From The Immortality of Birds

Laura Rudish

St. Petersburg, 1880


“Sir, please. A moment––”

Henrik Gillot strode past his butler, into whose arms he had just thrust overcoat, hat, walking stick and gloves.
Gillot’s goal on arriving home was always to retreat into his study before his wife was alerted to his presence, and so avert her swooping down—no matter how many times he assured her that he had only a rare glimpse of the Tsar’s mistress—to demand that he describe, in the most painful detail possible, Katya’s dress or coiffure or shoes.

All Petersburg acknowledged that Gillot was brilliant— his legendary oratory and literary talents had preceded him. That he was ambitious and charming, of course all assumed. Still, he had surprised the city and even himself with how effortlessly its most ornate, hidden, and hard-to-open doors had swung open before him. Within a month of his arrival he had been retained as a philosophy tutor for the Tsar’s two sons, and presided over such stimulating sessions that the Tsar himself had taken to attending Friday afternoons, thus increasing interest in Spinoza and Kierkegaard in certain circles exponentially and almost overnight.

By the Spring of 1879 Gillot’s weekly sermons had risen to the level of social events for the liberal elite of the city, who were growing alarmed by the escalating tactics of the anarchists of the Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will. The capital was still reeling from both the verdict of Vera Zasulich’s attempted murder trial and yet another botched assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II. Russia’s first trial by jury returned the astonishing verdict of not guilty for the fiery young Vera on the shooting of General Trepov, although she admitted her guilt in open court to the delight and amusement of the trial’s spectators. Vera testified about her unbearable urge to avenge the savage beating the General had ordered of a fellow anarchist, thus making hers a veritable crime of passion, which the Russian people not only tolerated but admired. In the wake of the verdict, the Tsar suspended all jury trials, and the courts reverted back to justice by administrative decree.

Gillot had arrived in the capital after vacating his nominal position as pastor in Zandvoort, Holland, a small coastal village whose obscurity did not diminish the excitement with which St. Petersburg's German-Dutch community had anticipated his arrival. Publications of his six-part lecture series, The Future of Empire, given in Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna, had already found their way to the Russian capital, where they captivated much of the educated class who deemed themselves liberal, but still loyal servants of Empire, and so receptive to innovative, though certainly not subversive, ideas.

Why Gillot agreed to take on the position of pastor of the newly built Dutch Reformed Church had elicited much speculation in Petersburg, since it was generally agreed that he might have chosen any Dutch or German speaking pulpit in Europe. Excusing himself from an academic appointment at Amsterdam University’s Department of Theology several years earlier, he had claimed his thinking required the quieter rhythms of Zandvoort’s rural life, and that his wife’s health was improved by sea air. Yet the family’s belongings were not yet completely arrived, much less unpacked, when he embarked with a lone assistant on a hastily arranged lecture tour that crisscrossed the continent and the English Channel before arriving back to sleepy Zandvoordt months later.  

His arrival in Saint Petersburg did not signal any turning away from his European roots; on the contrary, Gillot quickly conceived an active distain for all things Russian, including and especially the traditions of the Orthodox Church. In certain circles of Petersburg society Gillot personified the quintessential European as Skeptic, as Materialist, as undeclared Atheist. Both vilified and venerated, he was always controversial. Every week his church was filled to overflowing as he turned his nominal role of church pastor into that of intellectual provocateur. His increasing commitments, to both his Frankfort publisher and his lecture tour agent in Zurich, brought a stream of correspondence that partially relieved the tedium in which his pastoral duties threatened to ensnare him, and allowed him to plan, in his mind at least, a peripatetic escape.

He stepped into his room, locked the door behind him, and sighed. The muffled quiet of late afternoon had settled over the polished desk and deep-piled Persian rug, and gathered around the mirrored mantle above a glowing gas flame. Placing his leather case on a wing chair, he turned up the glass lamp and walked over to a long Palladian window.  He looked out over Catherine Canal, which shimmered below as night began to rise from the city’s sooty cobblestones. He shifted his gaze to the surface of the pane and saw emerge from the wavering glass the reflection of a young woman.

He checked his urge to turn towards her, and remained as if unmoved. The room grew warmer. He looked through the window again, this time at the leaden sky. Only she could so compose herself as to become invisible. Sometimes he wondered— who was teaching whom? She had waited for him in the very heart of his home just as she had entered his heart—unadorned, silent, and without impatience. Was now the time to speak? 
He heard the soft rustle of her skirt behind him. They wouldn’t need to meet as student and teacher much longer. What at first seemed a madness, he had almost completed: secretly securing the futures of his wife and daughters without him, arranging the girls’ dowries out of contracted lecture tours and books. Hard to believe Paula and Claire were even the same species as she, much less almost the same age. His daughters, so entranced by gaiety and chatter, were as if filled with some strange helium that simultaneously suffocated their sensibilities and unmoored them from their natural senses.   Whereas even with all her waking dreams and wild-spun fantasies, through her some hidden fountain continually welled that quenched an unquenchable thirst.

She took another step and her reflection vanished into his own dark form. 

“ Do I surprise you, Professor?” 

Gillot loosed the silken cord holding back the heavy drape and the room receded into inky shadows haloed by pools of gaslight. He turned to look into her eyes, and from the utter stillness of her gaze he sensed a flash of recognition, of unspoken yet shared desire.  Was this the moment? The year of patient instruction, the violent wresting from her of childish stories and imaginations, had remade the girl. She was his creation, a strange, solemn being of heartbreaking beauty and penetrating intellect. With perfect trust in him.

But no. Not yet. When he could present to her their future, assured together, as a gift: Then.

“ Each time we meet you surprise me,” he said.

She took his hand and led him to the desk, where one of her cloth-covered notebooks lay open next to a Dutch-German dictionary and his copy of Spinoza’s Ethics. Her measured handwriting outlined in German the tangled tensions in the philosopher’s text.

“ I cannot get past Proposition Twenty-Eight, here in Part Two: I am stuck right here. What is he trying to say about the
relation between the human body and the human mind?"

From their first lesson she had appeared infinitely as paradox.  With flashes of understanding she infused the most complex ideas with warmth and liveliness.  After an hour’s silent rumination, she’d rise from her small worktable, and stretching out her slender arms, she’d close her eyes and sway for a moment to some unheard song. Then standing composed before him, she would pierce to the heart of the day’s lesson. 

“ Hush, hush, back to the matter at hand,” Gillot once said. “ How do you answer Pastor Dalton’s assertion that God is not merely omnipotent and omniscient, but omnipresent—everywhere at all times?”
She had lifted her gaze from the flicker of gaslight on the grate.

“ I would say, ‘ Are you saying your God reigns over hell, too?’