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   Chapter 1 I AT ONE O’CLOCK, YOUR EXCELLENCY!

The Seven Who Were Hanged By Leonid Andreyev Characters: 14563

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


As the Minister was a very stout man, inclined to apoplexy, they feared to arouse in him any dangerous excitement, and it was with every possible precaution that they informed him that a very serious attempt upon his life had been planned. When they saw that he received the news calmly, even with a smile, they gave him, also, the details. The attempt was to be made on the following day at the time that he was to start out with his official report; several men, terrorists, plans had already been betrayed by a provocateur, and who were now under the vigilant surveillance of detectives, were to meet at one o'clock in the afternoon in front of his house, and, armed with bombs and revolvers, were to wait till he came out. There the terrorists were to be trapped.

"Wait!" muttered the Minister, perplexed. "How did they know that I was to leave the house at one o'clock in the afternoon with my report, when I myself learned of it only the day before yesterday?"

The Chief of the Guards stretched out his arms with a shrug.

"Exactly at one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency," he said.

Half surprised, half commending the work of the police, who had managed everything skilfully, the Minister shook his head, a morose smile upon his thick, dark lips, and still smiling obediently, and not desiring to interfere with the plans of the police, he hastily made ready, and went out to pass the night in some one else's hospitable palace. His wife and his two children were also removed from the dangerous house, before which the bomb-throwers were to gather upon the following day.

While the lights were burning in the palace, and courteous, familiar faces were bowing to him, smiling and expressing their concern, the dignitary experienced a sensation of pleasant excitement-he felt as if he had already received, or was soon to receive, some great and unexpected reward. But the people went away, the lights were extinguished, and through the mirrors, the lace-like and fantastic reflection of the electric lamps on the street, quivered across the ceiling and over the walls. A stranger in the house, with its paintings, its statues and its silence, the light-itself silent and indefinite-awakened painful thoughts in him as to the vanity of bolts and guards and walls. And then, in the dead of night, in the silence and solitude of a strange bedroom, a sensation of unbearable fear swept over the dignitary.

He had some kidney trouble, and whenever he grew strongly agitated, his face, his hands and his feet became swollen. Now, rising like a mountain of bloated flesh above the taut springs of the bed, he felt, with the anguish of a sick man, his swollen face, which seemed to him to belong to some one else. Unceasingly he kept thinking of the cruel fate which people were preparing for him. He recalled, one after another, all the recent horrible instances of bombs that had been thrown at men of even greater eminence than himself; he recalled how the bombs had torn bodies to pieces, had spattered brains over dirty brick walls, had knocked teeth from their roots. And influenced by these meditations, it seemed to him that his own stout, sickly body, outspread on the bed, was already experiencing the fiery shock of the explosion. He seemed to be able to feel his arms being severed from the shoulders, his teeth knocked out, his brains scattered into particles, his feet growing numb, lying quietly, their toes upward, like those of a dead man. He stirred with an effort, breathed loudly and coughed in order not to seem to himself to resemble a corpse in any way. He encouraged himself with the live noise of the grating springs, of the rustling blanket; and to assure himself that he was actually alive and not dead, he uttered in a bass voice, loudly and abruptly, in the silence and solitude of the bedroom:

"Molodtsi! Molodtsi! Molodtsi! (Good boys)!"

He was praising the detectives, the police, and the soldiers-all those who guarded his life, and who so opportunely and so cleverly had averted the assassination. But even though he stirred, even though he praised his protectors, even though he forced an unnatural smile, in order to express his contempt for the foolish, unsuccessful terrorists, he nevertheless did not believe in his safety, he was not sure that his life would not leave him suddenly, at once. Death, which people had devised for him, and which was only in their minds, in their intention, seemed to him to be already standing there in the room. It seemed to him that Death would remain standing there, and would not go away until those people had been captured, until the bombs had been taken from them, until they had been placed in a strong prison. There Death was standing in the corner, and would not go away-it could not go away, even as an obedient sentinel stationed on guard by a superior's will and order.

"At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!" this phrase kept ringing, changing its tone continually: now it was cheerfully mocking, now angry, now dull and obstinate. It sounded as if a hundred wound-up gramophones had been placed in his room, and all of them, one after another, were shouting with idiotic repetition the words they had been made to shout:

"At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!"

And suddenly, this one o'clock in the afternoon to-morrow, which but a short while ago was not in any way different from other hours, which was only a quiet movement of the hand along the dial of his gold watch, assumed an ominous finality, sprang out of the dial, began to live separately, stretched itself into an enormously huge black pole which cut all life in two. It seemed as if no other hours had existed before it and no other hours would exist after it-as if this hour alone, insolent and presumptuous, had a right to a certain peculiar existence.

"Well, what do you want?" asked the Minister angrily, muttering between his teeth.

The gramophone shouted:

"At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!" and the black pole smiled and bowed. Gnashing his teeth, the Minister rose in his bed to a sitting posture, leaning his face on the palms of his hands-he positively could not sleep on that dreadful night.

Clasping his face in his swollen, perfumed palms, he pictured to himself with horrifying clearness how on the following morning, not knowing anything of the plot against his life, he would have risen, would have drunk his coffee, not knowing anything, and then would have put on his coat in the hallway. And neither he, nor the doorkeeper who would have handed him his fur coat, nor the lackey who would have brought him the coffee, would have known that it was utterly useless to drink coffee, and to put on the coat, since a few instants later, everything-the fur coat and his body and the coffee within it-would be destroyed by an explosion, would be seized by death. The doorkeeper would have opened the glass door.... He, the amiable, kind, gentle doorkeeper, with the blue, typical eyes of a soldier, and with medals across his breast-he himself with his own hands would have opened the terrible door, opened it because he knew nothing. Everybody would have smiled because they did not know anything. "Oho!" he suddenly said aloud,

and slowly removed his hands from his face. Peering into the darkness, far ahead of him, with a fixed, strained look, he outstretched his hand just as slowly, felt the button on the wall and pressed it. Then he arose, and without putting on his slippers, walked in his bare feet over the rug in the strange, unfamiliar bedroom, found the button of another lamp upon the wall and pressed it. It became light and pleasant, and only the disarranged bed with the blanket, which had slipped off to the floor, spoke of the horror, not altogether past.

In his night-clothes, with his beard disheveled by his restless movements, with his angry eyes, the dignitary resembled any other angry old man who suffered with insomnia and shortness of breath. It was as if the death which people were preparing for him, had made him bare, had torn away from him the magnificence and splendor which had surrounded him-and it was hard to believe that it was he who had so much power, that his body was but an ordinary plain human body that must have perished terribly in the flame and roar of a monstrous explosion. Without dressing himself and not feeling the cold, he sat down in the first armchair he found, stroking his disheveled beard, and fixed his eyes in deep, calm thoughtfulness upon the unfamiliar plaster figures of the ceiling.

So that was the trouble! That was why he had trembled in fear and had become so agitated! That was why Death seemed to stand in the corner and would not go away, could not go away!

"Fools!" he said emphatically, with contempt.

"Fools!" he repeated more loudly, and turned his head slightly toward the door that those to whom he was referring might hear it. He was referring to those whom he had praised but a moment before, who in the excess of their zeal had told him of the plot against his life.

"Of course," he thought deeply, an easy, convincing idea arising in his mind. "Now that they have told me, I know, and feel terrified, but if I had not been told, I would not have known anything and would have drunk my coffee calmly. After that Death would have come-but then, am I so afraid of Death? Here have I been suffering with kidney trouble, and I must surely die from it some day, and yet I am not afraid-because I do not know anything. And those fools told me: 'At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!' and they thought I would be glad. But instead of that Death stationed itself in the corner and would not go away. It would not go away because it was my thought. It is not death that is terrible, but the knowledge of it: it would be utterly impossible to live if a man could know exactly and definitely the day and hour of his death. And the fools cautioned me: 'At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!'"

He began to feel light-hearted and cheerful, as if some one had told him that he was immortal, that he would never die. And, feeling himself again strong and wise amidst the herd of fools who had so stupidly and impudently broken into the mystery of the future, he began to think of the bliss of ignorance, and his thoughts were the painful thoughts of an old, sick man who had gone through endless experience. It was not given to any living being-man or beast-to know the day and hour of death. Here had he been ill not long ago and the physicians told him that he must expect the end, that he should make his final arrangements-but he had not believed them and he remained alive. In his youth he had become entangled in an affair and had resolved to end his life; he had even loaded the revolver, had written his letters, and had fixed upon the hour for suicide-but before the very end he had suddenly changed his mind. It would always be thus-at the very last moment something would change, an unexpected accident would befall-no one could tell when he would die.

"At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!" those kind asses had said to him, and although they had told him of it only that death might be averted, the mere knowledge of its possibility at a certain hour again filled him with horror. It was probable that some day he should be assassinated, but it would not happen to-morrow-it would not happen to-morrow-and he could sleep undisturbed, as if he were really immortal. Fools-they did not know what a great law they had dislodged, what an abyss they had opened, when they said in their idiotic kindness: "At one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!"

"No, not at one o'clock in the afternoon, your Excellency, but no one knows when. No one knows when! What?"

"Nothing," answered Silence, "nothing."

"But you did say something."

"Nothing, nonsense. I say: to-morrow, at one o'clock in the afternoon!"

There was a sudden, acute pain in his heart-and he understood that he would have neither sleep, nor peace, nor joy until that accursed black hour standing out of the dial should have passed. Only the shadow of the knowledge of something which no living being could know stood there in the corner, and that was enough to darken the world and envelop him with the impenetrable gloom of horror. The once disturbed fear of death diffused through his body, penetrated into his bones.

He no longer feared the murderers of the next day-they had vanished, they had been forgotten, they had mingled with the crowd of hostile faces and incidents which surrounded his life. He now feared something sudden and inevitable-an apoplectic stroke, heart failure, some foolish thin little vessel which might suddenly fail to withstand the pressure of the blood and might burst like a tight glove upon swollen fingers.

His short, thick neck seemed terrible to him. It became unbearable for him to look upon his short, swollen fingers-to feel how short they were and how they were filled with the moisture of death. And if before, when it was dark, he had had to stir in order not to resemble a corpse, now in the bright, cold, inimical, dreadful light he was so filled with horror that he could not move in order to get a cigarette or to ring for some one. His nerves were giving way. Each one of them seemed as if it were a bent wire, at the top of which there was a small head with mad, wide-open frightened eyes and a convulsively gaping, speechless mouth. He could not draw his breath.

Suddenly in the darkness, amidst the dust and cobwebs somewhere upon the ceiling, an electric bell came to life. The small, metallic tongue, agitatedly, in terror, kept striking the edge of the ringing cap, became silent-and again quivered in an unceasing, frightened din. His Excellency was ringing his bell in his own room.

People began to run. Here and there, in the shadows upon the walls, lamps flared up-there were not enough of them to give light, but there were enough to cast shadows. The shadows appeared everywhere; they rose in the corners, they stretched across the ceiling; tremulously clinging to each and every elevation, they covered the walls. And it was hard to understand where all these innumerable, deformed silent shadows-voiceless souls of voiceless objects-had been before.

A deep, trembling voice said something loudly. Then the doctor was hastily summoned by telephone; the dignitary was collapsing. The wife of his Excellency was also called.

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