It happened in Petersburg, in the winter, on the first day of the carnival. I had been invited to dinner by one of my schoolfellows, who enjoyed in his youth the reputation of being as modest as a maiden, and turned out in the sequel a person by no means over rigid in his conduct. He is dead now, like most of my schoolfellows. There were to be present at the dinner, besides me, Konstantin Alexandrovitch Asanov, and a literary celebrity of those days. The literary celebrity kept us waiting for him, and finally sent a note that he was not coming, and in place of him there turned up a little light-haired gentleman, one of the everlasting uninvited guests with whom Petersburg abounds.
The dinner lasted a long while; our host did not spare the wine, and by degrees our heads were affected. Everything that each of us kept hidden in his heart — and who is there that has not something hidden in his heart? — came to the surface. Our host’s face suddenly lost its modest and reserved expression; his eyes shone with a brazen-faced impudence, and a vulgar grin curved his lips; the light-haired gentleman laughed in a feeble way, with a senseless crow; but Asanov surprised me more than any one. The man had always been conspicuous for his sense of propriety, but now he began by suddenly rubbing his hand over his forehead, giving himself airs, boasting of his connections, and continually alluding to a certain uncle of his, a very important personage. . . . I positively should not have known him; he was unmistakably jeering at us . . . he all but avowed his contempt for our society. Asanov’s insolence began to exasperate me.
‘Listen,’ I said to him; ‘if we are such poor creatures to your thinking, you’d better go and see your illustrious uncle. But possibly he’s not at home to you.’
Asanov made me no reply, and went on passing his hand across his forehead.
‘What a set of people!’ he said again; ‘they’ve never been in any decent society, never been acquainted with a single decent woman, while I have here,’ he cried, hurriedly pulling a pocket-book out of his side-pocket and tapping it with his hand, ‘a whole pack of letters from a girl whom you wouldn’t find the equal of in the whole world.’
Our host and the light-haired gentleman paid no attention to Asanov’s last words; they were holding each other by their buttons, and both relating something; but I pricked up my ears.
‘Oh, you ‘re bragging, Mr. nephew of an illustrious personage,’ I said, going up to Asanov; ‘you haven’t any letters at all.’
‘Do you think so?’ he retorted, and he looked down loftily at me; ‘what’s this, then?’ He opened the pocket-book, and showed me about a dozen letters addressed to him. . . . A familiar handwriting, I fancied. . . . I feel the flush of shame mounting to my cheeks . . . my self-love is suffering horribly. . . . No one likes to own to a mean action. . . . But there is nothing for it: when I began my story, I knew I should have to blush to my ears in the course of it. And so, I am bound to harden my heart and confess that. . . .
Well, this was what passed: I took advantage of the intoxicated condition of Asanov, who had carelessly dropped the letters on the champagne-stained tablecloth (my own head was dizzy enough too), and hurriedly ran my eyes over one of the letters. . . .
My heart stood still. . . . Alas! I was myself in love with the girl who had written to Asanov, and I could have no doubt now that she loved him. The whole letter, which was in French, expressed tenderness and devotion. . . .
‘Mon cher ami Constantin!’ so it began . . . and it ended with the words: ‘be careful as before, and I will be yours or no one’s.’
Stunned as by a thunderbolt, I sat for a few instants motionless; at last I regained my self-possession, jumped up, and rushed out of the room.
A quarter of an hour later I was back at home in my own lodgings.
The family of the Zlotnitskys was one of the first whose acquaintance I made on coming to Petersburg from Moscow. It consisted of a father and mother, two daughters, and a son. The father, a man already grey, but still vigorous, who had been in the army, held a fairly important position, spent the morning in a government office, went to sleep after dinner, and in the evening played cards at his club. . . . He was seldom at home, spoke little and unwillingly, looked at one from under his eyebrows with an expression half surly, half indifferent, and read nothing except books of travels and geography. Sometimes he was unwell, and then he would shut himself up in his own room, and paint little pictures, or tease the old grey parrot, Popka. His wife, a sickly, consumptive woman, with hollow black eyes and a sharp nose, did not leave her sofa for days together, and was always embroidering cushion-covers in canvas. As far as I could observe, she was rather afraid of her husband, as though she had somehow wronged him at some time or other. The elder daughter, Varvara, a plump, rosy, fair-haired girl of eighteen, was always sitting at the window, watching the people that passed by. The son, who was being educated in a government school, was only seen at home on Sundays, and he, too, did not care to waste his words. Even the younger daughter, Sophia, the girl with whom I was in love, was of a silent disposition. In the Zlotnitskys’ house there reigned a perpetual stillness; it was only broken by the piercing screams of Popka, but visitors soon got used to these, and were conscious again of the burden and oppression of the eternal stillness. Visitors, however, seldom looked in upon the Zlotnitskys; their house was a dull one. The very furniture, the red paper with yellow patterns in the drawing-room, the numerous rush-bottomed chairs in the dining-room, the faded wool-work cushions, embroidered with figures of girls and dogs, on the sofa, the branching lamps, and the gloomy-looking portraits on the walls — everything inspired an involuntary melancholy, about everything there clung a sense of chill and flatness. On my arrival in Petersburg, I had thought it my duty to call on the Zlotnitskys. They were relations of my mother’s. I managed with difficulty to sit out an hour with them, and it was a long while before I went there again. But by degrees I took to going oftener and oftener. I was drawn there by Sophia, whom I had not cared for at first, and with whom I finally fell in love.
She was a slender, almost thin, girl of medium height, with a pale face, thick black hair, and big brown eyes, always half closed. Her severe and well-defined features, especially her tightly shut lips, showed determination and strength of will. At home they knew her to be a girl with a will of her own. . . .
‘She’s like her eldest sister, like Katerina,’ Madame Zlotnitsky said one day, as she sat alone with me (in her husband’s presence she did not dare to mention the said Katerina). ‘You don’t know her; she’s in the Caucasus, married. At thirteen, only fancy, she fell in love with her husband, and announced to us at the time that she would never marry any one else. We did everything we could — nothing was of any use. She waited till she was three-and-twenty, and braved her father’s anger, and so married her idol. There is no saying what Sonitchka might not do! The Lord preserve her from such stubbornness! But I am afraid for her; she’s only sixteen now, and there’s no turning her. . . . ’
Mr. Zlotnitsky came in, and his wife was instantly silent.
What had captivated me in Sophia was not her strength of will — no; but with all her dryness, her lack of vivacity and imagination, she had a special charm of her own, the charm of straightforwardness, genuine sincerity, and purity of heart. I respected her as much as I loved her. . . . It seemed to me that she too looked with friendly eyes on me; to have my illusions as to her feeling for me shattered, and her love for another man proved conclusively, was a blow to me.
The unlooked-for discovery I had made astonished me the more as Asanov was not often at the Zlotnitskys’ house, much less so than I, and had shown no marked preference for Sonitchka. He was a handsome, dark fellow, with expressive but rather heavy features, with brilliant, prominent eyes, with a large white forehead, and full red lips under fine moustaches. He was very discreet, but severe in his behaviour, confident in his criticisms and utterances, and dignified in his silence. It was obvious that he thought a great deal of himself. Asanov rarely laughed, and then with closed teeth, and he never danced. He was rather loosely and clumsily built. He had at one time served in the — th regiment, and was spoken of as a capable officer.
‘A strange thing!’ I ruminated, lying on the sofa; ‘how was it I noticed nothing?’ . . . ‘Be careful as before’: those words in Sophia’s letter suddenly recurred to my memory. ‘Ah!’ I thought: ‘that’s it! What a sly little hussy! And I thought her open and sincere. . . . Wait a bit, that’s all; I’ll let you know. . . . ’
But at this point, if I can trust my memory, I began weeping bitterly, and could not get to sleep all night.
Next day at two o’clock I set off to the Zlotnitskys’. The father was not at home, and his wife was not sitting in her usual place; after the pancake festival of the preceding day, she had a headache, and had gone to lie down in her bedroom. Varvara was standing with her shoulder against the window, looking into the street; Sophia was walking up and down the room with her arms folded across her bosom; Popka was shrieking.
‘Ah! how do you do?’ said Varvara lazily, directly I came into the room, and she added at once in an undertone, ‘There goes a peasant with a tray on his head.’ . . . (She had the habit of keeping up a running commentary on the passers-by to herself.)
‘How do you do?’ I responded; ‘how do you do, Sophia Nikolaevna? Where is Tatiana Vassilievna?’
‘She has gone to lie down,’ answered Sophia, still pacing the room.
‘We had pancakes,’ observed Varvara, without turning round. ‘Why didn’t you come? . . . Where can that clerk be going?’ ‘Oh, I hadn’t time.’ (‘Present arms!’ the parrot screeched shrilly.) ‘How Popka is shrieking today!’
‘He always does shriek like that,’ observed Sophia.
We were all silent for a time.
‘He has gone in at the gate,’ said Varvara, and she suddenly got up on the window-sill and opened the window.
‘What are you about?’ asked Sophia.
‘There’s a beggar,’ responded Varvara. She bent down, picked up a five-copeck piece from the window; the remains of a fumigating pastille still stood in a grey heap of ashes on the copper coin, as she flung it into the street; then she slammed the window to and jumped heavily down to the floor. . . .
‘I had a very pleasant time yesterday,’ I began, seating myself in an arm-chair. ‘I dined with a friend of mine; Konstantin Alexandritch was there. . . . (I looked at Sophia; not an eyebrow quivered on her face.) ‘And I must own,’ I continued, ‘we’d a good deal of wine; we emptied eight bottles between the four of us.’
‘Really!’ Sophia articulated serenely, and she shook her head.
‘Yes,’ I went on, slightly irritated at her composure: ‘and do you know what, Sophia Nikolaevna, it’s a true saying, it seems, that in wine is truth.’
‘Konstantin Alexandritch made us laugh. Only fancy, he began all at once passing his hand over his forehead like this, and saying: “I’m a fine fellow! I’ve an uncle a celebrated man!”. . . . ’
‘Ha, ha!’ came Varvara’s short, abrupt laugh.
. . . . ‘Popka! Popka! Popka!’ the parrot dinned back at her.
Sophia stood still in front of me, and looked me straight in the face.
‘And you, what did you say?’ she asked; ‘don’t you remember?’
I could not help blushing.
‘I don’t remember! I expect I was pretty absurd too. It certainly is dangerous to drink,’ I added with significant emphasis; ‘one begins chattering at once, and one’s apt to say what no one ought to know. One’s sure to be sorry for it afterwards, but then it’s too late.’
‘Why, did you let out some secret?’ asked Sophia.
‘I am not referring to myself.’
Sophia turned away, and began walking up and down the room again. I stared at her, raging inwardly. ‘Upon my word,’ I thought, ‘she is a child, a baby, and how she has herself in hand! She’s made of stone, simply. But wait a bit. . . . ’
‘Sophia Nikolaevna . . . ’ I said aloud.
‘What is it?’
‘Won’t you play me something on the piano? By the way, I’ve something I want to say to you,’ I added, dropping my voice.
Sophia, without saying a word, walked into the other room; I followed her. She came to a standstill at the piano.
‘What am I to play you?’ she inquired.
‘What you like . . . one of Chopin’s nocturnes.’
Sophia began the nocturne. She played rather badly, but with feeling. Her sister played nothing but polkas and waltzes, and even that very seldom. She would go sometimes with her indolent step to the piano, sit down, let her coat slip from her shoulders down to her elbows (I never saw her without a coat), begin playing a polka very loud, and without finishing it, begin another, then she would suddenly heave a sigh, get up, and go back again to the window. A queer creature was that Varvara!
I sat down near Sophia.
‘Sophia Nikolaevna,’ I began, watching her intently from one side. ‘I ought to tell you a piece of news, news disagreeable to me.’
‘News? what is it?’
‘I’ll tell you. . . . Up till now I have been mistaken in you, completely mistaken.’
‘How was that?’ she rejoined, going on playing, and keeping her eyes fixed on her fingers.
‘I imagined you to be open; I imagined that you were incapable of hypocrisy, of hiding your feelings, deceiving. . . . ’
Sophia bent her face closer over the music.
‘I don’t understand you.’
‘And what’s more,’ I went on; ‘I could never have conceived that you, at your age, were already quite capable of acting a part in such masterly fashion.’
Sophia’s hands faintly trembled above the keys. ‘Why are you saying this?’ she said, still not looking at me; ‘I play a part?’
‘Yes, you do.’ (She smiled . . . I was seized with spiteful fury.) . . . ‘You pretend to be indifferent to a man and . . . and you write letters to him,’ I added in a whisper.
Sophia’s cheeks grew white, but she did not turn to me: she played the nocturne through to the end, got up, and closed the piano.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked her in some perplexity. ‘You have no answer to make me?’
‘What answer can I make you? I don’t know what you ‘re talking about. . . . And I am not good at pretending. . . . ’
She began putting by the music.
The blood rushed to my head. ‘No; you know what I am talking about,’ I said, and I too got up from my seat; ‘or if you like, I will remind you directly of some of your expressions in one letter: “be as careful as before”. . . . ’
Sophia gave a faint start.
‘I never should have expected this of you,’ she said at last.
‘I never should have expected,’ I retorted, ‘that you, Sophia Nikolaevna, would have deigned to notice a man who . . . ’
Sophia turned with a rapid movement to me; I instinctively stepped back a little from her; her eyes, always half closed, were so wide open that they looked immense, and they glittered wrathfully under her frowning brows.
‘Oh! if that’s it,’ she said, ‘let me tell you that I love that man, and that it’s absolutely no consequence to me what you think about him or about my love for him. And what business is it of yours? . . . What right have you to speak of this? If I have made up my mind . . . ’
She stopped speaking, and went hurriedly out of the room. I stood still. I felt all of a sudden so uncomfortable and so ashamed that I hid my face in my hands. I realised all the impropriety, all the baseness of my behaviour, and, choked with shame and remorse, I stood as it were in disgrace. ‘Mercy,’ I thought, ‘what I’ve done!’
‘Anton Nikititch,’ I heard the maid-servant saying in the outer-room, ‘get a glass of water, quick, for Sophia Nikolaevna.’
‘What’s wrong?’ answered the man.
‘I fancy she’s crying. . . . ’
I started up and went into the drawing-room for my hat.
‘What were you talking about to Sonitchka?’ Varvara inquired indifferently, and after a brief pause she added in an undertone, ‘Here’s that clerk again.’
I began saying good-bye.
‘Why are you going? Stay a little; mamma is coming down directly.’
‘No; I can’t now,’ I said: ‘I had better call and see her another time.’
At that instant, to my horror, to my positive horror, Sophia walked with resolute steps into the drawing-room. Her face was paler than usual, and her eyelids were a little red. She never even glanced at me.
‘Look, Sonia,’ observed Varvara; ‘there’s a clerk keeps continually passing our house.’
‘A spy, perhaps . . . ’ Sophia remarked coldly and contemptuously.
This was too much. I went away, and I really don’t know how I got home.
I felt very miserable, wretched and miserable beyond description. In twenty-four hours two such cruel blows! I had learned that Sophia loved another man, and I had for ever forfeited her respect. I felt myself so utterly annihilated and disgraced that I could not even feel indignant with myself. Lying on the sofa with my face turned to the wall, I was revelling in the first rush of despairing misery, when I suddenly heard footsteps in the room. I lifted my head and saw one of my most intimate friends, Yakov Pasinkov.
I was ready to fly into a rage with any one who had come into my room that day, but with Pasinkov I could never be angry. Quite the contrary; in spite of the sorrow devouring me, I was inwardly rejoiced at his coming, and I nodded to him. He walked twice up and down the room, as his habit was, clearing his throat, and stretching out his long limbs; then he stood a minute facing me in silence, and in silence he seated himself in a corner.
I had known Pasinkov a very long while, almost from childhood. He had been brought up at the same private school, kept by a German, Winterkeller, at which I had spent three years. Yakov’s father, a poor major on the retired list, a very honest man, but a little deranged mentally, had brought him, when a boy of seven, to this German; had paid for him for a year in advance, and had then left Moscow and been lost sight of completely. . . . From time to time there were dark, strange rumours about him. Eight years later it was known as a positive fact that he had been drowned in a flood when crossing the Irtish. What had taken him to Siberia, God knows. Yakov had no other relations; his mother had long been dead. He was simply left stranded on Winterkeller’s hands. Yakov had, it is true, a distant relation, a great-aunt; but she was so poor, that she was afraid at first to go to her nephew, for fear she should have the care of him thrust upon her. Her fears turned out to be groundless; the kind-hearted German kept Yakov with him, let him study with his other pupils, fed him (dessert, however, was not offered him except on Sundays), and rigged him out in clothes cut out of the cast-off morning-gowns — usually snuff-coloured — of his mother, an old Livonian lady, still alert and active in spite of her great age. Owing to all these circumstances, and owing generally to Yakov’s inferior position in the school, his schoolfellows treated him in rather a casual fashion, looked down upon him, and used to call him ‘mammy’s dressing-gown,’ the ‘nephew of the mob-cap’ (his aunt invariably wore a very peculiar mob-cap with a bunch of yellow ribbons sticking straight upright, like a globe artichoke, upon it), and sometimes the ‘son of Yermak’ (because his father had, like that hero, been drowned in the Irtish). But in spite of those nicknames, in spite of his ridiculous garb, and his absolute destitution, every one was fond of him, and indeed it was impossible not to be fond of him; a sweeter, nobler nature, I imagine, has never existed upon earth. He was very good at lessons too.
When I saw him first, he was sixteen years old, and I was only just thirteen. I was an exceedingly selfish and spoilt boy; I had grown up in a rather wealthy house, and so, on entering the school, I lost no time in making friends with a little prince, an object of special solicitude to Winterkeller, and with two or three other juvenile aristocrats; while I gave myself great airs with all the rest. Pasinkov I did not deign to notice at all. I regarded the long, gawky lad, in a shapeless coat and short trousers, which showed his coarse thread stockings, as some sort of page-boy, one of the house-serfs — at best, a person of the working class. Pasinkov was extremely courteous and gentle to everybody, though he never sought the society of any one. If he were rudely treated, he was neither humiliated nor sullen; he simply withdrew and held himself aloof, with a sort of regretful look, as it were biding his time. This was just how he behaved with me. About two months passed. One bright summer day I happened to go out of the playground after a noisy game of leap-frog, and walking into the garden I saw Pasinkov sitting on a bench under a high lilac-bush. He was reading. I glanced at the cover of the book as I passed, and read Schiller’s Werke on the back. I stopped short.
‘Do you mean to say you know German?’ I questioned Pasinkov. . . .
I feel ashamed to this day as I recall all the arrogance there was in the very sound of my voice. . . . Pasinkov softly raised his small but expressive eyes and looked at me.
‘Yes,’ he answered; ‘do you?’
‘I should hope so!’ I retorted, feeling insulted at the question, and I was about to go on my way, but something held me back.
‘What is it you are reading of Schiller?’ I asked, with the same haughty insolence.
‘At this moment I am reading “Resignation,” a beautiful poem. Would you like me to read it to you? Come and sit here by me on the bench.’
I hesitated a little, but I sat down. Pasinkov began reading. He knew
German far better than I did. He had to explain the meaning of several lines for me. But already I felt no shame at my ignorance and his superiority to me. From that day, from the very hour of our reading together in the garden, in the shade of the lilac-bush, I loved Pasinkov with my whole soul, I attached myself to him and fell completely under his sway.
I have a vivid recollection of his appearance in those days. He changed very little, however, later on. He was tall, thin, and rather awkwardly built, with a long back, narrow shoulders, and a hollow chest, which made him look rather frail and delicate, although as a fact he had nothing to complain of on the score of health. His large, dome-shaped head was carried a little on one side; his soft, flaxen hair straggled in lank locks about his slender neck. His face was not handsome, and might even have struck one as absurd, owing to the long, full, and reddish nose, which seemed almost to overhang his wide, straight mouth. But his open brow was splendid; and when he smiled, his little grey eyes gleamed with such mild and affectionate goodness, that every one felt warmed and cheered at heart at the very sight of him. I remember his voice too, soft and even, with a peculiar sort of sweet huskiness in it. He spoke, as a rule, little, and with noticeable difficulty. But when he warmed up, his words flowed freely, and — strange to say! — his voice grew still softer, his glance seemed turned inward and lost its fire, while his whole face faintly glowed. On his lips the words ‘goodness,’ ‘truth,’ ‘life,’ ‘science,’ ‘love,’ however enthusiastically they were uttered, never rang with a false note. Without strain, without effort, he stepped into the realm of the ideal; his pure soul was at any moment ready to stand before the ‘holy shrine of beauty’; it awaited only the welcoming call, the contact of another soul. . . . Pasinkov was an idealist, one of the last idealists whom it has been my lot to come across. Idealists, as we all know, are all but extinct in these days; there are none of them, at any rate, among the young people of to day. So much the worse for the young people of today!
About three years I spent with Pasinkov, ‘soul in soul,’ as the saying is.
I was the confidant of his first love. With what grateful sympathy and intentness I listened to his avowal! The object of his passion was a niece of Winterkeller’s, a fair-haired, pretty little German, with a chubby, almost childish little face, and confidingly soft blue eyes. She was very kind and sentimental: she loved Mattison, Uhland, and Schiller, and repeated their verses very sweetly in her timid, musical voice. Pasinkov’s love was of the most platonic. He only saw his beloved on Sundays, when she used to come and play at forfeits with the Winterkeller children, and he had very little conversation with her. But once, when she said to him, ‘mein lieber, lieber Herr Jacob!’ he did not sleep all night from excess of bliss. It never even struck him at the time that she called all his schoolfellows ‘mein lieber.’ I remember, too, his grief and dejection when the news suddenly reached us that Fräulein Frederike — that was her name — was going to be married to Herr Kniftus, the owner of a prosperous butcher’s shop, a very handsome man, and well educated too; and that she was marrying him, not simply in submission to parental authority, but positively from love. It was a bitter blow for Pasinkov, and his sufferings were particularly severe on the day of the young people’s first visit. The former Fräulein, now Frau, Frederike presented him, once more addressing him as ‘lieber Herr Jacob,’ to her husband, who was all splendour from top to toe; his eyes, his black hair brushed up into a tuft, his forehead and his teeth, and his coat buttons, and the chain on his waistcoat, everything, down to the boots on his rather large, turned-out feet, shone brilliantly. Pasinkov pressed Herr Kniftus’s hand, and wished him (and the wish was sincere, that I am certain) complete and enduring happiness. This took place in my presence. I remember with what admiration and sympathy I gazed at Yakov. I thought him a hero!. . . . And afterwards, what mournful conversations passed between us. ‘Seek consolation in art,’ I said to him. ‘Yes,’ he answered me; ‘and in poetry.’ ‘And in friendship,’ I added. ‘And in friendship,’ he repeated. Oh, happy days! . . .
It was a grief to me to part from Pasinkov. Just before I left school, he had, after prolonged efforts and difficulties, after a correspondence often amusing, succeeded in obtaining his certificates of birth and baptism and his passport, and had entered the university. He still went on living at Winterkeller’s expense; but instead of home-made jackets and breeches, he was provided now with ordinary attire, in return for lessons on various subjects, which he gave the younger pupils. Pasinkov was unchanged in his behaviour to me up to the end of my time at the school, though the difference in our ages began to be more noticeable, and I, I remember, grew jealous of some of his new student friends. His influence on me was most beneficial. It was a pity it did not last longer. To give a single instance: as a child I was in the habit of telling lies. . . . In Yakov’s presence I could not bring my tongue to utter an untruth. What I particularly loved was walking alone with him, or pacing by his side up and down the room, listening while he, not looking at me, read poetry in his soft, intense voice. It positively seemed to me that we were slowly, gradually, getting away from the earth, and soaring away to some radiant, glorious land of mystery. . . . I remember one night. We were sitting together under the same lilac-bush; we were fond of that spot. All our companions were asleep; but we had softly got up, dressed, fumbling in the dark, and stealthily stepped out ‘to dream.’ It was fairly warm out of doors, but a fresh breeze blew now and then and made us huddle closer together. We talked, we talked a lot, and with much warmth — so much so, that we positively interrupted each other, though we did not argue. In the sky gleamed stars innumerable. Yakov raised his eyes, and pressing my hand he softly cried out:
‘Above our heads
The sky with the eternal stars. . . .
Above the stars their Maker. . . . ’
A thrill of awe ran through me; I felt cold all over, and sank on his shoulder. . . . My heart was full. . . . Where are those raptures? Alas! where youth is.
In Petersburg I met Yakov again eight years after. I had only just been appointed to a position in the service, and some one had got him a little post in some department. Our meeting was most joyful. I shall never forget the moment when, sitting alone one day at home, I suddenly heard his voice in the passage. . . .
How I started; with what throbbing at the heart I leaped up and flung myself on his neck, without giving him time to take off his fur overcoat and unfasten his scarf! How greedily I gazed at him through bright, involuntary tears of tenderness! He had grown a little older during those seven years; lines, delicate as if they had been traced by a needle, furrowed his brow here and there, his cheeks were a little more hollow, and his hair was thinner; but he had hardly more beard, and his smile was just the same as ever; and his laugh, a soft, inward, as it were breathless laugh, was the same too. . . .
Mercy on us! what didn’t we talk about that day! . . . The favourite poems we read to one another! I began begging him to move and come and live with me, but he would not consent. He promised, however, to come every day to see me, and he kept his word.
In soul, too, Pasinkov was unchanged. He showed himself just the same idealist as I had always known him. However rudely life’s chill, the bitter chill of experience, had closed in about him, the tender flower that had bloomed so early in my friend’s heart had kept all its pure beauty untouched. There was no trace of sadness even, no trace even of melancholy in him; he was quiet, as he had always been, but everlastingly glad at heart.
In Petersburg he lived as in a wilderness, not thinking of the future, and knowing scarcely any one. I took him to the Zlotnitskys’. He used to go and see them rather often. Not being self-conscious, he was not shy, but in their house, as everywhere, he said very little; they liked him, however. Even the tedious old man, Tatiana Vassilievna’s husband, was friendly to him, and both the silent girls were soon quite at home with him.
Sometimes he would arrive, bringing with him in the back pocket of his coat some book that had just come out, and for a long time would not make up his mind to read, but would keep stretching his neck out on one side, like a bird, looking about him as though inquiring, ‘could he?’ At last he would establish himself in a corner (he always liked sitting in corners), would pull out a book and set to reading, at first in a whisper, then louder and louder, occasionally interrupting himself with brief criticisms or exclamations. I noticed that Varvara was readier to sit by him and listen than her sister, though she certainly did not understand much; literature was not in her line. She would sit opposite Pasinkov, her chin in her hands, staring at him — not into his eyes, but into his whole face — and would not utter a syllable, but only heave a noisy, sudden sigh. Sometimes in the evenings we used to play forfeits, especially on Sundays and holidays. We were joined on these occasions by two plump, short young ladies, sisters, and distant relations of the Zlotnitskys, terribly given to giggling, and a few lads from the military school, very good-natured, quiet fellows. Pasinkov always used to sit beside Tatiana Vassilievna, and with her, judge what was to be done to the one who had to pay a forfeit.
Sophia did not like the kisses and such demonstrations, with which forfeits are often paid, while Varvara used to be cross if she had to look for anything or guess something. The young ladies giggled incessantly — laughter seemed to bubble up by some magic in them — I sometimes felt positively irritated as I looked at them, but Pasinkov only smiled and shook his head. Old Zlotnitsky took no part in our games, and even looked at us rather disapprovingly from the door of his study. Only once, utterly unexpectedly, he came in to us, and proposed that whoever had next to pay a forfeit should waltz with him; we, of course, agreed. It happened to be Tatiana Vassilievna who had to pay the forfeit. She crimsoned all over, and was confused and abashed like a girl of fifteen; but her husband at once told Sophia to go to the piano, while he went up to his wife, and waltzed two rounds with her of the old-fashioned trois temps waltz. I remember how his bilious, gloomy face, with its never-smiling eyes, kept appearing and disappearing as he slowly turned round, his stern expression never relaxing. He waltzed with a long step and a hop, while his wife pattered rapidly with her feet, and huddled up with her face close to his chest, as though she were in terror. He led her to her place, bowed to her, went back to his room and shut the door. Sophia was just getting up, but Varvara asked her to go on, went up to Pasinkov, and holding out her hand, with an awkward smile, said, ‘Will you like a turn?’ Pasinkov was surprised, but he jumped up — he was always distinguished by the most delicate courtesy — and took Varvara by the waist, but he slipped down at the first step, and leaving hold of his partner at once, rolled right under the pedestal on which the parrot’s cage was standing. . . . The cage fell, the parrot was frightened and shrieked, ‘Present arms!’ Every one laughed. . . . Zlotnitsky appeared at his study door, looked grimly at us, and slammed the door to. From that time forth, one had only to allude to this incident before Varvara, and she would go off into peals of laughter at once, and look at Pasinkov, as though anything cleverer than his behaviour on that occasion it was impossible to conceive.
Pasinkov was very fond of music. He used often to beg Sophia to play him something, and to sit on one side listening, and now and then humming in a thin voice the most pathetic passages. He was particularly fond of Schubert’s Constellation. He used to declare that when he heard the air played he could always fancy that with the sounds long rays of azure light came pouring down from on high, straight upon him. To this day, whenever I look upon a cloudless sky at night, with the softly quivering stars, I always recall Schubert’s melody and Pasinkov. . . . An excursion into the country comes back to my mind. We set out, a whole party of us, in two hired four-wheel carriages, to Pargolovo. I remember we took the carriages from the Vladimirsky; they were very old, and painted blue, with round springs, and a wide box-seat, and bundles of hay inside; the brown, broken-winded horses that drew us along at a slow trot were each lame in a different leg. We strolled a long while about the pinewoods round Pargolovo, drank milk out of earthenware pitchers, and ate wild strawberries and sugar. The weather was exquisite. Varvara did not care for long walks: she used soon to get tired; but this time she did not lag behind us. She took off her hat, her hair came down, her heavy features lighted up, and her cheeks were flushed. Meeting two peasant girls in the wood, she sat down suddenly on the ground, called them to her, did not patronise them, but made them sit down beside her. Sophia looked at them from some distance with a cold smile, and did not go up to them. She was walking with Asanov. Zlotnitsky observed that Varvara was a regular hen for sitting. Varvara got up and walked away. In the course of the walk she several times went up to Pasinkov, and said to him, ‘Yakov Ivanitch, I want to tell you something,’ but what she wanted to tell him — remained unknown.
But it’s high time for me to get back to my story.
I was glad to see Pasinkov; but when I recalled what I had done the day before, I felt unutterably ashamed, and I hurriedly turned away to the wall again. After a brief pause, Yakov asked me if I were unwell.
‘I’m quite well,’ I answered through my teeth; ‘only my head aches.’
Yakov made no reply, and took up a book. More than an hour passed by; I was just coming to the point of confessing everything to Yakov . . . suddenly there was a ring at the outer bell of my flat.
The door on to the stairs was opened. . . . I listened. . . . Asanov was asking my servant if I were at home.
Pasinkov got up; he did not care for Asanov, and telling me in a whisper that he would go and lie down on my bed, he went into my bedroom.
A minute later Asanov entered.
From the very sight of his flushed face, from his brief, cool bow, I guessed that he had not come to me without some set purpose in his mind. ‘What is going to happen?’ I wondered.
‘Sir,’ he began, quickly seating himself in an armchair, ‘I have come to you for you to settle a matter of doubt for me.’
‘And that is?’
‘That is: I wish to know whether you are an honest man.’
I flew into a rage. ‘What’s the meaning of that?’ I demanded.
‘I’ll tell you what’s the meaning of it,’ he retorted, underlining as it were each word. ‘Yesterday I showed you a pocket-book containing letters from a certain person to me. . . . To-day you repeated to that person, with reproach — with reproach, observe — some expressions from those letters, without having the slightest right to do so. I should like to know what explanation you can give of this?’
‘And I should like to know what right you have to cross-examine me,’ I answered, trembling with fury and inward shame.
‘You chose to boast of your uncle, of your correspondence; I’d nothing to do with it. You’ve got all your letters all right, haven’t you?’
‘The letters are all right; but I was yesterday in a condition in which you could easily ——’
‘In short, sir,’ I began, speaking intentionally as loud as I could, ‘I beg you to leave me alone, do you hear? I don’t want to know anything about it, and I’m not going to give you any explanation. You can go to that person for explanations!’ I felt that my head was beginning to go round.
Asanov turned upon me a look to which he obviously tried to impart an air of scornful penetration, pulled his moustaches, and got up slowly.
‘I know now what to think,’ he observed; ‘your face is the best evidence against you. But I must tell you that that’s not the way honourable people behave. . . . To read a letter on the sly, and then to go and worry an honourable girl. . . . ’
‘Will you go to the devil!’ I shouted, stamping, ‘and send me a second; I don’t mean to talk to you.’
‘Kindly refrain from telling me what to do,’ Asanov retorted frigidly; ‘but I certainly will send a second to you.’
He went away. I fell on the sofa and hid my face in my hands. Some one touched me on the shoulder; I moved my hands — before me was standing Pasinkov.
‘What’s this? is it true?’ . . . he asked me. ‘You read another man’s letter?’
I had not the strength to answer, but I nodded in assent.
Pasinkov went to the window, and standing with his back to me, said slowly: ‘You read a letter from a girl to Asanov. Who was the girl?’
‘Sophia Zlotnitsky,’ I answered, as a prisoner on his trial answers the judge.
For a long while Pasinkov did not utter a word.
‘Nothing but passion could to some extent excuse you,’ he began at last. ‘Are you in love then with the younger Zlotnitsky?’
Pasinkov was silent again for a little.
‘I thought so. And you went to her today and began reproaching her? . . . ’
‘Yes, yes, yes! . . . ’ I articulated desperately. ‘Now you can despise me. . . . ’
Pasinkov walked a couple of times up and down the room.
‘And she loves him?’ he queried.
‘She loves him. . . . ’
Pasinkov looked down, and gazed a long while at the floor without moving.
‘Well, it must be set right,’ he began, raising his head,’ things can’t be left like this.’
And he took up his hat.
‘Where are you going?’
I jumped up from the sofa.
‘But I won’t let you. Good heavens! how can you! what will he think?’
Pasinkov looked at me.
‘Why, do you think it better to keep this folly up, to bring ruin on yourself, and disgrace on the girl?’
‘But what are you going to say to Asanov?’
‘I’ll try and explain things to him, I’ll tell him you beg his forgiveness . . . ’
‘But I don’t want to apologise to him!’
‘You don’t? Why, aren’t you in fault?’
I looked at Pasinkov; the calm and severe, though mournful, expression of his face impressed me; it was new to me. I made no reply, and sat down on the sofa.
Pasinkov went out.
In what agonies of suspense I waited for his return! With what cruel slowness the time lingered by! At last he came back — late.
‘Well?’ I queried in a timid voice.
‘Thank goodness!’ he answered; ‘it’s all settled.’
‘You have been at Asanov’s?’
‘Well, and he? — made a great to-do, I suppose?’ I articulated with an effort.
‘No, I can’t say that. I expected more . . . He . . . he’s not such a vulgar fellow as I thought.’
‘Well, and have you seen any one else besides?’ I asked, after a brief pause.
‘I’ve been at the Zlotnitskys’.’
‘Ah! . . . ’ (My heart began to throb. I did not dare look Pasinkov in the face.) ‘Well, and she?’
‘Sophia Nikolaevna is a reasonable, kind-hearted girl. . . . Yes, she is a kind-hearted girl. She felt awkward at first, but she was soon at ease. But our whole conversation only lasted five minutes.’
‘And you . . . told her everything . . . about me . . . everything?’
‘I told her what was necessary.’
‘I shall never be able to go and see them again now!’ I pronounced dejectedly. . . .
‘Why? No, you can go occasionally. On the contrary, you are absolutely bound to go and see them, so that nothing should be thought. . . . ’
‘Ah, Yakov, you will despise me now!’ I cried, hardly keeping back my tears.
‘Me! Despise you? . . . ’ (His affectionate eyes glowed with love.) ‘Despise you . . . silly fellow! Don’t I see how hard it’s been for you, how you’re suffering?’
He held out his hand to me; I fell on his neck and broke into sobs.
After a few days, during which I noticed that Pasinkov was in very low spirits, I made up my mind at last to go to the Zlotnitskys’. What I felt, as I stepped into their drawing-room, it would be difficult to convey in words; I remember that I could hardly distinguish the persons in the room, and my voice failed me. Sophia was no less ill at ease; she obviously forced herself to address me, but her eyes avoided mine as mine did hers, and every movement she made, her whole being, expressed constraint, mingled . . . why conceal the truth? with secret aversion. I tried, as far as possible, to spare her and myself from such painful sensations. This meeting was happily our last — before her marriage. A sudden change in my fortunes carried me off to the other end of Russia, and I bade a long farewell to Petersburg, to the Zlotnitsky family, and, what was most grievous of all for me, to dear Yakov Pasinkov.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14