The Bet and Other Stories/Expensive Lessons
It is a great bore for an educated person not to know foreign languages. Vorotov felt it strongly, when on leaving the university after he had got his degree he occupied himself with a little scientific research.
"It's awful!" he used to say, losing his breath (for although only twenty-six he was stout, heavy, and short of breath). "It's awful. Without knowing languages I'm like a bird without wings. I'll simply have to chuck the work."
So he decided, come what might, to conquer his natural laziness and to study French and German, and he began to look out for a teacher.
One winter afternoon, as Vorotov sat working in his study, the servant announced a lady to see him.
"Show her in," said Vorotov.
And a young lady, exquisitely dressed in the latest fashion, entered the study. She introduced herself as Alice Ossipovna Enquette, a teacher of French, and said that a friend of Vorotov's had sent her to him.
"Very glad! Sit down!" said Vorotov, losing his breath, and clutching at the collar of his night shirt. (He always worked in a night shirt in order to breathe more easily.) "You were sent to me by Peter Sergueyevich? Yes . . . Yes . . . I asked him . . . Very glad!"
While he discussed the matter with Mademoiselle Enquette he glanced at her shyly, with curiosity. She was a genuine Frenchwoman, very elegant, and still quite young. From her pale and languid face, from her short, curly hair and unnaturally small waist, you would not think her more than eighteen, but looking at her broad, well-developed shoulders, her charming back and severe eyes, Vorotov decided that she was certainly not less than twenty-three, perhaps even twenty-five; but then again it seemed to him that she was only eighteen. Her face had the cold, business-like expression of one who had come to discuss a business matter. Never once did she smile or frown, and only once a look of perplexity flashed into her eyes, when she discovered that she was not asked to teach children but a grown up, stout young man.
"So, Alice Ossipovna," Vorotov said to her, "you will give me a lesson daily from seven to eight o'clock in the evening. With regard to your wish to receive a rouble a lesson, I have no objection at all. A rouble—well, let it be a rouble. . . ."
And he went on asking her if she wanted tea or coffee, if the weather was fine, and, smiling good naturedly, stroking the tablecloth with the palm of his hand, he asked her kindly who she was, where she had completed her education, and how she earned her living.
In a cold, business-like tone Alice Ossipovna answered that she had completed her education at a private school, and had then qualified as a domestic teacher, that her father had died recently of scarlet fever, her mother was alive and made artificial flowers, that she, Mademoiselle Enquette, gave private lessons at a pension in the morning, and from one o'clock right until the evening she taught in respectable private houses.
She went, leaving a slight and almost imperceptible perfume of a woman's dress behind her. Vorotov did not work for a long time afterwards but sat at the table stroking the green cloth and thinking.
"It's very pleasant to see girls earning their own living," he thought. "On the other hand it is very unpleasant to realise that poverty does not spare even such elegant and pretty girls as Alice Ossipovna; she, too, must struggle for her existence. Rotten luck! . . ."
Having never seen virtuous Frenchwomen he also thought that this exquisitely dressed Alice Ossipovna, with her well-developed shoulders and unnaturally small waist was in all probability, engaged in something else besides teaching.
Next evening when the clock pointed to five minutes to seven, Alice Ossipovna arrived, rosy from the cold; she opened Margot (an elementary text-book) and began without any preamble:
"The French grammar has twenty-six letters. The first is called A, the second B . . ."
"Pardon," interrupted Vorotov, smiling, "I must warn you, Mademoiselle, that you will have to change your methods somewhat in my case. The fact is that I know Russian, Latin and Greek very well. I have studied comparative philology, and it seems to me that we may leave out Margot and begin straight off to read some author." And he explained to the Frenchwoman how grown-up people study languages.
"A friend of mine," said he, "who wished to know modern languages put a French, German and Latin gospel in front of him and then minutely analysed one word after another. The result—he achieved his purpose in less than a year. Let us take some author and start reading."
The Frenchwoman gave him a puzzled look. It was evident that Vorotov's proposal appeared to her naive and absurd. If he had not been grown up she would certainly have got angry and stormed at him, but as he was a very stout, adult man at whom she could not storm, she only shrugged her shoulders half-perceptibly and said:
"Just as you please."
Vorotov ransacked his bookshelves and produced a ragged French book.
"Will this do?" he asked.
"It's all the same."
"In that case let us begin. Let us start from the title, Mémoires."
"Reminiscences . . ." translated Mademoiselle Enquette.
"Reminiscences . . ." repeated Vorotov.
Smiling good naturedly and breathing heavily, he passed a quarter of an hour over the word mémoires and the same with the word de. This tired Alice Ossipovna out. She answered his questions carelessly, got confused and evidently neither understood her pupil nor tried to. Vorotov asked her questions, and at the same time glanced furtively at her fair hair, thinking:
"The hair is not naturally curly. She waves it. Marvellous! She works from morning till night and yet she finds time to wave her hair."
At eight o'clock sharp she got up, gave him a dry, cold "Au revoir, Monsieur," and left the study. After her lingered the same sweet, subtle, agitating perfume. The pupil again did nothing for a long time, but sat by the table and thought.
During the following days he became convinced that his teacher was a charming girl serious and punctual, but very uneducated and incapable of teaching grown up people; so he decided he would not waste his time, but part with her and engage someone else. When she came for the seventh lesson he took an envelope containing seven roubles out of his pocket. Holding it in his hands and blushing furiously, he began:
"I am sorry, Alice Ossipovna, but I must tell you. . . . I am placed in an awkward position. . . ."
The Frenchwoman glanced at the envelope and guessed what was the matter. For the first time during the lessons a shiver passed over her face and the cold, business-like expression disappeared. She reddened faintly, and casting her eyes down, began to play absently with her thin gold chain. And Vorotov, noticing her confusion, understood how precious this rouble was to her, how hard it would be for her to lose this money.
"I must tell you," he murmured, getting still more confused. His heart gave a thump. Quickly he put the envelope back into his pocket and continued:
"Excuse me. I . . . I will leave you for ten minutes. . . ."
And as though he did not want to dismiss her at all, but had only asked permission to retire for a moment he went into another room and sat there for ten minutes. Then he returned, more confused than ever; he thought that his leaving her like that would be explained by her in a certain way and this made him awkward.
The lessons began again.
Vorotov wanted them no more. Knowing that they would lead to nothing he gave the Frenchwoman a free hand; he did not question or interrupt her any more. She translated at her own sweet will, ten pages a lesson, but he did not listen. He breathed heavily and for want of occupation gazed now and then at her curly little head, her neck, her soft white hands, and inhaled the perfume of her dress.
He caught himself thinking about her as he ought not and it shamed him, or admiring her, and then he felt aggrieved and angry because she behaved so coldly towards him, in such a business-like way, never smiling and as if afraid that he might suddenly touch her. All the while he thought: How could he inspire her with confidence in him, how could he get to know her better, to help her, to make her realise how badly she taught, poor little soul?
Once Alice Ossipovna came to the lesson in a dainty pink dress, a little décolletté, and such a sweet scent came from her that you might have thought she was wrapped in a cloud, that you had only to blow on her for her to fly away or dissolve like smoke. She apologised, saying she could only stay for half an hour, because she had to go straight from the lesson to a ball.
He gazed at her neck, at her bare shoulders and he thought he understood why Frenchwomen were known to be light-minded and easily won; he was drowned in this cloud of scent, beauty, and nudity, and she, quite unaware of his thoughts and probably not in the least interested in them, read over the pages quickly and translated full steam ahead:
"He walked over the street and met the gentleman of his friend and said: where do you rush? seeing your face so pale it makes me pain."
The Mémoires had been finished long ago; Alice was now translating another book. Once she came to the lesson an hour earlier, apologising because she had to go to the Little Theatre at seven o'clock. When the lesson was over Vorotov dressed and he too went to the theatre. It seemed to him only for the sake of rest and distraction, and he did not even think of Alice. He would not admit that a serious man, preparing for a scientific career, a stay-at-home, should brush aside his book and rush to the theatre for the sake of meeting an unintellectual, stupid girl whom he hardly knew.
But somehow, during the intervals his heart beat, and, without noticing it, he ran about the foyer and the corridors like a boy, looking impatiently for someone. Every time the interval was over he was tired, but when he discovered the familiar pink dress and the lovely shoulders veiled with tulle his heart jumped as if from a presentiment of happiness, he smiled joyfully, and for the first time in his life he felt jealous.
Alice was with two ugly students and an officer. She was laughing, talking loudly and evidently flirting. Vorotov had never seen her like that. Apparently she was happy, contented, natural, warm. Why? What was the reason? Perhaps because these people were dear to her and belonged to the same class as she. Vorotov felt the huge abyss between him and that class. He bowed to his teacher, but she nodded coldly and quietly passed by. It was plain she did not want her cavaliers to know that she had pupils and gave lessons because she was poor.
After the meeting at the theatre Vorotov knew that he was in love. During lessons that followed he devoured his elegant teacher with his eyes, and no longer struggling, he gave full rein to his pure and impure thoughts. Alice's face was always cold. Exactly at eight o'clock every evening she said calmly, "Au revoir, Monsieur," and he felt that she was indifferent to him and would remain indifferent, that—his position was hopeless.
Sometimes in the middle of a lesson he would begin dreaming, hoping, building plans; he composed an amorous declaration, remembering that Frenchwomen were frivolous and complaisant, but he had only to give his teacher one glance for his thoughts to be blown out like a candle, when you carry it on to the verandah of a bungalow and the wind is blowing. Once, overcome, forgetting everything, in a frenzy, he could stand it no longer. He barred her way when she came from the study into the hall after the lesson and, losing his breath and stammering, began to declare his love:
"You are dear to me! . . . I love you. Please let me speak!"
Alice grew pale: probably she was afraid that after this declaration she would not be able to come to him any more and receive a rouble a lesson. She looked at him with terrified eyes and began in a loud whisper:
"Ah, it's impossible! Do not speak, I beg you! Impossible!"
Afterwards Vorotov did not sleep all night; he tortured himself with shame, abused himself, thinking feverishly. He thought that his declaration had offended the girl and that she would not come any more. He made up his mind to find out where she lived from the Address Bureau and to write her an apology. But Alice came without the letter. For a moment she felt awkward, and then opened the book and began to translate quickly, in an animated voice, as always:
"'Oh, young gentleman, do not rend these flowers in my garden which I want to give to my sick daughter.'"
She still goes. Four books have been translated by now but Vorotov knows nothing beyond the word mémoires, and when he is asked about his scientific research work he waves his hand, leaves the question unanswered, and begins to talk about the weather.