This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.
Last updated Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 12:58.
To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
ONE day when she was younger and better-looking, and when her voice was stronger, Nikolay Petrovitch Kolpakov, her adorer, was sitting in the outer room in her summer villa. It was intolerably hot and stifling. Kolpakov, who had just dined and drunk a whole bottle of inferior port, felt ill-humoured and out of sorts. Both were bored and waiting for the heat of the day to be over in order to go for a walk.
All at once there was a sudden ring at the door. Kolpakov, who was sitting with his coat off, in his slippers, jumped up and looked inquiringly at Pasha.
“It must be the postman or one of the girls,” said the singer.
Kolpakov did not mind being found by the postman or Pasha’s lady friends, but by way of precaution gathered up his clothes and went into the next room, while Pasha ran to open the door. To her great surprise in the doorway stood, not the postman and not a girl friend, but an unknown woman, young and beautiful, who was dressed like a lady, and from all outward signs was one.
The stranger was pale and was breathing heavily as though she had been running up a steep flight of stairs.
“What is it?” asked Pasha.
The lady did not at once answer. She took a step forward, slowly looked about the room, and sat down in a way that suggested that from fatigue, or perhaps illness, she could not stand; then for a long time her pale lips quivered as she tried in vain to speak.
“Is my husband here?” she asked at last, raising to Pasha her big eyes with their red tear-stained lids.
“Husband?” whispered Pasha, and was suddenly so frightened that her hands and feet turned cold. “What husband?” she repeated, beginning to tremble.
“My husband, . . . Nikolay Petrovitch Kolpakov.”
“N . . . no, madam. . . . I . . . I don’t know any husband.”
A minute passed in silence. The stranger several times passed her handkerchief over her pale lips and held her breath to stop her inward trembling, while Pasha stood before her motionless, like a post, and looked at her with astonishment and terror.
“So you say he is not here?” the lady asked, this time speaking with a firm voice and smiling oddly.
“I . . . I don’t know who it is you are asking about.”
“You are horrid, mean, vile . . .” the stranger muttered, scanning Pasha with hatred and repulsion. “Yes, yes . . . you are horrid. I am very, very glad that at last I can tell you so!”
Pasha felt that on this lady in black with the angry eyes and white slender fingers she produced the impression of something horrid and unseemly, and she felt ashamed of her chubby red cheeks, the pock-mark on her nose, and the fringe on her forehead, which never could be combed back. And it seemed to her that if she had been thin, and had had no powder on her face and no fringe on her forehead, then she could have disguised the fact that she was not “respectable,” and she would not have felt so frightened and ashamed to stand facing this unknown, mysterious lady.
“Where is my husband?” the lady went on. “Though I don’t care whether he is here or not, but I ought to tell you that the money has been missed, and they are looking for Nikolay Petrovitch. . . . They mean to arrest him. That’s your doing!”
The lady got up and walked about the room in great excitement. Pasha looked at her and was so frightened that she could not understand.
“He’ll be found and arrested today,” said the lady, and she gave a sob, and in that sound could be heard her resentment and vexation. “I know who has brought him to this awful position! Low, horrid creature! Loathsome, mercenary hussy!” The lady’s lips worked and her nose wrinkled up with disgust. “I am helpless, do you hear, you low woman? . . . I am helpless; you are stronger than I am, but there is One to defend me and my children! God sees all! He is just! He will punish you for every tear I have shed, for all my sleepless nights! The time will come; you will think of me! . . .”
Silence followed again. The lady walked about the room and wrung her hands, while Pasha still gazed blankly at her in amazement, not understanding and expecting something terrible.
“I know nothing about it, madam,” she said, and suddenly burst into tears.
“You are lying!” cried the lady, and her eyes flashed angrily at her. “I know all about it! I’ve known you a long time. I know that for the last month he has been spending every day with you!”
“Yes. What then? What of it? I have a great many visitors, but I don’t force anyone to come. He is free to do as he likes.”
“I tell you they have discovered that money is missing! He has embezzled money at the office! For the sake of such a . . . creature as you, for your sake he has actually committed a crime. Listen,” said the lady in a resolute voice, stopping short, facing Pasha. “You can have no principles; you live simply to do harm — that’s your object; but one can’t imagine you have fallen so low that you have no trace of human feeling left! He has a wife, children. . . . If he is condemned and sent into exile we shall starve, the children and I. . . . Understand that! And yet there is a chance of saving him and us from destitution and disgrace. If I take them nine hundred roubles today they will let him alone. Only nine hundred roubles!”
“What nine hundred roubles?” Pasha asked softly. “I . . . I don’t know. . . . I haven’t taken it.”
“I am not asking you for nine hundred roubles. . . . You have no money, and I don’t want your money. I ask you for something else. . . . Men usually give expensive things to women like you. Only give me back the things my husband has given you!”
“Madam, he has never made me a present of anything!” Pasha wailed, beginning to understand.
“Where is the money? He has squandered his own and mine and other people’s. . . . What has become of it all? Listen, I beg you! I was carried away by indignation and have said a lot of nasty things to you, but I apologize. You must hate me, I know, but if you are capable of sympathy, put yourself in my position! I implore you to give me back the things!”
“H’m!” said Pasha, and she shrugged her shoulders. “I would with pleasure, but God is my witness, he never made me a present of anything. Believe me, on my conscience. However, you are right, though,” said the singer in confusion, “he did bring me two little things. Certainly I will give them back, if you wish it.”
Pasha pulled out one of the drawers in the toilet-table and took out of it a hollow gold bracelet and a thin ring with a ruby in it.
“Here, madam!” she said, handing the visitor these articles.
The lady flushed and her face quivered. She was offended.
“What are you giving me?” she said. “I am not asking for charity, but for what does not belong to you . . . what you have taken advantage of your position to squeeze out of my husband . . . that weak, unhappy man. . . . On Thursday, when I saw you with my husband at the harbour you were wearing expensive brooches and bracelets. So it’s no use your playing the innocent lamb to me! I ask you for the last time: will you give me the things, or not?”
“You are a queer one, upon my word,” said Pasha, beginning to feel offended. “I assure you that, except the bracelet and this little ring, I’ve never seen a thing from your Nikolay Petrovitch. He brings me nothing but sweet cakes.”
“Sweet cakes!” laughed the stranger. “At home the children have nothing to eat, and here you have sweet cakes. You absolutely refuse to restore the presents?”
Receiving no answer, the lady sat, down and stared into space, pondering.
“What’s to be done now?” she said. “If I don’t get nine hundred roubles, he is ruined, and the children and I am ruined, too. Shall I kill this low woman or go down on my knees to her?”
The lady pressed her handkerchief to her face and broke into sobs.
“I beg you!” Pasha heard through the stranger’s sobs. “You see you have plundered and ruined my husband. Save him. . . . You have no feeling for him, but the children . . . the children . . . What have the children done?”
Pasha imagined little children standing in the street, crying with hunger, and she, too, sobbed.
“What can I do, madam?” she said. “You say that I am a low woman and that I have ruined Nikolay Petrovitch, and I assure you . . . before God Almighty, I have had nothing from him whatever. . . . There is only one girl in our chorus who has a rich admirer; all the rest of us live from hand to mouth on bread and kvass. Nikolay Petrovitch is a highly educated, refined gentleman, so I’ve made him welcome. We are bound to make gentlemen welcome.”
“I ask you for the things! Give me the things! I am crying. . . . I am humiliating myself. . . . If you like I will go down on my knees! If you wish it!”
Pasha shrieked with horror and waved her hands. She felt that this pale, beautiful lady who expressed herself so grandly, as though she were on the stage, really might go down on her knees to her, simply from pride, from grandeur, to exalt herself and humiliate the chorus girl.
“Very well, I will give you things!” said Pasha, wiping her eyes and bustling about. “By all means. Only they are not from Nikolay Petrovitch. . . . I got these from other gentlemen. As you please . . . .”
Pasha pulled out the upper drawer of the chest, took out a diamond brooch, a coral necklace, some rings and bracelets, and gave them all to the lady.
“Take them if you like, only I’ve never had anything from your husband. Take them and grow rich,” Pasha went on, offended at the threat to go down on her knees. “And if you are a lady . . . his lawful wife, you should keep him to yourself. I should think so! I did not ask him to come; he came of himself.”
Through her tears the lady scrutinized the articles given her and said:
“This isn’t everything. . . . There won’t be five hundred roubles’ worth here.”
Pasha impulsively flung out of the chest a gold watch, a cigar-case and studs, and said, flinging up her hands:
“I’ve nothing else left. . . . You can search!”
The visitor gave a sigh, with trembling hands twisted the things up in her handkerchief, and went out without uttering a word, without even nodding her head.
The door from the next room opened and Kolpakov walked in. He was pale and kept shaking his head nervously, as though he had swallowed something very bitter; tears were glistening in his eyes.
“What presents did you make me?” Pasha asked, pouncing upon him. “When did you, allow me to ask you?”
“Presents . . . that’s no matter!” said Kolpakov, and he tossed his head. “My God! She cried before you, she humbled herself . . . .”
“I am asking you, what presents did you make me?” Pasha cried.
“My God! She, a lady, so proud, so pure. . . . She was ready to go down on her knees to . . . to this wench! And I’ve brought her to this! I’ve allowed it!”
He clutched his head in his hands and moaned.
“No, I shall never forgive myself for this! I shall never forgive myself! Get away from me . . . you low creature!” he cried with repulsion, backing away from Pasha, and thrusting her off with trembling hands. “She would have gone down on her knees, and . . . and to you! Oh, my God!”
He rapidly dressed, and pushing Pasha aside contemptuously, made for the door and went out.
Pasha lay down and began wailing aloud. She was already regretting her things which she had given away so impulsively, and her feelings were hurt. She remembered how three years ago a merchant had beaten her for no sort of reason, and she wailed more loudly than ever.
IVAN ALEXEYITCH OGNEV remembers how on that August evening he opened the glass door with a rattle and went out on to the verandah. He was wearing a light Inverness cape and a wide-brimmed straw hat, the very one that was lying with his top-boots in the dust under his bed. In one hand he had a big bundle of books and notebooks, in the other a thick knotted stick.
Behind the door, holding the lamp to show the way, stood the master of the house, Kuznetsov, a bald old man with a long grey beard, in a snow-white piqué jacket. The old man was smiling cordially and nodding his head.
“Good-bye, old fellow!” said Ognev.
Kuznetsov put the lamp on a little table and went out to the verandah. Two long narrow shadows moved down the steps towards the flower-beds, swayed to and fro, and leaned their heads on the trunks of the lime-trees.
“Good-bye and once more thank you, my dear fellow!” said Ivan Alexeyitch. “Thank you for your welcome, for your kindness, for your affection. . . . I shall never forget your hospitality as long as I live. You are so good, and your daughter is so good, and everyone here is so kind, so good-humoured and friendly . . . Such a splendid set of people that I don’t know how to say what I feel!”
From excess of feeling and under the influence of the home-made wine he had just drunk, Ognev talked in a singing voice like a divinity student, and was so touched that he expressed his feelings not so much by words as by the blinking of his eyes and the twitching of his shoulders. Kuznetsov, who had also drunk a good deal and was touched, craned forward to the young man and kissed him.
“I’ve grown as fond of you as if I were your dog,” Ognev went on. “I’ve been turning up here almost every day; I’ve stayed the night a dozen times. It’s dreadful to think of all the home-made wine I’ve drunk. And thank you most of all for your cooperation and help. Without you I should have been busy here over my statistics till October. I shall put in my preface: ‘I think it my duty to express my gratitude to the President of the District Zemstvo of N— — Kuznetsov, for his kind cooperation.’ There is a brilliant future before statistics! My humble respects to Vera Gavrilovna, and tell the doctors, both the lawyers and your secretary, that I shall never forget their help! And now, old fellow, let us embrace one another and kiss for the last time!”
Ognev, limp with emotion, kissed the old man once more and began going down the steps. On the last step he looked round and asked: “Shall we meet again some day?”
“God knows!” said the old man. “Most likely not!”
“Yes, that’s true! Nothing will tempt you to Petersburg and I am never likely to turn up in this district again. Well, good-bye!”
“You had better leave the books behind!” Kuznetsov called after him. “You don’t want to drag such a weight with you. I would send them by a servant tomorrow!”
But Ognev was rapidly walking away from the house and was not listening. His heart, warmed by the wine, was brimming over with good-humour, friendliness, and sadness. He walked along thinking how frequently one met with good people, and what a pity it was that nothing was left of those meetings but memories. At times one catches a glimpse of cranes on the horizon, and a faint gust of wind brings their plaintive, ecstatic cry, and a minute later, however greedily one scans the blue distance, one cannot see a speck nor catch a sound; and like that, people with their faces and their words flit through our lives and are drowned in the past, leaving nothing except faint traces in the memory. Having been in the N—— District from the early spring, and having been almost every day at the friendly Kuznetsovs’, Ivan Alexeyitch had become as much at home with the old man, his daughter, and the servants as though they were his own people; he had grown familiar with the whole house to the smallest detail, with the cosy verandah, the windings of the avenues, the silhouettes of the trees over the kitchen and the bath-house; but as soon as he was out of the gate all this would be changed to memory and would lose its meaning as reality for ever, and in a year or two all these dear images would grow as dim in his consciousness as stories he had read or things he had imagined.
“Nothing in life is so precious as people!” Ognev thought in his emotion, as he strode along the avenue to the gate. “Nothing!”
It was warm and still in the garden. There was a scent of the mignonette, of the tobacco-plants, and of the heliotrope, which were not yet over in the flower-beds. The spaces between the bushes and the tree-trunks were filled with a fine soft mist soaked through and through with moonlight, and, as Ognev long remembered, coils of mist that looked like phantoms slowly but perceptibly followed one another across the avenue. The moon stood high above the garden, and below it transparent patches of mist were floating eastward. The whole world seemed to consist of nothing but black silhouettes and wandering white shadows. Ognev, seeing the mist on a moonlight August evening almost for the first time in his life, imagined he was seeing, not nature, but a stage effect in which unskilful workmen, trying to light up the garden with white Bengal fire, hid behind the bushes and let off clouds of white smoke together with the light.
When Ognev reached the garden gate a dark shadow moved away from the low fence and came towards him.
“Vera Gavrilovna!” he said, delighted. “You here? And I have been looking everywhere for you; wanted to say good-bye. . . . Good-bye; I am going away!”
“So early? Why, it’s only eleven o’clock.”
“Yes, it’s time I was off. I have a four-mile walk and then my packing. I must be up early tomorrow.”
Before Ognev stood Kuznetsov’s daughter Vera, a girl of one-and-twenty, as usual melancholy, carelessly dressed, and attractive. Girls who are dreamy and spend whole days lying down, lazily reading whatever they come across, who are bored and melancholy, are usually careless in their dress. To those of them who have been endowed by nature with taste and an instinct of beauty, the slight carelessness adds a special charm. When Ognev later on remembered her, he could not picture pretty Verotchka except in a full blouse which was crumpled in deep folds at the belt and yet did not touch her waist; without her hair done up high and a curl that had come loose from it on her forehead; without the knitted red shawl with ball fringe at the edge which hung disconsolately on Vera’s shoulders in the evenings, like a flag on a windless day, and in the daytime lay about, crushed up, in the hall near the men’s hats or on a box in the dining-room, where the old cat did not hesitate to sleep on it. This shawl and the folds of her blouse suggested a feeling of freedom and laziness, of good-nature and sitting at home. Perhaps because Vera attracted Ognev he saw in every frill and button something warm, naïve, cosy, something nice and poetical, just what is lacking in cold, insincere women that have no instinct for beauty.
Verotchka had a good figure, a regular profile, and beautiful curly hair. Ognev, who had seen few women in his life, thought her a beauty.
“I am going away,” he said as he took leave of her at the gate. “Don’t remember evil against me! Thank you for everything!”
In the same singing divinity student’s voice in which he had talked to her father, with the same blinking and twitching of his shoulders, he began thanking Vera for her hospitality, kindness, and friendliness.
“I’ve written about you in every letter to my mother,” he said. “If everyone were like you and your dad, what a jolly place the world would be! You are such a splendid set of people! All such genuine, friendly people with no nonsense about you.”
“Where are you going to now?” asked Vera.
“I am going now to my mother’s at Oryol; I shall be a fortnight with her, and then back to Petersburg and work.”
“And then? I shall work all the winter and in the spring go somewhere into the provinces again to collect material. Well, be happy, live a hundred years . . . don’t remember evil against me. We shall not see each other again.”
Ognev stooped down and kissed Vera’s hand. Then, in silent emotion, he straightened his cape, shifted his bundle of books to a more comfortable position, paused, and said:
“What a lot of mist!”
“Yes. Have you left anything behind?”
“No, I don’t think so . . . .”
For some seconds Ognev stood in silence, then he moved clumsily towards the gate and went out of the garden.
“Stay; I’ll see you as far as our wood,” said Vera, following him out.
They walked along the road. Now the trees did not obscure the view, and one could see the sky and the distance. As though covered with a veil all nature was hidden in a transparent, colourless haze through which her beauty peeped gaily; where the mist was thicker and whiter it lay heaped unevenly about the stones, stalks, and bushes or drifted in coils over the road, clung close to the earth and seemed trying not to conceal the view. Through the haze they could see all the road as far as the wood, with dark ditches at the sides and tiny bushes which grew in the ditches and caught the straying wisps of mist. Half a mile from the gate they saw the dark patch of Kuznetsov’s wood.
“Why has she come with me? I shall have to see her back,” thought Ognev, but looking at her profile he gave a friendly smile and said: “One doesn’t want to go away in such lovely weather. It’s quite a romantic evening, with the moon, the stillness, and all the etceteras. Do you know, Vera Gavrilovna, here I have lived twenty-nine years in the world and never had a romance. No romantic episode in my whole life, so that I only know by hearsay of rendezvous, ‘avenues of sighs,’ and kisses. It’s not normal! In town, when one sits in one’s lodgings, one does not notice the blank, but here in the fresh air one feels it. . . . One resents it!”
“Why is it?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I’ve never had time, or perhaps it was I have never met women who. . . . In fact, I have very few acquaintances and never go anywhere.”
For some three hundred paces the young people walked on in silence. Ognev kept glancing at Verotchka’s bare head and shawl, and days of spring and summer rose to his mind one after another. It had been a period when far from his grey Petersburg lodgings, enjoying the friendly warmth of kind people, nature, and the work he loved, he had not had time to notice how the sunsets followed the glow of dawn, and how, one after another foretelling the end of summer, first the nightingale ceased singing, then the quail, then a little later the landrail. The days slipped by unnoticed, so that life must have been happy and easy. He began calling aloud how reluctantly he, poor and unaccustomed to change of scene and society, had come at the end of April to the N—— District, where he had expected dreariness, loneliness, and indifference to statistics, which he considered was now the foremost among the sciences. When he arrived on an April morning at the little town of N—— he had put up at the inn kept by Ryabuhin, the Old Believer, where for twenty kopecks a day they had given him a light, clean room on condition that he should not smoke indoors. After resting and finding who was the president of the District Zemstvo, he had set off at once on foot to Kuznetsov. He had to walk three miles through lush meadows and young copses. Larks were hovering in the clouds, filling the air with silvery notes, and rooks flapping their wings with sedate dignity floated over the green cornland.
“Good heavens!” Ognev had thought in wonder; “can it be that there’s always air like this to breathe here, or is this scent only today, in honour of my coming?”
Expecting a cold business-like reception, he went in to Kuznetsov’s diffidently, looking up from under his eyebrows and shyly pulling his beard. At first Kuznetsov wrinkled up his brows and could not understand what use the Zemstvo could be to the young man and his statistics; but when the latter explained at length what was material for statistics and how such material was collected, Kuznetsov brightened, smiled, and with childish curiosity began looking at his notebooks. On the evening of the same day Ivan Alexeyitch was already sitting at supper with the Kuznetsovs, was rapidly becoming exhilarated by their strong home-made wine, and looking at the calm faces and lazy movements of his new acquaintances, felt all over that sweet, drowsy indolence which makes one want to sleep and stretch and smile; while his new acquaintances looked at him good-naturedly and asked him whether his father and mother were living, how much he earned a month, how often he went to the theatre . . . .
Ognev recalled his expeditions about the neighbourhood, the picnics, the fishing parties, the visit of the whole party to the convent to see the Mother Superior Marfa, who had given each of the visitors a bead purse; he recalled the hot, endless typically Russian arguments in which the opponents, spluttering and banging the table with their fists, misunderstand and interrupt one another, unconsciously contradict themselves at every phrase, continually change the subject, and after arguing for two or three hours, laugh and say: “Goodness knows what we have been arguing about! Beginning with one thing and going on to another!”
“And do you remember how the doctor and you and I rode to Shestovo?” said Ivan Alexeyitch to Vera as they reached the copse. “It was there that the crazy saint met us: I gave him a five-kopeck piece, and he crossed himself three times and flung it into the rye. Good heavens! I am carrying away such a mass of memories that if I could gather them together into a whole it would make a good nugget of gold! I don’t understand why clever, perceptive people crowd into Petersburg and Moscow and don’t come here. Is there more truth and freedom in the Nevsky and in the big damp houses than here? Really, the idea of artists, scientific men, and journalists all living crowded together in furnished rooms has always seemed to me a mistake.”
Twenty paces from the copse the road was crossed by a small narrow bridge with posts at the corners, which had always served as a resting-place for the Kuznetsovs and their guests on their evening walks. From there those who liked could mimic the forest echo, and one could see the road vanish in the dark woodland track.
“Well, here is the bridge!” said Ognev. “Here you must turn back.”
Vera stopped and drew a breath.
“Let us sit down,” she said, sitting down on one of the posts. “People generally sit down when they say good-bye before starting on a journey.”
Ognev settled himself beside her on his bundle of books and went on talking. She was breathless from the walk, and was looking, not at Ivan Alexeyitch, but away into the distance so that he could not see her face.
“And what if we meet in ten years’ time?” he said. “What shall we be like then? You will be by then the respectable mother of a family, and I shall be the author of some weighty statistical work of no use to anyone, as thick as forty thousand such works. We shall meet and think of old days. . . . Now we are conscious of the present; it absorbs and excites us, but when we meet we shall not remember the day, nor the month, nor even the year in which we saw each other for the last time on this bridge. You will be changed, perhaps . . . . Tell me, will you be different?”
Vera started and turned her face towards him.
“What?” she asked.
“I asked you just now . . . .”
“Excuse me, I did not hear what you were saying.”
Only then Ognev noticed a change in Vera. She was pale, breathing fast, and the tremor in her breathing affected her hands and lips and head, and not one curl as usual, but two, came loose and fell on her forehead. . . . Evidently she avoided looking him in the face, and, trying to mask her emotion, at one moment fingered her collar, which seemed to be rasping her neck, at another pulled her red shawl from one shoulder to the other.
“I am afraid you are cold,” said Ognev. “It’s not at all wise to sit in the mist. Let me see you back nach-haus.”
Vera sat mute.
“What is the matter?” asked Ognev, with a smile. “You sit silent and don’t answer my questions. Are you cross, or don’t you feel well?”
Vera pressed the palm of her hand to the cheek nearest to Ognev, and then abruptly jerked it away.
“An awful position!” she murmured, with a look of pain on her face. “Awful!”
“How is it awful?” asked Ognev, shrugging his shoulders and not concealing his surprise. “What’s the matter?”
Still breathing hard and twitching her shoulders, Vera turned her back to him, looked at the sky for half a minute, and said:
“There is something I must say to you, Ivan Alexeyitch . . . .”
“I am listening.”
“It may seem strange to you. . . . You will be surprised, but I don’t care . . . .”
Ognev shrugged his shoulders once more and prepared himself to listen.
“You see . . .” Verotchka began, bowing her head and fingering a ball on the fringe of her shawl. “You see . . . this is what I wanted to tell you. . . . You’ll think it strange . . . and silly, but I . . . can’t bear it any longer.”
Vera’s words died away in an indistinct mutter and were suddenly cut short by tears. The girl hid her face in her handkerchief, bent lower than ever, and wept bitterly. Ivan Alexeyitch cleared his throat in confusion and looked about him hopelessly, at his wits’ end, not knowing what to say or do. Being unused to the sight of tears, he felt his own eyes, too, beginning to smart.
“Well, what next!” he muttered helplessly. “Vera Gavrilovna, what’s this for, I should like to know? My dear girl, are you . . . are you ill? Or has someone been nasty to you? Tell me, perhaps I could, so to say . . . help you . . . .”
When, trying to console her, he ventured cautiously to remove her hands from her face, she smiled at him through her tears and said:
“I . . . love you!”
These words, so simple and ordinary, were uttered in ordinary human language, but Ognev, in acute embarrassment, turned away from Vera, and got up, while his confusion was followed by terror.
The sad, warm, sentimental mood induced by leave-taking and the home-made wine suddenly vanished, and gave place to an acute and unpleasant feeling of awkwardness. He felt an inward revulsion; he looked askance at Vera, and now that by declaring her love for him she had cast off the aloofness which so adds to a woman’s charm, she seemed to him, as it were, shorter, plainer, more ordinary.
“What’s the meaning of it?” he thought with horror. “But I . . . do I love her or not? That’s the question!”
And she breathed easily and freely now that the worst and most difficult thing was said. She, too, got up, and looking Ivan Alexeyitch straight in the face, began talking rapidly, warmly, irrepressibly.
As a man suddenly panic-stricken cannot afterwards remember the succession of sounds accompanying the catastrophe that overwhelmed him, so Ognev cannot remember Vera’s words and phrases. He can only recall the meaning of what she said, and the sensation her words evoked in him. He remembers her voice, which seemed stifled and husky with emotion, and the extraordinary music and passion of her intonation. Laughing, crying with tears glistening on her eyelashes, she told him that from the first day of their acquaintance he had struck her by his originality, his intelligence, his kind intelligent eyes, by his work and objects in life; that she loved him passionately, deeply, madly; that when coming into the house from the garden in the summer she saw his cape in the hall or heard his voice in the distance, she felt a cold shudder at her heart, a foreboding of happiness; even his slightest jokes had made her laugh; in every figure in his note-books she saw something extraordinarily wise and grand; his knotted stick seemed to her more beautiful than the trees.
The copse and the wisps of mist and the black ditches at the side of the road seemed hushed listening to her, whilst something strange and unpleasant was passing in Ognev’s heart. . . . Telling him of her love, Vera was enchantingly beautiful; she spoke eloquently and passionately, but he felt neither pleasure nor gladness, as he would have liked to; he felt nothing but compassion for Vera, pity and regret that a good girl should be distressed on his account. Whether he was affected by generalizations from reading or by the insuperable habit of looking at things objectively, which so often hinders people from living, but Vera’s ecstasies and suffering struck him as affected, not to be taken seriously, and at the same time rebellious feeling whispered to him that all he was hearing and seeing now, from the point of view of nature and personal happiness, was more important than any statistics and books and truths. . . . And he raged and blamed himself, though he did not understand exactly where he was in fault.
To complete his embarrassment, he was absolutely at a loss what to say, and yet something he must say. To say bluntly, “I don’t love you,” was beyond him, and he could not bring himself to say “Yes,” because however much he rummaged in his heart he could not find one spark of feeling in it . . . .
He was silent, and she meanwhile was saying that for her there was no greater happiness than to see him, to follow him wherever he liked this very moment, to be his wife and helper, and that if he went away from her she would die of misery.
“I cannot stay here!” she said, wringing her hands. “I am sick of the house and this wood and the air. I cannot bear the everlasting peace and aimless life, I can’t endure our colourless, pale people, who are all as like one another as two drops of water! They are all good-natured and warm-hearted because they are all well-fed and know nothing of struggle or suffering, . . . I want to be in those big damp houses where people suffer, embittered by work and need. . .”
And this, too, seemed to Ognev affected and not to be taken seriously. When Vera had finished he still did not know what to say, but it was impossible to be silent, and he muttered:
“Vera Gavrilovna, I am very grateful to you, though I feel I’ve done nothing to deserve such . . . feeling . . . on your part. Besides, as an honest man I ought to tell you that . . . happiness depends on equality — that is, when both parties are . . . equally in love . . . .”
But he was immediately ashamed of his mutterings and ceased. He felt that his face at that moment looked stupid, guilty, blank, that it was strained and affected. . . . Vera must have been able to read the truth on his countenance, for she suddenly became grave, turned pale, and bent her head.
“You must forgive me,” Ognev muttered, not able to endure the silence. “I respect you so much that . . . it pains me . . . .”
Vera turned sharply and walked rapidly homewards. Ognev followed her.
“No, don’t!” said Vera, with a wave of her hand. “Don’t come; I can go alone.”
“Oh, yes . . . I must see you home anyway.”
Whatever Ognev said, it all to the last word struck him as loathsome and flat. The feeling of guilt grew greater at every step. He raged inwardly, clenched his fists, and cursed his coldness and his stupidity with women. Trying to stir his feelings, he looked at Verotchka’s beautiful figure, at her hair and the traces of her little feet on the dusty road; he remembered her words and her tears, but all that only touched his heart and did not quicken his pulse.
“Ach! one can’t force oneself to love,” he assured himself, and at the same time he thought, “But shall I ever fall in love without? I am nearly thirty! I have never met anyone better than Vera and I never shall. . . . Oh, this premature old age! Old age at thirty!”
Vera walked on in front more and more rapidly, without looking back at him or raising her head. It seemed to him that sorrow had made her thinner and narrower in the shoulders.
“I can imagine what’s going on in her heart now!” he thought, looking at her back. “She must be ready to die with shame and mortification! My God, there’s so much life, poetry, and meaning in it that it would move a stone, and I . . . I am stupid and absurd!”
At the gate Vera stole a glance at him, and, shrugging and wrapping her shawl round her walked rapidly away down the avenue.
Ivan Alexeyitch was left alone. Going back to the copse, he walked slowly, continually standing still and looking round at the gate with an expression in his whole figure that suggested that he could not believe his own memory. He looked for Vera’s footprints on the road, and could not believe that the girl who had so attracted him had just declared her love, and that he had so clumsily and bluntly “refused” her. For the first time in his life it was his lot to learn by experience how little that a man does depends on his own will, and to suffer in his own person the feelings of a decent kindly man who has against his will caused his neighbour cruel, undeserved anguish.
His conscience tormented him, and when Vera disappeared he felt as though he had lost something very precious, something very near and dear which he could never find again. He felt that with Vera a part of his youth had slipped away from him, and that the moments which he had passed through so fruitlessly would never be repeated.
When he reached the bridge he stopped and sank into thought. He wanted to discover the reason of his strange coldness. That it was due to something within him and not outside himself was clear to him. He frankly acknowledged to himself that it was not the intellectual coldness of which clever people so often boast, not the coldness of a conceited fool, but simply impotence of soul, incapacity for being moved by beauty, premature old age brought on by education, his casual existence, struggling for a livelihood, his homeless life in lodgings. From the bridge he walked slowly, as it were reluctantly, into the wood. Here, where in the dense black darkness glaring patches of moonlight gleamed here and there, where he felt nothing except his thoughts, he longed passionately to regain what he had lost.
And Ivan Alexeyitch remembers that he went back again. Urging himself on with his memories, forcing himself to picture Vera, he strode rapidly towards the garden. There was no mist by then along the road or in the garden, and the bright moon looked down from the sky as though it had just been washed; only the eastern sky was dark and misty. . . . Ognev remembers his cautious steps, the dark windows, the heavy scent of heliotrope and mignonette. His old friend Karo, wagging his tail amicably, came up to him and sniffed his hand. This was the one living creature who saw him walk two or three times round the house, stand near Vera’s dark window, and with a deep sigh and a wave of his hand walk out of the garden.
An hour later he was in the town, and, worn out and exhausted, leaned his body and hot face against the gatepost of the inn as he knocked at the gate. Somewhere in the town a dog barked sleepily, and as though in response to his knock, someone clanged the hour on an iron plate near the church.
“You prowl about at night,” grumbled his host, the Old Believer, opening the door to him, in a long nightgown like a woman’s. “You had better be saying your prayers instead of prowling about.”
When Ivan Alexeyitch reached his room he sank on the bed and gazed a long, long time at the light. Then he tossed his head and began packing.
PAVEL ILYITCH RASHEVITCH walked up and down, stepping softly on the floor covered with little Russian plaids, and casting a long shadow on the wall and ceiling while his guest, Meier, the deputy examining magistrate, sat on the sofa with one leg drawn up under him smoking and listening. The clock already pointed to eleven, and there were sounds of the table being laid in the room next to the study.
“Say what you like,” Rashevitch was saying, “from the standpoint of fraternity, equality, and the rest of it, Mitka, the swineherd, is perhaps a man the same as Goethe and Frederick the Great; but take your stand on a scientific basis, have the courage to look facts in the face, and it will be obvious to you that blue blood is not a mere prejudice, that it is not a feminine invention. Blue blood, my dear fellow, has an historical justification, and to refuse to recognize it is, to my thinking, as strange as to refuse to recognize the antlers on a stag. One must reckon with facts! You are a law student and have confined your attention to the humane studies, and you can still flatter yourself with illusions of equality, fraternity, and so on; I am an incorrigible Darwinian, and for me words such as lineage, aristocracy, noble blood, are not empty sounds.”
Rashevitch was roused and spoke with feeling. His eyes sparkled, his pince-nez would not stay on his nose, he kept nervously shrugging his shoulders and blinking, and at the word “Darwinian” he looked jauntily in the looking-glass and combed his grey beard with both hands. He was wearing a very short and shabby reefer jacket and narrow trousers; the rapidity of his movements, his jaunty air, and his abbreviated jacket all seemed out of keeping with him, and his big comely head, with long hair suggestive of a bishop or a veteran poet, seemed to have been fixed on to the body of a tall, lanky, affected youth. When he stood with his legs wide apart, his long shadow looked like a pair of scissors.
He was fond of talking, and he always fancied that he was saying something new and original. In the presence of Meier he was conscious of an unusual flow of spirits and rush of ideas. He found the examining magistrate sympathetic, and was stimulated by his youth, his health, his good manners, his dignity, and, above all, by his cordial attitude to himself and his family. Rashevitch was not a favourite with his acquaintances; as a rule they fought shy of him, and, as he knew, declared that he had driven his wife into her grave with his talking, and they called him, behind his back, a spiteful creature and a toad. Meier, a man new to the district and unprejudiced, visited him often and readily and had even been known to say that Rashevitch and his daughters were the only people in the district with whom he felt as much at home as with his own people. Rashevitch liked him too, because he was a young man who might be a good match for his elder daughter, Genya.
And now, enjoying his ideas and the sound of his own voice, and looking with pleasure at the plump but well-proportioned, neatly cropped, correct Meier, Rashevitch dreamed of how he would arrange his daughter’s marriage with a good man, and then how all his worries over the estate would pass to his son-in-law. Hateful worries! The interest owing to the bank had not been paid for the last two quarters, and fines and arrears of all sorts had mounted up to more than two thousand.
“To my mind there can be no doubt,” Rashevitch went on, growing more and more enthusiastic, “that if a Richard Coeur-deLion, or Frederick Barbarossa, for instance, is brave and noble those qualities will pass by heredity to his son, together with the convolutions and bumps of the brain, and if that courage and nobility of soul are preserved in the son by means of education and exercise, and if he marries a princess who is also noble and brave, those qualities will be transmitted to his grandson, and so on, until they become a generic characteristic and pass organically into the flesh and blood. Thanks to a strict sexual selection, to the fact that high-born families have instinctively guarded themselves against marriage with their inferiors, and young men of high rank have not married just anybody, lofty, spiritual qualities have been transmitted from generation to generation in their full purity, have been preserved, and as time goes on have, through exercise, become more exalted and lofty. For the fact that there is good in humanity we are indebted to nature, to the normal, natural, consistent order of things, which has throughout the ages scrupulously segregated blue blood from plebeian. Yes, my dear boy, no low lout, no cook’s son has given us literature, science, art, law, conceptions of honour and duty . . . . For all these things mankind is indebted exclusively to the aristocracy, and from that point of view, the point of view of natural history, an inferior Sobakevitch by the very fact of his blue blood is superior and more useful than the very best merchant, even though the latter may have built fifteen museums. Say what you like! And when I refuse to shake hands with a low lout or a cook’s son, or to let him sit down to table with me, by that very act I am safeguarding what is the best thing on earth, and am carrying out one of Mother Nature’s finest designs for leading us up to perfection. . .”
Rashevitch stood still, combing his beard with both hands; his shadow, too, stood still on the wall, looking like a pair of scissors.
“Take Mother–Russia now,” he went on, thrusting his hands in his pockets and standing first on his heels and then on his toes. “Who are her best people? Take our first-rate painters, writers, composers . . . . Who are they? They were all of aristocratic origin. Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Gontcharov, Tolstoy, they were not sexton’s children.”
“Gontcharov was a merchant,” said Meier.
“Well, the exception only proves the rule. Besides, Gontcharov’s genius is quite open to dispute. But let us drop names and turn to facts. What would you say, my good sir, for instance, to this eloquent fact: when one of the mob forces his way where he has not been permitted before, into society, into the world of learning, of literature, into the Zemstvo or the law courts, observe, Nature herself, first of all, champions the higher rights of humanity, and is the first to wage war on the rabble. As soon as the plebeian forces himself into a place he is not fit for he begins to ail, to go into consumption, to go out of his mind, and to degenerate, and nowhere do we find so many puny, neurotic wrecks, consumptives, and starvelings of all sorts as among these darlings. They die like flies in autumn. If it were not for this providential degeneration there would not have been a stone left standing of our civilization, the rabble would have demolished everything. Tell me, if you please, what has the inroad of the barbarians given us so far? What has the rabble brought with it?” Rashevitch assumed a mysterious, frightened expression, and went on: “Never has literature and learning been at such low ebb among us as now. The men of today, my good sir, have neither ideas nor ideals, and all their sayings and doings are permeated by one spirit — to get all they can and to strip someone to his last thread. All these men of today who give themselves out as honest and progressive people can be bought at a rouble a piece, and the distinguishing mark of the ‘intellectual’ of today is that you have to keep strict watch over your pocket when you talk to him, or else he will run off with your purse.” Rashevitch winked and burst out laughing. “Upon my soul, he will! he said, in a thin, gleeful voice. “And morals! What of their morals?” Rashevitch looked round towards the door. “No one is surprised nowadays when a wife robs and leaves her husband. What’s that, a trifle! Nowadays, my dear boy, a chit of a girl of twelve is scheming to get a lover, and all these amateur theatricals and literary evenings are only invented to make it easier to get a rich merchant to take a girl on as his mistress. . . . Mothers sell their daughters, and people make no bones about asking a husband at what price he sells his wife, and one can haggle over the bargain, you know, my dear . . . .”
Meier, who had been sitting motionless and silent all the time, suddenly got up from the sofa and looked at his watch.
“I beg your pardon, Pavel Ilyitch,” he said, “it is time for me to be going.”
But Pavel Ilyitch, who had not finished his remarks, put his arm round him and, forcibly reseating him on the sofa, vowed that he would not let him go without supper. And again Meier sat and listened, but he looked at Rashevitch with perplexity and uneasiness, as though he were only now beginning to understand him. Patches of red came into his face. And when at last a maidservant came in to tell them that the young ladies asked them to go to supper, he gave a sigh of relief and was the first to walk out of the study.
At the table in the next room were Rashevitch’s daughters, Genya and Iraida, girls of four-and-twenty and two-and-twenty respectively, both very pale, with black eyes, and exactly the same height. Genya had her hair down, and Iraida had hers done up high on her head. Before eating anything they each drank a wineglassful of bitter liqueur, with an air as though they had drunk it by accident for the first time in their lives and both were overcome with confusion and burst out laughing.
“Don’t be naughty, girls,” said Rashevitch.
Genya and Iraida talked French with each other, and Russian with their father and their visitor. Interrupting one another, and mixing up French words with Russian, they began rapidly describing how just at this time in August, in previous years, they had set off to the hoarding school and what fun it had been. Now there was nowhere to go, and they had to stay at their home in the country, summer and winter without change. Such dreariness!
“Don’t be naughty, girls,” Rashevitch said again.
He wanted to be talking himself. If other people talked in his presence, he suffered from a feeling like jealousy.
“So that’s how it is, my dear boy,” he began, looking affectionately at Meier. “In the simplicity and goodness of our hearts, and from fear of being suspected of being behind the times, we fraternize with, excuse me, all sorts of riff-raff, we preach fraternity and equality with money-lenders and innkeepers; but if we would only think, we should see how criminal that good-nature is. We have brought things to such a pass, that the fate of civilization is hanging on a hair. My dear fellow, what our forefathers gained in the course of ages will be tomorrow, if not today, outraged and destroyed by these modern Huns . . . .”
After supper they all went into the drawing-room. Genya and Iraida lighted the candles on the piano, got out their music. . . . But their father still went on talking, and there was no telling when he would leave off. They looked with misery and vexation at their egoist-father, to whom the pleasure of chattering and displaying his intelligence was evidently more precious and important than his daughters’ happiness. Meier, the only young man who ever came to their house, came — they knew — for the sake of their charming, feminine society, but the irrepressible old man had taken possession of him, and would not let him move a step away.
“Just as the knights of the west repelled the invasions of the Mongols, so we, before it is too late, ought to unite and strike together against our foe,” Rashevitch went on in the tone of a preacher, holding up his right hand. “May I appear to the riff-raff not as Pavel Ilyitch, but as a mighty, menacing Richard Coeur-deLion. Let us give up sloppy sentimentality; enough of it! Let us all make a compact, that as soon as a plebeian comes near us we fling some careless phrase straight in his ugly face: ‘Paws off! Go back to your kennel, you cur!’ straight in his ugly face,” Rashevitch went on gleefully, flicking his crooked finger in front of him. “In his ugly face!”
“I can’t do that,” Meier brought out, turning away.
“Why not?” Rashevitch answered briskly, anticipating a prolonged and interesting argument. “Why not?”
“Because I am of the artisan class myself!”
As he said this Meier turned crimson, and his neck seemed to swell, and tears actually gleamed in his eyes.
“My father was a simple workman,” he said, in a rough, jerky voice, “but I see no harm in that.”
Rashevitch was fearfully confused. Dumbfoundered, as though he had been caught in the act of a crime, he gazed helplessly at Meier, and did not know what to say. Genya and Iraida flushed crimson, and bent over their music; they were ashamed of their tactless father. A minute passed in silence, and there was a feeling of unbearable discomfort, when all at once with a sort of painful stiffness and inappropriateness, there sounded in the air the words:
“Yes, I am of the artisan class, and I am proud of it!”
Thereupon Meier, stumbling awkwardly among the furniture, took his leave, and walked rapidly into the hall, though his carriage was not yet at the door.
“You’ll have a dark drive to-night,” Rashevitch muttered, following him. “The moon does not rise till late to-night.”
They stood together on the steps in the dark, and waited for the horses to be brought. It was cool.
“There’s a falling star,” said Meier, wrapping himself in his overcoat.
“There are a great many in August.”
When the horses were at the door, Rashevitch gazed intently at the sky, and said with a sigh:
“A phenomenon worthy of the pen of Flammarion . . . .”
After seeing his visitor off, he walked up and down the garden, gesticulating in the darkness, reluctant to believe that such a queer, stupid misunderstanding had only just occurred. He was ashamed and vexed with himself. In the first place it had been extremely incautious and tactless on his part to raise the damnable subject of blue blood, without finding out beforehand what his visitor’s position was. Something of the same sort had happened to him before; he had, on one occasion in a railway carriage, begun abusing the Germans, and it had afterwards appeared that all the persons he had been conversing with were German. In the second place he felt that Meier would never come and see him again. These intellectuals who have risen from the people are morbidly sensitive, obstinate and slow to forgive.
“It’s bad, it’s bad,” muttered Rashevitch, spitting; he had a feeling of discomfort and loathing as though he had eaten soap. “Ah, it’s bad!”
He could see from the garden, through the drawing-room window, Genya by the piano, very pale, and looking scared, with her hair down. She was talking very, very rapidly. . . . Iraida was walking up and down the room, lost in thought; but now she, too, began talking rapidly with her face full of indignation. They were both talking at once. Rashevitch could not hear a word, but he guessed what they were talking about. Genya was probably complaining that her father drove away every decent person from the house with his talk, and today he had driven away from them their one acquaintance, perhaps a suitor, and now the poor young man would not have one place in the whole district where he could find rest for his soul. And judging by the despairing way in which she threw up her arms, Iraida was talking probably on the subject of their dreary existence, their wasted youth . . . .
When he reached his own room, Rashevitch sat down on his bed and began to undress. He felt oppressed, and he was still haunted by the same feeling as though he had eaten soap. He was ashamed. As he undressed he looked at his long, sinewy, elderly legs, and remembered that in the district they called him the “toad,” and after every long conversation he always felt ashamed. Somehow or other, by some fatality, it always happened that he began mildly, amicably, with good intentions, calling himself an old student, an idealist, a Quixote, but without being himself aware of it, gradually passed into abuse and slander, and what was most surprising, with perfect sincerity criticized science, art and morals, though he had not read a book for the last twenty years, had been nowhere farther than their provincial town, and did not really know what was going on in the world. If he sat down to write anything, if it were only a letter of congratulation, there would somehow be abuse in the letter. And all this was strange, because in reality he was a man of feeling, given to tears, Could he be possessed by some devil which hated and slandered in him, apart from his own will?
“It’s bad,” he sighed, as he lay down under the quilt. “It’s bad.”
His daughters did not sleep either. There was a sound of laughter and screaming, as though someone was being pursued; it was Genya in hysterics. A little later Iraida was sobbing too. A maidservant ran barefoot up and down the passage several times . . . .
“What a business! Good Lord! . . .” muttered Rashevitch, sighing and tossing from side to side. “It’s bad.”
He had a nightmare. He dreamt he was standing naked, as tall as a giraffe, in the middle of the room, and saying, as he flicked his finger before him:
“In his ugly face! his ugly face! his ugly face!”
He woke up in a fright, and first of all remembered that a misunderstanding had happened in the evening, and that Meier would certainly not come again. He remembered, too, that he had to pay the interest at the bank, to find husbands for his daughters, that one must have food and drink, and close at hand were illness, old age, unpleasantnesses, that soon it would be winter, and that there was no wood . . . .
It was past nine o’clock in the morning. Rashevitch slowly dressed, drank his tea and ate two hunks of bread and butter. His daughters did not come down to breakfast; they did not want to meet him, and that wounded him. He lay down on his sofa in his study, then sat down to his table and began writing a letter to his daughters. His hand shook and his eyes smarted. He wrote that he was old, and no use to anyone and that nobody loved him, and he begged his daughters to forget him, and when he died to bury him in a plain, deal coffin without ceremony, or to send his body to Harkov to the dissecting theatre. He felt that every line he wrote reeked of malice and affectation, but he could not stop, and went on writing and writing.
“The toad!” he suddenly heard from the next room; it was the voice of his elder daughter, a voice with a hiss of indignation. “The toad!”
“The toad!” the younger one repeated like an echo. “The toad!”
“I ADMIT I have had a drop. . . . You must excuse me. I went into a beer shop on the way here, and as it was so hot had a couple of bottles. It’s hot, my boy.”
Old Musatov took a nondescript rag out of his pocket and wiped his shaven, battered face with it.
“I have come only for a minute, Borenka, my angel,” he went on, not looking at his son, “about something very important. Excuse me, perhaps I am hindering you. Haven’t you ten roubles, my dear, you could let me have till Tuesday? You see, I ought to have paid for my lodging yesterday, and money, you see! . . . None! Not to save my life!”
Young Musatov went out without a word, and began whispering the other side of the door with the landlady of the summer villa and his colleagues who had taken the villa with him. Three minutes later he came back, and without a word gave his father a ten-rouble note. The latter thrust it carelessly into his pocket without looking at it, and said:
“Merci. Well, how are you getting on? It’s a long time since we met.”
“Yes, a long time, not since Easter.”
“Half a dozen times I have been meaning to come to you, but I’ve never had time. First one thing, then another. . . . It’s simply awful! I am talking nonsense though. . . . All that’s nonsense. Don’t you believe me, Borenka. I said I would pay you back the ten roubles on Tuesday, don’t believe that either. Don’t believe a word I say. I have nothing to do at all, it’s simply laziness, drunkenness, and I am ashamed to be seen in such clothes in the street. You must excuse me, Borenka. Here I have sent the girl to you three times for money and written you piteous letters. Thanks for the money, but don’t believe the letters; I was telling fibs. I am ashamed to rob you, my angel; I know that you can scarcely make both ends meet yourself, and feed on locusts, but my impudence is too much for me. I am such a specimen of impudence — fit for a show! . . . You must excuse me, Borenka. I tell you the truth, because I can’t see your angel face without emotion.”
A minute passed in silence. The old man heaved a deep sigh and said:
“You might treat me to a glass of beer perhaps.”
His son went out without a word, and again there was a sound of whispering the other side of the door. When a little later the beer was brought in, the old man seemed to revive at the sight of the bottles and abruptly changed his tone.
“I was at the races the other day, my boy,” he began telling him, assuming a scared expression. “We were a party of three, and we pooled three roubles on Frisky. And, thanks to that Frisky, we got thirty-two roubles each for our rouble. I can’t get on without the races, my boy. It’s a gentlemanly diversion. My virago always gives me a dressing over the races, but I go. I love it, and that’s all about it.”
Boris, a fair-haired young man with a melancholy immobile face, was walking slowly up and down, listening in silence. When the old man stopped to clear his throat, he went up to him and said:
“I bought myself a pair of boots the other day, father, which turn out to be too tight for me. Won’t you take them? I’ll let you have them cheap.”
“If you like,” said the old man with a grimace, “only for the price you gave for them, without any cheapening.”
“Very well, I’ll let you have them on credit.”
The son groped under the bed and produced the new boots. The father took off his clumsy, rusty, evidently second-hand boots and began trying on the new ones.
“A perfect fit,” he said. “Right, let me keep them. And on Tuesday, when I get my pension, I’ll send you the money for them. That’s not true, though,” he went on, suddenly falling into the same tearful tone again. “And it was a lie about the races, too, and a lie about the pension. And you are deceiving me, Borenka. . . . I feel your generous tactfulness. I see through you! Your boots were too small, because your heart is too big. Ah, Borenka, Borenka! I understand it all and feel it!”
“Have you moved into new lodgings?” his son interrupted, to change the conversation.
“Yes, my boy. I move every month. My virago can’t stay long in the same place with her temper.”
“I went to your lodgings, I meant to ask you to stay here with me. In your state of health it would do you good to be in the fresh air.”
“No,” said the old man, with a wave of his hand, “the woman wouldn’t let me, and I shouldn’t care to myself. A hundred times you have tried to drag me out of the pit, and I have tried myself, but nothing came of it. Give it up. I must stick in my filthy hole. This minute, here I am sitting, looking at your angel face, yet something is drawing me home to my hole. Such is my fate. You can’t draw a dung-beetle to a rose. But it’s time I was going, my boy. It’s getting dark.”
“Wait a minute then, I’ll come with you. I have to go to town today myself.”
Both put on their overcoats and went out. When a little while afterwards they were driving in a cab, it was already dark, and lights began to gleam in the windows.
“I’ve robbed you, Borenka!” the father muttered. “Poor children, poor children! It must be a dreadful trouble to have such a father! Borenka, my angel, I cannot lie when I see your face. You must excuse me. . . . What my depravity has come to, my God. Here I have just been robbing you, and put you to shame with my drunken state; I am robbing your brothers, too, and put them to shame, and you should have seen me yesterday! I won’t conceal it, Borenka. Some neighbours, a wretched crew, came to see my virago; I got drunk, too, with them, and I blackguarded you poor children for all I was worth. I abused you, and complained that you had abandoned me. I wanted, you see, to touch the drunken hussies’ hearts, and pose as an unhappy father. It’s my way, you know, when I want to screen my vices I throw all the blame on my innocent children. I can’t tell lies and hide things from you, Borenka. I came to see you as proud as a peacock, but when I saw your gentleness and kind heart, my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth, and it upset my conscience completely.”
“Hush, father, let’s talk of something else.”
“Mother of God, what children I have,” the old man went on, not heeding his son. “What wealth God has bestowed on me. Such children ought not to have had a black sheep like me for a father, but a real man with soul and feeling! I am not worthy of you!”
The old man took off his cap with a button at the top and crossed himself several times.
“Thanks be to Thee, O Lord!” he said with a sigh, looking from side to side as though seeking for an ikon. “Remarkable, exceptional children! I have three sons, and they are all like one. Sober, steady, hard-working, and what brains! Cabman, what brains! Grigory alone has brains enough for ten. He speaks French, he speaks German, and talks better than any of your lawyers — one is never tired of listening. My children, my children, I can’t believe that you are mine! I can’t believe it! You are a martyr, my Borenka, I am ruining you, and I shall go on ruining you. . . . You give to me endlessly, though you know your money is thrown away. The other day I sent you a pitiful letter, I described how ill I was, but you know I was lying, I wanted the money for rum. And you give to me because you are afraid to wound me by refusing. I know all that, and feel it. Grisha’s a martyr, too. On Thursday I went to his office, drunk, filthy, ragged, reeking of vodka like a cellar . . . I went straight up, such a figure, I pestered him with nasty talk, while his colleagues and superiors and petitioners were standing round. I have disgraced him for life. And he wasn’t the least confused, only turned a bit pale, but smiled and came up to me as though there were nothing the matter, even introduced me to his colleagues. Then he took me all the way home, and not a word of reproach. I rob him worse than you. Take your brother Sasha now, he’s a martyr too! He married, as you know, a colonel’s daughter of an aristocratic circle, and got a dowry with her. . . . You would think he would have nothing to do with me. No, brother, after his wedding he came with his young wife and paid me the first visit . . . in my hole. . . . Upon my soul!”
The old man gave a sob and then began laughing.
“And at that moment, as luck would have it, we were eating grated radish with kvass and frying fish, and there was a stink enough in the flat to make the devil sick. I was lying down — I’d had a drop — my virago bounced out at the young people with her face crimson, . . . It was a disgrace in fact. But Sasha rose superior to it all.”
“Yes, our Sasha is a good fellow,” said Boris.
“The most splendid fellow! You are all pure gold, you and Grisha and Sasha and Sonya. I worry you, torment you, disgrace you, rob you, and all my life I have not heard one word of reproach from you, you have never given me one cross look. It would be all very well if I had been a decent father to you — but as it is! You have had nothing from me but harm. I am a bad, dissipated man. . . . Now, thank God, I am quieter and I have no strength of will, but in old days when you were little I had determination, will. Whatever I said or did I always thought it was right. Sometimes I’d come home from the club at night, drunk and ill-humoured, and scold at your poor mother for spending money. The whole night I would be railing at her, and think it the right thing too; you would get up in the morning and go to school, while I’d still be venting my temper upon her. Heavens! I did torture her, poor martyr! When you came back from school and I was asleep you didn’t dare to have dinner till I got up. At dinner again there would be a flare up. I daresay you remember. I wish no one such a father; God sent me to you for a trial. Yes, for a trial! Hold out, children, to the end! Honour thy father and thy days shall be long. Perhaps for your noble conduct God will grant you long life. Cabman, stop!”
The old man jumped out of the cab and ran into a tavern. Half an hour later he came back, cleared his throat in a drunken way, and sat down beside his son.
“Where’s Sonya now?” he asked. “Still at boarding-school?”
“No, she left in May, and is living now with Sasha’s mother-in-law.”
“There!” said the old man in surprise. “She is a jolly good girl! So she is following her brother’s example. . . . Ah, Borenka, she has no mother, no one to rejoice over her! I say, Borenka, does she . . . does she know how I am living? Eh?”
Boris made no answer. Five minutes passed in profound silence. The old man gave a sob, wiped his face with a rag and said:
“I love her, Borenka! She is my only daughter, you know, and in one’s old age there is no comfort like a daughter. Could I see her, Borenka?”
“Of course, when you like.”
“Really? And she won’t mind?”
“Of course not, she has been trying to find you so as to see you.”
“Upon my soul! What children! Cabman, eh? Arrange it, Borenka darling! She is a young lady now, delicatesse, consommé, and all the rest of it in a refined way, and I don’t want to show myself to her in such an abject state. I’ll tell you how we’ll contrive to work it. For three days I will keep away from spirits, to get my filthy, drunken phiz into better order. Then I’ll come to you, and you shall lend me for the time some suit of yours; I’ll shave and have my hair cut, then you go and bring her to your flat. Will you?”
The old man sprang out of the cab again and ran into a tavern. While Boris was driving with him to his lodging he jumped out twice again, while his son sat silent and waited patiently for him. When, after dismissing the cab, they made their way across a long, filthy yard to the “virago’s” lodging, the old man put on an utterly shamefaced and guilty air, and began timidly clearing his throat and clicking with his lips.
“Borenka,” he said in an ingratiating voice, “if my virago begins saying anything, don’t take any notice . . . and behave to her, you know, affably. She is ignorant and impudent, but she’s a good baggage. There is a good, warm heart beating in her bosom!”
The long yard ended, and Boris found himself in a dark entry. The swing door creaked, there was a smell of cooking and a smoking samovar. There was a sound of harsh voices. Passing through the passage into the kitchen Boris could see nothing but thick smoke, a line with washing on it, and the chimney of the samovar through a crack of which golden sparks were dropping.
“And here is my cell,” said the old man, stooping down and going into a little room with a low-pitched ceiling, and an atmosphere unbearably stifling from the proximity of the kitchen.
Here three women were sitting at the table regaling themselves. Seeing the visitors, they exchanged glances and left off eating.
“Well, did you get it?” one of them, apparently the “virago” herself, asked abruptly.
“Yes, yes,” muttered the old man. “Well, Boris, pray sit down. Everything is plain here, young man . . . we live in a simple way.”
He bustled about in an aimless way. He felt ashamed before his son, and at the same time apparently he wanted to keep up before the women his dignity as cock of the walk, and as a forsaken, unhappy father.
“Yes, young man, we live simply with no nonsense,” he went on muttering. “We are simple people, young man. . . . We are not like you, we don’t want to keep up a show before people. No! . . . Shall we have a drink of vodka?”
One of the women (she was ashamed to drink before a stranger) heaved a sigh and said:
“Well, I’ll have another drink on account of the mushrooms. . . . They are such mushrooms, they make you drink even if you don’t want to. Ivan Gerasimitch, offer the young gentleman, perhaps he will have a drink!”
The last word she pronounced in a mincing drawl.
“Have a drink, young man!” said the father, not looking at his son. “We have no wine or liqueurs, my boy, we live in a plain way.”
“He doesn’t like our ways,” sighed the “virago.” “Never mind, never mind, he’ll have a drink.”
Not to offend his father by refusing, Boris took a wineglass and drank in silence. When they brought in the samovar, to satisfy the old man, he drank two cups of disgusting tea in silence, with a melancholy face. Without a word he listened to the virago dropping hints about there being in this world cruel, heartless children who abandon their parents.
“I know what you are thinking now!” said the old man, after drinking more and passing into his habitual state of drunken excitement. “You think I have let myself sink into the mire, that I am to be pitied, but to my thinking, this simple life is much more normal than your life, . . . I don’t need anybody, and . . . and I don’t intend to eat humble pie. . . . I can’t endure a wretched boy’s looking at me with compassion.”
After tea he cleaned a herring and sprinkled it with onion, with such feeling, that tears of emotion stood in his eyes. He began talking again about the races and his winnings, about some Panama hat for which he had paid sixteen roubles the day before. He told lies with the same relish with which he ate herring and drank. His son sat on in silence for an hour, and began to say good-bye.
“I don’t venture to keep you,” the old man said, haughtily. “You must excuse me, young man, for not living as you would like!”
He ruffled up his feathers, snorted with dignity, and winked at the women.
“Good-bye, young man,” he said, seeing his son into the entry. “Attendez.”
In the entry, where it was dark, he suddenly pressed his face against the young man’s sleeve and gave a sob.
“I should like to have a look at Sonitchka,” he whispered. “Arrange it, Borenka, my angel. I’ll shave, I’ll put on your suit . . . I’ll put on a straight face . . . I’ll hold my tongue while she is there. Yes, yes, I will hold my tongue!”
He looked round timidly towards the door, through which the women’s voices were heard, checked his sobs, and said aloud:
“Good-bye, young man! Attendez.”
“Upon the breast of a gigantic crag,
A golden cloudlet rested for one night.“
IN the room which the tavern keeper, the Cossack Semyon Tchistopluy, called the “travellers’ room,” that is kept exclusively for travellers, a tall, broad-shouldered man of forty was sitting at the big unpainted table. He was asleep with his elbows on the table and his head leaning on his fist. An end of tallow candle, stuck into an old pomatum pot, lighted up his light brown beard, his thick, broad nose, his sunburnt cheeks, and the thick, black eyebrows overhanging his closed eyes. . . . The nose and the cheeks and the eyebrows, all the features, each taken separately, were coarse and heavy, like the furniture and the stove in the “travellers’ room,” but taken all together they gave the effect of something harmonious and even beautiful. Such is the lucky star, as it is called, of the Russian face: the coarser and harsher its features the softer and more good-natured it looks. The man was dressed in a gentleman’s reefer jacket, shabby, but bound with wide new braid, a plush waistcoat, and full black trousers thrust into big high boots.
On one of the benches, which stood in a continuous row along the wall, a girl of eight, in a brown dress and long black stockings, lay asleep on a coat lined with fox. Her face was pale, her hair was flaxen, her shoulders were narrow, her whole body was thin and frail, but her nose stood out as thick and ugly a lump as the man’s. She was sound asleep, and unconscious that her semi-circular comb had fallen off her head and was cutting her cheek.
The “travellers’ room” had a festive appearance. The air was full of the smell of freshly scrubbed floors, there were no rags hanging as usual on the line that ran diagonally across the room, and a little lamp was burning in the corner over the table, casting a patch of red light on the ikon of St. George the Victorious. From the ikon stretched on each side of the corner a row of cheap oleographs, which maintained a strict and careful gradation in the transition from the sacred to the profane. In the dim light of the candle end and the red ikon lamp the pictures looked like one continuous stripe, covered with blurs of black. When the tiled stove, trying to sing in unison with the weather, drew in the air with a howl, while the logs, as though waking up, burst into bright flame and hissed angrily, red patches began dancing on the log walls, and over the head of the sleeping man could be seen first the Elder Seraphim, then the Shah Nasired–Din, then a fat, brown baby with goggle eyes, whispering in the ear of a young girl with an extraordinarily blank, and indifferent face . . . .
Outside a storm was raging. Something frantic and wrathful, but profoundly unhappy, seemed to be flinging itself about the tavern with the ferocity of a wild beast and trying to break in. Banging at the doors, knocking at the windows and on the roof, scratching at the walls, it alternately threatened and besought, then subsided for a brief interval, and then with a gleeful, treacherous howl burst into the chimney, but the wood flared up, and the fire, like a chained dog, flew wrathfully to meet its foe, a battle began, and after it — sobs, shrieks, howls of wrath. In all of this there was the sound of angry misery and unsatisfied hate, and the mortified impatience of something accustomed to triumph.
Bewitched by this wild, inhuman music the “travellers’ room” seemed spellbound for ever, but all at once the door creaked and the potboy, in a new print shirt, came in. Limping on one leg, and blinking his sleepy eyes, he snuffed the candle with his fingers, put some more wood on the fire and went out. At once from the church, which was three hundred paces from the tavern, the clock struck midnight. The wind played with the chimes as with the snowflakes; chasing the sounds of the clock it whirled them round and round over a vast space, so that some strokes were cut short or drawn out in long, vibrating notes, while others were completely lost in the general uproar. One stroke sounded as distinctly in the room as though it had chimed just under the window. The child, sleeping on the fox-skin, started and raised her head. For a minute she stared blankly at the dark window, at Nasired–Din over whom a crimson glow from the fire flickered at that moment, then she turned her eyes upon the sleeping man.
“Daddy,” she said.
But the man did not move. The little girl knitted her brow angrily, lay down, and curled up her legs. Someone in the tavern gave a loud, prolonged yawn. Soon afterwards there was the squeak of the swing door and the sound of indistinct voices. Someone came in, shaking the snow off, and stamping in felt boots which made a muffled thud.
“What is it?” a woman s voice asked languidly.
“Mademoiselle Ilovaisky has come, . . .” answered a bass voice.
Again there was the squeak of the swing door. Then came the roar of the wind rushing in. Someone, probably the lame boy, ran to the door leading to the “travellers’ room,” coughed deferentially, and lifted the latch.
“This way, lady, please,” said a woman’s voice in dulcet tones. “It’s clean in here, my beauty . . . .”
The door was opened wide and a peasant with a beard appeared in the doorway, in the long coat of a coachman, plastered all over with snow from head to foot, and carrying a big trunk on his shoulder. He was followed into the room by a feminine figure, scarcely half his height, with no face and no arms, muffled and wrapped up like a bundle and also covered with snow. A damp chill, as from a cellar, seemed to come to the child from the coachman and the bundle, and the fire and the candles flickered.
“What nonsense!” said the bundle angrily, “We could go perfectly well. We have only nine more miles to go, mostly by the forest, and we should not get lost . . . .”
“As for getting lost, we shouldn’t, but the horses can’t go on, lady!” answered the coachman. “And it is Thy Will, O Lord! As though I had done it on purpose!”
“God knows where you have brought me. . . . Well, be quiet. . . . There are people asleep here, it seems. You can go . . . .”
The coachman put the portmanteau on the floor, and as he did so, a great lump of snow fell off his shoulders. He gave a sniff and went out.
Then the little girl saw two little hands come out from the middle of the bundle, stretch upwards and begin angrily disentangling the network of shawls, kerchiefs, and scarves. First a big shawl fell on the ground, then a hood, then a white knitted kerchief. After freeing her head, the traveller took off her pelisse and at once shrank to half the size. Now she was in a long, grey coat with big buttons and bulging pockets. From one pocket she pulled out a paper parcel, from the other a bunch of big, heavy keys, which she put down so carelessly that the sleeping man started and opened his eyes. For some time he looked blankly round him as though he didn’t know where he was, then he shook his head, went to the corner and sat down. . . . The newcomer took off her great coat, which made her shrink to half her size again, she took off her big felt boots, and sat down, too.
By now she no longer resembled a bundle: she was a thin little brunette of twenty, as slim as a snake, with a long white face and curly hair. Her nose was long and sharp, her chin, too, was long and sharp, her eyelashes were long, the corners of her mouth were sharp, and, thanks to this general sharpness, the expression of her face was biting. Swathed in a closely fitting black dress with a mass of lace at her neck and sleeves, with sharp elbows and long pink fingers, she recalled the portraits of mediæval English ladies. The grave concentration of her face increased this likeness.
The lady looked round at the room, glanced sideways at the man and the little girl, shrugged her shoulders, and moved to the window. The dark windows were shaking from the damp west wind. Big flakes of snow glistening in their whiteness, lay on the window frame, but at once disappeared, borne away by the wind. The savage music grew louder and louder . . . .
After a long silence the little girl suddenly turned over, and said angrily, emphasizing each word:
“Oh, goodness, goodness, how unhappy I am! Unhappier than anyone!”
The man got up and moved with little steps to the child with a guilty air, which was utterly out of keeping with his huge figure and big beard.
“You are not asleep, dearie?” he said, in an apologetic voice. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything, my shoulder aches! You are a wicked man, Daddy, and God will punish you! You’ll see He will punish you.”
“My darling, I know your shoulder aches, but what can I do, dearie?” said the man, in the tone in which men who have been drinking excuse themselves to their stern spouses. “It’s the journey has made your shoulder ache, Sasha. To-morrow we shall get there and rest, and the pain will go away . . . .”
“To-morrow, tomorrow. . . . Every day you say tomorrow. We shall be going on another twenty days.”
“But we shall arrive tomorrow, dearie, on your father’s word of honour. I never tell a lie, but if we are detained by the snowstorm it is not my fault.”
“I can’t bear any more, I can’t, I can’t!”
Sasha jerked her leg abruptly and filled the room with an unpleasant wailing. Her father made a despairing gesture, and looked hopelessly towards the young lady. The latter shrugged her shoulders, and hesitatingly went up to Sasha.
“Listen, my dear,” she said, “it is no use crying. It’s really naughty; if your shoulder aches it can’t be helped.”
“You see, Madam,” said the man quickly, as though defending himself, “we have not slept for two nights, and have been travelling in a revolting conveyance. Well, of course, it is natural she should be ill and miserable, . . . and then, you know, we had a drunken driver, our portmanteau has been stolen . . . the snowstorm all the time, but what’s the use of crying, Madam? I am exhausted, though, by sleeping in a sitting position, and I feel as though I were drunk. Oh, dear! Sasha, and I feel sick as it is, and then you cry!”
The man shook his head, and with a gesture of despair sat down.
“Of course you mustn’t cry,” said the young lady. “It’s only little babies cry. If you are ill, dear, you must undress and go to sleep. . . . Let us take off your things!”
When the child had been undressed and pacified a silence reigned again. The young lady seated herself at the window, and looked round wonderingly at the room of the inn, at the ikon, at the stove. . . . Apparently the room and the little girl with the thick nose, in her short boy’s nightgown, and the child’s father, all seemed strange to her. This strange man was sitting in a corner; he kept looking about him helplessly, as though he were drunk, and rubbing his face with the palm of his hand. He sat silent, blinking, and judging from his guilty-looking figure it was difficult to imagine that he would soon begin to speak. Yet he was the first to begin. Stroking his knees, he gave a cough, laughed, and said:
“It’s a comedy, it really is. . . . I look and I cannot believe my eyes: for what devilry has destiny driven us to this accursed inn? What did she want to show by it? Life sometimes performs such ’salto mortale,‘ one can only stare and blink in amazement. Have you come from far, Madam?”
“No, not from far,” answered the young lady. “I am going from our estate, fifteen miles from here, to our farm, to my father and brother. My name is Ilovaisky, and the farm is called Ilovaiskoe. It’s nine miles away. What unpleasant weather!”
“It couldn’t be worse.”
The lame boy came in and stuck a new candle in the pomatum pot.
“You might bring us the samovar, boy,” said the man, addressing him.
“Who drinks tea now?” laughed the boy. “It is a sin to drink tea before mass . . . .”
“Never mind boy, you won’t burn in hell if we do . . . .”
Over the tea the new acquaintances got into conversation.
Mlle. Ilovaisky learned that her companion was called Grigory Petrovitch Liharev, that he was the brother of the Liharev who was Marshal of Nobility in one of the neighbouring districts, and he himself had once been a landowner, but had “run through everything in his time.” Liharev learned that her name was Marya Mihailovna, that her father had a huge estate, but that she was the only one to look after it as her father and brother looked at life through their fingers, were irresponsible, and were too fond of harriers.
“My father and brother are all alone at the farm,” she told him, brandishing her fingers (she had the habit of moving her fingers before her pointed face as she talked, and after every sentence moistened her lips with her sharp little tongue). “They, I mean men, are an irresponsible lot, and don’t stir a finger for themselves. I can fancy there will be no one to give them a meal after the fast! We have no mother, and we have such servants that they can’t lay the tablecloth properly when I am away. You can imagine their condition now! They will be left with nothing to break their fast, while I have to stay here all night. How strange it all is.”
She shrugged her shoulders, took a sip from her cup, and said:
“There are festivals that have a special fragrance: at Easter, Trinity and Christmas there is a peculiar scent in the air. Even unbelievers are fond of those festivals. My brother, for instance, argues that there is no God, but he is the first to hurry to Matins at Easter.”
Liharev raised his eyes to Mlle. Ilovaisky and laughed.
“They argue that there is no God,” she went on, laughing too, “but why is it, tell me, all the celebrated writers, the learned men, clever people generally, in fact, believe towards the end of their life?”
“If a man does not know how to believe when he is young, Madam, he won’t believe in his old age if he is ever so much of a writer.”
Judging from Liharev’s cough he had a bass voice, but, probably from being afraid to speak aloud, or from exaggerated shyness, he spoke in a tenor. After a brief pause he heaved a sign and said:
“The way I look at it is that faith is a faculty of the spirit. It is just the same as a talent, one must be born with it. So far as I can judge by myself, by the people I have seen in my time, and by all that is done around us, this faculty is present in Russians in its highest degree. Russian life presents us with an uninterrupted succession of convictions and aspirations, and if you care to know, it has not yet the faintest notion of lack of faith or scepticism. If a Russian does not believe in God, it means he believes in something else.”
Liharev took a cup of tea from Mlle. Ilovaisky, drank off half in one gulp, and went on:
“I will tell you about myself. Nature has implanted in my breast an extraordinary faculty for belief. Whisper it not to the night, but half my life I was in the ranks of the Atheists and Nihilists, but there was not one hour in my life in which I ceased to believe. All talents, as a rule, show themselves in early childhood, and so my faculty showed itself when I could still walk upright under the table. My mother liked her children to eat a great deal, and when she gave me food she used to say: ‘Eat! Soup is the great thing in life!’ I believed, and ate the soup ten times a day, ate like a shark, ate till I was disgusted and stupefied. My nurse used to tell me fairy tales, and I believed in house-spirits, in wood-elves, and in goblins of all kinds. I used sometimes to steal corrosive sublimate from my father, sprinkle it on cakes, and carry them up to the attic that the house-spirits, you see, might eat them and be killed. And when I was taught to read and understand what I read, then there was a fine to-do. I ran away to America and went off to join the brigands, and wanted to go into a monastery, and hired boys to torture me for being a Christian. And note that my faith was always active, never dead. If I was running away to America I was not alone, but seduced someone else, as great a fool as I was, to go with me, and was delighted when I was nearly frozen outside the town gates and when I was thrashed; if I went to join the brigands I always came back with my face battered. A most restless childhood, I assure you! And when they sent me to the high school and pelted me with all sorts of truths — that is, that the earth goes round the sun, or that white light is not white, but is made up of seven colours — my poor little head began to go round! Everything was thrown into a whirl in me: Navin who made the sun stand still, and my mother who in the name of the Prophet Elijah disapproved of lightning conductors, and my father who was indifferent to the truths I had learned. My enlightenment inspired me. I wandered about the house and stables like one possessed, preaching my truths, was horrified by ignorance, glowed with hatred for anyone who saw in white light nothing but white light. . . . But all that’s nonsense and childishness. Serious, so to speak, manly enthusiasms began only at the university. You have, no doubt, Madam, taken your degree somewhere?”
“I studied at Novotcherkask at the Don Institute.”
“Then you have not been to a university? So you don’t know what science means. All the sciences in the world have the same passport, without which they regard themselves as meaningless . . . the striving towards truth! Every one of them, even pharmacology, has for its aim not utility, not the alleviation of life, but truth. It’s remarkable! When you set to work to study any science, what strikes you first of all is its beginning. I assure you there is nothing more attractive and grander, nothing is so staggering, nothing takes a man’s breath away like the beginning of any science. From the first five or six lectures you are soaring on wings of the brightest hopes, you already seem to yourself to be welcoming truth with open arms. And I gave myself up to science, heart and soul, passionately, as to the woman one loves. I was its slave; I found it the sun of my existence, and asked for no other. I studied day and night without rest, ruined myself over books, wept when before my eyes men exploited science for their own personal ends. But my enthusiasm did not last long. The trouble is that every science has a beginning but not an end, like a recurring decimal. Zoology has discovered 35,000 kinds of insects, chemistry reckons 60 elements. If in time tens of noughts can be written after these figures. Zoology and chemistry will be just as far from their end as now, and all contemporary scientific work consists in increasing these numbers. I saw through this trick when I discovered the 35,001-st and felt no satisfaction. Well, I had no time to suffer from disillusionment, as I was soon possessed by a new faith. I plunged into Nihilism, with its manifestoes, its ‘black divisions,’ and all the rest of it. I ‘went to the people,’ worked in factories, worked as an oiler, as a barge hauler. Afterwards, when wandering over Russia, I had a taste of Russian life, I turned into a fervent devotee of that life. I loved the Russian people with poignant intensity; I loved their God and believed in Him, and in their language, their creative genius. . . . And so on, and so on. . . . I have been a Slavophile in my time, I used to pester Aksakov with letters, and I was a Ukrainophile, and an archæologist, and a collector of specimens of peasant art. . . . I was enthusiastic over ideas, people, events, places . . . my enthusiasm was endless! Five years ago I was working for the abolition of private property; my last creed was non-resistance to evil.”
Sasha gave an abrupt sigh and began moving. Liharev got up and went to her.
“Won’t you have some tea, dearie?” he asked tenderly.
“Drink it yourself,” the child answered rudely. Liharev was disconcerted, and went back to the table with a guilty step.
“Then you have had a lively time,” said Mlle. Ilovaisky; “you have something to remember.”
“Well, yes, it’s all very lively when one sits over tea and chatters to a kind listener, but you should ask what that liveliness has cost me! What price have I paid for the variety of my life? You see, Madam, I have not held my convictions like a German doctor of philosophy, zierlichmännerlich, I have not lived in solitude, but every conviction I have had has bound my back to the yoke, has torn my body to pieces. Judge, for yourself. I was wealthy like my brothers, but now I am a beggar. In the delirium of my enthusiasm I smashed up my own fortune and my wife’s — a heap of other people’s money. Now I am forty-two, old age is close upon me, and I am homeless, like a dog that has dropped behind its waggon at night. All my life I have not known what peace meant, my soul has been in continual agitation, distressed even by its hopes . . . I have been wearied out with heavy irregular work, have endured privation, have five times been in prison, have dragged myself across the provinces of Archangel and of Tobolsk . . . it’s painful to think of it! I have lived, but in my fever I have not even been conscious of the process of life itself. Would you believe it, I don’t remember a single spring, I never noticed how my wife loved me, how my children were born. What more can I tell you? I have been a misfortune to all who have loved me. . . . My mother has worn mourning for me all these fifteen years, while my proud brothers, who have had to wince, to blush, to bow their heads, to waste their money on my account, have come in the end to hate me like poison.”
Liharev got up and sat down again.
“If I were simply unhappy I should thank God,” he went on without looking at his listener. “My personal unhappiness sinks into the background when I remember how often in my enthusiasms I have been absurd, far from the truth, unjust, cruel, dangerous! How often I have hated and despised those whom I ought to have loved, and vice versa, I have changed a thousand times. One day I believe, fall down and worship, the next I flee like a coward from the gods and friends of yesterday, and swallow in silence the ‘scoundrel!’ they hurl after me. God alone has seen how often I have wept and bitten my pillow in shame for my enthusiasms. Never once in my life have I intentionally lied or done evil, but my conscience is not clear! I cannot even boast, Madam, that I have no one’s life upon my conscience, for my wife died before my eyes, worn out by my reckless activity. Yes, my wife! I tell you they have two ways of treating women nowadays. Some measure women’s skulls to prove woman is inferior to man, pick out her defects to mock at her, to look original in her eyes, and to justify their sensuality. Others do their utmost to raise women to their level, that is, force them to learn by heart the 35,000 species, to speak and write the same foolish things as they speak and write themselves.”
Liharev’s face darkened.
“I tell you that woman has been and always will be the slave of man,” he said in a bass voice, striking his fist on the table. “She is the soft, tender wax which a man always moulds into anything he likes. . . . My God! for the sake of some trumpery masculine enthusiasm she will cut off her hair, abandon her family, die among strangers! . . . among the ideas for which she has sacrificed herself there is not a single feminine one. . . . An unquestioning, devoted slave! I have not measured skulls, but I say this from hard, bitter experience: the proudest, most independent women, if I have succeeded in communicating to them my enthusiasm, have followed me without criticism, without question, and done anything I chose; I have turned a nun into a Nihilist who, as I heard afterwards, shot a gendarme; my wife never left me for a minute in my wanderings, and like a weathercock changed her faith in step with my changing enthusiasms.”
Liharev jumped up and walked up and down the room.
“A noble, sublime slavery!” he said, clasping his hands. “It is just in it that the highest meaning of woman’s life lies! Of all the fearful medley of thoughts and impressions accumulated in my brain from my association with women my memory, like a filter, has retained no ideas, no clever saying, no philosophy, nothing but that extraordinary, resignation to fate, that wonderful mercifulness, forgiveness of everything.”
Liharev clenched his fists, stared at a fixed point, and with a sort of passionate intensity, as though he were savouring each word as he uttered it, hissed through his clenched teeth:
“That . . . that great-hearted fortitude, faithfulness unto death, poetry of the heart. . . . The meaning of life lies in just that unrepining martyrdom, in the tears which would soften a stone, in the boundless, all-forgiving love which brings light and warmth into the chaos of life . . . .”
Mlle. Ilovaisky got up slowly, took a step towards Liharev, and fixed her eyes upon his face. From the tears that glittered on his eyelashes, from his quivering, passionate voice, from the flush on his cheeks, it was clear to her that women were not a chance, not a simple subject of conversation. They were the object of his new enthusiasm, or, as he said himself, his new faith! For the first time in her life she saw a man carried away, fervently believing. With his gesticulations, with his flashing eyes he seemed to her mad, frantic, but there was a feeling of such beauty in the fire of his eyes, in his words, in all the movements of his huge body, that without noticing what she was doing she stood facing him as though rooted to the spot, and gazed into his face with delight.
“Take my mother,” he said, stretching out his hand to her with an imploring expression on his face, “I poisoned her existence, according to her ideas disgraced the name of Liharev, did her as much harm as the most malignant enemy, and what do you think? My brothers give her little sums for holy bread and church services, and outraging her religious feelings, she saves that money and sends it in secret to her erring Grigory. This trifle alone elevates and ennobles the soul far more than all the theories, all the clever sayings and the 35,000 species. I can give you thousands of instances. Take you, even, for instance! With tempest and darkness outside you are going to your father and your brother to cheer them with your affection in the holiday, though very likely they have forgotten and are not thinking of you. And, wait a bit, and you will love a man and follow him to the North Pole. You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, if I loved him.”
“There, you see,” cried Liharev delighted, and he even stamped with his foot. “Oh dear! How glad I am that I have met you! Fate is kind to me, I am always meeting splendid people. Not a day passes but one makes acquaintance with somebody one would give one’s soul for. There are ever so many more good people than bad in this world. Here, see, for instance, how openly and from our hearts we have been talking as though we had known each other a hundred years. Sometimes, I assure you, one restrains oneself for ten years and holds one’s tongue, is reserved with one’s friends and one’s wife, and meets some cadet in a train and babbles one’s whole soul out to him. It is the first time I have the honour of seeing you, and yet I have confessed to you as I have never confessed in my life. Why is it?”
Rubbing his hands and smiling good-humouredly Liharev walked up and down the room, and fell to talking about women again. Meanwhile they began ringing for matins.
“Goodness,” wailed Sasha. “He won’t let me sleep with his talking!”
“Oh, yes!” said Liharev, startled. “I am sorry, darling, sleep, sleep. . . . I have two boys besides her,” he whispered. “They are living with their uncle, Madam, but this one can’t exist a day without her father. She’s wretched, she complains, but she sticks to me like a fly to honey. I have been chattering too much, Madam, and it would do you no harm to sleep. Wouldn’t you like me to make up a bed for you?”
Without waiting for permission he shook the wet pelisse, stretched it on a bench, fur side upwards, collected various shawls and scarves, put the overcoat folded up into a roll for a pillow, and all this he did in silence with a look of devout reverence, as though he were not handling a woman’s rags, but the fragments of holy vessels. There was something apologetic, embarrassed about his whole figure, as though in the presence of a weak creature he felt ashamed of his height and strength . . . .
When Mlle. Ilovaisky had lain down, he put out the candle and sat down on a stool by the stove.
“So, Madam,” he whispered, lighting a fat cigarette and puffing the smoke into the stove. “Nature has put into the Russian an extraordinary faculty for belief, a searching intelligence, and the gift of speculation, but all that is reduced to ashes by irresponsibility, laziness, and dreamy frivolity. . . . Yes . . . .”
She gazed wonderingly into the darkness, and saw only a spot of red on the ikon and the flicker of the light of the stove on Liharev’s face. The darkness, the chime of the bells, the roar of the storm, the lame boy, Sasha with her fretfulness, unhappy Liharev and his sayings — all this was mingled together, and seemed to grow into one huge impression, and God’s world seemed to her fantastic, full of marvels and magical forces. All that she had heard was ringing in her ears, and human life presented itself to her as a beautiful poetic fairy-tale without an end.
The immense impression grew and grew, clouded consciousness, and turned into a sweet dream. She was asleep, though she saw the little ikon lamp and a big nose with the light playing on it.
She heard the sound of weeping.
“Daddy, darling,” a child’s voice was tenderly entreating, “let’s go back to uncle! There is a Christmas-tree there! Styopa and Kolya are there!”
“My darling, what can I do?” a man’s bass persuaded softly. “Understand me! Come, understand!”
And the man’s weeping blended with the child’s. This voice of human sorrow, in the midst of the howling of the storm, touched the girl’s ear with such sweet human music that she could not bear the delight of it, and wept too. She was conscious afterwards of a big, black shadow coming softly up to her, picking up a shawl that had dropped on to the floor and carefully wrapping it round her feet.
Mile. Ilovaisky was awakened by a strange uproar. She jumped up and looked about her in astonishment. The deep blue dawn was looking in at the window half-covered with snow. In the room there was a grey twilight, through which the stove and the sleeping child and Nasired–Din stood out distinctly. The stove and the lamp were both out. Through the wide-open door she could see the big tavern room with a counter and chairs. A man, with a stupid, gipsy face and astonished eyes, was standing in the middle of the room in a puddle of melting snow, holding a big red star on a stick. He was surrounded by a group of boys, motionless as statues, and plastered over with snow. The light shone through the red paper of the star, throwing a glow of red on their wet faces. The crowd was shouting in disorder, and from its uproar Mile. Ilovaisky could make out only one couplet:
“Hi, you Little Russian lad, Bring your sharp knife, We will kill the Jew, we will kill him, The son of tribulation. . .”
Liharev was standing near the counter, looking feelingly at the singers and tapping his feet in time. Seeing Mile. Ilovaisky, he smiled all over his face and came up to her. She smiled too.
“A happy Christmas!” he said. “I saw you slept well.”
She looked at him, said nothing, and went on smiling.
After the conversation in the night he seemed to her not tall and broad shouldered, but little, just as the biggest steamer seems to us a little thing when we hear that it has crossed the ocean.
“Well, it is time for me to set off,” she said. “I must put on my things. Tell me where you are going now?”
“I? To the station of Klinushki, from there to Sergievo, and from Sergievo, with horses, thirty miles to the coal mines that belong to a horrid man, a general called Shashkovsky. My brothers have got me the post of superintendent there. . . . I am going to be a coal miner.”
“Stay, I know those mines. Shashkovsky is my uncle, you know. But . . . what are you going there for?” asked Mlle. Ilovaisky, looking at Liharev in surprise.
“As superintendent. To superintend the coal mines.”
“I don’t understand!” she shrugged her shoulders. “You are going to the mines. But you know, it’s the bare steppe, a desert, so dreary that you couldn’t exist a day there! It’s horrible coal, no one will buy it, and my uncle’s a maniac, a despot, a bankrupt . . . . You won’t get your salary!”
“No matter,” said Liharev, unconcernedly, “I am thankful even for coal mines.”
She shrugged her shoulders, and walked about the room in agitation.
“I don’t understand, I don’t understand,” she said, moving her fingers before her face. “It’s impossible, and . . . and irrational! You must understand that it’s . . . it’s worse than exile. It is a living tomb! O Heavens!” she said hotly, going up to Liharev and moving her fingers before his smiling face; her upper lip was quivering, and her sharp face turned pale, “Come, picture it, the bare steppe, solitude. There is no one to say a word to there, and you . . . are enthusiastic over women! Coal mines . . . and women!”
Mlle. Ilovaisky was suddenly ashamed of her heat and, turning away from Liharev, walked to the window.
“No, no, you can’t go there,” she said, moving her fingers rapidly over the pane.
Not only in her heart, but even in her spine she felt that behind her stood an infinitely unhappy man, lost and outcast, while he, as though he were unaware of his unhappiness, as though he had not shed tears in the night, was looking at her with a kindly smile. Better he should go on weeping! She walked up and down the room several times in agitation, then stopped short in a corner and sank into thought. Liharev was saying something, but she did not hear him. Turning her back on him she took out of her purse a money note, stood for a long time crumpling it in her hand, and looking round at Liharev, blushed and put it in her pocket.
The coachman’s voice was heard through the door. With a stern, concentrated face she began putting on her things in silence. Liharev wrapped her up, chatting gaily, but every word he said lay on her heart like a weight. It is not cheering to hear the unhappy or the dying jest.
When the transformation of a live person into a shapeless bundle had been completed, Mlle. Ilovaisky looked for the last time round the “travellers’ room,” stood a moment in silence, and slowly walked out. Liharev went to see her off . . . .
Outside, God alone knows why, the winter was raging still. Whole clouds of big soft snowflakes were whirling restlessly over the earth, unable to find a resting-place. The horses, the sledge, the trees, a bull tied to a post, all were white and seemed soft and fluffy.
“Well, God help you,” muttered Liharev, tucking her into the sledge. “Don’t remember evil against me . . . .”
She was silent. When the sledge started, and had to go round a huge snowdrift, she looked back at Liharev with an expression as though she wanted to say something to him. He ran up to her, but she did not say a word to him, she only looked at him through her long eyelashes with little specks of snow on them.
Whether his finely intuitive soul were really able to read that look, or whether his imagination deceived him, it suddenly began to seem to him that with another touch or two that girl would have forgiven him his failures, his age, his desolate position, and would have followed him without question or reasonings. He stood a long while as though rooted to the spot, gazing at the tracks left by the sledge runners. The snowflakes greedily settled on his hair, his beard, his shoulders. . . . Soon the track of the runners had vanished, and he himself covered with snow, began to look like a white rock, but still his eyes kept seeking something in the clouds of snow.
THE town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying. In the hospital and in the prison fortress very few coffins were needed. In fact business was bad. If Yakov Ivanov had been an undertaker in the chief town of the province he would certainly have had a house of his own, and people would have addressed him as Yakov Matveyitch; here in this wretched little town people called him simply Yakov; his nickname in the street was for some reason Bronze, and he lived in a poor way like a humble peasant, in a little old hut in which there was only one room, and in this room he and Marfa, the stove, a double bed, the coffins, his bench, and all their belongings were crowded together.
Yakov made good, solid coffins. For peasants and working people he made them to fit himself, and this was never unsuccessful, for there were none taller and stronger than he, even in the prison, though he was seventy. For gentry and for women he made them to measure, and used an iron foot-rule for the purpose. He was very unwilling to take orders for children’s coffins, and made them straight off without measurements, contemptuously, and when he was paid for the work he always said:
“I must confess I don’t like trumpery jobs.”
Apart from his trade, playing the fiddle brought him in a small income.
The Jews’ orchestra conducted by Moisey Ilyitch Shahkes, the tinsmith, who took more than half their receipts for himself, played as a rule at weddings in the town. As Yakov played very well on the fiddle, especially Russian songs, Shahkes sometimes invited him to join the orchestra at a fee of half a rouble a day, in addition to tips from the visitors. When Bronze sat in the orchestra first of all his face became crimson and perspiring; it was hot, there was a suffocating smell of garlic, the fiddle squeaked, the double bass wheezed close to his right ear, while the flute wailed at his left, played by a gaunt, red-haired Jew who had a perfect network of red and blue veins all over his face, and who bore the name of the famous millionaire Rothschild. And this accursed Jew contrived to play even the liveliest things plaintively. For no apparent reason Yakov little by little became possessed by hatred and contempt for the Jews, and especially for Rothschild; he began to pick quarrels with him, rail at him in unseemly language and once even tried to strike him, and Rothschild was offended and said, looking at him ferociously:
“If it were not that I respect you for your talent, I would have sent you flying out of the window.”
Then he began to weep. And because of this Yakov was not often asked to play in the orchestra; he was only sent for in case of extreme necessity in the absence of one of the Jews.
Yakov was never in a good temper, as he was continually having to put up with terrible losses. For instance, it was a sin to work on Sundays or Saints’ days, and Monday was an unlucky day, so that in the course of the year there were some two hundred days on which, whether he liked it or not, he had to sit with his hands folded. And only think, what a loss that meant. If anyone in the town had a wedding without music, or if Shahkes did not send for Yakov, that was a loss, too. The superintendent of the prison was ill for two years and was wasting away, and Yakov was impatiently waiting for him to die, but the superintendent went away to the chief town of the province to be doctored, and there took and died. There’s a loss for you, ten roubles at least, as there would have been an expensive coffin to make, lined with brocade. The thought of his losses haunted Yakov, especially at night; he laid his fiddle on the bed beside him, and when all sorts of nonsensical ideas came into his mind he touched a string; the fiddle gave out a sound in the darkness, and he felt better.
On the sixth of May of the previous year Marfa had suddenly been taken ill. The old woman’s breathing was laboured, she drank a great deal of water, and she staggered as she walked, yet she lighted the stove in the morning and even went herself to get water. Towards evening she lay down. Yakov played his fiddle all day; when it was quite dark he took the book in which he used every day to put down his losses, and, feeling dull, he began adding up the total for the year. It came to more than a thousand roubles. This so agitated him that he flung the reckoning beads down, and trampled them under his feet. Then he picked up the reckoning beads, and again spent a long time clicking with them and heaving deep, strained sighs. His face was crimson and wet with perspiration. He thought that if he had put that lost thousand roubles in the bank, the interest for a year would have been at least forty roubles, so that forty roubles was a loss too. In fact, wherever one turned there were losses and nothing else.
“Yakov!” Marfa called unexpectedly. “I am dying.”
He looked round at his wife. Her face was rosy with fever, unusually bright and joyful-looking. Bronze, accustomed to seeing her face always pale, timid, and unhappy-looking, was bewildered. It looked as if she really were dying and were glad that she was going away for ever from that hut, from the coffins, and from Yakov. . . . And she gazed at the ceiling and moved her lips, and her expression was one of happiness, as though she saw death as her deliverer and were whispering with him.
It was daybreak; from the windows one could see the flush of dawn. Looking at the old woman, Yakov for some reason reflected that he had not once in his life been affectionate to her, had had no feeling for her, had never once thought to buy her a kerchief, or to bring her home some dainty from a wedding, but had done nothing but shout at her, scold her for his losses, shake his fists at her; it is true he had never actually beaten her, but he had frightened her, and at such times she had always been numb with terror. Why, he had forbidden her to drink tea because they spent too much without that, and she drank only hot water. And he understood why she had such a strange, joyful face now, and he was overcome with dread.
As soon as it was morning he borrowed a horse from a neighbour and took Marfa to the hospital. There were not many patients there, and so he had not long to wait, only three hours. To his great satisfaction the patients were not being received by the doctor, who was himself ill, but by the assistant, Maxim Nikolaitch, an old man of whom everyone in the town used to say that, though he drank and was quarrelsome, he knew more than the doctor.
“I wish you good-day,” said Yakov, leading his old woman into the consulting room. “You must excuse us, Maxim Nikolaitch, we are always troubling you with our trumpery affairs. Here you see my better half is ailing, the partner of my life, as they say, excuse the expression . . . .”
Knitting his grizzled brows and stroking his whiskers the assistant began to examine the old woman, and she sat on a stool, a wasted, bent figure with a sharp nose and open mouth, looking like a bird that wants to drink.
“H——— m . . . Ah! . . .” the assistant said slowly, and he heaved a sigh. “Influenza and possibly fever. There’s typhus in the town now. Well, the old woman has lived her life, thank God. . . . How old is she?”
“She’ll be seventy in another year, Maxim Nikolaitch.”
“Well, the old woman has lived her life, it’s time to say good-bye.”
“You are quite right in what you say, of course, Maxim Nikolaitch,” said Yakov, smiling from politeness, “and we thank you feelingly for your kindness, but allow me to say every insect wants to live.”
“To be sure,” said the assistant, in a tone which suggested that it depended upon him whether the woman lived or died. “Well, then, my good fellow, put a cold compress on her head, and give her these powders twice a day, and so good-bye. Bonjour.”
From the expression of his face Yakov saw that it was a bad case, and that no sort of powders would be any help; it was clear to him that Marfa would die very soon, if not today, tomorrow. He nudged the assistant’s elbow, winked at him, and said in a low voice:
“If you would just cup her, Maxim Nikolaitch.”
“I have no time, I have no time, my good fellow. Take your old woman and go in God’s name. Goodbye.”
“Be so gracious,” Yakov besought him. “You know yourself that if, let us say, it were her stomach or her inside that were bad, then powders or drops, but you see she had got a chill! In a chill the first thing is to let blood, Maxim Nikolaitch.”
But the assistant had already sent for the next patient, and a peasant woman came into the consulting room with a boy.
“Go along! go along,” he said to Yakov, frowning. “It’s no use to —”
“In that case put on leeches, anyway! Make us pray for you for ever.”
The assistant flew into a rage and shouted:
“You speak to me again! You blockhead . . . .”
Yakov flew into a rage too, and he turned crimson all over, but he did not utter a word. He took Marfa on his arm and led her out of the room. Only when they were sitting in the cart he looked morosely and ironically at the hospital, and said:
“A nice set of artists they have settled here! No fear, but he would have cupped a rich man, but even a leech he grudges to the poor. The Herods!”
When they got home and went into the hut, Marfa stood for ten minutes holding on to the stove. It seemed to her that if she were to lie down Yakov would talk to her about his losses, and scold her for lying down and not wanting to work. Yakov looked at her drearily and thought that tomorrow was St. John the Divine’s, and next day St. Nikolay the Wonder-worker’s, and the day after that was Sunday, and then Monday, an unlucky day. For four days he would not be able to work, and most likely Marfa would die on one of those days; so he would have to make the coffin today. He picked up his iron rule, went up to the old woman and took her measure. Then she lay down, and he crossed himself and began making the coffin.
When the coffin was finished Bronze put on his spectacles and wrote in his book: “Marfa Ivanov’s coffin, two roubles, forty kopecks.”
And he heaved a sigh. The old woman lay all the time silent with her eyes closed. But in the evening, when it got dark, she suddenly called the old man.
“Do you remember, Yakov,” she asked, looking at him joyfully. “Do you remember fifty years ago God gave us a little baby with flaxen hair? We used always to be sitting by the river then, singing songs . . . under the willows,” and laughing bitterly, she added: “The baby girl died.”
Yakov racked his memory, but could not remember the baby or the willows.
“It’s your fancy,” he said.
The priest arrived; he administered the sacrament and extreme unction. Then Marfa began muttering something unintelligible, and towards morning she died. Old women, neighbours, washed her, dressed her, and laid her in the coffin. To avoid paying the sacristan, Yakov read the psalms over the body himself, and they got nothing out of him for the grave, as the grave-digger was a crony of his. Four peasants carried the coffin to the graveyard, not for money, but from respect. The coffin was followed by old women, beggars, and a couple of crazy saints, and the people who met it crossed themselves piously. . . . And Yakov was very much pleased that it was so creditable, so decorous, and so cheap, and no offence to anyone. As he took his last leave of Marfa he touched the coffin and thought: “A good piece of work!”
But as he was going back from the cemetery he was overcome by acute depression. He didn’t feel quite well: his breathing was laboured and feverish, his legs felt weak, and he had a craving for drink. And thoughts of all sorts forced themselves on his mind. He remembered again that all his life he had never felt for Marfa, had never been affectionate to her. The fifty-two years they had lived in the same hut had dragged on a long, long time, but it had somehow happened that in all that time he had never once thought of her, had paid no attention to her, as though she had been a cat or a dog. And yet, every day, she had lighted the stove had cooked and baked, had gone for the water, had chopped the wood, had slept with him in the same bed, and when he came home drunk from the weddings always reverently hung his fiddle on the wall and put him to bed, and all this in silence, with a timid, anxious expression.
Rothschild, smiling and bowing, came to meet Yakov.
“I was looking for you, uncle,” he said. “Moisey Ilyitch sends you his greetings and bids you come to him at once.”
Yakov felt in no mood for this. He wanted to cry.
“Leave me alone,” he said, and walked on.
“How can you,” Rothschild said, fluttered, running on in front. “Moisey Ilyitch will be offended! He bade you come at once!”
Yakov was revolted at the Jew’s gasping for breath and blinking, and having so many red freckles on his face. And it was disgusting to look at his green coat with black patches on it, and all his fragile, refined figure.
“Why are you pestering me, garlic?” shouted Yakov. “Don’t persist!”
The Jew got angry and shouted too:
“Not so noisy, please, or I’ll send you flying over the fence!”
“Get out of my sight!” roared Yakov, and rushed at him with his fists. “One can’t live for you scabby Jews!”
Rothschild, half dead with terror, crouched down and waved his hands over his head, as though to ward off a blow; then he leapt up and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him: as he ran he gave little skips and kept clasping his hands, and Yakov could see how his long thin spine wriggled. Some boys, delighted at the incident, ran after him shouting “Jew! Jew!” Some dogs joined in the chase barking. Someone burst into a roar of laughter, then gave a whistle; the dogs barked with even more noise and unanimity. Then a dog must have bitten Rothschild, as a desperate, sickly scream was heard.
Yakov went for a walk on the grazing ground, then wandered on at random in the outskirts of the town, while the street boys shouted:
“Here’s Bronze! Here’s Bronze!”
He came to the river, where the curlews floated in the air uttering shrill cries and the ducks quacked. The sun was blazing hot, and there was a glitter from the water, so that it hurt the eyes to look at it. Yakov walked by a path along the bank and saw a plump, rosy-cheeked lady come out of the bathing-shed, and thought about her: “Ugh! you otter!”
Not far from the bathing-shed boys were catching crayfish with bits of meat; seeing him, they began shouting spitefully, “Bronze! Bronze!” And then he saw an old spreading willow-tree with a big hollow in it, and a crow’s nest on it. . . . And suddenly there rose up vividly in Yakov’s memory a baby with flaxen hair, and the willow-tree Marfa had spoken of. Why, that is it, the same willow-tree — green, still, and sorrowful. . . . How old it has grown, poor thing!
He sat down under it and began to recall the past. On the other bank, where now there was the water meadow, in those days there stood a big birchwood, and yonder on the bare hillside that could be seen on the horizon an old, old pine forest used to be a bluish patch in the distance. Big boats used to sail on the river. But now it was all smooth and unruffled, and on the other bank there stood now only one birch-tree, youthful and slender like a young lady, and there was nothing on the river but ducks and geese, and it didn’t look as though there had ever been boats on it. It seemed as though even the geese were fewer than of old. Yakov shut his eyes, and in his imagination huge flocks of white geese soared, meeting one another.
He wondered how it had happened that for the last forty or fifty years of his life he had never once been to the river, or if he had been by it he had not paid attention to it. Why, it was a decent sized river, not a trumpery one; he might have gone in for fishing and sold the fish to merchants, officials, and the bar-keeper at the station, and then have put money in the bank; he might have sailed in a boat from one house to another, playing the fiddle, and people of all classes would have paid to hear him; he might have tried getting big boats afloat again — that would be better than making coffins; he might have bred geese, killed them and sent them in the winter to Moscow Why, the feathers alone would very likely mount up to ten roubles in the year. But he had wasted his time, he had done nothing of this. What losses! Ah! What losses! And if he had gone in for all those things at once — catching fish and playing the fiddle, and running boats and killing geese — what a fortune he would have made! But nothing of this had happened, even in his dreams; life had passed uselessly without any pleasure, had been wasted for nothing, not even a pinch of snuff; there was nothing left in front, and if one looked back — there was nothing there but losses, and such terrible ones, it made one cold all over. And why was it a man could not live so as to avoid these losses and misfortunes? One wondered why they had cut down the birch copse and the pine forest. Why was he walking with no reason on the grazing ground? Why do people always do what isn’t needful? Why had Yakov all his life scolded, bellowed, shaken his fists, ill-treated his wife, and, one might ask, what necessity was there for him to frighten and insult the Jew that day? Why did people in general hinder each other from living? What losses were due to it! what terrible losses! If it were not for hatred and malice people would get immense benefit from one another.
In the evening and the night he had visions of the baby, of the willow, of fish, of slaughtered geese, and Marfa looking in profile like a bird that wants to drink, and the pale, pitiful face of Rothschild, and faces moved down from all sides and muttered of losses. He tossed from side to side, and got out of bed five times to play the fiddle.
In the morning he got up with an effort and went to the hospital. The same Maxim Nikolaitch told him to put a cold compress on his head, and gave him some powders, and from his tone and expression of face Yakov realized that it was a bad case and that no powders would be any use. As he went home afterwards, he reflected that death would be nothing but a benefit; he would not have to eat or drink, or pay taxes or offend people, and, as a man lies in his grave not for one year but for hundreds and thousands, if one reckoned it up the gain would be enormous. A man’s life meant loss: death meant gain. This reflection was, of course, a just one, but yet it was bitter and mortifying; why was the order of the world so strange, that life, which is given to man only once, passes away without benefit?
He was not sorry to die, but at home, as soon as he saw his fiddle, it sent a pang to his heart and he felt sorry. He could not take the fiddle with him to the grave, and now it would be left forlorn, and the same thing would happen to it as to the birch copse and the pine forest. Everything in this world was wasted and would be wasted! Yakov went out of the hut and sat in the doorway, pressing the fiddle to his bosom. Thinking of his wasted, profitless life, he began to play, he did not know what, but it was plaintive and touching, and tears trickled down his cheeks. And the harder he thought, the more mournfully the fiddle wailed.
The latch clicked once and again, and Rothschild appeared at the gate. He walked across half the yard boldly, but seeing Yakov he stopped short, and seemed to shrink together, and probably from terror, began making signs with his hands as though he wanted to show on his fingers what o’clock it was.
“Come along, it’s all right,” said Yakov in a friendly tone, and he beckoned him to come up. “Come along!”
Looking at him mistrustfully and apprehensively, Rothschild began to advance, and stopped seven feet off.
“Be so good as not to beat me,” he said, ducking. “Moisey Ilyitch has sent me again. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said; ‘go to Yakov again and tell him,’ he said, ‘we can’t get on without him.’ There is a wedding on Wednesday. . . . Ye —— es! Mr. Shapovalov is marrying his daughter to a good man. . . . And it will be a grand wedding, oo-oo!” added the Jew, screwing up one eye.
“I can’t come,” said Yakov, breathing hard. “I’m ill, brother.”
And he began playing again, and the tears gushed from his eyes on to the fiddle. Rothschild listened attentively, standing sideways to him and folding his arms on his chest. The scared and perplexed expression on his face, little by little, changed to a look of woe and suffering; he rolled his eyes as though he were experiencing an agonizing ecstasy, and articulated, “Vachhh!” and tears slowly ran down his cheeks and trickled on his greenish coat.
And Yakov lay in bed all the rest of the day grieving. In the evening, when the priest confessing him asked, Did he remember any special sin he had committed? straining his failing memory he thought again of Marfa’s unhappy face, and the despairing shriek of the Jew when the dog bit him, and said, hardly audibly, “Give the fiddle to Rothschild.”
“Very well,” answered the priest.
And now everyone in the town asks where Rothschild got such a fine fiddle. Did he buy it or steal it? Or perhaps it had come to him as a pledge. He gave up the flute long ago, and now plays nothing but the fiddle. As plaintive sounds flow now from his bow, as came once from his flute, but when he tries to repeat what Yakov played, sitting in the doorway, the effect is something so sad and sorrowful that his audience weep, and he himself rolls his eyes and articulates “Vachhh! . . .” And this new air was so much liked in the town that the merchants and officials used to be continually sending for Rothschild and making him play it over and over again a dozen times.
BETWEEN five and six in the evening. A fairly well-known man of learning — we will call him simply the man of learning — is sitting in his study nervously biting his nails.
“It’s positively revolting,” he says, continually looking at his watch. “It shows the utmost disrespect for another man’s time and work. In England such a person would not earn a farthing, he would die of hunger. You wait a minute, when you do come . . . .”
And feeling a craving to vent his wrath and impatience upon someone, the man of learning goes to the door leading to his wife’s room and knocks.
“Listen, Katya,” he says in an indignant voice. “If you see Pyotr Danilitch, tell him that decent people don’t do such things. It’s abominable! He recommends a secretary, and does not know the sort of man he is recommending! The wretched boy is two or three hours late with unfailing regularity every day. Do you call that a secretary? Those two or three hours are more precious to me than two or three years to other people. When he does come I will swear at him like a dog, and won’t pay him and will kick him out. It’s no use standing on ceremony with people like that!”
“You say that every day, and yet he goes on coming and coming.”
“But today I have made up my mind. I have lost enough through him. You must excuse me, but I shall swear at him like a cabman.”
At last a ring is heard. The man of learning makes a grave face; drawing himself up, and, throwing back his head, he goes into the entry. There his amanuensis Ivan Matveyitch, a young man of eighteen, with a face oval as an egg and no moustache, wearing a shabby, mangy overcoat and no goloshes, is already standing by the hatstand. He is in breathless haste, and scrupulously wipes his huge clumsy boots on the doormat, trying as he does so to conceal from the maidservant a hole in his boot through which a white sock is peeping. Seeing the man of learning he smiles with that broad, prolonged, somewhat foolish smile which is seen only on the faces of children or very good-natured people.
“Ah, good evening!” he says, holding out a big wet hand. “Has your sore throat gone?”
“Ivan Matveyitch,” says the man of learning in a shaking voice, stepping back and clasping his hands together. “Ivan Matveyitch.”
Then he dashes up to the amanuensis, clutches him by the shoulders, and begins feebly shaking him.
“What a way to treat me!” he says with despair in his voice. “You dreadful, horrid fellow, what a way to treat me! Are you laughing at me, are you jeering at me? Eh?”
Judging from the smile which still lingered on his face Ivan Matveyitch had expected a very different reception, and so, seeing the man of learning’s countenance eloquent of indignation, his oval face grows longer than ever, and he opens his mouth in amazement.
“What is . . . what is it?” he asks.
“And you ask that?” the man of learning clasps his hands. “You know how precious time is to me, and you are so late. You are two hours late! . . . Have you no fear of God?”
“I haven’t come straight from home,” mutters Ivan Matveyitch, untying his scarf irresolutely. “I have been at my aunt’s name-day party, and my aunt lives five miles away. . . . If I had come straight from home, then it would have been a different thing.”
“Come, reflect, Ivan Matveyitch, is there any logic in your conduct? Here you have work to do, work at a fixed time, and you go flying off after name-day parties and aunts! But do make haste and undo your wretched scarf! It’s beyond endurance, really!”
The man of learning dashes up to the amanuensis again and helps him to disentangle his scarf.
“You are done up like a peasant woman, . . . Come along, . . . Please make haste!”
Blowing his nose in a dirty, crumpled-up handkerchief and pulling down his grey reefer jacket, Ivan Matveyitch goes through the hall and the drawing-room to the study. There a place and paper and even cigarettes had been put ready for him long ago.
“Sit down, sit down,” the man of learning urges him on, rubbing his hands impatiently. “You are an unsufferable person. . . . You know the work has to be finished by a certain time, and then you are so late. One is forced to scold you. Come, write, . . . Where did we stop?”
Ivan Matveyitch smooths his bristling cropped hair and takes up his pen. The man of learning walks up and down the room, concentrates himself, and begins to dictate:
“The fact is . . . comma . . . that so to speak fundamental forms . . . have you written it? . . . forms are conditioned entirely by the essential nature of those principles . . . comma . . . which find in them their expression and can only be embodied in them . . . . New line, . . . There’s a stop there, of course. . . . More independence is found . . . is found . . . by the forms which have not so much a political . . . comma . . . as a social character . .”
“The high-school boys have a different uniform now . . . a grey one,” said Ivan Matveyitch, “when I was at school it was better: they used to wear regular uniforms.”
“Oh dear, write please!” says the man of learning wrathfully. “Character . . . have you written it? Speaking of the forms relating to the organization . . . of administrative functions, and not to the regulation of the life of the people . . . comma . . . it cannot be said that they are marked by the nationalism of their forms . . . the last three words in inverted commas. . . . Aie, aie . . . tut, tut . . . so what did you want to say about the high school?”
“That they used to wear a different uniform in my time.”
“Aha! . . . indeed, . . . Is it long since you left the high school?”
“But I told you that yesterday. It is three years since I left school. . . . I left in the fourth class.”
“And why did you give up high school?” asks the man of learning, looking at Ivan Matveyitch’s writing.
“Oh, through family circumstances.”
“Must I speak to you again, Ivan Matveyitch? When will you get over your habit of dragging out the lines? There ought not to be less than forty letters in a line.”
“What, do you suppose I do it on purpose?” says Ivan Matveyitch, offended. “There are more than forty letters in some of the other lines. . . . You count them. And if you think I don’t put enough in the line, you can take something off my pay.”
“Oh dear, that’s not the point. You have no delicacy, really. . . . At the least thing you drag in money. The great thing is to be exact, Ivan Matveyitch, to be exact is the great thing. You ought to train yourself to be exact.”
The maidservant brings in a tray with two glasses of tea on it, and a basket of rusks. . . . Ivan Matveyitch takes his glass awkwardly with both hands, and at once begins drinking it. The tea is too hot. To avoid burning his mouth Ivan Matveyitch tries to take a tiny sip. He eats one rusk, then a second, then a third, and, looking sideways, with embarrassment, at the man of learning, timidly stretches after a fourth. . . . The noise he makes in swallowing, the relish with which he smacks his lips, and the expression of hungry greed in his raised eyebrows irritate the man of learning.
“Make haste and finish, time is precious.”
“You dictate, I can drink and write at the same time. . . . I must confess I was hungry.”
“I should think so after your walk!”
“Yes, and what wretched weather! In our parts there is a scent of spring by now. . . . There are puddles everywhere; the snow is melting.”
“You are a southerner, I suppose?”
“From the Don region. . . . It’s quite spring with us by March. Here it is frosty, everyone’s in a fur coat, . . . but there you can see the grass . . . it’s dry everywhere, and one can even catch tarantulas.”
“And what do you catch tarantulas for?”
“Oh! . . . to pass the time . . .” says Ivan Matveyitch, and he sighs. “It’s fun catching them. You fix a bit of pitch on a thread, let it down into their hole and begin hitting the tarantula on the back with the pitch, and the brute gets cross, catches hold of the pitch with his claws, and gets stuck. . . . And what we used to do with them! We used to put a basinful of them together and drop a bihorka in with them.”
“What is a bihorka?”
“That’s another spider, very much the same as a tarantula. In a fight one of them can kill a hundred tarantulas.”
“H’m! . . . But we must write, . . . Where did we stop?”
The man of learning dictates another twenty lines, then sits plunged in meditation.
Ivan Matveyitch, waiting while the other cogitates, sits and, craning his neck, puts the collar of his shirt to rights. His tie will not set properly, the stud has come out, and the collar keeps coming apart.
“H’m! . . .” says the man of learning. “Well, haven’t you found a job yet, Ivan Matveyitch?”
“No. And how is one to find one? I am thinking, you know, of volunteering for the army. But my father advises my going into a chemist’s.”
“H’m! . . . But it would be better for you to go into the university. The examination is difficult, but with patience and hard work you could get through. Study, read more. . . . Do you read much?”
“Not much, I must own . . .” says Ivan Matveyitch, lighting a cigarette.
“Have you read Turgenev?”
“N-no . . . .”
“Gogol. H’m! . . . Gogol. . . . No, I haven’t read him!”
“Ivan Matveyitch! Aren’t you ashamed? Aie! aie! You are such a nice fellow, so much that is original in you . . . you haven’t even read Gogol! You must read him! I will give you his works! It’s essential to read him! We shall quarrel if you don’t!”
Again a silence follows. The man of learning meditates, half reclining on a soft lounge, and Ivan Matveyitch, leaving his collar in peace, concentrates his whole attention on his boots. He has not till then noticed that two big puddles have been made by the snow melting off his boots on the floor. He is ashamed.
“I can’t get on today . . .” mutters the man of learning. “I suppose you are fond of catching birds, too, Ivan Matveyitch?”
“That’s in autumn, . . . I don’t catch them here, but there at home I always did.”
“To be sure . . . very good. But we must write, though.”
The man of learning gets up resolutely and begins dictating, but after ten lines sits down on the lounge again.
“No. . . . Perhaps we had better put it off till tomorrow morning,” he says. “Come tomorrow morning, only come early, at nine o’clock. God preserve you from being late!”
Ivan Matveyitch lays down his pen, gets up from the table and sits in another chair. Five minutes pass in silence, and he begins to feel it is time for him to go, that he is in the way; but in the man of learning’s study it is so snug and light and warm, and the impression of the nice rusks and sweet tea is still so fresh that there is a pang at his heart at the mere thought of home. At home there is poverty, hunger, cold, his grumbling father, scoldings, and here it is so quiet and unruffled, and interest even is taken in his tarantulas and birds.
The man of learning looks at his watch and takes up a book.
“So you will give me Gogol?’ says Ivan Matveyitch, getting up.
“Yes, yes! But why are you in such a hurry, my dear boy? Sit down and tell me something . . .”
Ivan Matveyitch sits down and smiles broadly. Almost every evening he sits in this study and always feels something extraordinarily soft, attracting him, as it were akin, in the voice and the glance of the man of learning. There are moments when he even fancies that the man of learning is becoming attached to him, used to him, and that if he scolds him for being late, it’s simply because he misses his chatter about tarantulas and how they catch goldfinches on the Don.
THE party of sportsmen spent the night in a peasant’s hut on some newly mown hay. The moon peeped in at the window; from the street came the mournful wheezing of a concertina; from the hay came a sickly sweet, faintly troubling scent. The sportsmen talked about dogs, about women, about first love, and about snipe. After all the ladies of their acquaintance had been picked to pieces, and hundreds of stories had been told, the stoutest of the sportsmen, who looked in the darkness like a haycock, and who talked in the mellow bass of a staff officer, gave a loud yawn and said:
“It is nothing much to be loved; the ladies are created for the purpose of loving us men. But, tell me, has any one of you fellows been hated — passionately, furiously hated? Has any one of you watched the ecstasies of hatred? Eh?”
No answer followed.
“Has no one, gentlemen?” asked the staff officer’s bass voice. “But I, now, have been hated, hated by a pretty girl, and have been able to study the symptoms of first hatred directed against myself. It was the first, because it was something exactly the converse of first love. What I am going to tell, however, happened when I knew nothing about love or hate. I was eight at the time, but that made no difference; in this case it was not he but she that mattered. Well, I beg your attention. One fine summer evening, just before sunset, I was sitting in the nursery, doing my lesson with my governess, Zinotchka, a very charming and poetical creature who had left boarding school not long before. Zinotchka looked absent-mindedly towards the window and said:
“‘Yes. We breathe in oxygen; now tell me, Petya, what do we breathe out?’
“‘Carbonic acid gas,’ I answered, looking towards the same window.
“‘Right,’ assented Zinotchka. ‘Plants, on the contrary, breathe in carbonic acid gas, and breathe out oxygen. Carbonic acid gas is contained in seltzer water, and in the fumes from the samovar. . . . It is a very noxious gas. Near Naples there is the so-called Cave of Dogs, which contains carbonic acid gas; a dog dropped into it is suffocated and dies.’
“This luckless Cave of Dogs near Naples is a chemical marvel beyond which no governess ventures to go. Zinotchka always hotly maintained the usefulness of natural science, but I doubt if she knew any chemistry beyond this Cave.
“Well, she told me to repeat it. I repeated it. She asked me what was meant by the horizon. I answered. And meantime, while we were ruminating over the horizon and the Cave, in the yard below, my father was just getting ready to go shooting. The dogs yapped, the trace horses shifted from one leg to another impatiently and coquetted with the coachman, the footman packed the waggonette with parcels and all sorts of things. Beside the waggonette stood a brake in which my mother and sisters were sitting to drive to a name-day party at the Ivanetskys’. No one was left in the house but Zinotchka, me, and my eldest brother, a student, who had toothache. You can imagine my envy and my boredom.
“‘Well, what do we breathe in?’ asked Zinotchka, looking at the window.
“‘Oxygen. . .’
“‘Yes. And the horizon is the name given to the place where it seems to us as though the earth meets the sky.’
“Then the waggonette drove off, and after it the brake. . . . I saw Zinotchka take a note out of her pocket, crumple it up convulsively and press it to her temple, then she flushed crimson and looked at her watch.
“‘So, remember,’ she said, ‘that near Naples is the so-called Cave of Dogs . . . .’ She glanced at her watch again and went on: ‘where the sky seems to us to meet the earth . . . .’
“The poor girl in violent agitation walked about the room, and once more glanced at her watch. There was another half-hour before the end of our lesson.
“‘Now arithmetic,’ she said, breathing hard and turning over the pages of the sum-book with a trembling hand. ‘Come, you work out problem 325 and I . . . will be back directly.’
“She went out. I heard her scurry down the stairs, and then I saw her dart across the yard in her blue dress and vanish through the garden gate. The rapidity of her movements, the flush on her cheeks and her excitement, aroused my curiosity. Where had she run, and what for? Being intelligent beyond my years I soon put two and two together, and understood it all: she had run into the garden, taking advantage of the absence of my stern parents, to steal in among the raspberry bushes, or to pick herself some cherries. If that were so, dash it all, I would go and have some cherries too. I threw aside the sum-book and ran into the garden. I ran to the cherry orchard, but she was not there. Passing by the raspberries, the gooseberries, and the watchman’s shanty, she crossed the kitchen garden and reached the pond, pale, and starting at every sound. I stole after her, and what I saw, my friends, was this. At the edge of the pond, between the thick stumps of two old willows, stood my elder brother, Sasha; one could not see from his face that he had toothache. He looked towards Zinotchka as she approached him, and his whole figure was lighted up by an expression of happiness as though by sunshine. And Zinotchka, as though she were being driven into the Cave of Dogs, and were being forced to breathe carbonic acid gas, walked towards him, scarcely able to move one leg before the other, breathing hard, with her head thrown back. . . . To judge from appearances she was going to a rendezous for the first time in her life. But at last she reached him. . . . For half a minute they gazed at each other in silence, as though they could not believe their eyes. Thereupon some force seemed to shove Zinotchka; she laid her hands on Sasha’s shoulders and let her head droop upon his waistcoat. Sasha laughed, muttered something incoherent, and with the clumsiness of a man head over ears in love, laid both hands on Zinotchka’s face. And the weather, gentlemen, was exquisite. . . . The hill behind which the sun was setting, the two willows, the green bank, the sky — all together with Sasha and Zinotchka were reflected in the pond . . . perfect stillness . . . you can imagine it. Millions of butterflies with long whiskers gleamed golden above the reeds; beyond the garden they were driving the cattle. In fact, it was a perfect picture.
“Of all I had seen the only thing I understood was that Sasha was kissing Zinotchka. That was improper. If maman heard of it they would both catch it. Feeling for some reason ashamed I went back to the nursery, not waiting for the end of the rendezvous. There I sat over the sum-book, pondered and reflected. A triumphant smile strayed upon my countenance. On one side it was agreeable to be the possessor of another person’s secret; on the other it was also very agreeable that such authorities as Sasha and Zinotchka might at any moment be convicted by me of ignorance of the social proprieties. Now they were in my power, and their peace was entirely dependent on my magnanimity. I’d let them know.
“When I went to bed, Zinotchka came into the nursery as usual to find out whether I had dropped asleep without undressing and whether I had said my prayers. I looked at her pretty, happy face and grinned. I was bursting with my secret and itching to let it out. I had to drop a hint and enjoy the effect.
“‘I know,’ I said, grinning. ‘Gy — y.’
“‘What do you know?’
“‘Gy — y! I saw you near the willows kissing Sasha. I followed you and saw it all.’
“Zinotchka started, flushed all over, and overwhelmed by ‘my hint’ she sank down on the chair, on which stood a glass of water and a candlestick.
“‘I saw you . . . kissing . . .’ I repeated, sniggering and enjoying her confusion. ‘Aha! I’ll tell mamma!’
“Cowardly Zinotchka gazed at me intently, and convincing herself that I really did know all about it, clutched my hand in despair and muttered in a trembling whisper:
“‘Petya, it is low. . . . I beg of you, for God’s sake. . . . Be a man . . . don’t tell anyone. . . . Decent people don’t spy . . . . It’s low. . . . I entreat you.’
“The poor girl was terribly afraid of my mother, a stern and virtuous lady — that was one thing; and the second was that my grinning countenance could not but outrage her first love so pure and poetical, and you can imagine the state of her heart. Thanks to me, she did not sleep a wink all night, and in the morning she appeared at breakfast with blue rings round her eyes. When I met Sasha after breakfast I could not refrain from grinning and boasting:
“‘I know! I saw you yesterday kissing Mademoiselle Zina!’
“Sasha looked at me and said:
“‘You are a fool.’
“He was not so cowardly as Zinotchka, and so my effect did not come off. That provoked me to further efforts. If Sasha was not frightened it was evident that he did not believe that I had seen and knew all about it; wait a bit, I would show him.
“At our lessons before dinner Zinotchka did not look at me, and her voice faltered. Instead of trying to scare me she tried to propitiate me in every way, giving me full marks, and not complaining to my father of my naughtiness. Being intelligent beyond my years I exploited her secret: I did not learn my lessons, walked into the schoolroom on my head, and said all sorts of rude things. In fact, if I had remained in that vein till today I should have become a famous blackmailer. Well, a week passed. Another person’s secret irritated and fretted me like a splinter in my soul. I longed at all costs to blurt it out and gloat over the effect. And one day at dinner, when we had a lot of visitors, I gave a stupid snigger, looked fiendishly at Zinotchka and said:
“‘I know. Gy — y! I saw! . . .’
“‘What do you know?’ asked my mother.
“I looked still more fiendishly at Zinotchka and Sasha. You ought to have seen how the girl flushed up, and how furious Sasha’s eyes were! I bit my tongue and did not go on. Zinotchka gradually turned pale, clenched her teeth, and ate no more dinner. At our evening lessons that day I noticed a striking change in Zinotchka’s face. It looked sterner, colder, as it were, more like marble, while her eyes gazed strangely straight into my face, and I give you my word of honour I have never seen such terrible, annihilating eyes, even in hounds when they overtake the wolf. I understood their expression perfectly, when in the middle of a lesson she suddenly clenched her teeth and hissed through them:
“‘I hate you! Oh, you vile, loathsome creature, if you knew how I hate you, how I detest your cropped head, your vulgar, prominent ears!’
“But at once she took fright and said:
“‘I am not speaking to you, I am repeating a part out of a play . . . .’
“Then, my friends, at night I saw her come to my bedside and gaze a long time into my face. She hated me passionately, and could not exist away from me. The contemplation of my hated pug of a face had become a necessity to her. I remember a lovely summer evening . . . with the scent of hay, perfect stillness, and so on. The moon was shining. I was walking up and down the avenue, thinking of cherry jam. Suddenly Zinotchka, looking pale and lovely, came up to me, she caught hold of my hand, and breathlessly began expressing herself:
“‘Oh, how I hate you! I wish no one harm as I do you! Let me tell you that! I want you to understand that!’
“You understand, moonlight, her pale face, breathless with passion, the stillness . . . little pig as I was I actually enjoyed it. I listened to her, looked at her eyes. . . . At first I liked it, and enjoyed the novelty. Then I was suddenly seized with terror, I gave a scream, and ran into the house at breakneck speed.
“I made up my mind that the best thing to do was to complain to maman. And I did complain, mentioning incidentally how Sasha had kissed Zinotchka. I was stupid, and did not know what would follow, or I should have kept the secret to myself. . . . After hearing my story maman flushed with indignation and said:
“‘It is not your business to speak about that, you are still very young. . . . But, what an example for children.’
“My maman was not only virtuous but diplomatic. To avoid a scandal she did not get rid of Zinotchka at once, but set to work gradually, systematically, to pave the way for her departure, as one does with well-bred but intolerable people. I remember that when Zinotchka did leave us the last glance she cast at the house was directed at the window at which I was sitting, and I assure you, I remember that glance to this day.
“Zinotchka soon afterwards became my brother’s wife. She is the Zinaida Nikolaevna whom you know. The next time I met her I was already an ensign. In spite of all her efforts she could not recognize the hated Petya in the ensign with his moustache, but still she did not treat me quite like a relation. . . . And even now, in spite of my good-humoured baldness, meek corpulence, and unassuming air, she still looks askance at me, and feels put out when I go to see my brother. Hatred it seems can no more be forgotten than love . . . .
“Tchoo! I hear the cock crowing! Good-night. Milord! Lie down!”
BIG raindrops were pattering on the dark windows. It was one of those disgusting summer holiday rains which, when they have begun, last a long time — for weeks, till the frozen holiday maker grows used to it, and sinks into complete apathy. It was cold; there was a feeling of raw, unpleasant dampness. The mother-in-law of a lawyer, called Kvashin, and his wife, Nadyezhda Filippovna, dressed in waterproofs and shawls, were sitting over the dinner table in the dining-room. It was written on the countenance of the elder lady that she was, thank God, well-fed, well-clothed and in good health, that she had married her only daughter to a good man, and now could play her game of patience with an easy conscience; her daughter, a rather short, plump, fair young woman of twenty, with a gentle anæmic face, was reading a book with her elbows on the table; judging from her eyes she was not so much reading as thinking her own thoughts, which were not in the book. Neither of them spoke. There was the sound of the pattering rain, and from the kitchen they could hear the prolonged yawns of the cook.
Kvashin himself was not at home. On rainy days he did not come to the summer villa, but stayed in town; damp, rainy weather affected his bronchitis and prevented him from working. He was of the opinion that the sight of the grey sky and the tears of rain on the windows deprived one of energy and induced the spleen. In the town, where there was greater comfort, bad weather was scarcely noticed.
After two games of patience, the old lady shuffled the cards and took a glance at her daughter.
“I have been trying with the cards whether it will be fine tomorrow, and whether our Alexey Stepanovitch will come,” she said. “It is five days since he was here. . . . The weather is a chastisement from God.”
Nadyezhda Filippovna looked indifferently at her mother, got up, and began walking up and down the room.
“The barometer was rising yesterday,” she said doubtfully, “but they say it is falling again today.”
The old lady laid out the cards in three long rows and shook her head.
“Do you miss him?” she asked, glancing at her daughter.
“I see you do. I should think so. He hasn’t been here for five days. In May the utmost was two, or at most three days, and now it is serious, five days! I am not his wife, and yet I miss him. And yesterday, when I heard the barometer was rising, I ordered them to kill a chicken and prepare a carp for Alexey Stepanovitch. He likes them. Your poor father couldn’t bear fish, but he likes it. He always eats it with relish.”
“My heart aches for him,” said the daughter. “We are dull, but it is duller still for him, you know, mamma.”
“I should think so! In the law-courts day in and day out, and in the empty flat at night alone like an owl.”
“And what is so awful, mamma, he is alone there without servants; there is no one to set the samovar or bring him water. Why didn’t he engage a valet for the summer months? And what use is the summer villa at all if he does not care for it? I told him there was no need to have it, but no, ‘It is for the sake of your health,’ he said, and what is wrong with my health? It makes me ill that he should have to put up with so much on my account.”
Looking over her mother’s shoulder, the daughter noticed a mistake in the patience, bent down to the table and began correcting it. A silence followed. Both looked at the cards and imagined how their Alexey Stepanovitch, utterly forlorn, was sitting now in the town in his gloomy, empty study and working, hungry, exhausted, yearning for his family . . . .
“Do you know what, mamma?” said Nadyezhda Filippovna suddenly, and her eyes began to shine. “If the weather is the same tomorrow I’ll go by the first train and see him in town! Anyway, I shall find out how he is, have a look at him, and pour out his tea.”
And both of them began to wonder how it was that this idea, so simple and easy to carry out, had not occurred to them before. It was only half an hour in the train to the town, and then twenty minutes in a cab. They said a little more, and went off to bed in the same room, feeling more contented.
“Oho-ho-ho. . . . Lord, forgive us sinners!” sighed the old lady when the clock in the hall struck two. “There is no sleeping.”
“You are not asleep, mamma?” the daughter asked in a whisper. “I keep thinking of Alyosha. I only hope he won’t ruin his health in town. Goodness knows where he dines and lunches. In restaurants and taverns.”
“I have thought of that myself,” sighed the old lady. “The Heavenly Mother save and preserve him. But the rain, the rain!”
In the morning the rain was not pattering on the panes, but the sky was still grey. The trees stood looking mournful, and at every gust of wind they scattered drops. The footprints on the muddy path, the ditches and the ruts were full of water. Nadyezhda Filippovna made up her mind to go.
“Give him my love,” said the old lady, wrapping her daughter up. “Tell him not to think too much about his cases. . . . And he must rest. Let him wrap his throat up when he goes out: the weather — God help us! And take him the chicken; food from home, even if cold, is better than at a restaurant.”
The daughter went away, saying that she would come back by an evening train or else next morning.
But she came back long before dinner-time, when the old lady was sitting on her trunk in her bedroom and drowsily thinking what to cook for her son-in-law’s supper.
Going into the room her daughter, pale and agitated, sank on the bed without uttering a word or taking off her hat, and pressed her head into the pillow.
“But what is the matter,” said the old lady in surprise, “why back so soon? Where is Alexey Stepanovitch?”
Nadyezhda Filippovna raised her head and gazed at her mother with dry, imploring eyes.
“He is deceiving us, mamma,” she said.
“What are you saying? Christ be with you!” cried the old lady in alarm, and her cap slipped off her head. “Who is going to deceive us? Lord, have mercy on us!”
“He is deceiving us, mamma!” repeated her daughter, and her chin began to quiver.
“How do you know?” cried the old lady, turning pale.
“Our flat is locked up. The porter tells me that Alyosha has not been home once for these five days. He is not living at home! He is not at home, not at home!”
She waved her hands and burst into loud weeping, uttering nothing but: “Not at home! Not at home!”
She began to be hysterical.
“What’s the meaning of it?” muttered the old woman in horror. “Why, he wrote the day before yesterday that he never leaves the flat! Where is he sleeping? Holy Saints!”
Nadyezhda Filippovna felt so faint that she could not take off her hat. She looked about her blankly, as though she had been drugged, and convulsively clutched at her mother’s arms.
“What a person to trust: a porter!” said the old lady, fussing round her daughter and crying. “What a jealous girl you are! He is not going to deceive you, and how dare he? We are not just anybody. Though we are of the merchant class, yet he has no right, for you are his lawful wife! We can take proceedings! I gave twenty thousand roubles with you! You did not want for a dowry!”
And the old lady herself sobbed and gesticulated, and she felt faint, too, and lay down on her trunk. Neither of them noticed that patches of blue had made their appearance in the sky, that the clouds were more transparent, that the first sunbeam was cautiously gliding over the wet grass in the garden, that with renewed gaiety the sparrows were hopping about the puddles which reflected the racing clouds.
Towards evening Kvashin arrived. Before leaving town he had gone to his flat and had learned from the porter that his wife had come in his absence.
“Here I am,” he said gaily, coming into his mother-in-law’s room and pretending not to notice their stern and tear-stained faces. “Here I am! It’s five days since we have seen each other!”
He rapidly kissed his wife’s hand and his mother-in-law’s, and with the air of man delighted at having finished a difficult task, he lolled in an arm-chair.
“Ough!” he said, puffing out all the air from his lungs. “Here I have been worried to death. I have scarcely sat down. For almost five days now I have been, as it were, bivouacking. I haven’t been to the flat once, would you believe it? I have been busy the whole time with the meeting of Shipunov’s and Ivantchikov’s creditors; I had to work in Galdeyev’s office at the shop. . . . I’ve had nothing to eat or to drink, and slept on a bench, I was chilled through . . . . I hadn’t a free minute. I hadn’t even time to go to the flat. That’s how I came not to be at home, Nadyusha, . . And Kvashin, holding his sides as though his back were aching, glanced stealthily at his wife and mother-in-law to see the effect of his lie, or as he called it, diplomacy. The mother-in-law and wife were looking at each other in joyful astonishment, as though beyond all hope and expectation they had found something precious, which they had lost. . . . Their faces beamed, their eyes glowed . . . .
“My dear man,” cried the old lady, jumping up, “why am I sitting here? Tea! Tea at once! Perhaps you are hungry?”
“Of course he is hungry,” cried his wife, pulling off her head a bandage soaked in vinegar. “Mamma, bring the wine, and the savouries. Natalya, lay the table! Oh, my goodness, nothing is ready!”
And both of them, frightened, happy, and bustling, ran about the room. The old lady could not look without laughing at her daughter who had slandered an innocent man, and the daughter felt ashamed . . . .
The table was soon laid. Kvashin, who smelt of madeira and liqueurs and who could scarcely breathe from repletion, complained of being hungry, forced himself to munch and kept on talking of the meeting of Shipunov’s and Ivantchikov’s creditors, while his wife and mother-in-law could not take their eyes off his face, and both thought:
“How clever and kind he is! How handsome!”
“All serene,” thought Kvashin, as he lay down on the well-filled feather bed. “Though they are regular tradesmen’s wives, though they are Philistines, yet they have a charm of their own, and one can spend a day or two of the week here with enjoyment . . . .”
He wrapped himself up, got warm, and as he dozed off, he said to himself:
THE charming Vanda, or, as she was described in her passport, the “Honourable Citizen Nastasya Kanavkin,” found herself, on leaving the hospital, in a position she had never been in before: without a home to go to or a farthing in her pocket. What was she to do?
The first thing she did was to visit a pawn-broker’s and pawn her turquoise ring, her one piece of jewellery. They gave her a rouble for the ring . . . but what can you get for a rouble? You can’t buy for that sum a fashionable short jacket, nor a big hat, nor a pair of bronze shoes, and without those things she had a feeling of being, as it were, undressed. She felt as though the very horses and dogs were staring and laughing at the plainness of her dress. And clothes were all she thought about: the question what she should eat and where she should sleep did not trouble her in the least.
“If only I could meet a gentleman friend,” she thought to herself, “I could get some money. . . . There isn’t one who would refuse me, I know. . .”
But no gentleman she knew came her way. It would be easy enough to meet them in the evening at the “Renaissance,” but they wouldn’t let her in at the “Renaissance” in that shabby dress and with no hat. What was she to do?
After long hesitation, when she was sick of walking and sitting and thinking, Vanda made up her mind to fall back on her last resource: to go straight to the lodgings of some gentleman friend and ask for money.
She pondered which to go to. “Misha is out of the question; he’s a married man. . . . The old chap with the red hair will be at his office at this time. . .”
Vanda remembered a dentist, called Finkel, a converted Jew, who six months ago had given her a bracelet, and on whose head she had once emptied a glass of beer at the supper at the German Club. She was awfully pleased at the thought of Finkel.
“He’ll be sure to give it me, if only I find him at home,” she thought, as she walked in his direction. “If he doesn’t, I’ll smash all the lamps in the house.”
Before she reached the dentist’s door she thought out her plan of action: she would run laughing up the stairs, dash into the dentist’s room and demand twenty-five roubles. But as she touched the bell, this plan seemed to vanish from her mind of itself. Vanda began suddenly feeling frightened and nervous, which was not at all her way. She was bold and saucy enough at drinking parties, but now, dressed in everyday clothes, feeling herself in the position of an ordinary person asking a favour, who might be refused admittance, she felt suddenly timid and humiliated. She was ashamed and frightened.
“Perhaps he has forgotten me by now,” she thought, hardly daring to pull the bell. “And how can I go up to him in such a dress, looking like a beggar or some working girl?”
And she rang the bell irresolutely.
She heard steps coming: it was the porter.
“Is the doctor at home?” she asked.
She would have been glad now if the porter had said “No,” but the latter, instead of answering ushered her into the hall, and helped her off with her coat. The staircase impressed her as luxurious, and magnificent, but of all its splendours what caught her eye most was an immense looking-glass, in which she saw a ragged figure without a fashionable jacket, without a big hat, and without bronze shoes. And it seemed strange to Vanda that, now that she was humbly dressed and looked like a laundress or sewing girl, she felt ashamed, and no trace of her usual boldness and sauciness remained, and in her own mind she no longer thought of herself as Vanda, but as the Nastasya Kanavkin she used to be in the old days . . . .
“Walk in, please,” said a maidservant, showing her into the consulting-room. “The doctor will be here in a minute. Sit down.”
Vanda sank into a soft arm-chair.
“I’ll ask him to lend it me,” she thought; “that will be quite proper, for, after all, I do know him. If only that servant would go. I don’t like to ask before her. What does she want to stand there for?”
Five minutes later the door opened and Finkel came in. He was a tall, dark Jew, with fat cheeks and bulging eyes. His cheeks, his eyes, his chest, his body, all of him was so well fed, so loathsome and repellent! At the “Renaissance” and the German Club he had usually been rather tipsy, and would spend his money freely on women, and be very long-suffering and patient with their pranks (when Vanda, for instance, poured the beer over his head, he simply smiled and shook his finger at her): now he had a cross, sleepy expression and looked solemn and frigid like a police captain, and he kept chewing something.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, without looking at Vanda.
Vanda looked at the serious countenance of the maid and the smug figure of Finkel, who apparently did not recognize her, and she turned red.
“What can I do for you?” repeated the dentist a little irritably.
“I’ve got toothache,” murmured Vanda.
“Aha! . . . Which is the tooth? Where?”
Vanda remembered she had a hole in one of her teeth.
“At the bottom . . . on the right . . .” she said.
“Hm! . . . Open your mouth.”
Finkel frowned and, holding his breath, began examining the tooth.
“Does it hurt?” he asked, digging into it with a steel instrument.
“Yes,” Vanda replied, untruthfully.
“Shall I remind him?” she was wondering. “He would be sure to remember me. But that servant! Why will she stand there?”
Finkel suddenly snorted like a steam-engine right into her mouth, and said:
“I don’t advise you to have it stopped. That tooth will never be worth keeping anyhow.”
After probing the tooth a little more and soiling Vanda’s lips and gums with his tobacco-stained fingers, he held his breath again, and put something cold into her mouth. Vanda suddenly felt a sharp pain, cried out, and clutched at Finkel’s hand.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” he muttered; “don’t you be frightened! That tooth would have been no use to you, anyway . . . you must be brave. . .”
And his tobacco-stained fingers, smeared with blood, held up the tooth to her eyes, while the maid approached and put a basin to her mouth.
“You wash out your mouth with cold water when you get home, and that will stop the bleeding,” said Finkel.
He stood before her with the air of a man expecting her to go, waiting to be left in peace.
“Good-day,” she said, turning towards the door.
“Hm! . . . and how about my fee?” enquired Finkel, in a jesting tone.
“Oh, yes!” Vanda remembered, blushing, and she handed the Jew the rouble that had been given her for her ring.
When she got out into the street she felt more overwhelmed with shame than before, but now it was not her poverty she was ashamed of. She was unconscious now of not having a big hat and a fashionable jacket. She walked along the street, spitting blood, and brooding on her life, her ugly, wretched life, and the insults she had endured, and would have to endure tomorrow, and next week, and all her life, up to the very day of her death.
“Oh! how awful it is! My God, how fearful!”
Next day, however, she was back at the “Renaissance,” and dancing there. She had on an enormous new red hat, a new fashionable jacket, and bronze shoes. And she was taken out to supper by a young merchant up from Kazan.
IT was a sunny August midday as, in company with a Russian prince who had come down in the world, I drove into the immense so-called Shabelsky pine-forest where we were intending to look for woodcocks. In virtue of the part he plays in this story my poor prince deserves a detailed description. He was a tall, dark man, still youngish, though already somewhat battered by life; with long moustaches like a police captain’s; with prominent black eyes, and with the manners of a retired army man. He was a man of Oriental type, not very intelligent, but straightforward and honest, not a bully, not a fop, and not a rake — virtues which, in the eyes of the general public, are equivalent to a certificate of being a nonentity and a poor creature. People generally did not like him (he was never spoken of in the district, except as “the illustrious duffer”). I personally found the poor prince extremely nice with his misfortunes and failures, which made up indeed his whole life. First of all he was poor. He did not play cards, did not drink, had no occupation, did not poke his nose into anything, and maintained a perpetual silence but yet he had somehow succeeded in getting through thirty to forty thousand roubles left him at his father’s death. God only knows what had become of the money. All that I can say is that owing to lack of supervision a great deal was stolen by stewards, bailiffs, and even footmen; a great deal went on lending money, giving bail, and standing security. There were few landowners in the district who did not owe him money. He gave to all who asked, and not so much from good nature or confidence in people as from exaggerated gentlemanliness as though he would say: “Take it and feel how comme il faut I am!” By the time I made his acquaintance he had got into debt himself, had learned what it was like to have a second mortgage on his land, and had sunk so deeply into difficulties that there was no chance of his ever getting out of them again. There were days when he had no dinner, and went about with an empty cigar-holder, but he was always seen clean and fashionably dressed, and always smelt strongly of ylang-ylang.
The prince’s second misfortune was his absolute solitariness. He was not married, he had no friends nor relations. His silent and reserved character and his comme il faut deportment, which became the more conspicuous the more anxious he was to conceal his poverty, prevented him from becoming intimate with people. For love affairs he was too heavy, spiritless, and cold, and so rarely got on with women . . . .
When we reached the forest this prince and I got out of the chaise and walked along a narrow woodland path which was hidden among huge ferns. But before we had gone a hundred paces a tall, lank figure with a long oval face, wearing a shabby reefer jacket, a straw hat, and patent leather boots, rose up from behind a young fir-tree some three feet high, as though he had sprung out of the ground. The stranger held in one hand a basket of mushrooms, with the other he playfully fingered a cheap watch-chain on his waistcoat. On seeing us he was taken aback, smoothed his waistcoat, coughed politely, and gave an agreeable smile, as though he were delighted to see such nice people as us. Then, to our complete surprise, he came up to us, scraping with his long feet on the grass, bending his whole person, and, still smiling agreeably, lifted his hat and pronounced in a sugary voice with the intonations of a whining dog:
“Aie, aie . . . gentlemen, painful as it is, it is my duty to warn you that shooting is forbidden in this wood. Pardon me for venturing to disturb you, though unacquainted, but . . . allow me to present myself. I am Grontovsky, the head clerk on Madame Kandurin’s estate.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, but why can’t we shoot?”
“Such is the wish of the owner of this forest!”
The prince and I exchanged glances. A moment passed in silence. The prince stood looking pensively at a big fly agaric at his feet, which he had crushed with his stick. Grontovsky went on smiling agreeably. His whole face was twitching, exuding honey, and even the watch-chain on his waistcoat seemed to be smiling and trying to impress us all with its refinement. A shade of embarrassment passed over us like an angel passing; all three of us felt awkward.
“Nonsense!” I said. “Only last week I was shooting here!”
“Very possible!” Grontovsky sniggered through his teeth. “As a matter of fact everyone shoots here regardless of the prohibition. But once I have met you, it is my duty . . . my sacred duty to warn you. I am a man in a dependent position. If the forest were mine, on the word of honour of a Grontovsky, I should not oppose your agreeable pleasure. But whose fault is it that I am in a dependent position?”
The lanky individual sighed and shrugged his shoulders. I began arguing, getting hot and protesting, but the more loudly and impressively I spoke the more mawkish and sugary Grontovsky’s face became. Evidently the consciousness of a certain power over us afforded him the greatest gratification. He was enjoying his condescending tone, his politeness, his manners, and with peculiar relish pronounced his sonorous surname, of which he was probably very fond. Standing before us he felt more than at ease, but judging from the confused sideway glances he cast from time to time at his basket, only one thing was spoiling his satisfaction — the mushrooms, womanish, peasantish, prose, derogatory to his dignity.
“We can’t go back!” I said. “We have come over ten miles!”
“What’s to be done?” sighed Grontovsky. “If you had come not ten but a hundred thousand miles, if the king even had come from America or from some other distant land, even then I should think it my duty . . . sacred, so to say, obligation . . .”
“Does the forest belong to Nadyezhda Lvovna?” asked the prince.
“Yes, Nadyezhda Lvovna . . .”
“Is she at home now?”
“Yes . . . I tell you what, you go to her, it is not more than half a mile from here; if she gives you a note, then I. . . . I needn’t say! Ha — ha . . . he — he —!”
“By all means,” I agreed. “It’s much nearer than to go back. . . . You go to her, Sergey Ivanitch,” I said, addressing the prince. “You know her.”
The prince, who had been gazing the whole time at the crushed agaric, raised his eyes to me, thought a minute, and said:
“I used to know her at one time, but . . . it’s rather awkward for me to go to her. Besides, I am in shabby clothes. . . . You go, you don’t know her. . . . It’s more suitable for you to go.”
I agreed. We got into our chaise and, followed by Grontovsky’s smiles, drove along the edge of the forest to the manor house. I was not acquainted with Nadyezhda Lvovna Kandurin, née Shabelsky. I had never seen her at close quarters, and knew her only by hearsay. I knew that she was incredibly wealthy, richer than anyone else in the province. After the death of her father, Shabelsky, who was a landowner with no other children, she was left with several estates, a stud farm, and a lot of money. I had heard that, though she was only twenty-five or twenty-six, she was ugly, uninteresting, and as insignificant as anybody, and was only distinguished from the ordinary ladies of the district by her immense wealth.
It has always seemed to me that wealth is felt, and that the rich must have special feelings unknown to the poor. Often as I passed by Nadyezhda Lvovna’s big fruit garden, in which stood the large, heavy house with its windows always curtained, I thought: “What is she thinking at this moment? Is there happiness behind those blinds?” and so on. Once I saw her from a distance in a fine light cabriolet, driving a handsome white horse, and, sinful man that I am, I not only envied her, but even thought that in her poses, in her movements, there was something special, not to be found in people who are not rich, just as persons of a servile nature succeed in discovering “good family” at the first glance in people of the most ordinary exterior, if they are a little more distinguished than themselves. Nadyezhda Lvovna’s inner life was only known to me by scandal. It was said in the district that five or six years ago, before she was married, during her father’s lifetime, she had been passionately in love with Prince Sergey Ivanitch, who was now beside me in the chaise. The prince had been fond of visiting her father, and used to spend whole days in his billiard room, where he played pyramids indefatigably till his arms and legs ached. Six months before the old man’s death he had suddenly given up visiting the Shabelskys. The gossip of the district having no positive facts to go upon explained this abrupt change in their relations in various ways. Some said that the prince, having observed the plain daughter’s feeling for him and being unable to reciprocate it, considered it the duty of a gentleman to cut short his visits. Others maintained that old Shabelsky had discovered why his daughter was pining away, and had proposed to the poverty-stricken prince that he should marry her; the prince, imagining in his narrow-minded way that they were trying to buy him together with his title, was indignant, said foolish things, and quarrelled with them. What was true and what was false in this nonsense was difficult to say. But that there was a portion of truth in it was evident, from the fact that the prince always avoided conversation about Nadyezhda Lvovna.
I knew that soon after her father’s death Nadyezhda Lvovna had married one Kandurin, a bachelor of law, not wealthy, but adroit, who had come on a visit to the neighbourhood. She married him not from love, but because she was touched by the love of the legal gentleman who, so it was said, had cleverly played the love-sick swain. At the time I am describing, Kandurin was for some reason living in Cairo, and writing thence to his friend, the marshal of the district, “Notes of Travel,” while she sat languishing behind lowered blinds, surrounded by idle parasites, and whiled away her dreary days in petty philanthropy.
On the way to the house the prince fell to talking.
“It’s three days since I have been at home,” he said in a half whisper, with a sidelong glance at the driver. “I am not a child, nor a silly woman, and I have no prejudices, but I can’t stand the bailiffs. When I see a bailiff in my house I turn pale and tremble, and even have a twitching in the calves of my legs. Do you know Rogozhin refused to honour my note?”
The prince did not, as a rule, like to complain of his straitened circumstances; where poverty was concerned he was reserved and exceedingly proud and sensitive, and so this announcement surprised me. He stared a long time at the yellow clearing, warmed by the sun, watched a long string of cranes float in the azure sky, and turned facing me.
“And by the sixth of September I must have the money ready for the bank . . . the interest for my estate,” he said aloud, by now regardless of the coachman. “And where am I to get it? Altogether, old man, I am in a tight fix! An awfully tight fix!”
The prince examined the cock of his gun, blew on it for some reason, and began looking for the cranes which by now were out of sight.
“Sergey Ivanitch,” I asked, after a minute’s silence, “imagine if they sell your Shatilovka, what will you do?”
“I? I don’t know! Shatilovka can’t be saved, that’s clear as daylight, but I cannot imagine such a calamity. I can’t imagine myself without my daily bread secure. What can I do? I have had hardly any education; I have not tried working yet; for government service it is late to begin, . . . Besides, where could I serve? Where could I be of use? Admitting that no great cleverness is needed for serving in our Zemstvo, for example, yet I suffer from . . . the devil knows what, a sort of faintheartedness, I haven’t a ha’p’orth of pluck. If I went into the Service I should always feel I was not in my right place. I am not an idealist; I am not a Utopian; I haven’t any special principles; but am simply, I suppose, stupid and thoroughly incompetent, a neurotic and a coward. Altogether not like other people. All other people are like other people, only I seem to be something . . . a poor thing. . . . I met Naryagin last Wednesday — you know him? — drunken, slovenly . . . doesn’t pay his debts, stupid” (the prince frowned and tossed his head) . . . “a horrible person! He said to me, staggering: ‘I’m being balloted for as a justice of the peace!’ Of course, they won’t elect him, but, you see, he believes he is fit to be a justice of the peace and considers that position within his capacity. He has boldness and self-confidence. I went to see our investigating magistrate too. The man gets two hundred and fifty roubles a month, and does scarcely anything. All he can do is to stride backwards and forwards for days together in nothing but his underclothes, but, ask him, he is convinced he is doing his work and honourably performing his duty. I couldn’t go on like that! I should be ashamed to look the clerk in the face.”
At that moment Grontovsky, on a chestnut horse, galloped by us with a flourish. On his left arm the basket bobbed up and down with the mushrooms dancing in it. As he passed us he grinned and waved his hand, as though we were old friends.
“Blockhead!” the prince filtered through his teeth, looking after him. “It’s wonderful how disgusting it sometimes is to see satisfied faces. A stupid, animal feeling due to hunger, I expect. . . . What was I saying? Oh, yes, about going into the Service, . . . I should be ashamed to take the salary, and yet, to tell the truth, it is stupid. If one looks at it from a broader point of view, more seriously, I am eating what isn’t mine now. Am I not? But why am I not ashamed of that. . . . It is a case of habit, I suppose . . . and not being able to realize one’s true position. . . . But that position is most likely awful. . .”
I looked at him, wondering if the prince were showing off. But his face was mild and his eyes were mournfully following the movements of the chestnut horse racing away, as though his happiness were racing away with it.
Apparently he was in that mood of irritation and sadness when women weep quietly for no reason, and men feel a craving to complain of themselves, of life, of God . . . .
When I got out of the chaise at the gates of the house the prince said to me:
“A man once said, wanting to annoy me, that I have the face of a cardsharper. I have noticed that cardsharpers are usually dark. Do you know, it seems that if I really had been born a cardsharper I should have remained a decent person to the day of my death, for I should never have had the boldness to do wrong. I tell you frankly I have had the chance once in my life of getting rich if I had told a lie, a lie to myself and one woman . . . and one other person whom I know would have forgiven me for lying; I should have put into my pocket a million. But I could not. I hadn’t the pluck!”
From the gates we had to go to the house through the copse by a long road, level as a ruler, and planted on each side with thick, lopped lilacs. The house looked somewhat heavy, tasteless, like a façade on the stage. It rose clumsily out of a mass of greenery, and caught the eye like a great stone thrown on the velvety turf. At the chief entrance I was met by a fat old footman in a green swallow-tail coat and big silver-rimmed spectacles; without making any announcement, only looking contemptuously at my dusty figure, he showed me in. As I mounted the soft carpeted stairs there was, for some reason, a strong smell of india-rubber. At the top I was enveloped in an atmosphere found only in museums, in signorial mansions and old-fashioned merchant houses; it seemed like the smell of something long past, which had once lived and died and had left its soul in the rooms. I passed through three or four rooms on my way from the entry to the drawing-room. I remember bright yellow, shining floors, lustres wrapped in stiff muslin, narrow, striped rugs which stretched not straight from door to door, as they usually do, but along the walls, so that not venturing to touch the bright floor with my muddy boots I had to describe a rectangle in each room. In the drawing-room, where the footman left me, stood old-fashioned ancestral furniture in white covers, shrouded in twilight. It looked surly and elderly, and, as though out of respect for its repose, not a sound was audible.
Even the clock was silent . . . it seemed as though the Princess Tarakanov had fallen asleep in the golden frame, and the water and the rats were still and motionless through magic. The daylight, afraid of disturbing the universal tranquillity, scarcely pierced through the lowered blinds, and lay on the soft rugs in pale, slumbering streaks.
Three minutes passed and a big, elderly woman in black, with her cheek bandaged up, walked noiselessly into the drawing-room. She bowed to me and pulled up the blinds. At once, enveloped in the bright sunlight, the rats and water in the picture came to life and movement, Princess Tarakanov was awakened, and the old chairs frowned gloomily.
“Her honour will be here in a minute, sir . . .” sighed the old lady, frowning too.
A few more minutes of waiting and I saw Nadyezhda Lvovna. What struck me first of all was that she certainly was ugly, short, scraggy, and round-shouldered. Her thick, chestnut hair was magnificent; her face, pure and with a look of culture in it, was aglow with youth; there was a clear and intelligent expression in her eyes; but the whole charm of her head was lost through the thickness of her lips and the over-acute facial angle.
I mentioned my name, and announced the object of my visit.
“I really don’t know what I am to say!” she said, in hesitation, dropping her eyes and smiling. “I don’t like to refuse, and at the same time . . . .”
“Do, please,” I begged.
Nadyezhda Lvovna looked at me and laughed. I laughed too. She was probably amused by what Grontovsky had so enjoyed — that is, the right of giving or withholding permission; my visit suddenly struck me as queer and strange.
“I don’t like to break the long-established rules,” said Madame Kandurin. “Shooting has been forbidden on our estate for the last six years. No!” she shook her head resolutely. “Excuse me, I must refuse you. If I allow you I must allow others. I don’t like unfairness. Either let all or no one.”
“I am sorry!” I sighed. “It’s all the sadder because we have come more than ten miles. I am not alone,” I added, “Prince Sergey Ivanitch is with me.”
I uttered the prince’s name with no arrière pensée, not prompted by any special motive or aim; I simply blurted it out without thinking, in the simplicity of my heart. Hearing the familiar name Madame Kandurin started, and bent a prolonged gaze upon me. I noticed her nose turn pale.
“That makes no difference . . .” she said, dropping her eyes.
As I talked to her I stood at the window that looked out on the shrubbery. I could see the whole shrubbery with the avenues and the ponds and the road by which I had come. At the end of the road, beyond the gates, the back of our chaise made a dark patch. Near the gate, with his back to the house, the prince was standing with his legs apart, talking to the lanky Grontovsky.
Madame Kandurin had been standing all the time at the other window. She looked from time to time towards the shrubbery, and from the moment I mentioned the prince’s name she did not turn away from the window.
“Excuse me,” she said, screwing up her eyes as she looked towards the road and the gate, “but it would be unfair to allow you only to shoot. . . . And, besides, what pleasure is there in shooting birds? What’s it for? Are they in your way?”
A solitary life, immured within four walls, with its indoor twilight and heavy smell of decaying furniture, disposes people to sentimentality. Madame Kandurin’s idea did her credit, but I could not resist saying:
“If one takes that line one ought to go barefoot. Boots are made out of the leather of slaughtered animals.”
“One must distinguish between a necessity and a caprice,” Madame Kandurin answered in a toneless voice.
She had by now recognized the prince, and did not take her eyes off his figure. It is hard to describe the delight and the suffering with which her ugly face was radiant! Her eyes were smiling and shining, her lips were quivering and laughing, while her face craned closer to the panes. Keeping hold of a flower-pot with both hands, with bated breath and with one foot slightly lifted, she reminded me of a dog pointing and waiting with passionate impatience for “Fetch it!”
I looked at her and at the prince who could not tell a lie once in his life, and I felt angry and bitter against truth and falsehood, which play such an elemental part in the personal happiness of men.
The prince started suddenly, took aim and fired. A hawk, flying over him, fluttered its wings and flew like an arrow far away.
“He aimed too high!” I said. “And so, Nadyezhda Lvovna,” I sighed, moving away from the window, “you will not permit . . .”— Madame Kandurin was silent.
“I have the honour to take my leave,” I said, “and I beg you to forgive my disturbing you. . .”
Madame Kandurin would have turned facing me, and had already moved through a quarter of the angle, when she suddenly hid her face behind the hangings, as though she felt tears in her eyes that she wanted to conceal.
“Good-bye. . . . Forgive me . . .” she said softly.
I bowed to her back, and strode away across the bright yellow floors, no longer keeping to the carpet. I was glad to get away from this little domain of gilded boredom and sadness, and I hastened as though anxious to shake off a heavy, fantastic dream with its twilight, its enchanted princess, its lustres . . . .
At the front door a maidservant overtook me and thrust a note into my hand: “Shooting is permitted on showing this. N. K.,” I read.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005