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List Of Contents | Contents of Vaninka, by Alexandre Dumas, Pere
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house was wooden, with the crevices filled with oakum, like all those
of Russian peasants, so that the flames, creeping out at the four
corners, soon made great headway, and, fanned by the wind, spread
rapidly to all parts of the building.  Vaninka followed the progress
of the fire with blazing eyes, fearing to see some half-burnt
spectral shape rush out of the flames.  At last the roof fell in, and
Vaninka, relieved of all fear, then at last made her way to the
general's house, into which the two women entered without being seen,
thanks to the permission Annouschka had to go out at any hour of the
day or night.

The next morning the sole topic of conversation in St. Petersburg was
the fire at the Red House.  Four half-consumed corpses were dug out
from beneath the ruins, and as three of the general's slaves were
missing, he had no doubt that the unrecognisable bodies were those of
Ivan, Daniel, and Alexis: as for the fourth, it was certainly that of
Gregory.

The cause of the fire remained a secret from everyone: the house was
solitary, and the snowstorm so violent that nobody had met the two
women on the deserted road.  Vaninka was sure of her maid.  Her
secret then had perished with Ivan.  But now remorse took the place
of fear: the young girl who was so pitiless and inflexible in the
execution of the deed quailed at its remembrance.  It seemed to her
that by revealing the secret of her crime to a priest, she would be
relieved of her terrible burden.  She therefore sought a confessor
renowned for his lofty charity, and, under the seal of confession,
told him all.  The priest was horrified by the story.  Divine mercy
is boundless, but human forgiveness has its limits.  He refused
Vaninka the absolution she asked.  This refusal was terrible: it
would banish Vaninka from the Holy Table; this banishment would be
noticed, and could not fail to be attributed to some unheard-of and
secret crime.  Vaninka fell at the feet of the priest, and in the
name of her father, who would be disgraced by her shame, begged him
to mitigate the rigour of this sentence.

The confessor reflected deeply, then thought he had found a way to
obviate such consequences.  It was that Vaninka should approach the
Holy Table with the other young girls; the priest would stop before
her as before all the others, but only say to her, "Pray and weep";
the congregation, deceived by this, would think that she had received
the Sacrament like her companions.  This was all that Vaninka could
obtain.

This confession took place about seven o'clock in the evening, and
the solitude of the church, added to the darkness of night, had given
it a still more awful character.  The confessor returned home, pale
and trembling.  His wife Elizabeth was waiting for him alone.  She
had just put her little daughter Arina, who was eight years old, to
bed in an adjoining room.  When she saw her husband, she uttered a
cry of terror, so changed and haggard was his appearance.  The
confessor tried to reassure her, but his trembling voice only
increased her alarm.  She asked the cause of his agitation; the
confessor refused to tell her.  Elizabeth had heard the evening
before that her mother was ill; she thought that her husband had
received some bad news.  The day was Monday, which is considered an
unlucky day among the Russians, and, going out that day, Elizabeth
had met a man in mourning; these omens were too numerous and too
strong not to portend misfortune.

Elizabeth burst into tears, and cried out, "My mother is dead!"

The priest in vain tried to reassure her by telling her that his
agitation was not due to that.  The poor woman, dominated by one
idea, made no response to his protestations but this everlasting cry,
"My mother is dead!"

Then, to bring her to reason, the confessor told her that his emotion
was due to the avowal of a crime which he had just heard in the
confessional.  But Elizabeth shook her head: it was a trick, she
said, to hide from her the sorrow which had fallen upon her.  Her
agony, instead of calming, became more violent; her tears ceased to
flow, and were followed by hysterics.  The priest then made her swear
to keep the secret, and the sanctity of the confession was betrayed.

Little Arina had awakened at Elizabeth's cries, and being disturbed
and at the same time curious as to what her parents were doing, she
got up, went to listen at the door, and heard all.

The day for the Communion came; the church of St. Simeon was crowded.
Vaninka came to kneel at the railing of the choir.  Behind her was
her father and his aides-de-camp, and behind them their servants.

Arina was also in the church with her mother.  The inquisitive child
wished to see Vaninka, whose name she had heard pronounced that
terrible night, when her father had failed in the first and most
sacred of the duties imposed on a priest.  While her mother was
praying, she left her chair and glided among the worshippers, nearly
as far as the railing.

But when she had arrived there, she was stopped by the group of the
general's servants.  But Arina had not come so far to be, stopped so
easily: she tried to push between them, but they opposed her; she
persisted, and one of them pushed her roughly back.  The child fell,
struck her head against a seat, and got up bleeding and crying, "You
are very proud for a slave.  Is it because you belong to the great
lady who burnt the Red House?"

These words, uttered in a loud voice, in the midst of the silence
which preceded, the sacred ceremony, were heard by everyone.  They
were answered by a shriek.  Vaninka had fainted.  The next day the
general, at the feet of Paul, recounted to him, as his sovereign and
judge, the whole terrible story, which Vaninka, crushed by her long
struggle, had at last revealed to him, at night, after the scene in
the church.

The emperor remained for a moment in thought at the end of this
strange confession; then, getting up from the chair where he had been
sitting while the miserable father told his story, he went to a
bureau, and wrote on a sheet of paper the following sentence:

"The priest having violated what should have been inviolable, the
secrets of the confessional, is exiled to Siberia and deprived of his
priestly office.  His wife will follow him: she is to be blamed for
not having respected his character as a minister of the altar.  The
little girl will not leave her parents.

"Annouschka, the attendant, will also go to Siberia for not having
made known to her master his daughter's conduct.

"I preserve all my esteem for the general, and I mourn with him for
the deadly blow which has struck him.

"As for Vaninka, I know of no punishment which can be inflicted upon
her.  I only see in her the daughter of a brave soldier, whose whole
life has been devoted to the service of his country.  Besides, the
extraordinary way in which the crime was discovered, seems to place
the culprit beyond the limits of my severity.  I leave her punishment
in her own hands.  If I understand her character, if any feeling of
dignity remains to her, her heart and her remorse will show her the
path she ought to follow."

Paul handed the paper open to the general, ordering him to take it to
Count Pahlen, the governor of St. Petersburg.

On the following day the emperor's orders were carried out.

Vaninka went into a convent, where towards the end of the same year
she died of shame and grief.

The general found the death he sought on the field of Austerlitz.






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