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"You can die with him if you like," said Vaninka, accompanying the proposal with a smile which showed she would not have been sorry if Annouschka had carried sisterly affection to that length.
"But look at the fire, madam-the fire!"
"Let us go, then," said Vaninka; and, dragging out the heart-broken girl, she locked the door behind her and threw the key far away into the snow.
"In the name of Heaven," said Annouschka, "let us go home quickly: I cannot gaze upon this awful sight!"
"No, let us stay here!" said Vaninka, holding her back with a grasp of almost masculine strength. "Let us stay until the house falls in on them, so that we may be certain that not one of them escapes."
"Oh, my G.o.d!" cried Annouschka, falling on her knees, "have mercy upon my poor brother, for death will hurry him unprepared into Thy presence."
"Yes, yes, pray; that is right," said Vaninka. "I wish to destroy their bodies, not their souls."
Vaninka stood motionless, her arms crossed, brilliantly lit up by the flames, while her attendant prayed. The fire did not last long: the house was wooden, with the crevices filled with oak.u.m, like all those of Russian peasants, so that the flames, creeping out at the four corners, soon made great headway, and, fanned by the wind, spread rapidly to all parts of the building. Vaninka followed the progress of the fire with blazing eyes, fearing to see some half-burnt spectral shape rush out of the flames. At last the roof fell in, and Vaninka, relieved of all fear, then at last made her way to the general's house, into which the two women entered without being seen, thanks to the permission Annouschka had to go out at any hour of the day or night.
The next morning the sole topic of conversation in St. Petersburg was the fire at the Red House. Four half-consumed corpses were dug out from beneath the ruins, and as three of the general's slaves were missing, he had no doubt that the unrecognisable bodies were those of Ivan, Daniel, and Alexis: as for the fourth, it was certainly that of Gregory.
The cause of the fire remained a secret from everyone: the house was solitary, and the snowstorm so violent that n.o.body had met the two women on the deserted road. Vaninka was sure of her maid. Her secret then had perished with Ivan. But now remorse took the place of fear: the young girl who was so pitiless and inflexible in the execution of the deed quailed at its remembrance. It seemed to her that by revealing the secret of her crime to a priest, she would be relieved of her terrible burden. She therefore sought a confessor renowned for his lofty charity, and, under the seal of confession, told him all. The priest was horrified by the story. Divine mercy is boundless, but human forgiveness has its limits. He refused Vaninka the absolution she asked. This refusal was terrible: it would banish Vaninka from the Holy Table; this banishment would be noticed, and could not fail to be attributed to some unheard-of and secret crime. Vaninka fell at the feet of the priest, and in the name of her father, who would be disgraced by her shame, begged him to mitigate the rigour of this sentence.
The confessor reflected deeply, then thought he had found a way to obviate such consequences. It was that Vaninka should approach the Holy Table with the other young girls; the priest would stop before her as before all the others, but only say to her, "Pray and weep"; the congregation, deceived by this, would think that she had received the Sacrament like her companions. This was all that Vaninka could obtain.
This confession took place about seven o'clock in the evening, and the solitude of the church, added to the darkness of night, had given it a still more awful character. The confessor returned home, pale and trembling. His wife Elizabeth was waiting for him alone. She had just put her little daughter Arina, who was eight years old, to bed in an adjoining room. When she saw her husband, she uttered a cry of terror, so changed and haggard was his appearance. The confessor tried to rea.s.sure her, but his trembling voice only increased her alarm. She asked the cause of his agitation; the confessor refused to tell her.
Elizabeth had heard the evening before that her mother was ill; she thought that her husband had received some bad news. The day was Monday, which is considered an unlucky day among the Russians, and, going out that day, Elizabeth had met a man in mourning; these omens were too numerous and too strong not to portend misfortune.
Elizabeth burst into tears, and cried out, "My mother is dead!"
The priest in vain tried to rea.s.sure her by telling her that his agitation was not due to that. The poor woman, dominated by one idea, made no response to his protestations but this everlasting cry, "My mother is dead!"
Then, to bring her to reason, the confessor told her that his emotion was due to the avowal of a crime which he had just heard in the confessional. But Elizabeth shook her head: it was a trick, she said, to hide from her the sorrow which had fallen upon her. Her agony, instead of calming, became more violent; her tears ceased to flow, and were followed by hysterics. The priest then made her swear to keep the secret, and the sanct.i.ty of the confession was betrayed.
Little Arina had awakened at Elizabeth's cries, and being disturbed and at the same time curious as to what her parents were doing, she got up, went to listen at the door, and heard all.
The day for the Communion came; the church of St. Simeon was crowded.
Vaninka came to kneel at the railing of the choir. Behind her was her father and his aides-de-camp, and behind them their servants.
Arina was also in the church with her mother. The inquisitive child wished to see Vaninka, whose name she had heard p.r.o.nounced that terrible night, when her father had failed in the first and most sacred of the duties imposed on a priest. While her mother was praying, she left her chair and glided among the worshippers, nearly as far as the railing.
But when she had arrived there, she was stopped by the group of the general's servants. But Arina had not come so far to be, stopped so easily: she tried to push between them, but they opposed her; she persisted, and one of them pushed her roughly back. The child fell, struck her head against a seat, and got up bleeding and crying, "You are very proud for a slave. Is it because you belong to the great lady who burnt the Red House?"
These words, uttered in a loud voice, in the midst of the silence which preceded, the sacred ceremony, were heard by everyone. They were answered by a shriek. Vaninka had fainted. The next day the general, at the feet of Paul, recounted to him, as his sovereign and judge, the whole terrible story, which Vaninka, crushed by her long struggle, had at last revealed to him, at night, after the scene in the church.
The emperor remained for a moment in thought at the end of this strange confession; then, getting up from the chair where he had been sitting while the miserable father told his story, he went to a bureau, and wrote on a sheet of paper the following sentence:
"The priest having violated what should have been inviolable, the secrets of the confessional, is exiled to Siberia and deprived of his priestly office. His wife will follow him: she is to be blamed for not having respected his character as a minister of the altar. The little girl will not leave her parents.
"Annouschka, the attendant, will also go to Siberia for not having made known to her master his daughter's conduct.
"I preserve all my esteem for the general, and I mourn with him for the deadly blow which has struck him.
"As for Vaninka, I know of no punishment which can be inflicted upon her. I only see in her the daughter of a brave soldier, whose whole life has been devoted to the service of his country. Besides, the extraordinary way in which the crime was discovered, seems to place the culprit beyond the limits of my severity. I leave her punishment in her own hands. If I understand her character, if any feeling of dignity remains to her, her heart and her remorse will show her the path she ought to follow."
Paul handed the paper open to the general, ordering him to take it to Count Pahlen, the governor of St. Petersburg.
On the following day the emperor's orders were carried out.
Vaninka went into a convent, where towards the end of the same year she died of shame and grief.
The general found the death he sought on the field of Austerlitz.