第17章 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.(17)
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!
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.