On one of the hottest days of the summer of 1853, in the shade of a tall lime-tree on the bank of the river Moskva, not far from Kuntsovo, two young men were lying on the grass. One, who looked about twenty-three, tall and swarthy, with a sharp and rather crooked nose, a high forehead, and a restrained smile on his wide mouth, was lying on his back and gazing meditatively into the distance, his small grey eyes half closed. The other was lying on his chest, his curly, fair head propped on his two hands; he, too, was looking away into the distance. He was three years older than his companion, but seemed much younger. His moustache was only just growing, and his chin was covered with a light curly down. There was something childishly pretty, something attractively delicate, in the small features of his fresh round face, in his soft brown eyes, lovely pouting lips, and little white hands. Everything about him was suggestive of the happy light-heartedness of perfect health and youth — the carelessness, conceit, self-indulgence, and charm of youth. He used his eyes, and smiled and leaned his head as boys do who know that people look at them admiringly. He wore a loose white coat, made like a blouse, a blue kerchief wrapped his slender throat, and a battered straw hat had been flung on the grass beside him.
His companion seemed elderly in comparison with him; and no one would have supposed, from his angular figure, that he too was happy and enjoying himself. He lay in an awkward attitude; his large head — wide at the crown and narrower at the base — hung awkwardly on his long neck; awkwardness was expressed in the very pose of his hands, of his body, tightly clothed in a short black coat, and of his long legs with their knees raised, like the hind-legs of a grasshopper. For all that, it was impossible not to recognise that he was a man of good education; the whole of his clumsy person bore the stamp of good-breeding; and his face, plain and even a little ridiculous as it was, showed a kindly nature and a thoughtful habit. His name was Andrei Petrovitch Bersenyev; his companion, the fair-haired young man, was called Pavel Yakovlitch Shubin.
‘Why don’t you lie on your face, like me?’ began Shubin. ‘It’s ever so much nicer so; especially when you kick up your heels and clap them together — like this. You have the grass under your nose; when you’re sick of staring at the landscape you can watch a fat beetle crawling on a blade of grass, or an ant fussing about. It’s really much nicer. But you’ve taken up a pseudo-classical pose, for all the world like a ballet-dancer, when she reclines upon a rock of paste-board. You should remember you have a perfect right to take a rest now. It’s no joking matter to come out third! Take your ease, sir; give up all exertion, and rest your weary limbs!’
Shubin delivered this speech through his nose in a half-lazy, half-joking voice (spoilt children speak so to friends of the house who bring them sweetmeats), and without waiting for an answer he went on:
‘What strikes me most forcibly in the ants and beetles and other worthy insects is their astounding seriousness. They run to and fro with such a solemn air, as though their life were something of such importance! A man the lord of creation, the highest being, stares at them, if you please, and they pay no attention to him. Why, a gnat will even settle on the lord of creation’s nose, and make use of him for food. It’s most offensive. And, on the other hand, how is their life inferior to ours? And why shouldn’t they take themselves seriously, if we are to be allowed to take ourselves seriously? There now, philosopher, solve that problem for me! Why don’t you speak? Eh?’
‘What?’ said Bersenyev, starting.
‘What!’ repeated Shubin. ‘Your friend lays his deepest thoughts before you, and you don’t listen to him.’
‘I was admiring the view. Look how hot and bright those fields are in the sun.’ Bersenyev spoke with a slight lisp.
‘There’s some fine colour laid on there,’ observed Shubin. ‘Nature’s a good hand at it, that’s the fact!’
Bersenyev shook his head.
‘You ought to be even more ecstatic over it than I. It’s in your line: you’re an artist.’
‘No; it’s not in my line,’ rejoined Shubin, putting his hat on the back of his head. ‘Flesh is my line; my work’s with flesh — modelling flesh, shoulders, legs, and arms, and here there’s no form, no finish; it’s all over the place. . . . Catch it if you can.’
‘But there is beauty here, too,’ remarked Bersenyev. —‘By the way, have you finished your bas-relief?’
‘The boy with the goat.’
‘Hang it! Hang it! Hang it!’ cried Shubin, drawling —‘I looked at the genuine old things, the antiques, and I smashed my rubbish to pieces. You point to nature, and say “there’s beauty here, too.” Of course, there’s beauty in everything, even in your nose there’s beauty; but you can’t try after all kinds of beauty. The ancients, they didn’t try after it; beauty came down of itself upon their creations from somewhere or other — from heaven, I suppose. The whole world belonged to them; it’s not for us to be so large in our reach; our arms are short. We drop our hook into one little pool, and keep watch over it. If we get a bite, so much the better, if not ——’
Shubin put out his tongue.
‘Stop, stop,’ said Bensenyev, ‘that’s a paradox. If you have no sympathy for beauty, if you do not love beauty wherever you meet it, it will not come to you even in your art. If a beautiful view, if beautiful music does not touch your heart; I mean, if you are not sympathetic ——’
‘Ah, you are a confirmed sympathetic!’ broke in Shubin, laughing at the new title he had coined, while Bersenyev sank into thought.
‘No, my dear fellow,’ Shubin went on, ‘you’re a clever person, a philosopher, third graduate of the Moscow University; it’s dreadful arguing with you, especially for an ignoramus like me, but I tell you what; besides my art, the only beauty I love is in women . . . in girls, and even that’s recently.’
He turned over on to his back and clasped his hands behind his head.
A few instants passed by in silence. The hush of the noonday heat lay upon the drowsy, blazing fields.
‘Speaking of women,’ Shubin began again, ‘how is it no one looks after Stahov? Did you see him in Moscow?’
‘The old fellow’s gone clean off his head. He sits for whole days together at his Augustina Christianovna’s, he’s bored to death, but still he sits there. They gaze at one another so stupidly. . . . It’s positively disgusting to see them. Man’s a strange animal. A man with such a home; but no, he must have his Augustina Christianovna! I don’t know anything more repulsive than her face, just like a duck’s! The other day I modelled a caricature of her in the style of Dantan. It wasn’t half bad. I will show it you.’
‘And Elena Nikolaevna’s bust?’ inquired Bersenyev, ‘is it getting on?’
‘No, my dear boy, it’s not getting on. That face is enough to drive one to despair. The lines are pure, severe, correct; one would think there would be no difficulty in catching a likeness. It’s not as easy as one would think though. It’s like a treasure in a fairy-tale — you can’t get hold of it. Have you ever noticed how she listens? There’s not a single feature different, but the whole expression of the eyes is constantly changing, and with that the whole face changes. What is a sculptor — and a poor one too — to do with such a face? She’s a wonderful creature — a strange creature,’ he added after a brief pause.
‘Yes; she is a wonderful girl,’ Bersenyev repeated after him.
‘And she the daughter of Nikolai Artemyevitch Stahov! And after that people talk about blood, about stock! The amusing part of it is that she really is his daughter, like him, as well as like her mother, Anna Vassilyevna. I respect Anna Vassilyevna from the depths of my heart, she’s been awfully good to me; but she’s no better than a hen. Where did Elena get that soul of hers? Who kindled that fire in her? There’s another problem for you, philosopher!’
But as before, the ‘philosopher’ made no reply. Bersenyev did not in general err on the side of talkativeness, and when he did speak, he expressed himself awkwardly, with hesitation, and unnecessary gesticulation. And at this time a kind of special stillness had fallen on his soul, a stillness akin to lassitude and melancholy. He had not long come from town after prolonged hard work, which had absorbed him for many hours every day. The inactivity, the softness and purity of the air, the consciousness of having attained his object, the whimsical and careless talk of his friend, and the image — so suddenly called up — of one dear to him, all these impressions different — yet at the same time in a way akin — were mingled in him into a single vague emotion, which at once soothed and excited him, and robbed him of his power. He was a very highly strung young man.
It was cool and peaceful under the lime-tree; the flies and bees seemed to hum more softly as they flitted within its circle of shade. The fresh fine grass, of purest emerald green, without a tinge of gold, did not quiver, the tall flower stalks stood motionless, as though enchanted. On the lower twigs of the lime-tree the little bunches of yellow flowers hung still as death. At every breath a sweet fragrance made its way to the very depths of the lungs, and eagerly the lungs inhaled it. Beyond the river in the distance, right up to the horizon, all was bright and glowing. At times a slight breeze passed over, breaking up the landscape and intensifying the brightness; a sunlit vapour hung over the fields. No sound came from the birds; they do not sing in the heat of noonday; but the grasshoppers were chirping everywhere, and it was pleasant as they sat in the cool and quietness, to hear that hot, eager sound of life; it disposed to slumber and inclined the heart to reveries.
‘Have you noticed,’ began Bersenyev, eking out his words with gesticulations, ‘what a strange feeling nature produces in us? Everything in nature is so complete, so defined, I mean to say, so content with itself, and we understand that and admire it, and at the same time, in me at least, it always excites a kind of restlessness, a kind of uneasiness, even melancholy. What is the meaning of it? Is it that in the face of nature we are more vividly conscious of all our incompleteness, our indefiniteness, or have we little of that content with which nature is satisfied, but something else — I mean to say, what we need, nature has not?’
‘H’m,’ replied Shubin, ‘I’ll tell you, Andrei Petrovitch, what all that comes from. You describe the sensations of a solitary man, who is not living but only looking on in ecstasy. Why look on? Live, yourself, and you will be all right. However much you knock at nature’s door, she will never answer you in comprehensible words, because she is dumb. She will utter a musical sound, or a moan, like a harp string, but don’t expect a song from her. A living heart, now — that will give you your answer — especially a woman’s heart. So, my dear fellow, I advise you to get yourself some one to share your heart, and all your distressing sensations will vanish at once. “That’s what we need,” as you say. This agitation, and melancholy, all that, you know, is simply a hunger of a kind. Give the stomach some real food, and everything will be right directly. Take your place in the landscape, live in the body, my dear boy. And after all, what is nature? what’s the use of it? Only hear the word, love — what an intense, glowing sound it has! Nature — what a cold, pedantic expression. And so’ (Shubin began humming), ‘my greetings to Marya Petrovna! or rather,’ he added, ‘not Marya Petrovna, but it’s all the same! Voo me compreny.’
Bersenyev got up and stood with his chin leaning on his clasped hands. ‘What is there to laugh at?’ he said, without looking at his companion, ‘why should you scoff? Yes, you are right: love is a grand word, a grand feeling. . . . But what sort of love do you mean?’
Shubin too, got up. ‘What sort? What you like, so long as it’s there. I will confess to you that I don’t believe in the existence of different kinds of love. If you are in love ——’
‘With your whole heart,’ put in Bersenyev.
‘Well, of course, that’s an understood thing; the heart’s not an apple; you can’t divide it. If you’re in love, you’re justified. And I wasn’t thinking of scoffing. My heart’s as soft at this moment as if it had been melted. . . . I only wanted to explain why nature has the effect on us you spoke of. It’s because she arouses in us a need for love, and is not capable of satisfying it. Nature is gently driving us to other living embraces, but we don’t understand, and expect something from nature herself. Ah, Andrei, Andrei, this sun, this sky is beautiful, everything around us is beautiful, still you are sad; but if, at this instant, you were holding the hand of a woman you loved, if that hand and the whole woman were yours, if you were even seeing with her eyes, feeling not your own isolated emotion, but her emotion — nature would not make you melancholy or restless then, and you would not be observing nature’s beauty; nature herself would be full of joy and praise; she would be re-echoing your hymn, because then you would have given her — dumb nature — speech!’
Shubin leaped on to his feet and walked twice up and down, but Bersenyev bent his head, and his face was overcast by a faint flush.
‘I don’t altogether agree with you,’ he began: ‘nature does not always urge us . . . towards love.’ (He could not at once pronounce the word.) ‘Nature threatens us, too; she reminds us of dreadful . . . yes, insoluble mysteries. Is she not destined to swallow us up, is she not swallowing us up unceasingly? She holds life and death as well; and death speaks in her as loudly as life.’
‘In love, too, there is both life and death,’ interposed Shubin.
‘And then,’ Bersenyev went on: ‘when I, for example, stand in the spring in the forest, in a green glade, when I can fancy the romantic notes of Oberon’s fairy horn’ (Bersenyev was a little ashamed when he had spoken these words)—‘is that, too ——’
‘The thirst for love, the thirst for happiness, nothing more!’ broke in Shubin. ‘I, too, know those notes, I know the languor and the expectation which come upon the soul in the forest’s shade, in its deep recesses, or at evening in the open fields when the sun sets and the river mist rises behind the bushes. But forest, and river, and fields, and sky, every cloud and every blade of grass sets me expecting, hoping for happiness, I feel the approach, I hear the voice of happiness calling in everything. “God of my worship, bright and gay!” That was how I tried to begin my sole poem; you must own it’s a splendid first line, but I could never produce a second. Happiness! happiness! as long as life is not over, as long as we have the use of all our limbs, as long as we are going up, not down, hill! Damn it all!’ pursued Shubin with sudden vehemence, ‘we are young, and neither fools nor monsters; we will conquer happiness for ourselves!’
He shook his curls, and turned a confident almost challenging glance upwards to the sky. Bersenyev raised his eyes and looked at him.
‘Is there nothing higher than happiness?’ he commented softly.
‘And what, for instance?’ asked Shubin, stopping short.
‘Why, for instance, you and I are, as you say, young; we are good men, let us suppose; each of us desires happiness for himself. . . . But is that word, happiness, one that could unite us, set us both on fire, and make us clasp each other’s hands? Isn’t that word an egoistic one; I mean, isn’t it a source of disunion?’
‘Do you know words, then, that unite men?’
‘Yes; and they are not few in number; and you know them, too.’
‘Eh? What words?’
‘Well, even Art — since you are an artist — Country, Science, Freedom, Justice.’
‘And what of love?’ asked Shubin.
‘Love, too, is a word that unites; but not the love you are eager for now; the love which is not enjoyment, the love which is self-sacrifice.’
‘That’s all very well for Germans; I want to love for myself; I want to be first.’
‘To be first,’ repeated Bersenyev. ‘But it seems to me that to put one’s-self in the second place is the whole significance of our life.’
‘If all men were to act as you advise,’ commented Shubin with a plaintive expression, ‘none on earth would eat pine-apples; every one would be offering them to other people.’
‘That’s as much as to say, pine-apples are not necessary; but you need not be alarmed; there will always be plenty of people who like them enough to take the bread out of other men’s mouths to get them.’
Both friends were silent a little.
‘I met Insarov again the other day,’ began Bersenyev. ‘I invited him to stay with me; I really must introduce him to you — and to the Stahovs.’
‘Who is Insarov? Ah, to be sure, isn’t it that Servian or Bulgarian you were telling me about? The patriot? Now isn’t it he who’s at the bottom of all these philosophical ideas?’
‘Is he an exceptional individual?’
‘Clever — talented — I don’t know, I don’t think so.’
‘Not? Then, what is there remarkable in him?’
‘You shall see. But now I think it’s time to be going. Anna Vassilyevna will be waiting for us, very likely. What’s the time?’
‘Three o’clock. Let us go. How baking it is! This conversation has set all my blood aflame. There was a moment when you, too, . . . I am not an artist for nothing; I observe everything. Confess, you are interested in a woman?’
Shubin tried to get a look at Bersenyev’s face, but he turned away and walked out of the lime-tree’s shade. Shubin went after him, moving his little feet with easy grace. Bersenyev walked clumsily, with his shoulders high and his neck craned forward. Yet, he looked a man of finer breeding than Shubin; more of a gentleman, one might say, if that word had not been so vulgarised among us.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01