Natalie Ivanhoff, A Memory of Fort Ross
by Gertrude Atherton
Forties, Stories of Old California
At Fort Ross, on the northern coast of California, it is told that an
astonishing sight may be witnessed in the midnight of the twenty-third
of August. The present settlement vanishes. In its place the Fort
appears as it was when the Russians abandoned it in 1841. The
quadrilateral stockade of redwood beams, pierced with embrasures for
carronades, is compact and formidable once more. The ramparts are paced
by watchful sentries; mounted cannon are behind the iron-barred gates
and in the graceful bastions. Within the enclosure are the low log
buildings occupied by the Governor and his officers, the barracks of the
soldiers, the arsenal, and storehouses. In one corner stands the Greek
chapel, with its cupola and cross-surmounted belfry. The silver chimes
have rung this night. The Governor, his beautiful wife, and their guest,
Natalie Ivanhoff, have knelt at the jewelled altar.
At the right of the Fort is a small "town" of rude huts which
accommodates some eight hundred Indians and Siberian convicts, the
working-men of the company. Above the "town," on a high knoll, is a
large grist-mill. Describing an arc of perfect proportions, its midmost
depression a mile behind the Fort, a great mountain forms a natural
rampart. At either extreme it tapers to the jagged cliffs. On its three
lower tables the mountain is green and bare; then abruptly rises a
forest of redwoods, tall, rigid, tenebrious.
The mountain is visible but a moment. An immense white fog-bank which
has been crouching on the horizon rears suddenly and rushes across the
ocean, whose low mutter rises to a roar. It sweeps like a tidal wave
across cliffs and Fort. It halts abruptly against the face of the
mountain. In the same moment the ocean stills. It would almost seem that
Nature held her breath, awaiting some awful event.
Suddenly, in the very middle of the fog-bank, appears the shadowy figure
of a woman. She is gliding—to the right—rapidly and stealthily. Youth
is in her slender grace, her delicate profile, dimly outlined. Her long
silver-blond hair is unbound and luminously distinct from the white
fog. She walks swiftly across the lower table of the mountain, then
disappears. One sees, vaguely, a dark figure crouching along the lower
fringe of the fog. That, too, disappears.
For a moment the silence seems intensified. Then, suddenly, it is
crossed by a low whir—a strange sound in the midnight. Then a shriek
whose like is never heard save when a soul is wrenched without warning
in frightfullest torture from its body. Then another and another
and another in rapid succession, each fainter and more horrible in
suggestion than the last. With them has mingled the single frenzied cry
of a man. A moment later a confused hubbub arises from the Fort and
town, followed by the flashes of many lights and the report of musketry.
Then the fog presses downward on the scene. All sound but that of the
ocean, which seems to have drawn into its loud dull voice all the angers
of all the dead, ceases as though muffled. The fog lingers a moment,
then drifts back as it came, and Fort Ross is the Fort Ross of to-day.
And this is the story:—
When the Princess Hélène de Gagarin married Alexander Rotscheff, she
little anticipated that she would spend her honeymoon in the northern
wilds of the Californias. Nevertheless, when her husband was appointed
Governor of the Fort Ross and Bodega branch of the great Alaskan Fur
Company, she volunteered at once to go with him—being in that stage of
devotion which may be termed the emotionally heroic as distinguished
from the later of non-resistance. As the exile would last but a few
years, and as she was a lady of a somewhat adventurous spirit, to say
nothing of the fact that she was deeply in love, her interpretation of
wifely duty hardly wore the hue of martyrdom even to herself.
Notwithstanding, and although she had caused to be prepared a large case
of books and eight trunks of ravishing raiment, she decided that life in
a fort hidden between the mountains and the sea, miles away from even
the primitive Spanish civilization, might hang burdensomely at such
whiles as her husband's duties claimed him and books ceased to amuse. So
she determined to ask the friend of her twenty-three years, the Countess
Natalie Ivanhoff, to accompany her. She had, also, an unselfish motive
in so doing. Not only did she cherish for the Countess Natalie a real
affection, but her friend was as deeply wretched as she was happy.
Two years before, the Prince Alexis Mikhaïlof, betrothed of Natalie
Ivanhoff, had been, without explanation or chance of parting word,
banished to Siberia under sentence of perpetual exile. Later had come
rumour of his escape, then of death, then of recapture. Nothing definite
could be learned. When the Princess Hélène made her invitation, it was
accepted gratefully, hope suggesting that in the New World might be
found relief from the torture that was relived in every vibration of the
invisible wires that held memory fast to the surroundings in which the
terrible impressions, etchers of memory, had their genesis.
They arrived in summer, and found the long log house, with its low
ceilings and rude finish, admirably comfortable within. By aid of the
great case of things Rotscheff had brought, it quickly became an abode
of luxury. Thick carpets covered every floor; arras hid the rough walls;
books and pictures and handsome ornaments crowded each other; every
chair had been designed for comfort as well as elegance; the dining
table was hidden beneath finest damask, and glittered with silver and
crystal. It was an unwritten law that every one should dress for dinner;
and with the rich curtains hiding the gloomy mountain and the long
sweep of cliffs intersected by gorge and gulch, it was easy for the
gay congenial band of exiles to forget that they were not eating the
delicacies of their French cook and drinking their costly wines in the
In the daytime the women—several of the officers' wives had braved the
wilderness—found much diversion in riding through the dark forests
or along the barren cliffs, attended always by an armed guard. Diego
Estenega, the Spanish magnate of the North, whose ranchos adjoined Fort
Ross, and who was financially interested in the Russian fur trade, soon
became an intimate of the Rotscheff household. A Californian by birth,
he was, nevertheless, a man of modern civilization, travelled, a
student, and a keen lover of masculine sports. Although the most
powerful man in the politics of his conservative country, he was an
American in appearance and dress. His cloth or tweed suggested the
colorous magnificence of the caballeros as little as did his thin
nervous figure and grim pallid intellectual face. Rotscheff liked him
better than any man he had ever met; with the Princess he usually waged
war, that lady being clever, quick, and wedded to her own opinions.
For Natalie he felt a sincere friendship at once. Being a man of keen
sympathies and strong impulses, he divined her trouble before he heard
her story, and desired to help her.
The Countess Natalie, despite the Governor's prohibition, was addicted
to roving over the cliffs by herself, finding kinship in the sterile
crags and futile restlessness of the ocean. She had learned that
although change of scene lightened the burden, only death would release
her from herself.
"She will get over it," said the Princess Hélène to Estenega. "I was in
love twice before I met Alex, so I know. Natalie is so beautiful that
some day some man, who will not look in the least like poor Alexis, will
make her forget."
Estenega, being a man of the world and having consequently outgrown the
cynicism of youth, also knowing women better than this fair Minerva
would know them in twenty lifetimes, thought differently, and a battle
Natalie, meanwhile, wandered along the cliffs. She passed the town
hurriedly. Several times when in its vicinity before, the magnetism of
an intense gaze had given her a thrill of alarm, and once or twice she
had met face to face the miller's son—a forbidding youth with the
skull of the Tartar and the coarse black hair and furtive eyes of the
Indian—whose admiration of her beauty had been annoyingly apparent. She
was not conscious of observation to-day, however, and skirted the cliffs
rapidly, drawing her gray mantle about her as the wind howled by, but
did not lift the hood; the massive coils of silver-blond hair kept her
As the Princess Hélène, despite her own faultless blondinity, had
pronounced, Natalie Ivanhoff was a beautiful woman. Her profile had the
delicate effect produced by the chisel. Her white skin was transparent
and untinted, but the mouth was scarlet. The large long eyes of a
changeful blue-gray, although limpid of surface, were heavy with the
sadness of a sad spirit. Their natural fire was quenched just as the
slight compression of her lips had lessened the sensuous fulness of
But she had suffered so bitterly and so variously that the points had
been broken off her nerves, she told herself, and, excepting when her
trouble mounted suddenly like a wave within her, her mind was tranquil.
Grief with her had expressed itself in all its forms. She had known what
it was to be crushed into semi-insensibility; she had thrilled as the
tears rushed and the sobs shook her until every nerve ached and her very
fingers cramped; and she had gone wild at other times, burying her head,
that her screams might not be heard: the last, as imagination pictured
her lover's certain physical suffering. But of all agonies, none could
approximate to that induced by Death. When that rumour reached her,
she realized that hope had given her some measure of support, and
how insignificant all other trouble is beside that awful blank, that
mystery, whose single revelation is the houseless soul's unreturning
flight from the only world we are sure of. When the contradicting rumour
came, she clutched at hope and clung to it.
"It is the only reason I do not kill myself," she thought, as she stood
on the jutting brow of the cliff and looked down on the masses of huge
stones which, with the gaunt outlying rocks, had once hung on the face
of the crags. The great breakers boiled over them with the ponderosity
peculiar to the waters of the Pacific. The least of those breakers would
carry her far into the hospitable ocean.
"It is so easy to die and be at peace; the only thing which makes life
supportable is the knowledge of Death's quick obedience. And the tragedy
of life is not that we cannot forget, but that we can. Think of being an
old woman with not so much as a connecting current between the memory
and the heart, the long interval blocked with ten thousand petty events
and trials! It must be worse than this. I shall have gone over the cliff
long before that time comes. I would go to-day, but I cannot leave the
world while he is in it."
She drew a case from her pocket, and opened it. It showed the portrait
of a young man with the sombre eyes and cynical mouth of the northern
European, a face revealing intellect, will, passion, and much
recklessness. Eyes and hair were dark, the face smooth but for a slight
Natalie burst into wild tears, revelling in the solitude that gave her
freedom. She pressed the picture against her face, and cried her agony
aloud to the ocean. Thrilling memories rushed through her, and she lived
again the first ecstasy of grief. She did not fling herself upon the
ground, or otherwise indulge in the acrobatics of woe, but she shook
from head to foot. Between the heavy sobs her breath came in hard gasps,
and tears poured, hiding the gray desolation of the scene.
Suddenly, through it all, she became conscious that some one was
watching her. Instinctively she knew that it was the same gaze which so
often had alarmed her. Fear routed every other passion. She realized
that she was unprotected, a mile from the Fort, out of the line of its
vision. The brutal head of the miller's son seemed to thrust itself
before her face. Overwhelmed with terror, she turned swiftly and ran,
striking blindly among the low bushes, her glance darting from right to
left. No one was to be seen for a moment; then she turned the corner of
a boulder and came upon a man. She shrieked and covered her face with
her hands, now too frightened to move. The man neither stirred nor
spoke; and, despite this alarming circumstance, her disordered brain,
in the course of a moment, conceived the thought that no subject of
Rotscheff would dare to harm her.
Moreover, her brief glance had informed her that this was not the
miller's son; which fact, illogically, somewhat tempered her fear. She
removed her hands and compelled herself to look sternly at the creature
who had dared to raise his eyes to the Countess Natalie Ivanhoff. She
was puzzled to find something familiar about him. His grizzled hair
was long, but not unkempt. The lower part of his face was covered by
a beard. He was almost fleshless; but in his sunken eyes burned
unquenchable fire, and there was a determined vigour in his gaunt
figure. He might have been any age. Assuredly, the outward seeming of
youth was not there, but its suggestion still lingered tenaciously in
the spirit which glowed through the worn husk. And about him, in spite
of the rough garb and blackened skin, was an unmistakable air of
Natalie, as she looked, grew rigid. Then she uttered a cry of rapturous
horror, staggered, and was caught in a fierce embrace. Her stunned
senses awoke in a moment, and she clung to him, crying wildly, holding
him with straining arms, filled with bitter happiness.
In a few moments he pushed her from him and regarded her sadly.
"You are as beautiful as ever," he said; "but I—look at me! Old,
hideous, ragged! I am not fit to touch you; I never meant to. Go! I
shall never blame you."
For answer she sprang to him again.
"What difference is it how you look?" she cried, still sobbing. "Is it
not you? Are not you in here just the same? What matter? What matter?
No matter what you looked through, you would be the same. Listen," she
continued rapidly, after a moment. "We are in a new country; there is
hope for us. If we can reach the Spanish towns of the South, we are
safe. I will ask Don Diego Estenega to help us, and he is not the man to
refuse. He stays with us to-night, and I will speak alone with him. Meet
me to-morrow night—where? At the grist-mill at midnight. We had better
not meet by day again. Perhaps we can go then. You will be there?"
"Will I be there? God! Of course I will be there."
And, the brief details of their flight concluded, they forgot it and all
else for the hour.
Natalie could not obtain speech alone with Estenega that evening; but
the next morning the Princess Hélène commanded her household and guest
to accompany her up the hill to the orchard at the foot of the forest;
and there, while the others wandered over the knolls of the shadowy
enclosure, Natalie managed to tell her story. Estenega offered his help
"At twelve to-night," he said, "I will wait for you in the forest with
horses, and will guide you myself to Monterey. I have a house there, and
you can leave on the first barque for Boston."
As soon as the party returned to the Fort, Estenega excused himself and
left for his home. The day passed with maddening slowness to Natalie.
She spent the greater part of it walking up and down the immediate
cliffs, idly watching the men capturing the seals and otters, the
ship-builders across the gulch. As she returned at sunset to the
enclosure, she saw the miller's son standing by the gates, gazing at her
with hungry admiration. He inspired her with sudden fury.
"Never presume to look at me again," she said harshly. "If you do, I
shall report you to the Governor."
And without waiting to note how he accepted the mandate, she swept by
him and entered the Fort, the gates clashing behind her.
The inmates of Fort Ross were always in bed by eleven o'clock. At that
hour not a sound was to be heard but the roar of the ocean, the soft
pacing of the sentry on the ramparts, the cry of the panther in the
forest. On the evening in question, after the others had retired,
Natalie, trembling with excitement, made a hasty toilet, changing her
evening gown for a gray travelling frock. Her heavy hair came unbound,
and her shaking hands refused to adjust the close coils. As it fell over
her gray mantle it looked so lovely, enveloping her with the silver
sheen of mist, that she smiled in sad vanity, remembering happier days,
and decided to let her lover see her so. She could braid her hair at the
A moment or two before twelve she raised the window and swung herself to
the ground. The sentry was on the rampart opposite: she could not make
her exit by that gate. She walked softly around the buildings, keeping
in their shadow, and reached the gates facing the forest. They were not
difficult to unbar, and in a moment she stood without, free. She could
not see the mountain; a heavy bank of white fog lay against it, resting,
after its long flight over the ocean, before it returned, or swept
onward to ingulf the redwoods.
She went with noiseless step up the path, then turned and walked swiftly
toward the mill. She was very nervous; mingling with the low voice of
the ocean she imagined she heard the moans with which beheaded convicts
were said to haunt the night. Once she thought she heard a footstep
behind her, and paused, her heart beating audibly. But the sound ceased
with her own soft footfalls, and the fog was so dense that she could see
nothing. The ground was soft, and she was beyond the sentry's earshot;
she ran at full speed across the field, down the gorge, and up the steep
knoll. As she reached the top, she was taken in Mikhaïlof's arms. For
a few moments she was too breathless to speak; then she told him her
"Let me braid my hair," she said finally, "and we will go."
He drew her within the mill, then lit a lantern and held it above her
head, his eyes dwelling passionately on her beauty, enhanced by the
colour of excitement and rapid exercise.
"You look like the moon queen," he said. "I missed your hair, apart from
She lifted her chin with a movement of coquetry most graceful in spite
of long disuse, and the answering fire sprang into her eyes. She looked
very piquant and a trifle diabolical. He pressed his lips suddenly
on hers. A moment later something tugged at the long locks his hand
caressed, and at the same time he became conscious that the silence
which had fallen between them was shaken by a loud whir. He glanced
upward. Natalie was standing with her back to one of the band-wheels. It
had begun to revolve; in the moment it increased its speed; and he saw a
glittering web on its surface. With an exclamation of horror, he pulled
her toward him; but he was too late. The wheel, spinning now with the
velocity of midday, caught the whole silver cloud in its spokes, and
Natalie was swept suddenly upward. Her feet hit the low rafters, and she
was whirled round and round, screams of torture torn from her rather
than uttered, her body describing a circular right angle to the shaft,
the bones breaking as they struck the opposite one; then, in swift
finality, she was sucked between belt and wheel. Mikhaïlof managed to
get into the next room and reverse the lever. The machinery stopped as
abruptly as it had started; but Natalie was out of her agony.
Her lover flung himself over the cliffs, shattering bones and skull
on the stones at their base. They made her a coffin out of the copper
plates used for their ships, and laid her in the straggling unpopulous
cemetery on the knoll across the gulch beyond the chapel.
"When we go, we will take her," said Rotscheff to his distracted wife.
But when they went, a year or two after, in the hurry of departure they
forgot her until too late. They promised to return. But they never came,
and she sleeps there still, on the lonely knoll between the sunless
forest and the desolate ocean.