It was dark, and already lights had begun to gleam here and there in the houses, and a pale moon was rising behind the barracks at the end of the street. Laptev was sitting on a bench by the gate waiting for the end of the evening service at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. He was reckoning that Yulia Sergeyevna would pass by on her way from the service, and then he would speak to her, and perhaps spend the whole evening with her.
He had been sitting there for an hour and a half already, and all that time his imagination had been busy picturing his Moscow rooms, his Moscow friends, his man Pyotr, and his writing-table. He gazed half wonderingly at the dark, motionless trees, and it seemed strange to him that he was living now, not in his summer villa at Sokolniki, but in a provincial town in a house by which a great herd of cattle was driven every morning and evening, accompanied by terrible clouds of dust and the blowing of a horn. He thought of long conversations in which he had taken part quite lately in Moscow–conversations in which it had been maintained that one could live without love, that passionate love was an obsession, that finally there is no such love, but only a physical attraction between the sexes–and so on, in the same style; he remembered them and thought mournfully that if he were asked now what love was, he could not have found an answer.
The service was over, the people began to appear. Laptev strained his eyes gazing at the dark figures. The bishop had been driven by in his carriage, the bells had stopped ringing, and the red and green lights in the belfry were one after another extinguished– there had been an illumination, as it was dedication day–but the people were still coming out, lingering, talking, and standing under the windows. But at last Laptev heard a familiar voice, his heart began beating violently, and he was overcome with despair on seeing that Yulia Sergeyevna was not alone, but walking with two ladies.
“It’s awful, awful!” he whispered, feeling jealous. “It’s awful!”
At the corner of the lane, she stopped to say good-bye to the ladies, and while doing so glanced at Laptev.
“I was coming to see you,” he said. “I’m coming for a chat with your father. Is he at home?”
“Most likely,” she answered. “It’s early for him to have gone to the club.”
There were gardens all along the lane, and a row of lime-trees growing by the fence cast a broad patch of shadow in the moonlight, so that the gate and the fences were completely plunged in darkness on one side, from which came the sounds of women whispering, smothered laughter, and someone playing softly on a balalaika. There was a fragrance of lime-flowers and of hay. This fragrance and the murmur of the unseen whispers worked upon Laptev. He was all at once overwhelmed with a passionate longing to throw his arms round his companion, to shower kisses on her face, her hands, her shoulders, to burst into sobs, to fall at her feet and to tell her how long he had been waiting for her. A faint scarcely perceptible scent of incense hung about her; and that scent reminded him of the time when he, too, believed in God and used to go to evening service, and when he used to dream so much of pure romantic love. And it seemed to him that, because this girl did not love him, all possibility of the happiness he had dreamed of then was lost to him forever.
She began speaking sympathetically of the illness of his sister, Nina Fyodorovna. Two months before his sister had undergone an operation for cancer, and now every one was expecting a return of the disease.
“I went to see her this morning,” said Yulia Sergeyevna, “and it seemed to me that during the last week she has, not exactly grown thin, but has, as it were, faded.”
“Yes, yes,” Laptev agreed. “There’s no return of the symptoms, but every day I notice she grows weaker and weaker, and is wasting before my eyes. I don’t understand what’s the matter with her.”
“Oh dear! And how strong she used to be, plump and rosy!” said Yulia Sergeyevna after a moment’s silence. “Every one here used to call her the Moscow lady. How she used to laugh! On holidays she used to dress up like a peasant girl, and it suited her so well.”
Doctor Sergey Borisovitch was at home; he was a stout, red-faced man, wearing a long coat that reached below his knees, and looking as though he had short legs. He was pacing up and down his study, with his hands in his pockets, and humming to himself in an undertone, “Ru-ru-ru-ru.” His grey whiskers looked unkempt, and his hair was unbrushed, as though he had just got out of bed. And his study with pillows on the sofa, with stacks of papers in the corners, and with a dirty invalid poodle lying under the table, produced the same impression of unkemptness and untidiness as himself.
“M. Laptev wants to see you,” his daughter said to him, going into his study.
“Ru-ru-ru-ru,” he hummed louder than ever, and turning into the drawing-room, gave his hand to Laptev, and asked: “What good news have you to tell me?”
It was dark in the drawing-room. Laptev, still standing with his hat in his hand, began apologising for disturbing him; he asked what was to be done to make his sister sleep at night, and why she was growing so thin; and he was embarrassed by the thought that he had asked those very questions at his visit that morning.
“Tell me,” he said, “wouldn’t it be as well to send for some specialist on internal diseases from Moscow? What do you think of it?”
The doctor sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and made a vague gesture with his hands.
It was evident that he was offended. He was a very huffy man, prone to take offence, and always ready to suspect that people did not believe in him, that he was not recognised or properly respected, that his patients exploited him, and that his colleagues showed him ill-will. He was always jeering at himself, saying that fools like him were only made for the public to ride rough-shod over them.
Yulia Sergeyevna lighted the lamp. She was tired out with the service, and that was evident from her pale, exhausted face, and her weary step. She wanted to rest. She sat down on the sofa, put her hands on her lap, and sank into thought. Laptev knew that he was ugly, and now he felt as though he were conscious of his ugliness all over his body. He was short, thin, with ruddy cheeks, and his hair had grown so thin that his head felt cold. In his expression there was none of that refined simplicity which makes even rough, ugly faces attractive; in the society of women, he was awkward, over-talkative, affected. And now he almost despised himself for it. He must talk that Yulia Sergeyevna might not be bored in his company. But what about? About his sister’s illness again?
And he began to talk about medicine, saying what is usually said. He approved of hygiene, and said that he had long ago wanted to found a night-refuge in Moscow–in fact, he had already calculated the cost of it. According to his plan the workmen who came in the evening to the night-refuge were to receive a supper of hot cabbage soup with bread, a warm, dry bed with a rug, and a place for drying their clothes and their boots.
Yulia Sergeyevna was usually silent in his presence, and in a strange way, perhaps by the instinct of a lover, he divined her thoughts and intentions. And now, from the fact that after the evening service she had not gone to her room to change her dress and drink tea, he deduced that she was going to pay some visit elsewhere.
“But I’m in no hurry with the night-refuge,” he went on, speaking with vexation and irritability, and addressing the doctor, who looked at him, as it were, blankly and in perplexity, evidently unable to understand what induced him to raise the question of medicine and hygiene. “And most likely it will be a long time, too, before I make use of our estimate. I fear our night-shelter will fall into the hands of our pious humbugs and philanthropic ladies, who always ruin any undertaking.”
Yulia Sergeyevna got up and held out her hand to Laptev.
“Excuse me,” she said, “it’s time for me to go. Please give my love to your sister.”
“Ru-ru-ru-ru,” hummed the doctor. “Ru-ru-ru-ru.”
Yulia Sergeyevna went out, and after staying a little longer, Laptev said good-bye to the doctor and went home. When a man is dissatisfied and feels unhappy, how trivial seem to him the shapes of the lime-trees, the shadows, the clouds, all the beauties of nature, so complacent, so indifferent! By now the moon was high up in the sky, and the clouds were scudding quickly below. “But how naïve and provincial the moon is, how threadbare and paltry the clouds!” thought Laptev. He felt ashamed of the way he had talked just now about medicine, and the night-refuge. He felt with horror that next day he would not have will enough to resist trying to see her and talk to her again, and would again be convinced that he was nothing to her. And the day after–it would be the same. With what object? And how and when would it all end?
At home he went in to see his sister. Nina Fyodorovna still looked strong and gave the impression of being a well-built, vigorous woman, but her striking pallor made her look like a corpse, especially when, as now, she was lying on her back with her eyes closed; her eldest daughter Sasha, a girl of ten years old, was sitting beside her reading aloud from her reading-book.
“Alyosha has come,” the invalid said softly to herself.
There had long been established between Sasha and her uncle a tacit compact, to take turns in sitting with the patient. On this occasion Sasha closed her reading-book, and without uttering a word, went softly out of the room. Laptev took an historical novel from the chest of drawers, and looking for the right page, sat down and began reading it aloud.
Nina Fyodorovna was born in Moscow of a merchant family. She and her two brothers had spent their childhood and early youth, living at home in Pyatnitsky Street. Their childhood was long and wearisome; her father treated her sternly, and had even on two or three occasions flogged her, and her mother had had a long illness and died. The servants were coarse, dirty, and hypocritical; the house was frequented by priests and monks, also hypocritical; they ate and drank and coarsely flattered her father, whom they did not like. The boys had the good-fortune to go to school, while Nina was left practically uneducated. All her life she wrote an illegible scrawl, and had read nothing but historical novels. Seventeen years ago, when she was twenty-two, on a summer holiday at Himki, she made the acquaintance of her present husband, a landowner called Panaurov, had fallen in love with him, and married him secretly against her father’s will. Panaurov, a handsome, rather impudent fellow, who whistled and lighted his cigarette from the holy lamp, struck the father as an absolutely worthless person. And when the son-in-law began in his letters demanding a dowry, the old man wrote to his daughter that he would send her furs, silver, and various articles that had been left at her mother’s death, as well as thirty thousand roubles, but without his paternal blessing. Later he sent another twenty thousand. This money, as well as the dowry, was spent; the estate had been sold and Panaurov moved with his family to the town and got a job in a provincial government office. In the town he formed another tie, and had a second family, and this was the subject of much talk, as his illicit family was not a secret.
Nina Fyodorovna adored her husband. And now, listening to the historical novel, she was thinking how much she had gone through in her life, how much she had suffered, and that if any one were to describe her life it would make a very pathetic story. As the tumour was in her breast, she was persuaded that love and her domestic grief were the cause of her illness, and that jealousy and tears had brought her to her hopeless state.
At last Alexey Fyodorovitch closed the book and said:
“That’s the end, and thank God for it. To-morrow we’ll begin a new one.”
Nina Fyodorovna laughed. She had always been given to laughter, but of late Laptev had begun to notice that at moments her mind seemed weakened by illness, and she would laugh at the smallest trifle, and even without any cause at all.
“Yulia came before dinner while you were out,” she said. “So far as I can see, she hasn’t much faith in her papa. ‘Let papa go on treating you,’ she said, ‘but write in secret to the holy elder to pray for you, too.’ There is a holy man somewhere here. Yulia forgot her parasol here; you must take it to her to-morrow,” she went on after a brief pause. “No, when the end comes, neither doctors nor holy men are any help.”
“Nina, why can’t you sleep at night?” Laptev asked, to change the subject.
“Oh, well, I don’t go to sleep–that’s all. I lie and think.”
“What do you think about, dear?”
“About the children, about you . . . about my life. I’ve gone through a great deal, Alyosha, you know. When one begins to remember and remember. . . . My God!” She laughed. “It’s no joke to have borne five children as I have, to have buried three. . . Sometimes I was expecting to be confined while my Grigory Nikolaitch would be sitting at that very time with another woman. There would be no one to send for the doctor or the midwife. I would go into the passage or the kitchen for the servant, and there Jews, tradesmen, moneylenders, would be waiting for him to come home. My head used to go round . . . . He did not love me, though he never said so openly. Now I’ve grown calmer–it doesn’t weigh on my heart; but in old days, when I was younger, it hurt me–ach! how it hurt me, darling! Once– while we were still in the country–I found him in the garden with a lady, and I walked away. . . I walked on aimlessly, and I don’t know how, but I found myself in the church porch. I fell on my knees: ‘Queen of Heaven!’ I said. And it was night, the moon was shining. . . .”
She was exhausted, she began gasping for breath. Then, after resting a little, she took her brother’s hand and went on in a weak, toneless voice:
“How kind you are, Alyosha! . . . And how clever! . . . What a good man you’ve grown up into!”
At midnight Laptev said good-night to her, and as he went away he took with him the parasol that Yulia Sergeyevna had forgotten. In spite of the late hour, the servants, male and female, were drinking tea in the dining-room. How disorderly! The children were not in bed, but were there in the dining-room, too. They were all talking softly in undertones, and had not noticed that the lamp was smoking and would soon go out. All these people, big and little, were disturbed by a whole succession of bad omens and were in an oppressed mood. The glass in the hall had been broken, the samovar had been buzzing every day, and, as though on purpose, was even buzzing now. They were describing how a mouse had jumped out of Nina Fyodorovna’s boot when she was dressing. And the children were quite aware of the terrible significance of these omens. The elder girl, Sasha, a thin little brunette, was sitting motionless at the table, and her face looked scared and woebegone, while the younger, Lida, a chubby fair child of seven, stood beside her sister looking from under her brows at the light.
Laptev went downstairs to his own rooms in the lower storey, where under the low ceilings it was always close and smelt of geraniums. In his sitting-room, Panaurov, Nina Fyodorovna’s husband, was sitting reading the newspaper. Laptev nodded to him and sat down opposite. Both sat still and said nothing. They used to spend whole evenings like this without speaking, and neither of them was in the least put out by this silence.
The little girls came down from upstairs to say good-night. Deliberately and in silence, Panaurov made the sign of the cross over them several times, and gave them his hand to kiss. They dropped curtsies, and then went up to Laptev, who had to make the sign of the cross and give them his hand to kiss also. This ceremony with the hand-kissing and curtsying was repeated every evening.
When the children had gone out Panaurov laid aside the newspaper and said:
“It’s not very lively in our God-fearing town! I must confess, my dear fellow,” he added with a sigh, “I’m very glad that at last you’ve found some distraction.”
“What do you mean?” asked Laptev.
“I saw you coming out of Dr. Byelavin’s just now. I expect you don’t go there for the sake of the papa.”
“Of course not,” said Laptev, and he blushed.
“Well, of course not. And by the way, you wouldn’t find such another old brute as that papa if you hunted by daylight with a candle. You can’t imagine what a foul, stupid, clumsy beast he is! You cultured people in the capitals are still interested in the provinces only on the lyrical side, only from the _paysage_ and _Poor Anton_ point of view, but I can assure you, my boy, there’s nothing logical about it; there’s nothing but barbarism, meanness, and nastiness–that’s all. Take the local devotees of science–the local intellectuals, so to speak. Can you imagine there are here in this town twenty-eight doctors? They’ve all made their fortunes, and they are living in houses of their own, and meanwhile the population is in just as helpless a condition as ever. Here, Nina had to have an operation, quite an ordinary one really, yet we were obliged to get a surgeon from Moscow; not one doctor here would undertake it. It’s beyond all conception. They know nothing, they understand nothing. They take no interest in anything. Ask them, for instance, what cancer is–what it is, what it comes from.”
And Panaurov began to explain what cancer was. He was a specialist on all scientific subjects, and explained from a scientific point of view everything that was discussed. But he explained it all in his own way. He had a theory of his own about the circulation of the blood, about chemistry, about astronomy. He talked slowly, softly, convincingly.
“It’s beyond all conception,” he pronounced in an imploring voice, screwing up his eyes, sighing languidly, and smiling as graciously as a king, and it was evident that he was very well satisfied with himself, and never gave a thought to the fact that he was fifty.
“I am rather hungry,” said Laptev. “I should like something savoury.”
“Well, that can easily be managed.”
Not long afterwards Laptev and his brother-in-law were sitting upstairs in the dining-room having supper. Laptev had a glass of vodka, and then began drinking wine. Panaurov drank nothing. He never drank, and never gambled, yet in spite of that he had squandered all his own and his wife’s property, and had accumulated debts. To squander so much in such a short time, one must have, not passions, but a special talent. Panaurov liked dainty fare, liked a handsome dinner service, liked music after dinner, speeches, bowing footmen, to whom he would carelessly fling tips of ten, even twenty-five roubles. He always took part in all lotteries and subscriptions, sent bouquets to ladies of his acquaintance on their birthdays, bought cups, stands for glasses, studs, ties, walking-sticks, scents, cigarette-holders, pipes, lap-dogs, parrots, Japanese bric-à-brac, antiques; he had silk nightshirts, and a bedstead made of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. His dressing-gown was a genuine Bokhara, and everything was to correspond; and on all this there went every day, as he himself expressed, “a deluge” of money.
At supper he kept sighing and shaking his head.
“Yes, everything on this earth has an end,” he said softly, screwing up his dark eyes. “You will fall in love and suffer. You will fall out of love; you’ll be deceived, for there is no woman who will not deceive; you will suffer, will be brought to despair, and will be faithless too. But the time will come when all this will be a memory, and when you will reason about it coldly and look upon it as utterly trivial. . . .”
Laptev, tired, a little drunk, looked at his handsome head, his clipped black beard, and seemed to understand why women so loved this pampered, conceited, and physically handsome creature.
After supper Panaurov did not stay in the house, but went off to his other lodgings. Laptev went out to see him on his way. Panaurov was the only man in the town who wore a top-hat, and his elegant, dandified figure, his top-hat and tan gloves, beside the grey fences, the pitiful little houses, with their three windows and the thickets of nettles, always made a strange and mournful impression.
After saying good-bye to him Laptev returned home without hurrying. The moon was shining brightly; one could distinguish every straw on the ground, and Laptev felt as though the moonlight were caressing his bare head, as though some one were passing a feather over his hair.
“I love!” he pronounced aloud, and he had a sudden longing to run to overtake Panaurov, to embrace him, to forgive him, to make him a present of a lot of money, and then to run off into the open country, into a wood, to run on and on without looking back.
At home he saw lying on the chair the parasol Yulia Sergeyevna had forgotten; he snatched it up and kissed it greedily. The parasol was a silk one, no longer new, tied round with old elastic. The handle was a cheap one, of white bone. Laptev opened it over him, and he felt as though there were the fragrance of happiness about him.
He settled himself more comfortably in his chair, and still keeping hold of the parasol, began writing to Moscow to one of his friends:
“DEAR PRECIOUS KOSTYA,
“Here is news for you: I’m in love again! I say _again_, because six years ago I fell in love with a Moscow actress, though I didn’t even succeed in making her acquaintance, and for the last year and a half I have been living with a certain person you know–a woman neither young nor good-looking. Ah, my dear boy, how unlucky I am in love. I’ve never had any success with women, and if I say _again_ it’s simply because it’s rather sad and mortifying to acknowledge even to myself that my youth has passed entirely without love, and that I’m in love in a real sense now for the first time in my life, at thirty-four. Let it stand that I love _again_.
“If only you knew what a girl she was! She couldn’t be called a beauty–she has a broad face, she is very thin, but what a wonderful expression of goodness she has when she smiles! When she speaks, her voice is as clear as a bell. She never carries on a conversation with me–I don’t know her; but when I’m beside her I feel she’s a striking, exceptional creature, full of intelligence and lofty aspirations. She is religious, and you cannot imagine how deeply this touches me and exalts her in my eyes. On that point I am ready to argue with you endlessly. You may be right, to your thinking; but, still, I love to see her praying in church. She is a provincial, but she was educated in Moscow. She loves our Moscow; she dresses in the Moscow style, and I love her for that–love her, love her . . . . I see you frowning and getting up to read me a long lecture on what love is, and what sort of woman one can love, and what sort one cannot, and so on, and so on. But, dear Kostya, before I was in love I, too, knew quite well what love was.
“My sister thanks you for your message. She often recalls how she used to take Kostya Kotchevoy to the preparatory class, and never speaks of you except as _poor Kostya_, as she still thinks of you as the little orphan boy she remembers. And so, poor orphan, I’m in love. While it’s a secret, don’t say anything to a ‘certain person.’ I think it will all come right of itself, or, as the footman says in Tolstoy, will ‘come round.'”
When he had finished his letter Laptev went to bed. He was so tired that he couldn’t keep his eyes open, but for some reason he could not get to sleep; the noise in the street seemed to prevent him. The cattle were driven by to the blowing of a horn, and soon afterwards the bells began ringing for early mass. At one minute a cart drove by creaking; at the next, he heard the voice of some woman going to market. And the sparrows twittered the whole time.
The next morning was a cheerful one; it was a holiday. At ten o’clock Nina Fyodorovna, wearing a brown dress and with her hair neatly arranged, was led into the drawing-room, supported on each side. There she walked about a little and stood by the open window, and her smile was broad and naïve, and, looking at her, one recalled a local artist, a great drunkard, who wanted her to sit to him for a picture of the Russian carnival. And all of them–the children, the servants, her brother, Alexey Fyodorovitch, and she herself– were suddenly convinced, that she was certainly going to get well. With shrieks of laughter the children ran after their uncle, chasing him and catching him, and filling the house with noise.
People called to ask how she was, brought her holy bread, told her that in almost all the churches they were offering up prayers for her that day. She had been conspicuous for her benevolence in the town, and was liked. She was very ready with her charity, like her brother Alexey, who gave away his money freely, without considering whether it was necessary to give it or not. Nina Fyodorovna used to pay the school fees for poor children; used to give away tea, sugar, and jam to old women; used to provide trousseaux for poor brides; and if she picked up a newspaper, she always looked first of all to see if there were any appeals for charity or a paragraph about somebody’s being in a destitute condition.
She was holding now in her hand a bundle of notes, by means of which various poor people, her protégés, had procured goods from a grocer’s shop.
They had been sent her the evening before by the shopkeeper with a request for the payment of the total–eighty-two roubles.
“My goodness, what a lot they’ve had! They’ve no conscience!” she said, deciphering with difficulty her ugly handwriting. “It’s no joke! Eighty-two roubles! I declare I won’t pay it.”
“I’ll pay it to-day,” said Laptev.
“Why should you? Why should you?” cried Nina Fyodorovna in agitation. “It’s quite enough for me to take two hundred and fifty every month from you and our brother. God bless you!” she added, speaking softly, so as not to be overheard by the servants.
“Well, but I spend two thousand five hundred a month,” he said. “I tell you again, dear: you have just as much right to spend it as I or Fyodor. Do understand that, once for all. There are three of us, and of every three kopecks of our father’s money, one belongs to you.”
But Nina Fyodorovna did not understand, and her expression looked as though she were mentally solving some very difficult problem. And this lack of comprehension in pecuniary matters, always made Laptev feel uneasy and troubled. He suspected that she had private debts in addition which worried her and of which she scrupled to tell him.
Then came the sound of footsteps and heavy breathing; it was the doctor coming up the stairs, dishevelled and unkempt as usual.
“Ru-ru-ru,” he was humming. “Ru-ru.”
To avoid meeting him, Laptev went into the dining-room, and then went downstairs to his own room. It was clear to him that to get on with the doctor and to drop in at his house without formalities was impossible; and to meet the “old brute,” as Panaurov called him, was distasteful. That was why he so rarely saw Yulia. He reflected now that the father was not at home, that if he were to take Yulia Sergeyevna her parasol, he would be sure to find her at home alone, and his heart ached with joy. Haste, haste!
He took the parasol and, violently agitated, flew on the wings of love. It was hot in the street. In the big courtyard of the doctor’s house, overgrown with coarse grass and nettles, some twenty urchins were playing ball. These were all the children of working-class families who tenanted the three disreputable-looking lodges, which the doctor was always meaning to have done up, though he put it off from year to year. The yard resounded with ringing, healthy voices. At some distance on one side, Yulia Sergeyevna was standing at her porch, her hands folded, watching the game.
“Good-morning!” Laptev called to her.
She looked round. Usually he saw her indifferent, cold, or tired as she had been the evening before. Now her face looked full of life and frolic, like the faces of the boys who were playing ball.
“Look, they never play so merrily in Moscow,” she said, going to meet him. “There are no such big yards there, though; they’ve no place to run there. Papa has only just gone to you,” she added, looking round at the children.
“I know; but I’ve not come to see him, but to see you,” said Laptev, admiring her youthfulness, which he had not noticed till then, and seemed only that day to have discovered in her; it seemed to him as though he were seeing her slender white neck with the gold chain for the first time. “I’ve come to see you . . .” he repeated. “My sister has sent you your parasol; you forgot it yesterday.”
She put out her hand to take the parasol, but he pressed it to his bosom and spoke passionately, without restraint, yielding again to the sweet ecstasy he had felt the night before, sitting under the parasol.
“I entreat you, give it me. I shall keep it in memory of you . . . of our acquaintance. It’s so wonderful!”
“Take it,” she said, and blushed; “but there’s nothing wonderful about it.”
He looked at her in ecstasy, in silence, not knowing what to say.
“Why am I keeping you here in the heat?” she said after a brief pause, laughing. “Let us go indoors.”
“I am not disturbing you?”
They went into the hall. Yulia Sergeyevna ran upstairs, her white dress with blue flowers on it rustling as she went.
“I can’t be disturbed,” she answered, stopping on the landing. “I never do anything. Every day is a holiday for me, from morning till night.”
“What you say is inconceivable to me,” he said, going up to her. “I grew up in a world in which every one without exception, men and women alike, worked hard every day.”
“But if one has nothing to do?” she asked.
“One has to arrange one’s life under such conditions, that work is inevitable. There can be no clean and happy life without work.”
Again he pressed the parasol to his bosom, and to his own surprise spoke softly, in a voice unlike his own:
“If you would consent to be my wife I would give everything–I would give everything. There’s no price I would not pay, no sacrifice I would not make.”
She started and looked at him with wonder and alarm.
“What are you saying!” she brought out, turning pale. “It’s impossible, I assure you. Forgive me.”
Then with the same rustle of her skirts she went up higher, and vanished through the doorway.
Laptev grasped what this meant, and his mood was transformed, completely, abruptly, as though a light in his soul had suddenly been extinguished. Filled with the shame of a man humiliated, of a man who is disdained, who is not liked, who is distasteful, perhaps disgusting, who is shunned, he walked out of the house.
“I would give everything,” he thought, mimicking himself as he went home through the heat and recalled the details of his declaration. “I would give everything–like a regular tradesman. As though she wanted your _everything_!”
All he had just said seemed to him repulsively stupid. Why had he lied, saying that he had grown up in a world where every one worked, without exception? Why had he talked to her in a lecturing tone about a clean and happy life? It was not clever, not interesting; it was false–false in the Moscow style. But by degrees there followed that mood of indifference into which criminals sink after a severe sentence. He began thinking that, thank God! everything was at an end and that the terrible uncertainty was over; that now there was no need to spend whole days in anticipation, in pining, in thinking always of the same thing. Now everything was clear; he must give up all hope of personal happiness, live without desires, without hopes, without dreams, or expectations, and to escape that dreary sadness which he was so sick of trying to soothe, he could busy himself with other people’s affairs, other people’s happiness, and old age would come on imperceptibly, and life would reach its end–and nothing more was wanted. He did not care, he wished for nothing, and could reason about it coolly, but there was a sort of heaviness in his face especially under his eyes, his forehead felt drawn tight like elastic–and tears were almost starting into his eyes. Feeling weak all over, he lay down on his bed, and in five minutes was sound asleep.
The proposal Laptev had made so suddenly threw Yulia Sergeyevna into despair.
She knew Laptev very little, had made his acquaintance by chance; he was a rich man, a partner in the well-known Moscow firm of “Fyodor Laptev and Sons”; always serious, apparently clever, and anxious about his sister’s illness. It had seemed to her that he took no notice of her whatever, and she did not care about him in the least –and then all of a sudden that declaration on the stairs, that pitiful, ecstatic face. . . .
The offer had overwhelmed her by its suddenness and by the fact that the word wife had been uttered, and by the necessity of rejecting it. She could not remember what she had said to Laptev, but she still felt traces of the sudden, unpleasant feeling with which she had rejected him. He did not attract her; he looked like a shopman; he was not interesting; she could not have answered him except with a refusal, and yet she felt uncomfortable, as though she had done wrong.
“My God! without waiting to get into the room, on the stairs,” she said to herself in despair, addressing the ikon which hung over her pillow; “and no courting beforehand, but so strangely, so oddly. . . .”
In her solitude her agitation grew more intense every hour, and it was beyond her strength to master this oppressive feeling alone. She needed some one to listen to her story and to tell her that she had done right. But she had no one to talk to. She had lost her mother long before; she thought her father a queer man, and could not talk to him seriously. He worried her with his whims, his extreme readiness to take offence, and his meaningless gestures; and as soon as one began to talk to him, he promptly turned the conversation on himself. And in her prayer she was not perfectly open, because she did not know for certain what she ought to pray for.
The samovar was brought in. Yulia Sergeyevna, very pale and tired, looking dejected, came into the dining-room to make tea–it was one of her duties–and poured out a glass for her father. Sergey Borisovitch, in his long coat that reached below his knees, with his red face and unkempt hair, walked up and down the room with his hands in his pockets, pacing, not from corner to corner, but backwards and forwards at random, like a wild beast in its cage. He would stand still by the table, sip his glass of tea with relish, and pace about again, lost in thought.
“Laptev made me an offer to-day,” said Yulia Sergeyevna, and she flushed crimson.
The doctor looked at her and did not seem to understand.
“Laptev?” he queried. “Panaurov’s brother-in-law?”
He was fond of his daughter; it was most likely that she would sooner or later be married, and leave him, but he tried not to think about that. He was afraid of being alone, and for some reason fancied, that if he were left alone in that great house, he would have an apoplectic stroke, but he did not like to speak of this directly.
“Well, I’m delighted to hear it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I congratulate you with all my heart. It offers you a splendid opportunity for leaving me, to your great satisfaction. And I quite understand your feelings. To live with an old father, an invalid, half crazy, must be very irksome at your age. I quite understand you. And the sooner I’m laid out and in the devil’s clutches, the better every one will be pleased. I congratulate you with all my heart.”
“I refused him.”
The doctor felt relieved, but he was unable to stop himself and went on:
“I wonder, I’ve long wondered, why I’ve not yet been put into a madhouse–why I’m still wearing this coat instead of a strait-waistcoat? I still have faith in justice, in goodness. I am a fool, an idealist, and nowadays that’s insanity, isn’t it? And how do they repay me for my honesty? They almost throw stones at me and ride rough-shod over me. And even my nearest kith and kin do nothing but try to get the better of me. It’s high time the devil fetched an old fool like me. . . .”
“There’s no talking to you like a rational being!” said Yulia.
She got up from the table impulsively, and went to her room in great wrath, remembering how often her father had been unjust to her. But a little while afterwards she felt sorry for her father, too, and when he was going to the club she went downstairs with him, and shut the door after him. It was a rough and stormy night; the door shook with the violence of the wind, and there were draughts in all directions in the passage, so that the candle was almost blown out. In her own domain upstairs Yulia Sergeyevna went the round of all the rooms, making the sign of the cross over every door and window; the wind howled, and it sounded as though some one were walking on the roof. Never had it been so dreary, never had she felt so lonely.
She asked herself whether she had done right in rejecting a man, simply because his appearance did not attract her. It was true he was a man she did not love, and to marry him would mean renouncing forever her dreams, her conceptions of happiness in married life, but would she ever meet the man of whom she dreamed, and would he love her? She was twenty-one already. There were no eligible young men in the town. She pictured all the men she knew–government clerks, schoolmasters, officers, and some of them were married already, and their domestic life was conspicuous for its dreariness and triviality; others were uninteresting, colourless, unintelligent, immoral. Laptev was, anyway, a Moscow man, had taken his degree at the university, spoke French. He lived in the capital, where there were lots of clever, noble, remarkable people; where there was noise and bustle, splendid theatres, musical evenings, first-rate dressmakers, confectioners. . . . In the Bible it was written that a wife must love her husband, and great importance was given to love in novels, but wasn’t there exaggeration in it? Was it out of the question to enter upon married life without love? It was said, of course, that love soon passed away, and that nothing was left but habit, and that the object of married life was not to be found in love, nor in happiness, but in duties, such as the bringing up of one’s children, the care of one’s household, and so on. And perhaps what was meant in the Bible was love for one’s husband as one’s neighbour, respect for him, charity.
At night Yulia Sergeyevna read the evening prayers attentively, then knelt down, and pressing her hands to her bosom, gazing at the flame of the lamp before the ikon, said with feeling:
“Give me understanding, Holy Mother, our Defender! Give me understanding, O Lord!”
She had in the course of her life come across elderly maiden ladies, poor and of no consequence in the world, who bitterly repented and openly confessed their regret that they had refused suitors in the past. Would not the same thing happen to her? Had not she better go into a convent or become a Sister of Mercy?
She undressed and got into bed, crossing herself and crossing the air around her. Suddenly the bell rang sharply and plaintively in the corridor.
“Oh, my God!” she said, feeling a nervous irritation all over her at the sound. She lay still and kept thinking how poor this provincial life was in events, monotonous and yet not peaceful. One was constantly having to tremble, to feel apprehensive, angry or guilty, and in the end one’s nerves were so strained, that one was afraid to peep out of the bedclothes.
A little while afterwards the bell rang just as sharply again. The servant must have been asleep and had not heard. Yulia Sergeyevna lighted a candle, and feeling vexed with the servant, began with a shiver to dress, and when she went out into the corridor, the maid was already closing the door downstairs.
“I thought it was the master, but it’s some one from a patient,” she said.
Yulia Sergeyevna went back to her room. She took a pack of cards out of the chest of drawers, and decided that if after shuffling the cards well and cutting, the bottom card turned out to be a red one, it would mean _yes_–that is, she would accept Laptev’s offer; and that if it was a black, it would mean _no_. The card turned out to be the ten of spades.
That relieved her mind–she fell asleep; but in the morning, she was wavering again between _yes_ and _no_, and she was dwelling on the thought that she could, if she chose, change her life. The thought harassed her, she felt exhausted and unwell; but yet, soon after eleven, she dressed and went to see Nina Fyodorovna. She wanted to see Laptev: perhaps now he would seem more attractive to her; perhaps she had been wrong about him hitherto. . . .
She found it hard to walk against the wind. She struggled along, holding her hat on with both hands, and could see nothing for the dust.
Going into his sister’s room, and seeing to his surprise Yulia Sergeyevna, Laptev had again the humiliating sensation of a man who feels himself an object of repulsion. He concluded that if after what had happened yesterday she could bring herself so easily to visit his sister and meet him, it must be because she was not concerned about him, and regarded him as a complete nonentity. But when he greeted her, and with a pale face and dust under her eyes she looked at him mournfully and remorsefully, he saw that she, too, was miserable.
She did not feel well. She only stayed ten minutes, and began saying good-bye. And as she went out she said to Laptev:
“Will you see me home, Alexey Fyodorovitch?”
They walked along the street in silence, holding their hats, and he, walking a little behind, tried to screen her from the wind. In the lane it was more sheltered, and they walked side by side.
“Forgive me if I was not nice yesterday;” and her voice quavered as though she were going to cry. “I was so wretched! I did not sleep all night.”
“I slept well all night,” said Laptev, without looking at her; “but that doesn’t mean that I was happy. My life is broken. I’m deeply unhappy, and after your refusal yesterday I go about like a man poisoned. The most difficult thing was said yesterday. To-day I feel no embarrassment and can talk to you frankly. I love you more than my sister, more than my dead mother. . . . I can live without my sister, and without my mother, and I have lived without them, but life without you–is meaningless to me; I can’t face it. . . .”
And now too, as usual, he guessed her intention.
He realised that she wanted to go back to what had happened the day before, and with that object had asked him to accompany her, and now was taking him home with her. But what could she add to her refusal? What new idea had she in her head? From everything, from her glances, from her smile, and even from her tone, from the way she held her head and shoulders as she walked beside him, he saw that, as before, she did not love him, that he was a stranger to her. What more did she want to say?
Doctor Sergey Borisovitch was at home.
“You are very welcome. I’m always glad to see you, Fyodor Alexeyitch,” he said, mixing up his Christian name and his father’s. “Delighted, delighted!”
He had never been so polite before, and Laptev saw that he knew of his offer; he did not like that either. He was sitting now in the drawing-room, and the room impressed him strangely, with its poor, common decorations, its wretched pictures, and though there were arm-chairs in it, and a huge lamp with a shade over it, it still looked like an uninhabited place, a huge barn, and it was obvious that no one could feel at home in such a room, except a man like the doctor. The next room, almost twice as large, was called the reception-room, and in it there were only rows of chairs, as though for a dancing class. And while Laptev was sitting in the drawing-room talking to the doctor about his sister, he began to be tortured by a suspicion. Had not Yulia Sergeyevna been to his sister Nina’s, and then brought him here to tell him that she would accept him? Oh, how awful it was! But the most awful thing of all was that his soul was capable of such a suspicion. And he imagined how the father and the daughter had spent the evening, and perhaps the night before, in prolonged consultation, perhaps dispute, and at last had come to the conclusion that Yulia had acted thoughtlessly in refusing a rich man. The words that parents use in such cases kept ringing in his ears:
“It is true you don’t love him, but think what good you could do!”
The doctor was going out to see patients. Laptev would have gone with him, but Yulia Sergeyevna said:
“I beg you to stay.”
She was distressed and dispirited, and told herself now that to refuse an honourable, good man who loved her, simply because he was not attractive, especially when marrying him would make it possible for her to change her mode of life, her cheerless, monotonous, idle life in which youth was passing with no prospect of anything better in the future–to refuse him under such circumstances was madness, caprice and folly, and that God might even punish her for it.
The father went out. When the sound of his steps had died away, she suddenly stood up before Laptev and said resolutely, turning horribly white as she did so:
“I thought for a long time yesterday, Alexey Fyodorovitch. . . . I accept your offer.”
He bent down and kissed her hand. She kissed him awkwardly on the head with cold lips.
He felt that in this love scene the chief thing–her love–was lacking, and that there was a great deal that was not wanted; and he longed to cry out, to run away, to go back to Moscow at once. But she was close to him, and she seemed to him so lovely, and he was suddenly overcome by passion. He reflected that it was too late for deliberation now; he embraced her passionately, and muttered some words, calling her _thou_; he kissed her on the neck, and then on the cheek, on the head. . . .
She walked away to the window, dismayed by these demonstrations, and both of them were already regretting what they had said and both were asking themselves in confusion:
“Why has this happened?”
“If only you knew how miserable I am!” she said, wringing her hands.
“What is it?” he said, going up to her, wringing his hands too. “My dear, for God’s sake, tell me–what is it? Only tell the truth, I entreat you–nothing but the truth!”
“Don’t pay any attention to it,” she said, and forced herself to smile. “I promise you I’ll be a faithful, devoted wife. . . . Come this evening.”
Sitting afterwards with his sister and reading aloud an historical novel, he recalled it all and felt wounded that his splendid, pure, rich feeling was met with such a shallow response. He was not loved, but his offer had been accepted–in all probability because he was rich: that is, what was thought most of in him was what he valued least of all in himself. It was quite possible that Yulia, who was so pure and believed in God, had not once thought of his money; but she did not love him–did not love him, and evidently she had interested motives, vague, perhaps, and not fully thought out–still, it was so. The doctor’s house with its common furniture was repulsive to him, and he looked upon the doctor himself as a wretched, greasy miser, a sort of operatic Gaspard from “Les Cloches de Corneville.” The very name “Yulia” had a vulgar sound. He imagined how he and his Yulia would stand at their wedding, in reality complete strangers to one another, without a trace of feeling on her side, just as though their marriage had been made by a professional matchmaker; and the only consolation left him now, as commonplace as the marriage itself, was the reflection that he was not the first, and would not be the last; that thousands of people were married like that; and that with time, when Yulia came to know him better, she would perhaps grow fond of him.
“Romeo and Juliet!” he said, as he shut the novel, and he laughed. “I am Romeo, Nina. You may congratulate me. I made an offer to Yulia Byelavin to-day.”
Nina Fyodorovna thought he was joking, but when she believed it, she began to cry; she was not pleased at the news.
“Well, I congratulate you,” she said. “But why is it so sudden?”
“No, it’s not sudden. It’s been going on since March, only you don’t notice anything. . . . I fell in love with her last March when I made her acquaintance here, in your rooms.”
“I thought you would marry some one in our Moscow set,” said Nina Fyodorovna after a pause. “Girls in our set are simpler. But what matters, Alyosha, is that you should be happy–that matters most. My Grigory Nikolaitch did not love me, and there’s no concealing it; you can see what our life is. Of course any woman may love you for your goodness and your brains, but, you see, Yulitchka is a girl of good family from a high-class boarding-school; goodness and brains are not enough for her. She is young, and, you, Alyosha, are not so young, and are not good-looking.”
To soften the last words, she stroked his head and said:
“You’re not good-looking, but you’re a dear.”
She was so agitated that a faint flush came into her cheeks, and she began discussing eagerly whether it would be the proper thing for her to bless Alyosha with the ikon at the wedding. She was, she reasoned, his elder sister, and took the place of his mother; and she kept trying to convince her dejected brother that the wedding must be celebrated in proper style, with pomp and gaiety, so that no one could find fault with it.
Then he began going to the Byelavins’ as an accepted suitor, three or four times a day; and now he never had time to take Sasha’s place and read aloud the historical novel. Yulia used to receive him in her two rooms, which were at a distance from the drawing-room and her father’s study, and he liked them very much. The walls in them were dark; in the corner stood a case of ikons; and there was a smell of good scent and of the oil in the holy lamp. Her rooms were at the furthest end of the house; her bedstead and dressing-table were shut off by a screen. The doors of the bookcase were covered on the inside with a green curtain, and there were rugs on the floor, so that her footsteps were noiseless–and from this he concluded that she was of a reserved character, and that she liked a quiet, peaceful, secluded life. In her own home she was treated as though she were not quite grown up. She had no money of her own, and sometimes when they were out for walks together, she was overcome with confusion at not having a farthing. Her father allowed her very little for dress and books, hardly ten pounds a year. And, indeed, the doctor himself had not much money in spite of his good practice. He played cards every night at the club, and always lost. Moreover, he bought mortgaged houses through a building society, and let them. The tenants were irregular in paying the rent, but he was convinced that such speculations were profitable. He had mortgaged his own house in which he and his daughter were living, and with the money so raised had bought a piece of waste ground, and had already begun to build on it a large two-storey house, meaning to mortgage it, too, as soon as it was finished.
Laptev now lived in a sort of cloud, feeling as though he were not himself, but his double, and did many things which he would never have brought himself to do before. He went three or four times to the club with the doctor, had supper with him, and offered him money for house-building. He even visited Panaurov at his other establishment. It somehow happened that Panaurov invited him to dinner, and without thinking, Laptev accepted. He was received by a lady of five-and-thirty. She was tall and thin, with hair touched with grey, and black eyebrows, apparently not Russian. There were white patches of powder on her face. She gave him a honeyed smile and pressed his hand jerkily, so that the bracelets on her white hands tinkled. It seemed to Laptev that she smiled like that because she wanted to conceal from herself and from others that she was unhappy. He also saw two little girls, aged five and three, who had a marked likeness to Sasha. For dinner they had milk-soup, cold veal, and chocolate. It was insipid and not good; but the table was splendid, with gold forks, bottles of Soyer, and cayenne pepper, an extraordinary bizarre cruet-stand, and a gold pepper-pot.
It was only as he was finishing the milk-soup that Laptev realised how very inappropriate it was for him to be dining there. The lady was embarrassed, and kept smiling, showing her teeth. Panaurov expounded didactically what being in love was, and what it was due to.
“We have in it an example of the action of electricity,” he said in French, addressing the lady. “Every man has in his skin microscopic glands which contain currents of electricity. If you meet with a person whose currents are parallel with your own, then you get love.”
When Laptev went home and his sister asked him where he had been he felt awkward, and made no answer.
He felt himself in a false position right up to the time of the wedding. His love grew more intense every day, and Yulia seemed to him a poetic and exalted creature; but, all the same, there was no mutual love, and the truth was that he was buying her and she was selling herself. Sometimes, thinking things over, he fell into despair and asked himself: should he run away? He did not sleep for nights together, and kept thinking how he should meet in Moscow the lady whom he had called in his letters “a certain person,” and what attitude his father and his brother, difficult people, would take towards his marriage and towards Yulia. He was afraid that his father would say something rude to Yulia at their first meeting. And something strange had happened of late to his brother Fyodor. In his long letters he had taken to writing of the importance of health, of the effect of illness on the mental condition, of the meaning of religion, but not a word about Moscow or business. These letters irritated Laptev, and he thought his brother’s character was changing for the worse.
The wedding was in September. The ceremony took place at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, after mass, and the same day the young couple set off for Moscow. When Laptev and his wife, in a black dress with a long train, already looking not a girl but a married woman, said good-bye to Nina Fyodorovna, the invalid’s face worked, but there was no tear in her dry eyes. She said:
“If–which God forbid–I should die, take care of my little girls.”
“Oh, I promise!” answered Yulia Sergeyevna, and her lips and eyelids began quivering too.
“I shall come to see you in October,” said Laptev, much moved. “You must get better, my darling.”
They travelled in a special compartment. Both felt depressed and uncomfortable. She sat in the corner without taking off her hat, and made a show of dozing, and he lay on the seat opposite, and he was disturbed by various thoughts–of his father, of “a certain person,” whether Yulia would like her Moscow flat. And looking at his wife, who did not love him, he wondered dejectedly “why this had happened.”
The Laptevs had a wholesale business in Moscow, dealing in fancy goods: fringe, tape, trimmings, crochet cotton, buttons, and so on. The gross receipts reached two millions a year; what the net profit was, no one knew but the old father. The sons and the clerks estimated the profits at approximately three hundred thousand, and said that it would have been a hundred thousand more if the old man had not “been too free-handed”–that is, had not allowed credit indiscriminately. In the last ten years alone the bad debts had mounted up to the sum of a million; and when the subject was referred to, the senior clerk would wink slyly and deliver himself of sentences the meaning of which was not clear to every one:
“The psychological sequences of the age.”
Their chief commercial operations were conducted in the town market in a building which was called the warehouse. The entrance to the warehouse was in the yard, where it was always dark, and smelt of matting and where the dray-horses were always stamping their hoofs on the asphalt. A very humble-looking door, studded with iron, led from the yard into a room with walls discoloured by damp and scrawled over with charcoal, lighted up by a narrow window covered by an iron grating. Then on the left was another room larger and cleaner with an iron stove and a couple of chairs, though it, too, had a prison window: this was the office, and from it a narrow stone staircase led up to the second storey, where the principal room was. This was rather a large room, but owing to the perpetual darkness, the low-pitched ceiling, the piles of boxes and bales, and the numbers of men that kept flitting to and fro in it, it made as unpleasant an impression on a newcomer as the others. In the offices on the top storey the goods lay in bales, in bundles and in cardboard boxes on the shelves; there was no order nor neatness in the arrangement of it, and if crimson threads, tassels, ends of fringe, had not peeped out here and there from holes in the paper parcels, no one could have guessed what was being bought and sold here. And looking at these crumpled paper parcels and boxes, no one would have believed that a million was being made out of such trash, and that fifty men were employed every day in this warehouse, not counting the buyers.
When at midday, on the day after his arrival at Moscow, Laptev went into the warehouse, the workmen packing the goods were hammering so loudly that in the outer room and the office no one heard him come in. A postman he knew was coming down the stairs with a bundle of letters in his hand; he was wincing at the noise, and he did not notice Laptev either. The first person to meet him upstairs was his brother Fyodor Fyodorovitch, who was so like him that they passed for twins. This resemblance always reminded Laptev of his own personal appearance, and now, seeing before him a short, red-faced man with rather thin hair, with narrow plebeian hips, looking so uninteresting and so unintellectual, he asked himself: “Can I really look like that?”
“How glad I am to see you!” said Fyodor, kissing his brother and pressing his hand warmly. “I have been impatiently looking forward to seeing you every day, my dear fellow. When you wrote that you were getting married, I was tormented with curiosity, and I’ve missed you, too, brother. Only fancy, it’s six months since we saw each other. Well? How goes it? Nina’s very bad? Awfully bad?”
“It’s in God’s hands,” sighed Fyodor. “Well, what of your wife? She’s a beauty, no doubt? I love her already. Of course, she is my little sister now. We’ll make much of her between us.”
Laptev saw the broad, bent back–so familiar to him–of his father, Fyodor Stepanovitch. The old man was sitting on a stool near the counter, talking to a customer.
“Father, God has sent us joy!” cried Fyodor. “Brother has come!”
Fyodor Stepanovitch was a tall man of exceptionally powerful build, so that, in spite of his wrinkles and eighty years, he still looked a hale and vigorous man. He spoke in a deep, rich, sonorous voice, that resounded from his broad chest as from a barrel. He wore no beard, but a short-clipped military moustache, and smoked cigars. As he was always too hot, he used all the year round to wear a canvas coat at home and at the warehouse. He had lately had an operation for cataract. His sight was bad, and he did nothing in the business but talk to the customers and have tea and jam with them.
Laptev bent down and kissed his head and then his lips.
“It’s a good long time since we saw you, honoured sir,” said the old man–“a good long time. Well, am I to congratulate you on entering the state of holy matrimony? Very well, then; I congratulate you.”
And he put his lips out to be kissed. Laptev bent down and kissed him.
“Well, have you brought your young lady?” the old man asked, and without waiting for an answer, he said, addressing the customer: “‘Herewith I beg to inform you, father, that I’m going to marry such and such a young lady.’ Yes. But as for asking for his father’s counsel or blessing, that’s not in the rules nowadays. Now they go their own way. When I married I was over forty, but I went on my knees to my father and asked his advice. Nowadays we’ve none of that.”
The old man was delighted to see his son, but thought it unseemly to show his affection or make any display of his joy. His voice and his manner of saying “your young lady” brought back to Laptev the depression he had always felt in the warehouse. Here every trifling detail reminded him of the past, when he used to be flogged and put on Lenten fare; he knew that even now boys were thrashed and punched in the face till their noses bled, and that when those boys grew up they would beat others. And before he had been five minutes in the warehouse, he always felt as though he were being scolded or punched in the face.
Fyodor slapped the customer on the shoulder and said to his brother:
“Here, Alyosha, I must introduce our Tambov benefactor, Grigory Timofeitch. He might serve as an example for the young men of the day; he’s passed his fiftieth birthday, and he has tiny children.”
The clerks laughed, and the customer, a lean old man with a pale face, laughed too.
“Nature above the normal capacity,” observed the head-clerk, who was standing at the counter close by. “It always comes out when it’s there.”
The head-clerk–a tall man of fifty, in spectacles, with a dark beard, and a pencil behind his ear–usually expressed his ideas vaguely in roundabout hints, while his sly smile betrayed that he attached particular significance to his words. He liked to obscure his utterances with bookish words, which he understood in his own way, and many such words he used in a wrong sense. For instance, the word “except.” When he had expressed some opinion positively and did not want to be contradicted, he would stretch out his hand and pronounce:
And what was most astonishing, the customers and the other clerks understood him perfectly. His name was Ivan Vassilitch Potchatkin, and he came from Kashira. Now, congratulating Laptev, he expressed himself as follows:
“It’s the reward of valour, for the female heart is a strong opponent.”
Another important person in the warehouse was a clerk called Makeitchev–a stout, solid, fair man with whiskers and a perfectly bald head. He went up to Laptev and congratulated him respectfully in a low voice:
“I have the honour, sir. . . The Lord has heard your parent’s prayer. Thank God.”
Then the other clerks began coming up to congratulate him on his marriage. They were all fashionably dressed, and looked like perfectly well-bred, educated men. Since between every two words they put in a “sir,” their congratulations–something like “Best wishes, sir, for happiness, sir,” uttered very rapidly in a low voice–sounded rather like the hiss of a whip in the air–“Shshsh-s s s s s!” Laptev was soon bored and longing to go home, but it was awkward to go away. He was obliged to stay at least two hours at the warehouse to keep up appearances. He walked away from the counter and began asking Makeitchev whether things had gone well while he was away, and whether anything new had turned up, and the clerk answered him respectfully, avoiding his eyes. A boy with a cropped head, wearing a grey blouse, handed Laptev a glass of tea without a saucer; not long afterwards another boy, passing by, stumbled over a box, and almost fell down, and Makeitchev’s face looked suddenly spiteful and ferocious like a wild beast’s, and he shouted at him:
“Keep on your feet!”
The clerks were pleased that their young master was married and had come back at last; they looked at him with curiosity and friendly feeling, and each one thought it his duty to say something agreeable when he passed him. But Laptev was convinced that it was not genuine, and that they were only flattering him because they were afraid of him. He never could forget how fifteen years before, a clerk, who was mentally deranged, had run out into the street with nothing on but his shirt and shaking his fists at the windows, shouted that he had been ill-treated; and how, when the poor fellow had recovered, the clerks had jeered at him for long afterwards, reminding him how he had called his employers “planters” instead of “exploiters.” Altogether the employees at Laptevs’ had a very poor time of it, and this fact was a subject of conversation for the whole market. The worst of it was that the old man, Fyodor Stepanovitch, maintained something of an Asiatic despotism in his attitude to them. Thus, no one knew what wages were paid to the old man’s favourites, Potchatkin and Makeitchev. They received no more than three thousand a year, together with bonuses, but he made out that he paid then seven. The bonuses were given to all the clerks every year, but privately, so that the man who got little was bound from vanity to say he had got more. Not one boy knew when he would be promoted to be a clerk; not one of the men knew whether his employer was satisfied with him or not. Nothing was directly forbidden, and so the clerks never knew what was allowed, and what was not. They were not forbidden to marry, but they did not marry for fear of displeasing their employer and losing their place. They were allowed to have friends and pay visits, but the gates were shut at nine o’clock, and every morning the old man scanned them all suspiciously, and tried to detect any smell of vodka about them:
“Now then, breathe,” he would say.
Every clerk was obliged to go to early service, and to stand in church in such a position that the old man could see them all. The fasts were strictly observed. On great occasions, such as the birthday of their employer or of any member of his family, the clerks had to subscribe and present a cake from Fley’s, or an album. The clerks lived three or four in a room in the lower storey, and in the lodges of the house in Pyatnitsky Street, and at dinner ate from a common bowl, though there was a plate set before each of them. If one of the family came into the room while they were at dinner, they all stood up.
Laptev was conscious that only, perhaps, those among them who had been corrupted by the old man’s training could seriously regard him as their benefactor; the others must have looked on him as an enemy and a “planter.” Now, after six months’ absence, he saw no change for the better; there was indeed something new which boded nothing good. His brother Fyodor, who had always been quiet, thoughtful, and extremely refined, was now running about the warehouse with a pencil behind his ear making a show of being very busy and businesslike, slapping customers on the shoulder and shouting “Friends!” to the clerks. Apparently he had taken up a new role, and Alexey did not recognise him in the part.
The old man’s voice boomed unceasingly. Having nothing to do, he was laying down the law to a customer, telling him how he should order his life and his business, always holding himself up as an example. That boastfulness, that aggressive tone of authority, Laptev had heard ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. The old man adored himself; from what he said it always appeared that he had made his wife and all her relations happy, that he had been munificent to his children, and a benefactor to his clerks and employés, and that every one in the street and all his acquaintances remembered him in their prayers. Whatever he did was always right, and if things went wrong with people it was because they did not take his advice; without his advice nothing could succeed. In church he stood in the foremost place, and even made observations to the priests, if in his opinion they were not conducting the service properly, and believed that this was pleasing God because God loved him.
At two o’clock every one in the warehouse was hard at work, except the old man, who still went on booming in his deep voice. To avoid standing idle, Laptev took some trimmings from a workgirl and let her go; then listened to a customer, a merchant from Vologda, and told a clerk to attend to him.
“T. V. A.!” resounded on all sides (prices were denoted by letters in the warehouse and goods by numbers). “R. I. T.!” As he went away, Laptev said good-bye to no one but Fyodor.
“I shall come to Pyatnitsky Street with my wife to-morrow,” he said; “but I warn you, if father says a single rude thing to her, I shall not stay there another minute.”
“You’re the same as ever,” sighed Fyodor. “Marriage has not changed you. You must be patient with the old man. So till eleven o’clock, then. We shall expect you impatiently. Come directly after mass, then.”
“I don’t go to mass.”
“That does not matter. The great thing is not to be later than eleven, so you may be in time to pray to God and to lunch with us. Give my greetings to my little sister and kiss her hand for me. I have a presentiment that I shall like her,” Fyodor added with perfect sincerity. “I envy you, brother!” he shouted after him as Alexey went downstairs.
“And why does he shrink into himself in that shy way as though he fancied he was naked?” thought Laptev, as he walked along Nikolsky Street, trying to understand the change that had come over his brother. “And his language is new, too: ‘Brother, dear brother, God has sent us joy; to pray to God’–just like Iudushka in Shtchedrin.”
At eleven o’clock the next day, which was Sunday, he was driving with his wife along Pyatnitsky Street in a light, one-horse carriage. He was afraid of his father’s doing something outrageous, and was already ill at ease. After two nights in her husband’s house Yulia Sergeyevna considered her marriage a mistake and a calamity, and if she had had to live with her husband in any other town but Moscow, it seemed to her that she could not have endured the horror of it. Moscow entertained her–she was delighted with the streets, the churches; and if it had been possible to drive about Moscow in those splendid sledges with expensive horses, to drive the whole day from morning till night, and with the swift motion to feel the cold autumn air blowing upon her, she would perhaps not have felt herself so unhappy.
Near a white, lately stuccoed two-storey house the coachman pulled up his horse, and began to turn to the right. They were expected, and near the gate stood two policemen and the porter in a new full-skirted coat, high boots, and goloshes. The whole space, from the middle of the street to the gates and all over the yard from the porch, was strewn with fresh sand. The porter took off his hat, the policemen saluted. Near the entrance Fyodor met them with a very serious face.
“Very glad to make your acquaintance, little sister,” he said, kissing Yulia’s hand. “You’re very welcome.”
He led her upstairs on his arm, and then along a corridor through a crowd of men and women. The anteroom was crowded too, and smelt of incense.
“I will introduce you to our father directly,” whispered Fyodor in the midst of a solemn, deathly silence. “A venerable old man, _pater-familias_.”
In the big drawing-room, by a table prepared for service, Fyodor Stepanovitch stood, evidently waiting for them, and with him the priest in a calotte, and a deacon. The old man shook hands with Yulia without saying a word. Every one was silent. Yulia was overcome with confusion.
The priest and the deacon began putting on their vestments. A censer was brought in, giving off sparks and fumes of incense and charcoal. The candles were lighted. The clerks walked into the drawing-room on tiptoe and stood in two rows along the wall. There was perfect stillness, no one even coughed.
“The blessing of God,” began the deacon. The service was read with great solemnity; nothing was left out and two canticles were sung –to sweetest Jesus and the most Holy Mother of God. The singers sang very slowly, holding up the music before them. Laptev noticed how confused his wife was. While they were singing the canticles, and the singers in different keys brought out “Lord have mercy on us,” he kept expecting in nervous suspense that the old man would make some remark such as, “You don’t know how to cross yourself,” and he felt vexed. Why this crowd, and why this ceremony with priests and choristers? It was too bourgeois. But when she, like the old man, put her head under the gospel and afterwards several times dropped upon her knees, he realised that she liked it all, and was reassured.
At the end of the service, during “Many, many years,” the priest gave the old man and Alexey the cross to kiss, but when Yulia went up, he put his hand over the cross, and showed he wanted to speak. Signs were made to the singers to stop.
“The prophet Samuel,” began the priest, “went to Bethlehem at the bidding of the Lord, and there the elders of the town with fear and trembling asked him: ‘Comest thou peaceably?’ And the prophet answered: ‘Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice unto the Lord: sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ Even so, Yulia, servant of God, shall we ask of thee, Dost thou come bringing peace into this house?”
Yulia flushed with emotion. As he finished, the priest gave her the cross to kiss, and said in quite a different tone of voice:
“Now Fyodor Fyodorovitch must be married; it’s high time.”
The choir began singing once more, people began moving, and the room was noisy again. The old man, much touched, with his eyes full of tears, kissed Yulia three times, made the sign of the cross over her face, and said:
“This is your home. I’m an old man and need nothing.”
The clerks congratulated her and said something, but the choir was singing so loud that nothing else could be heard. Then they had lunch and drank champagne. She sat beside the old father, and he talked to her, saying that families ought not to be parted but live together in one house; that separation and disunion led to permanent rupture.
“I’ve made money and the children only do the spending of it,” he said. “Now, you live with me and save money. It’s time for an old man like me to rest.”
Yulia had all the time a vision of Fyodor flitting about so like her husband, but shyer and more restless; he fussed about her and often kissed her hand.
“We are plain people, little sister,” he said, and patches of red came into his face as he spoke. “We live simply in Russian style, like Christians, little sister.”
As they went home, Laptev felt greatly relieved that everything had gone off so well, and that nothing outrageous had happened as he had expected. He said to his wife:
“You’re surprised that such a stalwart, broad-shouldered father should have such stunted, narrow-chested sons as Fyodor and me. Yes; but it’s easy to explain! My father married my mother when he was forty-five, and she was only seventeen. She turned pale and trembled in his presence. Nina was born first–born of a comparatively healthy mother, and so she was finer and sturdier than we were. Fyodor and I were begotten and born after mother had been worn out by terror. I can remember my father correcting me–or, to speak plainly, beating me–before I was five years old. He used to thrash me with a birch, pull my ears, hit me on the head, and every morning when I woke up my first thought was whether he would beat me that day. Play and childish mischief was forbidden us. We had to go to morning service and to early mass. When we met priests or monks we had to kiss their hands; at home we had to sing hymns. Here you are religious and love all that, but I’m afraid of religion, and when I pass a church I remember my childhood, and am overcome with horror. I was taken to the warehouse as soon as I was eight years old. I worked like a working boy, and it was bad for my health, for I used to be beaten there every day. Afterwards when I went to the high school, I used to go to school till dinner-time, and after dinner I had to sit in that warehouse till evening; and things went on like that till I was twenty-two, till I got to know Yartsev, and he persuaded me to leave my father’s house. That Yartsev did a great deal for me. I tell you what,” said Laptev, and he laughed with pleasure: “let us go and pay Yartsev a visit at once. He’s a very fine fellow! How touched he will be!”
On a Saturday in November Anton Rubinstein was conducting in a symphony concert. It was very hot and crowded. Laptev stood behind the columns, while his wife and Kostya Kotchevoy were sitting in the third or fourth row some distance in front. At the very beginning of an interval a “certain person,” Polina Nikolaevna Razsudin, quite unexpectedly passed by him. He had often since his marriage thought with trepidation of a possible meeting with her. When now she looked at him openly and directly, he realised that he had all this time shirked having things out with her, or writing her two or three friendly lines, as though he had been hiding from her; he felt ashamed and flushed crimson. She pressed his hand tightly and impulsively and asked:
“Have you seen Yartsev?”
And without waiting for an answer she went striding on impetuously as though some one were pushing her on from behind.
She was very thin and plain, with a long nose; her face always looked tired, and exhausted, and it seemed as though it were an effort to her to keep her eyes open, and not to fall down. She had fine, dark eyes, and an intelligent, kind, sincere expression, but her movements were awkward and abrupt. It was hard to talk to her, because she could not talk or listen quietly. Loving her was not easy. Sometimes when she was alone with Laptev she would go on laughing for a long time, hiding her face in her hands, and would declare that love was not the chief thing in life for her, and would be as whimsical as a girl of seventeen; and before kissing her he would have to put out all the candles. She was thirty. She was married to a schoolmaster, but had not lived with her husband for years. She earned her living by giving music lessons and playing in quartettes.
During the ninth symphony she passed again as though by accident, but the crowd of men standing like a thick wall behind the columns prevented her going further, and she remained beside him. Laptev saw that she was wearing the same little velvet blouse she had worn at concerts last year and the year before. Her gloves were new, and her fan, too, was new, but it was a common one. She was fond of fine clothes, but she did not know how to dress, and grudged spending money on it. She dressed so badly and untidily that when she was going to her lessons striding hurriedly down the street, she might easily have been taken for a young monk.
The public applauded and shouted encore.
“You’ll spend the evening with me,” said Polina Nikolaevna, going up to Laptev and looking at him severely. “When this is over we’ll go and have tea. Do you hear? I insist on it. You owe me a great deal, and haven’t the moral right to refuse me such a trifle.”
“Very well; let us go,” Laptev assented.
Endless calls followed the conclusion of the concert. The audience got up from their seats and went out very slowly, and Laptev could not go away without telling his wife. He had to stand at the door and wait.
“I’m dying for some tea,” Polina Nikolaevna said plaintively. “My very soul is parched.”
“You can get something to drink here,” said Laptev. “Let’s go to the buffet.”
“Oh, I’ve no money to fling away on waiters. I’m not a shopkeeper.”
He offered her his arm; she refused, in a long, wearisome sentence which he had heard many times, to the effect that she did not class herself with the feebler fair sex, and did not depend on the services of gentlemen.
As she talked to him she kept looking about at the audience and greeting acquaintances; they were her fellow-students at the higher courses and at the conservatorium, and her pupils. She gripped their hands abruptly, as though she were tugging at them. But then she began twitching her shoulders, and trembling as though she were in a fever, and at last said softly, looking at Laptev with horror:
“Who is it you’ve married? Where were your eyes, you mad fellow? What did you see in that stupid, insignificant girl? Why, I loved you for your mind, for your soul, but that china doll wants nothing but your money!”
“Let us drop that, Polina,” he said in a voice of supplication. “All that you can say to me about my marriage I’ve said to myself many times already. Don’t cause me unnecessary pain.”
Yulia Sergeyevna made her appearance, wearing a black dress with a big diamond brooch, which her father-in-law had sent her after the service. She was followed by her suite–Kotchevoy, two doctors of their acquaintance, an officer, and a stout young man in student’s uniform, called Kish.
“You go on with Kostya,” Laptev said to his wife. “I’m coming later.”
Yulia nodded and went on. Polina Nikolaevna gazed after her, quivering all over and twitching nervously, and in her eyes there was a look of repulsion, hatred, and pain.
Laptev was afraid to go home with her, foreseeing an unpleasant discussion, cutting words, and tears, and he suggested that they should go and have tea at a restaurant. But she said:
“No, no. I want to go home. Don’t dare to talk to me of restaurants.”
She did not like being in a restaurant, because the atmosphere of restaurants seemed to her poisoned by tobacco smoke and the breath of men. Against all men she did not know she cherished a strange prejudice, regarding them all as immoral rakes, capable of attacking her at any moment. Besides, the music played at restaurants jarred on her nerves and gave her a headache.
Coming out of the Hall of Nobility, they took a sledge in Ostozhenka and drove to Savelovsky Lane, where she lodged. All the way Laptev thought about her. It was true that he owed her a great deal. He had made her acquaintance at the flat of his friend Yartsev, to whom she was giving lessons in harmony. Her love for him was deep and perfectly disinterested, and her relations with him did not alter her habits; she went on giving her lessons and wearing herself out with work as before. Through her he came to understand and love music, which he had scarcely cared for till then.
“Half my kingdom for a cup of tea!” she pronounced in a hollow voice, covering her mouth with her muff that she might not catch cold. “I’ve given five lessons, confound them! My pupils are as stupid as posts; I nearly died of exasperation. I don’t know how long this slavery can go on. I’m worn out. As soon as I can scrape together three hundred roubles, I shall throw it all up and go to the Crimea, to lie on the beach and drink in ozone. How I love the sea–oh, how I love the sea!”
“You’ll never go,” said Laptev. “To begin with, you’ll never save the money; and, besides, you’d grudge spending it. Forgive me, I repeat again: surely it’s quite as humiliating to collect the money by farthings from idle people who have music lessons to while away their time, as to borrow it from your friends.”
“I haven’t any friends,” she said irritably. “And please don’t talk nonsense. The working class to which I belong has one privilege: the consciousness of being incorruptible–the right to refuse to be indebted to wretched little shopkeepers, and to treat them with scorn. No, indeed, you don’t buy me! I’m not a Yulitchka!”
Laptev did not attempt to pay the driver, knowing that it would call forth a perfect torrent of words, such as he had often heard before. She paid herself.
She had a little furnished room in the flat of a solitary lady who provided her meals. Her big Becker piano was for the time at Yartsev’s in Great Nikitsky Street, and she went there every day to play on it. In her room there were armchairs in loose covers, a bed with a white summer quilt, and flowers belonging to the landlady; there were oleographs on the walls, and there was nothing that would have suggested that there was a woman, and a woman of university education, living in it. There was no toilet table; there were no books; there was not even a writing-table. It was evident that she went to bed as soon as she got home, and went out as soon as she got up in the morning.
The cook brought in the samovar. Polina Nikolaevna made tea, and, still shivering–the room was cold–began abusing the singers who had sung in the ninth symphony. She was so tired she could hardly keep her eyes open. She drank one glass of tea, then a second, and then a third.
“And so you are married,” she said. “But don’t be uneasy; I’m not going to pine away. I shall be able to tear you out of my heart. Only it’s annoying and bitter to me that you are just as contemptible as every one else; that what you want in a woman is not brains or intellect, but simply a body, good looks, and youth. . . . Youth!” she pronounced through her nose, as though mimicking some one, and she laughed. “Youth! You must have purity, _reinheit! reinheit!_” she laughed, throwing herself back in her chair. “_Reinheit!_”
When she left off laughing her eyes were wet with tears.
“You’re happy, at any rate?” she asked.
“Does she love you?”
Laptev, agitated, and feeling miserable, stood up and began walking about the room.
“No,” he repeated. “If you want to know, Polina, I’m very unhappy. There’s no help for it; I’ve done the stupid thing, and there’s no correcting it now. I must look at it philosophically. She married me without love, stupidly, perhaps with mercenary motives, but without understanding, and now she evidently sees her mistake and is miserable. I see it. At night we sleep together, but by day she is afraid to be left alone with me for five minutes, and tries to find distraction, society. With me she feels ashamed and frightened.”
“And yet she takes money from you?”
“That’s stupid, Polina!” cried Laptev. “She takes money from me because it makes absolutely no difference to her whether she has it or not. She is an honest, pure girl. She married me simply because she wanted to get away from her father, that’s all.”
“And are you sure she would have married you if you had not been rich?” asked Polina.
“I’m not sure of anything,” said Laptev dejectedly. “Not of anything. I don’t understand anything. For God’s sake, Polina, don’t let us talk about it.”
“Do you love her?”
A silence followed. She drank a fourth glass, while he paced up and down, thinking that by now his wife was probably having supper at the doctors’ club.
“But is it possible to love without knowing why?” asked Polina, shrugging her shoulders. “No; it’s the promptings of animal passion! You are poisoned, intoxicated by that beautiful body, that _reinheit!_ Go away from me; you are unclean! Go to her!”
She brandished her hand at him, then took up his hat and hurled it at him. He put on his fur coat without speaking and went out, but she ran after him into the passage, clutched his arm above the elbow, and broke into sobs.
“Hush, Polina! Don’t!” he said, and could not unclasp her fingers. “Calm yourself, I entreat you.”
She shut her eyes and turned pale, and her long nose became an unpleasant waxy colour like a corpse’s, and Laptev still could not unclasp her fingers. She had fainted. He lifted her up carefully, laid her on her bed, and sat by her for ten minutes till she came to herself. Her hands were cold, her pulse was weak and uneven.
“Go home,” she said, opening her eyes. “Go away, or I shall begin howling again. I must take myself in hand.”
When he came out, instead of going to the doctors’ club where his friends were expecting him, he went home. All the way home he was asking himself reproachfully why he had not settled down to married life with that woman who loved him so much, and was in reality his wife and friend. She was the one human being who was devoted to him; and, besides, would it not have been a grateful and worthy task to give happiness, peace, and a home to that proud, clever, overworked creature? Was it for him, he asked himself, to lay claim to youth and beauty, to that happiness which could not be, and which, as though in punishment or mockery, had kept him for the last three months in a state of gloom and oppression. The honeymoon was long over, and he still, absurd to say, did not know what sort of person his wife was. To her school friends and her father she wrote long letters of five sheets, and was never at a loss for something to say to them, but to him she never spoke except about the weather or to tell him that dinner was ready, or that it was supper-time. When at night she said her lengthy prayers and then kissed her crosses and ikons, he thought, watching her with hatred, “Here she’s praying. What’s she praying about? What about?” In his thoughts he showered insults on himself and her, telling himself that when he got into bed and took her into his arms, he was taking what he had paid for; but it was horrible. If only it had been a healthy, reckless, sinful woman; but here he had youth, piety, meekness, the pure eyes of innocence. . . . While they were engaged her piety had touched him; now the conventional definiteness of her views and convictions seemed to him a barrier, behind which the real truth could not be seen. Already everything in his married life was agonising. When his wife, sitting beside him in the theatre, sighed or laughed spontaneously, it was bitter to him that she enjoyed herself alone and would not share her delight with him. And it was remarkable that she was friendly with all his friends, and they all knew what she was like already, while he knew nothing about her, and only moped and was dumbly jealous.
When he got home Laptev put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and sat down in his study to read a novel. His wife was not at home. But within half an hour there was a ring at the hall door, and he heard the muffled footsteps of Pyotr running to open it. It was Yulia. She walked into the study in her fur coat, her cheeks rosy with the frost,
“There’s a great fire in Pryesnya,” she said breathlessly. “There’s a tremendous glow. I’m going to see it with Konstantin Ivanovitch.”
“Well, do, dear!”
The sight of her health, her freshness, and the childish horror in her eyes, reassured Laptev. He read for another half-hour and went to bed.
Next day Polina Nikolaevna sent to the warehouse two books she had borrowed from him, all his letters and his photographs; with them was a note consisting of one word–_”basta.”_
Towards the end of October Nina Fyodorovna had unmistakable symptoms of a relapse. There was a change in her face, and she grew rapidly thinner. In spite of acute pain she still imagined that she was getting better, and got up and dressed every morning as though she were well, and then lay on her bed, fully dressed, for the rest of the day. And towards the end she became very talkative. She would lie on her back and talk in a low voice, speaking with an effort and breathing painfully. She died suddenly under the following circumstances.
It was a clear moonlight evening. In the street people were tobogganing in the fresh snow, and their clamour floated in at the window. Nina Fyodorovna was lying on her back in bed, and Sasha, who had no one to take turns with her now, was sitting beside her half asleep.
“I don’t remember his father’s name,” Nina Fyodorovna was saying softly, “but his name was Ivan Kotchevoy–a poor clerk. He was a sad drunkard, the Kingdom of Heaven be his! He used to come to us, and every month we used to give him a pound of sugar and two ounces of tea. And money, too, sometimes, of course. Yes. . . . And then, this is what happened. Our Kotchevoy began drinking heavily and died, consumed by vodka. He left a little son, a boy of seven. Poor little orphan! . . . We took him and hid him in the clerk’s quarters, and he lived there for a whole year, without father’s knowing. And when father did see him, he only waved his hand and said nothing. When Kostya, the little orphan, was nine years old–by that time I was engaged to be married–I took him round to all the day schools. I went from one to the other, and no one would take him. And he cried. . . . ‘What are you crying for, little silly?’ I said. I took him to Razgulyay to the second school, where–God bless them for it!–they took him, and the boy began going every day on foot from Pyatnitsky Street to Razgulyay Street and back again . . . . Alyosha paid for him. . . . By God’s grace the boy got on, was good at his lessons, and turned out well. . . . He’s a lawyer now in Moscow, a friend of Alyosha’s, and so good in science. Yes, we had compassion on a fellow-creature and took him into our house, and now I daresay, he remembers us in his prayers. . . Yes. . . .”
Nina Fyodorovna spoke more and more slowly with long pauses, then after a brief silence she suddenly raised herself and sat up.
“There’s something the matter with me . . . something seems wrong,” she said. “Lord have mercy on me! Oh, I can’t breathe!”
Sasha knew that her mother would soon die; seeing now how suddenly her face looked drawn, she guessed that it was the end, and she was frightened.
“Mother, you mustn’t!” she began sobbing. “You mustn’t.”
“Run to the kitchen; let them go for father. I am very ill indeed.”
Sasha ran through all the rooms calling, but there were none of the servants in the house, and the only person she found was Lida asleep on a chest in the dining-room with her clothes on and without a pillow. Sasha ran into the yard just as she was without her goloshes, and then into the street. On a bench at the gate her nurse was sitting watching the tobogganing. From beyond the river, where the tobogganing slope was, came the strains of a military band.
“Nurse, mother’s dying!” sobbed Sasha. “You must go for father! . . .”
The nurse went upstairs, and, glancing at the sick woman, thrust a lighted wax candle into her hand. Sasha rushed about in terror and besought some one to go for her father, then she put on a coat and a kerchief, and ran into the street. From the servants she knew already that her father had another wife and two children with whom he lived in Bazarny Street. She ran out of the gate and turned to the left, crying, and frightened of unknown people. She soon began to sink into the snow and grew numb with cold.
She met an empty sledge, but she did not take it: perhaps, she thought, the man would drive her out of town, rob her, and throw her into the cemetery (the servants had talked of such a case at tea). She went on and on, sobbing and panting with exhaustion. When she got into Bazarny Street, she inquired where M. Panaurov lived. An unknown woman spent a long time directing her, and seeing that she did not understand, took her by the hand and led her to a house of one storey that stood back from the street. The door stood open. Sasha ran through the entry, along the corridor, and found herself at last in a warm, lighted room where her father was sitting by the samovar with a lady and two children. But by now she was unable to utter a word, and could only sob. Panaurov understood.
“Mother’s worse?” he asked. “Tell me, child: is mother worse?”
He was alarmed and sent for a sledge.
When they got home, Nina Fyodorovna was sitting propped up with pillows, with a candle in her hand. Her face looked dark and her eyes were closed. Crowding in the doorway stood the nurse, the cook, the housemaid, a peasant called Prokofy and a few persons of the humbler class, who were complete strangers. The nurse was giving them orders in a whisper, and they did not understand. Inside the room at the window stood Lida, with a pale and sleepy face, gazing severely at her mother.
Panaurov took the candle out of Nina Fyodorovna’s hand, and, frowning contemptuously, flung it on the chest of drawers.
“This is awful!” he said, and his shoulders quivered. “Nina, you must lie down,” he said affectionately. “Lie down, dear.”
She looked at him, but did not know him. They laid her down on her back.
When the priest and the doctor, Sergey Borisovitch, arrived, the servants crossed themselves devoutly and prayed for her.
“What a sad business!” said the doctor thoughtfully, coming out into the drawing-room. “Why, she was still young–not yet forty.”
They heard the loud sobbing of the little girls. Panaurov, with a pale face and moist eyes, went up to the doctor and said in a faint, weak voice:
“Do me a favour, my dear fellow. Send a telegram to Moscow. I’m not equal to it.”
The doctor fetched the ink and wrote the following telegram to his daughter:
“Madame Panaurov died at eight o’clock this evening. Tell your husband: a mortgaged house for sale in Dvoryansky Street, nine thousand cash. Auction on twelfth. Advise him not miss opportunity.”
Laptev lived in one of the turnings out of Little Dmitrovka. Besides the big house facing the street, he rented also a two-storey lodge in the yard at the back of his friend Kotchevoy, a lawyer’s assistant whom all the Laptevs called Kostya, because he had grown up under their eyes. Facing this lodge stood another, also of two storeys, inhabited by a French family consisting of a husband and wife and five daughters.
There was a frost of twenty degrees. The windows were frozen over. Waking up in the morning, Kostya, with an anxious face, took twenty drops of a medicine; then, taking two dumb-bells out of the bookcase, he did gymnastic exercises. He was tall and thin, with big reddish moustaches; but what was most noticeable in his appearance was the length of his legs.
Pyotr, a middle-aged peasant in a reefer jacket and cotton breeches tucked into his high boots, brought in the samovar and made the tea.
“It’s very nice weather now, Konstantin Ivanovitch,” he said.
“It is, but I tell you what, brother, it’s a pity we can’t get on, you and I, without such exclamations.”
Pyotr sighed from politeness.
“What are the little girls doing?” asked Kotchevoy.
“The priest has not come. Alexey Fyodorovitch is giving them their lesson himself.”
Kostya found a spot in the window that was not covered with frost, and began looking through a field-glass at the windows of the house where the French family lived.
“There’s no seeing,” he said.
Meanwhile Alexey Fyodorovitch was giving Sasha and Lida a scripture lesson below. For the last six weeks they had been living in Moscow, and were installed with their governess in the lower storey of the lodge. And three times a week a teacher from a school in the town, and a priest, came to give them lessons. Sasha was going through the New Testament and Lida was going through the Old. The time before Lida had been set the story up to Abraham to learn by heart.
“And so Adam and Eve had two sons,” said Laptev. “Very good. But what were they called? Try to remember them!”
Lida, still with the same severe face, gazed dumbly at the table. She moved her lips, but without speaking; and the elder girl, Sasha, looked into her face, frowning.
“You know it very well, only you mustn’t be nervous,” said Laptev. “Come, what were Adam’s sons called?”
“Abel and Canel,” Lida whispered.
“Cain and Abel,” Laptev corrected her.
A big tear rolled down Lida’s cheek and dropped on the book. Sasha looked down and turned red, and she, too, was on the point of tears. Laptev felt a lump in his throat, and was so sorry for them he could not speak. He got up from the table and lighted a cigarette. At that moment Kotchevoy came down the stairs with a paper in his hand. The little girls stood up, and without looking at him, made curtsies.
“For God’s sake, Kostya, give them their lessons,” said Laptev, turning to him. “I’m afraid I shall cry, too, and I have to go to the warehouse before dinner.”
Alexey Fyodorovitch went away. Kostya, with a very serious face, sat down to the table and drew the Scripture history towards him.
“Well,” he said; “where have you got to?”
“She knows about the Flood,” said Sasha.
“The Flood? All right. Let’s peg in at the Flood. Fire away about the Flood.” Kostya skimmed through a brief description of the Flood in the book, and said: “I must remark that there really never was a flood such as is described here. And there was no such person as Noah. Some thousands of years before the birth of Christ, there was an extraordinary inundation of the earth, and that’s not only mentioned in the Jewish Bible, but in the books of other ancient peoples: the Greeks, the Chaldeans, the Hindoos. But whatever the inundation may have been, it couldn’t have covered the whole earth. It may have flooded the plains, but the mountains must have remained. You can read this book, of course, but don’t put too much faith in it.”
Tears trickled down Lida’s face again. She turned away and suddenly burst into such loud sobs, that Kostya started and jumped up from his seat in great confusion.
“I want to go home,” she said, “to papa and to nurse.”
Sasha cried too. Kostya went upstairs to his own room, and spoke on the telephone to Yulia Sergeyevna.
“My dear soul,” he said, “the little girls are crying again; there’s no doing anything with them.”
Yulia Sergeyevna ran across from the big house in her indoor dress, with only a knitted shawl over her shoulders, and chilled through by the frost, began comforting the children.
“Do believe me, do believe me,” she said in an imploring voice, hugging first one and then the other. “Your papa’s coming to-day; he has sent a telegram. You’re grieving for mother, and I grieve too. My heart’s torn, but what can we do? We must bow to God’s will!”
When they left off crying, she wrapped them up and took them out for a drive. They stopped near the Iverskoy chapel, put up candles at the shrine, and, kneeling down, prayed. On the way back they went in Filippov’s, and had cakes sprinkled with poppy-seeds.
The Laptevs had dinner between two and three. Pyotr handed the dishes. This Pyotr waited on the family, and by day ran to the post, to the warehouse, to the law courts for Kostya; he spent his evenings making cigarettes, ran to open the door at night, and before five o’clock in the morning was up lighting the stoves, and no one knew where he slept. He was very fond of opening seltzer-water bottles and did it easily, without a bang and without spilling a drop.
“With God’s blessing,” said Kostya, drinking off a glass of vodka before the soup.
At first Yulia Sergeyevna did not like Kostya; his bass voice, his phrases such as “Landed him one on the beak,” “filth,” “produce the samovar,” etc., his habit of clinking glasses and making sentimental speeches, seemed to her trivial. But as she got to know him better, she began to feel very much at home with him. He was open with her; he liked talking to her in a low voice in the evening, and even gave her novels of his own composition to read, though these had been kept a secret even from such friends as Laptev and Yartsev. She read these novels and praised them, so that she might not disappoint him, and he was delighted because he hoped sooner or later to become a distinguished author.
In his novels he described nothing but country-house life, though he had only seen the country on rare occasions when visiting friends at a summer villa, and had only been in a real country-house once in his life, when he had been to Volokolamsk on law business. He avoided any love interest as though he were ashamed of it; he put in frequent descriptions of nature, and in them was fond of using such expressions as, “the capricious lines of the mountains, the miraculous forms of the clouds, the harmony of mysterious rhythms . . . .” His novels had never been published, and this he attributed to the censorship.
He liked the duties of a lawyer, but yet he considered that his most important pursuit was not the law but these novels. He believed that he had a subtle, æsthetic temperament, and he always had leanings towards art. He neither sang nor played on any musical instrument, and was absolutely without an ear for music, but he attended all the symphony and philharmonic concerts, got up concerts for charitable objects, and made the acquaintance of singers. . . .
They used to talk at dinner.
“It’s a strange thing,” said Laptev, “my Fyodor took my breath away again! He said we must find out the date of the centenary of our firm, so as to try and get raised to noble rank; and he said it quite seriously. What can be the matter with him? I confess I begin to feel worried about him.”
They talked of Fyodor, and of its being the fashion nowadays to adopt some pose or other. Fyodor, for instance, tried to appear like a plain merchant, though he had ceased to be one; and when the teacher came from the school, of which old Laptev was the patron, to ask Fyodor for his salary, the latter changed his voice and deportment, and behaved with the teacher as though he were some one in authority.
There was nothing to be done; after dinner they went into the study. They talked about the decadents, about “The Maid of Orleans,” and Kostya delivered a regular monologue; he fancied that he was very successful in imitating Ermolova. Then they sat down and played whist. The little girls had not gone back to the lodge but were sitting together in one arm-chair, with pale and mournful faces, and were listening to every noise in the street, wondering whether it was their father coming. In the evening when it was dark and the candles were lighted, they felt deeply dejected. The talk over the whist, the footsteps of Pyotr, the crackling in the fireplace, jarred on their nerves, and they did not like to look at the fire. In the evenings they did not want to cry, but they felt strange, and there was a load on their hearts. They could not understand how people could talk and laugh when their mother was dead.
“What did you see through the field-glasses today?” Yulia Sergeyevna asked Kostya.
“Nothing to-day, but yesterday I saw the old Frenchman having his bath.”
At seven o’clock Yulia and Kostya went to the Little Theatre. Laptev was left with the little girls.
“It’s time your father was here,” he said, looking at his watch. “The train must be late.”
The children sat in their arm-chair dumb and huddling together like animals when they are cold, while he walked about the room looking impatiently at his watch. It was quiet in the house. But just before nine o’clock some one rang at the bell. Pyotr went to open the door.
Hearing a familiar voice, the children shrieked, burst into sobs, and ran into the hall. Panaurov was wearing a sumptuous coat of antelope skin, and his head and moustaches were white with hoar frost. “In a minute, in a minute,” he muttered, while Sasha and Lida, sobbing and laughing, kissed his cold hands, his hat, his antelope coat. With the languor of a handsome man spoilt by too much love, he fondled the children without haste, then went into the study and said, rubbing his hands:
“I’ve not come to stay long, my friends. I’m going to Petersburg to-morrow. They’ve promised to transfer me to another town.”
He was staying at the Dresden Hotel.
A friend who was often at the Laptevs’ was Ivan Gavrilitch Yartsev. He was a strong, healthy man with black hair and a clever, pleasant face. He was considered to be handsome, but of late he had begun to grow stout, and that rather spoilt his face and figure; another thing that spoilt him was that he wore his hair cut so close that the skin showed through.
At the University his tall figure and physical strength had won him the nickname of “the pounder” among the students. He had taken his degree with the Laptev brothers in the faculty of philology–then he went in for science and now had the degree of _magister_ in chemistry. But he had never given a lecture or even been a demonstrator. He taught physics and natural history in the modern school, and in two girls’ high schools. He was enthusiastic over his pupils, especially the girls, and used to maintain that a remarkable generation was growing up. At home he spent his time studying sociology and Russian history, as well as chemistry, and he sometimes published brief notes in the newspapers and magazines, signing them “Y.” When he talked of some botanical or zoological subject, he spoke like an historian; when he was discussing some historical question, he approached it as a man of science.
Kish, nicknamed “the eternal student,” was also like one of the family at the Laptevs’. He had been for three years studying medicine. Then he took up mathematics, and spent two years over each year’s course. His father, a provincial druggist, used to send him forty roubles a month, to which his mother, without his father’s knowledge, added another ten. And this sum was not only sufficient for his board and lodging, but even for such luxuries as an overcoat lined with Polish beaver, gloves, scent, and photographs (he often had photographs taken of himself and used to distribute them among his friends). He was neat and demure, slightly bald, with golden side-whiskers, and he had the air of a man nearly always ready to oblige. He was always busy looking after other people’s affairs. At one time he would be rushing about with a subscription list; at another time he would be freezing in the early morning at a ticket office to buy tickets for ladies of his acquaintance, or at somebody’s request would be ordering a wreath or a bouquet. People simply said of him: “Kish will go, Kish will do it, Kish will buy it.” He was usually unsuccessful in carrying out his commissions. Reproaches were showered upon him, people frequently forgot to pay him for the things he bought, but he simply sighed in hard cases and never protested. He was never particularly delighted nor disappointed; his stories were always long and boring; and his jokes invariably provoked laughter just because they were not funny. Thus, one day, for instance, intending to make a joke, he said to Pyotr: “Pyotr, you’re not a sturgeon;” and this aroused a general laugh, and he, too, laughed for a long time, much pleased at having made such a successful jest. Whenever one of the professors was buried, he walked in front with the mutes.
Yartsev and Kish usually came in the evening to tea. If the Laptevs were not going to the theatre or a concert, the evening tea lingered on till supper. One evening in February the following conversation took place:
“A work of art is only significant and valuable when there are some serious social problems contained in its central idea,” said Kostya, looking wrathfully at Yartsev. “If there is in the work a protest against serfdom, or the author takes up arms against the vulgarity of aristocratic society, the work is significant and valuable. The novels that are taken up with ‘Ach!’ and ‘Och!’ and ‘she loved him, while he ceased to love her,’ I tell you, are worthless, and damn them all, I say!”
“I agree with you, Konstantin Ivanovitch,” said Yulia Sergeyevna. “One describes a love scene; another, a betrayal; and the third, meeting again after separation. Are there no other subjects? Why, there are many people sick, unhappy, harassed by poverty, to whom reading all that must be distasteful.”
It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so.
“If poetry does not solve questions that seem so important,” said Yartsev, “you should turn to works on technical subjects, criminal law, or finance, read scientific pamphlets. What need is there to discuss in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ liberty of speech, or the disinfecting of prisons, instead of love, when you can find all that in special articles and textbooks?”
“That’s pushing it to the extreme,” Kostya interrupted. “We are not talking of giants like Shakespeare or Goethe; we are talking of the hundreds of talented mediocre writers, who would be infinitely more valuable if they would let love alone, and would employ themselves in spreading knowledge and humane ideas among the masses.”
Kish, lisping and speaking a little through his nose, began telling the story of a novel he had lately been reading. He spoke circumstantially and without haste. Three minutes passed, then five, then ten, and no one could make out what he was talking about, and his face grew more and more indifferent, and his eyes more and more blank.
“Kish, do be quick over it,” Yulia Sergeyevna could not resist saying; “it’s really agonizing!”
“Shut up, Kish!” Kostya shouted to him.
They all laughed, and Kish with them.
Fyodor came in. Flushing red in patches, he greeted them all in a nervous flurry, and led his brother away into the study. Of late he had taken to avoiding the company of more than one person at once.
“Let the young people laugh, while we speak from the heart in here,” he said, settling himself in a deep arm-chair at a distance from the lamp. “It’s a long time, my dear brother, since we’ve seen each other. How long is it since you were at the warehouse? I think it must be a week.”
“Yes, there’s nothing for me to do there. And I must confess that the old man wearies me.”
“Of course, they could get on at the warehouse without you and me, but one must have some occupation. ‘In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread,’ as it is written. God loves work.”
Pyotr brought in a glass of tea on a tray. Fyodor drank it without sugar, and asked for more. He drank a great deal of tea, and could get through as many as ten glasses in the evening.
“I tell you what, brother,” he said, getting up and going to his brother. “Laying aside philosophic subtleties, you must get elected on to the town council, and little by little we will get you on to the local Board, and then to be an alderman. And as time goes on –you are a clever man and well-educated–you will be noticed in Petersburg and asked to go there–active men on the provincial assemblies and town councils are all the fashion there now–and before you are fifty you’ll be a privy councillor, and have a ribbon across your shoulders.”
Laptev made no answer; he knew that all this–being a privy councillor and having a ribbon over his shoulder–was what Fyodor desired for himself, and he did not know what to say.
The brothers sat still and said nothing. Fyodor opened his watch and for a long, long time gazed into it with strained attention, as though he wanted to detect the motion of the hand, and the expression of his face struck Laptev as strange.
They were summoned to supper. Laptev went into the dining-room, while Fyodor remained in the study. The argument was over and Yartsev was speaking in the tones of a professor giving a lecture:
“Owing to differences of climate, of energy, of tastes, of age, equality among men is physically impossible. But civilised man can make this inequality innocuous, as he has already done with bogs and bears. A learned man succeeded in making a cat, a mouse, a falcon, a sparrow, all eat out of one plate; and education, one must hope, will do the same thing with men. Life continually progresses, civilisation makes enormous advances before our eyes, and obviously a time will come when we shall think, for instance, the present condition of the factory population as absurd as we now do the state of serfdom, in which girls were exchanged for dogs.”
“That won’t be for a long while, a very long while,” said Kostya, with a laugh, “not till Rothschild thinks his cellars full of gold absurd, and till then the workers may bend their backs and die of hunger. No; that’s not it. We mustn’t wait for it; we must struggle for it. Do you suppose because the cat eats out of the same saucer as the mouse–do you suppose that she is influenced by a sense of conscious intelligence? Not a bit of it! She’s made to do it by force.”
“Fyodor and I are rich; our father’s a capitalist, a millionaire. You will have to struggle with us,” said Laptev, rubbing his forehead with his hand. “Struggle with me is an idea I cannot grasp. I am rich, but what has money given me so far? What has this power given me? In what way am I happier than you? My childhood was slavery, and money did not save me from the birch. When Nina was ill and died, my money did not help her. If people don’t care for me, I can’t make them like me if I spend a hundred million.”
“But you can do a great deal of good,” said Kish.
“Good, indeed! You spoke to me yesterday of a mathematical man who is looking for a job. Believe me, I can do as little for him as you can. I can give money, but that’s not what he wants–I asked a well-known musician to help a poor violinist, and this is what he answered: ‘You apply to me just because you are not a musician yourself.’ In the same way I say to you that you apply for help to me so confidently because you’ve never been in the position of a rich man.”
“Why you bring in the comparison with a well-known musician I don’t understand!” said Yulia Sergeyevna, and she flushed crimson. “What has the well-known musician to do with it!”
Her face was quivering with hatred, and she dropped her eyes to conceal the feeling. And not only her husband, but all the men sitting at the table, knew what the look in her face meant.
“What has the well-known musician got to do with it?” she said slowly. “Why, nothing’s easier than helping some one poor.”
Silence followed. Pyotr handed the woodcock, but they all refused it, and ate nothing but salad. Laptev did not remember what he had said, but it was clear to him that it was not his words that were hateful, but the fact of his meddling in the conversation at all.
After supper he went into his study; intently, with a beating heart, expecting further humiliation, he listened to what was going on in the hall. An argument had sprung up there again. Then Yartsev sat down to the piano and played a sentimental song. He was a man of varied accomplishments; he could play and sing, and even perform conjuring tricks.
“You may please yourselves, my friends, but I’m not going to stay at home,” said Yulia. “We must go somewhere.”
They decided to drive out of town, and sent Kish to the merchant’s club to order a three-horse sledge. They did not ask Laptev to go with them because he did not usually join these expeditions, and because his brother was sitting with him; but he took it to mean that his society bored them, and that he was not wanted in their light-hearted youthful company. And his vexation, his bitter feeling, was so intense that he almost shed tears. He was positively glad that he was treated so ungraciously, that he was scorned, that he was a stupid, dull husband, a money-bag; and it seemed to him, that he would have been even more glad if his wife were to deceive him that night with his best friend, and were afterwards to acknowledge it, looking at him with hatred. . . . He was jealous on her account of their student friends, of actors, of singers, of Yartsev, even of casual acquaintances; and now he had a passionate longing for her really to be unfaithful to him. He longed to find her in another man’s arms, and to be rid of this nightmare forever. Fyodor was drinking tea, gulping it noisily. But he, too, got up to go.
“Our old father must have got cataract,” he said, as he put on his fur coat. “His sight has become very poor.”
Laptev put on his coat, too, and went out. After seeing his brother part of the way home, he took a sledge and drove to Yar’s.
“And this is family happiness!” he said, jeering at himself. “This is love!”
His teeth were chattering, and he did not know if it were jealousy or something else. He walked about near the tables; listened to a comic singer in the hall. He had not a single phrase ready if he should meet his own party; and he felt sure beforehand that if he met his wife, he would only smile pitifully and not cleverly, and that every one would understand what feeling had induced him to come here. He was bewildered by the electric light, the loud music, the smell of powder, and the fact that the ladies he met looked at him. He stood at the doors trying to see and to hear what was going on in the private rooms, and it seemed to him that he was somehow playing a mean, contemptible part on a level with the comic singers and those ladies. Then he went to Strelna, but he found none of his circle there, either; and only when on the way home he was again driving up to Yar’s, a three-horse sledge noisily overtook him. The driver was drunk and shouting, and he could hear Yartsev laughing: “Ha, ha, ha!”
Laptev returned home between three and four. Yulia Sergeyevna was in bed. Noticing that she was not asleep, he went up to her and said sharply:
“I understand your repulsion, your hatred, but you might spare me before other people; you might conceal your feelings.”
She got up and sat on the bed with her legs dangling. Her eyes looked big and black in the lamplight.
“I beg your pardon,” she said.
He could not utter a single word from excitement and the trembling of his whole body; he stood facing her and was dumb. She trembled, too, and sat with the air of a criminal waiting for explanations.
“How I suffer!” he said at last, and he clutched his head. “I’m in hell, and I’m out of my mind.”
“And do you suppose it’s easy for me?” she asked, with a quiver in her voice. “God alone knows what I go through.”
“You’ve been my wife for six months, but you haven’t a spark of love for me in your heart. There’s no hope, not one ray of light! Why did you marry me?” Laptev went on with despair. “Why? What demon thrust you into my arms? What did you hope for? What did you want?”
She looked at him with terror, as though she were afraid he would kill her.
“Did I attract you? Did you like me?” he went on, gasping for breath. “No. Then what? What? Tell me what?” he cried. “Oh, the cursed money! The cursed money!”
“I swear to God, no!” she cried, and she crossed herself. She seemed to shrink under the insult, and for the first time he heard her crying. “I swear to God, no!” she repeated. “I didn’t think about your money; I didn’t want it. I simply thought I should do wrong if I refused you. I was afraid of spoiling your life and mine. And now I am suffering for my mistake. I’m suffering unbearably!”
She sobbed bitterly, and he saw that she was hurt; and not knowing what to say, dropped down on the carpet before her.
“That’s enough; that’s enough,” he muttered. “I insulted you because I love you madly.” He suddenly kissed her foot and passionately hugged it. “If only a spark of love,” he muttered. “Come, lie to me; tell me a lie! Don’t say it’s a mistake! . . .”
But she went on crying, and he felt that she was only enduring his caresses as an inevitable consequence of her mistake. And the foot he had kissed she drew under her like a bird. He felt sorry for her.
She got into bed and covered her head over; he undressed and got into bed, too. In the morning they both felt confused and did not know what to talk about, and he even fancied she walked unsteadily on the foot he had kissed.
Before dinner Panaurov came to say good-bye. Yulia had an irresistible desire to go to her own home; it would be nice, she thought, to go away and have a rest from married life, from the embarrassment and the continual consciousness that she had done wrong. It was decided at dinner that she should set off with Panaurov, and stay with her father for two or three weeks until she was tired of it.
She travelled with Panaurov in a reserved compartment; he had on his head an astrachan cap of peculiar shape.
“Yes, Petersburg did not satisfy me,” he said, drawling, with a sigh. “They promise much, but nothing definite. Yes, my dear girl. I have been a Justice of the Peace, a member of the local Board, chairman of the Board of Magistrates, and finally councillor of the provincial administration. I think I have served my country and have earned the right to receive attention; but–would you believe it?–I can never succeed in wringing from the authorities a post in another town. . . .”
Panaurov closed his eyes and shook his head.
“They don’t recognise me,” he went on, as though dropping asleep. “Of course I’m not an administrator of genius, but, on the other hand, I’m a decent, honest man, and nowadays even that’s something rare. I regret to say I have not been always quite straightforward with women, but in my relations with the Russian government I’ve always been a gentleman. But enough of that,” he said, opening his eyes; “let us talk of you. What put it into your head to visit your papa so suddenly?”
“Well. . . . I had a little misunderstanding with my husband,” said Yulia, looking at his cap.
“Yes. What a queer fellow he is! All the Laptevs are queer. Your husband’s all right–he’s nothing out of the way, but his brother Fyodor is a perfect fool.”
Panaurov sighed and asked seriously:
“And have you a lover yet?”
Yulia looked at him in amazement and laughed.
“Goodness knows what you’re talking about.”
It was past ten o’clock when they got out at a big station and had supper. When the train went on again Panaurov took off his greatcoat and his cap, and sat down beside Yulia.
“You are very charming, I must tell you,” he began. “Excuse me for the eating-house comparison, but you remind me of fresh salted cucumber; it still smells of the hotbed, so to speak, and yet has a smack of the salt and a scent of fennel about it. As time goes on you will make a magnificent woman, a wonderful, exquisite woman. If this trip of ours had happened five years ago,” he sighed, “I should have felt it my duty to join the ranks of your adorers, but now, alas, I’m a veteran on the retired list.”
He smiled mournfully, but at the same time graciously, and put his arm round her waist.
“You must be mad!” she said; she flushed crimson and was so frightened that her hands and feet turned cold.
“Leave off, Grigory Nikolaevitch!”
“What are you afraid of, dear?” he asked softly. “What is there dreadful about it? It’s simply that you’re not used to it.”
If a woman protested he always interpreted it as a sign that he had made an impression on her and attracted her. Holding Yulia round the waist, he kissed her firmly on the cheek, then on the lips, in the full conviction that he was giving her intense gratification. Yulia recovered from her alarm and confusion, and began laughing. He kissed her once more and said, as he put on his ridiculous cap:
“That is all that the old veteran can give you. A Turkish Pasha, a kind-hearted old fellow, was presented by some one–or inherited, I fancy it was–a whole harem. When his beautiful young wives drew up in a row before him, he walked round them, kissed each one of them, and said: ‘That is all that I am equal to giving you.’ And that’s just what I say, too.”
All this struck her as stupid and extraordinary, and amused her. She felt mischievous. Standing up on the seat and humming, she got a box of sweets from the shelf, and throwing him a piece of chocolate, shouted:
He caught it. With a loud laugh she threw him another sweet, then a third, and he kept catching them and putting them into his mouth, looking at her with imploring eyes; and it seemed to her that in his face, his features, his expression, there was a great deal that was feminine and childlike. And when, out of breath, she sat down on the seat and looked at him, laughing, he tapped her cheek with two fingers, and said as though he were vexed:
“Take it,” she said, giving him the box. “I don’t care for sweet things.”
He ate up the sweets–every one of them, and locked the empty box in his trunk; he liked boxes with pictures on them.
“That’s mischief enough, though,” he said. “It’s time for the veteran to go bye-bye.”
He took out of his hold-all a Bokhara dressing-gown and a pillow, lay down, and covered himself with the dressing-gown.
“Good-night, darling!” he said softly, and sighed as though his whole body ached.
And soon a snore was heard. Without the slightest feeling of constraint, she, too, lay down and went to sleep.
When next morning she drove through her native town from the station homewards, the streets seemed to her empty and deserted. The snow looked grey, and the houses small, as though some one had squashed them. She was met by a funeral procession: the dead body was carried in an open coffin with banners.
“Meeting a funeral, they say, is lucky,” she thought.
There were white bills pasted in the windows of the house where Nina Fyodorovna used to live.
With a sinking at her heart she drove into her own courtyard and rang at the door. It was opened by a servant she did not know–a plump, sleepy-looking girl wearing a warm wadded jacket. As she went upstairs Yulia remembered how Laptev had declared his love there, but now the staircase was unscrubbed, covered with foot-marks. Upstairs in the cold passage patients were waiting in their out-door coats. And for some reason her heart beat violently, and she was so excited she could scarcely walk.
The doctor, who had grown even stouter, was sitting with a brick-red face and dishevelled hair, drinking tea. Seeing his daughter, he was greatly delighted, and even lacrymose. She thought that she was the only joy in this old man’s life, and much moved, she embraced him warmly, and told him she would stay a long time–till Easter. After taking off her things in her own room, she went back to the dining-room to have tea with him. He was pacing up and down with his hands in his pockets, humming, “Ru-ru-ru”; this meant that he was dissatisfied with something.
“You have a gay time of it in Moscow,” he said. “I am very glad for your sake. . . . I’m an old man and I need nothing. I shall soon give up the ghost and set you all free. And the wonder is that my hide is so tough, that I’m alive still! It’s amazing!”
He said that he was a tough old ass that every one rode on. They had thrust on him the care of Nina Fyodorovna, the worry of her children, and of her burial; and that coxcomb Panaurov would not trouble himself about it, and had even borrowed a hundred roubles from him and had never paid it back.
“Take me to Moscow and put me in a madhouse,” said the doctor. “I’m mad; I’m a simple child, as I still put faith in truth and justice.”
Then he found fault with her husband for his short-sightedness in not buying houses that were being sold so cheaply. And now it seemed to Yulia that she was not the one joy in this old man’s life. While he was seeing his patients, and afterwards going his rounds, she walked through all the rooms, not knowing what to do or what to think about. She had already grown strange to her own town and her own home. She felt no inclination to go into the streets or see her friends; and at the thought of her old friends and her life as a girl, she felt no sadness nor regret for the past.
In the evening she dressed a little more smartly and went to the evening service. But there were only poor people in the church, and her splendid fur coat and hat made no impression. And it seemed to her that there was some change in the church as well as in herself. In old days she had loved it when they read the prayers for the day at evening service, and the choir sang anthems such as “I will open my lips.” She liked moving slowly in the crowd to the priest who stood in the middle of the church, and then to feel the holy oil on her forehead; now she only waited for the service to be over. And now, going out of the church, she was only afraid that beggars would ask for alms; it was such a bore to have to stop and feel for her pockets; besides, she had no coppers in her pocket now–nothing but roubles.
She went to bed early, and was a long time in going to sleep. She kept dreaming of portraits of some sort, and of the funeral procession she had met that morning. The open coffin with the dead body was carried into the yard, and brought to a standstill at the door; then the coffin was swung backwards and forwards on a sheet, and dashed violently against the door. Yulia woke and jumped up in alarm. There really was a bang at the door, and the wire of the bell rustled against the wall, though no ring was to be heard.
The doctor coughed. Then she heard the servant go downstairs, and then come back.
“Madam!” she said, and knocked at the door. “Madam!”
“What is it?” said Yulia.
“A telegram for you!”
Yulia went out to her with a candle. Behind the servant stood the doctor, in his night-clothes and greatcoat, and he, too, had a candle in his hand. “Our bell is broken,” he said, yawning sleepily. “It ought to have been mended long ago.”
Yulia broke open the telegram and read:
“We drink to your health.–YARTSEV, KOTCHEVOY.”
“Ah, what idiots!” she said, and burst out laughing; and her heart felt light and gay.
Going back into her room, she quietly washed and dressed, then she spent a long time in packing her things, until it was daylight, and at midday she set off for Moscow.
In Holy Week the Laptevs went to an exhibition of pictures in the school of painting. The whole family went together in the Moscow fashion, the little girls, the governess, Kostya, and all.
Laptev knew the names of all the well-known painters, and never missed an exhibition. He used sometimes to paint little landscape paintings when he was in the country in the summer, and he fancied he had a good deal of taste, and that if he had studied he might have made a good painter. When he was abroad he sometimes used to go to curio shops, examining the antiques with the air of a connoisseur and giving his opinion on them. When he bought any article he gave just what the shopkeeper liked to ask for it and his purchase remained afterwards in a box in the coach-house till it disappeared altogether. Or going into a print shop, he would slowly and attentively examine the engravings and the bronzes, making various remarks on them, and would buy a common frame or a box of wretched prints. At home he had pictures always of large dimensions but of inferior quality; the best among them were badly hung. It had happened to him more than once to pay large sums for things which had afterwards turned out to be forgeries of the grossest kind. And it was remarkable that, though as a rule timid in the affairs of life, he was exceedingly bold and self-confident at a picture exhibition. Why?
Yulia Sergeyevna looked at the pictures as her husband did, through her open fist or an opera-glass, and was surprised that the people in the pictures were like live people, and the trees like real trees. But she did not understand art, and it seemed to her that many pictures in the exhibition were alike, and she imagined that the whole object in painting was that the figures and objects should stand out as though they were real, when you looked at the picture through your open fist.
“That forest is Shiskin’s,” her husband explained to her. “He always paints the same thing. . . . But notice snow’s never such a lilac colour as that. . . . And that boy’s left arm is shorter than his right.”
When they were all tired and Laptev had gone to look for Kostya, that they might go home, Yulia stopped indifferently before a small landscape. In the foreground was a stream, over it a little wooden bridge; on the further side a path that disappeared in the dark grass; a field on the right; a copse; near it a camp fire–no doubt of watchers by night; and in the distance there was a glow of the evening sunset.
Yulia imagined walking herself along the little bridge, and then along the little path further and further, while all round was stillness, the drowsy landrails calling and the fire flickering in the distance. And for some reason she suddenly began to feel that she had seen those very clouds that stretched across the red part of the sky, and that copse, and that field before, many times before. She felt lonely, and longed to walk on and on along the path; and there, in the glow of sunset was the calm reflection of something unearthly, eternal.
“How finely that’s painted!” she said, surprised that the picture had suddenly become intelligible to her.
“Look, Alyosha! Do you see how peaceful it is?”
She began trying to explain why she liked the landscape so much, but neither Kostya nor her husband understood her. She kept looking at the picture with a mournful smile, and the fact that the others saw nothing special in it troubled her. Then she began walking through the rooms and looking at the pictures again. She tried to understand them and no longer thought that a great many of them were alike. When, on returning home, for the first time she looked attentively at the big picture that hung over the piano in the drawing-room, she felt a dislike for it, and said:
“What an idea to have pictures like that!”
And after that the gilt cornices, the Venetian looking-glasses with flowers on them, the pictures of the same sort as the one that hung over the piano, and also her husband’s and Kostya’s reflections upon art, aroused in her a feeling of dreariness and vexation, even of hatred.
Life went on its ordinary course from day to day with no promise of anything special. The theatrical season was over, the warm days had come. There was a long spell of glorious weather. One morning the Laptevs attended the district court to hear Kostya, who had been appointed by the court to defend some one. They were late in starting, and reached the court after the examination of the witnesses had begun. A soldier in the reserve was accused of theft and housebreaking. There were a great number of witnesses, washerwomen; they all testified that the accused was often in the house of their employer–a woman who kept a laundry. At the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross he came late in the evening and began asking for money; he wanted a pick-me-up, as he had been drinking, but no one gave him anything. Then he went away, but an hour afterwards he came back, and brought with him some beer and a soft gingerbread cake for the little girl. They drank and sang songs almost till daybreak, and when in the morning they looked about, the lock of the door leading up into the attic was broken, and of the linen three men’s shirts, a petticoat, and two sheets were missing. Kostya asked each witness sarcastically whether she had not drunk the beer the accused had brought. Evidently he was insinuating that the washerwomen had stolen the linen themselves. He delivered his speech without the slightest nervousness, looking angrily at the jury.
He explained what robbery with housebreaking meant, and the difference between that and simple theft. He spoke very circumstantially and convincingly, displaying an unusual talent for speaking at length and in a serious tone about what had been know to every one long before. And it was difficult to make out exactly what he was aiming at. From his long speech the foreman of the jury could only have deduced “that it was housebreaking but not robbery, as the washerwomen had sold the linen for drink themselves; or, if there had been robbery, there had not been housebreaking.” But obviously, he said just what was wanted, as his speech moved the jury and the audience, and was very much liked. When they gave a verdict of acquittal, Yulia nodded to Kostya, and afterwards pressed his hand warmly.
In May the Laptevs moved to a country villa at Sokolniki. By that time Yulia was expecting a baby.
More than a year had passed. Yulia and Yartsev were lying on the grass at Sokolniki not far from the embankment of the Yaroslav railway; a little distance away Kotchevoy was lying with hands under his head, looking at the sky. All three had been for a walk, and were waiting for the six o’clock train to pass to go home to tea.
“Mothers see something extraordinary in their children, that is ordained by nature,” said Yulia. “A mother will stand for hours together by the baby’s cot looking at its little ears and eyes and nose, and fascinated by them. If any one else kisses her baby the poor thing imagines that it gives him immense pleasure. And a mother talks of nothing but her baby. I know that weakness in mothers, and I keep watch over myself, but my Olga really is exceptional. How she looks at me when I’m nursing her! How she laughs! She’s only eight months old, but, upon my word, I’ve never seen such intelligent eyes in a child of three.”
“Tell me, by the way,” asked Yartsev: “which do you love most– your husband or your baby?”
Yulia shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I never was so very fond of my husband, and Olga is in reality my first love. You know that I did not marry Alexey for love. In old days I was foolish and miserable, and thought that I had ruined my life and his, and now I see that love is not necessary–that it is all nonsense.”
“But if it is not love, what feeling is it that binds you to your husband? Why do you go on living with him?”
“I don’t know. . . . I suppose it must be habit. I respect him, I miss him when he’s away for long, but that’s–not love. He is a clever, honest man, and that’s enough to make me happy. He is very kind and good-hearted. . . .”
“Alyosha’s intelligent, Alyosha’s good,” said Kostya, raising his head lazily; “but, my dear girl, to find out that he is intelligent, good, and interesting, you have to eat a hundredweight of salt with him. . . . And what’s the use of his goodness and intelligence? He can fork out money as much as you want, but when character is needed to resist insolence or aggressiveness, he is faint-hearted and overcome with nervousness. People like your amiable Alyosha are splendid people, but they are no use at all for fighting. In fact, they are no use for anything.”
At last the train came in sight. Coils of perfectly pink smoke from the funnels floated over the copse, and two windows in the last compartment flashed so brilliantly in the sun, that it hurt their eyes to look at it.
“Tea-time!” said Yulia Sergeyevna, getting up.
She had grown somewhat stouter of late, and her movements were already a little matronly, a little indolent.
“It’s bad to be without love though,” said Yartsev, walking behind her. “We talk and read of nothing else but love, but we do very little loving ourselves, and that’s really bad.”
“All that’s nonsense, Ivan Gavrilitch,” said Yulia. “That’s not what gives happiness.”
They had tea in the little garden, where mignonette, stocks, and tobacco plants were in flower, and spikes of early gladiolus were just opening. Yartsev and Kotchevoy could see from Yulia’s face that she was passing through a happy period of inward peace and serenity, that she wanted nothing but what she had, and they, too, had a feeling of peace and comfort in their hearts. Whatever was said sounded apt and clever; the pines were lovely–the fragrance of them was exquisite as it had never been before; and the cream was very nice; and Sasha was a good, intelligent child.
After tea Yartsev sang songs, accompanying himself on the piano, while Yulia and Kotchevoy sat listening in silence, though Yulia got up from time to time, and went softly indoors, to take a look at the baby and at Lida, who had been in bed for the last two days feverish and eating nothing.
“My friend, my tender friend,” sang Yartsev. “No, my friends, I’ll be hanged if I understand why you are all so against love!” he said, flinging back his head. “If I weren’t busy for fifteen hours of the twenty-four, I should certainly fall in love.”
Supper was served on the verandah; it was warm and still, but Yulia wrapped herself in a shawl and complained of the damp. When it got dark, she seemed not quite herself; she kept shivering and begging her visitors to stay a little longer. She regaled them with wine, and after supper ordered brandy to keep them from going. She didn’t want to be left alone with the children and the servants.
“We summer visitors are getting up a performance for the children,” she said. “We have got everything–a stage and actors; we are only at a loss for a play. Two dozen plays of different sorts have been sent us, but there isn’t one that is suitable. Now, you are fond of the theatre, and are so good at history,” she said, addressing Yartsev. “Write an historical play for us.”
“Well, I might.”
The men drank up all the brandy, and prepared to go.
It was past ten, and for summer-villa people that was late.
“How dark it is! One can’t see a bit,” said Yulia, as she went with them to the gate. “I don’t know how you’ll find your way. But, isn’t it cold?”
She wrapped herself up more closely and walked back to the porch.
“I suppose my Alexey’s playing cards somewhere,” she called to them. “Good-night!”
After the lighted rooms nothing could be seen. Yartsev and Kostya groped their way like blind men to the railway embankment and crossed it.
“One can’t see a thing,” said Kostya in his bass voice, standing still and gazing at the sky. “And the stars, the stars, they are like new three-penny-bits. Gavrilitch!”
“Ah?” Yartsev responded somewhere in the darkness.
“I say, one can’t see a thing. Where are you?”
Yartsev went up to him whistling, and took his arm.
“Hi, there, you summer visitors!” Kostya shouted at the top of his voice. “We’ve caught a socialist.”
When he was exhilarated he was always very rowdy, shouting, wrangling with policemen and cabdrivers, singing, and laughing violently.
“Nature be damned,” he shouted.
“Come, come,” said Yartsev, trying to pacify him. “You mustn’t. Please don’t.”
Soon the friends grew accustomed to the darkness, and were able to distinguish the outlines of the tall pines and telegraph posts. From time to time the sound of whistles reached them from the station and the telegraph wires hummed plaintively. From the copse itself there came no sound, and there was a feeling of pride, strength, and mystery in its silence, and on the right it seemed that the tops of the pines were almost touching the sky. The friends found their path and walked along it. There it was quite dark, and it was only from the long strip of sky dotted with stars, and from the firmly trodden earth under their feet, that they could tell they were walking along a path. They walked along side by side in silence, and it seemed to both of them that people were coming to meet them. Their tipsy exhilaration passed off. The fancy came into Yartsev’s mind that perhaps that copse was haunted by the spirits of the Muscovite Tsars, boyars, and patriarchs, and he was on the point of telling Kostya about it, but he checked himself.
When they reached the town gate there was a faint light of dawn in the sky. Still in silence, Yartsev and Kotchevoy walked along the wooden pavement, by the cheap summer cottages, eating-houses, timber-stacks. Under the arch of interlacing branches, the damp air was fragrant of lime-trees, and then a broad, long street opened before them, and on it not a soul, not a light. . . . When they reached the Red Pond, it was daylight.
“Moscow–it’s a town that will have to suffer a great deal more,” said Yartsev, looking at the Alexyevsky Monastery.
“What put that into your head?”
“I don’t know. I love Moscow.”
Both Yartsev and Kostya had been born in Moscow, and adored the town, and felt for some reason antagonistic to every other town. Both were convinced that Moscow was a remarkable town, and Russia a remarkable country. In the Crimea, in the Caucasus, and abroad, they felt dull, uncomfortable, and ill at ease, and they thought their grey Moscow weather very pleasant and healthy. And when the rain lashed at the window-panes and it got dark early, and when the walls of the churches and houses looked a drab, dismal colour, days when one doesn’t know what to put on when one is going out–such days excited them agreeably.
At last near the station they took a cab.
“It really would be nice to write an historical play,” said Yartsev, “but not about the Lyapunovs or the Godunovs, but of the times of Yaroslav or of Monomach. . . . I hate all historical plays except the monologue of Pimen. When you have to do with some historical authority or even read a textbook of Russian history, you feel that every one in Russia is exceptionally talented, gifted, and interesting; but when I see an historical play at the theatre, Russian life begins to seem stupid, morbid, and not original.”
Near Dmitrovka the friends separated, and Yartsev went on to his lodging in Nikitsky Street. He sat half dozing, swaying from side to side, and pondering on the play. He suddenly imagined a terrible din, a clanging noise, and shouts in some unknown language, that might have been Kalmuck, and a village wrapped in flames, and forests near covered with hoarfrost and soft pink in the glow of the fire, visible for miles around, and so clearly that every little fir-tree could be distinguished, and savage men darting about the village on horseback and on foot, and as red as the glow in the sky.
“The Polovtsy,” thought Yartsev.
One of them, a terrible old man with a bloodstained face all scorched from the fire, binds to his saddle a young girl with a white Russian face, and the girl looks sorrowful, understanding. Yartsev flung back his head and woke up.
“My friend, my tender friend . . .” he hummed.
As he paid the cabman and went up his stairs, he could not shake off his dreaminess; he saw the flames catching the village, and the forest beginning to crackle and smoke. A huge, wild bear frantic with terror rushed through the village. . . . And the girl tied to the saddle was still looking.
When at last he went into his room it was broad daylight. Two candles were burning by some open music on the piano. On the sofa lay Polina Razsudin wearing a black dress and a sash, with a newspaper in her hand, fast asleep. She must have been playing late, waiting for Yartsev to come home, and, tired of waiting, fell asleep.
“Hullo, she’s worn out,” he thought.
Carefully taking the newspaper out of her hands, he covered her with a rug. He put out the candles and went into his bedroom. As he got into bed, he still thought of his historical play, and the tune of “My friend, my tender friend” was still ringing in his head. . . .
Two days later Laptev looked in upon him for a moment to tell him that Lida was ill with diphtheria, and that Yulia Sergeyevna and her baby had caught it from her, and five days later came the news that Lida and Yulia were recovering, but the baby was dead, and that the Laptevs had left their villa at Sokolniki and had hastened back to Moscow.
It had become distasteful to Laptev to be long at home. His wife was constantly away in the lodge declaring that she had to look after the little girls, but he knew that she did not go to the lodge to give them lessons but to cry in Kostya’s room. The ninth day came, then the twentieth, and then the fortieth, and still he had to go to the cemetery to listen to the requiem, and then to wear himself out for a whole day and night thinking of nothing but that unhappy baby, and trying to comfort his wife with all sorts of commonplace expressions. He went rarely to the warehouse now, and spent most of his time in charitable work, seizing upon every pretext requiring his attention, and he was glad when he had for some trivial reason to be out for the whole day. He had been intending of late to go abroad, to study night-refuges, and that idea attracted him now.
It was an autumn day. Yulia had just gone to the lodge to cry, while Laptev lay on a sofa in the study thinking where he could go. Just at that moment Pyotr announced Polina Razsudin. Laptev was delighted; he leapt up and went to meet the unexpected visitor, who had been his closest friend, though he had almost begun to forget her. She had not changed in the least since that evening when he had seen her for the last time, and was just the same as ever.
“Polina,” he said, holding out both hands to her. “What ages! If you only knew how glad I am to see you! Do come in!”
Polina greeted him, jerked him by the hand, and without taking off her coat and hat, went into the study and sat down.
“I’ve come to you for one minute,” she said. “I haven’t time to talk of any nonsense. Sit down and listen. Whether you are glad to see me or not is absolutely nothing to me, for I don’t care a straw for the gracious attentions of you lords of creation. I’ve only come to you because I’ve been to five other places already to-day, and everywhere I was met with a refusal, and it’s a matter that can’t be put off. Listen,” she went on, looking into his face. “Five students of my acquaintance, stupid, unintelligent people, but certainly poor, have neglected to pay their fees, and are being excluded from the university. Your wealth makes it your duty to go straight to the university and pay for them.”
“With pleasure, Polina.”
“Here are their names,” she said, giving him a list. “Go this minute; you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy your domestic happiness afterwards.”
At that moment a rustle was heard through the door that led into the drawing-room; probably the dog was scratching itself. Polina turned crimson and jumped up.
“Your Dulcinea’s eavesdropping,” she said. “That’s horrid!”
Laptev was offended at this insult to Yulia.
“She’s not here; she’s in the lodge,” he said. “And don’t speak of her like that. Our child is dead, and she is in great distress.”
“You can console her,” Polina scoffed, sitting down again; “she’ll have another dozen. You don’t need much sense to bring children into the world.”
Laptev remembered that he had heard this, or something very like it, many times in old days, and it brought back a whiff of the romance of the past, of solitary freedom, of his bachelor life, when he was young and thought he could do anything he chose, when he had neither love for his wife nor memory of his baby.
“Let us go together,” he said, stretching.
When they reached the university Polina waited at the gate, while Laptev went into the office; he came back soon afterwards and handed Polina five receipts.
“Where are you going now?” he asked.
“I’ll come with you.”
“But you’ll prevent him from writing.”
“No, I assure you I won’t,” he said, and looked at her imploringly.
She had on a black hat trimmed with crape, as though she were in mourning, and a short, shabby coat, the pockets of which stuck out. Her nose looked longer than it used to be, and her face looked bloodless in spite of the cold. Laptev liked walking with her, doing what she told him, and listening to her grumbling. He walked along thinking about her, what inward strength there must be in this woman, since, though she was so ugly, so angular, so restless, though she did not know how to dress, and always had untidy hair, and was always somehow out of harmony, she was yet so fascinating.
They went into Yartsev’s flat by the back way through the kitchen, where they were met by the cook, a clean little old woman with grey curls; she was overcome with embarrassment, and with a honeyed smile which made her little face look like a pie, said:
“Please walk in.”
Yartsev was not at home. Polina sat down to the piano, and beginning upon a tedious, difficult exercise, told Laptev not to hinder her. And without distracting her attention by conversation, he sat on one side and began turning over the pages of a “The Messenger of Europe.” After practising for two hours–it was the task she set herself every day–she ate something in the kitchen and went out to her lessons. Laptev read the continuation of a story, then sat for a long time without reading and without being bored, glad to think that he was too late for dinner at home.
“Ha, ha, ha!” came Yartsev’s laugh, and he walked in with ruddy cheeks, looking strong and healthy, wearing a new coat with bright buttons. “Ha, ha, ha!”
The friends dined together. Then Laptev lay on the sofa while Yartsev sat near and lighted a cigar. It got dark.
“I must be getting old,” said Laptev. “Ever since my sister Nina died, I’ve taken to constantly thinking of death.”
They began talking of death, of the immortality of the soul, of how nice it would be to rise again and fly off somewhere to Mars, to be always idle and happy, and, above all, to think in a new special way, not as on earth.
“One doesn’t want to die,” said Yartsev softly. “No sort of philosophy can reconcile me to death, and I look on it simply as annihilation. One wants to live.”
“You love life, Gavrilitch?”
“Yes, I love it.”
“Do you know, I can never understand myself about that. I’m always in a gloomy mood or else indifferent. I’m timid, without self-confidence; I have a cowardly conscience; I never can adapt myself to life, or become its master. Some people talk nonsense or cheat, and even so enjoy life, while I consciously do good, and feel nothing but uneasiness or complete indifference. I explain all that, Gavrilitch, by my being a slave, the grandson of a serf. Before we plebeians fight our way into the true path, many of our sort will perish on the way.”
“That’s all quite right, my dear fellow,” said Yartsev, and he sighed. “That only proves once again how rich and varied Russian life is. Ah, how rich it is! Do you know, I feel more convinced every day that we are on the eve of the greatest triumph, and I should like to live to take part in it. Whether you like to believe it or not, to my thinking a remarkable generation is growing up. It gives me great enjoyment to teach the children, especially the girls. They are wonderful children!”
Yartsev went to the piano and struck a chord.
“I’m a chemist, I think in chemical terms, and I shall die a chemist,” he went on. “But I am greedy, and I am afraid of dying unsatisfied; and chemistry is not enough for me, and I seize upon Russian history, history of art, the science of teaching music. . . . Your wife asked me in the summer to write an historical play, and now I’m longing to write and write. I feel as though I could sit for three days and three nights without moving, writing all the time. I am worn out with ideas–my brain’s crowded with them, and I feel as though there were a pulse throbbing in my head. I don’t in the least want to become anything special, to create something great. I simply want to live, to dream, to hope, to be in the midst of everything . . . . Life is short, my dear fellow, and one must make the most of everything.”
After this friendly talk, which was not over till midnight, Laptev took to coming to see Yartsev almost every day. He felt drawn to him. As a rule he came towards evening, lay down on the sofa, and waited patiently for Yartsev to come in, without feeling in the least bored. When Yartsev came back from his work, he had dinner, and sat down to work; but Laptev would ask him a question, a conversation would spring up, and there was no more thought of work and at midnight the friends parted very well pleased with one another.
But this did not last long. Arriving one day at Yartsev’s, Laptev found no one there but Polina, who was sitting at the piano practising her exercises. She looked at him with a cold, almost hostile expression, and asked without shaking hands:
“Tell me, please: how much longer is this going on?”
“This? What?” asked Laptev, not understanding.
“You come here every day and hinder Yartsev from working. Yartsev is not a tradesman; he is a scientific man, and every moment of his life is precious. You ought to understand and to have some little delicacy!”
“If you think that I hinder him,” said Laptev, mildly, disconcerted, “I will give up my visits.”
“Quite right, too. You had better go, or he may be home in a minute and find you here.”
The tone in which this was said, and the indifference in Polina’s eyes, completely disconcerted him. She had absolutely no sort of feeling for him now, except the desire that he should go as soon as possible–and what a contrast it was to her old love for him! He went out without shaking hands with her, and he fancied she would call out to him, bring him back, but he heard the scales again, and as he slowly went down the stairs he realised that he had become a stranger to her now.
Three days later Yartsev came to spend the evening with him.
“I have news,” he said, laughing. “Polina Nikolaevna has moved into my rooms altogether.” He was a little confused, and went on in a low voice: “Well, we are not in love with each other, of course, but I suppose that . . . that doesn’t matter. I am glad I can give her a refuge and peace and quiet, and make it possible for her not to work if she’s ill. She fancies that her coming to live with me will make things more orderly, and that under her influence I shall become a great scientist. That’s what she fancies. And let her fancy it. In the South they have a saying: ‘Fancy makes the fool a rich man.’ Ha, ha, ha!”
Laptev said nothing. Yartsev walked up and down the study, looking at the pictures he had seen so many times before, and said with a sigh:
“Yes, my dear fellow, I am three years older than you are, and it’s too late for me to think of real love, and in reality a woman like Polina Nikolaevna is a godsend to me, and, of course, I shall get on capitally with her till we’re both old people; but, goodness knows why, one still regrets something, one still longs for something, and I still feel as though I am lying in the Vale of Daghestan and dreaming of a ball. In short, man’s never satisfied with what he has.”
He went into the drawing-room and began singing as though nothing had happened, and Laptev sat in his study with his eyes shut, and tried to understand why Polina had gone to live with Yartsev. And then he felt sad that there were no lasting, permanent attachments. And he felt vexed that Polina Nikolaevna had gone to live with Yartsev, and vexed with himself that his feeling for his wife was not what it had been.
Laptev sat reading and swaying to and fro in a rocking-chair; Yulia was in the study, and she, too, was reading. It seemed there was nothing to talk about; they had both been silent all day. From time to time he looked at her from over his book and thought: “Whether one marries from passionate love, or without love at all, doesn’t it come to the same thing?” And the time when he used to be jealous, troubled, distressed, seemed to him far away. He had succeeded in going abroad, and now he was resting after the journey and looking forward to another visit in the spring to England, which he had very much liked.
And Yulia Sergeyevna had grown used to her sorrow, and had left off going to the lodge to cry. That winter she had given up driving out shopping, had given up the theatres and concerts, and had stayed at home. She never cared for big rooms, and always sat in her husband’s study or in her own room, where she had shrines of ikons that had come to her on her marriage, and where there hung on the wall the landscape that had pleased her so much at the exhibition. She spent hardly any money on herself, and was almost as frugal now as she had been in her father’s house.
The winter passed cheerlessly. Card-playing was the rule everywhere in Moscow, and if any other recreation was attempted, such as singing, reading, drawing, the result was even more tedious. And since there were few talented people in Moscow, and the same singers and reciters performed at every entertainment, even the enjoyment of art gradually palled and became for many people a tiresome and monotonous social duty.
Moreover, the Laptevs never had a day without something vexatious happening. Old Laptev’s eyesight was failing; he no longer went to the warehouse, and the oculist told them that he would soon be blind. Fyodor had for some reason given up going to the warehouse and spent his time sitting at home writing something. Panaurov had got a post in another town, and had been promoted an actual civil councillor, and was now staying at the Dresden. He came to the Laptevs’ almost every day to ask for money. Kish had finished his studies at last, and while waiting for Laptev to find him a job, used to spend whole days at a time with them, telling them long, tedious stories. All this was irritating and exhausting, and made daily life unpleasant.
Pyotr came into the study, and announced an unknown lady. On the card he brought in was the name “Josephina Iosefovna Milan.”
Yulia Sergeyevna got up languidly and went out limping slightly, as her foot had gone to sleep. In the doorway appeared a pale, thin lady with dark eyebrows, dressed altogether in black. She clasped her hands on her bosom and said supplicatingly:
“M. Laptev, save my children!”
The jingle of her bracelets sounded familiar to him, and he knew the face with patches of powder on it; he recognised her as the lady with whom he had once so inappropriately dined before his marriage. It was Panaurov’s second wife.
“Save my children,” she repeated, and her face suddenly quivered and looked old and pitiful. “You alone can save us, and I have spent my last penny coming to Moscow to see you! My children are starving!”
She made a motion as though she were going to fall on her knees. Laptev was alarmed, and clutched her by the arm.
“Sit down, sit down . . .” he muttered, making her sit down. “I beg you to be seated.”
“We have no money to buy bread,” she said. “Grigory Nikolaevitch is going away to a new post, but he will not take the children and me with him, and the money which you so generously send us he spends only on himself. What are we to do? What? My poor, unhappy children!”
“Calm yourself, I beg. I will give orders that that money shall be made payable to you.”
She began sobbing, and then grew calmer, and he noticed that the tears had made little pathways through the powder on her cheeks, and that she was growing a moustache.
“You are infinitely generous, M. Laptev. But be our guardian angel, our good fairy, persuade Grigory Nikolaevitch not to abandon me, but to take me with him. You know I love him–I love him insanely; he’s the comfort of my life.”
Laptev gave her a hundred roubles, and promised to talk to Panaurov, and saw her out to the hall in trepidation the whole time, for fear she should break into sobs or fall on her knees.
After her, Kish made his appearance. Then Kostya came in with his photographic apparatus. Of late he had been attracted by photography and took photographs of every one in the house several times a day. This new pursuit caused him many disappointments, and he had actually grown thinner.
Before evening tea Fyodor arrived. Sitting in a corner in the study, he opened a book and stared for a long time at a page, obviously not reading. Then he spent a long time drinking tea; his face turned red. In his presence Laptev felt a load on his heart; even his silence was irksome to him.
“Russia may be congratulated on the appearance of a new author,” said Fyodor. “Joking apart, though, brother, I have turned out a little article–the firstfruits of my pen, so to say–and I’ve brought it to show you. Read it, dear boy, and tell me your opinion –but sincerely.”
He took a manuscript out of his pocket and gave it to his brother. The article was called “The Russian Soul”; it was written tediously, in the colourless style in which people with no talent, but full of secret vanity, usually write. The leading idea of it was that the intellectual man has the right to disbelieve in the supernatural, but it is his duty to conceal his lack of faith, that he may not be a stumbling-block and shake the faith of others. Without faith there is no idealism, and idealism is destined to save Europe and guide humanity into the true path.
“But you don’t say what Europe has to be saved from,” said Laptev.
“That’s intelligible of itself.”
“Nothing is intelligible,” said Laptev, and he walked about the room in agitation. “It’s not intelligible to me why you wrote it. But that’s your business.”
“I want to publish it in pamphlet form.”
“That’s your affair.”
They were silent for a minute. Fyodor sighed and said:
“It’s an immense regret to me, dear brother, that we think differently. Oh, Alyosha, Alyosha, my darling brother! You and I are true Russians, true believers, men of broad nature; all of these German and Jewish crochets are not for us. You and I are not wretched upstarts, you know, but representatives of a distinguished merchant family.”
“What do you mean by a distinguished family?” said Laptev, restraining his irritation. “A distinguished family! The landowners beat our grandfather and every low little government clerk punched him in the face. Our grandfather thrashed our father, and our father thrashed us. What has your distinguished family done for us? What sort of nerves, what sort of blood, have we inherited? For nearly three years you’ve been arguing like an ignorant deacon, and talking all sorts of nonsense, and now you’ve written–this slavish drivel here! While I, while I! Look at me. . . . No elasticity, no boldness, no strength of will; I tremble over every step I take as though I should be flogged for it. I am timid before nonentities, idiots, brutes, who are immeasurably my inferiors mentally and morally; I am afraid of porters, doorkeepers, policemen, gendarmes. I am afraid of every one, because I was born of a mother who was terrified, and because from a child I was beaten and frightened! . . . You and I will do well to have no children. Oh, God, grant that this distinguished merchant family may die with us!”
Yulia Sergeyevna came into the study and sat down at the table.
“Are you arguing about something here?” she asked. “Am I interrupting?”
“No, little sister,” answered Fyodor. “Our discussion was of principles. Here, you are abusing the family,” he added, turning to his brother. “That family has created a business worth a million, though. That stands for something, anyway!”
“A great distinction–a business worth a million! A man with no particular brains, without abilities, by chance becomes a trader, and then when he has grown rich he goes on trading from day to day, with no sort of system, with no aim, without having any particular greed for money. He trades mechanically, and money comes to him of itself, without his going to meet it. He sits all his life at his work, likes it only because he can domineer over his clerks and get the better of his customers. He’s a churchwarden because he can domineer over the choristers and keep them under his thumb; he’s the patron of a school because he likes to feel the teacher is his subordinate and enjoys lording it over him. The merchant does not love trading, he loves dominating, and your warehouse is not so much a commercial establishment as a torture chamber! And for a business like yours, you want clerks who have been deprived of individual character and personal life–and you make them such by forcing them in childhood to lick the dust for a crust of bread, and you’ve trained them from childhood to believe that you are their benefactors. No fear of your taking a university man into your warehouse!”
“University men are not suitable for our business.”
“That’s not true,” cried Laptev. “It’s a lie!”
“Excuse me, it seems to me you spit into the well from which you drink yourself,” said Fyodor, and he got up. “Our business is hateful to you, yet you make use of the income from it.”
“Aha! We’ve spoken our minds,” said Laptev, and he laughed, looking angrily at his brother. “Yes, if I didn’t belong to your distinguished family–if I had an ounce of will and courage, I should long ago have flung away that income, and have gone to work for my living. But in your warehouse you’ve destroyed all character in me from a child! I’m your product.”
Fyodor looked at the clock and began hurriedly saying good-bye. He kissed Yulia’s hand and went out, but instead of going into the hall, walked into the drawing-room, then into the bedroom.
“I’ve forgotten how the rooms go,” he said in extreme confusion. “It’s a strange house. Isn’t it a strange house!”
He seemed utterly overcome as he put on his coat, and there was a look of pain on his face. Laptev felt no more anger; he was frightened, and at the same time felt sorry for Fyodor, and the warm, true love for his brother, which seemed to have died down in his heart during those three years, awoke, and he felt an intense desire to express that love.
“Come to dinner with us to-morrow, Fyodor,” he said, and stroked him on the shoulder. “Will you come?”
“Yes, yes; but give me some water.”
Laptev ran himself to the dining-room to take the first thing he could get from the sideboard. This was a tall beer-jug. He poured water into it and brought it to his brother. Fyodor began drinking, but bit a piece out of the jug; they heard a crunch, and then sobs. The water ran over his fur coat and his jacket, and Laptev, who had never seen men cry, stood in confusion and dismay, not knowing what to do. He looked on helplessly while Yulia and the servant took off Fyodor’s coat and helped him back again into the room, and went with him, feeling guilty.
Yulia made Fyodor lie down on the sofa and knelt beside him.
“It’s nothing,” she said, trying to comfort him. “It’s your nerves. . . .”
“I’m so miserable, my dear!” he said. “I am so unhappy, unhappy . . . but all the time I’ve been hiding it, I’ve been hiding it!”
He put his arm round her neck and whispered in her ear:
“Every night I see my sister Nina. She comes and sits in the chair near my bed. . . .”
When, an hour later, he put on his fur coat in the hall, he was smiling again and ashamed to face the servant. Laptev went with him to Pyatnitsky Street.
“Come and have dinner with us to-morrow,” he said on the way, holding him by the arm, “and at Easter we’ll go abroad together. You absolutely must have a change, or you’ll be getting quite morbid.”
When he got home Laptev found his wife in a state of great nervous agitation. The scene with Fyodor had upset her, and she could not recover her composure. She wasn’t crying but kept tossing on the bed, clutching with cold fingers at the quilt, at the pillows, at her husband’s hands. Her eyes looked big and frightened.
“Don’t go away from me, don’t go away,” she said to her husband. “Tell me, Alyosha, why have I left off saying my prayers? What has become of my faith? Oh, why did you talk of religion before me? You’ve shaken my faith, you and your friends. I never pray now.”
He put compresses on her forehead, chafed her hands, gave her tea to drink, while she huddled up to him in terror. . . .
Towards morning she was worn out and fell asleep, while Laptev sat beside her and held her hand. So that he could get no sleep. The whole day afterwards he felt shattered and dull, and wandered listlessly about the rooms without a thought in his head.
The doctor said that Fyodor’s mind was affected. Laptev did not know what to do in his father’s house, while the dark warehouse in which neither his father nor Fyodor ever appeared now seemed to him like a sepulchre. When his wife told him that he absolutely must go every day to the warehouse and also to his father’s, he either said nothing, or began talking irritably of his childhood, saying that it was beyond his power to forgive his father for his past, that the warehouse and the house in Pyatnitsky Street were hateful to him, and so on.
One Sunday morning Yulia went herself to Pyatnitsky Street. She found old Fyodor Stepanovitch in the same big drawing-room in which the service had been held on her first arrival. Wearing slippers, and without a cravat, he was sitting motionless in his arm-chair, blinking with his sightless eyes.
“It’s I–your daughter-in-law,” she said, going up to him. “I’ve come to see how you are.”
He began breathing heavily with excitement.
Touched by his affliction and his loneliness, she kissed his hand; and he passed his hand over her face and head, and having satisfied himself that it was she, made the sign of the cross over her.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said. “You know I’ve lost my eyes and can see nothing. . . . I can dimly see the window and the fire, but people and things I cannot see at all. Yes, I’m going blind, and Fyodor has fallen ill, and without the master’s eye things are in a bad way now. If there is any irregularity there’s no one to look into it; and folks soon get spoiled. And why is it Fyodor has fallen ill? Did he catch cold? Here I have never ailed in my life and never taken medicine. I never saw anything of doctors.”
And, as he always did, the old man began boasting. Meanwhile the servants hurriedly laid the table and brought in lunch and bottles of wine.
Ten bottles were put on the table; one of them was in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. There was a whole dish of hot pies smelling of jam, rice, and fish.
“I beg my dear guest to have lunch,” said the old man.
She took him by the arm, led him to the table, and poured him out a glass of vodka.
“I will come to you again to-morrow,” she said, “and I’ll bring your grandchildren, Sasha and Lida. They will be sorry for you, and fondle you.”
“There’s no need. Don’t bring them. They are illegitimate.”
“Why are they illegitimate? Why, their father and mother were married.”
“Without my permission. I do not bless them, and I don’t want to know them. Let them be.”
“You speak strangely, Fyodor Stepanovitch,” said Yulia, with a sigh.
“It is written in the Gospel: children must fear and honour their parents.”
“Nothing of the sort. The Gospel tells us that we must forgive even our enemies.”
“One can’t forgive in our business. If you were to forgive every one, you would come to ruin in three years.”
“But to forgive, to say a kind, friendly word to any one, even a sinner, is something far above business, far above wealth.”
Yulia longed to soften the old man, to awaken a feeling of compassion in him, to move him to repentance; but he only listened condescendingly to all she said, as a grown-up person listens to a child.
“Fyodor Stepanovitch,” said Yulia resolutely, “you are an old man, and God soon will call you to Himself. He won’t ask you how you managed your business, and whether you were successful in it, but whether you were gracious to people; or whether you were harsh to those who were weaker than you, such as your servants, your clerks.”
“I was always the benefactor of those that served me; they ought to remember me in their prayers forever,” said the old man, with conviction, but touched by Yulia’s tone of sincerity, and anxious to give her pleasure, he said: “Very well; bring my grandchildren to-morrow. I will tell them to buy me some little presents for them.”
The old man was slovenly in his dress, and there was cigar ash on his breast and on his knees; apparently no one cleaned his boots, or brushed his clothes. The rice in the pies was half cooked, the tablecloth smelt of soap, the servants tramped noisily about the room. And the old man and the whole house had a neglected look, and Yulia, who felt this, was ashamed of herself and of her husband.
“I will be sure to come and see you to-morrow,” she said.
She walked through the rooms, and gave orders for the old man’s bedroom to be set to rights, and the lamp to be lighted under the ikons in it. Fyodor, sitting in his own room, was looking at an open book without reading it. Yulia talked to him and told the servants to tidy his room, too; then she went downstairs to the clerks. In the middle of the room where the clerks used to dine, there was an unpainted wooden post to support the ceiling and to prevent its coming down. The ceilings in the basement were low, the walls covered with cheap paper, and there was a smell of charcoal fumes and cooking. As it was a holiday, all the clerks were at home, sitting on their bedsteads waiting for dinner. When Yulia went in they jumped up, and answered her questions timidly, looking up at her from under their brows like convicts.
“Good heavens! What a horrid room you have!” she said, throwing up her hands. “Aren’t you crowded here?”
“Crowded, but not aggrieved,” said Makeitchev. “We are greatly indebted to you, and will offer up our prayers for you to our Heavenly Father.”
“The congruity of life with the conceit of the personality,” said Potchatkin.
And noticing that Yulia did not understand Potchatkin, Makeitchev hastened to explain:
“We are humble people and must live according to our position.”
She inspected the boys’ quarters, and then the kitchen, made acquaintance with the housekeeper, and was thoroughly dissatisfied.
When she got home she said to her husband:
“We ought to move into your father’s house and settle there for good as soon as possible. And you will go every day to the warehouse.”
Then they both sat side by side in the study without speaking. His heart was heavy, and he did not want to move into Pyatnitsky Street or to go into the warehouse; but he guessed what his wife was thinking, and could not oppose her. He stroked her cheek and said:
“I feel as though our life is already over, and that a grey half-life is beginning for us. When I knew that my brother Fyodor was hopelessly ill, I shed tears; we spent our childhood and youth together, when I loved him with my whole soul. And now this catastrophe has come, and it seems, too, as though, losing him, I am finally cut away from my past. And when you said just now that we must move into the house in Pyatnitsky Street, to that prison, it began to seem to me that there was no future for me either.”
He got up and walked to the window.
“However that may be, one has to give up all thoughts of happiness,” he said, looking out into the street. “There is none. I never have had any, and I suppose it doesn’t exist at all. I was happy once in my life, though, when I sat at night under your parasol. Do you remember how you left your parasol at Nina’s?” he asked, turning to his wife. “I was in love with you then, and I remember I spent all night sitting under your parasol, and was perfectly blissful.”
Near the book-case in the study stood a mahogany chest with bronze fittings where Laptev kept various useless things, including the parasol. He took it out and handed it to his wife.
“Here it is.”
Yulia looked for a minute at the parasol, recognised it, and smiled mournfully.
“I remember,” she said. “When you proposed to me you held it in your hand.” And seeing that he was preparing to go out, she said: “Please come back early if you can. I am dull without you.”
And then she went into her own room, and gazed for a long time at the parasol.
In spite of the complexity of the business and the immense turnover, there were no bookkeepers in the warehouse, and it was impossible to make anything out of the books kept by the cashier in the office. Every day the warehouse was visited by agents, German and English, with whom the clerks talked politics and religion. A man of noble birth, ruined by drink, an ailing, pitiable creature, used to come to translate the foreign correspondence in the office; the clerks used to call him a midge, and put salt in his tea. And altogether the whole concern struck Laptev as a very queer business.
He went to the warehouse every day and tried to establish a new order of things; he forbade them to thrash the boys and to jeer at the buyers, and was violently angry when the clerks gleefully despatched to the provinces worthless shop-soiled goods as though they were new and fashionable. Now he was the chief person in the warehouse, but still, as before, he did not know how large his fortune was, whether his business was doing well, how much the senior clerks were paid, and so on. Potchatkin and Makeitchev looked upon him as young and inexperienced, concealed a great deal from him, and whispered mysteriously every evening with his blind old father.
It somehow happened at the beginning of June that Laptev went into the Bubnovsky restaurant with Potchatkin to talk business with him over lunch. Potchatkin had been with the Laptevs a long while, and had entered their service at eight years old. He seemed to belong to them–they trusted him fully; and when on leaving the warehouse he gathered up all the takings from the till and thrust them into his pocket, it never aroused the slightest suspicion. He was the head man in the business and in the house, and also in the church, where he performed the duties of churchwarden in place of his old master. He was nicknamed Malyuta Skuratov on account of his cruel treatment of the boys and clerks under him.
When they went into the restaurant he nodded to a waiter and said:
“Bring us, my lad, half a bodkin and twenty-four unsavouries.”
After a brief pause the waiter brought on a tray half a bottle of vodka and some plates of various kinds of savouries.
“Look here, my good fellow,” said Potchatkin. “Give us a plateful of the source of all slander and evil-speaking, with mashed potatoes.”
The waiter did not understand; he was puzzled, and would have said something, but Potchatkin looked at him sternly and said:
The waiter thought intently, then went to consult with his colleagues, and in the end guessing what was meant, brought a plateful of tongue. When they had drunk a couple of glasses and had had lunch, Laptev asked:
“Tell me, Ivan Vassilitch, is it true that our business has been dropping off for the last year?”
“Not a bit of it.”
“Tell me frankly and honestly what income we have been making and are making, and what our profits are. We can’t go on in the dark. We had a balancing of the accounts at the warehouse lately, but, excuse me, I don’t believe in it; you think fit to conceal something from me and only tell the truth to my father. You have been used to being diplomatic from your childhood, and now you can’t get on without it. And what’s the use of it? So I beg you to be open. What is our position?”
“It all depends upon the fluctuation of credit,” Potchatkin answered after a moment’s pause.
“What do you understand by the fluctuation of credit?”
Potchatkin began explaining, but Laptev could make nothing of it, and sent for Makeitchev. The latter promptly made his appearance, had some lunch after saying grace, and in his sedate, mellow baritone began saying first of all that the clerks were in duty bound to pray night and day for their benefactors.
“By all means, only allow me not to consider myself your benefactor,” said Laptev.
“Every man ought to remember what he is, and to be conscious of his station. By the grace of God you are a father and benefactor to us, and we are your slaves.”
“I am sick of all that!” said Laptev, getting angry. “Please be a benefactor to me now. Please explain the position of our business. Give up looking upon me as a boy, or to-morrow I shall close the business. My father is blind, my brother is in the asylum, my nieces are only children. I hate the business; I should be glad to go away, but there’s no one to take my place, as you know. For goodness’ sake, drop your diplomacy!”
They went to the warehouse to go into the accounts; then they went on with them at home in the evening, the old father himself assisting. Initiating his son into his commercial secrets, the old man spoke as though he were engaged, not in trade, but in sorcery. It appeared that the profits of the business were increasing approximately ten per cent. per annum, and that the Laptevs’ fortune, reckoning only money and paper securities, amounted to six million roubles.
When at one o’clock at night, after balancing the accounts, Laptev went out into the open air, he was still under the spell of those figures. It was a still, sultry, moonlight night. The white walls of the houses beyond the river, the heavy barred gates, the stillness and the black shadows, combined to give the impression of a fortress, and nothing was wanting to complete the picture but a sentinel with a gun. Laptev went into the garden and sat down on a seat near the fence, which divided them from the neighbour’s yard, where there was a garden, too. The bird-cherry was in bloom. Laptev remembered that the tree had been just as gnarled and just as big when he was a child, and had not changed at all since then. Every corner of the garden and of the yard recalled the far-away past. And in his childhood, too, just as now, the whole yard bathed in moonlight could be seen through the sparse trees, the shadows had been mysterious and forbidding, a black dog had lain in the middle of the yard, and the clerks’ windows had stood wide open. And all these were cheerless memories.
The other side of the fence, in the neighbour’s yard, there was a sound of light steps.
“My sweet, my precious . . .” said a man’s voice so near the fence that Laptev could hear the man’s breathing.
Now they were kissing. Laptev was convinced that the millions and the business which was so distasteful to him were ruining his life, and would make him a complete slave. He imagined how, little by little, he would grow accustomed to his position; would, little by little, enter into the part of the head of a great firm; would begin to grow dull and old, die in the end, as the average man usually does die, in a decrepit, soured old age, making every one about him miserable and depressed. But what hindered him from giving up those millions and that business, and leaving that yard and garden which had been hateful to him from his childhood?
The whispering and kisses the other side of the fence disturbed him. He moved into the middle of the yard, and, unbuttoning his shirt over his chest, looked at the moon, and it seemed to him that he would order the gate to be unlocked, and would go out and never come back again. His heart ached sweetly with the foretaste of freedom; he laughed joyously, and pictured how exquisite, poetical, and even holy, life might be. . . .
But he still stood and did not go away, and kept asking himself: “What keeps me here?” And he felt angry with himself and with the black dog, which still lay stretched on the stone yard, instead of running off to the open country, to the woods, where it would have been free and happy. It was clear that that dog and he were prevented from leaving the yard by the same thing; the habit of bondage, of servitude. . . .
At midday next morning he went to see his wife, and that he might not be dull, asked Yartsev to go with him. Yulia Sergeyevna was staying in a summer villa at Butovo, and he had not been to see her for five days. When they reached the station the friends got into a carriage, and all the way there Yartsev was singing and in raptures over the exquisite weather. The villa was in a great park not far from the station. At the beginning of an avenue, about twenty paces from the gates, Yulia Sergeyevna was sitting under a broad, spreading poplar, waiting for her guests. She had on a light, elegant dress of a pale cream colour trimmed with lace, and in her hand she had the old familiar parasol. Yartsev greeted her and went on to the villa from which came the sound of Sasha’s and Lida’s voices, while Laptev sat down beside her to talk of business matters.
“Why is it you haven’t been for so long?” she said, keeping his hand in hers. “I have been sitting here for days watching for you to come. I miss you so when you are away!”
She stood up and passed her hand over his hair, and scanned his face, his shoulders, his hat, with interest.
“You know I love you,” she said, and flushed crimson. “You are precious to me. Here you’ve come. I see you, and I’m so happy I can’t tell you. Well, let us talk. Tell me something.”
She had told him she loved him, and he could only feel as though he had been married to her for ten years, and that he was hungry for his lunch. She had put her arm round his neck, tickling his cheek with the silk of her dress; he cautiously removed her hand, stood up, and without uttering a single word, walked to the villa. The little girls ran to meet him.
“How they have grown!” he thought. “And what changes in these three years. . . . But one may have to live another thirteen years, another thirty years. . . . What is there in store for us in the future? If we live, we shall see.”
He embraced Sasha and Lida, who hung upon his neck, and said:
“Grandpapa sends his love. . . . Uncle Fyodor is dying. Uncle Kostya has sent a letter from America and sends you his love in it. He’s bored at the exhibition and will soon be back. And Uncle Alyosha is hungry.”
Then he sat on the verandah and saw his wife walking slowly along the avenue towards the house. She was deep in thought; there was a mournful, charming expression in her face, and her eyes were bright with tears. She was not now the slender, fragile, pale-faced girl she used to be; she was a mature, beautiful, vigorous woman. And Laptev saw the enthusiasm with which Yartsev looked at her when he met her, and the way her new, lovely expression was reflected in his face, which looked mournful and ecstatic too. One would have thought that he was seeing her for the first time in his life. And while they were at lunch on the verandah, Yartsev smiled with a sort of joyous shyness, and kept gazing at Yulia and at her beautiful neck. Laptev could not help watching them while he thought that he had perhaps another thirteen, another thirty years of life before him. . . . And what would he have to live through in that time? What is in store for us in the future?
And he thought:
“Let us live, and we shall see.”