A vital question; or, What is to be done?/II

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A vital question; or, What is to be done?  (1886)  by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Nathan Haskell Dole and Simon S. Skidelsky
II. The First Consequences of the Fool's Deed.



On that very same morning, about twelve o'clock, a young woman was sitting in one of the three rooms of a small datcha on the Kamennoï Ostrof (Stone Island); she was sewing, and singing in an undertone a little French song full of spirit and courage. "We are poor," said the song, "but we are working people; we have strong hands. We are obscure, but we are not dull, and we want light. Let us learn; knowledge will give us freedom. Let us be industrious; industry will give us wealth. This will go on; if we live, we shall see it.

Ça ira,
Qui vivra verra.

We are rough, but from our roughness 'tis only we ourselves who are the losers. We are full of prejudices, but we ourselves suffer from them; this we feel. Let us look for happiness, let us find humanity, we shall be good; this will go on; if we live, we shall see it.

"Industry without knowledge is fruitless; our own happiness is impossible without the happiness of others. As soon as we become enlightened we shall become rich; we shall he happy; we shall form one brotherhood and sisterhood; this will go on; if we live, we shall see it.

"Let us learn and be industrious; let us sing and love; we shall have a heaven on earth! Let us be happy while we live; this will go on; it will soon come to pass; we shall all see it.

Donc, vivons,
Ça bien vite ira,
Ça viendra,
Nous tons le verrons!"

Courageous, spirited, was the song, and its melody was joyous. There were two or three melancholy notes in it, but they were concealed by the generally light character of the motive; they vanished in the refrain, they vanished in the conclusion of the couplet,—at least they ought to have vanished and to have been concealed, and they would have vanished had the lady been in a different frame of mind; but now these few melancholy notes are made more prominent than the others. She almost trembles as she perceives it; she lowers her voice as she sings them, and tries to sing the joyful notes louder; but again her mind is drawn away from her song by her own thoughts, and then again the melancholy notes become prominent. Evidently the young woman does not like to give in to melancholy, and it is no less evident that the melancholy is loath to leave her, no matter how hard she tries to drive it away. But whether melancholy or joyful, whether or no it becomes joyful in the spirit of the song, the young woman sews very industriously. She is a good seamstress.

A young servant girl comes into the room.

"Do you see, Masha, how I am sewing? I have almost finished the cuffs which I am getting ready to wear at your wedding."

"Akh! there is much less work in them than in those which you made for me."

"That's of no matter! a bride ought to be dressed better than anybody else at her own wedding."

"And I have brought you a letter, Viéra Pavlovna."

Viéra Pavlovna's face expressed perplexity, as she began to break open the letter; the envelope bore the city post-mark.

"How is this? Isn't he in Moscow?" She hastily unfolded the letter and grew pale; her hand holding the letter fell to her side.

"No, it is not so; I have scarcely had a chance to read the letter; there is nothing in it at all."

And again she lifted her hand with the letter. All this took place in two seconds. But at the second reading her eyes looked long and immovably at the few lines of the letter, and the brightness of their expression grew dimmer and dimmer; the sheet fell from her nerveless hands to the work-table; she hid her face in her hands; she began to weep.

"What have I done? "What have I done?" And again sobs.


"Viérotchka [Little Viéra]! What is the matter with you? Are you so fond of weeping? How often does this happen? What is the matter with you?"—a young man came into the room with quick but gentle, careful steps.

"Read it; it is on the table." She was now no longer weeping, but was sitting motionless, scarcely breathing.

The young man took the letter. He also grew pale, and his hands trembled, and long he looked at the letter, short though it was, not more than a score of words all told:—

"I have disturbed your peace of mind. I leave these scenes. Don't grieve; I love you both so much that I am very happy at my decision. Proshchaïte" (Farewell).

The young man stood long, rubbing his forehead; then he began to twirl his mustache; then he looked at the sleeve of his coat; finally he collected his thoughts. He made a step forward towards the young woman, who was still sitting motionless, hardly breathing, as if in a lethargy. He took her hand.


But as his hand touched hers, she jumped up with a cry of terror, as though she had been roused by an electric shock, impetuously drew off from the young man, convulsively pushed him from her.

"Go away! Don't touch me! You are stained with blood! His blood is on you! I cannot bear to see you! I shall go away from you! I am going away! Leave me!" And she kept pushing, pushing the empty air, motioning him away, and suddenly she tottered, fell into the arm-chair, and covered her face with her hands.

"On me too is his blood! On me! Thou art not to blame! I alone! I alone! What have I done!" Her sobs choked her.

"Viérotchka," said he, gently and timidly, "my friend!"

She drew a painful sigh, and with a restrained and still trembling voice said, though it was hard to say:—

"My love, leave me alone for now. Come again in an hour. Then I shall be calm. Give me a drink of water, and go!"

He obeyed her silently. He went to his room, sat down at his writing-table, where he had been sitting so calm, so content, but a quarter of an hour before. He took his pen again. "At such moments one should have perfect control over himself. I have a will, and all will be well, will be well." And his pen, without his control, all the time went on writing some article or other. "Can it be borne? It is horrible! Happiness is over!"

"My love, I am ready. Let us talk," was heard from the adjoining room. The young woman's voice was low but firm.

"My love, we must part. I have decided. It is hard, but it would be still harder for us to see each other. I am his murderer. I killed him for thy sake!"

"Viérotchka! why art thou to blame?"

"Don't say a word, do not justify me, else I shall despise thee! I—I am to blame for all. Forgive me, my love, for coming to a decision which will be very hard for thee, and for me, my love, also! But I cannot do otherwise; thou thyself wilt shortly see that it was best to do so. This is unalterable, my friend! Only listen: I shall leave Petersburg; it will be easier at a distance from the places which would remind me of the past. I shall sell my things. On the money I get I shall be able to live some time. Where? In Tver, in Nizhni [Novgorod], I don't know; it is all the same. I shall try to give singing lessons. In all probability I shall find pupils, because I shall settle in some large city. If I don't find them, I shall go out as governess. I think that I shall not come to want; but if I should, I will let you know. At any rate, be sure to have some money ready for me. You know very well that I have a good many necessities, heavy expenses, stingy though I am; I cannot help it. Dost thou hear? I do not refuse thy help. Let this be a proof to thee that thou art still dear to me. And now let us part forever. Go back to town, right away, right away! It will be easier for me when I am alone. To-morrow I shall not be here; then come back. I shall leave for Moscow. There I will see, I will find out in which of the provincial cities I can easiest find singing pupils. I forbid you coming to the station to see me off. Proshchaï, my friend! Give me thy hand in token of farewell; I shall press it for the last time."

He wanted to kiss her; she stopped his motion.

"No, it must not be; it is impossible. This would be an insult to him. Give me thy hand. I press it, thou seest how warmly! But forgive me."

He did not let go her hand.

"That is enough! Go!" She withdrew her hand. He did not dare to resist. "Forgive me!" She looked at him so tenderly, and with firm steps she went to her room, and not once did she look at him as she went.

It was long before he could find his hat. Though half a dozen times he took it into his hand, he did not see that he had it. He was like a drunken man. At last he realized that what he was looking for was the hat in his hand. He went to the entry, put on his overcoat, and now he is near the gate. "Who is running after me? Surely Masha. Surely something bad has happened to her." He turned around. Viéra Pavlovna threw herself on his neck, embraced him, kissed him passionately.

"No, I could not endure it, my love! Farewell forever!"

She hurried back, threw herself on the bed, and let the tears flow which she had so long restrained.