IT was on that day that I was the whole evening at Natasha’s I arrived home late. Nellie was asleep. Alexandra Semyonovna was sleepy too, but she was still sitting up with the invalid waiting for me to come in. At once in a hurried whisper she began to tell me that Nellie had at first been in very good spirits, even laughing a great deal, but afterwards she was depressed and, as I did not come back, grew silent and thoughtful. “Then she began complaining that her head ached, began to cry, and sobbed so that I really didn’t know what to do with her,” Alexandra Semyonovna added. “She began talking to me about Natalya Nikolaevna, but I could not tell her anything. She left off questioning me but went on crying afterwards, so that she fell asleep in tears. Well, good-bye, Ivan Petrovitch. She’s better anyway, I can see that, and I must go home. Filip Filippovitch told me to. I must confess that this time he only let me come for two hours but I stayed on of myself. But never mind, don’t worry about me. He doesn’t dare to be angry. . . . Only perhaps. . . . Ach, my goodness, Ivan Petrovitch, darling, what am I to do? He always comes home tipsy now! He’s very busy over something, he doesn’t talk to me, he’s worried, he’s got some important business in his mind; I can see that; but yet he is drunk every evening. . . . What I’m thinking is, if he has come home, who will put him to bed? Well, I’m going, I’m going, good-bye. Good-bye Ivan Petrovitch. I’ve been looking at your books here. What a lot of books you’ve got, and they must all be clever. And I’m such a fool I’ve never read anything . . . Well, till tomorrow . . . ”
But next morning Nellie woke up depressed and sullen, and answered me unwillingly. She did not speak to me of her own accord, but seemed to be angry with me. Yet I noticed some looks bent upon me stealthily, as it were, on the sly; in those looks there was so much concealed and heart-felt pain, yet there was in them an unmistakable tenderness which was not apparent when she looked at me directly. It was on that day that the scene over the medicine took place with the doctor. I did not know what to think.
But Nellie was entirely changed to me. Her strange ways, her caprices, at times almost hatred for me, continued up to the day when she ceased to live with me, till the catastrophe which was the end of our romance, But of that later.
It happened, however, sometimes that she would be for an hour as affectionate to me as at first. Her tenderness was redoubled at such moments; most often at such times she wept bitterly. But these hours soon passed and she sank back into the same misery as before, and looked at me with hostility again or was as capricious as she had been with the doctor, or suddenly noticing that I did not like some new naughtiness on her part, she would begin laughing, and almost always end in tears.
She once quarrelled even with Alexandra Semyonovna, and told her that she wanted nothing from her. When I began to scold her in Alexandra Semyonovna’s presence she grew angry, answered with an outburst of accumulated spite, but suddenly relapsed into silence and did not say another word to me for two days, would not take one of her medicines, was unwilling even to eat and drink and no one but the old doctor was able to bring her round and make her ashamed.
I have mentioned already that from the day of the scene over the medicine a surprising affection had sprung up between the doctor and her. Nellie was very fond of him and always greeted him with a good-humoured smile however sad she had been before he came. For his part the old man began coming to us every day and sometimes even twice a day even when Nellie had begun to get up and had quite recovered, and she seemed to have so bewitched him that he could not spend a day without hearing her laugh and make fun of him, sometimes very amusingly. He began bringing her picture-books, always of an edifying character. One of them he bought on purpose for her. Then he began bringing her dainties, sweetmeats in pretty boxes. On such occasions he would come in with an air of triumph, as though it were his birthday, and Nellie guessed at once that he had come with a present. But he did not display the presents, but only laughed slyly, seated himself beside Nellie, hinting that if a certain young lady knew how to behave herself and had been deserving of commendation in his absence the young lady in question would merit a handsome reward. And all the while he looked at her so simply and good-naturedly that though Nellie laughed at him in the frankest way, at the same time there was a glow of sincere and affectionate devotion in her beaming eyes at that moment. At last the old man solemnly got up from his chair, took out a box of sweets and as he handed it to Nellie invariably added: “To my future amiable spouse.” At that moment he was certainly even happier than Nellie.
Then they began to talk, and every time he earnestly and persuasively exhorted her to take care of her health and gave her impressive medical advice.
“Above all one must preserve one’s health,” he declared dogmatically, “firstly and chiefly in order to remain alive, and secondly in order to be always healthy and so to attain happiness in life. If you have any sorrows, my dear child, forget them, and best of all try not to think of them. If you have no sorrows . . . well, then too, don’t think about them, but try to think only of pleasant things . . . of something cheerful and amusing.”
“And what shall I think of that’s cheerful and amusing? Nellie would ask.
The doctor was at once nonplussed.
“Well . . .of some innocent game appropriate to your age or, well . . . something of that . . .”
“I don’t want to play games, I don’t like games,” said Nellie. “I like new dresses better.”
“New dresses! Hm! Well, that’s not so good. We should in all things be content with a modest lot in life. However . . . maybe . . . there’s no harm in being fond of new dresses.”
“And will you give me a lot of dresses when I’m married to you?
“What an idea!” said the doctor and he could not help frowning. Nellie smiled slyly and, even forgetting herself for a minute, glanced at me.
“However, I’ll give you a dress if you deserve it by your conduct,” the doctor went on.
“And must I take my medicine every day when I’m married to you?”
“Well, then, perhaps you may not have to take medicine always.”
And the doctor began to smile.
Nellie interrupted the conversation by laughing. The old man laughed with her, and watched her merriment affectionately.
“A playful sportive mind!” he observed, turning to me. “But still one can see signs of caprice and a certain whimsicalness and irritability.”
He was right. I could not make out what was happening to her. She seemed utterly unwilling to speak to me, as though I had treated her badly in some way. This was very bitter to me. I frowned myself, and once I did not speak to her for a whole day, but next day I felt ashamed. She was often crying and I hadn’t a notion how to comfort her. On one occasion, however, she broke her silence with me.
One afternoon I returned home just before dusk and saw Nellie hurriedly hide a book under the pillow. It was my novel which she had taken from the table and was reading in my absence. What need had she to hide it from me?” just as though she were ashamed,” I thought, but I showed no sign of having noticed anything. A quarter of an hour later when I went out for a minute into the kitchen she quickly jumped out of bed and put the novel back where it had been before; when I came back I saw it lying on the table. A minute later she called me to her; there was a ring of some emotion in her voice. For the last four days she had hardly spoken to me.
“Are you . . . today . . . going to see Natasha?” she asked me in a breaking voice,
“Yes, Nellie. It’s very necessary for me to see her today.” Nellie did not speak.
“You . . . are very . . . fond of her?” she asked again, in a faint voice.
“Yes, Nellie, I’m very fond of her.”
“I love her too,” she added softly.
A silence followed again.
“I want to go to her and to live with her,” Nellie began again, looking at me timidly.
“That’s impossible, Nellie,” I answered, looking at her with some surprise. “Are you so badly off with me?”
“Why is it impossible?” And she flushed crimson. “Why, you were persuading me to go and live with her father; I don’t want to go there. Has she a servant?
“Well, let her send her servant away, and I’ll be her servant. I’ll do everything for her and not take any wages. I’ll love her, and do her cooking. You tell her so today.”
“But what for? What a notion, Nellie! And what an idea you must have of her; do you suppose she would take you as a cook? If she did take you she would take you as an equal, as her younger sister.”
“No, I don’t want to be an equal. I don’t want it like that . . .”
Nellie was silent. Her lips were twitching. She was on the point of crying.
“The man she loves now is going away from her and leaving her alone now?” she asked at last.
I was surprised.
“Why, how do you know, Nellie?”
“You told me all about it yourself; and the day before yesterday when Alexandra Semyonovna’s husband came in the morning I asked him; he told me everything.”
“Why, did Masloboev come in the morning?”
“Yes,” she answered, dropping her eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell me he’d been here?”
“I don’t know . . . ”
I reflected for a moment. “Goodness only knows why Masloboev is turning up with his mysteriousness. What sort of terms has he got on to with her? I ought to see him,” I thought.
“Well, what is it to you, Nellie, if he does desert her?”
“Why, you love her so much,” said Nellie, not lifting her eyes to me. “And if you love her you’ll marry her when he goes away.”
“No, Nellie, she doesn’t love me as I love her, and I . . . no, that won’t happen, Nellie.”
“And I would work for you both as your servant and you’d live and be happy,” she said, almost in a whisper, not looking at me.
“What’s the matter with her? What’s the matter with her?” I thought, and I had a disturbing pang at my heart. Nellie was silent and she didn’t say another word all the evening. When I went out she had been crying, and cried the whole evening, as Alexandra Semyonovna told me, and so fell asleep, crying. She even cried and kept saying something at night in her sleep.
But from that day she became even more sullen and silent, and didn’t speak to me at all. It is true I caught two or three glances stolen at me on the sly, and there was such tenderness in those glances. But this passed, together with the moment that called forth that sudden tenderness, and as though in opposition to this impulse Nellie grew every hour more gloomy even with the doctor, who was amazed at the change in her character. Meanwhile she had almost completely recovered, and the doctor, at last allowed her to go for a walk in the open air, but only for a very short time. It was settled weather, warm and bright. It was Passion Week, which fell that year very late; I went out in the morning; I was obliged to be at Natasha’s and I intended to return earlier in order to take Nellie out for a walk. Meantime I left her alone at home.
I cannot describe what a blow was awaiting me at home. I hurried back. When I arrived I saw that the key was sticking in the outside of the lock. I went in. There was no one there. I was numb with horror. I looked, and on the table was a piece of paper, and written in pencil in a big, uneven handwriting:
“I have gone away, and I shall never come back to you. But I love you very much. —— Your faithful Nellie.”
I uttered a cry of horror and rushed out of the flat.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07