BUT as soon as I came in again I felt my head going round and fell down in the middle of the room. I remember nothing but Elena’s shriek. She clasped her hands and flew to support me. That is the last moment that remains in my memory. . . .
When I regained consciousness I found myself in bed. Elena told me later on that, with the help of the porter who came in with some eatables, she had carried me to the sofa.
I woke up several times, and always saw Elena’s compassionate and anxious little face leaning over me. But I remember all that as in a dream, as through a mist, and the sweet face of the poor child came to me in glimpses, through my stupor, like a vision, like a picture. She brought me something to drink, arranged my bedclothes, or sat looking at me with a distressed and frightened face, and smoothing my hair with her fingers. Once I remember her gentle kiss on my face. Another time, suddenly waking up in the night, by the light of the smouldering candle that had been set on a little table by my bedside I saw Elena lying with her face on my pillow with her warm cheek resting on her hand, and her pale lips half parted in an uneasy sleep. But it was only early next morning that I fully regained consciousness. The candle had completely burnt out. The vivid rosy beams of early sunrise were already playing on the wall. Elena was sitting at the table, asleep, with her tired little head pillowed on her left arm, and I remember I gazed a long time at her childish face, full, even in sleep, of an unchildlike sadness and a sort of strange, sickly beauty. It was pale, with long arrowy eyelashes lying on the thin cheeks, and pitch-black hair that fell thick and heavy in a careless knot on one side. Her other arm lay on my pillow. Very softly I kissed that thin little arm. But the poor child did not wake, though there was a faint glimmer of a smile on her pale lips. I went on gazing at her, and so quietly fell into a sound healing sleep. This time I slept almost till midday. When I woke up I felt almost well again. A feeling of weakness and heaviness in my limbs was the only trace left of my illness, I had had such sudden nervous attacks before; I knew them very well. The attack generally passed off within twenty-four hours, though the symptoms were acute and violent for that time.
It was nearly midday. The first thing I saw was the curtain I had bought the day before, which was hanging on a string across the corner. Elena had arranged it, screening off the corner as a separate room for herself. She was sitting before the stove boiling the kettle. Noticing that I was awake she smiled cheerfully and at once came up to me.
“My dear,” I said, taking her hand, “you’ve been looking after me all night. I didn’t know you were so kind.”
“And how do you know I’ve been looking after you? Perhaps I’ve been asleep all night,” she said, looking at me with shy and good-humoured slyness, and at the same time flushing shame-facedly at her own words.
“I woke up and saw you. You only fell asleep at day break.”
“Would you like some tea?” she interrupted, as though feeling it difficult to continue the conversation, as all delicately modest and sternly truthful people are apt to when they are praised.
“I should,” I answered, “but did you have any dinner yesterday?”
“I had no dinner but I had some supper. The porter brought it. But don’t you talk. Lie still. You’re not quite well yet,” she added, bringing me some tea and sitting down on my bed.
“Lie still, indeed! I will lie still, though, till it gets dark, and then I’m going out. I really must, Lenotchka.”
“Oh, you must, must you! Who is it you’re going to see? Not the gentleman who was here yesterday?”
“No, I’m not going to him.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not. It was he upset you yesterday. To his daughter then?”
“What do you know about his daughter?
“I heard all you said yesterday,” she answered, looking down. Her face clouded over. She frowned.
“He’s a horrid old man,” she added.
“You know nothing about him. On the contrary, he’s a very kind man.”
“No, no, he’s wicked. I heard,” she said with conviction.
“Why, what did you hear?”
“He won’t forgive his daughter . . . ”
“But he loves her. She has behaved badly to him; and he is anxious and worried about her.”
“Why doesn’t he forgive her? If he does forgive her now she shouldn’t go back to him.”
“How so? Why not?”
“Because he doesn’t deserve that she should love him,” she answered hotly. “Let her leave him for ever and let her go begging, and let him see his daughter begging, and be miserable.”
Her eyes flashed and her cheeks glowed. “There must be something behind her words,” I thought.
“Was it to his home you meant to send me?” she added after a pause.
“No. I’d better get a place as a servant.”
“Ah, how wrong is all that you’re saying, Lenotchka! And what nonsense! Who would take you as a servant?”
“Any peasant,” she answered impatiently, looking more and more downcast.
She was evidently hot-tempered.
“A peasant doesn’t want a girl like you to work for him,” I said, laughing.
“Well, a gentleman’s family, then.”
“You live in a gentleman’s family, with your temper?”
The more irritated she became, the more abrupt were her answers
“But you’d never stand it.”
“Yes I would. They’d scold me, but I’d say nothing on purpose. They’d beat me, but I wouldn’t speak, I wouldn’t speak. Let them beat me — I wouldn’t cry for anything. That would annoy them even more if I didn’t cry.”
“Really, Elena! What bitterness, and how proud you are! You must have seen a lot of trouble . . . .”
I got up and went to my big table. Elena remained on the sofa, looking dreamily at the floor and picking at the edge of the sofa. She did not speak. I wondered whether she were angry at what I had said.
Standing by the table I mechanically opened the books I had brought the day before, for the compilation, and by degrees I became absorbed in them. It often happens to me that I go and open a book to look up something, and go on reading so that I forget everything.
“What are you always writing?” Elena asked with a timid smile, coming quietly to the table.
“All sorts of things, Lenotchka. They give me money for it.”
“No, not petitions.”
And I explained to her as far as I could that I wrote all sorts of stories about different people, and that out of them were made books that are called novels. She listened with great curiosity.
“Is it all true — what you write?”
“No, I make it up.”
“Why do you write what isn’t true?”
“Why, here, read it. You see this book; you’ve looked at it already. You can read, can’t you?”
“Well, you’ll see then. I wrote this book.”
“You? I’ll read it . . . . ”
She was evidently longing to say something, but found it difficult, and was in great excitement. Something lay hidden under her questions.
“And are you paid much for this?” she asked at last.
“It’s as it happens. Sometimes a lot, sometimes nothing, because the work doesn’t come off. It’s difficult work, Lenotchka.”
“Then you’re not rich?”
“No, not rich.”
“Then I shall work and help you.”
She glanced at me quickly, flushed, dropped her eyes, and taking two steps towards me suddenly threw her arms round me, and pressed her face tightly against my breast; I looked at her with amazement.
“I love you . . . I’m not proud,” she said. “You said I was proud yesterday. No, no, I’m not like that. I love you. You are the only person who cares for me . . . .”
But her tears choked her. A minute later they burst out with as much violence as the day before. She fell on her knees before me, kissed my hands, my feet. . . .
“You care for me!” she repeated. “You’re the only one, the only one.”
She embraced my knees convulsively. All the feeling which she had repressed for so long broke out at once, in an uncon-. trollable outburst, and I understood the strange stubbornness of a heart that for a while shrinkingly masked its feeling, the more harshly, the more stubbornly as the need for expression and utterance grew stronger, till the inevitable outburst came, when the whole being forgot itself and gave itself up to the craving for love, to gratitude, to affection and to tears. She sobbed till she became hysterical. With an effort I loosened her arms, lifted her up and carried her to the sofa. For a long time she went on sobbing, hiding her face in the pillow as though ashamed to look at me. But she held my hand tight, and kept it pressed to her heart.
By degrees she grew calmer, but still did not raise her face to me. Twice her eyes flitted over my face, and there was a great softness and a sort of timorous and shrinking emotion in them.
At last she flushed and smiled.
“Are you better?” I asked, “my sensitive little Lenotchka, my sick little child!”
“Not Lenotchka, no . . . ” she whispered, still hiding her face from me.
“Not Lenotchka? What then?”
“Nellie? Why must it be Nellie? If you like; it’s a very pretty name. I’ll call you so if that’s what you wish.”
“That’s what mother called me. And no one else ever called me that, no one but she. . . . And I would not have anyone call me so but mother. But you call me so. I want you to. I will always love you, always.”
“A loving and proud little heart,” I thought. “And how long it has taken me to win the right to call you Nellie!”
But now I knew her heart was gained for ever.
“Nellie, listen,” I said, as soon as she was calmer. “You say that no one has ever loved you but your mother. Is it true your grandfather didn’t love you?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Yet you cried for him; do you remember, here, on the stairs?”
For a minute she did not speak.
“No, he didn’t love me. . . . He was wicked.”
A look of pain came into her face.
“But we mustn’t judge him too harshly, Nellie, I think he had grown quite childish with age. He seemed out of his mind when he died. I told you how he died.”
“Yes. But he had only begun to be quite forgetful in the last month. He would sit here all day long, and if I didn’t come to him he would sit on for two or three days without eating or drinking. He used to be much better before.”
“What do you mean by ‘before’?”
“Before mother died.”
“Then it was you brought him food and drink, Nellie?”
“Yes, I used to.”
“Where did you get it? From Mme. Bubnov?”
“No, I never took anything from Bubnov,” she said emphatically, with a shaking voice.
“Where did you get it? You had nothing, had you?”
Nellie turned fearfully pale and said nothing; she bent a long, long look upon me.
“I used to beg in the streets. . . . When I had five kopecks I used to buy him bread and snuff . . . .”
“And he let you! Nellie! Nellie!”
“At first I did it without telling him, But when he found out he used to send me out himself. I used to stand on the bridge and beg of passers-by, and he used to walk up and down near the bridge, and when he saw me given anything he used to rush at me and take the money, as though I wanted to hide it from him, and were not getting it for him.”
As she said this she smiled a sarcastic, bitter smile.
“That was all when mother was dead,” she added. “Then he seemed to have gone quite out of his mind.”
“So he must have loved your mother very much. How was it he didn’t live with her?
“No, he didn’t love her. . . . He was wicked and didn’t forgive her . . . like that wicked old man yesterday,” she said quietly, almost in a whisper, and grew paler and paler.
I started. The plot of a whole drama seemed to flash before my eyes. That poor woman dying in a cellar at the coffin-maker’s, her orphan child who visited from time to time the old grandfather who had cursed her mother, the queer crazy old fellow who had been dying in the confectioner’s shop after his dog’s death.
“And Azorka used to be mother’s dog,” said Nellie suddenly, smiling at some reminiscence. “Grandfather used to be very fond of mother once, and when mother went away from him she left Azorka behind. And that’s why he was so fond of Azorka. He didn’t forgive mother, but when the dog died he died too,” Nellie added harshly, and the smile vanished from her face.
“What was he in old days, Nellie?” I asked her after a brief pause.
“He used to be rich. . . . I don’t know what he was,” she answered. “He had some sort of factory. So mother told me. At first she used to think I was too little and didn’t tell me everything. She used to kiss me and say, ‘You’ll know everything, the time will come when you’ll know everything, poor, unhappy child!’ She was always calling me poor and unhappy. And sometimes at night when she thought I was asleep (though I was only pretending to be asleep on purpose) she used to be always crying over me, she would kiss me and say ‘poor, unhappy child’!”
“What did your mother die of?”
“Of consumption; it’s six weeks ago.”
“And you do remember the time when your grandfather was rich?”
“But I wasn’t born then. Mother went away from grandfather before I was born.”
“With whom did she go?
“I don’t know,” said Nellie softly, as though hesitating. “She went abroad and I was born there.”
“In Switzerland. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been in Italy and in Paris too.”
I was surprised.
“And do you remember it all, Nellie?”
“I remember a great deal.”
“How is it you know Russian so well, Nellie?
“Mother used to teach me Russian even then. She was Russian because her mother was Russian. But grandfather was English, but he was just like a Russian too. And when we came to Russia a year and a half ago I learnt it thoroughly. Mother was ill even then. Then we got poorer and poorer. Mother was always crying. At first she was a long time looking for grandfather here in Petersburg, and always crying and saying that she had behaved badly to him. How she used to cry! And when she knew grandfather was poor she cried more than ever. She often wrote letters to him, and he never answered.”
“Why did your mother come back here? Was it only to see her father?”
“I don’t know. But there we were so happy.” And Nellie’s eyes sparkled. “Mother used to live alone, with me. She had one friend, a kind man like you. He used to know her before she went away. But he died out there and mother came back . . .”
“So it was with him that your mother went away from your grandfather?”
“No, not with him. Mother went away with someone else, and he left her . . .”
“Who was he, Nellie?”
Nellie glanced at me and said nothing. She evidently knew the name of the man with whom her mother had gone away and who was probably her father. It was painful to her to speak that name even to me.
I did not want to worry her with questions. Hers was a strange character, nervous and fiery, though she suppressed her impulses, lovable, though she entrenched herself behind a barrier of pride and reserve. Although she loved me with her whole heart, with the most candid and ingenuous love, almost as she had loved the dead mother of whom she could not speak without pain, yet all the while I knew her she was rarely open with me, and except on that day she rarely felt moved to speak to me of her past; on the contrary, she was, as it were, austerely reserved with me, but on that day through convulsive sobs of misery that interrupted her story, she told me in the course of several hours all that most distressed and tortured her in her memories, and I shall never forget that terrible story, but the greater part of it will be told later. . . .
It was a fearful story. It was the story of a woman abandoned and living on after the wreck of her happiness, sick, worn out and forsaken by everyone, rejected by the last creature to whom she could look — her father, once wronged by her and crazed by intolerable sufferings and humiliations. It was the story of a woman driven to despair, wandering through the cold, filthy streets of Petersburg, begging alms with the little girl whom she regarded as a baby; of a woman who lay dying for months in a damp cellar, while her father, refusing to forgive her to the last moment of her life, and only at the last moment relenting, hastened to forgive her only to find a cold corpse instead of the woman he loved above everything on earth.
It was a strange story of the mysterious, hardly comprehensible relations of the crazy old man with the little grandchild who already understood him, who already, child as she was, understood many things that some men do not attain to in long years of their smooth and carefully guarded lives. It was a gloomy story, one of those gloomy and distressing dramas which are so often played out unseen, almost mysterious, under the heavy sky of Petersburg, in the dark secret corners of the vast town, in the midst of the giddy ferment of life, of dull egoism, of clashing interests, of gloomy vice and secret crimes, in that lowest hell of senseless and abnormal life. . . .
But that story will be told later. . . .
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07