Virgin Soil, by Ivan Turgenev

XXX

A FORTNIGHT later, in the same room, Nejdanov sat bending over his three-legged table, writing to his friend Silin by the dim light of a tallow candle. (It was long past midnight. Muddy garments lay scattered on the sofa, on the floor, just where they had been thrown off. A fine drizzly rain pattered against the window-panes and a strong, warm wind moaned about the roof of the house.)

MY DEAR VLADIMIR — I am writing to you without giving my address and will send this letter by a messenger to a distant posting- station as my being here is a secret, and to disclose it might mean the ruin not of myself alone. It is enough for you to know that for the last two weeks I have been living in a large factory together with Mariana. We ran away from the Sipiagins on the day on which I last wrote to you. A friend has given us shelter here. For convenience sake I will call him Vassily. He is the chief here and an excellent man. Our stay is only of a temporary nature; we will move on when the time for action comes. But, however, judging by events so far, the time is hardly likely ever to come! Vladimir, I am horribly miserable. I must tell you before everything that although Mariana and I ran away together, we have so far been living like brother and sister. She loves me and told me she would be mine if I feel I have the right to ask it of her.

Vladimir, I do not feel that I have the right! She trusts me, believes in my honour — I cannot deceive her. I know that I never loved nor will ever love any one more than her (of that I am convinced), but for all that, how can I unite her fate forever with mine? A living being to a corpse? Well, if not a complete corpse, at any rate, a half-dead creature. Where would one’s conscience be? I can hear you say that if passion was strong enough the conscience would be silent. But that is just the point; I am a corpse, an honest, well-meaning corpse if you like, but a corpse nevertheless. Please do not say that I always exaggerate. Everything I have told you is absolutely true. Mariana is very reserved and is at present wrapped up in her activities in which she believes, and I?

Well, enough of love and personal happiness and all that. It is now a fortnight since I have been going among “the people,” and really it would be impossible to imagine anything more stupid than they are. Of course the fault lies probably more in me than in the work itself. I am not a fanatic. I am not one of those who regenerate themselves by contact with the people and do not lay them on my aching bosom like a flannel bandage — I want to influence them. But how? How can it be done? When I am among them I find myself listening all the time, taking things in, but when it comes to saying anything — I am at a loss for a word! I feel that I am no good, a bad actor in a part that does not suit him. Conscientiousness or scepticism are absolutely of no use, nor is a pitiful sort of humour directed against oneself. It is worse than useless! I find it disgusting to look at the filthy rags I carry about on me, the masquerade as Vassily calls it! They say you must first learn the language of the people, their habits and customs, but rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, I say! You have only to BELIEVE in what you say and say what you like! I once happened to hear a sectarian prophet delivering a sermon. Goodness only knows what arrant nonsense he talked, a sort of gorgeous mix-up of ecclesiastical learning, interspersed with peasant expressions, not even in decent Russian, but in some outlandish dialect, but he took one by storm with his enthusiasm — went straight to the heart. There he stood with flashing eyes, the voice deep and firm, with clenched fist — as though he were made of iron! No one understood what he was saying, but everyone bowed down before him and followed him. But when I begin to speak, I seem like a culprit begging for forgiveness. I ought to join the sectarians, although their wisdom is not great . . . but they have faith, faith!

Mariana too has faith. She works from morning until night with Tatiana — a peasant woman here, as good as can be and not by any means stupid; she says, by the way, that we want to become simplified and calls us simple souls. Mariana is about working with this woman from morning until night, scarcely sitting down for a moment, just like a regular ant! She is delighted that her hands are turning red and rough, and in the midst of these humble occupations is looking forward to the scaffold! She has even attempted to discard shoes; went out somewhere barefoot and came back barefoot. I heard her washing her feet for a long time afterwards and then saw her come out, treading cautiously; they were evidently sore, poor thing, but her face was radiant with smiles as though she had found a treasure or been illuminated by the sun. Yes, Mariana is a brick! But when I try to talk to her of my feelings, a certain shame comes over me somehow, as though I were violating something that was not my own, and then that glance . . . Oh, that awful devoted, irresistible glance! “Take me,” it seems to say, “BUT REMEMBER . . . .” Enough of this! Is there not something higher and better in this world? In other words, put on your filthy coat and go among the people . . . Oh, yes, I am just going.

How I loathe this irritability, sensitiveness, impressionable- ness, fastidiousness, inherited from my aristocratic father! What right had he to bring me into this world, endowed with qualities quite unsuited to the sphere in which I must live? To create a bird and throw it in the water? An aesthetic amidst filth! A democrat, a lover of the people, yet the very smell of their filthy vodka makes me feel sick!

But it’s too bad blaming my father. He was not responsible for my becoming a democrat.

Yes, Vladimir, I am in a bad plight. Grey, depressing thoughts are continually haunting me. Can it be, you will be asking me, that I have not met with anything consoling, any good living personality, however ignorant he might not be? How shall I tell you? I have run across someone — a decent clever chap, but unfortunately, however hard I may try to get nearer him, he has no need of either me or my pamphlets — that is the root of the matter! Pavel, a factoryhand here (he is Vassily’s right hand, a clever fellow with his head screwed on the right way, a future “head,” I think I wrote to you about him), well this Pavel has a friend, a peasant called Elizar, also a smart chap, as free and courageous as one would wish, but as soon as we get together there seems a dead wall between us! His face spells one big “No!” Then there was another man I ran across — he was a rather quarrelsome type by the way. “Don’t you try to get around me, sir,” he said. “What I want to know is would you give up your land now, or not?” “But I’m not a gentleman,” I remonstrated. ” Bless you!” he exclaimed, “you a common man and no more sense than that! Leave me alone, please!

Another thing I’ve noticed is that if anyone listens to you readily and takes your pamphlets at once, he is sure to be of an undesirable, brainless sort. Or you may chance upon some frightfully talkative individual who can do nothing but keep on repeating some favourite expression. One such nearly drove me mad; everything with him was “production.” No matter what you said to him he came out with his “production,” damn him! Just one more remark.

Do you remember some time ago there used to be a great deal of talk about “superfluous” people — Hamlets? Such “superfluous people” are now to be met with among the peasants! They have their own characteristics of course and are for the most part inclined to consumption. They are interesting types and come to us readily, but as far as the cause is concerned they are ineffective, like all other Hamlets. Well, what can one do? Start a secret printing press? There are pamphlets enough as it is, some that say,” Cross yourself and take up the hatchet,” and others that say simply, “Take up the hatchet” without the crossing. Or should one write novels of peasant life with plenty of padding? They wouldn’t get published, you know. Perhaps it might be better to take up the hatchet after all? But against whom, with whom, and what for? So that our state soldier may shoot us down with the state rifle? It would only be a complicated form of suicide! It would be better to make an end of yourself — you would at any rate know when and how, and choose the spot to aim at.

I am beginning to think that if some war were to break out, some people’s war — I would go and take part in it, not so as to free others (free others while one’s own are groaning under the yoke!!), but to make an end of myself.

Our friend Vassily, who gave us shelter here, is a lucky man. He belongs to our camp, but is so calm and quiet. He doesn’t want to hurry over things. I should have quarrelled with another, but I can’t with him. The secret lies not in his convictions, but in the man himself. Vassily has a character that you can’t kindle, but he’s all right nevertheless. He is with us a good deal, with Mariana. What surprises me is that although I love her and she loves me (I see you smiling at this, but the fact remains!) we have nothing to talk about, while she is constantly discussing and arguing with him and listening too. I am not jealous of him; he is trying to find a place for her somewhere, at any rate, she keeps on asking him to do so, but it makes me feel bitter to look at them both. And would you believe it — I have only to drop a hint about marrying and she would agree at once and the priest Zosim would put in an appearance, “Isaiah, rejoice!” and the rest of it. But this would not make it any easier for me and NOTHING WOULD BE CHANGED BY IT . . . Whatever you do, there is no way out of it! Life has cut me short, my dear Vladimir, as our little drunken tailor used to say, you remember, when he used to complain about his wife.

I have a feeling that it can’t go on somehow, that something is preparing.

Have I not again and again said that the time has come for action? Well, so here we are in the thick of it.

I can’t remember if I told you anything about another friend of mine — a relative of the Sipiagins. He will get himself into such a mess that it won’t be easy for him to get out of it.

I quite meant finishing this letter and am still going on. It seems to me that nothing matters and yet I scribble verses. I don’t read them to Mariana and she is not very anxious to hear them, but you have sometimes praised my poor attempts and most of all you’ll keep them to yourself. I have been struck by a common phenomenon in Russia . . . But, however, let the verses speak for themselves-

SLEEP

After long absence I return to my native land, Finding no striking change there. The same dead, senseless stagnation; crumbling houses, crumbling walls, And the same filth, dirt, poverty, and misery. Unchanged the servile glance, now insolent, now dejected. Free have our people become, and the free arm Hangs as before like a whip unused. All, all as before. In one thing only may we equal Europe, Asia, and the World! Never before has such a fearful sleep oppressed our land.

All are asleep, on all sides are they; Through town and country, in carts and in sledges, By day or night, sitting or standing, The merchant and the official, and the sentinel at his post In biting snow and burning heat — all sleep. The judged ones doze, and the judge snores, And peasants plough and reap like dead men, Father, mother, children; all are asleep. He who beats, and he who is beaten. Alone the tavern of the tsar ne’er closes a relentless eye. So, grasping tight in hand the bottle, His brow at the Pole and his heel in the Caucasus, Holy Russia, our fatherland, lies in eternal sleep.

I am sorry, Vladimir. I never meant to write you such a melancholy letter without a few cheering words at the end. (You will no doubt tumble across some defects in the lines!) When shall I write to you again? Shall I ever write? But whatever happens to me I am sure you will never forget,

Your devoted friend,

A. N.

P.S. — Our people are asleep . . . But I have a feeling that if anything does wake them, it will not be what we think.

After writing the last line, Nejdanov flung down the pen. “Well, now you must try and sleep and forget all this nonsense, scribbler!” he exclaimed, and lay down on the bed. But it was long before he fell asleep.

The next morning Mariana woke him passing through his room on her way to Tatiana. He had scarcely dressed when she came back. She seemed excited, her face expressing delight and anxiety at the same time.

“Do you know, Aliosha, they say that in the province of T., quite near here, it has already begun!”

“What? What has begun? Who said so?”

“Pavel. They say the peasants are rising, refusing to pay taxes, collecting in mobs.”

“Have you heard that yourself?”

“Tatiana told me. But here is Pavel himself. You had better ask him.”

Pavel came in and confirmed what Mariana had said.

“There is certainly some disturbance in T.,” he began, shaking his beard and screwing up his bright black eyes. “Sergai Mihailovitch must have had a hand in it. He hasn’t been home for five days.”

Nejdanov took his cap.

“Where are you off to?” Mariana asked.

“Why there of course,” he replied, not raising his eyes and frowning, “I am going to T.”

“Then I will come with you. You’ll take me, won’t you? Just let me get a shawl.”

“It’s not a woman’s work,” Nejdanov said irritably with his eyes still fixed on the floor.

“No, no! You do well to go, or Markelov would think you a coward . . . but I’m coming with you.”

“I am not a coward,” Nejdanov observed gloomily.

“I meant to say that he would have thought us both cowards. I am coming with you.”

Mariana went into her own room to get a shawl, while Pavel gave an inward ha, ha, and quickly vanished. He ran to warn Solomin.

Mariana had not yet appeared, when Solomin came into Nejdanov’s room. The latter was standing with his face to the window, his forehead resting on the palm of his hand and his elbow on the window-pane. Solomin touched him on the shoulder. He turned around quickly; dishevelled and unwashed, Nejdanov had a strange wild look. Solomin, too, had changed during the last days. His face was yellow and drawn and his upper front teeth showed slightly — he, too, seemed agitated as far as it was possible for his well- balanced temperament to be so.

“Markelov could not control himself after all,” he began. “This may turn out badly both for him and for others.”

“I want to go and see what’s going on there,” Nejdanov observed.

“And I too,” Mariana added as she appeared in the doorway.

Solomin turned to her quickly.

“I would not advise you to go, Mariana. You may give yourself away — and us, without meaning to, and without the slightest necessity. Let Nejdanov go and see how the land lies, if he wants to — and the sooner he’s back the better! But why should you go?”

“I don’t want to be parted from him.”

“You will be in his way.”

Mariana looked at Nejdanov. He was standing motionless with a set sullen expression on his face.

“But supposing there should be danger?” she asked.

Solomin smiled.

“Don’t be afraid . . . when there’s danger I will let you go.”

Mariana took off her shawl without a word and sat down. Solomin then turned to Nejdanov.

“It would be a good thing for you to look about a little, Alexai. I dare say they exaggerate. Only do be careful. But, however, you will not be going alone. Come back as quickly as you can. Will you promise? Nejdanov? Will you promise?”

“Yes.”

“For certain?

“I suppose so, since everybody here obeys you, including Mariana.”

Nejdanov went out without saying goodbye. Pavel appeared from somewhere out of the darkness and ran down the stairs before him with a great clatter of his hob-nailed boots. Was HE then to accompany Nejdanov?

Solomin sat down beside Mariana.

“You heard Nejdanov’s last word?”

“Yes. He is annoyed that I listen to you more than to him. But it’s quite true. I love him and listen to you. He is dear to me . . . and you are near to me.

Solomin stroked her hand gently.

“This is a very unpleasant business,” he observed at last. “If Markelov is mixed up in it then he’s a lost man.”

Mariana shuddered.

“Lost?”

“Yes. He doesn’t do things by halves — and won’t hide things for the sake of others.”

“Lost! “ Mariana whispered again as the tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, Vassily Fedotitch! I feel so sorry for him. But what makes you think that he won’t succeed? Why must he inevitably be lost?”

“Because in such enterprises the first always perish even if they come off victorious. And in this thing not only the first and second, but the tenth and twentieth will perish —”

“Then we shall never live to see it?

“What you have in your mind — never. We shall never see it with our eyes; with these living eyes of ours. But with our spiritual . . . but that is another matter. We may see it in that way now; there is nothing to hinder us.”

“Then why do you —”

“What?”

“Why do you follow this road?”

“Because there is no other. I mean that my aims are the same as Markelov’s — but our paths are different.”

“Poor Sergai Mihailovitch!” Mariana exclaimed sadly. Solomin passed his hand cautiously over hers.

“There, there, we know nothing as yet. We’ll see what news Pavel brings back. In our calling one must be brave. The English have a proverb ‘Never say die.’ A very good proverb, I think, much better than our Russian, ‘When trouble knocks, open the gates wide!’ We mustn’t meet trouble half way.”

Solomin stood up.

“And the place you were going to find me?” Mariana asked suddenly. The tears were still shining on her cheeks, but there was no sadness in her eyes. Solomin sat down again.

“Are you in such a great hurry to get away from here?

“Oh, no! Only I wanted to do something useful.”

“You are useful here, Mariana. Don’t leave us yet, wait a little longer. What is it?” Solomin asked of Tatiana who was just coming in.

“Some sort of female is asking for Alexai Dmitritch,” Tatiana replied, laughing and gesticulating with her hands.

“I said that there was no such person living here, that we did not know him at all, when she —”

“Who is she? ”

“Why the female of course. She wrote her name on this piece of paper and asked me to bring it here and let her in, saying that if Alexai Dmitritch was really not at home, she could wait for him.”

On the paper was written in large letters “Mashurina.”

“Show her in,” Solomin said. “You don’t mind my asking her in here, Mariana, do you? She is also one of us.”

“Not at all.”

A few moments later Mashurina appeared in the doorway, in the same dress in which we saw her at the beginning of the first chapter.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05