But I had hardly stepped out on the muddy wet pavement of the Prospect when I ran against a passer-by, who was hastening somewhere with his head down, apparently lost in thought. To my intense amazement I recognized my old friend Ichmenyev. It was an evening of unexpected meetings for me. I knew that the old man had been taken seriously unwell three days before; and here I was meeting him in such wet weather in the street. Moreover it had never been his habit to go out in the evening, and since Natasha had gone away, that is, for the last six months, he had become a regular stay-at-home. He seemed to be exceptionally delighted to see me, like a man who has at last found a friend with whom he can talk over his ideas. He seized my hand, pressed it warmly, and without asking where I was going, drew me along with him. He was upset about something, jerky and hurried in his manner. “Where had he been going?” I wondered. It would have been tactless to question him. He had become terribly suspicious, and sometimes detected some offensive hint, some insult, in the simplest inquiry or remark.
I looked at him stealthily. His face showed signs of illness he had grown much thinner of late. His chin showed a week’s growth of beard. His hair, which had turned quite grey, hung down in disorder under his crushed hat, and lay in long straggling tails on the collar of his shabby old great-coat. I had noticed before that at some moments he seemed, as it were, forgetful, forgot for instance that he was not alone in the room, and would talk to himself, gesticulating with his hands. It was painful to look at him.
“Well, Vanya, well?” he began. “Where were you going? I’ve come out, my boy, you see; business. Are you quite well?”
“Are you quite well?” I answered. “You were ill only the other day, and here you are, out.”
The old man seemed not to hear what I said and made no answer.
“How is Anna Andreyevna?”
“She’s quite well, quite well . . . . Though she’s rather poorly, too. She’s rather depressed . . . she was speaking of you, wondering why you hadn’t been. Were you coming to see us now, Vanya, or not? Maybe I’m keeping you, hindering you from something,” he asked suddenly, looking at me distrustfully and suspiciously.
The sensitive old man had become so touchy and irritable that if I had answered him now that I wasn’t going to see them, he would certainly have been wounded, and have parted from me coldly. I hastened to say that I was on my way to look in on Anna Andreyevna, though I knew I was already late, and might not have time to see Natasha at all.
“That’s all right,” said the old man, completely pacified by my answer, “that’s all right.”
And he suddenly sank into silence and pondered, as though he had left something unsaid.
“Yes, that’s all right,” he repeated mechanically, five minutes later, as though coming to himself after a long reverie. “Hm! You know, Vanya, you’ve always been like a son to us. God has not blessed us . . . with a son, but He has sent us you. That’s what I’ve always thought. And my wife the same . . . yes! And you’ve always been tender and respectful to us, like a grateful son. God will bless you for it, Vanya, as we two old people bless and love you. . . . Yes!”
His voice quavered. He paused a moment.
“Well . . . well? You haven’t been ill, have you? Why have you not been to see us for so long?”
I told him the whole incident of Smith, apologizing for having let Smith’s affairs keep me, telling him that I had besides been almost ill, and that with all this on my hands it was a long way to go to Vassilyevsky Island (they lived there then). I was almost blurting out that I had nevertheless made time to see Natasha, but stopped myself in time.
My account of Smith interested my old friend very much. He listened more attentively. Hearing that my new lodging was damp, perhaps even worse than my old one, and that the rent was six roubles a month, he grew positively heated. He had become altogether excitable and impatient. No one but Anna Andreyevna could soothe him at such moments, and even she was not always successful.
“Hm! This is what comes of your literature, Vanya! It’s brought you to a garret, and it will bring you to the graveyard I said so at the time. I foretold it! . . . Is B. still writing reviews?”
“No, he died of consumption. I told you so before, I believe.”
“Dead, hm, dead! Yes, that’s just what one would expect. Has he left anything to his wife and children? You told me he had a wife, didn’t you? . . . What do such people marry for?”
“No, he’s left nothing,” I answered.
“Well, just as I thought! “ he cried, with as much warmth as though the matter closely and intimately concerned him, as though the deceased B. had been his brother. “Nothing! Nothing, you may be sure. And, do you know, Vanya, I had a presentiment he’d end like that, at the time when you used to be always singing his praises, do you remember? It’s easy to say left nothing! Hm! . . . He’s won fame. Even supposing it’s lasting fame, it doesn’t mean bread and butter. I always had a foreboding about you, too, Vanya, my boy. Though I praised you, I always had misgivings. So B.‘s dead? Yes, and he well might be! It’s a nice way we live here, and . . . a nice place! Look at it!”
And with a rapid, unconscious movement of his hand he pointed to the foggy vista of the street, lighted up by the street-lamps dimly twinkling in the damp mist, to the dirty houses, to the wet and shining flags of the pavement, to the cross, sullen, drenched figures that passed by, to all this picture, hemmed in by the dome of the Petersburg sky, black as though smudged with Indian ink. We had by now come out into the square; before us in the darkness stood the monument, lighted up below by jets of gas, and further away rose the huge dark mass of St. Isaac’s, hardly distinguishable against the gloomy sky.
You used to say, Vanya, that he was a nice man, good and generous, with feeling, with a heart. Well, you see, they’re all like that, your nice people, your men with heart! All they can do is to beget orphans! Hm! . . . and I should think he must have felt cheerful at dying like that! E-e-ech! Anything to get away from here! Even Siberia. . . . What is it, child?” he asked suddenly, seeing a little girl on the pavement begging alms.
It was a pale, thin child, not more than seven or eight, dressed in filthy rags; she had broken shoes on her little bare feet. She was trying to cover her shivering little body with a sort of aged semblance of a tiny dress, long outgrown. Her pale, sickly, wasted face was turned towards us. She looked timidly, mutely at us without speaking, and with a look of resigned dread of refusal held out her trembling little hand to us. My old friend started at seeing her, and turned to her so quickly that he frightened her. She was startled and stepped back.
“What is it? What is it, child?” he cried. “You’re begging, eh? Here, here’s something for you . . . take it!”
And, shaking with fuss and excitement, he began feeling in his pocket, and brought out two or three silver coins. But it seemed to him too little. He found his purse, and taking out a rouble note — all that was in it — put it in the little beggar’s hand.
“ Christ keep you, my little one . . . my child! God’s angel be with you!”
And with a trembling hand he made the sign of the cross over the child several times. But suddenly noticing that I was looking at him, he frowned, and walked on with rapid steps.
“That’s a thing I can’t bear to see, Vanya,” he began, after a rather prolonged, wrathful silence. “Little innocent creatures shivering with cold in the street . . . all through their cursed fathers and mothers. Though what mother would send a child to anything so awful if she were not in misery herself! . . . Most likely she has other helpless little ones in the corner at home, and this is the eldest of them; and the mother ill herself very likely; and . . . hm! They’re not prince’s children! There are lots in the world, Vanya . . . not prince’s children! Hm!”
He paused for a moment, as though at a loss for words.
“You see, Vanya, I promised Anna Andreyevna,” he began, faltering and hesitating a little, “I promised her . . . that is Anna Andreyevna and I agreed together to take some little orphan to bring up . . . some poor little girl, to have her in the house altogether, do you understand? For it’s dull for us old people alone. Only, you see, Anna Andreyevna has begun to set herself against it somehow. So you talk to her, you know, not from me, but as though it came from yourself . . . persuade her, do you understand? I’ve been meaning for a long time to ask you to persuade her to agree; you see, it’s rather awkward for me to press her. But why talk about trifles! What’s a child to me? I don’t want one; perhaps just as a comfort . . . so as to hear a child’s voice . . . but the fact is I’m doing this for my wife’s sake — it’ll be livelier for her than being alone with me. But all that’s nonsense. Vanya, we shall be a long time getting there like this, you know; let’s take a cab. It’s a long walk, and Anna Andreyevna will have been expecting us.”
It was half-past seven when we arrived.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07