“Well, Pyotr, still not in sight?” was the question asked on 20th May, 1859, by a gentleman of about forty, wearing a dusty overcoat and checked trousers, who came out hatless into the low porch of the posting station at X. He was speaking to his servant, a chubby young fellow with whitish down growing on his chin and with dim little eyes.
The servant, in whom everything — the turquoise ring in his ear, the hair plastered down with grease and the polite flexibility of his movements — indicated a man of the new improved generation, glanced condescendingly along the road and answered, “No, sir, definitely not in sight.”
“Not in sight?” repeated his master.
“No, sir,” replied the servant again.
His master sighed and sat down on a little bench. We will introduce him to the reader while he sits, with his feet tucked in, looking thoughtfully around.
His name was Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov. He owned, about twelve miles from the posting station, a fine property of two hundred serfs or, as he called it — since he had arranged the division of his land with the peasants — a “farm” of nearly five thousand acres. His father, a general in the army, who had served in 1812, a crude, almost illiterate, but good-natured type of Russian, had stuck to a routine job all his life, first commanding a brigade and later a division, and lived permanently in the provinces, where by virtue of his rank he was able to play a certain part. Nikolai Petrovich was born in south Russia, as was his elder brother Pavel, of whom we shall hear more; till the age of fourteen he was educated at home, surrounded by cheap tutors, free-and-easy but fawning adjutants, and all the usual regimental and staff people. His mother, a member of the Kolyazin family, was called Agatha as a girl, but as a general’s wife her name was Agafoklea Kuzminishna Kirsanov; she was a domineering military lady, wore gorgeous caps and rustling silk dresses; in church she was the first to go up to the cross, she talked a lot in a loud voice, let her children kiss her hand every morning and gave them her blessing at night — in fact, she enjoyed her life and got as much out of it as she could. As a general’s son, Nikolai Petrovich — though so far from brave that he had even been called a “funk” — was intended, like his brother Pavel, to enter the army; but he broke his leg on the very day he obtained a commission and after spending two months in bed he never got rid of a slight limp for the rest of his life. His father gave him up as a bad job and let him go in for the civil service. He took him to Petersburg as soon as he was eighteen and placed him in the university there. His brother happened at the same time to become an officer in a guards regiment. The young men started to share a flat together, and were kept under the remote supervision of a cousin on their mother’s side, Ilya Kolyazin, an important official. Their father returned to his division and to his wife and only occasionally wrote to his sons on large sheets of grey paper, scrawled over in an ornate clerkly handwriting; the bottom of these sheets was adorned with a scroll enclosing the words, “Pyotr Kirsanov, Major-General.”
In 1835 Nikolai Petrovich graduated from the university, and in the same year General Kirsanov was put on the retired list after an unsuccessful review, and came with his wife to live in Petersburg. He was about to take a house in the Tavrichesky Gardens, and had joined the English club, when he suddenly died of an apoplectic fit. Agafoklea Kuzminishna soon followed him to the grave; she could not adapt herself to a dull life in the capital and was consumed by the boredom of retirement from regimental existence. Meanwhile Nikolai Petrovich, during his parents’ lifetime and much to their distress, had managed to fall in love with the daughter of his landlord, a petty official called Prepolovensky. She was an attractive and, as they call it, well-educated girl; she used to read the serious articles in the science column of the newspapers. He married her as soon as the period of mourning for his parents was over, and leaving the civil service, where his father had secured him a post through patronage, he started to live very happily with his Masha, first in a country villa near the Forestry Institute, afterwards in Petersburg in a pretty little flat with a clean staircase and a draughty drawing room, and finally in the country where he settled down and where in due course his son, Arkady, was born. Husband and wife lived well and peacefully; they were hardly ever separated, they read together, they sang and played duets together on the piano, she grew flowers and looked after the poultry yard, he busied himself with the estate and sometimes hunted, while Arkady went on growing in the same happy and peaceful way. Ten years passed like a dream. Then in 1847 Kirsanov’s wife died. He hardly survived this blow and his hair turned grey in a few weeks; he was preparing to travel abroad, if possible to distract his thoughts . . . but then came the year 1848. He returned unwillingly to the country and after a rather long period of inactivity he began to take an interest in improving his estate. In 1855 he brought his son to the university and spent three winters in Petersburg with him, hardly going out anywhere and trying to make acquaintance with Arkady’s young comrades. The last winter he was unable to go, and here we see him in May, 1859, already entirely grey-haired, plump and rather bent, waiting for his son, who had just taken his university degree, as once he had taken it himself.
The servant, from a feeling of propriety, and perhaps also because he was anxious to escape from his master’s eye, had gone over to the gate and was smoking a pipe. Nikolai Petrovich bowed his head and began to stare at the crumbling steps; a big mottled hen walked sedately towards him, treading firmly with its thick yellow legs; a dirty cat cast a disapproving look at him, as she twisted herself coyly round the railing. The sun was scorching; a smell of hot rye bread was wafted from the dim entrance of the posting station. Nikolai Petrovich started musing. “My son . . . a graduate . . . Arkasha . . .” kept on turning round in his mind; he tried to think of something else, but the same thoughts returned. He remembered his dead wife. “She did not live to see it,” he murmured sadly. A plump blue pigeon flew on to the road and hurriedly started to drink water from a puddle near the well. Nikolai Petrovich began to watch it, but his ear had already caught the sound of approaching wheels . . .
“It sounds as if they’re coming, sir,” announced the servant, emerging from the gateway.
Nikolai Petrovich jumped up and fixed his eyes on the road. A carriage appeared with three posting horses abreast; inside it he caught a glimpse of the band of a student’s cap and the familiar outline of a dear face . . .
“Arkasha! Arkasha!” cried Kirsanov, and he ran out into the road, waving his arms . . . A few moments later his lips were pressed to the beardless dusty sunburnt cheek of the young graduate.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01