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 is distinctively feminine, though she is in matters historical a passionate partisan. Most of the critics who approve her work agree that in the main she views life with somewhat of the masculine spirit of liberality. She is as much the realist as one can be who is saturated with the romance that is California, her birthplace and her home, if such a true cosmopolite as she can be said to have a home. In all she has written there is abounding life; her grasp of character is firm; her style has a warm, glowing plasticity, frequently a rhythm variously expressive of all the wide range of feeling which a writer must have to make his or her books living things. She does no less well in the depiction of men than in the portraiture of women. All stand out of their vivid environment distinctly and they are all personalities of power--even, occasionally, of "that strong power called weakness." And they all wear something of a glory imparted to them by the sympathy of their creator and interpreter. High upon any roster 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 found many to agree with me. It is not so pretentious as others more frequently commended. It is a simple story, almost one might say an incident or an anecdote. It is not literally sophisticated. For me that is its unfailing charm. I find in it not a little of the strange, primeval quality that makes me think of "Aucassin and Nicolette." For it is not so much a novel as an his- torical idyl, not to be read without a persisting suffusion of sympathy and never to be remembered without a recurring tenderness. Remembered, did I say? It is unforgettable. There are few books of American origin that resist so well the passing of the years, that take on more steadily the glamour of "the unimaginable touch of time." "Rezanov" is a classic, or I miss my guess. This, though it was first published so recently as 1906.
The story has the merit of being, to some extent historically, and wholly artistically, true. For the matter-of-facts Mrs. Atherton provides a bibliography of her authorities. Those authorities I have not read, nor should others. Sufficient unto me is the authority of the novel itself splendidly demonstrated and established in the high court of the reader's head and heart by the author's visualizing veritism. Not twenty pages have you turned before you know this Rezanov, privy councilor, grand chamberlain, plenipotentiary of the RussoAmerican company, imperial inspector of the extreme eastern and northwestern dominions of his imperial majesty Alexander the First, emperor of Russia--all this and more, a man. He comes out of mystery into the softly bright light of California, in strength and shrewdness and dignity and personal splendor. And there is amidst it all a pathos upon him. He commands your affection even while suggesting a doubt whether the man may not be overwhelmed in the diplomat, the intriguer. The year is 1806. The monstrous apparition of Napoleon has loomed an omen of the doom of ancient authority and the shattering of nations in Europe. That faithless, incalculable idealist Alexander, plans he knows not what of imperial glory in the Eastern and Western world. Rezanov is his servant, a man of ambition, perhaps in all favor at court, desirous of doing some great service for his master. He dreams of dominion in this sun-soaked land so lazily held in the lax grasp of Spain. He has come from failure. He had been to Japan with presents to the emperor, was received by minor officials with a hospitality that poorly concealed the fact that he was virtually a prisoner, and then dismissed without admission to the audience he sought with the mikado. He had gone then to bleak, inhospitable Sitka, to find the settlement there in a plague of scurvy and starvation only slightly mitigated by vodka. Down the coast then he sailed to the Spanish settlement for food for the settlement. He comes to that place where in his vision he sees 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 awaits him. The Spaniards are wary of him. They will not trade with him, but they receive him courteously and they are fascinated by his self-possessed, well-poised but withal so gracious personality. The life there at the time is a sort of lotus-eating existence. It is a piece of Spain translated to a more luscious, a lovelier land, overlooking beautiful seas and perilous. Into the dolce far niente Rezanov enters with some surrender to its softening spell, but with the courtier's prudence.
And he meets the girl, Concha Arguello. He sees her in the setting of burning and sweet Castilian roses--a girl who has had the benefit of education, who keeps the graces of old Madrid in this realm beyond sea, a burgeoning bud of womanhood, daughter of the commandante. The doom of 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 of the Sitka factory. At a party he dances with Concha and they both know that for each there is none other. So in that setting so wild, so strange, so remote, so lovely for the old world grace that is made native there by this bright, deep, fond girl, the high gods proceed to have their will upon the two. The little community life pulses around them the faster because they are there. Their love becomes a motive in the diplomatic drama which has for end, first, the securing of food for those famishing folk at Sitka, and beyond that, possibly the seizing of the region for Russia, lest that new young power of the West, the United States, pre-empt the rich domain. Concha would help the Russian to those ends immediate which he reveals to her, and succeeds. He tells her of Russia and his mighty position there. He would have her for his wife, his helper in the vast imperial affairs at the Russian capitol, his princess in his palace, augmenting his official and personal distinction. She shares his vision, rising to all the heights it unfolds in a splendid future. Child she is, but she is transformed into a woman by the prospect not of her own pleasure, but of participation in splendid achievement with this man so keen, so supple, yet so firm in high purpose. And as the prospect opens to her desire and his there looms the obstacle. They cannot marry, for Rezanov is a heretic. And now the passion flames. This child woman will go with him. Ah, but the church, the king of Spain, will they permit? And the Czar! Rezanov will see to it that the Czar will clear the way for them through 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 for mere speech. It is a desire made up of as much spiritual as carnal fire. It is fierce but steady in ecstacy and agony, indistinguishable the 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 by the vague and unshakable intuition or premonition that fate has marked them for derision. Nevertheless, they will endure.
There is a meeting on a path that overlooks where the white seas strike their tents. It is a meeting of little action, of few words. It is tense with the almost inexpressible, but at its end, confronting the doubtful future, realizing that when Rezanov goes he may not return, this girl tells him: "I will give myself to you forever, how much or little that may mean here on earth. Forever!" And then that scene in the moonlight amid the scent of the Castilian roses, when Concha, as signal of her trust in her lover, lifts the little wisps of hair that conceal her ears and shows them to him--it throbs with passionate purity in memory yet.
Rezanov sails away to Sitka with provisions, thence to Siberia, and then begins the long ride over endless versts of land, across streams in icy flood, in rain and cold and snow towards the capitol and the Czar. Delays, disasters to vehicles and horses and the maddening lengthening of time. From drenchings and freezing comes the fever that calls for more speed. Krasnoiarsk is reached. The fever mounts, the traveler must stop and rest and be cared for. His visions commingle his objective and his memories . . . CONCHA! . . . The snowy steppes and the inky rivers. . . . His servant enters the room in the inn . . . Why . . . "Where has Jon found Castilian roses in this barren land?" . . . "and his unconquerably sanguine spirit flared high before a vision of eternal and unthinkable happiness" . . . Castilian roses! Concha Arguello waits among them, immortal, sainted in her purity and fidelity, ministering to her poor Indians, her face alight with unquenchable memory and with surety of an eventual everlasting tryst. Those Castilian roses! They perfume forever one's memories of this pair, puissant in faith, in this novel that is a poem and a shrine of that love which lives when death itself is dead.
WILLIAM MARION REEDY