; and my proper plan in this court appeared evidently to be unlike that pursued in most others, where it is better to win the favourite than the prince. Accordingly, I lost no time in seeking an interview with the Czar himself, and readily obtained an appointment to that effect.

On the day before the interview took place, I amused myself with walking over the city, gazing upon its growing grandeur, and casting, in especial, a wistful eye upon the fortress or citadel, which is situated in an island, surrounded by the city, and upon the building of which more than one hundred thousand men are supposed to have perished. So great a sacrifice does it require to conquer Nature!

While I was thus amusing myself, I observed a man in a small chaise with one horse pass me twice, and look at me very earnestly. Like most of my countrymen, I do not love to be stared at; however, I thought it better in that unknown country to change my intended frown for a good-natured expression of countenance, and turned away. A singular sight now struck my attention: a couple of men with beards that would have hidden a cassowary, were walking slowly along in their curious long garments, and certainly (I say it reverently) disgracing the semblance of humanity, when, just as they came by a gate, two other men of astonishing height started forth, each armed with a pair of shears. Before a second was over, off went the beards of the first two passengers; and before another second expired, off went the skirts of their garments too: I never saw excrescences so expeditiously lopped. The two operators, who preserved a profound silence during this brief affair, then retired a little, and the mutilated wanderers pursued their way with an air of extreme discomfiture.

"Nothing like travel, certainly!" said I, unconsciously aloud.

"True!" said a voice in English behind me. I turned, and saw the man who had noticed me so earnestly in the one horse chaise. He was a tall, robust man, dressed very plainly, and even shabbily, in a green uniform, with a narrow tarnished gold lace; and I judged him to be a foreigner, like myself, though his accent and pronunciation evidently showed that he was not a native of the country in the language of which he accosted me.

"It is very true," said he again; "there is nothing like travel!"

"And travel," I rejoined courteously, "in those places where travel seldom extends. I have only been six days at Petersburg, and till I came hither, I knew nothing of the variety of human nature or the power of human genius. But will you allow me to ask the meaning of the very singular occurrence we have just witnessed?"

"Oh, nothing," rejoined the man, with a broad strong smile, "nothing but an attempt to make men out of brutes. This custom of shaving is not, thank Heaven, much wanted now: some years ago it was requisite to have several stations for barbers and tailors to perform their duties in. Now this is very seldom necessary; those gentlemen were especially marked out for the operation. By------" (and here the man swore a hearty English and somewhat seafaring oath, which a little astonished me in the streets of Petersburg), "I wish it were as easy to lop off all old customs! that it were as easy to clip the _beard of the mind_, Sir! Ha! ha!"

"But the Czar must have found a little difficulty in effecting even this outward amendment; and to say truth, I see so many beards about still that I think the reform has been more partial than universal."

"Ah, those are the beards of the common people: the Czar leaves those for the present. Have you seen the docks yet?"

"No, I am not sufficiently a sailor to take much interest in them."

"Humph! humph! you are a soldier, perhaps?"

"I hope to be so one day or other: I am not yet!"

"Not yet! humph! there are opportunities in plenty for those who wish it; what is your profession, then, and what do you know best?"

I was certainly not charmed with the honest inquisitiveness of the stranger. "Sir," said I, "Sir, my profession is to answer no questions; and what I know best is--to hold my tongue!"

The stranger laughed out. "Well, well, that is what all Englishmen know best!" said he; "but don't be offended: if you will come home with me I will give you a glass of brandy!"

"I am very much obliged for the offer, but business obliges me to decline it; good morning, Sir."

"Good morning!" answered the man, slightly moving his hat, in answer to my salutation.

We separated, as I thought; but I was mistaken. As ill-luck would have it, I lost my way in endeavouring to return home. While I was interrogating a French artisan, who seemed in a prodigious hurry, up comes my inquisitive friend in green again. "Ha! you have lost your way: I can put you into it better than any man in Petersburg!"

I thought it right to accept the offer; and we moved on side by side. I now looked pretty attentively at my gentleman. I have said that he was tall and stout; he was also remarkably well-built, and had a kind of seaman's ease and freedom of gait and manner. His countenance was very peculiar; short, firm, and strongly marked; a small, but thick mustachio covered his upper lip; the rest of his face was shaved. His mouth was wide, but closed, when silent, with that expression of iron resolution which no feature _but the mouth can convey. His eyes were large, well-opened, and rather stern; and when, which was often in the course of conversation, he pushed back his hat from his forehead, the motion developed two strong deep wrinkles between the eyebrows, which might be indicative either of thought or of irascibility,--perhaps of both. He spoke quickly, and with a little occasional embarrassment of voice, which, however, never communicated itself to his manner. He seemed, indeed, to have a perfect acquaintance with the mazes of the growing city; and, every now and then, stopped to say when such a house was built, whither such a street was to lead, etc. As each of these details betrayed some great triumph over natural obstacles and sometimes over national prejudice, I could not help dropping a few enthusiastic expressions in praise of the genius of the Czar. The man's eyes sparkled as he heard them.

"It is easy to see," said I, "that you sympathize with me, and that the admiration of this great man is not confined to Englishmen. How little in comparison seem all other monarchs!--they ruin kingdoms; the Czar creates one. The whole history of the world does not afford an instance of triumphs so vast, so important, so glorious as his have been. How his subjects should adore him!"

"No," said the stranger, with an altered and thoughtful manner, "it is not his subjects, but _their posterity_, that will appreciate his motives, and forgive him for wishing Russia to be an empire of MEN. The present generation may sometimes be laughed, sometimes forced, out of their more barbarous habits and brute-like customs, but they cannot be reasoned out of them; and they don't love the man who attempts to do it. Why, Sir, I question whether Ivan IV., who used to butcher the dogs between prayers for an occupation, and between meals for an appetite, I question whether his memory is not to the full as much loved as the living Czar. I know, at least, that whenever the latter attempts a reform, the good Muscovites shrug up their shoulders, and mutter, 'We did not do these things in the good old days of Ivan IV.'"

"Ah! the people of all nations are wonderfully attached to their ancient customs; and it is not unfrequently that the most stubborn enemies to living men are their own ancestors."

"Ha! ha!--true--good!" cried the stranger; and then, after a short pause, he said in a tone of deep feeling which had not hitherto seemed at all a part of his character, "We should do that which is good to the human race, from some principle within, and should not therefore abate our efforts for the opposition, the rancour, or the ingratitude that we experience without. It will be enough reward for Peter I., if hereafter, when (in that circulation of knowledge throughout the world which I can compare to nothing better than the circulation of the blood in the human body) the glory of Russia shall rest, not upon the extent of her dominions, but that of her civilization,--not upon the number of inhabitants, embruted and besotted, but the number of enlightened, prosperous, and free men; it will be enough for him, if he be considered to have laid the first stone of that great change,--if his labours be fairly weighed against the obstacles which opposed them,--if, for his honest and unceasing endeavour to improve millions, he be not too severely judged for offences in a more limited circle,--and if, in consideration of having fought the great battle against custom, circumstances, and opposing nature, he be sometimes forgiven for not having invariably conquered himself."

As the stranger broke off abruptly, I could not but feel a little impressed by his words and the energy with which they were spoken. We were now in sight of my lodging. I asked my guide to enter it; but the change in our conversation seemed to have unfitted him a little for my companionship.

"No," said he, "I have business now; we shall meet again; what's your name?"

"Certainly," thought I, "no man ever scrupled so little to ask plain questions:" however, I answered him truly and freely.

"Devereux!" said he, as if surprised. "Ha!--well--we shall meet again. Good day."

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