A House of Gentlefolk, by Ivan Turgenev

Chapter XXXV

The reader knows how Lavretsky grew up and developed. Let us say a few words about Lisa’s education. She was in her tenth year when her father died; but he had not troubled himself much about her. Weighed down with business cares, for ever anxious for the increase of his property, bilious, sharp and impatient, he gave money unsparingly for the teachers, tutors, dress and other necessities of his children; but he could not endure, as he expressed it, “to be dandling his squallers,” and indeed had no time to dandle them. He worked, took no rest from business, slept little, rarely played cards, and worked again. He compared himself to a horse harnessed to a threshing-machine. “My life has soon come to an end,” was his comment on his deathbed, with a bitter smile on his parched lips. Marya Dmitrievna did not in reality trouble herself about Lisa any more than her husband, though she had boasted to Lavretsky that she alone had educated her children. She dressed her up like a doll, stroked her on the head before visitors and called her a clever child and a darling to her face, and that was all. Any kind of continuous care was too exhausting for the indolent lady. During her father’s lifetime, Lisa was in the hands of a governess, Mademoiselle Moreau from Paris, after his death she passed into the charge of Marfa Timofyevna. Marfa Timofyevna the reader knows already; Mademoiselle Moreau was a tiny wrinkled creature with little bird-like ways and a bird’s intellect. In her youth she had led a very dissipated life, but in old age she had only two passions left — gluttony and cards. When she had eaten her fill, and was neither playing cards nor chattering, her face assumed an expression almost death-like. She was sitting, looking, breathing — yet it was clear that there was not an idea in her head. One could not even call her good-natured. Birds are not good-natured. Either as a result of her frivolous youth or of the air of Paris, which she had breathed from childhood, a kind of cheap universal scepticism had found its way into her, usually expressed by the words: tout ca c’est des betises. She spoke ungrammatically, but in a pure Parisian jargon, did not talk scandal and had no caprices — what more can one desire in a governess? Over Lisa she had little influence; all the stronger was the influence on her of her nurse, Agafya Vlasyevna.

This woman’s story was remarkable. She came of a peasant family. She was married at sixteen to a peasant; but she was strikingly different from her peasant sisters. Her father had been twenty years starosta, and had made a good deal of money, and he spoiled her. She was exceptionally beautiful, the best-dressed girl in the whole district, clever, ready with her tongue, and daring. Her master Dmitri Pestov, Marya Dmitrievna’s father, a man of modest and gentle character, saw her one day at the threshing-floor, talked to her and fell passionately in love with her. She was soon left a widow; Pestov, though he was a married man, took her into his house and dressed her like a lady. Agafya at once adapted herself to her new position, just as if she had never lived differently all her life. She grew fairer and plumper; her arms grew as “floury white” under her muslin-sleeves as a merchant’s lady’s; the samovar never left her table; she would wear nothing except silk or velvet, and slept on well-stuffed feather-beds. This blissful existence lasted for five years, but Dmitri Pestov died; his widow, a kind-hearted woman, out of regard for the memory of the deceased, did not wish to treat her rival unfairly, all the more because Agafya had never forgotten herself in her presence. She married her, however, to a shepherd, and sent her a long way off. Three years passed. It happened one hot summer day that her mistress in driving past stopped at the cattle-yard. Agafya regaled her with such delicious cool cream, behaved so modestly, and was so neat, so bright, and so contented with everything that her mistress signified her forgiveness to her and allowed her to return to the house. Within six months she had become so much attached to her that she raised her to be housekeeper, and intrusted the whole household management to her. Agafya again returned to power, and again grew plump and fair; her mistress put the most complete confidence in her. So passed five years more. Misfortune again overtook Agafya. Her husband, whom she had promoted to be a footman, began to drink, took to vanishing from the house, and ended by stealing six of the mistress’ silver spoons and hiding them till a favourable moment in his wife’s box. It was opened. He was sent to be a shepherd again, and Agafya fell into disgrace. She was not turned out of the house, but was degraded from housekeeper to being a sewing-woman and was ordered to wear a kerchief on her head instead of a cap. To the astonishment of every one, Agafya accepted with humble resignation the blow that had fallen upon her. She was at that time about thirty, all her children were dead and her husband did not live much longer. The time had come for her to reflect. And she did reflect. She became very silent and devout, never missed a single matin’s service nor a single mass, and gave away all her fine clothes. She spent fifteen years quietly, peacefully, and soberly, never quarrelling with any one and giving way to every one. If any! one scolded her, she only bowed to them and thanked them for the admonition. Her mistress had long ago forgiven her, raised her out of disgrace, and made her a present of a cap of her own. But she was herself unwilling to give up the kerchief and always wore a dark dress. After her mistress’ death she became still more quiet and humble. A Russian readily feels fear, and affection; but it is hard to gain his respect: it is not soon given, nor to every one. For Agafya every one in the home had great respect; no one even remembered her previous sins, as though they had been buried with the old master.

When Kalitin became Marya Dmitrievna’s husband, he wanted to intrust the care of the house to Agafya. But she refused “on account of temptation;” he scolded her, but she bowed humbly and left the room. Kalitin was clever in understanding men; he understood Agafya and did not forget her. When he moved to the town, he gave her, with her consent, the place of nurse to Lisa, who was only just five years old.

Lisa was at first frightened by the austere and serious face of her new nurse; but she soon grew used to her and began to love her. She was herself a serious child. Her features recalled Kalitin’s decided and regular profile, only her eyes were not her father’s; they were lighted up by a gentle attentiveness and goodness, rare in children. She did not care to play with dolls, never laughed loudly or for long, and behaved with great decorum. She was not often thoughtful, but when she was, it was almost always with some reason. After a short silence, she usually turned to some grown-up person with a question which showed that her brain had been at work upon some new impression. She very early got over childish lispings, and by the time she was four years old spoke perfectly plainly. She was afraid of her father; her feeling towards her mother was undefinable, she was not afraid of her, nor was she demonstrative to her; but she was not demonstrative even towards Agafya, though she was the only person she loved. Agafya never left her. It was curious to see them together. Agafya, all in black, with a dark handkerchief on her head, her face thin and transparent as wax, but still beautiful and expressive, would be sitting upright, knitting a stocking; Lisa would sit at her feet in a little arm-chair, also busied over some kind of work, and seriously raising her clear eyes, listening to what Agafya was relating to her. And Agafya did not tell her stories; but in even measured accents she would narrate the life of the Holy Virgin, the lives of hermits, saints, and holy men. She would tell Lisa how the holy men lived in deserts, how they were saved, how they suffered hunger and want, and did not fear kings, but confessed Christ; how fowls of the air brought them food and wild beasts listened to them, and flowers sprang up on the spots where their blood had been spilt. “Wall-flowers?” asked Lisa one ay, she was very fond of flowers . . . . Agafya spoke to Lisa gravely and meekly, as though she felt herself to be unworthy to utter such high and holy words. Lisa listened to her, and the image of the all-seeing, all-knowing God penetrated with a kind of sweet power into her very soul, filling it with pure and reverent awe; but Christ became for her something near, well-known, almost familiar. Agafya taught her to pray also. Sometimes she wakened Lisa early at daybreak, dressed her hurriedly, and took her in secret to matins. Lisa followed her on tiptoe, almost holding her breath. The cold and twilight of the early morning, the freshness and emptiness of the church, the very secrecy of these unexpected expeditions, the cautious return home and to her little bed, all these mingled impressions of the forbidden, strange, and holy agitated the little girl and penetrated to the very innermost depths of her nature. Agafya never censured any one, and never scolded Lisa for being naughty. When she was displeased at anything, she only kept silence. And Lisa understood this silence; with a child’s quick-sightedness she knew very well, too, when Agafya was displeased with other people, Marya Dmitrievna, or Kalitin himself. For a little over three years, Agafya waited on Lisa, then Mademoiselle Moreau replaced her; but the frivolous Frenchwoman, with her cold ways and exclamation, tout ca c’est des betises, could never dislodge her dear nurse from Lisa’s heart; the seeds that had been dropped into it had become too deeply rooted. Besides, though Agafya no longer waited on Lisa, she was still in the house and often saw her charge, who believed in her as before.

Agafya did not, however, get on well with Marfa Timofyevna, when she came to live in the Kalitins’ house. Such gravity and dignity on the part of one who had once worn the motley skirt of a peasant wench displeased the impatient and self-willed old lady. Agafya asked leave to go on a pilgrimage and she never came back. There were dark rumours that she had gone off to a retreat of sectaries. But the impression she had left in Lisa’s soul was never obliterated. She went as before to the mass as to a festival, she prayed with rapture, with a kind of restrained and shamefaced transport, at which Marya Dmitrievna secretly marvelled not a little, and even Marfa Timofyevna, though she did not restrain Lisa in any way, tried to temper her zeal, and would not let her make too many prostrations to the earth in her prayers; it was not a lady-like habit, she would say. In her studies Lisa worked well, that is to say perseveringly; she was not gifted with specially brilliant abilities, or great intellect; she could not succeed in anything without labour. She played the piano well, but only Lemm knew what it had cost her. She had read little; she had not “words of her own,” but she had her own ideas, and she went her own way. It was not only on the surface that she took after her father; he, too, had never asked other people what was to be done. So she had grown up tranquilly and restfully till she had reached the age of nineteen. She was very charming, without being aware of it herself. Her every movement was full of spontaneous, somewhat awkward gracefulness; her voice had the silvery ring of untouched youth, the least feeling of pleasure called forth an enchanting smile on her lips, and added a deep light and a kind of mystic sweetness to her kindling eyes. Penetrated through and through by a sense of duty, by the dread of hurting any one whatever, with a kind and tender heart, she had loved all men, and no one in particular; God only she had! loved passionately, timidly, and tenderly. Lavretsky was the first to break in upon her peaceful inner life.

Such was Lisa.


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