Legends of Lampidosa
Collected by a Recluse
“Perverse, deceitful, inconstant woman! Mahomet judged wisely when he told his followers there could be none with souls!….” Such were the ruminations of Count Demetrius, as he began his journey from St. Petersburgh to the desolate fortress Schlusselburgh. He had devoted the flower of his youth and the full vigour of his talents to the service of Empress Catharine, whose gracious demeanour had excited him to expect a reward far more splendid then the government of a solitary castle. But it contained her kinsman, Iwan of Mechlenburgh, whose claims to the Russian throne, derived from his great aunt, the Empress Anna Iwanowna, were sufficient to collect partisans, and furnish a rallying point to sedition. Policy could not have selected a fitter guard for this important personage than Count Demetrius, whose high principles of loyal faith insured his integrity, while his personal attachment to the empress seemed sufficient to stifle those finer feelings of humanity which might have revolted from his task. With many pangs, arising from that half-satisfied attachment and those half-stifled feelings, the Count reached Schlusselburgh, and, according to his instructions opened the sealed orders of the empress. Though he trembled at their import, and blushed though alone, his pride was soothed by the extensive trust reposed in his courage and fidelity: his ambition promised itself a high reward; and that love which affords a ready excuse to the vanity from whence it springs, gave a brilliant colouring to its errors.
Notwithstanding the devout obedience which Demetrius chose to owe his sovereign, he entered the presence of his prisoner Iwan with sensations very unlike conscious rectitude. The prince, though only in his twentieth year, viewed his new gaoler with an air of stern contempt, and a piercing glance which probably gained force from the almost feminine beauty of the face from whence it lightened. That glance was sufficient to inform Iwan how little rigour could be feared from Demetrius, and how much his heart was conscious of the crime his ambition excused. They exchanged only a few words; but though each feared to trust the other, both felt a beginning of friendship. The new governor retired to his bed-chamber with a determination to atone for the injustice of Iwan’s imprisonment by the gentleness of its method.
The apartment assigned to Iwan was deep-sunk under the strongest tower of the fortress, and received light from a narrow window which the water of the moat almost reached. His food and apparel were always conveyed to him by the governor himself, who descended to his chamber through long intricate windings, among vaults and recesses known to no other inhabitant of the fortress, except a Cossack soldier, whose stubborn zeal and almost giant strength had advanced him to the important station of sentinel at the prince’s door. There he watched night and day, sleeping only during the very few hours which the governor spent every morning with his prisoner. When the air was bland and the moon brilliant, the unfortunate Iwan sometimes accompanied Demetrius to a secluded part of the garden, and enjoyed the luxuries of exercise and light.
It was the noon of a delicious night, when the Count, now happiest in his prisoner’s society, descended to offer him a promenade. He unbarred the iron door gently as usual, and, supposing him asleep, drew back the curtain of his couch to awaken him. The couch, the chamber was vacant!—Demetrius rushed out, and saw the Cossack sentinel standing with his usual vacant gaze of sullen indifference. “Follow me, Basil!” he exclaimed—“our prisoner has escaped.”—The Cossack answered only by trimming his torch, and unsheathing his large poignard. Demetrius traversed every recess in the subterranean labyrinth till he reached the remnant of a stair-case half-choaked with fallen stones. “Here is an outlet,” said the governor; “let us search round before we give alarm.” The Cossack hewed a way among brambles and broken granite, till they found themselves in a rude hut, which seemed the depository of a woodman’s stores. Embers of a fire gleamed in a corner; an axe, a few traces of provisions, lay near it, and some loose hurdles filled the entrance. The governor’s eager survey informed him it had no living inhabitant—“We are too late!—but my bugle can alarm the garrison.”—The Cossack’s strong arm wrested it from him,—and his ferocious smile shewed his connivance in the prisoner’s escape. Snatching up the woodman’s axe, Demetrius levelled a deadly blow at the treacheous sentinel’s head, but his own throat was seized with the force of determined vengeance, and the struggle would have been short, had not a friendly hand grasped the Cossack’s foot. A boy sleeping among the hurdles in the hut, had been awakened by their contest, and now crept forward to save the victim. While with one hand he held the murderer’s leg, with the other he gave Demetrius the sword which had been snatched from his grasp, and thrown on the ground. The Cossack received it in his breast, and expired, muttering execrations. Demetrius caught the young stranger’s arm as he attempted to hide himself again, and demanded his name.—“Alexis!” said the poor youth, trembling—“I came here to sleep after gathering wood all day.”—Demetrius surveyed him eagerly, and a propitious thought arose. Iwan’s escape had been discovered by none but himself; and the Cossack, probably its sole abettor, now lay lifeless. This young woodman resembled the prince in stature and complexion; might he not be safely substituted?—Grasping his hand, and fixing his eyes with all their dazzling fire upon him, Demetrius exacted an oath of secrecy.—“I never swear,” replied the forest-boy, “but I speak truth.”—The governor’s wavering purpose was fixed by this expression of courageous honesty. “My safety and the state’s requires me to detain you, but you cannot refuse to preserve a life for which you have already risked your own. Remain here without resistance, act according to my dictates, and you shall represent a prince.”—Either fascinated by this splendid but ambiguous promise, or conscious of his dependence on the governor’s mercy, Alexis silently kissed his unsheathed sabre, as a token of submission. Demetrius, hastily throwing the loose hurdles on his fallen enemy, bound his scarf over the young forester’s eyes, and led him through the subterranean vaults of Schlusselburgh, to the chamber once occupied by Prince Iwan. “Here, Alexis,” said he, “you must remain while my sovereign’s safety requires the nation to believe that her rival is still in my custody. No one visits this chamber except myself, and both our lives depend on your discretion.” Alexis looked round the desolate prison with an instinctive shudder, and a timid glance at Demetrius. There was a reproach in that glance so penetrating, yet so mild, that all the selfishness and craft learned in the school of political ambition sunk under it. “I swear,” said Demetrius, “never to abandon your safety, though it should cost my own.”—“God hears you!” replied the prisoner; and the oath was registered in the speaker’s heart.
In the solitude of his own apartment, Demetrius reviewed all the possible consequences of this eventful night, and discovered new motives to applaud his expedient. Chance had given to the young woodman such striking resemblance to the fugitive prince, that the real Iwan might by plausible pronounced an impostor, should he ever venture to disturb the peace of Russia: of if the counterfeit was proved, Demetrius might contrive to appear the dupe, and not the abettor. In every way Alexis seemed to secure the best advantage to the empress and her agent: but to render his semblance complete, the governor saw the necessity of giving his mind a degree of cultivation equal to Iwan’s, if possible. For this purpose he visited him daily, and found his attention willing, though his capacity seemed limited. He had spent his childhood, Alexis said, in the forest near Schlusselburgh, and knew nothing except his native language: but Demetrius was a patient and assiduous instructor till his pupil acquired the rudiments of Latin, and could speak fluently in polished French. History, at least whenever it resembled romance, was eagerly learned by the young student; and his remarks on the policy of courts shewed an instinctive shrewdness which almost resembled what is called espieglerie. But it was blended with simplicity so demure, and good-humour so fascinating, that Demetrius almost thought it better than any he had seen before. The escape of the real Iwan seemed a secret wholly unsuspected, and the governor’s labours to educate his representative became at length more necessary as the solace of his solitude than as means to ensure his safety. Conscious how much he owed to the patient submission of Alexis, his native sense of justice found some satisfaction in ameliorating it by paternal kindness. Once, when an intercourse of three years’ length had established more familiarity, Alexis suddenly said, “You have told me for what purpose governments were created and societies leagued together, but you never mention for what purpose man himself exists!”—Demetrius was silent in surprise and secret shame: at length he replied, “At least two thousand sages have given us many systems, but every man has his best instructor in his heart: let every one pursue his own idea of pleasure, and he fulfils the sole purpose of his existence.”—“You once shewed me,” answered Alexis, “a clear and distince purpose for every class of animal and vegetable creation; was the great Being less wise when he made man?”—Angry at his own incompetent reasons, Demetrius retorted spleenfully—“I have been tempted to believe it since I have found one half of the world created to degrade and deceive the other. Yet we call that half the loveliest!—You will thank me at some period, Alexis, for having secluded you so long from its temptations.”—His pupil, smiling archly, replied, “Tell me by what art this strange authority is acquired, that I may avoid it; or rather explain why men allow themselves to be subdued by women, if they possess superior power and wisdom.”—Demetrius hesitated at this unforeseen question, and answered, in a doubtful tone, “You never could learn metaphysics, Alexis, and I must suit my reason to your comprehension. Our power is real, and therefore undisguised; haughty, and perhaps too rigid; women steal theirs, and can only preserve it by artifice, blandishments, and seeming submission. The very strength of our superiority excites them to rebel; and the softness of their usurpation prevents us from resisting.”—Alexis smiled again, as he rejoined. “You have explained the secret, Count! but why should not lawful power borrow the graces which render even usurpers amiable? And is it very certain that women govern when men say they are subdued?—If they are swayed only by artifice and blandishment, their vanity not their love degrades them. They delight in the worship, not the worshipper, and are most selfish when they seem to sacrifice themselves.”
These truths were not new, but Demetrius had never been so well disposed to hear them. When he reviewed the past, he could not avoid confessing to his own heart, that all the errors he had chosen to ascribe to the Empress Catharine’s attractions, had been instigated by self-love or ambition. And when he remembered the pupil’s first question, he felt that pleasure, if it was indeed the privileged purpose of his existence, had been misunderstood or unsuccessfully pursued. More willing to prejudice Alexis than to confess his own mistakes, he have him long and vehement cautions against the selfishness, frivolity, and deceit of women, to whom he attributed all the intrigues of courts and the perplexities of statesmen. Alexis treasured his precepts with grateful attention, though the first motive of the Count’s conduct had been self-interest. But the affection which grew in Demetrius for his prisoner shewed how naturally men love whatever proves and acknowledges their superiority. The usual bland and benificent influence of such affections gradually recalled the festivity of his temper and the gentler graces of his manners. He saw in the improved talents of the young forester something which he prized, because it seemed his own creation; and admired the native simplicity of his character as men admire the rose, not merely for its delicate glow, but for the modest elegance of the folds which envelope it. Perhaps those mysterious folds render it the best emblem of that beauty which always decays when fully displayed.
The third year of the supposed Iwan’s imprisonment ended without detection, or any change, except in the governor himself. His visits became shorter and less frequent; his conversation vague and reserved. Alexis endeavoured to requite his former kindness by unwearied efforts to amuse him, but his pencil and flageolet obtained no regard; and his indirect request for farther aid in the studies he had begun, was almost petulantly chidden. During one of these brief and cheerless visits, Alexis said, “You have made me a musician and painter; and if you had found talents, would have raised me into a politician and a philosopher: but in one science I was a proficient without your aid.”—“In what?” asked the governor, starting from a fit of gloomy abstraction.—“In physiognomy,” replied Alexis, “or I would not have trusted your promise in the woodman’s hut, nor your honour now, when it is so strongly assailed.”—The Count’s fixed eye expressed the deepest consciousness and surprise, while Alexis added, “Hear the extent of my science!—You have another prisoner in this fortress. Your secret instructions are to keep her unseen by your garrison, and to gain her confidence by every possible blandishment. Above all, you are required to prevent Prince Iwan from discovering that the Princess Sophia, his only sister, is an inmate here.”—“There are traitors in my garrison, then!” replied the governor, sternly.—“Several, my lord!—but the greatest, perhaps, is your own heart. Dare you be convinced?”
It requires great courage or great skill to undeceive self-love, and still greater courage to be undeceived. But Alexis was right when he estimated his friend’s candour by his own, and expected the most difficult and generous concession. The Count gave him his hand as he answered—“You are right: the Princess Sophia was brought here six months since by the agents of her brother’s enemy, who knows that her pretensions may be dangerous. But though I no longer love the empress, I am her faithful officer, and I demand the source of your information. Shew me the errors of my judgment, and it will be no pain to correct them.”
Alexis smiled as he pointed to a curtained recess in his prison, and requested Demetrius to conceal himself behind it. After a very short interval of profound silence, the door of which Demetrius believed he possessed the only master key was gently opened, and a female entered muffled in a long dark cloak, and disguised by a mask exactly resembling Alexis, who met his visitor with a gracious air.—“Ah, prince!” said a most enchanting voice, “how strange that misery should have so few friends!—I have tried all the influence of smiles and flattery on your gaoler, but he will not connive at your escape. Let us have patience, however, and his blind zeal will defeat itself. For your sake I act the part of a captive princess, and in due time he shall find I can rescue a prince.”—“For what purpose,” replied Alexis, “do you cover your fair face with an imitation of one so inferior?”—“Speak low, and listen! Menzikoff, your adherent, comes to-night with a troop of horse to surprise the fortress. This cloak and vest, exactly resembling yours, and this waxen mask laid skillfully on your pillow, will deceive the governor when he looks in at midnight; and now while the bribed sentinel keeps watch, we can escape together.”—“Not to-night, woman!” exclaimed Alexis, suddenly winding his hand in her long black hair—“the Count has had his sealed instructions, and you have ". You are no princess, no friend of the House of Mechlenberg: your trade is a courtezan’s—you came here a spy and a betrayer, deputed to ensnare the governor by claiming his compassion as an injured prisoner.”
The beautiful culprit fell on her knees—“Pardon me, prince!—I never hoped to deceive you by personating your sister, for I knew you could not fail, when you saw me, to detect the difference in our persons. But believe me, I am not so guilty as to be without remorse. I was sent here by the empress, who suspects Demetrius—I came with the escort of a state prisoner, and he believes me an unfortunate princess whom he ought to respect and console.”—“And you, wretch!” interrupted Alexis, “you design to throw him on the scaffold by contriving my escape!”—“No, I swear!—had he been ready to gain what he believed the favour of a princess, or proud of his power to insult a prisoner, I should have ruined him without regret, and laughed at the easiness of the task, but his faith has been so loyal, and his trust in me so generous, that I have resolved to save you both. I have been often loved, but never respected before, and it has taught me to respect myself.” Then freeing her hair from the failing grasp of Alexis, she threw open his prison-door, and fled towards the outlet, where means of escape were well-provided. But Alexis disdained to follow a woman who would have known him to be an impostor if she had not been one herself.
During this strange conference, the governor departed from the curtained recess through a door known only to himself, and, assembling his most faithful officers, gave strict and skilful orders to guard every point of the fortress. A chosen troop was detached to watch the subterranean entrance; and before these precautions were completed, they were justified by Menzikoff’s approach. He came at the head of a well-armed battalion, and demanded his prince, Iwan of Mechlenburgh. The governor paused in complicated agonies. His secret orders from the empress contained a warrant for Iwan’s instant execution, if a rescue should be attempted. He could not disobey those orders without forfeiting his own life, nor execute them unless he sacrificed his preserver. Only one expedient remained—he might release the supposed Iwan through a secret gate, and perish himself in defending the fortress. Thus, at least, he could die unstained with murder, and unsuspected of treason: and he hastily descended towards the prison-vaults to bid Alexis farewell. A man standing at their entrance sprang forward to meet him. It was Iwan himself!—“Demetrius!” he exclaimed, “I know you all. Take back your prisoner—you have been a generous enemy, and your life shall not be endangered. The innocent must not perish in my stead.”—Surprise, gratitude, and anguish, rendered the Count dumb, but only for an instant.—“None shall perish!” he suddenly replied—“a blessed thought visits me,”—and rushing into the prison-chamber, he seized the vest cloak, and waxen mask brought to represent Iwan. A soldier killed by a random musquet-shot lay on the ramparts. Favoured by the darkness of night, the governor wrapped him in the royal mantle, and covered his face with the beautiful mask and glossy ringlets attached to it. Then summoning his guards, and waving a signal-flag on the turret—“Menzikoff!” he said, through a trumpet—“behold your prince!”—The bleeding body and lifeless face were exposed to the assembly; and Menzikoff, believing his treacherous purpose fulfilled, dismissed the troop whose assault had furnished a pretext for Iwan’s death. The garrison reposed on their arms, and the governor returned once more to his private chamber, where the prince awaited him. “Prince!—your life is saved, and my task here is finished. You are my only prisoner only till tomorrow, when I shall have resigned all the offices and honours bestowed on me by a sovereign I have served too long. I only ask you to accompany me from this fortress, and to promise peace with the empress, whom I will not betray, though she has not recompensed me.”
“Russia will never hear of my existence,” replied Iwan; “a monk’s cowl sits easier than a crown: but you shall not depart unrecompensed. My sister, the true Princess of Mechlenbergh, is in this fortress. Her bold and generous spirit tempted her to aid your Cossack in contriving my escape, and has been my representative too long. Her danger determined me to return; for I knew the purport of your secret orders. The lovely and deceitful minion sent to allure you, is an impostor; and you will find my sister in Alexis.”
The sequel requires few words. Before the lapse of another day, the governor of Schlusselburgh surrendered all his appointments, and with only his own small wealth, retired under a feigned name to Italy. There he received the sister of Iwan, and his blessing as a brother and a priest, at the altar of a monastery, where the prince ended his days in peace and obscurity. Demetrius spent a long and more useful life with the Princess Sophia, whom he loved to call Alexia, while she delighted in remembering by what gentle devices his affection had been fixed on her in the simple forester’s garb she had first assumed to aid her brother. She lived to hear him confess of what courage, fidelity, and self-sacrifice a woman may be capable, and to discover that men have few faults which cannot be ameliorated by her influence.