IT was the beginning of June. The day was hot and stifling; it was impossible to remain in town, where all was dust, plaster, scaffolding, burning pavements, and tainted atmosphere . . . But now! Oh joy!-there was the rumble of thunder in the distance; there came a breath of wind driving clouds of town dust before it. A few big raindrops fell on the ground, and then the whole sky seemed to open and torrents of water streamed upon the town. When, half an hour later, the sun came out again I opened my garret window and greedily drew the fresh air into my exhausted lungs. In my exhilaration I felt ready to throw up my writing, my work, and my publisher, and to rush off to my friends at Vassilyevsky Island. But great as the temptation was, I succeeded in mastering myself and fell upon my work again with a sort of fury. At all costs I had to finish it. My publisher had demanded it and would not pay me without. I was expected there, but, on the other hand, by the evening I should be free, absolutely free as the wind, and that evening would make up to me for the last two days and nights, during which I had written three and a half signatures.
And now at last the work was finished. I threw down my pen and got up, with a pain in my chest and my back and a heaviness in my head. I knew that at that moment my nerves were strained to the utmost pitch, and I seemed to hear the last words my old doctor had said to me.
“No, no health could stand such a strain, because it’s impossible.”
So far, however, it had been possible! My head was going round, I could scarcely stand upright, but my heart was filled with joy, infinite joy. My novel was finished and, although I owed my publisher a great deal, he would certainly give me something when he found the prize in his hands — if only fifty roubles, and it was ages since I had had so much as that. Freedom and money! I snatched up my hat in delight, and with my manuscript under my arm I ran at full speed to find our precious Alexandr Petrovitch at home.
I found him, but he was on the point of going out. He, too, had just completed a very profitable stroke of business, though not a literary one, and as he was at last escorting to the door a swarthy-faced Jew with whom he had been sitting for the last two hours in his study, he shook hands with me affably, and in his soft pleasant bass inquired after my health. He was a very kind-hearted man, and, joking apart, I was deeply indebted to him. Was it his fault that he was all his life only a publisher? He quite understood that literature needs Publishers, and understood it very opportunely, all honour and glory to him for it!
With an agreeable smile he heard that the novel was finished and that therefore the next number of his journal was safe as far as its principal item was concerned, and wondered how I could ever end anything and made a very amiable joke on the subject. Then he went to his iron strong-box to get me the fifty roubles he had promised me, and in the meantime held out to me another thick, hostile journal and pointed to a few lines in the critical column, where there were a few words about my last novel.
I looked: it was an article by “Copyist.” He neither directly abused me nor praised me, and I was very glad. But “Copyist” said among other things that my works generally “smelt of sweat”; that is, that I so sweated and struggled over them, so worked them up and worked them over, that the result was mawkish.
The publisher and I laughed. I informed him that my last story had been written in two nights, and that I had now written three and a half signatures in two days and two nights, and if only “Copyist,” who blamed me for the excessive laboriousness and solid deliberation of my work, knew that!
“It’s your own fault though, Ivan Petrovitch,” said he. “Why do you get so behindhand with your work that you have to sit up at night?”
Alexandr Petrovitch is a most charming person, of course, though he has one particular weakness — that is, boasting of his literary judgement, especially before those whom he suspects of knowing him through and through. But I had no desire to discuss literature with him; I took the money and picked up my hat. Alexandr Petrovitch was going to his villa on the Island, and hearing that I, too, was bound for Vassilyevsky, he amiably offered to take me in his carriage.
“I’ve got a new carriage,” he said, “you’ve not seen it. It’s very nice.”
We set off. The carriage was certainly delightful, and in the early days of his possession of it Alexandr Petrovitch took particular pleasure in driving his friends in it and even felt a spiritual craving to do so.
In the carriage Alexandr Petrovitch several times fell to criticizing contemporary literature again. He was quite at his ease with me, and calmly enunciated various second-hand opinions which he had heard a day or two before from literary people whom he believed in and whose ideas he respected. This led him sometimes to repeat very extraordinary notions. It sometimes happened, too, that he got an idea wrong or misapplied it, so that he made nonsense of it. I sat listening in silence, marvelling at the versatility and whimsicality of the passions of mankind. “Here’s a man,” I thought to myself, “who might make money and has made it; but no, he must have fame too, literary fame, the fame of a leading publisher, a critic!”
At the actual moment he was trying to expound minutely a literary theory which he had heard three days before from me myself, which he had argued against then, though now he was giving it out as his own. But such forgetfulness is a frequent phenomenon in Alexandr Petrovitch, and he is famous for this innocent weakness among all who know him. How happy he was then, holding forth in his own carriage, how satisfied with his lot, how benign! He was maintaining a highly cultured, literary conversation, even his soft, decorous bass had the note of culture. Little by little he drifted into liberalism, and then passed to the mildly sceptical proposition that no honesty or modesty was possible in our literature, or indeed in any other, that there could be nothing but “slashing at one another,” especially where the system of signed articles was prevalent. I reflected to myself that Alexandr Petrovitch was inclined to regard every honest and sincere writer as a simpleton, if not a fool, on account of his very sincerity and honesty. No doubt such an opinion was the direct result of his extreme guilelessness.
But I had left off listening to him. When we reached Vassilyevsky Island he let me get out of the carriage, and I ran to my friends. Now I had reached Thirteenth Street; here was their little house. Seeing me Anna Andreyevna shook her finger at me, waved her hand, and said “Ssh!” to me, to be quiet.
“Nellie’s only just fallen asleep, poor little thing!” she whispered to me hurriedly. “For mercy’s sake, don’t wake her! But she’s very worn, poor darling! We’re very anxious about her. The doctor says it’s nothing for the time, One can get nothing out of your doctor. And isn’t it a shame of you, Ivan Petrovitch! We’ve been expecting you! We expected you to dinner. . . . You’ve not been here for two days!”
“But I told you the day before yesterday that I shouldn’t be here for two days,” I whispered to Anna Andreyevna. “I had to finish my work . . . ”
“But you know you promised to be here to dinner today! Why didn’t you come? Nellie got up on purpose, the little angel! — and we put her in the easy-chair, and carried her in to dinner. ‘I want to wait for Vanya with you,’ she said; but our Vanya never came. Why, it’ll soon be six o’clock! Where have you been gadding, you sinner? She was so upset that I didn’t know how to appease her. . . . Happily, she’s gone to sleep, poor darling. And here’s Nikolay Sergeyitch gone to town, too (he’ll be back to tea). I’m fretting all alone. . . . A post has turned up for him, Ivan Petrovitch; only when I think it’s in Perm it sends a cold chill to my heart . . . ”
“And where’s Natasha?”
“In the garden, the darling! Go to her. . . . There’s something wrong with her, too. . . . I can’t make her out. . . . Oh, Ivan Petrovitch, my heart’s very heavy! She declares she’s cheerful and content, but I don’t believe her. Go to her, Vanya, and tell me quietly what’s the matter with her. . . . Do you hear?”
But I was no longer listening to Anna Andreyevna. I was running to the garden. The little garden belonged to the house. It was twenty-five paces long and as much in breadth, and it was all overgrown with green. There were three old spreading trees, a few young birch-trees, a few bushes of lilac and of honeysuckle; there was a patch of raspberries in the corner, two beds of strawberries, and two narrow, winding paths crossing the garden both ways. The old man declared with delight that it would soon grow mushrooms. The great thing was that Nellie was fond of the garden and she was often carried out in the easy-chair on to the garden path. Nellie was by now the idol of the house.
But now I came upon Natasha. She met me joyfully, holding out her hands. How thin she was, how pale! She, too, had only just recovered from an illness.
“Have you quite finished, Vanya?” she asked me.
“Quite, quite! And I am free for the whole evening.”
“Well, thank God! Did you hurry? Have you spoilt it?”
“What could I do? It’s all right, though. My nerves get strung up to a peculiar tension by working at such a strain; I imagine more clearly, I feel more vividly and deeply, and even my style is more under my control, so that work done under pressure always turns out better. It’s all right. . .”
“Ah, Vanya, Vanya! . . .”
I had noticed that of late Natasha had been keeping a jealous and devoted watch over my literary success and reputation. She read over everything I had published in the last year, was constantly asking me about my plans for the future, was interested in every criticism, was angry at some; and was desperately anxious that I should take a high place in the literary world. Her desire was expressed so strongly and insistently that I was positively astonished at her feeling.
“You’ll simply write yourself out, Vanya,” she said to me. “You’re overstraining yourself, and you’ll write yourself out; and what’s more, you’re ruining your health. S. now only writes a novel a year, and N. has only written one novel in ten years. See how polished, how finished, their work is. You won’t find one oversight.”
“Yes, but they are prosperous and don’t write up to time; while I’m a hack. But that’s no matter! Let’s drop that, my dear. Well, is there no news?”
“A great deal. In the first place a letter from him.”
And she gave me a letter from Alyosha. It was the third she had had since their separation. The first was written from Moscow, and seemed to be written in a kind of frenzy. He informed her that things had turned out so that it was impossible for him to come from Moscow to Petersburg, as they had planned at parting. In the second letter he announced that he was coming to us in a few days to hasten his marriage to Natasha, that this was settled and that nothing could prevent it. And yet it was clear from the whole tone of the letter that he was in despair, that outside influences were weighing heavily upon him, and that he did not believe what he said. He mentioned among other things that Katya was his Providence and she was his only support and comfort. I eagerly opened this third letter.
It covered two sheets of paper and was written disconnectedly and untidily in a hurried, illegible scrawl, smudged with ink and tears. It began with Alyosha’s renouncing Natasha, and begging her to forget him. He attempted to show that their marriage was impossible, that outside, hostile influences were stronger than anything, and that, in fact, it must be so; and that Natasha and he would be unhappy together because they were not equals. But he could not keep it up, and suddenly abandoning his arguments and reasoning, without tearing up or discarding the first half of his letter, he confessed that he had behaved criminally to Natasha, that he was a lost soul, and was incapable of standing out against his father, who had come down to the country. He wrote that he could not express his anguish, admitted among other things that he felt confident he could make Natasha happy, began to prove that they were absolutely equals and obstinately and angrily refuted his father’s arguments; he drew a despairing picture of the blissful existence that might have been in store for them both, himself and Natasha, if they had married; cursed himself for his cowardice, and said farewell for ever! The letter had been written in distress; he had evidently been beside himself when he wrote. Tears started to my eyes. Natasha handed me another letter, from Katya. This letter had come in the same envelope as Alyosha’s, though it was sealed up separately. Somewhat briefly in a few lines, Katya informed Natasha that Alyosha really was much depressed, that he cried a great deal and seemed in despair, was even rather unwell, but that she was with him and that he would be happy. Among other things, Katya endeavoured to persuade Natasha not to believe that Alyosha could be so quickly comforted and that his grief was not serious. “He will never forget you,” added Katya; “indeed, he never can forget you, for his heart is not like that. He loves you immeasurably; he will always love you, so that if he ever ceased to love you, if he ever left off grieving at the thought of you, I should cease to love him for that, at once . . . .”
I gave both letters back to Natasha; we looked at one another and said nothing; it had been the same with the other two letters; and in general we avoided talking of the past, as though this had been agreed upon between us. She was suffering intolerably, I saw that, but she did not want to express it even before me. After her return to her father’s house she had been in bed for three weeks with a feverish attack, and was only just getting over it. We did not talk much either of the change in store for us, though she knew her father had obtained a situation and that we soon had to part. In spite of that she was so tender to me all that time, so attentive, and took such interest in all that I was doing; she listened with such persistence, such obstinate attention, to all I had to tell her about myself that at first it rather weighed upon me; it seemed to me that she was trying to make up to me for the past. But this feeling soon passed off. I realized that she wanted something quite different, that it was simply that she loved me, loved me immensely, could not live without me and without being interested in everything that concerned me; and I believed that no sister ever loved a brother as Natasha loved me. I knew quite well that our approaching separation was a load on her heart, that Natasha was miserable; she knew, too, that I could not live without her; but of that we said nothing, though we did talk in detail of the events before us.
I asked after Nikolay Sergeyitch.
“I believe he’ll soon be back,” said Natasha; “he promised to be in to tea.”
“He’s still trying to get that job?”
“Yes; but there’s no doubt about the job now; and I don’t think there’s really any reason for him to go today,” she added, musing. “He might have gone tomorrow.”
“Why did he go, then?”
“Because I got a letter. . . . He’s so ill over me,” Natasha added, “that it’s really painful to me, Vanya. He seems to dream of nothing but me. I believe that he never thinks of anything except how I’m getting on, how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking. Every anxiety I have raises an echo in his heart. I see how awkwardly he sometimes tries to control himself, and to make a pretence of not grieving about me, how he affects to be cheerful, tries to laugh and amuse us. Mother is not herself either at such moments and doesn’t believe in his laugh either, and sighs. . . . She’s so awkward . . . an upright soul.” she added with a laugh. “So when I got a letter today he had to run off at once to avoid meeting my eyes. I love him more than myself, more than anyone in the world, Vanya,” she added, dropping her head and pressing my hand, “even more than you . . . ”
We had walked twice up and down the garden before she began to speak.
“Masloboev was here today, and yesterday too,” she said.
“Yes, he has been to see you very often lately.”
“And do you know why he comes here? Mother believes in him beyond everything. She thinks he understands all this sort of thing so well (the laws and all that), that he can arrange anything. You could never imagine what an idea is brewing in mother! In her heart of hearts she is very sore and sad that I haven’t become a princess. That idea gives her no peace, and I believe she has opened her heart to Masloboev. She is afraid to speak to father about it and wonders whether Masloboev couldn’t do something for her, whether nothing could be done through the law. I fancy Masloboev doesn’t contradict her, and she regales him with wine,” Natasha added with a laugh.
“That’s enough for the rogue! But how do you know?”
“Why, mother has let it out to me herself . . . in hints.”
“What about Nellie? How is she?” I asked.
“I wonder at you, Vanya. You haven’t asked about her till now,” said Natasha reproachfully.
Nellie was the idol of the whole household. Natasha had become tremendously fond of her, and Nellie was absolutely devoted to her. Poor, child! She had never expected to find such friends, to win such love, and I saw with joy that her embittered little heart was softening and her soul was opening to us all. She responded with painful and feverish eagerness to the love with which she was surrounded in such contrast to all her past, which had developed mistrust, resentment, and obstinacy. Though even now Nellie held out for a long time; for a long time she intentionally concealed from us her tears of reconciliation, and only at last surrendered completely. She grew very fond of Natasha, and later on of Nikolay Sergeyitch. I had become so necessary to her that she grew worse when I stayed away. When last time I parted from her for two days in order to finish my novel I had much ado to soothe her . . . indirectly, of course. Nellie was still ashamed to express her feelings too openly, too unrestrainedly.
She made us all very uneasy. Without any discussion it was tacitly settled that she should remain for ever in Nikolay Sergeyitch’s family; and meantime the day of departure was drawing nearer, and she was getting worse and worse. She had been ill from the day when I took her to Nikolay Sergeyitch’s, the day of his reconciliation with Natasha, though, indeed, she had always been ill. The disease had been gradually gaining ground before, but now it grew worse with extraordinary rapidity. I don’t understand and can’t exactly explain her complaint. Her fits, it is true, did occur somewhat more frequently than before, but the most serious symptom was a sort of exhaustion and failure of strength, a perpetual state of fever and nervous exhaustion, which had been so bad of late that she had been obliged to stay in bed. And, strange to say, the more the disease gained upon her, the softer, sweeter and more open she became with us. Three days before, as I passed her bedside, she held out her hand to me and drew me to her. There was no one in the room. She had grown terribly thin, her face was flushed, her eyes burned with a glow of fever. She pressed me to her convulsively, and when I bent down to her she clasped me tightly round the neck with her dark-skinned little arms, and kissed me warmly, and then at once she asked for Natasha to come to her. I called her; Nellie insisted on Natasha sitting down on the bed, and gazed at her . . .
“I want to look at you,” she said. “I dreamed of you last night and I shall dream of you again to-night . . . I often dream of you . . . every night . . . ”
She evidently wanted to say something; she was overcome by feeling, but she did not understand her own feelings and could not express them . . .
She loved Nikolay Sergeyitch almost more than anyone except me. It must be said that Nikolay Sergeyitch loved her almost as much as Natasha. He had a wonderful faculty for cheering and amusing Nellie. As soon as he came near her there were sounds of laughter and even mischief. The sick girl was as playful as a little child, coquetted with the old man, laughed at him, told him her dreams, always had some new invention and made him tell her stories, too; and the old man was so pleased, so happy, looking at his “little daughter, Nellie,” that he was more and more delighted with her every day.
“God has sent her to us to make up to us all for our suffering,” he said to me once as he left Nellie at night, after making the sign of the cross over her as usual.
In the evenings, when we were all together (Masloboev was there too, almost every evening), our old doctor often dropped in. He had become warmly attached to the Ichmenyevs. Nellie was carried up to the round table in her easy-chair. The door was opened on to the veranda. We had a full view of the green garden in the light of the setting sun, and from it came the fragrance of the fresh leaves and the opening lilac. Nellie sat in her easy-chair, watching us all affectionately and listening to our talk; sometimes she grew more animated, and gradually joined in the conversation, too. But at such moments we all usually listened to her with uneasiness, because in her reminiscences there were subjects we did not want touched upon. Natasha and I and the Ichmenyevs all felt guilty and recognized the wrong we had done her that day when, tortured and quivering, she had been forced to tell us all her story. The doctor was particularly opposed to these reminiscences and usually tried to change the conversation. At such times Nellie tried to seem as though she did not notice our efforts, and would begin laughing with the doctor or with Nikolay Sergeyitch.
And yet she grew worse and worse. We became extraordinarily impressionable. Her heart was beating irregularly. The doctor told me, indeed, that she might easily die at any moment.
I did not tell the Ichmenyevs this for fear of distressing them, Nikolay Sergeyitch was quite sure that she would recover in time for the journey.
“There’s father come in,” said Natasha, hearing his voice. “Let us go, Vanya.”
Nikolay Sergeyitch, as usual, began talking loudly as soon as he had crossed the threshold. Anna Andreyevna was gesticulating at him. The old man subsided at once and, seeing Natasha and me, began with a hurried air telling us in a whisper of the result of his expedition. He had received the post he was trying for and was much pleased.
“In a fortnight we can set off,” he said, rubbing his hands and anxiously glancing askance at Natasha.
But she responded with a smile and embraced him so that his doubts were instantly dissipated.
“We’ll be off, we’ll be off, my dears!” he said joyfully. It’s only you, Vanya, leaving you, that’s the rub . . . (I may add that he never once suggested that I should go with them, which, from what I know of his character, he certainly would have done . . . under other circumstances, that is, if he had not been aware of my love for Natasha.)
“Well, it can’t be helped, friends, it can’t be helped! It grieves me, Vanya; but a change of place will give us all new life . . . A change of place means a change of everything!” he added, glancing once more at his daughter.
He believed that and was glad to believe it.
“And Nellie?” said Anna Andreyevna.
“Nellie? Why . . . the little darling’s still poorly, but by that time she’ll certainly be well again. She’s better already, what do you think, Vanya?” he said, as though alarmed, and he looked at me uneasily, as though it was for me to set his doubts at rest.
“How is she? How has she slept? Has anything gone wrong with her? Isn’t she awake now? Do you know what, Anna Andreyevna, we’ll move the little table out on to the veranda, we’ll take out the samovar; our friends will be coming, we’ll all sit there and Nellie can come out to us . . . That’ll be nice. Isn’t she awake yet? I’ll go in to her. I’ll only have a look at her. I won’t wake her. Don’t be uneasy!” he added, seeing that Anna Andreyevna was making signals to him again. But Nellie was already awake. A quarter of an hour later we were all sitting as usual round the samovar at evening tea. Nellie was carried out in her chair. The doctor and Masloboev made their appearance. The latter brought a big bunch of lilac for Nellie, but he seemed anxious and annoyed about something, Masloboev, by the way, came in almost every evening. I have mentioned already that all of them liked him very much, especially Anna Andreyevna, but not a word was spoken among us about Alexandra Semyonovna. Masloboev himself made no allusion to her. Anna Andreyevna, having learned from me that Alexandra Semyonovna had not yet succeeded in becoming his legal wife, had made up her mind that it was impossible to receive her or speak of her in the house. This decision was maintained, and was very characteristic of Anna Andreyevna. But for Natasha’s being with her, and still more for all that had happened, she would perhaps not have been so squeamish.
Nellie was particularly depressed that evening and even preoccupied. It was as though she had had a bad dream and was brooding over it. But she was much delighted with Masloboev’s present and looked with pleasure at the flowers, which we put in a glass before her.
“So you’re very fond of flowers, Nellie.” said the old man. “just wait,” he said eagerly. “Tomorrow . . . well, you shall see. . .”
“I am fond of them,” answered Nellie, “and I remember how we used to meet mother with flowers. When we were out there, ( “out there” meant now abroad) “mother was very ill once for a whole month. Heinrich and I agreed that when she got up and came for the first time out of her bedroom, which she had not left for a whole month, we would decorate all the rooms with flowers. And so we did. Mother told us overnight that she would be sure to come down to lunch next day. We got up very, very early. Heinrich brought in a lot of flowers, and we decorated all the rooms with green leaves and garlands. There was ivy and something else with broad leaves I don’t know the name of, and some other leaves that caught in everything, and there were big white flowers and narcissus — and I like them better than any other flower — and there were roses, such splendid loses, and lots and lots of flowers, We hung them all up in wreaths or put them in pots, and there were flowers that were like whole trees in big tubs; we put them in the corners and by mother’s chair, and when mother came in she was astonished and awfully delighted, and Heinrich was glad . . . I remember that now . . .”
That evening Nellie was particularly weak and nervous. The doctor looked at her uneasily. But she was very eager to talk. And for a long time, till it was dark, she told us about her former life out there; we did not interrupt her. She and her mother and Heinrich had travelled a great deal together, and recollections of those days remained vivid in her memory. She talked eagerly of the blue skies, of the high mountains with snow and ice on them which she had seen and passed through, of the waterfalls in the mountains; and then of the lakes and valleys of Italy, of the flowers and trees, of the villagers, of their dress, their dark faces, and black eyes. She told us about various incidents and adventures with them. Then she talked of great tombs and palaces, of a tall church with a dome, which was suddenly illuminated with lights of different colours; then of a hot, southern town with blue skies and a blue sea. . . . Never had Nellie talked to us with such detail of what she remembered. We listened to her with intense interest. Till then we had heard only of her experiences of a different kind, in a dark, gloomy town, with its crushing, stupefying atmosphere, its pestilential air, its costly palaces, always begrimed with dirt; with its pale dim sunlight, and its evil, half-crazy inhabitants, at whose hands she and her mother had suffered so much. And I pictured how on damp, gloomy evenings in their filthy cellar, lying together on their poor bed, they had recalled past days, their lost Heinrich, and the marvels of other lands. I pictured Nellie alone, too, without her mother, remembering all this, while Mme. Bubnov was trying by blows and brutal cruelty to break her spirit and force her into a vicious life. . . .
But at last Nellie felt faint, and she was carried indoors. Nikolay Sergeyitch was much alarmed and vexed that we had let her talk so much. She had a sort of attack or fainting-fit. She had had such attacks several times. When it was over Nellie asked earnestly to see me. She wanted to say something to me alone. She begged so earnestly for this that this time the doctor himself insisted that her wish should be granted, and they all went out of the room.
“Listen, Vanya,” said Nellie, when we were left alone. “I know they think that I’m going with them, but I’m not going because I can’t and I shall stay for the time with you. I wanted to tell you so . . . ”
I tried to dissuade her. I told her that the Ichmenyevs loved her and looked on her as a daughter; that they would all be very sorry to lose her. That, on the other hand, it would be hard for her to live with me; and that, much as I loved her, there was no hope for it — we must part.
“No, it’s impossible!” Nellie answered emphatically; “for I often dream of mother now, and she tells me not to go with them but to stay here. She tells me that I was very sinful to leave grandfather alone, and she always cries when she says that. I want to stay here and look after grandfather, Vanya.”
“But you know your grandfather is dead, Nellie,” I answered, listening to her with amazement.
She thought a little and looked at me intently.
“Tell me, Vanya, tell me again how grandfather died,” she said. “Tell me all about it, don’t leave anything out.”
I was surprised at this request, but I proceeded to tell her the story in every detail. I suspected that she was delirious, or at least that after her attack her brain was not quite clear.
She listened attentively to all I told her, and I remember how her black eyes, glittering with the light of fever, watched me intently and persistently all the while I was talking. It was dark by now in the room.
“No, Vanya, he’s not dead,” she said positively, when she had heard it all and reflected for a while. “Mother often tells me about grandfather, and when I said to her yesterday, ‘but grandfather’s dead,’ she was dreadfully grieved; she cried and told me he wasn’t, that I had been told so on purpose, and that he was walking about the streets now, begging ‘just as we used to beg,’ mother said to me; ‘and he keeps walking about the place where we first met him, and I fell down before him, and Azorka knew me . . . .’”
“That was a dream, Nellie, a dream that comes from illness, for you are ill,” I said to her.
“I kept thinking it was only a dream myself,” said Nellie, “and I didn’t speak of it to anyone. I only wanted to tell you. But today when you didn’t come, and I fell asleep, I dreamed of grandfather himself. He was sitting at home, waiting for me, and was so thin and dreadful; and he told me he’d had nothing to eat for two days, nor Azorka either, and he was very angry with me, and scolded me. He told me, too, that he had no snuff at all, and that he couldn’t live without it. And he did really say that to me once before, Vanya, after mother died, when I went to see him. Then he was quite ill and hardly understood anything. When I heard him say that today, I thought I would go on to the bridge and beg for alms, and then buy him bread and baked potatoes and snuff. So I went and stood there, and then I saw grandfather walking near, and he lingered a little and then came up to me, and looked how much I’d got and took it. ‘That will do for bread,’ he said; ‘now get some for snuff.’ I begged the money, and he came up and took it from me. I told him that I’d give it him all, anyway, and not hide anything from him. ‘No’ he said, ‘you steal from me. Mme. Bubnov told me you were a thief; that’s why I shall never take you to live with me. Where have you put that other copper?’ I cried because he didn’t believe me, but he wouldn’t listen to me and kept shouting, ‘You’ve stolen a penny!’ And he began to beat me there on the bridge, and hurt me. And I cried very much . . . And so I’ve begun to think, Vanya, that he must be alive, and that he must be walking about somewhere waiting for me to come.”
I tried once more to soothe her and to persuade her she was wrong, and at last I believe I succeeded in convincing her. She said that she was afraid to go to sleep now because she would dream of her grandfather. At last she embraced me warmly.
“But anyway, I can’t leave you, Vanya,” she said, pressing her little face to mine. “Even if it weren’t for grandfather I wouldn’t leave you.”
Everyone in the house was alarmed at Nellie’s attack. I told the doctor apart all her sick fancies, and asked him what he thought of her state.
“Nothing is certain yet,” he answered, considering. “So far, I can only surmise, watch, and observe; but nothing is certain. Recovery is impossible, anyway. She will die. I don’t tell them because you begged me not to, but I am sorry and I shall suggest a consultation tomorrow. Perhaps the disease will take a different turn after a consultation. But I’m very sorry for the little girl, as though she were my own child . . . She’s a dear, dear child! And with such a playful mind!”
Nikolay Sergeyitch was particularly excited.
“I tell you what I’ve thought of, Vanya,” he said. “She’s very fond of flowers. Do you know what? Let us prepare for her tomorrow when she wakes up a welcome with towers such as she and that Heinrich prepared for her mother, as she described today. . . . She spoke of it with such emotion . . . .”
“I dare say she did,” I said. “But emotion’s just what’s bad for her now.”
“Yes, but pleasant emotion is a different matter. Believe me, my boy, trust my experience; pleasurable emotion does no harm; it may even cure, it is conducive to health.”
The old man was, in fact, so fascinated by his own idea that he was in a perfect ecstasy about it. It was impossible to dissuade him, I questioned the doctor about it, but before the latter had time to consider the matter, Nikolay Sergeyitch had taken his cap and was running to make arrangements.
“You know,” he said to me as he went out, “there’s a hot-house near here, a magnificent shop. The nurserymen sell flowers; one can get them cheap. It’s surprising how cheap they are, really . . . You impress that on Anna Andreyevna, or else she’ll be angry directly at the expense. So, I tell you what. . . . I tell you what, my dear boy, where are you off to now? You are free now, you’ve finished your work, so why need you hurry home? Sleep the night here, upstairs in the attic; where you slept before, do you remember. The bedstead’s there and the mattress just as it was before . . . nothing’s been touched. You’ll sleep like the King of France. Eh? Do stay. To-morrow we’ll get up early. They’ll bring the flowers, and by eight o’clock we’ll arrange the whole room together. Natasha will help us. She’ll have more taste than you and I. Well, do you agree? Will you stay the night?”
It was settled that I should stay the night. Nikolay Sergeyitch went off to make his arrangements. The doctor and Masloboev said good-bye and went away. The Ichmenyevs went to bed early, at eleven o’clock. As he was going, Masloboev seemed hesitating and on the point of saying something, but he put it off. But when after saying good-night to the old people I went up to my attic, to my surprise I found him there. He was sitting at the little table, turning over the leaves of a book and waiting for me.
“I turned back on the way, Vanya, because it’s better to tell you now. Sit down. It’s a stupid business, you see, vexatiously so, in fact.”
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Why, your scoundrel of a prince flew into a rage a fortnight ago; and such a rage that I’m angry still.”
“Why, what’s the matter? Surely you’re not still on terms with the prince?”
“There you go with your ‘what’s the matter?’ as though something extraordinary had happened. You’re for all the world like my Alexandra Semyonovna and all these insufferable females! . . . I can’t endure females . . . If a crow calls, it’s ‘what’s the matter? ‘ with them.”
“Don’t be angry.”
“I’m not a bit angry; but every sort of affair ought to be looked at reasonably, and not exaggerated . . . that’s what I say.”
He paused a little, as though he were still feeling vexed with me. I did not interrupt him.
“You see, Vanya,” he began again, “I’ve come upon a clue. That’s to say, I’ve not really come upon it, and it’s not really a clue. But that’s how it struck me . . . that is, from certain considerations I gather that Nellie . . . perhaps . . . well, in fact, is the prince’s legitimate daughter.”
“What are you saying?”
“There you go roaring again, ‘what are you saying?’ So that one really can’t say anything to people like this!” he shouted, waving his hand frantically. Have I told you anything positive, you feather-head? Did I tell you she’s been proved to be the prince’s legitimate daughter? Did I, or did I not?”
“Listen, my dear fellow,” I said to him in great excitement. For God’s sake don’t shout, but explain things clearly and precisely. I swear I shall understand you. You must realize how important the matter is, and what consequences . . . ”
“Consequences, indeed, of what? Where are the proofs? Things aren’t done like that, and I’m telling you a secret now. And why I’m telling you I’ll explain later. You may be sure there’s a reason for it. Listen and hold your tongue and understand that all this is a secret. . . . This is how it was, you see. As soon as the prince came back from Warsaw in the winter, before Smith died, he began to go into this business. That is, he had begun it much earlier, during the previous year. But at that time he was on the look-out for one thing, and later he was on the look-out for something else. What mattered was that he’d lost the thread. It was thirteen years since he parted from Nellie’s mother in Paris and abandoned her, but all that time he had kept an incessant watch on her; he knew that she was living with Heinrich, whom Nellie was talking about today; he knew she had Nellie, he knew she was ill; he knew everything, in fact, but then he suddenly lost the thread. And this seems to have happened soon after the death of Heinrich, when she came to Petersburg. In Petersburg, of course, he would very soon have found her, whatever name she went by in Russia; but the thing was that his agents abroad misled him with false information, informing him that she was living in an out-of-the-way little town in South Germany. They deceived him through carelessness. They mistook another woman for her. So it went on for a year or more. But during the previous year the prince had begun to have doubts; certain facts had led him even earlier to suspect that it was not the right woman. Then the question arose: where was the real lady? And it occurred to him (though he’d nothing to go upon) to wonder whether she were not in Petersburg. Inquiries were being made meanwhile abroad, and he set other inquiries on foot here; but apparently he did not care to make use of the official channels, and he became acquainted with me. He was recommended to me: he was told this and that about me, that I took up detective work as an amateur, and so on, and so on . . . Well, so he explained the business to me; only vaguely, damn the fellow; he explained it vaguely and ambiguously. He made a lot of mistakes, repeated himself several times; he represented facts in different lights at the same time . . . Well, as we all know, if you’re ever so cunning you can’t hide every track. Well, of course, I began, all obsequiousness and simplicity of heart, slavishly devoted, in fact. But I acted on a principle I’ve adopted once for all, and a law of nature, too (for it is a law of nature), and considered in the first place whether he had told me what he really wanted, and secondly whether, under what he had told me, there lay concealed something else he hadn’t told me. For in the latter case, as probably even you, dear son, with your poetical brain, can grasp, he was cheating me: for while one job is worth a rouble, say, another may be worth four times as much; so I should be a fool if I gave him for a rouble what was worth four. I began to look into it and make my conjectures, and bit by bit I began to come upon traces, one thing I’d get out of him, another out of some outsider, and I’d get at a third by my own wits. If you ask me what was my idea in so doing, I’ll answer, well, for one thing that the prince seemed somewhat too keen about it; he seemed in a great panic about something. For after all, what had he to be frightened of? He’d carried a girl off from her father, and when she was with child he had abandoned her. What was there remarkable in that? A charming, pleasant bit of mischief, and nothing more. That was nothing for a man like the prince to be afraid of! Yet he was afraid . . . And that made me suspicious. I came on some very interesting traces, my boy, through Heinrich, among other things. He was dead, of course, but from one of his cousins (now married to a baker here, in Petersburg) who had been passionately in love with him in old days, and had gone on loving him for fifteen years, regardless of the stout papa baker to whom she had incidentally borne eight children — from this cousin, I say, I managed by means of many and various manoeuvres to learn an important fact, that Heinrich, after the German habit, used to write her letters and diaries, and before his death he sent her some of his papers. She was a fool. She didn’t understand what was important in the letters, and only understood the parts where he talked of the moon, of ‘mein lieber Augustin,’ and of Wieland, too, I believe. But I got hold of the necessary facts, and through those letters I hit on a new clue. I found out, too, about Mr. Smith, about the money filched from him by his daughter, and about the prince’s getting hold of that money; at last, in the midst of exclamations, rigmaroles, and allegories of all sorts, I got a glimpse of the essential truth; that is, Vanya, you understand, nothing positive. Silly Heinrich purposely concealed that, and only hinted at it; well, and these hints, all this taken together, began to blend into a heavenly harmony in my mind. The prince was legally married to the young lady. Where they were married, how, when precisely, whether abroad or here, the whereabouts of the documents is all unknown. In fact, friend Vanya, I’ve torn my hair out in despair, searching for them in vain; in fact, I’ve hunted day and night. I unearthed Smith at last, but he went and died. I hadn’t even time to get a look at him. Then, through chance, I suddenly learned that a woman I had suspicions of had died in Vassilyevsky Island. I made inquiries and got on the track. I rushed off to Vassilyevsky, and there it was, do, you remember, we met. I made a big haul that time. In short, Nellie was a great help to me at that point . . . ”
“Listen,” I interrupted, “surely you don’t suppose that Nellie knows?”
“That she is Prince Valkovsky’s daughter?
“Why, you know yourself that she’s the prince’s daughter,” he answered, looking at me with a sort of angry reproach. “Why ask such idle questions, you foolish fellow? What matters is not simply that she’s the prince’s daughter, but that she’s his legitimate daughter — do you understand that?
“Impossible!” I cried.
“I told myself it was ‘impossible’ at first. But it turns out that it is possible and in all probability is true,” “No, Masloboev, that’s not so, your fancy is running away with you!” I cried. “She doesn’t know anything about it, and what’s more she’s his illegitimate daughter. If the mother had had any sort of documentary evidence to produce, would she have put up with the awful life she led here in Petersburg, and what’s more, have left her child to such an utterly forlorn fate Nonsense! It’s impossible!”
“I’ve thought the same myself; in fact, it’s a puzzle to me this day. But then, again, the thing is that Nellie’s mother was the craziest and most senseless woman in the world. She was extraordinary woman; consider all the circumstances, her romanticism, all that star-gazing nonsense in it’s wildest and craziest form. Take one point: from the very beginning she dreamed of something like a heaven upon earth, of angels; her love was boundless, her faith was limitless, and I’m convinced that she went mad afterwards, not because he got tired of her and cast her off, but because she was deceived in him, because he was capable of deceiving her and abandoning her, because her idol was turned into clay, had spat on her, and humiliated her Her romantic and irrational soul could not endure this transformation, and the insult besides. Do you realize what an insult it was? In her horror and, above all, her pride, she drew back from him with infinite contempt. She broke all ties, tore up her papers, spat upon his money, forgetting that it was not her money, but her father’s, refused it as so much dirt in order to crush her seducer by her spiritual grandeur, to look upon him having robbed her, and to have the right to despise him all her life. And very likely she said that she considered it a dishonour to call herself his wife. We have no divorce in Russia, but de facto they were separated, and how could she ask him for her after that! Remember that the mad creature said to Nellie on her death-bed, ‘Don’t go to him; work, perish, but don’t go to him, whoever may try to take you.’ So that even then she was dreaming that she would be sought out, and so would be able once more to avenge herself by crushing the seeker with her contempt. In short, she fed on evil dreams instead of bread. I’ve got a great deal out of Nellie, brother; in fact, I get a good deal still. Her mother was ill, of course, in consumption;, the disease specially develops bitterness and every sort of irritability yet I know for certain, through a crony of the woman Bubnov’s that she did write to the prince, yes, to the prince, actually to the prince . . . ”
“She wrote! And did he get the letter?” I cried.
“That’s just it. I don’t know whether he did or not. On one occasion Nellie’s mother approached that crony. (Do you remember that painted wench? Now she’s in the penitentiary.) Well, she’d written the letter and she gave it to her to take, but didn’t send it after all and took it back. That was three weeks before her death . . . a significant fact; if once she brought herself to send it, even though she did take it back, she might have sent it again — I don’t know; but there is one reason for believing that she really did not send it, for the prince, I fancy, only found out for certain that she had been in Petersburg, and where she’d been living, after her death. He must have been relieved!”
“Yes, I remember Alyosha mentioned some letter that his father was very much pleased about, but that was quite lately, not more than two months ago. Well, go on, go on. What of your dealings with the prince?
“My dealings with the prince? Understand, I had a complete moral conviction, but not a single positive proof, not a single one, in spite of all my efforts. A critical position! I should have had to make inquiries abroad. But where? — I didn’t know. I realized, of course, that there I should have a hard fight for it, that I could only scare him by hints, pretend I knew more than I really did. . .”
“Well, what then?”
“He wasn’t taken in, though he was scared; so scared that he’s in a funk even now. We had several meetings. What a leper he made himself out! Once in a moment of effusion he fell to telling me the whole story. That was when he thought I knew all about it. He told it well, frankly, with feeling — of course he was lying shamelessly. It was then I took the measure of his fear for me. I played the simpleton one time to him, and let him see I was shamming. I played the part awkwardly — that is, awkwardly on purpose. I purposely treated him to a little rudeness, began to threaten him, all that he might take me for a simpleton and somehow let things out. He saw through it, the scoundrel! Another time I pretended to be drunk. That didn’t answer either — he’s cunning. You can understand that, Vanya. I had to find out how far he was afraid of me; and at the same time to make him believe I knew more than I did.”
“Well, and what was the end of it?”
“Nothing came of it. I needed proofs and I hadn’t got them. He only realized one thing, that I might make a scandal. And, of course, a scandal was the one thing he was afraid of, and he was the more afraid of it because he had began to form ties here. You know he’s going to be married, of course?”
“Next year. He looked out for his bride when he was here last year; she was only fourteen then. She’s fifteen by now, still in pinafores, poor thing! Her parents were delighted. You can imagine how anxious he must have been for his wife to die. She’s a general’s daughter, a girl with money — heaps of money! You and I will never make a marriage like that, friend Vanya . . . Only there’s something I shall never forgive myself for as long as I live!” cried Masloboev, bringing his fist down on the table. That he got the better of me a fortnight ago . . . the scoundrel!”
“It was like this. I saw he knew I’d nothing positive to go upon; and I felt at last that the longer the thing dragged on the more he’d realize my helplessness. Well, so I consented to take two thousand from him.”
“You took two thousand!”
“In silver, Vanya; it was against the grain, but I took it. As though such a job were worth no more than two thousand! It was humiliating to take it. I felt as though he’d spat upon me. He said to me: ‘I haven’t paid you yet, Masloboev, for the work you did before.’ (But he had paid long ago the hundred and fifty roubles we’d agreed upon.) ‘Well, now I’m going away; here’s two thousand, and so I hope everything’s settled between us.’ So I answered, ‘Finally settled, prince,’ and I didn’t dare to look into his ugly face. I thought it was plainly written upon it, ‘Well, he’s got enough. I’m simply giving it to the fool out of good-nature.’ I don’t remember how I got away from him!”
“But that was disgraceful, Masloboev,” I cried. “What about Nellie! ”
“It wasn’t simply disgraceful . . . it was criminal . . . it was loathsome. It was . . . it was . . . there’s no word to describe it!”
“Good heavens! He ought at least to provide for Nellie!”
“Of course he ought! But how’s one to force him to? Frighten him? Not a bit of it, he won’t be frightened; you see, I’ve taken the money. I admitted to him myself that all he had to fear from me was only worth two thousand roubles. I fixed that price on myself! How’s one going to frighten him now?”
“And can it be that everything’s lost for Nellie?” I cried, almost in despair.
“Not a bit of it! “ cried Masloboev hotly, starting up. “No, I won’t let him off like that. I shall begin all over again, Vanya. I’ve made up my mind to. What if I have taken two thousand? Hang it all! I took it for the insult, because he cheated me, the rascal; he must have been laughing at me. He cheated me and laughed at me, too! No, I’m not going to let myself be laughed at. . . . Now, I shall start with Nellie, Vanya. From things I’ve noticed I’m perfectly sure that she has the key to the whole situation. She knows all — all about it! Her mother told her. In delirium, in despondency, she might well have told her. She had no one to complain to. Nellie was at hand, so she told Nellie. And maybe we may come upon some documents,” he added gleefully, rubbing his hands. “You understand now, Vanya, why I’m always hanging about here? In the first place, because I’m so fond of you, of course; but chiefly to keep a watch on Nellie; and another thing, Vanya, whether you like it or not, you must help me, for you have an influence on Nellie! . . . ”
“To be sure I will, I swear!” I cried. “And I hope, Masloboev, that you’ll do your best for Nellie’s sake, for the sake of the poor, injured orphan, and not only for your own advantage.”
“What difference does it make to you whose advantage I do my best for, you blessed innocent? As long as it’s done, that’s what matters! Of course it’s for the orphan’s sake, that’s only common humanity. But don’t you judge me too finally, Vanya, if I do think of myself. I’m a poor man, and he mustn’t dare to insult the poor. He’s robbing me of my own, and he’s cheated me into the bargain, the scoundrel. So am I to consider a swindler like that, to your thinking? Morgen fruh!”
. . .
But our flower festival did not come off next day. Nellie was worse and could not leave her room.
And she never did leave that room again.
She died a fortnight later. In that fortnight of her last agony she never quite came to herself, or escaped from her strange fantasies. Her intellect was, as it were, clouded. She was firmly convinced up to the day of her death that her grandfather was calling her and was angry with her for not coming, was rapping with his stick at her, and was telling her to go begging to get bread and snuff for him. She often began crying in her sleep, and when she waked said that she had seen her mother.
Only at times she seemed fully to regain her faculties. Once we were left alone together. She turned to me and clutched my hand with her thin, feverishly hot little hand.
“Vanya,” she said, “when I die, marry Natasha.”
I believe this idea had been constantly in her mind for a long time. I smiled at her without speaking. Seeing my smile, she smiled too; with a mischievous face she shook her little finger at me and at once began kissing me.
On an exquisite summer evening three days before her death she asked us to draw the blinds and open the windows in her bedroom. The windows looked into the garden. She gazed a long while at the thick, green foliage, at the setting sun, and suddenly asked the others to leave us alone.
“Vanya,” she said in a voice hardly audible, for she was very weak by now, “I shall die soon, very soon. I should like you to remember me. I’ll leave you this as a keepsake.” (And she showed me a little bag which hung with a cross on her breast.) “Mother left it me when she was dying. So when I die you take this from me, take it and read what’s in it. I shall tell them all today to give it to you and no one else. And when you read what’s written in it, go to him and tell him that I’m dead, and that I haven’t forgiven him. Tell him, too, that I’ve been reading the Gospel lately. There it says we must forgive all our enemies. Well, I’ve read that, but I’ve not forgiven him all the same; for when mother was dying and still could talk, the last thing she said was: ‘I curse him.’ And so I curse him, not on my own account but on mother’s. Tell him how mother died, how I was left alone at Mme. Bubnov’s; tell him how you saw me there, tell him all, all, and tell him I liked better to be at Mme. Bubnov’s than to go to him . . . ”
As she said this, Nellie turned pale, her eyes flashed, her heart began beating so violently that she sank back on the pillow, and for two minutes she could not utter a word.
“Call them, Vanya,” she said at last in a faint voice. “I want to say good-bye to them all. Good-bye, Vanya!”
She embraced me warmly for the last time. All the others came in. Nikolay Sergeyitch could not realize that she was dying; he could not admit the idea. Up to the last moment he refused to agree with us, maintaining that she would certainly get well. He was quite thin with anxiety; he sat by Nellie’s bedside for days and even nights together. The last night he didn’t sleep at all. He tried to anticipate Nellie’s slightest wishes, and wept bitterly when he came out to us from her, but he soon began hoping again that she would soon get well. He filled her room with flowers. Once he bought her a great bunch of exquisite white and red roses; he went a long way to get them and bring them to his little Nellie . . . He excited her very much by all this. She could not help responding with her whole heart to the love that surrounded her on all sides. That evening, the evening of her good-bye to us, the old man could not bring himself to say good-bye to her for ever. Nellie smiled at him, and all the evening tried to seem cheerful; she joked with him and even laughed . . . We left her room, feeling almost hopeful, but next day she could not speak. And two days later she died.
I remember how the old man decked her little coffin with flowers, and gazed in despair at her wasted little face, smiling in death, and at her hands crossed on her breast. He wept over her as though she had been his own child. Natasha and all of us tried to comfort him, but nothing could comfort him, and he was seriously ill after her funeral.
Anna Andreyevna herself gave me the little bag off Nellie’s neck. In it was her mother’s letter to Prince Valkovsky. I read it on the day of Nellie’s death. She cursed the prince, said she could not forgive him, described all the latter part of her life, all the horrors to which she was leaving Nellie, and besought him to do something for the child.
“She is yours,” she wrote. “She is your daughter, and you know that she is really your daughter, I have told her to go to you when I am dead and to give you this letter. If you do not repulse Nellie, perhaps then I shall forgive you, and at the judgement day I will stand before the throne of God and pray for your sins to be forgiven. Nellie knows what is in this letter. I have read it to her, I have told her all; she knows everything, everything.
But Nellie had not done her mother’s bidding. She knew all, but she had not gone to the prince, and had died unforgiving.
When we returned from Nellie’s funeral, Natasha and I went out into the garden. It was a hot, sunny day. A week later they were to set off. Natasha turned a long, strange look upon me.
“Vanya,” she said, “Vanya, it was a dream, you know.”
“What was a dream?” I asked.
“All, all,” she answered, “everything, all this year. Vanya, why did I destroy your happiness?”
And in her eyes I read:
“We might have been happy together for ever.”
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53