‘MR. BRANSK will see you for ten minutes,’ announced the secretary. He opened the door to an inner office and Michael entered, conscious of a thrill of excitement at the prospect of seeing a man who had once lived under his roof now head of an important department of the government. A black bullet head was bent low over some papers. The visitor stood for several minutes waiting, and smiled a little at the preoccupation of the new minister. Bransk made a notation on one of the papers, then looked up.
‘This is the thousand-and-fifteenth petition that has been considered by me since the beginning of the year,’ he proclaimed in his loud voice. ‘I am swamped by papers.’
He motioned Michael into the empty chair. ‘Sit down. Sit down. So you’ve come over to see how we are running the country.’
Michael nodded, and opened his mouth to speak, but the minister rushed on.
‘Let me see, you are still living in New York. On East 12th Street? Yes, of course. And your daughter? Martha, was not that her name? Of course, I remember.’
Michael thought of a night when he had returned to find Bransk with Martha in his arms, and of the boy’s arrogant gesture, as, with his eyes on his host, he bent and kissed the girl’s neck.
‘And your wife. She made magnificent onion soup. It was a great loss when she ran away with her handsome waiter.’
He slipped a number of papers into a folder on his desk, and scribbled a few words on a pad. His right hand was terrible to look at. Two fingers were missing and the skin was livid with old scars.
‘You will not be staying long, I suppose. Our winters are hard, and our houses cannot yet boast the steam heat of New York. I myself never feel the cold.
‘What do they think of our work in America?’ he demanded, changing the subject abruptly. ‘Only this morning I received a magazine containing a long article about myself and the work of this department. The writer — one of your professors, by the way — had to admit that we have shown them a good many things, even in their boasted field of education. Of course, he fails utterly to see the significance of some of the things we are doing. But let me show you our laboratory.’
He rose and, grasping Michael’s elbow, pushed him into a long room lined from floor to ceiling with filing cases. A dozen young women were bent over typewriters and work tables, and in a room beyond Michael could see several others.
‘We have thirty-five workers on our central staff,’ explained Bransk. ‘In this room you will find a record of every town and village in the country, the number of its inhabitants, their ages, occupations, degree of education, and so on.’ He opened one of the files and pulled out a large card. ‘Here, see, is Trigov. Persons 127: men 37, women 40, children 50. Below you will see a summary of their occupations: blacksmith, one; teacher, one . . . then their school equipment — buildings, books, radio; the attendance; everything, in fact, that we need to know.’ He pointed to a table at which five girls were busily cutting, pasting, and writing. ‘They are at work collating all this information for our annual report. I am told it will be seven or eight hundred pages in length.
‘There, you see,’ he continued, pointing to a large chart which hung on the wall at one end of the room, ‘that is a diagram of the organization of my department down through all its branches to the tiniest village. At a moment’s notice we can put our finger on any individual in the country and see whether he is receiving the proper amount of instruction.'
He led his visitor back to the inner office and paused, waiting for some word of appreciation of the giant machine which he had created.
Michael smiled his grave smile and only said, ‘And yet twelve years ago you and I were glad to set up the type of the Torch ourselves, in a rat-infested basement, and mail out the copies.'
Bransk waved his hand to indicate that all that was in the past and of no consequence. ‘The rats, I remember,’Michael went on dreamily, ‘one night got into the sausage we had brought down with us. We had no supper that night, nor breakfast the next morning.'
Bransk made an impatient sound in his throat. ‘The revolutionist thinks only of the morrow,’ he announced, and Michael recognized it as the concluding sentence of one of his speeches.
The minister looked at his watch. ‘A delegation of trade-school teachers is to come here at three o’clock. I must have a few minutes to look over their matter.’ He seized Michael’s elbow and propelled him to the door, but the other put his hand on the knob and spoke a little hesitantly.
‘I have left New York for good, Peter. I intend to spend the rest of my days here where I was born. I thought there might be some work I could do for the Government.'
Bransk’s face stiffened and his eyelids drooped. ‘Ah, you are returning? You have left New York. Ah, so. Perhaps we may be able to find something for you. Of course. Yes, of course we shall. Still, when a man has lived so long away from his country . . . You never revisited, I believe. I myself, as you know, came back several times in disguise, and lived for some months. But you must let me know where you are staying. If there is anything I will let you know.'
His secretary entered on silent feet. ‘The delegation of trade-school teachers, Mr. Bransk.’
‘Tell them I will see them at once.’ He turned to Michael. ‘We must have another talk sometime. Yes indeed. Still, I should advise you to return to America. You could do more for us there. We need friends to combat the lies that are being circulated against us. Besides, you would miss New York and the steam heat in the houses.’
Michael did not remind him that many a winter night in their gloomy tenement there had not been a stick of wood to warm the icy room.
‘Steam heat breeds degeneracy. This is the country of the young. We cannot be bothered with comfort. Comfort stifles action.’
He was quarrying phrases for future speeches, Michael thought, and smiled faintly as the other shook his hand violently and closed the door.
The delegation of trade-school teachers, their eyes glued on the door, surged forward respectfully as he withdrew. He noticed several handsome young girls among them. One of them had the devout mystic stare of his daughter Martha, who had adopted a severely celibate life in one of the social settlements of East Side New York.
In the corridor outside he felt old and tired, and leaned against the wall for support. He wondered what he had expected when he went to see Peter Bransk, whom he had housed and fed for nearly three years while the youth, recently escaped from the prison to which he had been committed because of his revolutionary speeches, tried to make a living at journalism in America. Not just this, certainly, though he remembered a saying of Bransk’s that the revolutionist should love nothing but his cause, and remember nothing but his wrongs. He could see the young Peter in one of the little restaurants they frequented, flinging his bolts. ‘Love is an appetite, not an emotion.’ Martha had been with them that night. ‘The family is a tyranny. It must be broken down.’ ‘The man who owes allegiance other than to his cause is a traitor.’ ‘Gratitude is a vice of the weak.’ They had all delighted in the spirit of this youngster on whom the prison scars had scarcely healed.
Michael wandered down the long corridors, where messengers were running busily to and fro, and finally found himself in the square, which as usual was crowded with sight-seers, come to look at the capital. Everyone who came out of the great fortress-like building was scrutinized by the people, on the watch for members of the government, who made it a point of honor to walk to and from their offices. Michael was amused to see a messenger, whom he had noticed in Bransk’s waiting room, suddenly straighten his shoulders and assume an air of preoccupied gravity as he crossed the square.
Every detail of the scene roused his interest — the peasant groups gazing solemnly at the forbidding façade, the boisterous companies of boys and girls swaggering possessively about the square, a knot of factory women examining a new poster, even a dog busily chasing his tail and getting under everyone’s feet. And he felt a kind of satisfaction when a couple of workmen in heated debate pushed him against the wall.
He turned presently into a narrow street which wound down to the river. The houses, he observed, had not changed since he had fled for his life forty years before. If anything they looked more down at the heels. The side-walks were littered with scraps of newspapers and torn handbills. ‘That at least is new,’ he said aloud. ‘Forty years ago these people did not read.’
At the sound of his voice a group of children looked up curiously from their play in the gutter. He felt a comradely warming to their round-eyed stares, and sat down on the curb among them.
‘What are you playing?’
The children drew back and whispered, and some of them began to titter. Finally a little girl, bolder than the others, edged up and fingered his watch chain. He sat still, smiling at her, and in a moment the children were swarming all over him. Their dirty little hands seemed to search every part of his person. He felt them in his pockets and tugging at his vest, and realized with a shock that they were robbing him. He rose suddenly and shook them off.
‘Capitalist, capitalist!’they screamed, mingling their cries with obscene oaths.
Urchins swarmed from every doorway and pelted him with mud and filth from the streets. ‘Shall I have to run?’ he thought, in a kind of grim amusement.
A strong arm caught his, and a youthful voice roared to the children to be off. Michael looked round to see a young man of perhaps twenty in ragged coat and trousers. The children seemed to know him, for they shouted, ‘Strigloff, Strigloff,’ and a girl blew a kiss to him. He fell info step beside Michael.
‘It’s hardly safe yet for a foreigner to come into this quarter,’ he explained in a comradely voice. Michael gasped a little. ‘We can’t transform the downtrodden of centuries into human beings overnight. I hope they have not hurt you.’
‘Not at all,’ Michael answered hurriedly. ‘I remember this used to be the most dangerous street in the city.’
‘You have been here before?’ the other asked in surprise.
‘I was born here.’
The boy’s genial eyes clouded with suspicion. ‘ I took you for an American.’
' I have lived in New York for over thirty years, but I am returning here now to live.’ He would have gone on to explain how he had happened to go to America and why he had come back, but a hail from across the street interrupted the conversation.
‘Strigloff, Strigloff!’ called a voice. ‘Hurry or you will be late.’ It was a girl in a red blouse.
The boy stopped. ‘I must run. It is a committee meeting, and I am chairman. You will be quite safe now.’ And he bounded away to join the girl. They swung down the street arm in arm, their heads close together. Michael heard them laugh, and his eyes followed them wistfully. He would have liked to talk to this young fellow who had seemed so carefree and confident.
His mind jumped back to his own twentieth year, and to the nights when he had crept along a deserted alley to the basement of a disused warehouse. Of the twelve who had met in that foul cellar only he and one other were left. Ivan and Gregor had been executed. Gregor’s young brother had perished miserably in a salt mine. Stefan had died an exile in Paris. Leon’s dead body had been found one day in a questionable restaurant in Belgrade. Serge was living in comfortable obscurity in a London suburb where he taught French in a girls’ school. He pulled himself up abruptly in the catalogue. He had not returned to his native city to relive the past. ‘The revolutionist thinks only of the morrow.’ Bransk was right. Memories only clogged the brain. Far down the street he could still see Strigloff and the girl, and he was proud of their careless self-confidence. ‘We gave them that,’ he thought.
He turned into another street and was presently lost in a network of alleys and festering courts. The squalor and ugliness filled him with sadness. The forty years of exile, the hundreds of martyrs, seemed to have counted for so little. Bransk and his companions suddenly became Titans, and their attempt to raise this huge sunken mass on their shoulders godlike in its daring.
He emerged at last into a small square where a fountain was playing in the middle. Feeling footsore and spent, after his encounter with the children, he sank down on a block of stone which had once served as a carriage step. In the centre of the cobbled square were a number of wooden trestles topped with rough boards, and a group of women, hands on hips, were laughing together, while a few lingered over half-empty baskets. Michael straightened with a start. It was the old flower market.
‘Dina, Dina!' called a shrill voice. ‘Come here and help me with this basket. You are lazier than the priest’s pig.’ The woman called Dina separated herself from the gossiping circle, and, still laughing and shouting over her shoulder, went to the tables where an old woman struggled with a basket. Michael did not see her; a mist veiled the present and he was twenty again.
It was a June morning and warm. Ho had just come from the fetid dampness of their underground meeting place. They dared not meet often, and they had talked all night. Plans of great moment were afoot, and the youth was still shaken by the solemnity of the oath he had taken, and he felt an overwhelming longing for warm human contacts. The scene before him seemed strangely beautiful. The flower girls had loosened their blouses, and were fanning themselves vigorously. Their faces were pink and flushed and glistened with moisture. To the young man watching them they looked like peonies. Their vigorous bodies seemed a thousand times more desirable than the delicate white-skinned women he met in his mother’s house. One of the girls had climbed to the fountain and dipped her face down to drink. She lifted it to him all wet and smiling. Drops hung like diamonds from the ends of her blue-black hair, and others trickled down her brown throat.
‘What is your name?’ he demanded abruptly.
‘Dina,’ she replied archly, and seized a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped her face.
Suddenly he caught her in his arms and kissed her. The girl pushed him away, and, throwing back her head, laughed boisterously, her splendid throat vibrating with mirth, her breasts shaking. ‘You had better go home to bed, my little one,’ she said, wagging her finger. ‘It is evident that you have drunk too much.’ And she ran off. To the weary boy she was the very incarnation of earth. He did not pursue her, but went slowly back to his home. The stately old house seemed dead and tomblike after the brightness of the square. Painted generals in uniform gazed down on him from the high paneled walls. As a little boy he had used to tie a sword to his waist and strut up and down under their approving ranks. He began to laugh. What would they think now?
A voice called to him from the depths of one of the chairs. It was his mother, looking like a little white mouse in her voluminous shawl.
‘Michael,’ she said fretfully, ‘where have you been?’
‘Why do you walk in this hot weather? It will give you a sunstroke. You may fan me if you like.’
He took up the delicate ivory fan and fanned her gently. All the while she watched him keenly from her sharp blue eyes. ‘My son, it is time you married. Nothing settles a young man like marriage.’
He thought of the laughing Dina.
‘You do not say anything.’
‘It has come to my ears,’ she went on, ‘that you are seen in strange company. In fact, General Schulkoff, your godfather, came in here only yesterday greatly troubled to tell me that already there is suspicion of you. You are known to have been with a certain Shonski who has twice been in prison because of his dangerous views. I told your godfather that you were young and restless and merely seeking excitement.’ She paused and looked steadily at her son. He returned her gaze gravely; the fan dropped to his knees,
‘Shonski,’ he said slowly, ‘is my greatest friend. I would die for him.’
‘Do you know that he is suspected of being a Nihilist?’
Michael was very pale as he replied, ‘I too, Mother, am a Nihilist.’
‘If I believed you, Michael, I would kill you here in this room with my own hands so that no one else would know your shame.’
There was a long silence except for the confused ticking of clocks, of which there were more than a dozen in the room. Michael rose and looked down from the height of his six feet three to the tiny woman in the chair.
‘It is true, Mother, and I have no right to be living under this roof. I will go now.’ He turned and strode swiftly from the room.
An hour later he was in Shonski’s attic. The man was lying almost naked on a rotting straw bed. He scarcely turned his eyes when Michael entered.
‘I have told them, Gregor.’
‘It was time,’ said the other sternly. ‘The comrades could not trust you while your soul was divided.’
‘Talk to me, Gregor,’ pleaded the boy. ‘I don’t understand myself yet. One moment I am lifted to the clouds by the thought of the brotherhood of man which we shall bring about. The next I am cast down because of all the beautiful in the old which must die.’
Shonski looked with something like affection at Michael’s bent head. ' You are young,’ he said. ‘Your eyes cannot bear the light. You have not seen the beauty of humanity. Humanity as it may be when men shall dare to stand erect, look into themselves instead of into the heavens, dare to seize what they dare to dream, and proudly know no strength but their own. What beauty is there in our present orderwith its sufferings, its inequalities, its incredible cruelties, but the iridescence of decay?’
Michael listened with all his soul while Shonski, lying naked and dirty upon his bed, preached the godhood of man. Presently he turned and looked into the young man’s shining eyes and fever-burning cheeks. ‘ I have given you strong wine to drink, my wolf cub. Now I must sleep. You shall give me some money, for I shall presently want to eat,’ and he rolled over with his face to the wall.
Michael went out into the afternoon sunlight, his head whirling, and, hardly conscious of where he was going, turned his steps to the flower market. The square was nearly empty and the women were gathering their bundles together. He saw Dina immediately where she was standing alone, one finger on her curving lips, her brows a little bent. He thought of an archaic statue from the Greek which stood in the entrance hall to the museum. Dina had the same repose and sufficience. He came swiftly to her side and picked up the wicker basket at her feet. She looked at him in surprise. The university students sometimes followed her home, but none of them had ever offered to carry her basket. She even felt a little scornful of the young man beside her; nevertheless she smiled, and he followed her, reading in her calm acceptance of his presence the untroubled strength Shonski had glorified in his writings. A thousand words trembled on his lips, and Michael would have liked to pour out his soul to her, lighting in her the flame Shonski had kindled in him, but lie was awed by her stillness, and they walked in silence side by side along the hot dusty road.
Presently the fastening of her shoe became loose and she stooped to tighten it. The boy was on his knees in an instant, and as she straightened slowly he flung back his head and a long searching look passed between them. How gloriously the black hair swept back from her serene brow, and how superb her shoulders and deep bosom. He caught her hands in his. ‘Dina,’ he said tremulously, ‘you must marry me.’ At the expression of utter amazement in her eyes he laughed triumphantly, and, feeling strong and confident, led her to the roadside bank and made her sit beside him. Smell of sun-warmed grass, pungent reek of weeds, should he ever forget them? . . .
Suddenly the clangor of bells from a near-by steeple broke in on his memories. Michael rubbed his eyes. The past had become too real, and in the light of later years too bitterly ironic, He rose stiffly. The square was deserted and half of it lay in shadow.
He put his cap on his head and wandered on again, but he felt now as though a door were closing between himself and these countrymen of his, and that those whom he passed eyed him with hostility, as they might a foreigner. His cheap, ready-made American suit looked out of place amid the studied negligence of the dress about him, and on an impulse he went into a shop and bought a red handkerchief, intending to knot it about his neck. Rut with the clerk’s eyes curiously upon him he could not, and, stuffing it hastily into his pocket, went out into the street again, and bent his head that, he might not meet the glances of the passers-by.
It was nearing supper time, and the people were coming home. A rich odor of stew floated on the air, and from opened windows came the clatter of pots and the shrill voices of women in dispute over the stoves. But Michael did not lift his eyes from the hurrying feet. His whole body ached with the wish that one such pair would pause and fall into step beside his own.
‘I always insist on an egg with my supper.’ A harsh authoritative voice broke distinct from the confusion of sound. Michael looked up with a start. It was Bransk, and with him a fat little man who trotted at his heels. The minister paused long enough to kick into the gutter a piece of tin which was lying on the pavement. Michael could have touched his sleeve, and half reached out his hand, then drew it back quickly. Bransk and his companion passed on.
Michael moved wearily, and his lagging steps wove themselves into a refrain. One, two, three, four, forty years. Gregor, Stefan, Leon. Dina, Martha, Peter.
The houses became fewer and the street almost deserted. He ventured to raise his eyes again, and looked up. Before him rose a little hill on which grew a fewwind-bent trees. Seeding grasses rippled under the breeze and a few late flowers starred the turf. He knew it as well as he had known the house in which he was born. As a little child he had clambered breathlessly up it, clinging to the skirts of his father’s military cloak. He had played among the rocks, and later, as a young man hot with love of mankind, had wandered alone or with a friend along its paths.
He left the road and followed a trail which wound up beside the birches, till he found a smooth hollow, still warm with the glow of the evening sun, and sank down to rest. In the long sloping rays the city spread out at his feet was very beautiful with its gilded domes and slender needle spires. From a neighboring hill came the sound of singing, and below him in a field a group of children were shouting and playing. In the clear yellow light the houses seemed near enough to touch. His whole spirit was caught up in a flame of love, and he stretched out his arms in passionate longing to the unconscious millions below him, as though by that gesture he would draw them to himself. Rut the glow faded on the roofs, and the evening mists settled like a veil over the capital. Michael remained motionless in the gathering gloom, brooding above the promised land which he might look upon but never enter.
He was aroused presently by a voice that mumbled something in his ear. Looking up, he saw a beggar whom he remembered to have passed in the streets. The man was dirty and unshaven, and his yellow eyes were bloodshot, but he spoke in fairly correct English. When Michael answered him in his own tongue the man drew back and would have taken himself off, but the other motioned him to sit down.
‘You shall sit with me awhile. I need company.’
The beggar seated himself at a little distance, and both men gazed down upon the city, where lights were beginning to prick the dusk. From the great barracks spread out at their feet came the sound of a bugle call. The beggar raised his head.
“Twelve years ago I was an officer in those barracks. I can see where my room used to be.’
Michael took a few small coins from his pocket. ’This is all that I have left ,’ he said, almost gayly, ‘ but let us dine together.’ And he rose and took the beggar’s arm.