(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 780 words.)