Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars by Maurice Dekobra (Melville House 1925)

"Well! Well! Nobody is eavesdropping . . ."

"Are you sure there are no wires hidden under the rug?" asked Lady Diana.

Varichkine made a reassuring gesture.

"I have taken every precaution. The man who is serving us is also in the service of my private agents, although the valet, I discovered yesterday, is in the employ of Madam Mouravieff."

"Isn't that amusing! You each have your special army of spies?"

"It's absolutely necessary. You will not be surprised, Lady Wynham, to learn that you are not exactly persona gratissima in Madam Mouravieff's eyes and that, consequently, she employs, in your case, the usual procedure of our good city of Moscow."

"Which is the capital of the spy system, if I am not misinformed."

"Exactly. The Tcheka without spies would be a newly married woman without her husband—or a Soviet without an executioner!"

I poured out some Rudesheimer for Varichkine, at the same time asking him to explain his jest.

"Why it's perfectly obvious, old fellow. We don't pretend for an instant that the Soviet Government is an expression of the will of the majority of the Russian people. When your French and English communist papers comment on the demands of Russian public opinion, they are speaking of the opinion of an extremely active but very small minority. With us, the freedom of the press, along with the other sorts of freedom, has not existed since nineteen-eighteen, and it's a good thing because liberty is as injurious for a race of people as it is for women."

Lady Diana listened attentively to these words.

"But," she asked, "how can you endure an atmosphere of perpetual espionage?"
Varichkine offered her one of his best cigarettes, lighted it for her with extreme grace, and in his gentlest tone, replied:

"My dear Lady Wynham, it's a matter of habit, I might say, even an acquired taste. Our Tcheka, which is a kind of political Committee of Surveillance, plays the rôle of a doctor whose duty it is to tap the arteries of our citizens at every hour of the day and night. Consequently, it has in its employ some thousands of benevolent nurses, who apply the stethoscope to the door, listen to the conversation and diagnose the malady."

"One is, then, at the mercy of the denunciations of these people, who, I presume, are not round-shouldered from an excess of honesty. But who would accept such degrading work?"

"Pardoned speculators, acquitted murderers, and policemen of the days of Czarism, who thus buy their personal safety. Thanks to their revelations, we are able to crush all the attempts at counter-revolution, which state of affairs, for a régime like ours, is the beginning of real development."

"And yet the result must be quantities of unjust accusations, of delations inspired by vengeance and of false reports."

"Most assuredly! And as anyone who is accused of counter-revolution, even if there is no proof, is automatically condemned to death, those innocent people end up in the dungeons of the Loubianka. But all that is of no importance for it is better to shoot ten innocent people than to let one dangerous agitator escape."

Lady Diana's white shoulders trembled slightly. She looked at Varichkine in such a way as to make him regret his cynical avowal. Very gently, just as one comforts a frightened child with kind words, he added:

"But remember, Lady Wynham, that the Red Peril has undoubtedly already made more victims than it ever will in the future. It is always best to forget the past. Dead people are soon forgotten, you know. Between us, tell me if the last European rulers are still thinking about the massacre of the Czar and his family? Does the tragic fate of that lost potentate prevent the King of Spain from the mad pursuit of pleasure, or the Prince of Wales from disguising himself at Masquerade Balls? All right, then don't be more of a royalist than the kings, those living fossils of a worthless age, and don't bother yourself about the sad destiny of a few thousand aristocrats or ordinary people, who would soon have died of paralysis or appendicitis. My dear friend, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, are great names in the history of France. My dear Lady Wynham, you aren't ashamed, are you, of being the compatriot of Cromwell, who caused the head of your king Charles the First to be cut from his shoulders? Explain to me how the axe or the guillotine are superior to the machine-gun of our executioners. You say we have killed more people. Yes, but there are more than a hundred million Russians. The proportion of the blood shed remains approximately the same. And, after all, we are only imitating the Americans."

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