Seven years had passed by. We were living as before at Moscow — but I was by now a student in my second year — and the authority of my grandmother, who had aged very perceptibly in the last years, no longer weighed upon me. Of all my fellow-students the one with whom I was on the friendliest terms was a light-hearted and good-natured youth called Tarhov. Our habits and our tastes were similar. Tarhov was a great lover of poetry, and himself wrote verses; while in me the seeds sown by Punin had not been without fruit. As is often the case with young people who are very close friends, we had no secrets from one another. But behold, for several days together I noticed a certain excitement and agitation in Tarhov. . . . He disappeared for hours at a time, and I did not know where he had got to — a thing which had never happened before. I was on the point of demanding, in the name of friendship, a full explanation. . . . He anticipated me.
One day I was sitting in his room. . . . ‘Petya,’ he said suddenly, blushing gaily, and looking me straight in the face, ‘I must introduce you to my muse.’
‘Your muse! how queerly you talk! Like a classicist. (Romanticism was at that time, in 1837, at its full height.) As if I had not known it ever so long — your muse! Have you written a new poem, or what?’
‘You don’t understand what I mean,’ rejoined Tarhov, still laughing and blushing. ‘I will introduce you to a living muse.’
‘Aha! so that’s it! But how is she — yours?’
‘Why, because . . . But hush, I believe it’s she coming here.’
There was the light click of hurrying heels, the door opened, and in the doorway appeared a girl of eighteen, in a chintz cotton gown, with a black cloth cape on her shoulders, and a black straw hat on her fair, rather curly hair. On seeing me she was frightened and disconcerted, and was beating a retreat . . . but Tarhov at once rushed to meet her.
‘Please, please, Musa Pavlovna, come in! This is my great friend, a splendid fellow — and the soul of discretion. You’ve no need to be afraid of him. Petya,’ he turned to me, ‘let me introduce my Musa — Musa Pavlovna Vinogradov, a great friend of mine.’
‘How is that . . . Musa?’ I was beginning. . . . Tarhov laughed. ‘Ah, you didn’t know there was such a name in the calendar? I didn’t know it either, my boy, till I met this dear young lady. Musa! such a charming name! And suits her so well!’
I bowed again to my comrade’s great friend. She left the door, took two steps forward and stood still. She was very attractive, but I could not agree with Tarhov’s opinion, and inwardly said to myself: ‘Well, she’s a strange sort of muse!’
The features of her curved, rosy face were small and delicate; there was an air of fresh, buoyant youth about all her slender, miniature figure; but of the muse, of the personification of the muse, I— and not only I— all the young people of that time had a very different conception! First of all the muse had infallibly to be dark-haired and pale. An expression of scornful pride, a bitter smile, a glance of inspiration, and that ‘something’— mysterious, demonic, fateful — that was essential to our conception of the muse, the muse of Byron, who at that time held sovereign sway over men’s fancies. There was nothing of that kind to be discerned in the face of the girl who came in. Had I been a little older and more experienced I should probably have paid more attention to her eyes, which were small and deep-set, with full lids, but dark as agate, alert and bright, a thing rare in fair-haired people. Poetical tendencies I should not have detected in their rapid, as it were elusive, glance, but hints of a passionate soul, passionate to self-forgetfulness. But I was very young then.
I held out my hand to Musa Pavlovna — she did not give me hers — she did not notice my movement; she sat down on the chair Tarhov placed for her, but did not take off her hat and cape.
She was, obviously, ill at ease; my presence embarrassed her. She drew deep breaths, at irregular intervals, as though she were gasping for air.
‘I’ve only come to you for one minute, Vladimir Nikolaitch,’ she began — her voice was very soft and deep; from her crimson, almost childish lips, it seemed rather strange; —‘but our madame would not let me out for more than half an hour. You weren’t well the day before yesterday . . . and so, I thought . . . ’
She stammered and hung her head. Under the shade of her thick, low brows her dark eyes darted — to and fro — elusively. There are dark, swift, flashing beetles that flit so in the heat of summer among the blades of dry grass.
‘How good you are, Musa, Musotchka!’ cried Tarhov. ‘But you must stay, you must stay a little. . . . We’ll have the samovar in directly.’
‘Oh no, Vladimir Nikolaevitch! it’s impossible! I must go away this minute.’
‘You must rest a little, anyway. You’re out of breath. . . . You’re tired.’
‘I’m not tired. It’s . . . not that . . . only . . . give me another book; I’ve finished this one.’ She took out of her pocket a tattered grey volume of a Moscow edition.
‘Of course, of course. Well, did you like it? Roslavlev,’ added Tarhov, addressing me.
‘Yes. Only I think Yury Miloslavsky is much better. Our madame is very strict about books. She says they hinder our working. For, to her thinking . . . ’
‘But, I say, Yury Miloslavsky’s not equal to Pushkin’s Gipsies? Eh? Musa Pavlovna?’ Tarhov broke in with a smile.
‘No, indeed! The Gipsies . . . ’ she murmured slowly. ‘Oh yes, another thing, Vladimir Nikolaitch; don’t come tomorrow . . . you know where.’
The girl shrugged her shoulders, and all at once, as though she had received a sudden shove, got up from her chair.
‘Why, Musa, Musotchka,’ Tarhov expostulated plaintively. ‘Stay a little!’
‘No, no, I can’t.’ She went quickly to the door, took hold of the handle. . . .
‘Well, at least, take the book!’
Tarhov rushed towards the girl, but at that instant she darted out of the room. He almost knocked his nose against the door. ‘What a girl! She’s a regular little viper!’ he declared with some vexation, and then sank into thought.
I stayed at Tarhov’s. I wanted to find out what was the meaning of it all. Tarhov was not disposed to be reserved. He told me that the girl was a milliner; that he had seen her for the first time three weeks before in a fashionable shop, where he had gone on a commission for his sister, who lived in the provinces, to buy a hat; that he had fallen in love with her at first sight, and that next day he had succeeded in speaking to her in the street; that she had herself, it seemed, taken rather a fancy to him.
‘Only, please, don’t you suppose,’ he added with warmth — ‘don’t you imagine any harm of her. So far, at any rate, there’s been nothing of that sort between us.
‘Harm!’ I caught him up; ‘I’ve no doubt of that; and I’ve no doubt either that you sincerely deplore the fact, my dear fellow! Have patience — everything will come right’
‘I hope so,’ Tarhov muttered through his teeth, though with a laugh. ‘But really, my boy, that girl . . . I tell you — it’s a new type, you know. You hadn’t time to get a good look at her. She’s a shy thing! — oo! such a shy thing! and what a will of her own! But that very shyness is what I like in her. It’s a sign of independence! I’m simply over head and ears, my boy!’
Tarhov fell to talking of his ‘charmer,’ and even read me the beginning of a poem entitled: ‘My Muse.’ His emotional outpourings were not quite to my taste. I felt secretly jealous of him. I soon left him.
* * * * *
A few days after I happened to be passing through one of the arcades of the Gostinny Dvor. It was Saturday; there were crowds of people shopping; on all sides, in the midst of the pushing and crushing, the shopmen kept shouting to people to buy. Having bought what I wanted, I was thinking of nothing but getting away from their teasing importunity as soon as possible — when all at once I halted involuntarily: in a fruit shop I caught sight of my comrade’s charmer — Musa, Musa Pavlovna! She was standing, profile to me, and seemed to be waiting for something. After a moment’s hesitation I made up my mind to go up to her and speak. But I had hardly passed through the doorway of the shop and taken off my cap, when she tottered back dismayed, turned quickly to an old man in a frieze cloak, for whom the shopman was weighing out a pound of raisins, and clutched at his arm, as though fleeing to put herself under his protection. The latter, in his turn, wheeled round facing her — and, imagine my amazement, I recognised him as Punin!
Yes, it was he; there were his inflamed eyes, his full lips, his soft, overhanging nose. He had, in fact, changed little during the last seven years; his face was a little flabbier, perhaps.
‘Nikander Vavilitch!’ I cried. ‘Don’t you know me?’ Punin started, opened his mouth, stared at me. . . .
‘I haven’t the honour,’ he was beginning — and all at once he piped out shrilly: ‘The little master of Troïtsky (my grandmother’s property was called Troïtsky)! Can it be the little master of Troïtsky?’
The pound of raisins tumbled out of his hands.
‘It really is,’ I answered, and, picking up Punin’s purchase from the ground, I kissed him.
He was breathless with delight and excitement; he almost cried, removed his cap — which enabled me to satisfy myself that the last traces of hair had vanished from his ‘egg’— took a handkerchief out of it, blew his nose, poked the cap into his bosom with the raisins, put it on again, again dropped the raisins. . . . I don’t know how Musa was behaving all this time, I tried not to look at her. I don’t imagine Punin’s agitation proceeded from any extreme attachment to my person; it was simply that his nature could not stand the slightest unexpected shock. The nervous excitability of these poor devils!
‘Come and see us, my dear boy,’ he faltered at last; ‘you won’t be too proud to visit our humble nest? You’re a student, I see . . . ’
‘On the contrary, I shall be delighted, really.’
‘Are you independent now?’
‘That’s capital! How pleased Paramon Semyonitch will be! To-day he’ll be home earlier than usual, and madame lets her, too, off for Saturdays. But, stop, excuse me, I am quite forgetting myself. Of course, you don’t know our niece!’
I hastened to slip in that I had not yet had the pleasure.
‘Of course, of course! How could you know her! Musotchka . . . Take note, my dear sir, this girl’s name is Musa — and it’s not a nickname, but her real name . . . Isn’t that a predestination? Musotchka, I want to introduce you to Mr. . . . Mr. . . . ’
‘B.,’ I prompted.
‘B.,’ he repeated. ‘Musotchka, listen! You see before you the most excellent, most delightful of young men. Fate threw us together when he was still in years of boyhood! I beg you to look on him as a friend!’
I swung off a low bow. Musa, red as a poppy, flashed a look on me from under her eyelids, and dropped them immediately.
‘Ah!’ thought I, ‘you ‘re one of those who in difficult moments don’t turn pale, but red; that must be made a note of.’
‘You must be indulgent, she’s not a fine lady,’ observed Punin, and he went out of the shop into the street; Musa and I followed him.
* * * * *
The house in which Punin lodged was a considerable distance from the Gostinny Dvor, being, in fact, in Sadovoy Street. On the way my former preceptor in poetry had time to communicate a good many details of his mode of existence. Since the time of our parting, both he and Baburin had been tossed about holy Russia pretty thoroughly, and had not long — only a year and a half before — found a permanent home in Moscow. Baburin had succeeded in becoming head-clerk in the office of a rich merchant and manufacturer. ‘Not a lucrative berth,’ Punin observed with a sigh — ‘a lot of work, and not much profit . . . but what’s one to do? One must be thankful to get that! I, too, am trying to earn something by copying and lessons; only my efforts have so far not been crowned with success. My writing, you perhaps recollect, is old-fashioned, not in accordance with the tastes of the day; and as regards lessons — what has been a great obstacle is the absence of befitting attire; moreover, I greatly fear that in the matter of instruction — in the subject of Russian literature — I am also not in harmony with the tastes of the day; and so it comes about that I am turned away.’ (Punin laughed his sleepy, subdued laugh. He had retained his old, somewhat high-flown manner of speech, and his old weakness for falling into rhyme.) ‘All run after novelties, nothing but innovations! I dare say you, too, do not honour the old divinities, and fall down before new idols?’
‘And you, Nikander Vavilitch, do you really still esteem Heraskov?’
Punin stood still and waved both hands at once. ‘In the highest degree, sir! in the high . . . est de . . . gree, I do!’
‘And you don’t read Pushkin? You don’t like Pushkin?’
Punin again flung his hands up higher than his head.
‘Pushkin? Pushkin is the snake, lying hid in the grass, who is endowed with the note of the nightingale!’
While Punin and I talked like this, cautiously picking our way over the unevenly laid brick pavement of so-called ‘white-stoned’ Moscow — in which there is not one stone, and which is not white at all — Musa walked silently beside us on the side further from me. In speaking of her, I called her ‘your niece.’ Punin was silent for a little, scratched his head, and informed me in an undertone that he had called her so . . . merely as a manner of speaking; that she was really no relation; that she was an orphan picked up and cared for by Baburin in the town of Voronezh; but that he, Punin, might well call her daughter, as he loved her no less than a real daughter. I had no doubt that, though Punin intentionally dropped his voice, Musa could hear all he said very well; and she was at once angry, and shy, and embarrassed; and the lights and shades chased each other over her face, and everything in it was slightly quivering, the eyelids and brows and lips and narrow nostrils. All this was very charming, and amusing, and queer.
* * * * *
But at last we reached the ‘modest nest.’ And modest it certainly was, the nest. It consisted of a small, one-storied house, that seemed almost sunk into the ground, with a slanting wooden roof, and four dingy windows in the front. The furniture of the rooms was of the poorest, and not over tidy, indeed. Between the windows and on the walls hung about a dozen tiny wooden cages containing larks, canaries, and siskins. ‘My subjects!’ Punin pronounced triumphantly, pointing his finger at them. We had hardly time to get in and look about us, Punin had hardly sent Musa for the samovar, when Baburin himself came in. He seemed to me to have aged much more than Punin, though his step was as firm as ever, and the expression of his face altogether was unchanged; but he had grown thin and bent, his cheeks were sunken, and his thick black shock of hair was sprinkled with grey. He did not recognise me, and showed no particular pleasure when Punin mentioned my name; he did not even smile with his eyes, he barely nodded; he asked — very carelessly and drily — whether my granny were living — and that was all. ‘I’m not over-delighted at a visit from a nobleman,’ he seemed to say; ‘I don’t feel flattered by it.’ The republican was a republican still.
Musa came back; a decrepit little old woman followed her, bringing in a tarnished samovar. Punin began fussing about, and pressing me to take things; Baburin sat down to the table, leaned his head on his hands, and looked with weary eyes about him. At tea, however, he began to talk. He was dissatisfied with his position. ‘A screw — not a man,’ so he spoke of his employer; ‘people in a subordinate position are so much dirt to him, of no consequence whatever; and yet it’s not so long since he was under the yoke himself. Nothing but cruelty and covetousness. It’s a bondage worse than the government’s! And all the trade here rests on swindling and flourishes on nothing else!’
Hearing such dispiriting utterances, Punin sighed expressively, assented, shook his head up and down, and from side to side; Musa maintained a stubborn silence. . . . She was obviously fretted by the doubt, what I was, whether I was a discreet person or a gossip. And if I were discreet, whether it was not with some afterthought in my mind. Her dark, swift, restless eyes fairly flashed to and fro under their half-drooping lids. Only once she glanced at me, but so inquisitively, so searchingly, almost viciously . . . I positively started. Baburin scarcely talked to her at all; but whenever he did address her, there was a note of austere, hardly fatherly, tenderness in his voice.
Punin, on the contrary, was continually joking with Musa; she responded unwillingly, however. He called her little snow-maiden, little snowflake.
‘Why do you give Musa Pavlovna such names?’ I asked.
Punin laughed. ‘Because she’s such a chilly little thing.’
‘Sensible,’ put in Baburin: ‘as befits a young girl.’
‘We may call her the mistress of the house,’ cried Punin. ‘Hey? Paramon Semyonitch?’ Baburin frowned; Musa turned away . . . I did not understand the hint at the time.
So passed two hours . . . in no very lively fashion, though Punin did his best to ‘entertain the honourable company.’ For instance, he squatted down in front of the cage of one of the canaries, opened the door, and commanded: ‘On the cupola! Begin the concert!’ The canary fluttered out at once, perched on the cupola, that is to say, on Punin’s bald pate, and turning from side to side, and shaking its little wings, carolled with all its might. During the whole time the concert lasted, Punin kept perfectly still, only conducting with his finger, and half closing his eyes. I could not help roaring with laughter . . . but neither Baburin nor Musa laughed.
Just as I was leaving, Baburin surprised me by an unexpected question. He wished to ask me, as a man studying at the university, what sort of person Zeno was, and what were my ideas about him.
‘What Zeno?’ I asked, somewhat puzzled.
‘Zeno, the sage of antiquity. Surely he cannot be unknown to you?’
I vaguely recalled the name of Zeno, as the founder of the school of Stoics; but I knew absolutely nothing more about him.
‘Yes, he was a philosopher,’ I pronounced, at last.
‘Zeno,’ Baburin resumed in deliberate tones, ‘was that wise man, who declared that suffering was not an evil, since fortitude overcomes all things, and that the good in this world is one: justice; and virtue itself is nothing else than justice.’
Punin turned a reverent ear.
‘A man living here who has picked up a lot of old books, told me that saying,’ continued Baburin; ‘it pleased me much. But I see you are not interested in such subjects.’
Baburin was right. In such subjects I certainly was not interested. Since I had entered the university, I had become as much of a republican as Baburin himself. Of Mirabeau, of Robespierre, I would have talked with zest. Robespierre, indeed . . . why, I had hanging over my writing-table the lithographed portraits of Fouquier-Tinville and Chalier! But Zeno! Why drag in Zeno?
As he said good-bye to me, Punin insisted very warmly on my visiting them next day, Sunday; Baburin did not invite me at all, and even remarked between his teeth, that talking to plain people of nondescript position could not give me any great pleasure, and would most likely be disagreeable to my granny. At that word I interrupted him, however, and gave him to understand that my grandmother had no longer any authority over me.
‘Why, you’ve not come into possession of the property, have you?’ queried Baburin.
‘No, I haven’t,’ I answered.
‘Well, then, it follows . . . ’ Baburin did not finish his sentence; but I mentally finished it for him: ‘it follows that I’m a boy.’
‘Good-bye,’ I said aloud, and I retired.
I was just going out of the courtyard into the street . . . Musa suddenly ran out of the house, and slipping a piece of crumpled paper into my hand, disappeared at once. At the first lamp-post I unfolded the paper. It turned out to be a note. With difficulty I deciphered the pale pencil-marks. ‘For God’s sake,’ Musa had written, ‘come tomorrow after matins to the Alexandrovsky garden near the Kutafia tower I shall wait for you don’t refuse me don’t make me miserable I simply must see you.’ There were no mistakes in spelling in this note, but neither was there any punctuation. I returned home in perplexity.
* * * * *
When, a quarter of an hour before the appointed time, next day, I began to get near the Kutafia tower (it was early in April, the buds were swelling, the grass was growing greener, and the sparrows were noisily chirrupping and quarrelling in the bare lilac bushes), considerably to my surprise, I caught sight of Musa a little to one side, not far from the fence. She was there before me. I was going towards her; but she herself came to meet me.
‘Let’s go to the Kreml wall,’ she whispered in a hurried voice, running her downcast eyes over the ground; ‘there are people here.’
We went along the path up the hill.
‘Musa Pavlovna,’ I was beginning. . . . But she cut me short at once.
‘Please,’ she began, speaking in the same jerky and subdued voice, ‘don’t criticise me, don’t think any harm of me. I wrote a letter to you, I made an appointment to meet you, because . . . I was afraid. . . . It seemed to me yesterday — you seemed to be laughing all the time. Listen,’ she added, with sudden energy, and she stopped short and turned towards me: ‘listen; if you tell with whom . . . if you mention at whose room you met me, I’ll throw myself in the water, I’ll drown myself, I’ll make an end of myself!’
At this point, for the first time, she glanced at me with the inquisitive, piercing look I had seen before.
‘Why, she, perhaps, really . . . would do it,’ was my thought.
‘Really, Musa Pavlovna,’ I protested, hurriedly: ‘how can you have such a bad opinion of me? Do you suppose I am capable of betraying my friend and injuring you? Besides, come to that, there’s nothing in your relations, as far as I’m aware, deserving of censure. . . . For goodness’ sake, be calm.’
Musa heard me out, without stirring from the spot, or looking at me again.
‘There’s something else I ought to tell you,’ she began, moving forward again along the path, ‘or else you may think I’m quite mad! I ought to tell you, that old man wants to marry me!’
‘What old man? The bald one? Punin?’
‘No — not he! The other . . . Paramon Semyonitch.’
‘Is it possible? Has he made you an offer?’
‘But you didn’t consent, of course?’
‘Yes, I did consent . . . because I didn’t understand what I was about then. Now it’s a different matter.’
I flung up my hands. ‘Baburin — and you! Why, he must be fifty!’
‘He says forty-three. But that makes no difference. If he were five — and — twenty I wouldn’t marry him. Much happiness I should find in it! A whole week will go by without his smiling once! Paramon Semyonitch is my benefactor, I am deeply indebted to him; he took care of me, educated me; I should have been utterly lost but for him; I’m bound to look on him as a father. . . . But be his wife! I’d rather die! I’d rather be in my coffin!’
‘Why do you keep talking about death, Musa Pavlovna?’
Musa stopped again.
‘Why, is life so sweet, then? Even your friend Vladimir Nikolaitch, I may say, I’ve come to love from being wretched and dull: and then Paramon Semyonitch with his offers of marriage. . . . Punin, though he bores me with his verses, he doesn’t scare me, anyway; he doesn’t make me read Karamzin in the evenings, when my head’s ready to drop off my shoulders for weariness! And what are these old men to me? They call me cold, too. With them, is it likely I should be warm? If they try to make me — I shall go. Paramon Semyonitch himself’s always saying: Freedom! freedom! All right, I want freedom too. Or else it comes to this! Freedom for every one else, and keeping me in a cage! I’ll tell him so myself. But if you betray me, or drop a hint — remember; they’ll never set eyes on me again!’
Musa stood in the middle of the path.
‘They’ll never set eyes on me again!’ she repeated sharply. This time, too, she did not raise her eyes to me; she seemed to be aware that she would infallibly betray herself, would show what was in her heart, if any one looked her straight in the face. . . . And that was just why she did not lift her eyes, except when she was angry or annoyed, and then she stared straight at the person she was speaking to. . . . But her small pretty face was aglow with indomitable resolution.
‘Why, Tarhov was right,’ flashed through my head; ‘this girl is a new type.’
‘You’ve no need to be afraid of me,’ I declared, at last.
‘Truly? Even, if . . . You said something about our relations. . . . But even if there were . . . ’ she broke off.
‘Even in that case, you would have no need to be afraid, Musa Pavlovna. I am not your judge. Your secret is buried here.’ I pointed to my bosom. ‘Believe me, I know how to appreciate . . . ’
‘Have you got my letter?’ Musa asked suddenly.
‘In my pocket.’
‘Give it here . . . quick, quick!’
I got out the scrap of paper. Musa snatched it in her rough little hand, stood still a moment facing me, as though she were going to thank me; but suddenly started, looked round, and without even a word at parting, ran quickly down the hill.
I looked in the direction she had taken. At no great distance from the tower I discerned, wrapped in an ‘Almaviva’ (‘Almavivas’ were then in the height of fashion), a figure which I recognised at once as Tarhov.
‘Aha, my boy,’ thought I, ‘you must have had notice, then, since you’re on the look-out.’
And whistling to myself, I started homewards.
* * * * *
Next morning I had only just drunk my morning tea, when Punin made his appearance. He came into my room with rather an embarrassed face, and began making bows, looking about him, and apologising for his intrusion, as he called it. I made haste to reassure him. I, sinful man, imagined that Punin had come with the intention of borrowing money. But he confined himself to asking for a glass of tea with rum in it, as, luckily, the samovar had not been cleared away. ‘It’s with some trepidation and sinking of heart that I have come to see you,’ he said, as he nibbled a lump of sugar. ‘You I do not fear; but I stand in awe of your honoured grandmother! I am abashed too by my attire, as I have already communicated to you.’ Punin passed his finger along the frayed edge of his ancient coat. ‘At home it’s no matter, and in the street, too, it’s no harm; but when one finds one’s self in gilded palaces, one’s poverty stares one in the face, and one feels confused!’ I occupied two small rooms on the ground floor, and certainly it would never have entered any one’s head to call them palaces, still less gilded; but Punin apparently was referring to the whole of my grandmother’s house, though that too was by no means conspicuously sumptuous. He reproached me for not having been to see them the previous day; ‘Paramon Semyonitch,’ said he, ‘expected you, though he did declare that you would be sure not to come. And Musotchka, too, expected you.’
‘What? Musa Pavlovna too?’ I queried.
‘She too. She’s a charming girl we have got with us, isn’t she? What do you say?’
‘Very charming,’ I assented. Punin rubbed his bare head with extraordinary rapidity.
‘She’s a beauty, sir, a pearl or even a diamond — it’s the truth I am telling you.’ He bent down quite to my ear. ‘Noble blood, too,’ he whispered to me, ‘only — you understand — left-handed; the forbidden fruit was eaten. Well, the parents died, the relations would do nothing for her, and flung her to the hazards of destiny, that’s to say, despair, dying of hunger! But at that point Paramon Semyonitch steps forward, known as a deliverer from of old! He took her, clothed her and cared for her, brought up the poor nestling; and she has blossomed into our darling! I tell you, a man of the rarest qualities!’
Punin subsided against the back of the armchair, lifted his hands, and again bending forward, began whispering again, but still more mysteriously: ‘You see Paramon Semyonitch himself too. . . . Didn’t you know? he too is of exalted extraction — and on the left side, too. They do say — his father was a powerful Georgian prince, of the line of King David. . . . What do you make of that? A few words — but how much is said? The blood of King David! What do you think of that? And according to other accounts, the founder of the family of Paramon Semyonitch was an Indian Shah, Babur. Blue blood! That’s fine too, isn’t it? Eh?’
‘Well?’ I queried, ‘and was he too, Baburin, flung to the hazards of destiny?’
Punin rubbed his pate again. ‘To be sure he was! And with even greater cruelty than our little lady! From his earliest childhood nothing but struggling! And, in fact, I will confess that, inspired by Ruban, I composed in allusion to this fact a stanza for the portrait of Paramon Semyonitch. Wait a bit . . . how was it? Yes!
‘E’en from the cradle fate’s remorseless blows
Baburin drove towards the abyss of woes!
But as in darkness gleams the light, so now
The conqueror’s laurel wreathes his noble brow!’
Punin delivered these lines in a rhythmic, sing-song voice, with full rounded vowels, as verses should be read.
‘So that’s how it is he’s a republican!’ I exclaimed.
‘No, that’s not why,’ Punin answered simply. ‘He forgave his father long ago; but he cannot endure injustice of any sort; it’s the sorrows of others that trouble him!’
I wanted to turn the conversation on what I had learned from Musa the day before, that is to say, on Baburin’s matrimonial project — but I did not know how to proceed. Punin himself got me out of the difficulty.
‘Did you notice nothing?’ he asked me suddenly, slily screwing up his eyes, ‘while you were with us? nothing special?’
‘Why, was there anything to notice?’ I asked in my turn.
Punin looked over his shoulder, as though anxious to satisfy himself that no one was listening. ‘Our little beauty, Musotchka, is shortly to be a married lady!’
‘Madame Baburin,’ Punin announced with an effort, and slapping his knees several times with his open hands, he nodded his head, like a china mandarin.
‘Impossible!’ I cried, with assumed astonishment. Punin’s head slowly came to rest, and his hands dropped down. ‘Why impossible, allow me to ask?’
‘Because Paramon Semyonitch is more fit to be your young lady’s father; because such a difference in age excludes all likelihood of love — on the girl’s side.’
‘Excludes?’ Punin repeated excitedly. ‘But what about gratitude? and pure affection? and tenderness of feeling? Excludes! You must consider this: admitting that Musa’s a splendid girl; but then to gain Paramon Semyonitch’s affection, to be his comfort, his prop — his spouse, in short! is that not the loftiest possible happiness even for such a girl? And she realises it! You should look, turn an attentive eye! In Paramon Semyonitch’s presence Musotchka is all veneration, all tremor and enthusiasm!’
‘That’s just what’s wrong, Nikander Vavilitch, that she is, as you say, all tremor. If you love any one you don’t feel tremors in their presence.’
‘But with that I can’t agree! Here am I, for instance; no one, I suppose, could love Paramon Semyonitch more than I, but I . . . tremble before him.’
‘Oh, you — that’s a different matter.’
‘How is it a different matter? how? how?’ interrupted Punin. I simply did not know him; he got hot, and serious, almost angry, and quite dropped his rhythmic sing-song in speaking. ‘No,’ he declared; ‘I notice that you have not a good eye for character! No; you can’t read people’s hearts!’ I gave up contradicting him . . . and to give another turn to the conversation, proposed, for the sake of old times, that we should read something together.
Punin was silent for a while.
‘One of the old poets? The real ones?’ he asked at last.
‘No; a new one.’
‘A new one?’ Punin repeated mistrustfully.
‘Pushkin,’ I answered. I suddenly thought of the Gypsies which Tarhov had mentioned not long before. There, by the way, is the ballad about the old husband. Punin grumbled a little, but I sat him down on the sofa, so that he could listen more comfortably, and began to read Pushkin’s poem. The passage came at last, ‘old husband, cruel husband’; Punin heard the ballad through to the end, and all at once he got up impulsively.
‘I can’t,’ he pronounced, with an intense emotion, which impressed even me; —‘excuse me; I cannot hear more of that author. He is an immoral slanderer; he is a liar . . . he upsets me. I cannot! Permit me to cut short my visit today.’
I began trying to persuade Punin to remain; but he insisted on having his own way with a sort of stupid, scared obstinacy: he repeated several times that he felt upset, and wished to get a breath of fresh air — and all the while his lips were faintly quivering and his eyes avoided mine, as though I had wounded him. So he went away. A little while after, I too went out of the house and set off to see Tarhov.
* * * * *
Without inquiring of any one, with a student’s usual lack of ceremony, I walked straight into his lodgings. In the first room there was no one. I called Tarhov by name, and receiving no answer, was just going to retreat; but the door of the adjoining room opened, and my friend appeared. He looked at me rather queerly, and shook hands without speaking. I had come to him to repeat all I had heard from Punin; and though I felt at once that I had called on Tarhov at the wrong moment, still, after talking a little about extraneous matters, I ended by informing him of Baburin’s intentions in regard to Musa. This piece of news did not, apparently, surprise him much; he quietly sat down at the table, and fixing his eyes intently upon me, and keeping silent as before, gave to his features an expression . . . an expression, as though he would say: ‘Well, what more have you to tell? Come, out with your ideas!’ I looked more attentively into his face. . . . It struck me as eager, a little ironical, a little arrogant even. But that did not hinder me from bringing out my ideas. On the contrary. ‘You’re showing off,’ was my thought; ‘so I am not going to spare you!’ And there and then I proceeded straightway to enlarge upon the mischief of yielding to impulsive feelings, upon the duty of every man to respect the freedom and personal life of another man — in short, I proceeded to enunciate useful and appropriate counsel. Holding forth in this manner, I walked up and down the room, to be more at ease. Tarhov did not interrupt me, and did not stir from his seat; he only played with his fingers on his chin.
‘I know,’ said I . . . (Exactly what was my motive in speaking so, I have no clear idea myself — envy, most likely; it was not devotion to morality, anyway!) ‘I know,’ said I, ‘that it’s no easy matter, no joking matter; I am sure you love Musa, and that Musa loves you — that it is not a passing fancy on your part. . . . But, see, let us suppose! (Here I folded my arms on my breast.) . . . Let us suppose you gratify your passion — what is to follow? You won’t marry her, you know. And at the same time you are wrecking the happiness of an excellent, honest man, her benefactor — and — who knows? (here my face expressed at the same time penetration and sorrow)— possibly her own happiness too. . . . ’
And so on, and so on!
For about a quarter of an hour my discourse flowed on. Tarhov was still silent. I began to be disconcerted by this silence. I glanced at him from time to time, not so much to satisfy myself as to the impression my words were making on him, as to find out why he neither objected nor agreed, but sat like a deaf mute. At last I fancied that there was . . . yes, there certainly was a change in his face. It began to show signs of uneasiness, agitation, painful agitation. . . . Yet, strange to say, the eager, bright, laughing something, which had struck me at my first glance at Tarhov, still did not leave that agitated, that troubled face! I could not make up my mind whether or no to congratulate myself on the success of my sermon, when Tarhov suddenly got up, and pressing both my hands, said, speaking very quickly, ‘Thank you, thank you. You’re right, of course, . . . though, on the other side, one might observe . . . What is your Baburin you make so much of, after all? An honest fool — and nothing more! You call him a republican — and he’s simply a fool! Oo! That’s what he is! All his republicanism simply means that he can never get on anywhere!’
‘Ah! so that’s your idea! A fool! can never get on! — but let me tell you,’ I pursued, with sudden heat, ‘let me tell you, my dear Vladimir Nikolaitch, that in these days to get on nowhere is a sign of a fine, a noble nature! None but worthless people — bad people — get on anywhere and accommodate themselves to everything. You say Baburin is an honest fool! Why, is it better, then, to your mind, to be dishonest and clever?’
‘You distort my words!’ cried Tarhov. ‘I only wanted to explain how I understand that person. Do you think he’s such a rare specimen? Not a bit of it! I’ve met other people like him in my time. A man sits with an air of importance, silent, obstinate, angular. . . . O-ho-ho! say you. It shows that there’s a great deal in him! But there’s nothing in him, not one idea in his head — nothing but a sense of his own dignity.’
‘Even if there is nothing else, that’s an honourable thing,’ I broke in. ‘But let me ask where you have managed to study him like this? You don’t know him, do you? Or are you describing him . . . from what Musa tells you?’
Tarhov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Musa and I . . . have other things to talk of. I tell you what,’ he added, his whole body quivering with impatience — ‘I tell you what: if Baburin has such a noble and honest nature, how is it he doesn’t see that Musa is not a fit match for him? It’s one of two things: either he knows that what he’s doing to her is something of the nature of an outrage, all in the name of gratitude . . . and if so, what about his honesty? — or he doesn’t realise it . . . and in that case, what can one call him but a fool?’
I was about to reply, but Tarhov again clutched my hands, and again began talking in a hurried voice. ‘Though . . . of course . . . I confess you are right, a thousand times right. . . . You are a true friend . . . but now leave me alone, please.’
I was puzzled. ‘Leave you alone?’
‘Yes. I must, don’t you see, think over all you’ve just said, thoroughly. . . . I have no doubt you are right . . . but now leave me alone!’
‘You ‘re in such a state of excitement . . . ’ I was beginning.
‘Excitement? I?’ Tarhov laughed, but instantly pulled himself up. ‘Yes, of course I am. How could I help being? You say yourself it’s no joking matter. Yes; I must think about it . . . alone.’ He was still squeezing my hands. ‘Good-bye, my dear fellow, good-bye!’
‘Good-bye,’ I repeated. ‘Good-bye, old boy!’ As I was going away I flung a last glance at Tarhov. He seemed pleased. At what? At the fact that I, like a true friend and comrade, had pointed out the danger of the way upon which he had set his foot — or that I was going? Ideas of the most diverse kind were floating in my head the whole day till evening — till the very instant when I entered the house occupied by Punin and Baburin, for I went to see them the same day. I am bound to confess that some of Tarhov’s phrases had sunk deep into my soul . . . and were ringing in my ears. . . . In truth, was it possible Baburin . . . was it possible he did not see she was not a fit match for him?
But could this possibly be: Baburin, the self-sacrificing Baburin — an honest fool!
* * * * *
Punin had said, when he came to see me, that I had been expected there the day before. That may have been so, but on this day, it is certain, no one expected me. . . . I found every one at home, and every one was surprised at my visit. Baburin and Punin were both unwell: Punin had a headache, and he was lying curled up on the sofa, with his head tied up in a spotted handkerchief, and strips of cucumber applied to his temples. Baburin was suffering from a bilious attack; all yellow, almost dusky, with dark rings round his eyes, with scowling brow and unshaven chin — he did not look much like a bridegroom! I tried to go away. . . . But they would not let me go, and even made tea. I spent anything but a cheerful evening. Musa, it is true, had no ailment, and was less shy than usual too, but she was obviously vexed, angry. . . . At last she could not restrain herself, and, as she handed me a cup of tea, she whispered hurriedly: ‘You can say what you like, you may try your utmost, you won’t make any difference. . . . So there!’ I looked at her in astonishment, and, seizing a favourable moment, asked her, also in a whisper, ‘What’s the meaning of your words?’ ‘I’ll tell you,’ she answered, and her black eyes, gleaming angrily under her frowning brows, were fastened for an instant on my face, and turned away at once: ‘the meaning is that I heard all you said there today, and thank you for nothing, and things won’t be as you ‘d have them, anyway.’ ‘You were there,’ broke from me unconsciously. . . . But at this point Baburin’s attention was caught, and he glanced in our direction. Musa walked away from me.
Ten minutes later she managed to come near me again. She seemed to enjoy saying bold and dangerous things to me, and saying them in the presence of her protector, under his vigilant eye, only exercising barely enough caution not to arouse his suspicions. It is well known that walking on the brink, on the very edge, of the precipice is woman’s favourite pastime. ‘Yes, I was there,’ whispered Musa, without any change of countenance, except that her nostrils were faintly quivering and her lips twitching. ‘Yes, and if Paramon Semyonitch asks me what I am whispering about with you, I’d tell him this minute. What do I care?’
‘Be more careful,’ I besought her. ‘I really believe they are noticing.’
‘I tell you, I’m quite ready to tell them everything. And who’s noticing? One’s stretching his neck off the pillow, like a sick duck, and hears nothing; and the other’s deep in philosophy. Don’t you be afraid!’ Musa’s voice rose a little, and her cheeks gradually flushed a sort of malignant, dusky red; and this suited her marvellously, and never had she been so pretty. As she cleared the table, and set the cups and saucers in their places, she moved swiftly about the room; there was something challenging about her light, free and easy movement. ‘You may criticise me as you like,’ she seemed to say; ‘but I’m going my own way, and I’m not afraid of you.’
I cannot disguise the fact that I found Musa bewitching just that evening. ‘Yes,’ I mused; ‘she’s a little spitfire — she’s a new type. . . . She’s — exquisite. Those hands know how to deal a blow, I dare say. . . . What of it! No matter!’
‘Paramon Semyonitch,’ she cried suddenly, ‘isn’t a republic an empire in which every one does as he chooses?’
‘A republic is not an empire,’ answered Baburin, raising his head, and contracting his brows; ‘it is a . . . form of society in which everything rests on law and justice.’
‘Then,’ Musa pursued, ‘in a republic no one can oppress any one else?’
‘And every one is free to dispose of himself?’
‘Ah! that’s all I wanted to know.’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Oh, I wanted to — I wanted you to tell me that.’
‘Our young lady is anxious to learn,’ Punin observed from the sofa.
When I went out into the passage Musa accompanied me, not, of course, from politeness, but with the same malicious intent. I asked her, as I took leave, ‘Can you really love him so much?’
‘Whether I love him, or whether I don’t, that’s my affair,’ she answered. ‘What is to be, will be.’
‘Mind what you’re about; don’t play with fire . . . you’ll get burnt.’
‘Better be burnt than frozen. You . . . with your good advice! And how can you tell he won’t marry me? How do you know I so particularly want to get married? If I am ruined . . . what business is it of yours?’
She slammed the door after me.
I remember that on the way home I reflected with some pleasure that my friend Vladimir Tarhov might find things rather hot for him with his new type. . . . He ought to have to pay something for his happiness!
That he would be happy, I was — regretfully — unable to doubt.
Three days passed by. I was sitting in my room at my writing-table, and not so much working as getting myself ready for lunch. . . . I heard a rustle, lifted my head, and I was stupefied. Before me — rigid, terrible, white as chalk, stood an apparition . . . Punin. His half-closed eyes were looking at me, blinking slowly; they expressed a senseless terror, the terror of a frightened hare, and his arms hung at his sides like sticks.
‘Nikander Vavilitch! what is the matter with you? How did you come here? Did no one see you? What has happened? Do speak!’
‘She has run away,’ Punin articulated in a hoarse, hardly audible voice.
‘What do you say?’
‘She has run away,’ he repeated.
‘Musa. She went away in the night, and left a note.’
‘Yes. “I thank you,” she said, “but I am not coming back again. Don’t look for me.” We ran up and down; we questioned the cook; she knew nothing. I can’t speak loud; you must excuse me. I’ve lost my voice.’
‘Musa Pavlovna has left you!’ I exclaimed. ‘Nonsense! Mr. Baburin must be in despair. What does he intend to do now?’
‘He has no intention of doing anything. I wanted to run to the Governor-general: he forbade it. I wanted to give information to the police; he forbade that too, and got very angry. He says, “She’s free.” He says, “I don’t want to constrain her.” He has even gone to work, to his office. But he looks more dead than alive. He loved her terribly. . . . Oh, oh, we both loved her!’
Here Punin for the first time showed that he was not a wooden image, but a live man; he lifted both his fists in the air, and brought them down on his pate, which shone like ivory.
‘Ungrateful girl!’ he groaned; ‘who was it gave you food and drink, clothed you, and brought you up? who cared for you, would have given all his life, all his soul . . . And you have forgotten it all? To cast me off, truly, were no great matter, but Paramon Semyonitch, Paramon . . . ’
I begged him to sit down, to rest.
Punin shook his head. ‘No, I won’t. I have come to you . . . I don’t know what for. I’m like one distraught; to stay at home alone is fearful; what am I to do with myself? I stand in the middle of the room, shut my eyes, and call, “Musa! Musotchka!” That’s the way to go out of one’s mind. But no, why am I talking nonsense? I know why I have come to you. You know, the other day you read me that thrice-accursed poem . . . you remember, where there is talk of an old husband. What did you do that for? Did you know something then . . . or guessed something?’ Punin glanced at me. ‘Piotr Petrovitch,’ he cried suddenly, and he began trembling all over, ‘you know, perhaps, where she is. Kind friend, tell me whom she has gone to!’
I was disconcerted, and could not help dropping my eyes. . . .
‘Perhaps she said something in her letter,’ I began. . . .
‘She said she was leaving us because she loved some one else! Dear, good friend, you know, surely, where she is? Save her, let us go to her; we will persuade her. Only think what a man she’s bringing to ruin.’
Punin all at once flushed crimson, the blood seemed to rush to his head, he plumped heavily down on his knees. ‘Save us, friend, let us go to her.’
My servant appeared in the doorway, and stood still in amazement.
I had no little trouble to get Punin on to his feet again, to convince him that, even if I did suspect something, still it would not do to act like that, on the spur of the moment, especially both together — that would only spoil all our efforts — that I was ready to do my best, but would not answer for anything. Punin did not oppose me, nor did he indeed hear me; he only repeated from time to time in his broken voice, ‘Save her, save her and Paramon Semyonitch.’ At last he began to cry. ‘Tell me at least one thing,’ he asked . . . ‘is he handsome, young?’
‘Yes, he is young,’ I answered.
‘He is young,’ repeated Punin, smearing the tears over his cheeks; ‘and she is young. . . . It’s from that that all the trouble’s sprung!’
This rhyme came by chance; poor Punin was in no mood for versifying. I would have given a good deal to hear his rhapsodical eloquence again, or even his almost noiseless laugh. . . . Alas! his eloquence was quenched for ever, and I never heard his laugh again.
I promised to let him know, as soon as I should find out anything positive. . . . Tarhov’s name I did not, however, mention. Punin suddenly collapsed completely. ‘Very good, very good, sir, thank you,’ he said with a pitiful face, using the word ‘sir,’ which he had never done before; ‘only mind, sir, do not say anything to Paramon Semyonitch . . . or he’ll be angry. In one word, he has forbidden it. Good-bye, sir.’
As he got up and turned his back to me, Punin struck me as such a poor feeble creature, that I positively marvelled; he limped with both legs, and doubled up at each step. . . .
‘It’s a bad look-out. It’s the end of him, that’s what it means,’ I thought.
* * * * *
Though I had promised Punin to trace Musa, yet as I set off the same day to Tarhov’s, I had not the slightest expectation of learning anything, as I considered it certain that either I should not find him at home, or that he would refuse to see me. My supposition turned out to be a mistaken one. I found Tarhov at home; he received me, and I found out indeed all I wanted to know; but there was nothing gained by that. Directly I crossed the threshold of his door, Tarhov came resolutely, rapidly, to meet me, and his eyes sparkling and glowing, his face grown handsomer and radiant, he said firmly and briskly: ‘Listen, Petya, my boy; I guess what you’ve come for, and what you want to talk about; but I give you warning, if you say a single word about her, or about her action, or about what, according to you, is the course dictated to me by common sense, we’re friends no longer, we’re not even acquainted, and I shall beg you to treat me as a stranger.’
I looked at Tarhov; he was quivering all over inwardly, like a tightly drawn harpstring; he was tingling all over, hardly could he hold back the tide of brimming youth and passion; violent, ecstatic happiness had burst into his soul, and had taken full possession of him — and he of it.
* * * * *
‘Is that your final decision?’ I pronounced mournfully.
‘Yes, Petya, my boy, it’s final.’
‘In that case, there’s nothing for me but to say good-bye.’
Tarhov faintly dropped his eyelids. . . . He was too happy at that moment.
‘Good-bye, Petya, old boy,’ he said, a little through his nose, with a candid smile and a gay flash of all his white teeth.
What was I to do? I left him to his ‘happiness.’ As I slammed the door after me, the other door of the room slammed also — I heard it.
* * * * *
It was with a heavy heart that I trudged off next day to see my luckless acquaintances. I secretly hoped — such is human weakness — that I should not find them at home, and again I was mistaken. Both were at home. The change that had taken place in them during the last three days must have struck any one. Punin looked ghastly white and flabby. His talkativeness had completely vanished. He spoke listlessly, feebly, still in the same husky voice, and looked somehow lost and bewildered. Baburin, on the contrary, seemed shrunk into himself, and blacker than ever; taciturn at the best of times, he uttered nothing now but a few abrupt sounds; an expression of stony severity seemed to have frozen on his countenance.
I felt it impossible to be silent; but what was there to say? I confined myself to whispering to Punin, ‘I have discovered nothing, and my advice to you is to give up all hope.’ Punin glanced at me with his swollen, red little eyes — the only red left in his face — muttered something inaudible, and hobbled away. Baburin most likely guessed what I had been speaking about to Punin, and opening his lips, which were tightly compressed, as though glued together, he pronounced, in a deliberate voice, ‘My dear sir, since your last visit to us, something disagreeable has happened to us; our young friend, Musa Pavlovna Vinogradov, finding it no longer convenient to live with us, has decided to leave us, and has given us a written communication to that effect. Not considering that we have any right to hinder her doing so, we have left her to act according to her own views of what is best. We trust that she may be happy,’ he added, with some effort; ‘and I humbly beg you not to allude to the subject, as any such references are useless, and even painful.’
‘So he too, like Tarhov, forbids my speaking of Musa,’ was the thought that struck me, and I could not help wondering inwardly. He might well prize Zeno so highly. I wished to impart to him some facts about that sage, but my tongue would not form the words, and it did well.
I soon went about my business. At parting neither Punin nor Baburin said, ‘Till we meet!’ both with one voice pronounced, ‘Good-bye.’
Punin even returned me a volume of the Telegraph I had brought him, as much as to say, ‘he had no need of anything of that kind now.’
A week later I had a curious encounter. An early spring had set in abruptly; at midday the heat rose to eighteen degrees Réaumur. Everything was turning green, and shooting up out of the spongy, damp earth. I hired a horse at the riding-school, and went out for a ride into the outskirts of the town, towards the Vorobyov hills. On the road I was met by a little cart, drawn by a pair of spirited ponies, splashed with mud up to their ears, with plaited tails, and red ribbons in their manes and forelocks. Their harness was such as sportsmen affect, with copper discs and tassels; they were being driven by a smart young driver, in a blue tunic without sleeves, a yellow striped silk shirt, and a low felt hat with peacock’s feathers round the crown. Beside him sat a girl of the artisan or merchant class, in a flowered silk jacket, with a big blue handkerchief on her head — and she was simply bubbling over with mirth. The driver was laughing too. I drew my horse on one side, but did not, however, take particular notice of the swiftly passing, merry couple, when, all at once, the young man shouted to his ponies. . . . Why, that was Tarhov’s voice! I looked round. . . . Yes, it was he; unmistakably he, dressed up as a peasant, and beside him — wasn’t it Musa?
But at that instant their ponies quickened their pace, and they were out of my sight in a minute. I tried to put my horse into a gallop in pursuit of them, but it was an old riding school hack, that shambled from side to side as it moved; it went more slowly galloping than trotting.
‘Enjoy yourselves, my dear friends!’ I muttered through my teeth.
I ought to observe that I had not seen Tarhov during the whole week, though I had been three times to his rooms. He was never at home. Baburin and Punin I had not seen either. . . . I had not been to see them.
I caught cold on my ride; though it was very warm, there was a piercing wind. I was dangerously ill, and when I recovered I went with my grandmother into the country ‘to feed up,’ by the doctor’s advice. I did not get to Moscow again; in the autumn I was transferred to the Petersburg university.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14