A well-fed, red-cheeked young man called Nikolay Ilyitch Belyaev, of thirty-two, who was an owner of house property in Petersburg, and a devotee of the race-course, went one evening to see Olga Ivanovna Irnin, with whom he was living, or, to use his own expression, was dragging out a long, wearisome romance. And, indeed, the first interesting and enthusiastic pages of this romance had long been perused; now the pages dragged on, and still dragged on, without presenting anything new or of interest.
Not finding Olga Ivanovna at home, my hero lay down on the lounge chair and proceeded to wait for her in the drawing-room.
“Good-evening, Nikolay Ilyitch!” he heard a child’s voice. “Mother will be here directly. She has gone with Sonia to the dressmaker’s.”
Olga Ivanovna’s son, Alyosha — a boy of eight who looked graceful and very well cared for, who was dressed like a picture, in a black velvet jacket and long black stockings — was lying on the sofa in the same room. He was lying on a satin cushion and, evidently imitating an acrobat he had lately seen at the circus, stuck up in the air first one leg and then the other. When his elegant legs were exhausted, he brought his arms into play or jumped up impulsively and went on all fours, trying to stand with his legs in the air. All this he was doing with the utmost gravity, gasping and groaning painfully as though he regretted that God had given him such a restless body.
“Ah, good-evening, my boy,” said Belyaev. “It’s you! I did not notice you. Is your mother well?”
Alyosha, taking hold of the tip of his left toe with his right hand and falling into the most unnatural attitude, turned over, jumped up, and peeped at Belyaev from behind the big fluffy lampshade.
“What shall I say?” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “In reality mother’s never well. You see, she is a woman, and women, Nikolay Ilyitch, have always something the matter with them.”
Belyaev, having nothing better to do, began watching Alyosha’s face. He had never before during the whole of his intimacy with Olga Ivanovna paid any attention to the boy, and had completely ignored his existence; the boy had been before his eyes, but he had not cared to think why he was there and what part he was playing.
In the twilight of the evening, Alyosha’s face, with his white forehead and black, unblinking eyes, unexpectedly reminded Belyaev of Olga Ivanovna as she had been during the first pages of their romance. And he felt disposed to be friendly to the boy.
“Come here, insect,” he said; “let me have a closer look at you.”
The boy jumped off the sofa and skipped up to Belyaev.
“Well,” began Nikolay Ilyitch, putting a hand on the boy’s thin shoulder. “How are you getting on?”
“How shall I say! We used to get on a great deal better.”
“It’s very simple. Sonia and I used only to learn music and reading, and now they give us French poetry to learn. Have you been shaved lately?”
“Yes, I see you have. Your beard is shorter. Let me touch it. . . . Does that hurt?”
“Why is it that if you pull one hair it hurts, but if you pull a lot at once it doesn’t hurt a bit? Ha, ha! And, you know, it’s a pity you don’t have whiskers. Here ought to be shaved . . . but here at the sides the hair ought to be left. . . .”
The boy nestled up to Belyaev and began playing with his watch-chain.
“When I go to the high-school,” he said, “mother is going to buy me a watch. I shall ask her to buy me a watch-chain like this. . . . Wh-at a lo-ket! Father’s got a locket like that, only yours has little bars on it and his has letters. . . . There’s mother’s portrait in the middle of his. Father has a different sort of chain now, not made with rings, but like ribbon. . . .”
“How do you know? Do you see your father?”
“I? M’m . . . no . . . I . . .”
Alyosha blushed, and in great confusion, feeling caught in a lie, began zealously scratching the locket with his nail. . . . Belyaev looked steadily into his face and asked:
“Do you see your father?”
“Come, speak frankly, on your honour. . . . I see from your face you are telling a fib. Once you’ve let a thing slip out it’s no good wriggling about it. Tell me, do you see him? Come, as a friend.”
“You won’t tell mother?” he said.
“As though I should!”
“On your honour?”
“On my honour.”
“Do you swear?”
“Ah, you provoking boy! What do you take me for?”
Alyosha looked round him, then with wide-open eyes, whispered to him:
“Only, for goodness’ sake, don’t tell mother. . . . Don’t tell any one at all, for it is a secret. I hope to goodness mother won’t find out, or we should all catch it — Sonia, and I, and Pelagea. . . . Well, listen. . . Sonia and I see father every Tuesday and Friday. When Pelagea takes us for a walk before dinner we go to the Apfel Restaurant, and there is father waiting for us. . . . He is always sitting in a room apart, where you know there’s a marble table and an ash-tray in the shape of a goose without a back. . . .”
“What do you do there?”
“Nothing! First we say how-do-you-do, then we all sit round the table, and father treats us with coffee and pies. You know Sonia eats the meat-pies, but I can’t endure meat-pies! I like the pies made of cabbage and eggs. We eat such a lot that we have to try hard to eat as much as we can at dinner, for fear mother should notice.”
“What do you talk about?”
“With father? About anything. He kisses us, he hugs us, tells us all sorts of amusing jokes. Do you know, he says when we are grown up he is going to take us to live with him. Sonia does not want to go, but I agree. Of course, I should miss mother; but, then, I should write her letters! It’s a queer idea, but we could come and visit her on holidays — couldn’t we? Father says, too, that he will buy me a horse. He’s an awfully kind man! I can’t understand why mother does not ask him to come and live with us, and why she forbids us to see him. You know he loves mother very much. He is always asking us how she is and what she is doing. When she was ill he clutched his head like this, and . . . and kept running about. He always tells us to be obedient and respectful to her. Listen. Is it true that we are unfortunate?”
“H’m! . . . Why?”
“That’s what father says. ‘You are unhappy children,’ he says. It’s strange to hear him, really. ‘You are unhappy,’ he says, ‘I am unhappy, and mother’s unhappy. You must pray to God,’ he says; ‘for yourselves and for her.’ “
Alyosha let his eyes rest on a stuffed bird and sank into thought.
“So . . .” growled Belyaev. “So that’s how you are going on. You arrange meetings at restaurants. And mother does not know?”
“No-o. . . . How should she know? Pelagea would not tell her for anything, you know. The day before yesterday he gave us some pears. As sweet as jam! I ate two.”
“H’m! . . . Well, and I say . . Listen. Did father say anything about me?”
“About you? What shall I say?”
Alyosha looked searchingly into Belyaev’s face and shrugged his shoulders.
“He didn’t say anything particular.”
“For instance, what did he say?”
“You won’t be offended?”
“What next? Why, does he abuse me?”
“He doesn’t abuse you, but you know he is angry with you. He says mother’s unhappy owing to you . . . and that you have ruined mother. You know he is so queer! I explain to him that you are kind, that you never scold mother; but he only shakes his head.”
“So he says I have ruined her?”
“Yes; you mustn’t be offended, Nikolay Ilyitch.”
Belyaev got up, stood still a moment, and walked up and down the drawing-room.
“That’s strange and . . . ridiculous!” he muttered, shrugging his shoulders and smiling sarcastically. “He’s entirely to blame, and I have ruined her, eh? An innocent lamb, I must say. So he told you I ruined your mother?”
“Yes, but . . . you said you would not be offended, you know.”
“I am not offended, and . . . and it’s not your business. Why, it’s . . . why, it’s positively ridiculous! I have been thrust into it like a chicken in the broth, and now it seems I’m to blame!”
A ring was heard. The boy sprang up from his place and ran out. A minute later a lady came into the room with a little girl; this was Olga Ivanovna, Alyosha’s mother. Alyosha followed them in, skipping and jumping, humming aloud and waving his hands. Belyaev nodded, and went on walking up and down.
“Of course, whose fault is it if not mine?” he muttered with a snort. “He is right! He is an injured husband.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Olga Ivanovna.
“What about? . . . Why, just listen to the tales your lawful spouse is spreading now! It appears that I am a scoundrel and a villain, that I have ruined you and the children. All of you are unhappy, and I am the only happy one! Wonderfully, wonderfully happy!”
“I don’t understand, Nikolay. What’s the matter?”
“Why, listen to this young gentleman!” said Belyaev, pointing to Alyosha.
Alyosha flushed crimson, then turned pale, and his whole face began working with terror.
“Nikolay Ilyitch,” he said in a loud whisper. “Sh-sh!”
Olga Ivanovna looked in surprise at Alyosha, then at Belyaev, then at Alyosha again.
“Just ask him,” Belyaev went on. “Your Pelagea, like a regular fool, takes them about to restaurants and arranges meetings with their papa. But that’s not the point: the point is that their dear papa is a victim, while I’m a wretch who has broken up both your lives. . .”
“Nikolay Ilyitch,” moaned Alyosha. “Why, you promised on your word of honour!”
“Oh, get away!” said Belyaev, waving him off. “This is more important than any word of honour. It’s the hypocrisy revolts me, the lying! . . .”
“I don’t understand it,” said Olga Ivanovna, and tears glistened in her eyes. “Tell me, Alyosha,” she turned to her son. “Do you see your father?”
Alyosha did not hear her; he was looking with horror at Belyaev.
“It’s impossible,” said his mother; “I will go and question Pelagea.”
Olga Ivanovna went out.
“I say, you promised on your word of honour!” said Alyosha, trembling all over.
Belyaev dismissed him with a wave of his hand, and went on walking up and down. He was absorbed in his grievance and was oblivious of the boy’s presence, as he always had been. He, a grownup, serious person, had no thought to spare for boys. And Alyosha sat down in the corner and told Sonia with horror how he had been deceived. He was trembling, stammering, and crying. It was the first time in his life that he had been brought into such coarse contact with lying; till then he had not known that there are in the world, besides sweet pears, pies, and expensive watches, a great many things for which the language of children has no expression.