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Beauty and The Beast(Chapter12)

2006-08-22 23:04

  Chapter XII.

  Alas! the proud predictions of Prince Alexis, and the protection of the sacred amulet, were alike unavailing. The babe sickened, wasted away, and died in less than two months after its birth. There was great and genuine sorrow among the serfs of Kinesma. Each had received a shining ruble of silver at the christening; and, moreover, they were now beginning to appreciate the milder regime of their lord, which this blow might suddenly terminate. Sorrow, in such natures as his, exasperates instead of chastening: they knew him well enough to recognize the danger.

  At first the old man's grief appeared to be of a stubborn, harmless nature. As soon as the funeral ceremonies were over he betook himself to his bed, and there lay for two days and nights, without eating a morsel of food. The poor Princess Helena, almost prostrated by the blow, mourned alone, or with Boris, in her own apartments. Her influence, no longer kept alive by her constant presence, as formerly, began to decline. When the old Prince aroused somewhat from his stupor, it was not meat that he demanded, but drink; and he drank to angry excess. Day after day the habit resumed its ancient sway, and the whip and the wild-beast yell returned with it. The serfs even began to tremble as they never had done, so long as his vices were simply those of a strong man; for now a fiendish element seemed to be slowly creeping in. He became horribly profane: they shuddered when he cursed the venerable Metropolitan of Moscow, declaring that the old sinner had deliberately killed his grandson, by sending to him, instead of the true cross of the Saviour, a piece of the tree to which the impenitent thief was nailed.

  Boris would have spared his wife the knowledge of this miserable relapse, in her present sorrow, but the information soon reached her in other ways. She saw the necessity of regaining, by a powerful effort, what she had lost. She therefore took her accustomed place at the table, and resumed her inspection of household matters. Prince Alexis, as if determined to cast off the yoke which her beauty and gentleness had laid upon him, avoided looking at her face or speaking to her, as much as possible: when he did so, his manner was cold and unfriendly. During her few days of sad retirement he had brought back the bear Razboi and the idiot to his table, and vodki was habitually poured out to him and his favorite serfs in such a measure that the nights became hideous with drunken tumult.

  The Princess Helena felt that her beauty no longer possessed the potency of its first surprise. It must now be a contest of nature with nature, spiritual with animal power. The struggle would be perilous, she foresaw, but she did not shrink; she rather sought the earliest occasion to provoke it.

  That occasion came. Some slight disappointment brought on one of the old paroxysms of rage, and the ox-like bellow of Prince Alexis rang through the castle. Boris was absent, but Helena delayed not a moment to venture into his father's presence. She found him in a hall over-looking the court-yard, with his terrible whip in his hand, giving orders for the brutal punishment of some scores of serfs. The sight of her, coming thus unexpectedly upon him, did not seem to produce the least effect.

  "Father!" she cried, in an earnest, piteous tone, "what is it you do?"

  "Away, witch!" he yelled. "I am the master in Kinesma, not thou! Away, or——"

  The fierceness with which he swung and cracked the whip was more threatening than any words. Perhaps she grew a shade paler, perhaps her hands were tightly clasped in order that they might not tremble; but she did not flinch from the encounter. She moved a step nearer, fixed her gaze upon his flashing eyes, and said, in a low, firm voice——

  "It is true, father, you are master here. It is easy to rule over those poor, submissive slaves. But you are not master over yourself; you are lashed and trampled upon by evil passions, and as much a slave as any of these. Be not weak, my father, but strong!"

  An expression of bewilderment came into his face. No such words had ever before been addressed to him, and he knew not how to reply to them. The Princess Helena followed up the effect——she was not sure that it was an advantage——by an appeal to the simple, childish nature which she believed to exist under his ferocious exterior. For a minute it seemed as if she were about to re-establish her ascendancy: then the stubborn resistance of the beast returned.

  Among the portraits in the hall was one of the deceased Princess Martha. Pointing to this, Helena cried——

  "See, my father! here are the features of your sainted wife! Think that she looks down from her place among the blessed, sees you, listens to your words, prays that your hard heart may be softened! Remember her last farewell to you on earth, her hope of meeting you——"

  A cry of savage wrath checked her. Stretching one huge, bony hand, as if to close her lips, trembling with rage and pain, livid and convulsed in every feature of his face, Prince Alexis reversed the whip in his right hand, and weighed its thick, heavy butt for one crashing, fatal blow. Life and death were evenly balanced. For an instant the Princess became deadly pale, and a sickening fear shot through her heart. She could not understand the effect of her words: her mind was paralyzed, and what followed came without her conscious volition.

  Not retreating a step, not removing her eyes from the terrible picture before her, she suddenly opened her lips and sang. Her voice of exquisite purity, power, and sweetness, filled the old hall and overflowed it, throbbing in scarcely weakened vibrations through court-yard and castle. The melody was a prayer——the cry of a tortured heart for pardon and repose; and she sang it with almost supernatural expression. Every sound in the castle was hushed: the serfs outside knelt and uncovered their heads.

  The Princess could never afterwards describe, or more than dimly recall, the exaltation of that moment. She sang in an inspired trance: from the utterance of the first note the horror of the imminent fate sank out of sight. Her eyes were fixed upon the convulsed face, but she beheld it not: all the concentrated forces of her life flowed into the music. She remembered, however, that Prince Alexis looked alternately from her face to the portrait of his wife; that he at last shuddered and grew pale; and that, when with the closing note her own strength suddenly dissolved, he groaned and fell upon the floor.

  She sat down beside him, and took his head upon her lap. For a long time he was silent, only shivering as if in fever.

  "Father!" she finally whispered, "let me take you away!"

  He sat up on the floor and looked around; but as his eyes encountered the portrait, he gave a loud howl and covered his face with his hands.

  "She turns her head!" he cried. "Take her away,——she follows me with her eyes! Paint her head black, and cover it up!"

  With some difficulty he was borne to his bed, but he would not rest until assured that his orders had been obeyed, and the painting covered for the time with a coat of lamp-black. A low, prolonged attack of fever followed, during which the presence of Helena was indispensable to his comfort. She ventured to leave the room only while he slept. He was like a child in her hands; and when she commended his patience or his good resolutions, his face beamed with joy and gratitude. He determined (in good faith, this time) to enter a monastery and devote the rest of his life to pious works.

  But, even after his recovery, he was still too weak and dependent on his children's attentions to carry out this resolution. He banished from the castle all those of his poor relations who were unable to drink vodki in moderation; he kept careful watch over his serfs, and those who became intoxicated (unless they concealed the fact in the stables and outhouses) were severely punished: all excess disappeared, and a reign of peace and gentleness descended upon Kinesma.

  In another year another Alexis was born, and lived, and soon grew strong enough to give his grandfather the greatest satisfaction he had ever known in his life, by tugging at his gray locks, and digging the small fingers into his tamed and merry eyes. Many years after Prince Alexis was dead the serfs used to relate how they had seen him, in the bright summer afternoons, asleep in his armchair on the balcony, with the rosy babe asleep on his bosom, and the slumber-flag waving over both.

  Legends of the Prince's hunts, reisaks, and brutal revels are still current along the Volga; but they are now linked to fairer and more gracious stories; and the free Russian farmers (no longer serfs) are never tired of relating incidents of the beauty, the courage, the benevolence, and the saintly piety of the Good Lady of Kinesma.

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