“I fear that we shall have one too, some day,” the count said, “unless the serfs are emancipated. The people are terribly ignorant, but even among them some sort of enlightenment is going on, and as they know better they will refuse to live and to work as mere beasts of burden.”
“Will they be better off, sir, than before?” Dick Hawtry asked. “I have heard my father say that the negroes in the West Indian islands are worse off than they were in the days when they were slaves. They will not work except just enough to procure themselves means of living, and they spend the rest of their lives lying about and smoking.”
“It would no doubt be the same thing here,” the count said, “for a time. The Russian peasant is naturally extremely ignorant and extremely fond of ‘vodka.’ Probably at first he would be far worse off than at present. He would be content to earn enough to live and to get drunk upon, and wide tracts of land would remain untilled. But it is of the future we must think; and who can doubt that in the future, Russia, with a free people and free institutions, with her immense resources and enormous population, must become the grandest empire on earth?”
A SUSPECTED HOUSEHOLD
Cheerful though their hosts were, the midshipmen could see that a cloud of anxiety hung over them. To be “suspected” in Russia is equivalent to being condemned. Secret police spies in the very bosom of the household may be sending denunciations. The man who meets you and shakes hands with you in the street may have reported on your conduct. The letters you write are opened, those you should receive stopped in the post. At any moment the agent of the authorities may appear and conduct you to a prison which you may leave only for the long journey to Siberia.
Count Preskoff did not think that matters had yet reached this point. He was in disgrace at court, and had enemies who would injure him to the utmost with the emperor, but he believed that no steps would be taken until Count Smerskoff had received his final refusal of Katinka’s hand. He had already once proposed for it, but would not consider the answer which her father then gave him as final.
“I cannot accept your refusal, count,” he had said. “The marriage would be for the advantage of all parties concerned. My family is, as you are aware, not without influence at court, and they would, were I the husband of your daughter, do all in their power to incline the emperor favorably towards you; while, were I rejected, they would probably view your refusal to accept my offers as a slight to the family, and resent it accordingly. I cannot but think that when you have given the matter calm consideration, you will see the advantages which such an alliance would offer. I shall therefore do myself the honor to renew my proposals at some future date.”
This conversation took place in the beginning of December; Count Preskoff had shortly afterwards left for his estates in the north, and he felt sure that upon his return the subject would be renewed, and that upon his announcement of his continued determination to refuse his daughter’s hand to this pressing suitor, the latter would use every means in his power to ruin him, and that the cloud which had so long threatened would burst over his head.