Authors: Rebecca West
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #Historical, #Literary
The Birds Fall Down
MILAN AND LELA GAVRILOVITCH
whom I love and honour
This novel is founded on a historical event: perhaps the most momentous conversation ever to take place on a moving railway train. Students of modern history will recognize the necessity for specifying that it was moving. The Armistice which ended the First World War was signed in a stationary train. The conversation in this book takes place on a slow train making its way up through Northern France at the very beginning of the twentieth century, just after the close of the South African War; the conversation which historians have recorded took place nearly ten years later, on the Eastern Express between its departure from Berlin and its arrival at Cologne. The real participants differed from my characters in many respects, but not in their interests and emotions; and their exchange of information had the same effect on the Russian political scene. There were certainly other factors at work. But it is true that because of this conversation the morale of the powerful terrorist wing of the revolutionary party crumbled, and the cool-headed Lenin found the reins in his hands. It is also true that the Russian bureaucracy found the affair gravely disillusioning.
Most of the characters in these pages are portraits of people who were living at this period and were seriously involved in this situation, though they bore other names, and I have drawn heavily on their recorded sayings and their writings. I think I can claim to have told a true story, as it may have happened on a parallel universe, differing from ours only by a time-system which every now and then gets out of true with our own. Sometimes my story may surprise only because the changes in our society have been so rapid and so fundamental. It would have been inevitable in 1900 that a girl like Laura would speak and understand, as a matter of course, Russian, the Old Slavonic of the liturgy, French, and English; and she would probably have been a fair German and Italian scholar as well. And it would not have been surprising at that time that a French professor in a medical college was an enthusiastic Latinist. It is also to be noted that I have exaggerated neither the bloody score of the terrorists, nor the number of executions and imprisonments for which the Tsarist government must bear responsibility, as well as its interferences with liberty, such as the violation of the mails, known as perlustration.
I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to the writings of Boris Nikolaievsky, of whose death I heard with much regret while I was writing the last chapter of this book. I would also like to send a word of thanks to the ghosts of Ford Madox Ford and his sister, Juliet Soskice, wife of a Russian revolutionary who took refuge in England and a pioneer translator of Russian literature, from whom I first heard rumours of the story I have transformed into this novel, so long ago that the leading participants were still alive.
We are all bowmen in this place.
The pattern of the birds against the sky
Our arrows overprint, and then they die.
But it is also common to our race
That when the birds fall down we weep.
Reason’s a thing we dimly see in sleep.
Guide to a Disturbed Planet
One afternoon, in an early summer of this century, when Laura Rowan was just eighteen, she sat, embroidering a handkerchief, on the steps leading down from the terrace of her father’s house to the gardens communally owned by the residents in Radnage Square. She liked embroidery. It was a solitary pastime and nobody bothered to interfere with it. The terrace had been empty till ten minutes before, when her father had come out of the house. She had known without looking up that it was he. He had shifted a chair quite a distance to a new position and as he settled in it had grumbled at its failure to comply with his high standards of comfort; and as he had thereafter kept up a derisive mutter she assumed he was reading a book. He could not see her. She was sitting on the bottom step, and she was content that it should be so, as otherwise he would have told her either to sit up straight or not so straight. His criticism was not so urgent as other people’s was apt to be, and never demanded instant action, but it was continuous. Presently she heard the click of the french window which opened on the terrace, and she set down her embroidery and prepared to eavesdrop. For the last year or so everybody in the house had been eavesdropping whenever they had a chance.
Her unseen mother’s voice said with a curious formality, as if she were reading the words out of a book, “Edward, I’m writing to my mother. I’d like to be able to say that I’m taking Laura over to Paris for a fortnight quite soon.” Of late her English accent had deteriorated. Anyone could have told she was a foreigner.
After a pause Edward Rowan answered, “You know quite well, Tania, that I don’t think it’s good for any of the children to go over there. It’s too heavily charged an atmosphere. It’s also not very sensible to go among the French when they haven’t yet got over their feelings about the Boer War. And I wish you yourself didn’t have to make quite such a long visit.”
“A long visit?” repeated Tania ironically. “A fortnight!”
“Long enough, in the circumstances,” her husband told her.
“In your circumstances or mine?” asked Tania.
Laura thought, “It’s no use pretending that they’re fond of each other any more. They were, but they aren’t. Is that unusual, I wonder? Are other people’s parents happy together? They all pretend to be, of course. But is it true?” The cat from Number 13 walked along the gravel path and paused beside her, but she did not dare to pet it, lest she miss something.
“It doesn’t suit the boys, I know,” Tania went on in a conciliating tone, as if she were already sorry for her sharpness. “Osmund likes nothing except Eton and cricket and summer at Torquay, and Paris makes a perfect little clown of Lionel. They don’t like being half-Russian. They’re wholly your children,” she said bitterly. “But Laura can sail through anything, she never notices what’s going on round her. And as for me,” she said, all attempt at conciliation abandoned, “if I might put forward my own claims, I think it my duty to visit my father and mother. After all, they’re lonely and unhappy.”
“Why lonely? They know everybody.”
“Oh, not everybody can have turned their back on them, there must be a lot of decent Russians—”
“You don’t appreciate their position. How should you? You’ve always put off going to see it for yourself. You’re a busy man. I do not blame you. But you haven’t even thought of them, tried to imagine what it’s like to be them, for quite a long time. You’ve been so extremely, so excessively occupied with other things. Well, there isn’t anybody my parents can see. They’d rather die than have a liberal exile inside the house, and the Russians of their own sort who come abroad merely to travel are equally out of the question. Either they think that my father did something wrong and deserves to be disgraced, in which case they sincerely don’t want to see him, or they think he’s innocent, in which case they might pay such a price for showing their faith in him that he wouldn’t dream of allowing them to run the risk. And also,” she added, hesitantly, “my father doesn’t want to be considered innocent if the Tsar thinks him guilty. You don’t allow for that, Edward. My father can’t quarrel with what the Tsar has done any more than he could quarrel with God.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” said Edward Rowan. “But no, I really can’t swallow that. He can’t honestly be such a believer in juju. I remember perfectly well what he used to be like when we were first married, oh, and long after, when he was a Minister, all that good talk, and those excellent speeches. He wasn’t quite like an Englishman but he wasn’t much different from a top man at the Quai d’Orsay or the Ballplatz. I can’t believe all this stuff about Holy Russia. I believe it’s the same sort of humbug we have over here. I go to church every Sunday and say, ‘All we like sheep,’ and so do all the rest of us, but I don’t believe any of us really thinks that we closely resemble four-legged animals covered with wool. But even if your father does carry it so far as to feel that the Tsar is always right, I can’t think he couldn’t stop feeling it tomorrow if he chose. Anyway, he ought to come over here. He’s apparently kept a firm grip on most of his income and he could easily find a place in the country with some shooting.”
“The shooting here in England seems contemptible to all Russians,” said Tania. “Even at Sandringham and Welbeck we have to laugh. Our people only come because they like the English and their gossip. You should know that, you lived long enough in Russia. And anyway it would make things worse for him with his government if he came here.”
“Then he should forget the Russian government,” said Edward. “I should think he’d be glad to be free of it. Such nonsense—”
Tania said through her teeth, “If you mention the Duke of Fife I shall scream.”
The conversation was going very wrong. Laura wondered if it were time for her to stand up and show them she was there. The name of the Duke was never uttered in the house. It had happened that when Tania and Edward were first married they went to stay with her parents, who were spending a winter month at their villa in Nice, and Edward, walking in the town, had met the Duke of Fife and brought him back to luncheon. Afterwards the members of the Russian Secret Police guarding Tania’s father presented an adverse report on the visit, reporting that the Duke was a member of the Liberal Party, and disregarding the fact that he was also the son-in-law of Queen Victoria. Edward Rowan always loved telling this story, and the children had laughed with him over it, till they noticed as they moved through their teens that their mother hated hearing it; and then there had been a Sunday supper when Edward brought it out to amuse a lethargic guest, and Tania had gone white and stood up very straight like somebody in opera and said she had a headache and must go and lie down. Since then the story had not been heard again.
Choking, Tania went on: “I’ve explained to you, again and again and again, that we don’t think of things that way. One of our Grand Dukes was actually sent to Siberia. But you can’t be expected to understand our conventions regarding royalty when you don’t understand your own. You haven’t got a Siberia here in England, but there are circumstances in which English people do suddenly find that Queen Victoria’s sons-in-law don’t know them any more.” There was a further silence, which she broke by saying, in that reading-aloud tone she had used when she began the conversation, “My father and mother are old and exiled and unhappy. I wish to go and stay with them for a fortnight and I wish to take my daughter with me. They are always asking for her. She’s only been over once, when they first got here.”
“That sounds like a request drafted to sound reasonable by a solicitor and rehearsed before him,” said Edward, and his wife made no answer.
Laura stood up and said, “Oh, Mummie, that will be lovely.” As she had been sitting on one of the lower steps, this brought her head just about level with the terrace. Her parents stared down at her, and she stared back with a smile at once false and sincere. She was humbugging them, but it was in their interests. Tania’s cheeks burned, but Edward Rowan took only a second to reassume his public calm. He said didactically, “I trust you to take care of your mother. You must spare her all the trouble you can. It’s on that understanding that I’ll let you go.” His eyes left her face and looked far into the distance, he turned round and began to walk up and down the terrace. Already he was thinking of something else. Tania watched him incredulously. Smiling, he paused, regretfully shook off the pleasant thought which had preoccupied him, picked up his book off his chair, sat down, and started reading again.
Laura slipped her arm round her mother’s waist. “Come and show me what clothes I ought to take.” As they went through the drawing-room she dropped a kiss on Tania’s cheek. “How soon can we go?”
“Four days, I suppose. Oh, less. I’ll send telegrams to people telling them I’ve gone. Then what can they do? Nothing. Would you mind it if we hurried off?”
“Roughly speaking,” said Laura, “I don’t mind anything. Particularly not this touch. It’s no penance to see Grandfather and Grandmother. They’re awfully grand. And it’s no penance to go to Paris. You might stand me my first real Paris hat.”
“They don’t make hats for unmarried girls in Paris,” said Tania. She banged into the newel-post at the bottom of the staircase. She really must be very unhappy. This was the way that when one was little one bumped into things after one had been crying till one was half blind. “They just cover the poor little things with cornflowers and marguerites, turn them into tidied-up Ophelias.” They laughed immoderately at the little joke.