RezanovGertrude Franklin Horn Atherton / History & Fiction
Produced by Judith Boss. HTML version by Al Haines.
With an Introduction by
WILLIAM MARION REEDY
A long list of works Gertrude Atherton has to her credit as a writer.She is indisputably a woman of genius. Not that her genius isdistinctively feminine, though she is in matters historical apassionate partisan. Most of the critics who approve her work agreethat in the main she views life with somewhat of the masculine spiritof liberality. She is as much the realist as one can be who issaturated with the romance that is California, her birthplace and herhome, if such a true cosmopolite as she can be said to have a home. Inall she has written there is abounding life; her grasp of character isfirm; her style has a warm, glowing plasticity, frequently a rhythmvariously expressive of all the wide range of feeling which a writermust have to make his or her books living things. She does no lesswell in the depiction of men than in the portraiture of women. Allstand out of their vivid environment distinctly and they are allpersonalities of power--even, occasionally, of that strong powercalled weakness. And they all wear something of a glory imparted tothem by the sympathy of their creator and interpreter. High upon anyroster of our best American writers we must enroll the name of Mrs.Atherton.
Of all her books I like best this Rezanov, though I have not foundmany to agree with me. It is not so pretentious as others morefrequently commended. It is a simple story, almost one might say anincident or an anecdote. It is not literally sophisticated. For methat is its unfailing charm. I find in it not a little of the strange,primeval quality that makes me think of Aucassin and Nicolette. Forit is not so much a novel as an historical idyl, not to be read withouta persisting suffusion of sympathy and never to be remembered without arecurring tenderness. Remembered, did I say? It is unforgettable.There are few books of American origin that resist so well the passingof the years, that take on more steadily the glamour of theunimaginable touch of time. Rezanov is a classic, or I miss myguess. This, though it was first published so recently as 1906.
The story has the merit of being, to some extent historically, andwholly artistically, true. For the matter-of-facts Mrs. Athertonprovides a bibliography of her authorities. Those authorities I havenot read, nor should others. Sufficient unto me is the authority ofthe novel itself splendidly demonstrated and established in the highcourt of the reader's head and heart by the author's visualizingveritism. Not twenty pages have you turned before you know thisRezanov, privy councilor, grand chamberlain, plenipotentiary of theRusso-American company, imperial inspector of the extreme eastern andnorthwestern dominions of his imperial majesty Alexander the First,emperor of Russia--all this and more, a man. He comes out of mysteryinto the softly bright light of California, in strength and shrewdnessand dignity and personal splendor. And there is amidst it all a pathosupon him. He commands your affection even while suggesting a doubtwhether the man may not be overwhelmed in the diplomat, the intriguer.The year is 1806. The monstrous apparition of Napoleon has loomed anomen of the doom of ancient authority and the shattering of nations inEurope. That faithless, incalculable idealist Alexander, plans he knowsnot what of imperial glory in the Eastern and Western world. Rezanovis his servant, a man of ambition, perhaps in all favor at court,desirous of doing some great service for his master. He dreams ofdominion in this sun-soaked land so lazily held in the lax grasp ofSpain. He has come from failure. He had been to Japan with presentsto the emperor, was received by minor officials with a hospitality thatpoorly concealed the fact that he was virtually a prisoner, and thendismissed without admission to the audience he sought with the mikado.He had gone then to bleak, inhospitable Sitka, to find the settlementthere in a plague of scurvy and starvation only slightly mitigated byvodka. Down the coast then he sailed to the Spanish settlement forfood for the settlement. He comes to that place where in his vision hesees arise that city of the future which we know now as San Francisco.Masterful man that he is, he feels that here some great thing awaitshim. The Spaniards are wary of him. They will not trade with him, butthey receive him courteously and they are fascinated by hisself-possessed, well-poised but withal so gracious personality. Thelife there at the time is a sort of lotus-eating existence. It is apiece of Spain translated to a more luscious, a lovelier land,overlooking beautiful seas and perilous. Into the dolce far nienteRezanov enters with some surrender to its softening spell, but with thecourtier's prudence.
And he meets the girl, Concha Arguello. He sees her in the setting ofburning and sweet Castilian roses--a girl who has had the benefit ofeducation, who keeps the graces of old Madrid in this realm beyond sea,a burgeoning bud of womanhood, daughter of the commandante. The doomof both is upon them at once. They have drunk the poisoned cup.Rezanov resists the first approaches of the delightful delirium,remembering Russia, his duty, his ambition, the poor starving men ofthe Sitka factory. At a party he dances with Concha and they both knowthat for each there is none other. So in that setting so wild, sostrange, so remote, so lovely for the old world grace that is madenative there by this bright, deep, fond girl, the high gods proceed tohave their will upon the two. The little community life pulses aroundthem the faster because they are there. Their love becomes a motive inthe diplomatic drama which has for end, first, the securing of food forthose famishing folk at Sitka, and beyond that, possibly the seizing ofthe region for Russia, lest that new young power of the West, theUnited States, preempt the rich domain. Concha would help the Russianto those ends immediate which he reveals to her, and succeeds. Hetells her of Russia and his mighty position there. He would have herfor his wife, his helper in the vast imperial affairs at the Russiancapitol, his princess in his palace, augmenting his official andpersonal distinction. She shares his vision, rising to all the heightsit unfolds in a splendid future. Child she is, but she is transformedinto a woman by the prospect not of her own pleasure, but ofparticipation in splendid achievement with this man so keen, so supple,yet so firm in high purpose. And as the prospect opens to her desireand his there looms the obstacle. They cannot marry, for Rezanov is aheretic. And now the passion flames. This child woman will go withhim. Ah, but the church, the king of Spain, will they permit? And theCzar! Rezanov will see to it that the Czar will clear the way for themthrough power exercised at Rome and at Madrid. Conditioned upon this,the girl's parents consent.
These lovers prate very little of love. Their desire runs too deep formere speech. It is a desire made up of as much spiritual as carnalfire. It is fierce but steady in ecstacy and agony, indistinguishablethe one from the other. Rezanov, man of the great world, it purifies.Concha it strengthens and makes indomitable. They will abide delay.They will endure in faith and hope--the faith and hope both dimmed bythe vague and unshakable intuition or premonition that fate has markedthem for derision. Nevertheless, they will endure.
There is a meeting on a path that overlooks where the white seas striketheir tents. It is a meeting of little action, of few words. It istense with the almost inexpressible, but at its end, confronting thedoubtful future, realizing that when Rezanov goes he may not return,this girl tells him: I will give myself to you forever, how much orlittle that may mean here on earth. Forever! And then that scene inthe moonlight amid the scent of the Castilian roses, when Concha, assignal of her trust in her lover, lifts the little wisps of hair thatconceal her ears and shows them to him--it throbs with passionatepurity in memory yet.
Rezanov sails away to Sitka with provisions, thence to Siberia, andthen begins the long ride over endless versts of land, across streamsin icy flood, in rain and cold and snow towards the capitol and theCzar. Delays, disasters to vehicles and horses and the maddeninglengthening of time. From drenchings and freezing comes the fever thatcalls for more speed. Krasnoiarsk is reached. The fever mounts, thetraveler must stop and rest and be cared for. His visions comminglehis objective and his memories ... CONCHA! ... The snowy steppes andthe inky rivers.... His servant enters the room in the inn ... Why... Where has Jon found Castilian roses in this barren land? ... andhis unconquerably sanguine spirit flared high before a vision ofeternal and unthinkable happiness ... Castilian roses! ConchaArguello waits among them, immortal, sainted in her purity andfidelity, ministering to her poor Indians, her face alight withunquenchable memory and with surety of an eventual everlasting tryst.Those Castilian roses! They perfume forever one's memories of thispair, puissant in faith, in this novel that is a poem and a shrine ofthat love which lives when death itself is dead.
WILLIAM MARION REEDY