I read them my novel at one sitting. We began immediately after tea, and stayed up till two o’clock. The old man frowned at first. He was expecting something infinitely lofty, which might be beyond his comprehension, but must in any case be elevated. But, instead of that, he heard such commonplace, familiar things — precisely such as were always happening about him. And if only the hero had been a great or interesting man, or something historical like Roslavlev, or Yury Miloslavsky; instead of that he was described as a little, down-trodden, rather foolish clerk, with buttons missing from his uniform; and all this written in such simple language, exactly as we talk ourselves . . . Strange! Anna Andreyevna looked inquiringly at Nikolay Sergeyitch, and seemed positively pouting a little as though she were resentful. “Is it really worth while to print and read such nonsense, and they pay money for it, too,” was written on her face. Natasha was all attention, she listened greedily, never taking her eyes off me, watching my lips as I pronounced each word, moving her own pretty lips after me. And yet before I had read half of it, tears were falling from the eyes of all three of them. Anna Andreyevna was genuinely crying, feeling for the troubles of my hero with all her heart, and longing with great naivety to help him in some way out of his troubles, as I gathered from her exclamations. The old man had already abandoned all hopes of anything elevated. “From the first step it’s clear that you’ll never be at the top of the tree; there it is, it’s simply a little story; but it wrings your heart,” he said, “and what’s happening all round one grows easier to understand, and to remember, and one learns that the most down-trodden, humblest man is a man, too, and a brother.”
Natasha listened, cried, and squeezed my hand tight by stealth under the table. The reading was over. She got up, her cheeks were flushed, tears stood in her eyes. All at once she snatched my hand, kissed it, and ran out of the room. The father and mother looked at one another.
“Hm! what an enthusiastic creature she is,” said the old man, struck by his daughter’s behaviour. “That’s nothing though, nothing, it’s a good thing, a generous impulse! She’s a good girl . . . .” he muttered, looking askance at his wife as though to justify Natasha and at the same time wanting to defend me too.
But though Anna Andreyevna had been rather agitated and touched during the reading, she looked now as though she would say: “Of course Alexander of Macedon was a hero, but why break the furniture?” etc.
Natasha soon came back, gay and happy, and coming over to me gave me a sly pinch. The old man attempted to play the stern critic of my novel again, but in his joy he was carried away and could not keep up the part.
“Well, Vanya, my boy, it’s good, it’s good! You’ve comforted me, relieved my mind more than I expected. It’s not elevated, it’s not great, that’s evident. . . . Over there there lies the ‘Liberation of Moscow,’ it was written in Moscow, you know. Well, you can see in that from the first line, my boy, that the author, so to speak, soars like an eagle. But, do you know, Vanya, yours is somehow simpler, easier to understand. That’s why I like it, because it’s easier to understand. It’s more akin to us as it were; it’s as though it had all happened to me myself. And what’s the use of the high-flown stuff? I shouldn’t have understood it myself. I should have improved the language. I’m praising it, but say what you will, it’s not very refined. But there, it’s too late now, it’s printed, unless perhaps there’s a second edition? But I say, my boy, maybe it will go into a second edition I Then there’ll be money again I Hm!”
“And can you really have got so much money for it, Ivan Petrovitch?” observed Anna Andreyevna. “I look at you and somehow can’t believe it. Mercy on us, what people will give money for nowadays!”
“You know, Vanya,” said the old man, more and more carried away by enthusiasm, “it’s a career, though it’s not the service. Even the highest in the land will read it. Here you tell me Gogol receives a yearly allowance and was sent abroad. What if it were the same with you, eh? Or is it too soon? Must you write something more? Then write it, my boy, write it as quick as possible. Don’t rest on your laurels. What hinders you?”
And he said this with such an air of conviction, with such good nature that I could not pluck up resolution to stop him and throw cold water on his fancies.
“Or they may be giving you a snuff-box directly, mayn’t they? Why not? They want to encourage you. And who knows, maybe you’ll be presented at court,” he added in a half whisper, screwing up his left eye with a significant air — “ or not? Is it too soon for the court?”
“The court, indeed!” said Anna Andreyevna with an offended air.
“In another minute you’ll be making me a general,” I answered, laughing heartily.
The old man laughed too. He was exceedingly pleased.
“Your excellency, won’t you have something to eat?” cried Natasha playfully. — she had meantime been getting supper for us.
She laughed, ran to her father and flung her warm arms round him.
“Dear, kind daddy!”
The old man was moved,
“Well, well, that’s all right! I speak in the simplicity of my heart. General or no general, come to supper. Ah, you sentimental girl!” he added, patting his Natasha on her flushed cheek, as he was fond of doing on every convenient occasion. “I spoke because I love you, Vanya, you know. But even if not a general (far from it!) you’re a distinguished man, an author.”
“Nowadays, daddy, they call them writers.”
“Not authors? I didn’t know. Well, let it be writers then, but I tell you what I wanted to say: people are not made kammerherrs, of course, because they write novels; it’s no use to dream of that; but anyway you can make your mark; become, an attache of some sort. They may send you abroad, to Italy, for the sake of your health, or somewhere to perfect yourself in, your studies; you’ll be helped with money. Of course it must all be honourable on your side; you must get money and honour by work, by real good work, and not through patronage of one sort or another.”
“And don’t you be too proud then, Ivan Petrovich,” added Anna Andreyevna, laughing.
“You’d better give him a star, at once, daddy; after all, what’s the good of an attache?”
And she pinched my arm again.
“This girl keeps making fun of me,” said the old man, looking delightedly at Natasha, whose cheeks were glowing and whose eyes were shining like stars. “I think I really may have overshot the mark, children; but I’ve always been like that . . . But do you know, Vanya, I keep wondering at you: how perfectly simple you are. . .”
“Why, good heavens, daddy, what else could he be?”
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean that. Only, Vanya, you’ve a face that’s not what one would call a poet’s. They’re pale, they say, you know, the poets, and with hair like this, you know, and a look in their eyes . . . like Goethe, you know, and the rest of them, I’ve read that in Abaddon . . . well? Have I put my foot in it again? Ah, the rogue, she’s giggling at me! I’m not a scholar, my dears, but I can feel. Well, face or no face, that’s no great matter, yours is all right for me, and I like it very much. I didn’t mean that. . . . Only be honest, Vanya, be honest. That’s the great thing, live honestly, don’t be conceited! The road lies open before you. Serve your work honestly, that’s what I meant to say; yes, that’s just what I wanted to say!”
It was a wonderful time. Every evening, every free hour I spent with them. I brought the old man news of the literary world and of writers, in whom he began, I don’t know why, to take an intense interest. He even began to read the critical articles of B., about whom I talked a great deal. He praised him enthusiastically, though he scarcely understood him, and inveighed against his enemies who wrote in the Northern Drone.
Anna Andreyevna kept a sharp eye on me and Natasha, but she didn’t see everything. One little word had been uttered between us already, and I heard at last Natasha, with her little head drooping, and her lips half parted, whisper “Yes.” But the parents knew of it later on. They had their thoughts, their conjectures. Anna Andreyevna shook her head for a long time. It seemed strange and dreadful to her. She had no faith in me.
“Yes, it’s all right, of course, when it’s successful, Ivan Petrovitch,” she said, “but all of a sudden there’ll be a failure or something of the sort; and what then? If only you had a post somewhere!”
“I’ve something I want to say to you, Vanya,” said the old man, making up his mind. “I’ve seen for myself, I’ve noticed it and I confess I’m delighted that you and Natasha . . . you know what I mean. You see, Vanya, you’re both very young, and my Anna Andreyevna is right. Let us wait a bit. Granted you have talent, remarkable talent perhaps . . . not genius, as they cried out about you at first, but just simply talent (I read you that article in the Drone today; they handle you too roughly, but after all, it’s not much of a paper). Yes! You see talent’s not money in the bank, and you’re both poor. Let’s wait a little, for a year and a half, or a year anyway. If you get on all right, get a firm footing, Natasha shall be yours. If you don’t get on — judge for yourself. You’re an honest man, think things over. . . . ”
And so we left it. And this is what happened within the year. Yes, it was almost exactly a year ago. One bright September day I went to see my old friends, feeling ill, and sick at heart, and sank on a chair almost fainting, so that they were actually frightened as they looked at me. My head went round and my heart ached so that ten times I had approached the door and ten times I had turned back before I went in, but it was not because I had failed in my career and had neither renown nor money; it was not because I was not yet an attache and nowhere near being sent to Italy for my health. It was because one may live through ten years in one year, and my Natasha had lived through ten years in that year. Infinity lay between us. And I remember I sat there before the old man, saying nothing, with unconscious fingers tearing the brim of my hat, which was torn already; I sat and, I don’t know why, waited for Natasha to come in. My clothes were shabby and did not fit me; I had grown thin, yellow and sunken in the face. And yet I did not look in the least like a poet, and there was none of that grandeur in my eyes about which good Nikolay Sergeyitch had been so concerned in the past. Anna Andreyevna looked at me with unfeigned and ever ready compassion, thinking to herself:
“And he was within an ace of being betrothed to Natasha. Lord have mercy on us and preserve us!”
“Won’t you have some tea, Ivan Petrovitch?” (the samovar was boiling on the table). “How are you getting on?” she asked me. “You’re quite an invalid,” she said in a plaintive voice which I can hear at this moment.
And I can see her as though it were today; even while she talked to me, her eyes betrayed another anxiety, the same anxiety which clouded the face of her old husband, too, as he sat now brooding, while his tea grew cold. I knew that they were terribly worried at this moment over their lawsuit with Prince Valkovsky, which was not promising well for them, and that they had had other new worries which had upset Nicholay Sergeyitch and made him ill.
The young prince, about whom the whole trouble that led to the lawsuit had arisen, had found an opportunity of visiting the Ichmenyevs five months before. The old man, who loved his dear Alyosha like a son, and spoke of him almost every day, welcomed him joyfully. Anna Andreyevna recalled Vassilyevskoe and shed tears. Alyosha went to see them more and more frequently without his father’s knowledge. Nikolay Sergeyitch with his honesty, openness and uprightness indignantly disdained all precautions. His honourable pride forbade his even considering what the prince would say if he knew that his son inwardly despised all his absurd suspicions, and was received again in the house of the Ichmenyevs. But the old man did not know whether he would have the strength to endure fresh insults. The young prince began to visit them almost daily. The parents enjoyed having him. He used to stay with them the whole evening, long after midnight. His father, of course, heard of all this at last. An abominable scandal followed. He insulted Nikolay Sergeyitch with a horrible letter, taking the same line as before, and peremptorily forbade his son to visit the house. This had happened just a fortnight before I came to them that day. The old man was terribly depressed. Was his Natasha, his innocent noble girl, to be mixed up in this dirty slander, this vileness again! Her name had been insultingly uttered before by the man who had injured him. And was all this to be left unavenged? For the first few days he took to his bed in despair. All that I knew. The story had reached me in every detail, though for the last three weeks I had been lying ill and despondent at my lodging and had not been to see them. But I knew besides. . . . No! At that time I only felt what was coming; I knew, but could not believe, that, apart from these worries, there was something which must trouble them beyond anything in the world, and I looked at them with torturing anguish. Yes, I was in torture; I was afraid to conjecture, afraid to believe, and did all I could to put off the fatal moment. And meanwhile I had come on account of it. I felt drawn to them that evening.
“Yes; Vanya,” the old man began, suddenly rousing himself, “surely you’ve not been ill? Why haven’t you been here for so long? I have behaved badly to you. I have been meaning ever so long to call on you, but somehow it’s all been . . .”
And he sank into brooding again.
“I haven’t been well,” I answered.
“Hm! Not well,” he repeated five minutes later. “I dare say not! I talked to you and warned you before, but you wouldn’t heed me. Hm! No, Vanya, my boy, the muse has lived hungry in a garret from time immemorial, and she’ll go on so. That’s what it is!”
Yes, the old man was out of spirits. If he had not had a sore heart himself, he would not have talked to me of the hungry muse. I looked intently at his face: it was sallower; there was a look of bewilderment in his eyes, some idea in the form of a question which he had not the strength to answer. He was abrupt and bitter, quite unlike himself. His wife looked at his uneasily and shook her head. When he turned away she stealthily nodded to me.
“How is Natalya Nikolaevna? Is she at home I inquired of the anxious lady.
“She’s at home, my dear man, she’s at home,” she answered as though perturbed by my question. “She’ll come in to see you directly. It’s a serious matter! Not a sight of you for three
weeks! And she’s become so queer . . . there’s no making her out at all. I don’t know whether she’s well or ill, God bless her! And she looked timidly at her husband.
“Why, there’s nothing wrong with her,” Nikolay Sergeyitch responded jerkily and reluctantly, “she’s quite well. The girl’s beginning to grow up, she’s left off being a baby, that’s all. Who can understand girlish moods and caprices?”
“Caprices, indeed!” Anna Andreyevna caught him up in an offended voice.
The old man said nothing and drummed on the table with his finger-tips.
“Good God, is there something between them already?” I wondered in a panic.
“Well, how are you getting on?” he began again. “Is B. still writing reviews?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Ech, Vanya, Vanya,” he ended up, with a wave of his hand. “What can reviews do now?”
The door opened and Natasha walked in.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07