Not seven, but fully twelve years had passed by, and I was in my thirty-second year. My grandmother had long been dead; I was living in Petersburg, with a post in the Department of Home Affairs. Tarhov I had lost sight of; he had gone into the army, and lived almost always in the provinces. We had met twice, as old friends, glad to see each other; but we had not touched on the past in our talk. At the time of our last meeting he was, if I remember right, already a married man.
One sultry summer day I was sauntering along Gorohov Street, cursing my official duties for keeping me in Petersburg, and the heat and stench and dust of the city. A funeral barred my way. It consisted of a solitary car, that is, to be accurate, of a decrepit hearse, on which a poor-looking wooden coffin, half-covered with a threadbare black cloth, was shaking up and down as it was jolted violently over the uneven pavement. An old man with a white head was walking alone after the hearse.
I looked at him. . . . His face seemed familiar. . . . He too turned his eyes upon me. . . . Merciful heavens! it was Baburin! I took off my hat, went up to him, mentioned my name, and walked along beside him.
‘Whom are you burying?’ I asked.
‘Nikander Vavilitch Punin,’ he answered.
I felt, I knew beforehand, that he would utter that name, and yet it set my heart aching. I felt melancholy, and yet I was glad that chance had enabled me to pay my last respects to my old friend. . . .
‘May I go with you, Paramon Semyonitch?’
‘You may. . . . I was following him alone; now there’ll be two of us.’
Our walk lasted more than an hour. My companion moved forward, without lifting his eyes or opening his lips. He had become quite an old man since I had seen him last; his deeply furrowed, copper-coloured face stood out sharply against his white hair. Signs of a life of toil and suffering, of continual struggle, could be seen in Baburin’s whole figure; want and poverty had worked cruel havoc with him. When everything was over, when what was Punin had disappeared for ever in the damp . . . yes, undoubtedly damp earth of the Smolensky cemetery, Baburin, after standing a couple of minutes with bowed, uncovered head before the newly risen mound of sandy clay, turned to me his emaciated, as it were embittered, face, his dry, sunken eyes, thanked me grimly, and was about to move away; but I detained him.
‘Where do you live, Paramon Semyonitch? Let me come and see you. I had no idea you were living in Petersburg. We could recall old days, and talk of our dead friend.’
Baburin did not answer me at once.
‘It’s two years since I found my way to Petersburg,’ he observed at last; ‘I live at the very end of the town. However, if you really care to visit me, come.’ He gave me his address. ‘Come in the evening; in the evening we are always at home . . . both of us.’
‘Both of you?’
‘I am married. My wife is not very well today, and that’s why she did not come too. Though, indeed, it’s quite enough for one person to go through this empty formality, this ceremony. As if anybody believed in it all!’
I was a little surprised at Baburin’s last words, but I said nothing, called a cab, and proposed to Baburin to take him home; but he refused.
* * * * *
The same day I went in the evening to see him. All the way there I was thinking of Punin. I recalled how I had met him the first time, and how ecstatic and amusing he was in those days; and afterwards in Moscow how subdued he had grown — especially the last time I saw him; and now he had made his last reckoning with life; — life is in grim earnest, it seems! Baburin was living in the Viborgsky quarter, in a little house which reminded me of the Moscow ‘nest’: the Petersburg abode was almost shabbier in appearance. When I went into his room he was sitting on a chair in a corner with his hands on his knees; a tallow candle, burning low, dimly lighted up his bowed, white head. He heard the sound of my footsteps, started up, and welcomed me more warmly than I had expected. A few moments later his wife came in; I recognised her at once as Musa — and only then understood why Baburin had invited me to come; he wanted to show me that he had after all come by his own.
Musa was greatly changed — in face, in voice, and in manners; but her eyes were changed most of all. In old times they had darted about like live creatures, those malicious, beautiful eyes; they had gleamed stealthily, but brilliantly; their glance had pierced, like a pin-prick. . . . Now they looked at one directly, calmly, steadily; their black centres had lost their lustre. ‘I am broken in, I am tame, I am good,’ her soft and dull gaze seemed to say. Her continued, submissive smile told the same story. And her dress, too, was subdued; brown, with little spots on it. She came up to me, asked me whether I knew her. She obviously felt no embarrassment, and not because she had lost a sense of shame or memory of the past, but simply because all petty self-consciousness had left her.
Musa talked a great deal about Punin, talked in an even voice, which too had lost its fire. I learned that of late years he had become very feeble, had almost sunk into childishness, so much so that he was miserable if he had not toys to play with; they persuaded him, it is true, that he made them out of waste stuff for sale . . . but he really played with them himself. His passion for poetry, however, never died out, and he kept his memory for nothing but verses; a few days before his death he recited a passage from the Rossiad; but Pushkin he feared, as children fear bogies. His devotion to Baburin had also remained undiminished; he worshipped him as much as ever, and even at the last, wrapped about by the chill and dark of the end, he had faltered with halting tongue, ‘benefactor!’ I learned also from Musa that soon after the Moscow episode, it had been Baburin’s fate once more to wander all over Russia, continually tossed from one private situation to another; that in Petersburg, too, he had been again in a situation, in a private business, which situation he had, however, been obliged to leave a few days before, owing to some unpleasantness with his employer: Baburin had ventured to stand up for the workpeople. . . . The invariable smile, with which Musa accompanied her words, set me musing mournfully; it put the finishing touch to the impression made on me by her husband’s appearance. They had hard work, the two of them, to make a bare living — there was no doubt of it. He took very little part in our conversation; he seemed more preoccupied than grieved. . . . Something was worrying him.
‘Paramon Semyonitch, come here,’ said the cook, suddenly appearing in the doorway.
‘What is it? what’s wanted?’ he asked in alarm.
‘Come here,’ the cook repeated insistently and meaningly. Baburin buttoned up his coat and went out.
When I was left alone with Musa, she looked at me with a somewhat changed glance, and observed in a voice which was also changed, and with no smile: ‘I don’t know, Piotr Petrovitch, what you think of me now, but I dare say you remember what I used to be. . . . I was self-confident, light-hearted . . . and not good; I wanted to live for my own pleasure. But I want to tell you this: when I was abandoned, and was like one lost, and was only waiting for God to take me, or to pluck up spirit to make an end of myself — once more, just as in Voronezh, I met with Paramon Semyonitch — and he saved me once again. . . . Not a word that could wound me did I hear from him, not a word of reproach; he asked nothing of me — I was not worthy of that; but he loved me . . . and I became his wife. What was I to do? I had failed of dying; and I could not live either after my own choice. . . . What was I to do with myself? Even so — it was a mercy to be thankful for. That is all.’
She ceased, turned away for an instant . . . the same submissive smile came back to her lips. ‘Whether life’s easy for me, you needn’t ask,’ was the meaning I fancied now in that smile.
The conversation passed to ordinary subjects. Musa told me that Punin had left a cat that he had been very fond of, and that ever since his death she had gone up to the attic and stayed there, mewing incessantly, as though she were calling some one . . . the neighbours were very much scared, and fancied that it was Punin’s soul that had passed into the cat.
‘Paramon Semyonitch is worried about something,’ I said at last.
‘Oh, you noticed it?’— Musa sighed. ‘He cannot help being worried. I need hardly tell you that Paramon Semyonitch has remained faithful to his principles. . . . The present condition of affairs can but strengthen them.’ (Musa expressed herself quite differently now from in the old days in Moscow; there was a literary, bookish flavour in her phrases.) ‘I don’t know, though, whether I can rely upon you, and how you will receive . . . ’
‘Why should you imagine you cannot rely upon me?’
‘Well, you are in the government service — you are an official.’
‘Well, what of that?’
‘You are, consequently, loyal to the government.’
I marvelled inwardly . . . at Musa’s innocence. ‘As to my attitude to the government, which is not even aware of my existence, I won’t enlarge upon that,’ I observed; ‘but you may set your mind at rest. I will make no bad use of your confidence. I sympathise with your husband’s ideas . . . more than you suppose.’
Musa shook her head.
‘Yes; that’s all so,’ she began, not without hesitation; ‘but you see it’s like this. Paramon Semyonitch’s ideas will shortly, it may be, find expression in action. They can no longer be hidden under a bushel. There are comrades whom we cannot now abandon . . . ’
Musa suddenly ceased speaking, as though she had bitten her tongue. Her last words had amazed and a little alarmed me. Most likely my face showed what I was feeling — and Musa noticed it.
As I have said already, our interview took place in the year 1849. Many people still remember what a disturbed and difficult time that was, and by what incidents it was signalised in St. Petersburg. I had been struck myself by certain peculiarities in Baburin’s behaviour, in his whole demeanour. Twice he had referred to governmental action, to personages in high authority, with such intense bitterness and hatred, with such loathing, that I had been dumbfoundered. . . .
‘Well?’ he asked me suddenly: ‘did you set your peasants free?’
I was obliged to confess I had not.
‘Why, I suppose your granny’s dead, isn’t she?’
I was obliged to admit that she was.
‘To be sure, you noble gentlemen,’ Baburin muttered between his teeth, ‘ . . . use other men’s hands . . . to poke up your fire . . . that’s what you like.’
In the most conspicuous place in his room hung the well-known lithograph portrait of Belinsky; on the table lay a volume of the old Polar Star, edited by Bestuzhev.
A long time passed, and Baburin did not come back after the cook had called him away. Musa looked several times uneasily towards the door by which he had gone out. At last she could bear it no longer; she got up, and with an apology she too went out by the same door. A quarter of an hour later she came back with her husband; the faces of both, so at least I thought, looked troubled. But all of a sudden Baburin’s face assumed a different, an intensely bitter, almost frenzied expression.
‘What will be the end of it?’ he began all at once in a jerky, sobbing voice, utterly unlike him, while his wild eyes shifted restlessly about him. ‘One goes on living and living, and hoping that maybe it’ll be better, that one will breathe more freely; but it’s quite the other way — everything gets worse and worse! They have squeezed us right up to the wall! In my youth I bore all with patience; they . . . maybe . . . beat me . . . even . . . yes!’ he added, turning sharply round on his heels and swooping down as it were, upon me: ‘I, a man of full age, was subjected to corporal punishment . . . yes; — of other wrongs I will not speak. . . . But is there really nothing before us but to go back to those old times again? The way they are treating the young people now! . . . Yes, it breaks down all endurance at last. . . . It breaks it down! Yes! Wait a bit!’
I had never seen Baburin in such a condition. Musa turned positively white. . . . Baburin suddenly cleared his throat, and sank down into a seat. Not wishing to constrain either him or Musa by my presence, I decided to go, and was just saying good-bye to them, when the door into the next room suddenly opened, and a head appeared. . . . It was not the cook’s head, but the dishevelled and terrified-looking head of a young man.
‘Something’s wrong, Baburin, something’s wrong!’ he faltered hurriedly, then vanished at once on perceiving my unfamiliar figure.
Baburin rushed after the young man. I pressed Musa’s hand warmly, and withdrew, with presentiments of evil in my heart.
‘Come tomorrow,’ she whispered anxiously.
‘I certainly will come,’ I answered.
* * * * *
I was still in bed next morning, when my man handed me a letter from Musa.
‘Dear Piotr Petrovitch!’ she wrote: ‘Paramon Semyonitch has been this night arrested by the police and carried off to the fortress, or I don’t know where; they did not tell me. They ransacked all our papers, sealed up a great many, and took them away with them. It has been the same with our books and letters. They say a mass of people have been arrested in the town. You can fancy how I feel. It is well Nikander Vavilitch did not live to see it! He was taken just in time. Advise me what I am to do. For myself I am not afraid — I shall not die of starvation — but the thought of Paramon Semyonitch gives me no rest. Come, please, if only you are not afraid to visit people in our position. — Yours faithfully,
* * * * *
Half an hour later I was with Musa. On seeing me she held out her hand, and, though she did not utter a word, a look of gratitude flitted over her face. She was wearing the same clothes as on the previous day; there was every sign that she had not been to bed or slept all night. Her eyes were red, but from sleeplessness, not from tears. She had not been crying. She was in no mood for weeping. She wanted to act, wanted to struggle with the calamity that had fallen upon them: the old, energetic, self-willed Musa had risen up in her again. She had no time even to be indignant, though she was choking with indignation. How to assist Baburin, to whom to appeal so as to soften his lot — she could think of nothing else. She wanted to go instantly, . . . to petition, . . . demand. . . . But where to go, whom to petition, what to demand — this was what she wanted to hear from me, this was what she wanted to consult me about.
I began by counselling her . . . to have patience. For the first moment there was nothing left to be done but to wait, and, as far as might be, to make inquiries; and to take any decisive step now when the affair had scarcely begun, and hardly yet taken shape, would be simply senseless, irrational. To hope for any success was irrational, even if I had been a person of much more importance and influence, . . . but what could I, a petty official, do? As for her, she was absolutely without any powerful friends. . . .
It was no easy matter to make all this plain to her . . . but at last she understood my arguments; she understood, too, that I was not prompted by egoistic feeling, when I showed her the uselessness of all efforts. ‘But tell me, Musa Pavlovna,’ I began, when she sank at last into a chair (till then she had been standing up, as though on the point of setting off at once to the aid of Baburin),‘how Paramon Semyonitch, at his age, comes to be mixed up in such an affair? I feel sure that there are none but young people implicated in it, like the one who came in yesterday to warn you. . . . ’
‘Those young people are our friends!’ cried Musa, and her eyes flashed and darted as of old. Something strong, irrepressible, seemed, as it were, to rise up from the bottom of her soul, . . . and I suddenly recalled the expression ‘a new type,’ which Tarhov had once used of her. ‘Years are of no consequence when it is a matter of political principles!’ Musa laid a special stress on these last two words. One might fancy that in all her sorrow it was not unpleasing to her to show herself before me in this new, unlooked-for character — in the character of a cultivated and mature woman, fit wife of a republican! . . . ‘Some old men are younger than some young ones,’ she pursued, ‘more capable of sacrifice. . . . But that’s not the point.’
‘I think, Musa Pavlovna,’ I observed, ‘that you are exaggerating a little. Knowing the character of Paramon Semyonitch, I should have felt sure beforehand that he would sympathise with every . . . sincere impulse; but, on the other hand, I have always regarded him as a man of sense. . . . Surely he cannot fail to realise all the impracticability, all the absurdity of conspiracies in Russia? In his position, in his calling . . . ’
‘Oh, of course,’ Musa interrupted, with bitterness in her voice, ‘he is a working man; and in Russia it is only permissible for noblemen to take part in conspiracies, . . . as, for instance, in that of the fourteenth of December, . . . that’s what you meant to say.’
‘In that case, what do you complain of now?’ almost broke from my lips, . . . but I restrained myself. ‘Do you consider that the result of the fourteenth of December was such as to encourage other such attempts?’ I said aloud.
Musa frowned. ‘It is no good talking to you about it,’ was what I read in her downcast face.
‘Is Paramon Semyonitch very seriously compromised?’ I ventured to ask her. Musa made no reply. . . . A hungry, savage mewing was heard from the attic.
Musa started. ‘Ah, it is a good thing Nikander Vavilitch did not see all this!’ she moaned almost despairingly. ‘He did not see how violently in the night they seized his benefactor, our benefactor — maybe, the best and truest man in the whole world — he did not see how they treated that noble man at his age, how rudely they addressed him, . . . how they threatened him, and the threats they used to him! — only because he was a working man! That young officer, too, was no doubt just such an unprincipled, heartless wretch as I have known in my life. . . . ’
Musa’s voice broke. She was quivering all over like a leaf.
Her long-suppressed indignation broke out at last; old memories stirred up, brought to the surface by the general tumult of her soul, showed themselves alive within her. . . . But the conviction I carried off at that moment was that the ‘new type’ was still the same, still the same passionate, impulsive nature. . . . Only the impulses by which Musa was carried away were not the same as in the days of her youth. What on my first visit I had taken for resignation, for meekness, and what really was so — the subdued, lustreless glance, the cold voice, the quietness and simplicity — all that had significance only in relation to the past, to what would never return. . . .
Now it was the present asserted itself.
I tried to soothe Musa, tried to put our conversation on a more practical level. Some steps must be taken that could not be postponed; we must find out exactly where Baburin was; and then secure both for him and for Musa the means of subsistence. All this presented no inconsiderable difficulty; what was needed was not to find money, but work, which is, as we all know, a far more complicated problem. . . .
I left Musa with a perfect swarm of reflections in my head.
I soon learned that Baburin was in the fortress.
The proceedings began, . . . dragged on. I saw Musa several times every week. She had several interviews with her husband. But just at the moment of the decision of the whole melancholy affair, I was not in Petersburg. Unforeseen business had obliged me to set off to the south of Russia. During my absence I heard that Baburin had been acquitted at the trial; it appeared that all that could be proved against him was, that young people regarding him as a person unlikely to awaken suspicion, had sometimes held meetings at his house, and he had been present at their meetings; he was, however, by administrative order sent into exile in one of the western provinces of Siberia. Musa went with him.
‘Paramon Semyonitch did not wish it,’ she wrote to me; ‘as, according to his ideas, no one ought to sacrifice self for another person, and not for a cause; but I told him there was no question of sacrifice at all. When I said to him in Moscow that I would be his wife, I thought to myself — for ever, indissolubly! So indissoluble it must be till the end of our days. . . . ’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01