A House of Gentlefolk/Chapter XXV
When Lavretsky reached home, he was met at the door of the drawing-room by a tall, thin man, in a thread-bare blue coat, with a wrinkled, but lively face, with disheveled grey whiskers, a long straight nose, and small fiery eyes. This was Mihalevitch, who had been his friend at the university. Lavretsky did not at first recognise him, but embraced him warmly directly he told his name.
They had not met since their Moscow days. Torrents of exclamations and questions followed; long-buried recollections were brought to light. Hurriedly smoking pipe after pipe, tossing off tea at a gulp, and gesticulating with his long hands, Mihalevitch related his adventures to Lavretsky; there was nothing very inspiriting in them, he could not boast of success in his undertakings--but he was constantly laughing a hoarse, nervous laugh. A month previously he had received a position in the private counting-house of a spirit-tax contractor, two hundred and fifty miles from the town of O-----, and hearing of Lavretsky returned from abroad he had turned out of his way so as to see his old friend. Mihalevitch and talked as impetuously as in his youth; made as much noise and was as effervescent as of old. Lavretsky was about to acquaint him with his new position, but Mihalevitch interrupted him, muttering hurriedly, "I have heard, my dear fellow, I have heard--who could have anticipated it?" and at once turned the conversation upon general subjects.
"I must set off to-morrow, my dear fellow," he observed; "to-day if you will excuse it, we will sit up late. I want above all to know what you are like, what are your views and convictions, what you have become, what life has taught you." (Mihalevitch still preserved the phraseology of 1830.) "As for me, I have changed in much; the waves of life have broken over my breast--who was it said that?--though in what is important, essential I have not changed; I believe as of old in the good, the true: but I do not only believe--I have faith now, yes, I have faith, faith. Listen, you know I write verses; there is no poetry in them, but there is truth. I will read you aloud my last poem; I have expressed my truest convictions in it. Listen." Mihalevitch fell to reading his poem: it was rather long, and ended with the following lines:
"I gave myself to new feelings with all my heart, And my soul became as a child's! And I have burnt all I adored And now adore all that I burnt."
As he uttered the two last lines, Mihalevitch all but shed tears; a slight spasm--the sign of deep emotion--passed over his wide mouth, his ugly face lighted up. Lavretsky listened, and listened to him--and the spirit of antagonism was aroused in him; he was irritated by the ever-ready enthusiasm of the Moscow student, perpetually at boiling-point. Before a quarter of an hour had elapsed a heated argument had broken out between them, one of these endless arguments, of which only Russians are capable. After a separation of many years spent in two different worlds, with no clear understanding of the other's ideas or even of their own, catching at words and replying only in words, they disputed about the most abstract subjects, and they disputed as though it were a matter of life and death for both: they shouted and vociferated so that every one in the house was startled, and poor Lemm, who had locked himself up in his room directly after Mihalevitch arrived, was bewildered, and began even to feel vaguely alarmed.
"What are you after all? a pessimist?" cried Mihalevitch at one o'clock in the night.
"Are pessimists usually like this?" replied Lavretsky. "They are usually all pale and sickly--would you like me to lift you with one hand?"
"Well, if you are not a pessimist you are a scepteec, that's still worse." Mihalevitch's talk had a strong flavour of his mother-country, Little Russia. "And what right have you to be a scepteec? You have had ill-luck in life, let us admit; that was not your fault; you were born with a passionate loving heart, and you were unnaturally kept out of the society of women: the first woman you came across was bound to deceive you."
"She deceived you too," observed Lavretsky grimly.
"Granted, granted; I was the tool of destiny in it--what nonsense I talk, though--there is no such thing as destiny; it is an old habit of expressing things inexactly. But what does that prove?"
"It proves this, that they distorted me from my childhood."
"Well, it's for you to straighten yourself! What's the good of being a man, a male animal? And however that may be, is it possible, is it permissible, to reduce a personal, so to speak, fact to a general law, to an infallible principle?"
"How a principle?" interrupted Lavretsky; "I don't admit--"
"No, it is your principle, your principle," Mihalevitch interrupted in his turn.
"You are an egoist, that's what it is!" he was thundering an hour later: "you wanted personal happiness, you wanted enjoyment in life, you wanted to live only for yourself."
"What do you mean by personal happiness?"
"And everything deceived you; everything crumbled away under your feet."
"What do you mean by personal happiness, I ask you?"
"And it was bound to crumble away. Either you sought support where it could not be found, or you built your house on shifting sands, or--"
"Speak more plainly, or I can't understand you."
"Or--you may laugh if you like--or you had no faith, no warmth of heart; intellect, nothing but one farthing's worth of intellect . . . you are simply a pitiful, antiquated Voltairean, that's what you are!"
"I'm a Voltairean?"
"Yes, like your father, and you yourself do not suspect it."
"After that," exclaimed Lavretsky, "I have the right to call you a fanatic."
"Alas!" replied Mihalevitch with a contrite air, "I have not so far deserved such an exalted title, unhappily."
"I have found out now what to call you," cried the same Mihalevitch, at three o'clock in the morning. "You are not a sceptic, nor a pessimist, nor a Voltairean, you are a loafer, and you are a vicious loafer, a conscious loafer, not a simple loafer. Simple loafers lie on the stove and do nothing because they don't know how to do anything; they don't think about anything either, but you are a man of ideas--and yet you lie on the stove; you could do something--and you do nothing; you lie idle with a full stomach and look down from above and say, 'It's best to lie idle like this, because whatever people do, is all rubbish, leading to nothing.'"
"And from what do you infer that I lie idle?" Lavretsky protested stoutly. "Why do you attribute such ideas to me?"
"And, besides that, you are all, all the tribe of you," continued Mihalevitch, "cultivated loafers. You know which leg the German limps on, you know what's amiss with the English and the French, and your pitiful culture goes to make it worse, your shameful idleness, your abominable inactivity is justified by it. Some are even proud of it: 'I'm such a clever fellow,' they say, 'I do nothing, while these fools are in a fuss.' Yes! and there are fine gentlemen among us--though I don't say this as to you--who reduce their whole life to a kind of stupor of boredom, get used to it, live in it, like--like a mushroom in white sauce," Mihalevitch added hastily, and he laughed at his own comparison. "Oh! this stupor of boredom is the ruin of Russians. Ours is the age for work, and the sickening loafer" . . .
"But what is all this abuse about?" Lavretsky clamoured in his turn. "Work--doing--you'd better say what is to be done, instead of abusing me, Desmosthenes of Poltava!"
"There, what a thing to ask! I can't tell you that brother; that every one ought to know for himself," retorted the Desmosthenes ironically. "A landowner, a nobleman, and not know what to do? You have no faith, or else you would know; no faith--and no intuition."
"Let me at least have time to breathe; you don't let me have time to look round," Lavretsky besought him.
"Not a minute, nor a second!" retorted Mihalevitch with an imperious wave of the hand. "Not one second: death does not delay, and life ought not to delay."
"And what a time, what a place for men to think of loafing!" he cried at four o'clock, in a voice, however, which showed signs of sleepiness; "among us! now! in Russia where every separate individual has a duty resting upon him, a solemn responsibility to God, to the people, to himself. We are sleeping, and the time is slipping away; we are sleeping." . . . .
"Permit me to observe," remarked Lavretsky, "that we are not sleeping at present but rather preventing others from sleeping. We are straining our throats like the cocks--listen! there is one crowing for the third time."
This sally made Mihalevitch laugh, and calmed him down. "Good-bye till to-morrow," he said with a smile, and thrust his pipe into his pouch.
"Till to-morrow," repeated Lavretsky. But the friends talked for more than hour longer. Their voices were no longer raised, however, and their talk was quiet, sad, friendly talk.
Mihalevitch set off the next day, in spite of all Lavretsky's efforts to keep him. Fedor Ivanitch did not succeed in persuading him to remain; but he talked to him to his heart's content. Mihalevitch, it appeared, had not a penny to bless himself with. Lavretsky had noticed with pain the evening before all the tokens and habits of years of poverty; his boots were shabby, a button was off on the back of his coat, on his arrival, he had not even thought of asking to wash, and at supper he ate like a shark, tearing his meat in his fingers, and crunching the bones with his strong black teeth. It appeared, too, that he had made nothing out of his employment, that he now rested all his hopes on the contractor who was taking him solely in order to have an "educated man" in his office.
For all that Mihalevitch was not discouraged, but as idealist or cynic, lived on a crust of bread, sincerely rejoicing or grieving over the destinies of humanity, and his own vocation, and troubling himself very little as to how to escape dying of hunger. Mihalevitch was not married: but had been in love times beyond number, and had written poems to all the objects of his adoration; he sang with especial fervour the praises of a mysterious black-tressed "noble Polish lady." There were rumours, it is true, that this "noble Polish lady" was a simple Jewess, very well known to a good many cavalry officers--but, after all, what do you think--does it really make any difference?
With Lemm, Mihalevitch did not get on; his noisy talk and brusque manners scared the German, who was unused to such behaviour. One poor devil detects another by instinct at once, but in old age he rarely gets on with him, and that is hardly astonishing, he has nothing to share with him, not even hopes.
Before setting off, Mihalevitch had another long discussion with Lavretsky, foretold his ruin, if he did not see the error of his ways, exhorted him to devote himself seriously to the welfare of his peasants, and pointed to himself as an example, saying that he had been purified in the furnace of suffering; and in the same breath called himself several times a happy man, comparing himself with the fowl of the air and the lily of the field.
"A black lily, any way," observed Lavretsky.
"Ah, brother, don't be a snob!" retorted Mihalevitch, good-naturedly, "but thank God rather there is a pure plebeian blood in your veins too. But I see that you want some pure, heavenly creature to draw you out of your apathy."
"Thanks, brother," remarked Lavretsky. "I have had quite enough of those heavenly creatures."
"Silence, ceeneec!" cried Mihalevitch.
"Cynic," Lavretsky corrected him.
"Ceeneec, just so," repeated Mihalevitch unabashed.
Even when he had taken his seat in the carriage, to which his flat, yellow, strangely light trunk was carried, he still talked; muffled in a kind of Spanish cloak with a collar, brown with age, and a clasp of two lion's paws; he went on developing his views on the destiny of Russian, and waving his swarthy hand in the air, as though he were sowing the seeds of her future prosperity. The horses started at last.
"Remember my three last words," he cried, thrusting his whole body out of the carriage and balancing so, "Religion, progress, humanity! . . . Farewell."
His head, with a foraging cap pulled down over his eyes, disappeared. Lavretsky was left standing alone on the steps, and he gazed steadily into the distance along the road till the carriage disappeared out of sight. "Perhaps he is right, after all," he thought as he went back into the house; "perhaps I am a loafer." Many of Mihalevitch's words had sunk irresistibly into his heart, though he had disputed and disagreed with him. If a man only has a good heart, no one can resist him.