Mashenka Pavletsky, a young girl who had only just finished her studies at a boarding school, returning from a walk to the house of the Kushkins, with whom she was living as a governess, found the household in a terrible turmoil. Mihailo, the porter who opened the door to her, was excited and red as a crab.
Loud voices were heard from upstairs.
“Madame Kushkin is in a fit, most likely, or else she has quarrelled with her husband,” thought Mashenka.
In the hall and in the corridor she met maid-servants. One of them was crying. Then Mashenka saw, running out of her room, the master of the house himself, Nikolay Sergeitch, a little man with a flabby face and a bald head, though he was not old. He was red in the face and twitching all over. He passed the governess without noticing her, and throwing up his arms, exclaimed:
“Oh, how horrible it is! How tactless! How stupid! How barbarous! Abominable!”
Mashenka went into her room, and then, for the first time in her life, it was her lot to experience in all its acuteness the feeling that is so familiar to persons in dependent positions, who eat the bread of the rich and powerful, and cannot speak their minds. There was a search going on in her room. The lady of the house, Fedosya Vassilyevna, a stout, broad-shouldered, uncouth woman with thick black eyebrows, a faintly perceptible moustache, and red hands, who was exactly like a plain, illiterate cook in face and manners, was standing, without her cap on, at the table, putting back into Mashenka’s workbag balls of wool, scraps of materials, and bits of paper…. Evidently the governess’s arrival took her by surprise, since, on looking round and seeing the girl’s pale and astonished face, she was a little taken aback, and muttered:
“Pardon. I … I upset it accidentally…. My sleeve caught in it …”
And saying something more, Madame Kushkin rustled her long skirts and went out. Mashenka looked round her room with wondering eyes, and, unable to understand it, not knowing what to think, shrugged her shoulders, and turned cold with dismay. What had Fedosya Vassilyevna been looking for in her work-bag? If she really had, as she said, caught her sleeve in it and upset everything, why had Nikolay Sergeitch dashed out of her room so excited and red in the face? Why was one drawer of the table pulled out a little way? The money-box, in which the governess put away ten kopeck pieces and old stamps, was open. They had opened it, but did not know how to shut it, though they had scratched the lock all over. The whatnot with her books on it, the things on the table, the bed—all bore fresh traces of a search. Her linen-basket, too. The linen had been carefully folded, but it was not in the same order as Mashenka had left it when she went out. So the search had been thorough, most thorough. But what was it for? Why? What had happened? Mashenka remembered the excited porter, the general turmoil which was still going on, the weeping servant-girl; had it not all some connection with the search that had just been made in her room? Was not she mixed up in something dreadful? Mashenka turned pale, and feeling cold all over, sank on to her linen-basket.
A maid-servant came into the room.
“Liza, you don’t know why they have been rummaging in my room?” the governess asked her.
“Mistress has lost a brooch worth two thousand,” said Liza.
“Yes, but why have they been rummaging in my room?”
“They’ve been searching every one, miss. They’ve searched all my things, too. They stripped us all naked and searched us…. God knows, miss, I never went near her toilet-table, let alone touching the brooch. I shall say the same at the police-station.”
“But … why have they been rummaging here?” the governess still wondered.
“A brooch has been stolen, I tell you. The mistress has been rummaging in everything with her own hands. She even searched Mihailo, the porter, herself. It’s a perfect disgrace! Nikolay Sergeitch simply looks on and cackles like a hen. But you’ve no need to tremble like that, miss. They found nothing here. You’ve nothing to be afraid of if you didn’t take the brooch.”
“But, Liza, it’s vile … it’s insulting,” said Mashenka, breathless with indignation. “It’s so mean, so low! What right had she to suspect me and to rummage in my things?”
“You are living with strangers, miss,” sighed Liza. “Though you are a young lady, still you are … as it were … a servant…. It’s not like living with your papa and mamma.”
Mashenka threw herself on the bed and sobbed bitterly. Never in her life had she been subjected to such an outrage, never had she been so deeply insulted…. She, well-educated, refined, the daughter of a teacher, was suspected of theft; she had been searched like a street-walker! She could not imagine a greater insult. And to this feeling of resentment was added an oppressive dread of what would come next. All sorts of absurd ideas came into her mind. If they could suspect her of theft, then they might arrest her, strip her naked, and search her, then lead her through the street with an escort of soldiers, cast her into a cold, dark cell with mice and woodlice, exactly like the dungeon in which Princess Tarakanov was imprisoned. Who would stand up for her? Her parents lived far away in the provinces; they had not the money to come to her. In the capital she was as solitary as in a desert, without friends or kindred. They could do what they liked with her.
“I will go to all the courts and all the lawyers,” Mashenka thought, trembling. “I will explain to them, I will take an oath…. They will believe that I could not be a thief!”
Mashenka remembered that under the sheets in her basket she had some sweetmeats, which, following the habits of her schooldays, she had put in her pocket at dinner and carried off to her room. She felt hot all over, and was ashamed at the thought that her little secret was known to the lady of the house; and all this terror, shame, resentment, brought on an attack of palpitation of the heart, which set up a throbbing in her temples, in her heart, and deep down in her stomach.
“Dinner is ready,” the servant summoned Mashenka.
“Shall I go, or not?”
Mashenka brushed her hair, wiped her face with a wet towel, and went into the dining-room. There they had already begun dinner. At one end of the table sat Fedosya Vassilyevna with a stupid, solemn, serious face; at the other end Nikolay Sergeitch. At the sides there were the visitors and the children. The dishes were handed by two footmen in swallowtails and white gloves. Every one knew that there was an upset in the house, that Madame Kushkin was in trouble, and every one was silent. Nothing was heard but the sound of munching and the rattle of spoons on the plates.
The lady of the house, herself, was the first to speak.
“What is the third course?” she asked the footman in a weary, injured voice.
“Esturgeon à la russe,” answered the footman.
“I ordered that, Fenya,” Nikolay Sergeitch hastened to observe. “I wanted some fish. If you don’t like it, ma chère, don’t let them serve it. I just ordered it….”
Fedosya Vassilyevna did not like dishes that she had not ordered herself, and now her eyes filled with tears.
“Come, don’t let us agitate ourselves,” Mamikov, her household doctor, observed in a honeyed voice, just touching her arm, with a smile as honeyed. “We are nervous enough as it is. Let us forget the brooch! Health is worth more than two thousand roubles!”
“It’s not the two thousand I regret,” answered the lady, and a big tear rolled down her cheek. “It’s the fact itself that revolts me! I cannot put up with thieves in my house. I don’t regret it—I regret nothing; but to steal from me is such ingratitude! That’s how they repay me for my kindness….”
They all looked into their plates, but Mashenka fancied after the lady’s words that every one was looking at her. A lump rose in her throat; she began crying and put her handkerchief to her lips.
“Pardon,” she muttered. “I can’t help it. My head aches. I’ll go away.”
And she got up from the table, scraping her chair awkwardly, and went out quickly, still more overcome with confusion.
“It’s beyond everything!” said Nikolay Sergeitch, frowning. “What need was there to search her room? How out of place it was!”
“I don’t say she took the brooch,” said Fedosya Vassilyevna, “but can you answer for her? To tell the truth, I haven’t much confidence in these learned paupers.”
“It really was unsuitable, Fenya…. Excuse me, Fenya, but you’ve no kind of legal right to make a search.”
“I know nothing about your laws. All I know is that I’ve lost my brooch. And I will find the brooch!” She brought her fork down on the plate with a clatter, and her eyes flashed angrily. “And you eat your dinner, and don’t interfere in what doesn’t concern you!”
Nikolay Sergeitch dropped his eyes mildly and sighed. Meanwhile Mashenka, reaching her room, flung herself on her bed. She felt now neither alarm nor shame, but she felt an intense longing to go and slap the cheeks of this hard, arrogant, dull-witted, prosperous woman.
Lying on her bed she breathed into her pillow and dreamed of how nice it would be to go and buy the most expensive brooch and fling it into the face of this bullying woman. If only it were God’s will that Fedosya Vassilyevna should come to ruin and wander about begging, and should taste all the horrors of poverty and dependence, and that Mashenka, whom she had insulted, might give her alms! Oh, if only she could come in for a big fortune, could buy a carriage, and could drive noisily past the windows so as to be envied by that woman!
But all these were only dreams, in reality there was only one thing left to do—to get away as quickly as possible, not to stay another hour in this place. It was true it was terrible to lose her place, to go back to her parents, who had nothing; but what could she do? Mashenka could not bear the sight of the lady of the house nor of her little room; she felt stifled and wretched here. She was so disgusted with Fedosya Vassilyevna, who was so obsessed by her illnesses and her supposed aristocratic rank, that everything in the world seemed to have become coarse and unattractive because this woman was living in it. Mashenka jumped up from the bed and began packing.
“May I come in?” asked Nikolay Sergeitch at the door; he had come up noiselessly to the door, and spoke in a soft, subdued voice. “May I?”
He came in and stood still near the door. His eyes looked dim and his red little nose was shiny. After dinner he used to drink beer, and the fact was perceptible in his walk, in his feeble, flabby hands.
“What’s this?” he asked, pointing to the basket.
“I am packing. Forgive me, Nikolay Sergeitch, but I cannot remain in your house. I feel deeply insulted by this search!”
“I understand…. Only you are wrong to go. Why should you? They’ve searched your things, but you … what does it matter to you? You will be none the worse for it.”
Mashenka was silent and went on packing. Nikolay Sergeitch pinched his moustache, as though wondering what he should say next, and went on in an ingratiating voice:
“I understand, of course, but you must make allowances. You know my wife is nervous, headstrong; you mustn’t judge her too harshly.”
Mashenka did not speak.
“If you are so offended,” Nikolay Sergeitch went on, “well, if you like, I’m ready to apologise. I ask your pardon.”
Mashenka made no answer, but only bent lower over her box. This exhausted, irresolute man was of absolutely no significance in the household. He stood in the pitiful position of a dependent and hanger-on, even with the servants, and his apology meant nothing either.
“H’m!… You say nothing! That’s not enough for you. In that case, I will apologise for my wife. In my wife’s name…. She behaved tactlessly, I admit it as a gentleman….”
Nikolay Sergeitch walked about the room, heaved a sigh, and went on:
“Then you want me to have it rankling here, under my heart…. You want my conscience to torment me….”
“I know it’s not your fault, Nikolay Sergeitch,” said Mashenka, looking him full in the face with her big tear-stained eyes. “Why should you worry yourself?”
“Of course, no…. But still, don’t you … go away. I entreat you.”
Mashenka shook her head. Nikolay Sergeitch stopped at the window and drummed on the pane with his finger-tips.
“Such misunderstandings are simply torture to me,” he said. “Why, do you want me to go down on my knees to you, or what? Your pride is wounded, and here you’ve been crying and packing up to go; but I have pride, too, and you do not spare it! Or do you want me to tell you what I would not tell as Confession? Do you? Listen; you want me to tell you what I won’t tell the priest on my deathbed?”
Mashenka made no answer.
“I took my wife’s brooch,” Nikolay Sergeitch said quickly. “Is that enough now? Are you satisfied? Yes, I … took it…. But, of course, I count on your discretion…. For God’s sake, not a word, not half a hint to any one!”
Mashenka, amazed and frightened, went on packing; she snatched her things, crumpled them up, and thrust them anyhow into the box and the basket. Now, after this candid avowal on the part of Nikolay Sergeitch, she could not remain another minute, and could not understand how she could have gone on living in the house before.
“And it’s nothing to wonder at,” Nikolay Sergeitch went on after a pause. “It’s an everyday story! I need money, and she … won’t give it to me. It was my father’s money that bought this house and everything, you know! It’s all mine, and the brooch belonged to my mother, and … it’s all mine! And she took it, took possession of everything…. I can’t go to law with her, you’ll admit…. I beg you most earnestly, overlook it … stay on. Tout comprendre, tout pardonner. Will you stay?”
“No!” said Mashenka resolutely, beginning to tremble. “Let me alone, I entreat you!”
“Well, God bless you!” sighed Nikolay Sergeitch, sitting down on the stool near the box. “I must own I like people who still can feel resentment, contempt, and so on. I could sit here forever and look at your indignant face…. So you won’t stay, then? I understand…. It’s bound to be so … Yes, of course…. It’s all right for you, but for me—wo-o-o-o!… I can’t stir a step out of this cellar. I’d go off to one of our estates, but in every one of them there are some of my wife’s rascals … stewards, experts, damn them all! They mortgage and remortgage…. You mustn’t catch fish, must keep off the grass, mustn’t break the trees.”
“Nikolay Sergeitch!” his wife’s voice called from the drawing-room. “Agnia, call your master!”
“Then you won’t stay?” asked Nikolay Sergeitch, getting up quickly and going towards the door. “You might as well stay, really. In the evenings I could come and have a talk with you. Eh? Stay! If you go, there won’t be a human face left in the house. It’s awful!”
Nikolay Sergeitch’s pale, exhausted face besought her, but Mashenka shook her head, and with a wave of his hand he went out.
Half an hour later she was on her way.