A House of Gentlefolk, by Ivan Turgenev

Chapter VIII

Fedor Ivanitch Lavretsky — we must ask the reader’s permission to break off the thread of our story for a time — came of an old noble family. The founder of the house of Lavretskky came over from Prussia in the reign of Vassili the Blind, and received a grant of two hundred chetverts of land in Byezhetsk. Many of his descendants filled various offices, and served under princes and persons of eminence in outlying districts, but not one of them rose above the rank of an inspector of the Imperial table nor acquired any considerable fortune. The richest and most distinguished of all the Lavretskys was Fedor Ivanitch’s great-grandfather, Andrei, a man cruel and daring, cunning and able. Even to this day stories still linger of his tyranny, his savage temper, his reckless munificence, and his insatiable avarice. He was very stout and tall, swarthy of countenance and beardless, he spoke in a thick voice and seemed half asleep; but the more quietly he spoke the more those about him trembled. He had managed to get a wife who was a fit match for him. She was a gipsy by birth, goggle-eyed and hook-nosed, with a round yellow face. She was irascible and vindictive, and never gave way in anything to her husband, who almost killed her, and whose death she did not survive, though she had been for ever quarrelling with him. The son of Andrei, Piotr, Fedor’s grandfather, did not take after his father; he was a typical landowner of the steppes, rather a simpleton, loud-voiced, but slow to move, coarse but not ill-natured, hospitable and very fond of coursing with dogs. He was over thirty when he inherited from his father a property of two thousand serfs in capital condition; but he had soon dissipated it, and had partly mortgaged his estate, and demoralised his servants. All sorts of people of low position, known and unknown, came crawling like cockroaches from all parts into his spacious, warm, ill-kept halls. All this mass of people ate what they could get, but always had their fill, drank till they were drunk, and carried off what they could, praising and blessing their genial host; and their host too when he was out humour blessed his guests — for a pack of sponging toadies, but he was bored when he was without them. Piotr Andreitch’s wife was a meek-spirited creature; he had taken her from a neighbouring family by his father’s choice and command; her name was Anna Pavlovna. She never interfered in anything, welcomed guests cordially, and readily paid visits herself, though being powdered, she used to declare, would be the death of her. “They put,” she used to say in her old age, “a fox’s brush on your head, comb all the hair up over it, smear it with grease, and dust it over with flour, and stick it up with iron pins — there’s no washing it off afterwards; but to pay visits without powder was quite impossible — people would be offended. Ah, it was a torture!”

She liked being driven with fast-trotting horses, and was ready to play cards from morning till evening, and would always keep the score of the pennies she had lost or won hidden under her hand when her husband came near the card-table; but all her dowry, her whole fortune, she had put absolutely at his disposal. She bore him two children, a son Ivan, the father of Fedor, and a daughter Glafira. Ivan was not brought up at home, but lived with a rich old maiden aunt, the Princess Kubensky; she had fixed on him for her heir (but for that his father would not have let him go). She dressed him up like a doll, engaged all kinds of teachers for him, and put him in charge of a tutor, a Frenchman, who had been an abbe, a pupil of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a certain M. Courtin de Vaucelles, a subtle and wily intriguer — the very, as she expressed it, fine fleur of emigration — and finished at almost seventy years old by marrying this “fine fleur,” and making over all her property to him. Soon afterwards, covered with rouge, and redolent of perfume a la Richelieu, surrounded by negro boys, delicate-shaped greyhounds and shrieking parrots, she died on a crooked silken divan of the time of Louis XV., with an enamelled snuff-box of Petitot’s workmanship in her hand — and died, deserted by her husband; the insinuating M. Courtin had preferred to remove to Paris with her money. Ivan had only reached his twentieth year when this unexpected blow (we mean the princess’s marriage, not her death) fell upon him; he did not care to stay in his aunt’s house, where he found himself suddenly transformed from a wealthy heir to a poor relation; the society in Petersburg in which he had grown up was closed to him; he felt an aversion for entering the government service in the lower grades, with nothing but hard work and obscurity before him — this was at the very beginning of the reign of the Emperor Alexander. He was obliged reluctantly to return to the country to his father. How squalid, poor, and wretched his parents’ home seemed to him! The stagnation and sordidness of life in the country offended him at every step. He was consumed with ennui. Moreover, every one in the house, except his mother, looked at him with unfriendly eyes. His father did not like his town manners, his swallow-tail coats, his frilled shirt-fronts, his books, his flute, his fastidious ways, in which he detected — not incorrectly — a disgust for his surroundings; he was for ever complaining and grumbling at his son. “Nothing here,” he used to say, “is to his taste; at table he is all in a fret, and doesn’t eat; he can’t bear the heat and close smell of the room; the sight of folks drunk upsets him, one daren’t beat any one before him; he doesn’t want to go into the government service; he’s weakly, as you see, in health; fie upon him, the milksop! And all this because he’s got his head full of Voltaire.” The old man had a special dislike to Voltaire, and the “fanatic” Diderot, though he had not read a word of their words; reading was not in his line. Piotr Andreitch was not mistaken; his son’s head for that matter was indeed full of both Diderot and Voltaire, and not only of them alone, of Rousseau too, and Helvetius, and many other writers of the same kind — but they were in his head only. The retired abbe and encyclopedist who had been Ivan Petrovitch’s tutor had taken pleasure in pouring all the wisdom of the eighteenth century into his pupil, and he was simply brimming over with it; it was there in him, but without mixing in his blood, nor penetrating to his soul, nor shaping itself in any firm convictions. . . . But, indeed, could one expect convictions from a young man of fifty years ago, when even at the present day we have not succeeded in attaining them? The guests, too, who frequented his father’s house, were oppressed by Ivan Petrovitch’s presence; he regarded them with loathing, they were afraid of him; and with his sister Glafira, who was twelve years older than he, he could not get on at all. This Glafira was a strange creature; she was ugly, crooked, and spare, with severe, wide-open eyes, and thin compressed lips. In her face, her voice, and her quick angular movements, she took after her grandmother, the gipsy, Andrei’s wife. Obstinate and fond of power, she would not even hear of marriage. The return of Ivan Petrovitch did not fit in with her plans; while the Princess Kubensky kept him with her, she had hoped to receive at least half of her father’s estate; in her avarice, too, she was like her grandmother. Besides, Glafira envied her brother, he was so well educated, spoke such good French with a Parisian accent, while she was scarcely able to pronounce “bon jour” or “comment vous portez-vous.” To be sure, her parents did not know any French, but that was no comfort to her. Ivan Petrovitch did not know what to do with himself for wretchedness and ennui; he had spent hardly a year in the country, but that year seemed to him as long as ten. The only consolation he could find was in talking to his mother, and he would sit for whole hours in her low-pitched rooms, listening to the good woman’s simple-hearted prattle, and eating preserves. It so happened that among Anna Pavlovna’s maids there was one very pretty girl with clear soft eyes and refined features, Malanya by name, an modest intelligent creature. She took his fancy at first sight, and he fell in love with her: he fell in love with her timid movements, her bashful answers, her gentle voice and gentle smile; every day she seemed sweeter to him. And she became devoted to Ivan Petrovitch with all the strength of her soul, as none but Russian girls can be devoted — and she gave herself to him. In the large household of a country squire nothing can long be kept a secret; soon every one knew of the love between the young master and Malanya; the gossip even reached the ears of Piotr Andreitch himself. Under other circumstances, he would probably have paid no attention to a matter of so little importance, but he had long had a grudge against his son, and was delighted at an opportunity of humiliating the town-bred wit and dandy. A storm of fuss and clamour was raised; Malanya was locked up in the pantry, Ivan Petrovitch was summoned into his father’s presence. Anna Pavlovna too ran up at the hubbub. She began trying to pacify her husband, but Piotr Andreitch would hear nothing. He pounced down like a hawk on his son, reproached him with immorality, with godlessness, with hypocrisy; he took the opportunity to vent on him all the wrath against the Princess Kubensky that had been simmering within him, and lavished abusive epithets upon him. At first Ivan Petrovitch was silent and held himself in, but when his father thought to fit to threaten him with a shameful punishment he could endure it no longer. “Ah,” he thought, “the fanatic Diderot is brought out again, then I will take the bull by the horns, I will astonish you all.” And thereupon with a calm and even voice, though quaking inwardly in every limb, Ivan Petrovitch declared to his father, that there was no need to reproach him with immorality; that though he did not intend to justify his fault he was ready to make amends for it, the more willingly as he felt himself to be superior to every kind of prejudice — and in fact — was ready to marry Malanya. In uttering these words Ivan Petrovitch did undoubtedly attain his object; he so astonished Piotr Andreitch that the latter stood open-eyed, and was struck dumb for a moment; but instantly he came to himself, and just as he was, in a dressing-gown bordered with squirrel fur and slippers on his bare feet, he flew at Ivan Petrovitch with his fists. The latter, as though by design, had that morning arranged his locks a la Titus, and put on a new English coat of a blue colour, high boots with little tassels and very tight modish buckskin breeches. Anna Pavlovna shrieked with all her might and covered her face with her hands; but her son ran over the whole house, dashed out into the courtyard, rushed into the kitchen-garden, into the pleasure-grounds, and flew across into the road, and kept running without looking round till at last he ceased to hear the heavy tramp of his father’s steps behind him and his shouts, jerked out with effort, “Stop you scoundrel!” he cried, “stop! or I will curse you!” Ivan Petrovitch took refuge with a neighbour, a small landowner, and Piotr Andreitch returned home worn out and perspiring, and without taking breath, announced that he should deprive his son of his blessing and inheritance, gave orders that all his foolish books should be burnt, and that the girl Malanya should be sent to a distant village without loss of time. Some kind-hearted people found out Ivan Petrovitch and let him know everything. Humiliated and driven to fury, he vowed he would be revenged on his father, and the same night lay in wait for the peasant’s cart in which Malanya was being driven away, carried her off by force, galloped off to the nearest town with her and married her. He was supplied with money by the neighbour, a good-natured retired marine officer, a confirmed tippler, who took an intense delight in every kind of — as he expressed it — romantic story.

The next day Ivan Petrovitch wrote an ironically cold and polite letter to Piotr Andreitch, and set off to the village where lived his second cousin, Dmitri Pestov, with his sister, already known to the reader, Marfa Timofyevna. He told them all, announced his intention to go to Petersburg to try to obtain a post there, and besought them, at least for a time, to give his wife a home. At the word “wife” he shed tears, and in spite of his city breeding and philosophy he bowed himself in humble, supplicating Russian fashion at his relations’ feet, and even touched the ground with his forehead. The Pestovs, kind-hearted and compassionate people, readily agreed to his request. He stayed with them for three weeks, secretly expecting a reply from his father; but no reply came — and there was no chance of a reply coming.

Piotr Andreitch, on hearing of his son’s marriage, took to his bed, and forbade Ivan Petrovitch’s name to be mentioned before him; but his mother, without her husband’s knowledge, borrowed from the rector, and sent 500 roubles and a little image to his wife. She was afraid to write, but sent a message to Ivan Petrovitch by a lean peasant, who could walk fifty miles a day, that he was not to take it too much to heart; that, please God, all would be arranged, and his father’s wraath would be turned to kindness; that she too would have preferred a different daughter-in-law, but that she sent Malanya Sergyevna her motherly blessing. The lean peasant received a rouble, asked permission to see the new young mistress, to whom he happened to be godfather, kissed her hand and ran off at his best speed.

And Ivan Petrovitch set off to Ptersburg with a light heart. An unknown future awaited him; poverty perhaps menaced him, but he had broken away from the country life he detested, and above all, he had not been false to his teachers, he had actually put into practice the doctrines of Rousseau, Diderot, and la Declaration des droits de l’homme. A sense of having done his duty, of triumph, and of pride filled his soul; and indeed the separation from his wife did not greatly afflict him; he would have been more perturbed by the necessity of being constantly with her. That deed was done, now he wanted to set about doing something fresh. In Petersburg, contrary to his own expectations, he met with success; the Princess Kubensky, whom Monsieur Courtin had by that time deserted, but who was still living, in order to make up in some way to her nephew for having wronged him, gave him introductions to all her friends, and presented him with 5000 roubles — almost all that remained of her money — and a Lepkovsky watch with his monogram encircled by Cupids.

Three months had not passed before he obtained a position in a Russian embassy to London, and in the first English vessel that sailed (steamers were not even talked of then) he crossed the sea. A few months later he received a letter from Pestov. The good-natured landowner congratulated Ivan Petrovitch on the birth of a son, who had been born into the world in the village of Pokrovskoe on the 20th of August, 1807, and named Fedor, in honour of the holy martyr Fedor Stratilat. On account of her extreme weakness Malanya Sergyevna added only a few lines; but those few lines were a surprise, for Ivan Petrovitch had not known that Marfa Timofyevna had taught his wife to read and write. Ivan Petrovitch did not long abandon himself to the sweet emotion of parental feeling; he was dancing attendance on a notorious Phryne or Lais of the day (classical names were still in vogue at that date); the Peace of Tilsit had only just been concluded and all the world was hurrying after pleasure, in a giddy whirl of dissipation, and his head had been turned by the black eyes of a bold beauty. He had very little money, but he was lucky at cards, made many acquaintances, took part in all entertainments, in a word, he was in the swim.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01