Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
The elderly Count Nikolai Nikolaievitch Diakonov, a senior minister in the Russian government, has been exiled for reasons he cannot fathom and is now living in gloomy splendor in a Paris apartment with his wife, Countess Sofia Andreievna Diakonova, and a retinue of Russian family retainers. He is so consumed...
(The entire section contains 780 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The elderly Count Nikolai Nikolaievitch Diakonov, a senior minister in the Russian government, has been exiled for reasons he cannot fathom and is now living in gloomy splendor in a Paris apartment with his wife, Countess Sofia Andreievna Diakonova, and a retinue of Russian family retainers. He is so consumed with bitterness and bewilderment about the mysterious circumstances of his exile—Is he, he wonders, a victim of a conspiracy, or is he going mad?—that he hardly notices that Sofia is seriously ill.
At the opening of the book, the Count’s beautiful daughter, Tania Rowan, and his eighteen-year-old granddaughter, Laura Rowan, are at their elegant London home, preparing to leave for Paris in order to look after Sofia. Before she leaves, Laura senses a tension between her mother and her father, Edward Rowan, a distinguished English politician, which may have something to do with Susie Stainton, her mother’s onetime protege.
At the Diakonov apartment, Alexander Gregorievitch Kamensky, the Count’s confidant and secretary, compliments Laura on her beauty and warns her to take care, because there are revolutionaries in the neighborhood who may be plotting against her grandfather’s life.
Laura accompanies the Count on a train journey to the coast, to visit some relatives, while Tania takes Sofia to the hospital. On the train, a young man with shabby clothing but noble bearing enters the compartment in a state of agitation. The Count recognizes him as Vassili Iulevitch Chubinov, the son of a minor Russian aristocrat. In his childhood, Chubinov regarded the Count as a second father, but, much to Laura’s alarm, he announces that he is now an active revolutionary. Laura begs him to leave the compartment, but the Count pricks up his ears when Chubinov tells him that he has proof of a conspiracy against him and that although they are on directly opposite sides of the political fence, they are both victims of the same conspiracy.
There follows a long conversation between the Count and Chubinov, taking up almost a quarter of the book, in which Chubinov recalls the details of his life over the past few weeks, an extraordinary history of deception, trickery, plot and counterplot, spies and counterspies, assassinations and murders, leading to the startling conclusion that there is a double agent in the Diakonov household. Further twists in the story reveal that the agent is Kamensky, who has a second identity as the revolutionary leader Gorin, and a third as Kaspar, a police spy for the Czar. In a state of shock, the Count decides to leave the train at the next station and to proceed to Moscow at once, to clear his name.
Chubinov warns Laura that her life, as well as Nikolai’s and his own, is now in danger. He had not anticipated her presence on the train, but Kamensky will know through his spies that she was there and will realize that she has learned about his treachery. He decides to return secretly to Paris to kill Kamensky before Kamensky can kill them. He gives her a secret contact address before he departs. On the platform, the Count becomes extremely ill. He and Laura are taken to a hotel in Grissaint. He dies during the night.
Laura fears that if she contacts her mother in Paris, Kamensky will learn of her whereabouts. She telegraphs her father in London instead. Terrified that every new face could mask a terrorist’s identity, she waits for his arrival with mounting tension. When a visitor arrives, she is horrified to find that it is not her father but Kamensky. She tells him that she was in a separate compartment on the train and knows nothing of the conversation with the stranger.
It is arranged that Kamensky will return to Paris with the Count’s body, and Laura will meet him in the Paris apartment at 4:00 P.M. the next day. Believing this to be her death assignment, she telegraphs the information to Chubinov. When her father finally arrives, he is too preoccupied with his own affairs to listen to her story. He settles down to write a long letter. She guesses that he is writing to Susie Stainton and is about to leave Tania.
In Paris the following afternoon, Chubinov shoots Kamensky on the pavement outside the Diakonov apartment. Laura hides the revolver in the one place the police will be sure not to search: her grandfather’s coffin. Chubinov flees to England. Tania, deserted by her husband, returns to Russia, taking Laura with her. Because of Chuboniv’s revelations, the Count’s good name has been restored and his family can be received in Moscow with full honors.