I waked up late, at ten o’clock in the morning, feeling ill. I felt giddy and my head was aching; I glanced towards Elena’s bed. The bed was empty. At the same moment from my little room on the right sounds reached me as though someone were sweeping with a broom. I went to look. Elena had a broom in her hand and holding up her smart dress which she had kept on ever since at evening, she was sweeping the floor. The wood for the stove was piled up in the corner. The table had been scrubbed, the kettle had been cleaned. In a word, Elena was doing the housework.
“Listen, Elena,” I cried. “Who wants you to sweep the floor? I don’t wish it, you’re ill. Have you come here to be a drudge for me?”
“Who is going to sweep the floor here?” she answered, drawing herself up and looking straight at me. “I’m not ill now.”
“But I didn’t take you to make you work, Elena. You seem to be afraid I shall scold you like Mme. Bubnov for living with me for nothing. And where did you get that horrid broom? I had no broom,” I added, looking at her in wonder.
“It’s my broom. I brought it here myself, I used to sweep the floor here for grandfather too. And the broom’s been lying here ever since under the stove.”
I went back to the other room musing. Perhaps I may have been in error, but it seemed to me that she felt oppressed by my hospitality and that she wanted in every possible way to show me that she was doing something for her living.
“What an embittered character, if so,” I thought. Two minutes later she came in and without a word sat down on the sofa in the same place as yesterday, looking inquisitively at me. Meanwhile I boiled the kettle, made the tea, poured out a cup for her and handed it her with a slice of white bread. She took it in silence and without opposition. She had had nothing for twenty-four hours.
“See, you’ve dirtied your pretty dress with that broom,” I said, noticing a streak of dirt on her skirt.
She looked down and suddenly, to my intense astonishment, she put down her cup, and, apparently calm and composed, she picked up a breadth of the muslin skirt in both hands and with one rip tore it from top to bottom. When she had done this she raised her stubborn, flashing eyes to me in silence. Her face was pale.
“What are you about, Elena?” I cried, feeling sure the child was mad.
“It’s a horrid dress,” she cried, almost gasping with excitement. “Why do you say it’s a nice dress? I don’t want to wear it!” she cried suddenly, jumping up from her place. “I’ll tear it up. I didn’t ask her to dress me up. She did it herself, by force. I’ve torn one dress already. I’ll tear this one! I’ll tear it, I’ll tear it, I’ll tear it! . . .”
And she fell upon her luckless dress with fury. In one moment she had torn it almost into rags. When she had finished she was so pale she could hardly stand. I looked with surprise at such rage. She looked at me with a defiant air as though I too had somehow offended her. But I knew now what to do.
I made up my mind to buy her a new dress that morning. This wild, embittered little creature must be tamed by kindness. She looked as though she had never met anyone kind. If once already in spite of severe punishment she had torn another similar dress to rags, with what fury she must look on this one now, when it recalled to her those awful moments.
In Tolkutchy Market one could buy a good, plain dress very cheaply. Unfortunately at that moment I had scarcely any money. But as I went to bed the night before I had made up my mind to go that morning to a place where I had hopes of getting some. It was fortunately not far from the market. I took my hat. Elena watched me intently as though expecting something.
“Are you going to lock me in again?” she asked when I took up the key to lock the door behind me, as I had done the day before and the day before that.
“My dear,” I said, going up to her. “Don’t be angry at that. I lock the door because someone might come. You are ill, and you’d perhaps be frightened. And there’s no knowing who might not come. Perhaps Bubnov might take it into her head to . . . .”
I said this on purpose. I locked her in because I didn’t trust her. I was afraid that she might suddenly take it into her head to leave me. I determined to be cautious for a time. Elena said nothing and I locked her in again.
I knew a publisher who had been for the last twelve years bringing out a compilation in many volumes. I often used to get work from him when I was obliged to make money somehow. He paid regularly. I applied to him, and he gave me twenty-five roubles in advance, engaging me to compile an article by the end of the week. But I hoped to pick up time on my novel. I often did this when it came to the last necessity. Having got the money I set off to the market. There I soon found an old woman I knew who sold old clothes of all sorts. I gave her Elena’s size approximately, and she instantly picked me out a light-coloured cotton dress priced extremely cheaply, though it was quite strong and had not been washed more than once. While I was about it I took a neckerchief too. As I paid for them I reflected that Elena would need a coat, mantle, or something of that kind. It was cold weather and she had absolutely nothing. But I put off that purchase for another time. Elena was so proud and ready to take offence. Goodness knows, I thought, how she’ll take this dress even though I purposely picked out the most ordinary garment as plain and unattractive as possible. I did, however, buy her two pairs of thread stockings and one pair of woollen. Those I could give her on the ground that she was ill and that it was cold in the room. She would need underclothes too. But all that I left till I should get to know her better. Then I bought some old curtains for the bed. They were necessary and might be a great satisfaction to Elena.
With all these things I returned home at one o’clock in the afternoon. My key turned almost noiselessly in the lock, so that Elena did not at once hear me come in. I noticed that she was standing at the table turning over my books and papers. Hearing me she hurriedly closed the book she was reading, and moved away from the table, flushing all over. I glanced at the book. It was my first novel, which had been republished in book form and had my name on the title-page.
“Someone knocked here while you were away!” she said in a tone which seemed to taunt me for having locked her in.
“Wasn’t it the doctor?” I said. “Didn’t you call to him, Elena?”
I made no answer, but took my parcel, untied it, and took out the dress I had bought.
“Here, Elena, my dear!” I said going up to her. “You can’t go about in such rags as you’ve got on now. So I’ve bought you a dress, an everyday one, very cheap. So there’s no need for you to worry about it. It only cost one rouble twenty kopecks. Wear it with my best wishes.”
I put the dress down beside her. She flushed crimson and looked at me for some time with open eyes.
She was extremely surprised and at the same time it seemed to me that she was horribly ashamed for some reason. But there was a light of something soft and tender in her eyes. Seeing that she said nothing I turned away to the table. What I had done had evidently impressed her, but she controlled herself with an effort, and sat with her eyes cast down.
My head was going round and aching more and more. The fresh air had done me no good. Meanwhile I had to go to Natasha’s. My anxiety about her was no less than yesterday. On the contrary it kept growing more and more. Suddenly I fancied that Elena called me. I turned to her.
“Don’t lock me in when you go out,” she said, looking away and picking at the border of the sofa, as though she were entirely absorbed in doing so. “I will not go away from you.”
“Very well, Elena, I agree, But what if some stranger comes? There’s no knowing who may!”
“Then leave me the key and I’ll lock myself in and if they knock I shall say, ‘not at home.’”
And she looked slyly at me as much as to say, “See how simply that’s done!”
“Who washes your clothes?” she asked suddenly, before I had had time to answer her.
“There’s a woman here, in this house.”
“I know how to wash clothes. And where did you get the food yesterday?”
“At a restaurant.”
“I know how to cook, too. I will do your cooking.”
“That will do, Elena. What can you know about cooking? You’re talking nonsense . . . .”
Elena looked down and was silent. She was evidently wounded at my remark. Ten minutes at least passed. We were both silent.
“Soup!” she said suddenly, without raising her head.
“What about soup? What soup?” I asked, surprised.
“I can make soup. I used to make it for mother when she was ill. I used to go to market too.”
“See, Elena, just see how proud you are,” I said, going up to her and sitting down beside her on the sofa. “I treat you as my heart prompts me. You are all alone, without relations, and unhappy. I want to help you. You’d help me in the same way if I were in trouble. But you won’t look at it like that, and it’s disagreeable to you to take the smallest present from me. You want to repay it at once, to pay for it by work, as though I were Mme. Bubnov and would taunt you with it. If that is so, it’s a shame, Elena.”
She made no answer. Her lips quivered. I believe she wanted to say something; but she controlled herself and was silent. I got up to go to Natasha. That time I left Elena the key, begging her if anybody should come and knock, to call out and ask who was there. I felt perfectly sure that something dreadful was happening to Natasha, and that she was keeping it dark from me for the time, as she had done more than once before. I resolved in any case to look in only for one moment for fear of irritating her by my persistence.
And it turned out I was right. She met me again with a look of harsh displeasure. I ought to have left her at once but my legs were giving way under me.
“I’ve only come for a minute, Natasha,” I began, “to ask your advice what I’m to do with my visitor.”
And I began briefly telling her all about Elena. Natasha listened to me in silence.
“I don’t know what to advise you, Vanya,” she said. “Everything shows that she’s a very strange little creature. Perhaps she has been dreadfully ill-treated and frightened. Give her time to get well, anyway. You think of my people for her?”
“She keeps saying that she won’t go anywhere away from me. And goodness knows how they’ll take her, so I don’t know what to do. Well, tell me, dear, how you are. You didn’t seem quite well yesterday,” I said timidly.
“Yes . . . my head aches rather today, too,” she answered absent-mindedly. “Haven’t you seen any of our people?”
“No. I shall go tomorrow. To-morrow’s Saturday, you know . . . .”
“Well, what of it?”
“The prince is coming in the evening.”
“Well? I’ve not forgotten.”
“No, I only . . . .”
She stood still, exactly opposite me, and looked for a long time intently into my face. There was a look of determination, of obstinacy, in her eyes, something feverish and wrathful.
“Look here, Vanya,” she said, “be kind, go away, you worry me.”
I got up from my chair and looked at her, unutterably astonished.
“Natasha, dear, what’s the matter? What has happened?” I cried in alarm.
“Nothing’s happened. You’ll know all about it tomorrow, but now I want to be alone. Do you hear, Vanya? Go away at once. I can’t bear, I can’t bear to look at you!”
“But tell me at least . . . . ”
“You’ll know all about it tomorrow! Oh, my God! Are you going?”
I went out. I was so overcome that I hardly knew what I was doing. Mavra started out into the passage to meet me.
“What, is she angry?” she asked me. “I’m afraid to go near her.”
“But what’s the matter with her
“‘Why, our young gentleman hasn’t shown his nose here for the last three days!”
“Three days! “I repeated in amazement. “Why, she told me yesterday that he had been here in the morning and was coming again in the evening . . .”
“She did? He never came near us in the morning! I tell you we haven’t set eyes on him for three days. You don’t say she told you yesterday that he’d been in the morning?”
“Yes, she said so.”
“Well,” said Mavra, musing, “it must have cut her to the quick if she won’t own it even to you. Well, he’s a pretty one!”
“But what does it mean?” I cried.
“It means I don’t know what to do with her,” said Mavra, throwing up her hands. “She was sending me to him yesterday, but twice she turned me back as I was starting. And today she won’t even speak to me. If only you could see him. I daren’t leave her now.”
I rushed down the staircase, beside myself.
“Will you be here this evening?” Mavra called after me.
“We’ll see then,” I called up to her. “I may just run in to you to ask how she is. If only I’m alive myself.”
I really felt as though something had struck me to the very heart.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07