THERE was the thud of horses’ hoofs on the wooden floor; they brought out of the stable the black horse, Count Nulin; then the white, Giant; then his sister Maika. They were all magnificent, expensive horses. Old Shelestov saddled Giant and said, addressing his daughter Masha:
“Well, Marie Godefroi, come, get on! Hopla!”
Masha Shelestov was the youngest of the family; she was eighteen, but her family could not get used to thinking that she was not a little girl, and so they still called her Manya and Manyusa; and after there had been a circus in the town which she had eagerly visited, every one began to call her Marie Godefroi.
“Hop-la!” she cried, mounting Giant. Her sister Varya got on Maika, Nikitin on Count Nulin, the officers on their horses, and the long picturesque cavalcade, with the officers in white tunics and the ladies in their riding habits, moved at a walking pace out of the yard.
Nikitin noticed that when they were mounting the horses and afterwards riding out into the street, Masha for some reason paid attention to no one but himself. She looked anxiously at him and at Count Nulin and said:
“You must hold him all the time on the curb, Sergey Vassilitch. Don’t let him shy. He’s pretending.”
And either because her Giant was very friendly with Count Nulin, or perhaps by chance, she rode all the time beside Nikitin, as she had done the day before, and the day before that. And he looked at her graceful little figure sitting on the proud white beast, at her delicate profile, at the chimney-pot hat, which did not suit her at all and made her look older than her age — looked at her with joy, with tenderness, with rapture; listened to her, taking in little of what she said, and thought:
“I promise on my honour, I swear to God, I won’t be afraid and I’ll speak to her today.”
It was seven o’clock in the evening — the time when the scent of white acacia and lilac is so strong that the air and the very trees seem heavy with the fragrance. The band was already playing in the town gardens. The horses made a resounding thud on the pavement, on all sides there were sounds of laughter, talk, and the banging of gates. The soldiers they met saluted the officers, the schoolboys bowed to Nikitin, and all the people who were hurrying to the gardens to hear the band were pleased at the sight of the party. And how warm it was! How soft-looking were the clouds scattered carelessly about the sky, how kindly and comforting the shadows of the poplars and the acacias, which stretched across the street and reached as far as the balconies and second stories of the houses on the other side.
They rode on out of the town and set off at a trot along the highroad. Here there was no scent of lilac and acacia, no music of the band, but there was the fragrance of the fields, there was the green of young rye and wheat, the marmots were squeaking, the rooks were cawing. Wherever one looked it was green, with only here and there black patches of bare ground, and far away to the left in the cemetery a white streak of apple-blossom.
They passed the slaughter-houses, then the brewery, and overtook a military band hastening to the suburban gardens.
“Polyansky has a very fine horse, I don’t deny that,” Masha said to Nikitin, with a glance towards the officer who was riding beside Varya. “But it has blemishes. That white patch on its left leg ought not to be there, and, look, it tosses its head. You can’t train it not to now; it will toss its head till the end of its days.”
Masha was as passionate a lover of horses as her father. She felt a pang when she saw other people with fine horses, and was pleased when she saw defects in them. Nikitin knew nothing about horses; it made absolutely no difference to him whether he held his horse on the bridle or on the curb, whether he trotted or galloped; he only felt that his position was strained and unnatural, and that consequently the officers who knew how to sit in their saddles must please Masha more than he could. And he was jealous of the officers.
As they rode by the suburban gardens some one suggested their going in and getting some seltzer-water. They went in. There were no trees but oaks in the gardens; they had only just come into leaf, so that through the young foliage the whole garden could still be seen with its platform, little tables, and swings, and the crows’ nests were visible, looking like big hats. The party dismounted near a table and asked for seltzer-water. People they knew, walking about the garden, came up to them. Among them the army doctor in high boots, and the conductor of the band, waiting for the musicians. The doctor must have taken Nikitin for a student, for he asked: “Have you come for the summer holidays?”
“No, I am here permanently,” answered Nikitin. “I am a teacher at the school.”
“You don’t say so?” said the doctor, with surprise. “So young and already a teacher?”
“Young, indeed! My goodness, I’m twenty-six!
“You have a beard and moustache, but yet one would never guess you were more than twenty-two or twenty-three. How young-looking you are!”
“What a beast!” thought Nikitin. “He, too, takes me for a whipper-snapper!”
He disliked it extremely when people referred to his youth, especially in the presence of women or the schoolboys. Ever since he had come to the town as a master in the school he had detested his own youthful appearance. The schoolboys were not afraid of him, old people called him “young man,” ladies preferred dancing with him to listening to his long arguments, and he would have given a great deal to be ten years older.
From the garden they went on to the Shelestovs’ farm. There they stopped at the gate and asked the bailiff’s wife, Praskovya, to bring some new milk. Nobody drank the milk; they all looked at one another, laughed, and galloped back. As they rode back the band was playing in the suburban garden; the sun was setting behind the cemetery, and half the sky was crimson from the sunset.
Masha again rode beside Nikitin. He wanted to tell her how passionately he loved her, but he was afraid he would be overheard by the officers and Varya, and he was silent. Masha was silent, too, and he felt why she was silent and why she was riding beside him, and was so happy that the earth, the sky, the lights of the town, the black outline of the brewery — all blended for him into something very pleasant and comforting, and it seemed to him as though Count Nulin were stepping on air and would climb up into the crimson sky.
They arrived home. The samovar was already boiling on the table, old Shelestov was sitting with his friends, officials in the Circuit Court, and as usual he was criticizing something.
“It’s loutishness!” he said. “Loutishness and nothing more. Yes!”
Since Nikitin had been in love with Masha, everything at the Shelestovs’ pleased him: the house, the garden, and the evening tea, and the wickerwork chairs, and the old nurse, and even the word “loutishness,” which the old man was fond of using. The only thing he did not like was the number of cats and dogs and the Egyptian pigeons, who moaned disconsolately in a big cage in the verandah. There were so many house-dogs and yard-dogs that he had only learnt to recognize two of them in the course of his acquaintance with the Shelestovs: Mushka and Som. Mushka was a little mangy dog with a shaggy face, spiteful and spoiled. She hated Nikitin: when she saw him she put her head on one side, showed her teeth, and began: “Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga . . . rrr . . .!” Then she would get under his chair, and when he would try to drive her away she would go off into piercing yaps, and the family would say: “Don’t be frightened. She doesn’t bite. She is a good dog.”
Som was a tall black dog with long legs and a tail as hard as a stick. At dinner and tea he usually moved about under the table, and thumped on people’s boots and on the legs of the table with his tail. He was a good-natured, stupid dog, but Nikitin could not endure him because he had the habit of putting his head on people’s knees at dinner and messing their trousers with saliva. Nikitin had more than once tried to hit him on his head with a knife-handle, to flip him on the nose, had abused him, had complained of him, but nothing saved his trousers.
After their ride the tea, jam, rusks, and butter seemed very nice. They all drank their first glass in silence and with great relish; over the second they began an argument. It was always Varya who started the arguments at tea; she was good-looking, handsomer than Masha, and was considered the cleverest and most cultured person in the house, and she behaved with dignity and severity, as an eldest daughter should who has taken the place of her dead mother in the house. As the mistress of the house, she felt herself entitled to wear a dressing-gown in the presence of her guests, and to call the officers by their surnames; she looked on Masha as a little girl, and talked to her as though she were a schoolmistress. She used to speak of herself as an old maid — so she was certain she would marry.
Every conversation, even about the weather, she invariably turned into an argument. She had a passion for catching at words, pouncing on contradictions, quibbling over phrases. You would begin talking to her, and she would stare at you and suddenly interrupt: “Excuse me, excuse me, Petrov, the other day you said the very opposite!”
Or she would smile ironically and say: “I notice, though, you begin to advocate the principles of the secret police. I congratulate you.”
If you jested or made a pun, you would hear her voice at once: “That’s stale,” “That’s pointless.” If an officer ventured on a joke, she would make a contemptuous grimace and say, “An army joke!”
And she rolled the r so impressively that Mushka invariably answered from under a chair, “Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga . . .!”
On this occasion at tea the argument began with Nikitin’s mentioning the school examinations.
“Excuse me, Sergey Vassilitch,” Varya interrupted him. “You say it’s difficult for the boys. And whose fault is that, let me ask you? For instance, you set the boys in the eighth class an essay on ‘Pushkin as a Psychologist.’ To begin with, you shouldn’t set such a difficult subject; and, secondly, Pushkin was not a psychologist. Shtchedrin now, or Dostoevsky let us say, is a different matter, but Pushkin is a great poet and nothing more.”
“Shtchedrin is one thing, and Pushkin is another,” Nikitin answered sulkily.
“I know you don’t think much of Shtchedrin at the high school, but that’s not the point. Tell me, in what sense is Pushkin a psychologist?”
“Why, do you mean to say he was not a psychologist? If you like, I’ll give you examples.”
And Nikitin recited several passages from “Onyegin” and then from “Boris Godunov.”
“I see no psychology in that.” Varya sighed. “The psychologist is the man who describes the recesses of the human soul, and that’s fine poetry and nothing more.”
“I know the sort of psychology you want,” said Nikitin, offended. “You want some one to saw my finger with a blunt saw while I howl at the top of my voice — that’s what you mean by psychology.”
“That’s poor! But still you haven’t shown me in what sense Pushkin is a psychologist?”
When Nikitin had to argue against anything that seemed to him narrow, conventional, or something of that kind, he usually leaped up from his seat, clutched at his head with both hands, and began with a moan, running from one end of the room to another. And it was the same now: he jumped up, clutched his head in his hands, and with a moan walked round the table, then he sat down a little way off.
The officers took his part. Captain Polyansky began assuring Varya that Pushkin really was a psychologist, and to prove it quoted two lines from Lermontov; Lieutenant Gernet said that if Pushkin had not been a psychologist they would not have erected a monument to him in Moscow.
“That’s loutishness!” was heard from the other end of the table. “I said as much to the governor: ‘It’s loutishness, your Excellency,’ I said.”
“I won’t argue any more,” cried Nikitin. “It’s unending. . . . Enough! Ach, get away, you nasty dog!” he cried to Som, who laid his head and paw on his knee.
“Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga!” came from under the table.
“Admit that you are wrong!” cried Varya. “Own up!”
But some young ladies came in, and the argument dropped of itself. They all went into the drawing-room. Varya sat down at the piano and began playing dances. They danced first a waltz, then a polka, then a quadrille with a grand chain which Captain Polyansky led through all the rooms, then a waltz again.
During the dancing the old men sat in the drawing-room, smoking and looking at the young people. Among them was Shebaldin, the director of the municipal bank, who was famed for his love of literature and dramatic art. He had founded the local Musical and Dramatic Society, and took part in the performances himself, confining himself, for some reason, to playing comic footmen or to reading in a sing-song voice “The Woman who was a Sinner.” His nickname in the town was “the Mummy,” as he was tall, very lean and scraggy, and always had a solemn air and a fixed, lustreless eye. He was so devoted to the dramatic art that he even shaved his moustache and beard, and this made him still more like a mummy.
After the grand chain, he shuffled up to Nikitin sideways, coughed, and said:
“I had the pleasure of being present during the argument at tea. I fully share your opinion. We are of one mind, and it would be a great pleasure to me to talk to you. Have you read Lessing on the dramatic art of Hamburg?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Shebaldin was horrified, and waved his hands as though he had burnt his fingers, and saying nothing more, staggered back from Nikitin. Shebaldin’s appearance, his question, and his surprise, struck Nikitin as funny, but he thought none the less:
“It really is awkward. I am a teacher of literature, and to this day I’ve not read Lessing. I must read him.”
Before supper the whole company, old and young, sat down to play “fate.” They took two packs of cards: one pack was dealt round to the company, the other was laid on the table face downwards.
“The one who has this card in his hand,” old Shelestov began solemnly, lifting the top card of the second pack, “is fated to go into the nursery and kiss nurse.”
The pleasure of kissing the nurse fell to the lot of Shebaldin. They all crowded round him, took him to the nursery, and laughing and clapping their hands, made him kiss the nurse. There was a great uproar and shouting.
“Not so ardently!” cried Shelestov with tears of laughter. “Not so ardently!”
It was Nikitin’s “fate” to hear the confessions of all. He sat on a chair in the middle of the drawing-room. A shawl was brought and put over his head. The first who came to confess to him was Varya.
“I know your sins,” Nikitin began, looking in the darkness at her stern profile. “Tell me, madam, how do you explain your walking with Polyansky every day? Oh, it’s not for nothing she walks with an hussar!”
“That’s poor,” said Varya, and walked away.
Then under the shawl he saw the shine of big motionless eyes, caught the lines of a dear profile in the dark, together with a familiar, precious fragrance which reminded Nikitin of Masha’s room.
“Marie Godefroi,” he said, and did not know his own voice, it was so soft and tender, “what are your sins?”
Masha screwed up her eyes and put out the tip of her tongue at him, then she laughed and went away. And a minute later she was standing in the middle of the room, clapping her hands and crying:
“Supper, supper, supper!”
And they all streamed into the dining-room. At supper Varya had another argument, and this time with her father. Polyansky ate stolidly, drank red wine, and described to Nikitin how once in a winter campaign he had stood all night up to his knees in a bog; the enemy was so near that they were not allowed to speak or smoke, the night was cold and dark, a piercing wind was blowing. Nikitin listened and stole side-glances at Masha. She was gazing at him immovably, without blinking, as though she was pondering something or was lost in a reverie. . . . It was pleasure and agony to him both at once.
“Why does she look at me like that?” was the question that fretted him. “It’s awkward. People may notice it. Oh, how young, how naïve she is!”
The party broke up at midnight. When Nikitin went out at the gate, a window opened on the first-floor, and Masha showed herself at it.
“Sergey Vassilitch!” she called.
“What is it?”
“I tell you what . . .” said Masha, evidently thinking of something to say. “I tell you what . . . Polyansky said he would come in a day or two with his camera and take us all. We must meet here.”
Masha vanished, the window was slammed, and some one immediately began playing the piano in the house.
“Well, it is a house!” thought Nikitin while he crossed the street. “A house in which there is no moaning except from Egyptian pigeons, and they only do it because they have no other means of expressing their joy!”
But the Shelestovs were not the only festive household. Nikitin had not gone two hundred paces before he heard the strains of a piano from another house. A little further he met a peasant playing the balalaika at the gate. In the gardens the band struck up a potpourri of Russian songs.
Nikitin lived nearly half a mile from the Shelestoys’ in a flat of eight rooms at the rent of three hundred roubles a year, which he shared with his colleague Ippolit Ippolititch, a teacher of geography and history. When Nikitin went in this Ippolit Ippolititch, a snub-nosed, middle-aged man with a reddish beard, with a coarse, good-natured, unintellectual face like a workman’s, was sitting at the table correcting his pupils’ maps. He considered that the most important and necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps drawn by the boys and girls he taught, or making chronological tables.
“What a lovely day it has been!” said Nikitin, going in to him. “I wonder at you — how can you sit indoors?”
Ippolit Ippolititch was not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already. Now what he answered was:
“Yes, very fine weather. It’s May now; we soon shall have real summer. And summer’s a very different thing from winter. In the winter you have to heat the stoves, but in summer you can keep warm without. In summer you have your window open at night and still are warm, and in winter you are cold even with the double frames in.”
Nikitin had not sat at the table for more than one minute before he was bored.
“Good-night!” he said, getting up and yawning. “I wanted to tell you something romantic concerning myself, but you are — geography! If one talks to you of love, you will ask one at once, ‘What was the date of the Battle of Kalka?’ Confound you, with your battles and your capes in Siberia!”
“What are you cross about?”
“Why, it is vexatious!”
And vexed that he had not spoken to Masha, and that he had no one to talk to of his love, he went to his study and lay down upon the sofa. It was dark and still in the study. Lying gazing into the darkness, Nikitin for some reason began thinking how in two or three years he would go to Petersburg, how Masha would see him off at the station and would cry; in Petersburg he would get a long letter from her in which she would entreat him to come home as quickly as possible. And he would write to her. . . . He would begin his letter like that: “My dear little rat!”
“Yes, my dear little rat!” he said, and he laughed.
He was lying in an uncomfortable position. He put his arms under his head and put his left leg over the back of the sofa. He felt more comfortable. Meanwhile a pale light was more and more perceptible at the windows, sleepy cocks crowed in the yard. Nikitin went on thinking how he would come back from Petersburg, how Masha would meet him at the station, and with a shriek of delight would fling herself on his neck; or, better still, he would cheat her and come home by stealth late at night: the cook would open the door, then he would go on tiptoe to the bedroom, undress noiselessly, and jump into bed! And she would wake up and be overjoyed.
It was beginning to get quite light. By now there were no windows, no study. On the steps of the brewery by which they had ridden that day Masha was sitting, saying something. Then she took Nikitin by the arm and went with him to the suburban garden. There he saw the oaks and, the crows’ nests like hats. One of the nests rocked; out of it peeped Shebaldin, shouting loudly: “You have not read Lessing!”
Nikitin shuddered all over and opened his eyes. Ippolit Ippolititch was standing before the sofa, and throwing back his head, was putting on his cravat.
“Get up; it’s time for school,” he said. “You shouldn’t sleep in your clothes; it spoils your clothes. You should sleep in your bed, undressed.”
And as usual he began slowly and emphatically saying what everybody knew.
Nikitin’s first lesson was on Russian language in the second class. When at nine o’clock punctually he went into the classroom, he saw written on the blackboard two large letters —M. S. That, no doubt, meant Masha Shelestov.
“They’ve scented it out already, the rascals . . .” thought Nikitin. “How is it they know everything?”
The second lesson was in the fifth class. And there two letters, M. S., were written on the blackboard; and when he went out of the classroom at the end of the lesson, he heard the shout behind him as though from a theatre gallery:
“Hurrah for Masha Shelestov!”
His head was heavy from sleeping in his clothes, his limbs were weighted down with inertia. The boys, who were expecting every day to break up before the examinations, did nothing, were restless, and so bored that they got into mischief. Nikitin, too, was restless, did not notice their pranks, and was continually going to the window. He could see the street brilliantly lighted up with the sun; above the houses the blue limpid sky, the birds, and far, far away, beyond the gardens and the houses, vast indefinite distance, the forests in the blue haze, the smoke from a passing train . . . .
Here two officers in white tunics, playing with their whips, passed in the street in the shade of the acacias. Here a lot of Jews, with grey beards, and caps on, drove past in a waggonette. . . . The governess walked by with the director’s granddaughter. Som ran by in the company of two other dogs. . . . And then Varya, wearing a simple grey dress and red stockings, carrying the “Vyestnik Evropi” in her hand, passed by. She must have been to the town library . . . .
And it would be a long time before lessons were over at three o’clock! And after school he could not go home nor to the Shelestovs’, but must go to give a lesson at Wolf’s. This Wolf, a wealthy Jew who had turned Lutheran, did not send his children to the high school, but had them taught at home by the high-school masters, and paid five roubles a lesson.
He was bored, bored, bored.
At three o’clock he went to Wolf’s and spent there, as it seemed to him, an eternity. He left there at five o’clock, and before seven he had to be at the high school again to a meeting of the masters — to draw up the plan for the viva voce examination of the fourth and sixth classes.
When late in the evening he left the high school and went to the Shelestovs’, his heart was beating and his face was flushed. A month before, even a week before, he had, every time that he made up his mind to speak to her, prepared a whole speech, with an introduction and a conclusion. Now he had not one word ready; everything was in a muddle in his head, and all he knew was that today he would certainly declare himself, and that it was utterly impossible to wait any longer.
“I will ask her to come to the garden,” he thought; “we’ll walk about a little and I’ll speak.”
There was not a soul in the hall; he went into the dining-room and then into the drawing-room. . . . There was no one there either. He could hear Varya arguing with some one upstairs and the clink of the dressmaker’s scissors in the nursery.
There was a little room in the house which had three names: the little room, the passage room, and the dark room. There was a big cupboard in it where they kept medicines, gunpowder, and their hunting gear. Leading from this room to the first floor was a narrow wooden staircase where cats were always asleep. There were two doors in it — one leading to the nursery, one to the drawing-room. When Nikitin went into this room to go upstairs, the door from the nursery opened and shut with such a bang that it made the stairs and the cupboard tremble; Masha, in a dark dress, ran in with a piece of blue material in her hand, and, not noticing Nikitin, darted towards the stairs.
“Stay . . .” said Nikitin, stopping her. “Good-evening, Godefroi . . . . Allow me . . . .”
He gasped, he did not know what to say; with one hand he held her hand and with the other the blue material. And she was half frightened, half surprised, and looked at him with big eyes.
“Allow me . . .” Nikitin went on, afraid she would go away. “There’s something I must say to you. . . . Only . . . it’s inconvenient here. I cannot, I am incapable. . . . Understand, Godefroi, I can’t — that’s all . . . .”
The blue material slipped on to the floor, and Nikitin took Masha by the other hand. She turned pale, moved her lips, then stepped back from Nikitin and found herself in the corner between the wall and the cupboard.
“On my honour, I assure you . . .” he said softly. “Masha, on my honour . . . .”
She threw back her head and he kissed her lips, and that the kiss might last longer he put his fingers to her cheeks; and it somehow happened that he found himself in the corner between the cupboard and the wall, and she put her arms round his neck and pressed her head against his chin.
Then they both ran into the garden. The Shelestoys had a garden of nine acres. There were about twenty old maples and lime-trees in it; there was one fir-tree, and all the rest were fruit-trees: cherries, apples, pears, horse-chestnuts, silvery olive-trees. . . . There were heaps of flowers, too.
Nikitin and Masha ran along the avenues in silence, laughed, asked each other from time to time disconnected questions which they did not answer. A crescent moon was shining over the garden, and drowsy tulips and irises were stretching up from the dark grass in its faint light, as though entreating for words of love for them, too.
When Nikitin and Masha went back to the house, the officers and the young ladies were already assembled and dancing the mazurka. Again Polyansky led the grand chain through all the rooms, again after dancing they played “fate.” Before supper, when the visitors had gone into the dining-room, Masha, left alone with Nikitin, pressed close to him and said:
“You must speak to papa and Varya yourself; I am ashamed.”
After supper he talked to the old father. After listening to him, Shelestov thought a little and said:
“I am very grateful for the honour you do me and my daughter, but let me speak to you as a friend. I will speak to you, not as a father, but as one gentleman to another. Tell me, why do you want to be married so young? Only peasants are married so young, and that, of course, is loutishness. But why should you? Where’s the satisfaction of putting on the fetters at your age?”
“I am not young!” said Nikitin, offended. “I am in my twenty-seventh year.”
“Papa, the farrier has come!” cried Varya from the other room.
And the conversation broke off. Varya, Masha, and Polyansky saw Nikitin home. When they reached his gate, Varya said:
“Why is it your mysterious Metropolit Metropolititch never shows himself anywhere? He might come and see us.”
The mysterious Ippolit Ippolititch was sitting on his bed, taking off his trousers, when Nikitin went in to him.
“Don’t go to bed, my dear fellow,” said Nikitin breathlessly. “Stop a minute; don’t go to bed!”
Ippolit Ippolititch put on his trousers hurriedly and asked in a flutter:
“What is it?”
“I am going to be married.”
Nikitin sat down beside his companion, and looking at him wonderingly, as though surprised at himself, said:
“Only fancy, I am going to be married! To Masha Shelestov! I made an offer today.”
“Well? She seems a good sort of girl. Only she is very young.”
“Yes, she is young,” sighed Nikitin, and shrugged his shoulders with a careworn air. “Very, very young!”
“She was my pupil at the high school. I know her. She wasn’t bad at geography, but she was no good at history. And she was inattentive in class, too.”
Nikitin for some reason felt suddenly sorry for his companion, and longed to say something kind and comforting to him.
“My dear fellow, why don’t you get married?” he asked. “Why don’t you marry Varya, for instance? She is a splendid, first-rate girl! It’s true she is very fond of arguing, but a heart . . . what a heart! She was just asking about you. Marry her, my dear boy! Eh?”
He knew perfectly well that Varya would not marry this dull, snub-nosed man, but still persuaded him to marry her — why?
“Marriage is a serious step,” said Ippolit Ippolititch after a moment’s thought. “One has to look at it all round and weigh things thoroughly; it’s not to be done rashly. Prudence is always a good thing, and especially in marriage, when a man, ceasing to be a bachelor, begins a new life.”
And he talked of what every one has known for ages. Nikitin did not stay to listen, said goodnight, and went to his own room. He undressed quickly and quickly got into bed, in order to be able to think the sooner of his happiness, of Masha, of the future; he smiled, then suddenly recalled that he had not read Lessing.
“I must read him,” he thought. “Though, after all, why should I? Bother him!”
And exhausted by his happiness, he fell asleep at once and went on smiling till the morning.
He dreamed of the thud of horses’ hoofs on a wooden floor; he dreamed of the black horse Count Nulin, then of the white Giant and its sister Maika, being led out of the stable.
“It was very crowded and noisy in the church, and once some one cried out, and the head priest, who was marrying Masha and me, looked through his spectacles at the crowd, and said severely: ‘Don’t move about the church, and don’t make a noise, but stand quietly and pray. You should have the fear of God in your hearts.’
“My best men were two of my colleagues, and Masha’s best men were Captain Polyansky and Lieutenant Gernet. The bishop’s choir sang superbly. The sputtering of the candles, the brilliant light, the gorgeous dresses, the officers, the numbers of gay, happy faces, and a special ethereal look in Masha, everything together — the surroundings and the words of the wedding prayers — moved me to tears and filled me with triumph. I thought how my life had blossomed, how poetically it was shaping itself! Two years ago I was still a student, I was living in cheap furnished rooms, without money, without relations, and, as I fancied then, with nothing to look forward to. Now I am a teacher in the high school in one of the best provincial towns, with a secure income, loved, spoiled. It is for my sake, I thought, this crowd is collected, for my sake three candelabra have been lighted, the deacon is booming, the choir is doing its best; and it’s for my sake that this young creature, whom I soon shall call my wife, is so young, so elegant, and so joyful. I recalled our first meetings, our rides into the country, my declaration of love and the weather, which, as though expressly, was so exquisitely fine all the summer; and the happiness which at one time in my old rooms seemed to me possible only in novels and stories, I was now experiencing in reality — I was now, as it were, holding it in my hands.
“After the ceremony they all crowded in disorder round Masha and me, expressed their genuine pleasure, congratulated us and wished us joy. The brigadier-general, an old man of seventy, confined himself to congratulating Masha, and said to her in a squeaky, aged voice, so loud that it could be heard all over the church:
“‘I hope that even after you are married you may remain the rose you are now, my dear.’
“The officers, the director, and all the teachers smiled from politeness, and I was conscious of an agreeable artificial smile on my face, too. Dear Ippolit Ippolititch, the teacher of history and geography, who always says what every one has heard before, pressed my hand warmly and said with feeling:
“‘Hitherto you have been unmarried and have lived alone, and now you are married and no longer single.’
“From the church we went to a two-storied house which I am receiving as part of the dowry. Besides that house Masha is bringing me twenty thousand roubles, as well as a piece of waste land with a shanty on it, where I am told there are numbers of hens and ducks which are not looked after and are turning wild. When I got home from the church, I stretched myself at full length on the low sofa in my new study and began to smoke; I felt snug, cosy, and comfortable, as I never had in my life before. And meanwhile the wedding party were shouting ‘Hurrah!’ while a wretched band in the hall played flourishes and all sorts of trash. Varya, Masha’s sister, ran into the study with a wineglass in her hand, and with a queer, strained expression, as though her mouth were full of water; apparently she had meant to go on further, but she suddenly burst out laughing and sobbing, and the wineglass crashed on the floor. We took her by the arms and led her away.
“‘Nobody can understand!’ she muttered afterwards, lying on the old nurse’s bed in a back room. ‘Nobody, nobody! My God, nobody can understand!’
“But every one understood very well that she was four years older than her sister Masha, and still unmarried, and that she was crying, not from envy, but from the melancholy consciousness that her time was passing, and perhaps had passed. When they danced the quadrille, she was back in the drawing-room with a tear-stained and heavily powdered face, and I saw Captain Polyansky holding a plate of ice before her while she ate it with a spoon.
“It is past five o’clock in the morning. I took up my diary to describe my complete and perfect happiness, and thought I would write a good six pages, and read it tomorrow to Masha; but, strange to say, everything is muddled in my head and as misty as a dream, and I can remember vividly nothing but that episode with Varya, and I want to write, ‘Poor Varya!’ I could go on sitting here and writing ‘Poor Varya!’ By the way, the trees have begun rustling; it will rain. The crows are cawing, and my Masha, who has just gone to sleep, has for some reason a sorrowful face.”
For a long while afterwards Nikitin did not write his diary. At the beginning of August he had the school examinations, and after the fifteenth the classes began. As a rule he set off for school before nine in the morning, and before ten o’clock he was looking at his watch and pining for his Masha and his new house. In the lower forms he would set some boy to dictate, and while the boys were writing, would sit in the window with his eyes shut, dreaming; whether he dreamed of the future or recalled the past, everything seemed to him equally delightful, like a fairy tale. In the senior classes they were reading aloud Gogol or Pushkin’s prose works, and that made him sleepy; people, trees, fields, horses, rose before his imagination, and he would say with a sigh, as though fascinated by the author:
At the midday recess Masha used to send him lunch in a snow-white napkin, and he would eat it slowly, with pauses, to prolong the enjoyment of it; and Ippolit Ippolititch, whose lunch as a rule consisted of nothing but bread, looked at him with respect and envy, and gave expression to some familiar fact, such as:
“Men cannot live without food.”
After school Nikitin went straight to give his private lessons, and when at last by six o’clock he got home, he felt excited and anxious, as though he had been away for a year. He would run upstairs breathless, find Masha, throw his arms round her, and kiss her and swear that he loved her, that he could not live without her, declare that he had missed her fearfully, and ask her in trepidation how she was and why she looked so depressed. Then they would dine together. After dinner he would lie on the sofa in his study and smoke, while she sat beside him and talked in a low voice.
His happiest days now were Sundays and holidays, when he was at home from morning till evening. On those days he took part in the naïve but extraordinarily pleasant life which reminded him of a pastoral idyl. He was never weary of watching how his sensible and practical Masha was arranging her nest, and anxious to show that he was of some use in the house, he would do something useless — for instance, bring the chaise out of the stable and look at it from every side. Masha had installed a regular dairy with three cows, and in her cellar she had many jugs of milk and pots of sour cream, and she kept it all for butter. Sometimes, by way of a joke, Nikitin would ask her for a glass of milk, and she would be quite upset because it was against her rules; but he would laugh and throw his arms round her, saying:
“There, there; I was joking, my darling! I was joking!”
Or he would laugh at her strictness when, finding in the cupboard some stale bit of cheese or sausage as hard as a stone, she would say seriously:
“They will eat that in the kitchen.”
He would observe that such a scrap was only fit for a mousetrap, and she would reply warmly that men knew nothing about housekeeping, and that it was just the same to the servants if you were to send down a hundredweight of savouries to the kitchen. He would agree, and embrace her enthusiastically. Everything that was just in what she said seemed to him extraordinary and amazing; and what did not fit in with his convictions seemed to him naïve and touching.
Sometimes he was in a philosophical mood, and he would begin to discuss some abstract subject while she listened and looked at his face with curiosity.
“I am immensely happy with you, my joy,” he used to say, playing with her fingers or plaiting and unplaiting her hair. “But I don’t look upon this happiness of mine as something that has come to me by chance, as though it had dropped from heaven. This happiness is a perfectly natural, consistent, logical consequence. I believe that man is the creator of his own happiness, and now I am enjoying just what I have myself created. Yes, I speak without false modesty: I have created this happiness myself and I have a right to it. You know my past. My unhappy childhood, without father or mother; my depressing youth, poverty — all this was a struggle, all this was the path by which I made my way to happiness . . . .”
In October the school sustained a heavy loss: Ippolit Ippolititch was taken ill with erysipelas on the head and died. For two days before his death he was unconscious and delirious, but even in his delirium he said nothing that was not perfectly well known to every one.
“The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. . . . Horses eat oats and hay . . . .”
There were no lessons at the high school on the day of his funeral. His colleagues and pupils were the coffin-bearers, and the school choir sang all the way to the grave the anthem “Holy God.” Three priests, two deacons, all his pupils and the staff of the boys’ high school, and the bishop’s choir in their best kaftans, took part in the procession. And passers-by who met the solemn procession, crossed themselves and said:
“God grant us all such a death.”
Returning home from the cemetery much moved, Nikitin got out his diary from the table and wrote:
“We have just consigned to the tomb Ippolit Ippolititch Ryzhitsky. Peace to your ashes, modest worker! Masha, Varya, and all the women at the funeral, wept from genuine feeling, perhaps because they knew this uninteresting, humble man had never been loved by a woman. I wanted to say a warm word at my colleague’s grave, but I was warned that this might displease the director, as he did not like our poor friend. I believe that this is the first day since my marriage that my heart has been heavy.”
There was no other event of note in the scholastic year.
The winter was mild, with wet snow and no frost; on Epiphany Eve, for instance, the wind howled all night as though it were autumn, and water trickled off the roofs; and in the morning, at the ceremony of the blessing of the water, the police allowed no one to go on the river, because they said the ice was swelling up and looked dark. But in spite of bad weather Nikitin’s life was as happy as in summer. And, indeed, he acquired another source of pleasure; he learned to play vint. Only one thing troubled him, moved him to anger, and seemed to prevent him from being perfectly happy: the cats and dogs which formed part of his wife’s dowry. The rooms, especially in the morning, always smelt like a menagerie, and nothing could destroy the odour; the cats frequently fought with the dogs. The spiteful beast Mushka was fed a dozen times a day; she still refused to recognize Nikitin and growled at him: “Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga!”
One night in Lent he was returning home from the club where he had been playing cards. It was dark, raining, and muddy. Nikitin had an unpleasant feeling at the bottom of his heart and could not account for it. He did not know whether it was because he had lost twelve roubles at cards, or whether because one of the players, when they were settling up, had said that of course Nikitin had pots of money, with obvious reference to his wife’s portion. He did not regret the twelve roubles, and there was nothing offensive in what had been said; but, still, there was the unpleasant feeling. He did not even feel a desire to go home.
“Foo, how horrid!” he said, standing still at a lamp-post.
It occurred to him that he did not regret the twelve roubles because he got them for nothing. If he had been a working man he would have known the value of every farthing, and would not have been so careless whether he lost or won. And his good-fortune had all, he reflected, come to him by chance, for nothing, and really was as superfluous for him as medicine for the healthy. If, like the vast majority of people, he had been harassed by anxiety for his daily bread, had been struggling for existence, if his back and chest had ached from work, then supper, a warm snug home, and domestic happiness, would have been the necessity, the compensation, the crown of his life; as it was, all this had a strange, indefinite significance for him.
“Foo, how horrid!” he repeated, knowing perfectly well that these reflections were in themselves a bad sign.
When he got home Masha was in bed: she was breathing evenly and smiling, and was evidently sleeping with great enjoyment. Near her the white cat lay curled up, purring. While Nikitin lit the candle and lighted his cigarette, Masha woke up and greedily drank a glass of water.
“I ate too many sweets,” she said, and laughed. “Have you been home?” she asked after a pause.
Nikitin knew already that Captain Polyansky, on whom Varya had been building great hopes of late, was being transferred to one of the western provinces, and was already making his farewell visits in the town, and so it was depressing at his father-in-law’s.
“Varya looked in this evening,” said Masha, sitting up. “She did not say anything, but one could see from her face how wretched she is, poor darling! I can’t bear Polyansky. He is fat and bloated, and when he walks or dances his cheeks shake. . . . He is not a man I would choose. But, still, I did think he was a decent person.”
“I think he is a decent person now,” said Nikitin.
“Then why has he treated Varya so badly?”
“Why badly?” asked Nikitin, beginning to feel irritation against the white cat, who was stretching and arching its back. “As far as I know, he has made no proposal and has given her no promises.”
“Then why was he so often at the house? If he didn’t mean to marry her, he oughtn’t to have come.”
Nikitin put out the candle and got into bed. But he felt disinclined to lie down and to sleep. He felt as though his head were immense and empty as a barn, and that new, peculiar thoughts were wandering about in it like tall shadows. He thought that, apart from the soft light of the ikon lamp, that beamed upon their quiet domestic happiness, that apart from this little world in which he and this cat lived so peacefully and happily, there was another world. . . . And he had a passionate, poignant longing to be in that other world, to work himself at some factory or big workshop, to address big audiences, to write, to publish, to raise a stir, to exhaust himself, to suffer. . . . He wanted something that would engross him till he forgot himself, ceased to care for the personal happiness which yielded him only sensations so monotonous. And suddenly there rose vividly before his imagination the figure of Shebaldin with his clean-shaven face, saying to him with horror: “You haven’t even read Lessing! You are quite behind the times! How you have gone to seed!”
Masha woke up and again drank some water. He glanced at her neck, at her plump shoulders and throat, and remembered the word the brigadier-general had used in church —“rose.”
“Rose,” he muttered, and laughed.
His laugh was answered by a sleepy growl from Mushka under the bed: “Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga . . .!”
A heavy anger sank like a cold weight on his heart, and he felt tempted to say something rude to Masha, and even to jump up and hit her; his heart began throbbing.
“So then,” he asked, restraining himself, “since I went to your house, I was bound in duty to marry you?”
“Of course. You know that very well.”
“That’s nice.” And a minute later he repeated: “That’s nice.”
To relieve the throbbing of his heart, and to avoid saying too much, Nikitin went to his study and lay down on the sofa, without a pillow; then he lay on the floor on the carpet.
“What nonsense it is!” he said to reassure himself. “You are a teacher, you are working in the noblest of callings. . . . What need have you of any other world? What rubbish!”
But almost immediately he told himself with conviction that he was not a real teacher, but simply a government employé, as commonplace and mediocre as the Czech who taught Greek. He had never had a vocation for teaching, he knew nothing of the theory of teaching, and never had been interested in the subject; he did not know how to treat children; he did not understand the significance of what he taught, and perhaps did not teach the right things. Poor Ippolit Ippolititch had been frankly stupid, and all the boys, as well as his colleagues, knew what he was and what to expect from him; but he, Nikitin, like the Czech, knew how to conceal his stupidity and cleverly deceived every one by pretending that, thank God, his teaching was a success. These new ideas frightened Nikitin; he rejected them, called them stupid, and believed that all this was due to his nerves, that he would laugh at himself.
And he did, in fact, by the morning laugh at himself and call himself an old woman; but it was clear to him that his peace of mind was lost, perhaps, for ever, and that in that little two-story house happiness was henceforth impossible for him. He realized that the illusion had evaporated, and that a new life of unrest and clear sight was beginning which was incompatible with peace and personal happiness.
Next day, which was Sunday, he was at the school chapel, and there met his colleagues and the director. It seemed to him that they were entirely preoccupied with concealing their ignorance and discontent with life, and he, too, to conceal his uneasiness, smiled affably and talked of trivialities. Then he went to the station and saw the mail train come in and go out, and it was agreeable to him to be alone and not to have to talk to any one.
At home he found Varya and his father-in-law, who had come to dinner. Varya’s eyes were red with crying, and she complained of a headache, while Shelestov ate a great deal, saying that young men nowadays were unreliable, and that there was very little gentlemanly feeling among them.
“It’s loutishness!” he said. “I shall tell him so to his face: ‘It’s loutishness, sir,’ I shall say.”
Nikitin smiled affably and helped Masha to look after their guests, but after dinner he went to his study and shut the door.
The March sun was shining brightly in at the windows and shedding its warm rays on the table. It was only the twentieth of the month, but already the cabmen were driving with wheels, and the starlings were noisy in the garden. It was just the weather in which Masha would come in, put one arm round his neck, tell him the horses were saddled or the chaise was at the door, and ask him what she should put on to keep warm. Spring was beginning as exquisitely as last spring, and it promised the same joys. . . . But Nikitin was thinking that it would be nice to take a holiday and go to Moscow, and stay at his old lodgings there. In the next room they were drinking coffee and talking of Captain Polyansky, while he tried not to listen and wrote in his diary: “Where am I, my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, cockroaches, stupid women. . . . There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52