Natalie Ivanhoff: A Memory of Fort Ross by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
At Fort Ross, on the northern coast of California, it is told that an astonishing sight may be witnessed in the midnight of the twenty-third of August. The present settlement vanishes. In its place the Fort appears as it was when the Russians abandoned it in 1841. The quadrilateral stockade of redwood beams, pierced with embrasures for carronades, is compact and formidable once more. The ramparts are paced by watchful sentries; mounted cannon are behind the iron-barred gates and in the graceful bastions. Within the enclosure are the low log buildings occupied by the Governor and his officers, the barracks of the soldiers, the arsenal, and storehouses. In one corner stands the Greek chapel, with its cupola and cross-surmounted belfry. The silver chimes have rung this night. The Governor, his beautiful wife, and their guest, Natalie Ivanhoff, have knelt at the jewelled altar.
At the right of the Fort is a small "town" of rude huts which accommodates some eight hundred Indians and Siberian convicts, the working-men of the company. Above the "town," on a high knoll, is a large grist-mill. Describing an arc of perfect proportions, its midmost depression a mile behind the Fort, a great mountain forms a natural rampart. At either extreme it tapers to the jagged cliffs. On its three lower tables the mountain is green and bare; then abruptly rises a forest of redwoods, tall, rigid, tenebrious.
The mountain is visible but a moment. An immense white fog-bank which has been crouching on the horizon rears suddenly and rushes across the ocean, whose low mutter rises to a roar. It sweeps like a tidal wave across cliffs and Fort. It halts abruptly against the face of the mountain. In the same moment the ocean stills. It would almost seem that Nature held her breath, awaiting some awful event.
Suddenly, in the very middle of the fog-bank, appears the shadowy figure of a woman. She is gliding--to the right--rapidly and stealthily. Youth is in her slender grace, her delicate profile, dimly outlined. Her long silver-blond hair is unbound and luminously distinct from the white fog. She walks swiftly across the lower table of the mountain, then disappears. One sees, vaguely, a dark figure crouching along the lower fringe of the fog. That, too, disappears.
For a moment the silence seems intensified. Then, suddenly, it is crossed by a low whir--a strange sound in the midnight. Then a shriek whose like is never heard save when a soul is wrenched without warning in frightfullest torture from its body. Then another and another and another in rapid succession, each fainter and more horrible in suggestion than the last. With them has mingled the single frenzied cry of a man. A moment later a confused hubbub arises from the Fort and town, followed by the flashes of many lights and the report of musketry. Then the fog presses downward on the scene. All sound but that of the ocean, which seems to have drawn into its loud dull voice all the angers of all the dead, ceases as though muffled. The fog lingers a moment, then drifts back as it came, and Fort Ross is the Fort Ross of to-day.
And this is the story:--
When the Princess Helene de Gagarin married Alexander Rotscheff, she little anticipated that she would spend her honeymoon in the northern wilds of the Californias. Nevertheless, when her husband was appointed Governor of the Fort Ross and Bodega branch of the great Alaskan Fur Company, she volunteered at once to go with him--being in that stage of devotion which may be termed the emotionally heroic as distinguished from the later of non-resistance. As the exile would last but a few years, and as she was a lady of a somewhat adventurous spirit, to say nothing of the fact that she was deeply in love, her interpretation of wifely duty hardly wore the hue of martyrdom even to herself.
Notwithstanding, and although she had caused to be prepared a large case of books and eight trunks of ravishing raiment, she decided that life in a fort hidden between the mountains and the sea, miles away from even the primitive Spanish civilization, might hang burdensomely at such whiles as her husband's duties claimed him and books ceased to amuse. So she determined to ask the friend of her twenty-three years, the Countess Natalie Ivanhoff, to accompany her. She had, also, an unselfish motive in so doing. Not only did she cherish for the Countess Natalie a real affection, but her friend was as deeply wretched as she was happy.
Two years before, the Prince Alexis Mikhailof, betrothed of Natalie Ivanhoff, had been, without explanation or chance of parting word, banished to Siberia under sentence of perpetual exile. Later had come rumour of his escape, then of death, then of recapture. Nothing definite could be learned. When the Princess Helene made her invitation, it was accepted gratefully, hope suggesting that in the New World might be found relief from the torture that was relived in every vibration of the invisible wires that held memory fast to the surroundings in which the terrible impressions, etchers of memory, had their genesis.
They arrived in summer, and found the long log house, with its low ceilings and rude finish, admirably comfortable within. By aid of the great case of things Rotscheff had brought, it quickly became an abode of luxury. Thick carpets covered every floor; arras hid the rough walls; books and pictures and handsome ornaments crowded each other; every chair had been designed for comfort as well as elegance; the dining table was hidden beneath finest damask, and glittered with silver and crystal. It was an unwritten law that every one should dress for dinner; and with the rich curtains hiding the gloomy mountain and the long sweep of cliffs intersected by gorge and gulch, it was easy for the gay congenial band of exiles to forget that they were not eating the delicacies of their French cook and drinking their costly wines in the Old World.
In the daytime the women--several of the officers' wives had braved the wilderness--found much diversion in riding through the dark forests or along the barren cliffs, attended always by an armed guard. Diego Estenega, the Spanish magnate of the North, whose ranchos adjoined Fort Ross, and who was financially interested in the Russian fur trade, soon became an intimate of the Rotscheff household. A Californian by birth, he was, nevertheless, a man of modern civilization, travelled, a student, and a keen lover of masculine sports. Although the most powerful man in the politics of his conservative country, he was an American in appearance and dress. His cloth or tweed suggested the colorous magnificence of the caballeros as little as did his thin nervous figure and grim pallid intellectual face. Rotscheff liked him better than any man he had ever met; with the Princess he usually waged war, that lady being clever, quick, and wedded to her own opinions. For Natalie he felt a sincere friendship at once. Being a man of keen sympathies and strong impulses, he divined her trouble before he heard her story, and desired to help her.
The Countess Natalie, despite the Governor's prohibition, was addicted to roving over the cliffs by herself, finding kinship in the sterile crags and futile restlessness of the ocean. She had learned that although change of scene lightened the burden, only death would release her from herself.
"She will get over it," said the Princess Helene to Estenega. "I was in love twice before I met Alex, so I know. Natalie is so beautiful that some day some man, who will not look in the least like poor Alexis, will make her forget."
Estenega, being a man of the world and having consequently outgrown the cynicism of youth, also knowing women better than this fair Minerva would know them in twenty lifetimes, thought differently, and a battle ensued.
Natalie, meanwhile, wandered along the cliffs. She passed the town hurriedly. Several times when in its vicinity before, the magnetism of an intense gaze had given her a thrill of alarm, and once or twice she had met face to face the miller's son--a forbidding youth with the skull of the Tartar and the coarse black hair and furtive eyes of the Indian--whose admiration of her beauty had been annoyingly apparent. She was not conscious of observation to-day, however, and skirted the cliffs rapidly, drawing her gray mantle about her as the wind howled by, but did not lift the hood; the massive coils of silver-blond hair kept her head warm.
As the Princess Helene, despite her own faultless blondinity, had pronounced, Natalie Ivanhoff was a beautiful woman. Her profile had the delicate effect produced by the chisel. Her white skin was transparent and untinted, but the mouth was scarlet. The large long eyes of a changeful blue-gray, although limpid of surface, were heavy with the sadness of a sad spirit. Their natural fire was quenched just as the slight compression of her lips had lessened the sensuous fulness of their curves.
But she had suffered so bitterly and so variously that the points had been broken off her nerves, she told herself, and, excepting when her trouble mounted suddenly like a wave within her, her mind was tranquil. Grief with her had expressed itself in all its forms. She had known what it was to be crushed into semi-insensibility; she had thrilled as the tears rushed and the sobs shook her until every nerve ached and her very fingers cramped; and she had gone wild at other times, burying her head, that her screams might not be heard: the last, as imagination pictured her lover's certain physical suffering. But of all agonies, none could approximate to that induced by Death. When that rumour reached her, she realized that hope had given her some measure of support, and how insignificant all other trouble is beside that awful blank, that mystery, whose single revelation is the houseless soul's unreturning flight from the only world we are sure of. When the contradicting rumour came, she clutched at hope and clung to it.
"It is the only reason I do not kill myself," she thought, as she stood on the jutting brow of the cliff and looked down on the masses of huge stones which, with the gaunt outlying rocks, had once hung on the face of the crags. The great breakers boiled over them with the ponderosity peculiar to the waters of the Pacific. The least of those breakers would carry her far into the hospitable ocean.
"It is so easy to die and be at peace; the only thing which makes life supportable is the knowledge of Death's quick obedience. And the tragedy of life is not that we cannot forget, but that we can. Think of being an old woman with not so much as a connecting current between the memory and the heart, the long interval blocked with ten thousand petty events and trials! It must be worse than this. I shall have gone over the cliff long before that time comes. I would go to-day, but I cannot leave the world while he is in it."
She drew a case from her pocket, and opened it. It showed the portrait of a young man with the sombre eyes and cynical mouth of the northern European, a face revealing intellect, will, passion, and much recklessness. Eyes and hair were dark, the face smooth but for a slight mustache.
Natalie burst into wild tears, revelling in the solitude that gave her freedom. She pressed the picture against her face, and cried her agony aloud to the ocean. Thrilling memories rushed through her, and she lived again the first ecstasy of grief. She did not fling herself upon the ground, or otherwise indulge in the acrobatics of woe, but she shook from head to foot. Between the heavy sobs her breath came in hard gasps, and tears poured, hiding the gray desolation of the scene.
Suddenly, through it all, she became conscious that some one was watching her. Instinctively she knew that it was the same gaze which so often had alarmed her. Fear routed every other passion. She realized that she was unprotected, a mile from the Fort, out of the line of its vision. The brutal head of the miller's son seemed to thrust itself before her face. Overwhelmed with terror, she turned swiftly and ran, striking blindly among the low bushes, her glance darting from right to left. No one was to be seen for a moment; then she turned the corner of a boulder and came upon a man. She shrieked and covered her face with her hands, now too frightened to move. The man neither stirred nor spoke; and, despite this alarming circumstance, her disordered brain, in the course of a moment, conceived the thought that no subject of Rotscheff would dare to harm her.
Moreover, her brief glance had informed her that this was not the miller's son; which fact, illogically, somewhat tempered her fear. She removed her hands and compelled herself to look sternly at the creature who had dared to raise his eyes to the Countess Natalie Ivanhoff. She was puzzled to find something familiar about him. His grizzled hair was long, but not unkempt. The lower part of his face was covered by a beard. He was almost fleshless; but in his sunken eyes burned unquenchable fire, and there was a determined vigour in his gaunt figure. He might have been any age. Assuredly, the outward seeming of youth was not there, but its suggestion still lingered tenaciously in the spirit which glowed through the worn husk. And about him, in spite of the rough garb and blackened skin, was an unmistakable air of breeding.
Natalie, as she looked, grew rigid. Then she uttered a cry of rapturous horror, staggered, and was caught in a fierce embrace. Her stunned senses awoke in a moment, and she clung to him, crying wildly, holding him with straining arms, filled with bitter happiness.
In a few moments he pushed her from him and regarded her sadly.
"You are as beautiful as ever," he said; "but I--look at me! Old, hideous, ragged! I am not fit to touch you; I never meant to. Go! I shall never blame you."
For answer she sprang to him again.
"What difference is it how you look?" she cried, still sobbing. "Is it not you? Are not you in here just the same? What matter? What matter? No matter what you looked through, you would be the same. Listen," she continued rapidly, after a moment. "We are in a new country; there is hope for us. If we can reach the Spanish towns of the South, we are safe. I will ask Don Diego Estenega to help us, and he is not the man to refuse. He stays with us to-night, and I will speak alone with him. Meet me to-morrow night--where? At the grist-mill at midnight. We had better not meet by day again. Perhaps we can go then. You will be there?"
"Will I be there? God! Of course I will be there."
And, the brief details of their flight concluded, they forgot it and all else for the hour.
Natalie could not obtain speech alone with Estenega that evening; but the next morning the Princess Helene commanded her household and guest to accompany her up the hill to the orchard at the foot of the forest; and there, while the others wandered over the knolls of the shadowy enclosure, Natalie managed to tell her story. Estenega offered his help spontaneously.
"At twelve to-night," he said, "I will wait for you in the forest with horses, and will guide you myself to Monterey. I have a house there, and you can leave on the first barque for Boston."
As soon as the party returned to the Fort, Estenega excused himself and left for his home. The day passed with maddening slowness to Natalie. She spent the greater part of it walking up and down the immediate cliffs, idly watching the men capturing the seals and otters, the ship-builders across the gulch. As she returned at sunset to the enclosure, she saw the miller's son standing by the gates, gazing at her with hungry admiration. He inspired her with sudden fury.
"Never presume to look at me again," she said harshly. "If you do, I shall report you to the Governor."
And without waiting to note how he accepted the mandate, she swept by him and entered the Fort, the gates clashing behind her.
The inmates of Fort Ross were always in bed by eleven o'clock. At that hour not a sound was to be heard but the roar of the ocean, the soft pacing of the sentry on the ramparts, the cry of the panther in the forest. On the evening in question, after the others had retired, Natalie, trembling with excitement, made a hasty toilet, changing her evening gown for a gray travelling frock. Her heavy hair came unbound, and her shaking hands refused to adjust the close coils. As it fell over her gray mantle it looked so lovely, enveloping her with the silver sheen of mist, that she smiled in sad vanity, remembering happier days, and decided to let her lover see her so. She could braid her hair at the mill.
A moment or two before twelve she raised the window and swung herself to the ground. The sentry was on the rampart opposite: she could not make her exit by that gate. She walked softly around the buildings, keeping in their shadow, and reached the gates facing the forest. They were not difficult to unbar, and in a moment she stood without, free. She could not see the mountain; a heavy bank of white fog lay against it, resting, after its long flight over the ocean, before it returned, or swept onward to ingulf the redwoods.
She went with noiseless step up the path, then turned and walked swiftly toward the mill. She was very nervous; mingling with the low voice of the ocean she imagined she heard the moans with which beheaded convicts were said to haunt the night. Once she thought she heard a footstep behind her, and paused, her heart beating audibly. But the sound ceased with her own soft footfalls, and the fog was so dense that she could see nothing. The ground was soft, and she was beyond the sentry's earshot; she ran at full speed across the field, down the gorge, and up the steep knoll. As she reached the top, she was taken in Mikhailof's arms. For a few moments she was too breathless to speak; then she told him her plans.
"Let me braid my hair," she said finally, "and we will go."
He drew her within the mill, then lit a lantern and held it above her head, his eyes dwelling passionately on her beauty, enhanced by the colour of excitement and rapid exercise.
"You look like the moon queen," he said. "I missed your hair, apart from yourself."
She lifted her chin with a movement of coquetry most graceful in spite of long disuse, and the answering fire sprang into her eyes. She looked very piquant and a trifle diabolical. He pressed his lips suddenly on hers. A moment later something tugged at the long locks his hand caressed, and at the same time he became conscious that the silence which had fallen between them was shaken by a loud whir. He glanced upward. Natalie was standing with her back to one of the band-wheels. It had begun to revolve; in the moment it increased its speed; and he saw a glittering web on its surface. With an exclamation of horror, he pulled her toward him; but he was too late. The wheel, spinning now with the velocity of midday, caught the whole silver cloud in its spokes, and Natalie was swept suddenly upward. Her feet hit the low rafters, and she was whirled round and round, screams of torture torn from her rather than uttered, her body describing a circular right angle to the shaft, the bones breaking as they struck the opposite one; then, in swift finality, she was sucked between belt and wheel. Mikhailof managed to get into the next room and reverse the lever. The machinery stopped as abruptly as it had started; but Natalie was out of her agony.
Her lover flung himself over the cliffs, shattering bones and skull on the stones at their base. They made her a coffin out of the copper plates used for their ships, and laid her in the straggling unpopulous cemetery on the knoll across the gulch beyond the chapel.
"When we go, we will take her," said Rotscheff to his distracted wife.
But when they went, a year or two after, in the hurry of departure they forgot her until too late. They promised to return. But they never came, and she sleeps there still, on the lonely knoll between the sunless forest and the desolate ocean.