Page images
PDF
EPUB

French no longer served as the medium of communication with those around him. His other anti-national tastes were equally thwarted, for the housekeeping of the General was, like the language of the household, purely Russian ; plenty presided as his board, but in the coarse form which has long since been banished from the elegant tables of the capital.

« General P-was a widower. He had married a native of the other side of the Caucasus, who died in the prime of life ; and his family consisted of four sons, all serving in the Cossack regiment which he had formerly commanded, and an only daughter, who, at the time Count A- became domesticated under his roof, was scarcely fifteen years of age, quite an unformed girl, but already the living image of her Georgian mother. Although advancing towards womanhood, the young Elizabeth was still looked upon in her family as a child, and treated by her father and brothers more as their plaything than their companion. Her education had been much neglected, and she was deficient in even the common acquirements of French and music; she had been suffered to grow up in the savage region where she had first seen the light, like a wild flower, untended and uncared for; but, like many a wild flower which surpasses in beauty and sweetness the garden's pride, her native charm asserted itself despite the absence of all cultivation; and the first time Count A-saw her perform the characteristic dances of her country to the wild music of a Cossack chorus, he thought he had never beheld in the courtly circles of St. Petersburg anything so captivating as that untutored, child-like girl.

“As a resource against ennui, A-devoted his leisure hours to the improvement of Elizabeth's education ; he taught her French, German, and music; and such was her aptitude in learning, that in little more than a year the fair pupil knew as much as her youthful master did. The danger of such an intimate association between a guileless and beautiful girl and a handsome dissipated young man, would have been evident to any parent possessed of more worldly wisdom than General P; but with a blindness which sprang from his own honest and loyal nature, the old father continued to leave them constantly together, and isolated from all other society, long after A had discovered that the unformed girl had ripened into a fascinating woman, and that his manner to Elizabeth had changed from the playful authority of the self-constituted preceptor, to the tender deference of the aspiring lover ; while the sportive familiarity of Elizabeth had softened into a blushing reserve, which would have aroused the apprehensions of a keener observer than her father as to the state of her heart, and the fact of a warmer sentiment than friendship existing between her and the Count. Had her brothers been at home, the secret of the lovers would have been soon discovered; but they were in the Ukraine with their regiment, and there was no judicious friend near Elizabeth to warn her against the imprudence of encouraging a passion for one whose elevated rank and great worldly possessions would prove a certain barrier to his union with the portionless daughter of a soldier of fortune. So that, with nothing to counteract her lover's influence over her mind, and no check upon that holy confidence of a young

and pure heart, which too often, alas! leads to the ruin of the innocence from whence it springs, Elizabeth walked blindly towards the precipice to which was gradually conducting her, nor dreamed of harm until too late to guard against it.

L's re

Time wore on, and the two years allotted for Count Atirement having expired, he prepared to quit Wladi Caucasus for Mos. cow, where he had obtained permission to visit his mother before resuming his military duties at St. Petersburg. The despair of Eliza, beth at this separation would have betrayed her secret, had not Asoothed her anguish by persuading her that his sole motive for proceeding to Moscow. was to obtain his mother's consent to their marriage, and that the moment he had obtained her concurrence, he would return to the Caucasus, and formally demand her hand of the General. Nor was this a deliberate deception on his part; he quitted her with the firm intention of soon claiming her as his bride, and he loved her sufficiently to desire that event as ardently as she did herself. But unfortunately he was of a character easily to be led away by those around him, and his best intentions too often yielded to the influence of new impressions ; so that when once removed from the sphere of Elizabeth's fascination, and within reach of his mother's dominion, he suffered worldly considerations to supplant the honourable feelings with which he had quitted Wladi Caucasus. and plunged into the disa sipations of Moscow with an ardour to which his two years' banishment gave an additional zest. He had indeed lost no time in seeking the explanation with the Countess, which was to lead to the fulfilment of his engagement with Elizabeth, but his wishes had met with the most uncompromising opposition on her part, coupled however, with an indulgence in all other respects, calculated to give her the greatest ascendancy over him. From day to day some new enjoyment was devised for him by her, and as each day glided by, the recollection of the patriarchal dwelling which but so lately had bounded all his hopes and wishes, and the lovely image of the expectant and too-confiding being who had placed her honour and happiness in his hands, grew fainter and less frequent; while the charms of a certain young Princess Olga D-(a beauty and a heiress, whom his mother had long fixed upon as the future wife of her son) usurped the gentler memories of the old Cossack's home.

“Meanwhile Elizabeth trustingly awaited the fulfilment of her lover's promises, but months rolled on, and no tidings of him came. A perceptible change had taken place in the young girl's appearance; her spirits had become languid and broken, and her health was evidently failing, although no complaint ever passed her lips. The General alarmed by these indications of early decay, and tracing their commencement to the period of A—-'s departure, was aroused too late to a suspicion that the heart was the seat of her malady, and closely questioned her on the subject. For a length of time Elizabeth evaded all his endeavours to draw the truth from her, but at last, all reasonable hope that her lover intended to act honourably towards her having fled, and feeling that further concealment would soon be impossible, she cast herself in an agony of despair at her father's feet, and revealed to him that Count A- - had seduced her under a promise of marriage, and that she would soon become a mother.

Although in the first burst of indignant feeling, General Pbreathed only vengeance against the destroyer of his child, and would have spurned as unworthy to enter into his family, the man who had basely requited the rites of hospitality, by bringing misery and dishonour to the roof that had sheltered him, yet family considerations induced him to adopt more prudential measures, and he therefore wrote to Count Amsternly requiring him to make instant reparation for the evil he had occasioned, by fulfilling his engagement with Elizabeth. No answer was returned to this letter, and the General, doubly outraged by this contemptuous silence, then wrote to his four sons requiring them all immediately to repair to Wladi Caucasus upon business which would admit of no delay.

“They came; and their father having divulged to them the history of their sister's wrongs, ended by saying, “My sons, my first impulse upon ascertaining the extent of Count Ā--'s heartless villany was to fly at once to Moscow and force him to give me the satisfaction of shedding his blood; but the thought that my poor stricken child has no efficient protector but her old father, has deterred me from that natural course, for should I fall in a meeting with her seducer, she would be left alone in the world with her shame. I must not abandon her in this extremity; and, therefore, into your hands do I commit the task of avenging her honour.' Then leading them to the chamber of Elizabeth, he approached the couch upon which she lay stretched, reduced by sorrow and suffering to the shadow of her former self, and pointing to her worn and woe-begone countenance, adjured them in a tremulous whisper, to spare her by refraining from all reproach.

The four young men stepped quickly forward, and, surrounding the bed, they removed their sister's hands from her face, which she had hastily sought to conceal at their approach, and as they each in turn imprinted a kiss upon her flushing cheek, the three eldest exclaimed,

Courage, Elizabeth Mikailowna,' (Elizabeth, daughter of Michael,) you shall be avenged !

“But Ivan, the youngest, and the one she best loved, whispered as he tenderly kissed the tears from her eyes, ' Elizabeth Dushinka' (my soul,) 'weep no more; you shall be consoled !

“ And Elizabeth, casting herself upon his breast, murmured, 'Oh, Ivan, my brother, let no harm befal him!

“ When the brothers withdrew from their sister's presence it was settled that one of them should forthwith proceed to Moscow to bring Count A to account for his delinquency, and an amicable dispute arose between them as to which of the four should be chosen for that mission, the eldest warmly asserting his right of seniority to represent the family, and the others as warmly combating that argument. Their father ended the dispute by deciding that they should draw lots for precedence, and that should he to whom the first number fall perish in his encounter with A- -, he should be replaced by the next in succession, and so on until the Count had paid the forfeit of his life for his baseness.

“It fell to Ivan's lot, to vindicate the family honour, and within an hour after that point bad been settled, he was in a kibitka on the road to Moscow, accompanied only by a servant of the General's, and intending to travel night and day without a pause. During this rapid journey he had ample time to revolve in his own mind the surest method of effecting a meeting with Count A-without any person but himself and his adversary being privy to the affair : for, aware of the extreme rigour with which duelling is punished by the Russian laws, he felt assured that were the family of A- to obtain any suspicion of the motive that brought him to Moscow, they would not scruple to prevent the meeting, and by their interest cause the challenger to be sent from the place under arrest. It was, therefore, incumbent upon

him to take his measures with the utmost precaution; and he was still divided between the expediency of writing to Count A--- upon his arrival, or at once seeking an interview with him, without any previous announcement, when the gorgeous domes and cupolas of Noscow, clustering in the air, burst upon his view in their dazzling variety of green, vermilion, and ultra-marine, covered with golden stars.

“ Chance, which had decided that Ivan P- should become the avenger of his sister's honour, again came to his aid, and settled at his very entrance into the city the question that had agitated him through. out the journey. He had never seen Count A. -, but the letters of Elizabeth during the earliest period of his sojourn at Wladi Caucasus had been filled with descriptions of her young and noble preceptor, and among other particulars, she had specified a personal peculiarity which, although it might appear to common minds as a defect, assumed to her romantic and enthusiastic imagination a character superior to that of mere physical beauty-something heroic, that served to distinguish him from the herd of well-looking and well-dressed military flutterers. In the single campaign he had made against the revolted Circassians, A- had received a sabre-cut on the head which had well-nigh proved fatal. With great difficulty he had recovered from the effects of that wound, and without any personal disfigurement; but still, it bad left an indelible mark; for, although the scar itself was concealed by his clustering chesnut locks, the hair upon the injured spot had turned completely white. The strange contrast formed by this broad line of silver amidst the golden brown curls that covered his handsome head was the first thing that caught the attention of a stranger on seeing Count A, and the young man showed a sort of excusable coquetry in rendering it as evident as possible by wearing his hair very long; for he looked upon that bleached lock as a brevet of bravery, and a far more honourable decoration than even the military crosses that hung upon his breast.

“ This mark, then, served to precipitate the meeting with A which Ivan P—had journeyed from the Caucasus to effect. The young Cossack had already traversed a considerable part of Moscow, when, on approaching the Holy Gate, his kibitka was obliged to draw up at one side for a few moments before entering, in order to leave free egress to a throng of carriages which were passing out of it. No man, be his rank what it may, ever passes through the Holy Gate of Moscow without uncovering his head-an act of faith and reverence addressed by all good Russians, from the Emperor downwards, to the miraculous image of the Virgin which occupies a niche over the archway. As the carriages defiled, and Ivan's driver prepared to pursue his way, an elegant-looking cavalier, mounted upon a splendid English horse, cantered up to the gate, and there reining in his steed, he took off his hat, and passed beneath at a slow pace. Ivan's attention had been immediately attracted by the extreme beauty of the horse, and the graceful figure of its rider; but the moment the latter uncovered his head, the young Cossack's admiration was converted into a sentiment of almost savage joy, as he remarked above the left temple of the horseman, a long lock of snow-white hair, amidst the profusion of sunny curls that clustered round his forehead.

Ivan felt not a doubt in his mind that he beheld the seducer of Elizabeth; and throwing himself out of his kibitka, he conquered his feelings sufficiently to approach the cavalier with apparent calmness,

[ocr errors]

and to accost him with the politeness due from one stranger to another. « You

are Count Constantine A- I believe?' he asked. ««I am,' was the answer.

“And I am Ivan Mickailowitsch P-, lieutenant in the P-regiment of Cossacks !' pursued the youth, in a less collected tone.

« Well, sir !' said the Count with hauteur.

Did you, or did you not, receive a letter from General P-, in whose house you passed two years at Wladi Caucasus, touching a family affair which I need not here specify?'

"Sir,' said the Count, with increased haughtiness, 'I do not recognize your right to ask me that question.'

«. You will recognize it, when I tell you that I am the brother of Elizabeth P, and am, moreover, aware of your conduct towards her. Will you marry my sister ?

“ 'I cannot-family considerations forbid such a connexion.'

“ Then, sir,' returned Ivan, sinking his voice almost to a whisper, that the purport of his words might not be overheard by any accidental passer-by, you must fight with me, and that instantaneously:

« «Willingly,' replied the Count, but I must first return home for my arms.'

« • That is unnecessary. I have pistols and swords in my kibitka -I leave you the choice of your weapons, but I will not lose sight of you until the errand for which I have journeyed from the Caucasus, has been fulfilled. If you attempt to quit this spot without me, I shall believe that you intend to shield yourself from my just vengeance by informing the police of my intentions.

“Sir!' exclaimed A--, indignantly, (for his courage bad never before been questioned, if you knew me better, you would not dare to insult me by such a supposition. I desire nothing more than to give you the satisfaction you require of me; but we must settle the preliminaries in a more retired spot than this. Will you trust to my honour, and follow me?'

“ Ivan signified his willingness to do so, and jumping into his kibitka, directed the driver to follow whithersoever Count A-- should lead. Ater twenty minutes' drive through the city, they passed the gates, and proceeded on the St. Petersburg road, in the direction of Petrowsky, but before arriving at the race-course, A-turned from the high road, and conducted his antagonist towards a plantation of birch-trees at some distance, where they both alighted. İvan, taking his weapons from the kibítka, ordered the driver to remain with the carriage on the skirts of the wood ; while A--, knotting the bridle on his horse's neck, turned its head in the direction of Moscow, and gave it a stroke of his whip, which sent the gallant animal off at full speed. What are you doing ?' exclaimed Ivan.

Sending a messenger home to announce my death,' coldly replied the Count; "for I presume that our duel will be fatal to one of us, at least.'

The choice of our weapons rests with you,' said Ivan. " "Let it be pistols then—we will both fire together.' At ten paces?' exclaimed the young

Cossack. "At three, if you so wish it,' replied A

"Of course.

« PreviousContinue »