My Life (Koteliansky/Cannan)
THE STORY OF A PROVINCIAL
THE director said to me: "I only keep you out of respect for your worthy father, or you would have gone long since." I replied: "You flatter me, your Excellency, but I suppose I am in a position to go." And then I heard him saying: "Take the fellow away, he is getting on my nerves."
Two days later I was dismissed. Ever since I had been grown up, to the great sorrow of my father, the municipal architect, I had changed my position nine times, going from one department to another, but all the departments were as like each other as drops of water; I had to sit and write, listen to inane and rude remarks, and just wait until I was dismissed.
When I told my father, he was sitting back in his chair with his eyes shut. His thin, dry face, with a dove-coloured tinge where he shaved (his face was like that of an old Catholic organist), wore an expression of meek submission. Without answering my greeting or opening his eyes, he said :
"If my dear wife, your mother, were alive, your life would be a constant grief to her. I can see the hand of Providence in her untimely death. Tell me, you unhappy boy," he went on, opening his eyes, "what am I to do with you? "
When I was younger my relations and friends knew what to do with me; some advised me to go into the army as a volunteer, others were for pharmacy, others for the telegraph service; but now that I was twenty-four and was going grey at the temples and had already tried the army and pharmacy and the telegraph service, and every possibility seemed to be exhausted, they gave me no more advice, but only sighed and shook their heads.
"What do you think of yourself? " my father went on. "At your age other young men have a good social position, and just look at yourself : a lazy lout, a beggar, living on your father!"
And, as usual, he went on to say that young men were going to the dogs through want of faith, materialism, and conceit, and that amateur theatricals should be prohibited because they seduce young people from religion and their duty.
"To-morrow we will go together, and you shall apologise to the director and promise to do your work conscientiously," he concluded. "You must not be without a position in society for a single day."
"Please listen to me," said I firmly, though I did not anticipate gaining anything by speaking. "What you call a position in society is the privilege of capital and education. But people who are poor and uneducated have to earn their living by hard physical labour, and I see no reason why I should be an exception."
"It is foolish and trivial of you to talk of physical labour," said my father with some irritation. "Do try to understand, you idiot, and get it into your brainless head, that in addition to physical strength you have a divine spirit; a sacred fire, by which you are distinguished from an ass or a reptile and bringing you nigh to God. This sacred fire has been kept alight for thousands of years by the best of mankind. Your great-grandfather, General Polozniev, fought at Borodino; your grandfather was a poet, an orator, and a marshal of the nobility; your uncle was an educationalist; and I, your father, am an architect! Have all the Poloznievs kept the sacred fire alight for you to put it out? "
"There must be justice," said I. "Millions of people have to do manual labour."
"Let them. They can do nothing else! Even a fool or a criminal can do manual labour. It is the mark of a slave and a barbarian, whereas the sacred fire is given only to a few !"
It was useless to go on with the conversation. My father worshipped himself and would not be convinced by anything unless he said it himself. Besides, I knew quite well that the annoyance with which he spoke of unskilled labour came not so much from any regard for the sacred fire, as from a secret fear that I should become a working man and the talk of the town. But the chief thing was that all my school fellows had long ago gone through the University and were making careers for themselves, and the son of the director of the State Bank was already a collegiate assessor, while I, an only son, was nothing! It was useless and unpleasant to go on with the conversation, but I still sat there and raised objections in the hope of making myself understood. The problem was simple and clear: how was I to earn my living? But he could not see its simplicity and kept on talk ing with sugary rounded phrases about Borodino and the sacred fire, and my uncle, a forgotten poet who wrote bad, insincere verses, and he called me a brainless fool. But how I longed to be understood ! In spite of everything, I loved my father and my sister, and from boyhood I have had a habit of considering them, so strongly rooted that I shall probably never get rid of it ; whether I am right or wrong I am always afraid of hurting them, and go in terror lest my father's thin neck should go red with anger and he should have an apopleptic fit.
"It is shameful and degrading for a man of my age to sit in a stuffy room end compete with a typewriting-machine," I said. "What has that to do with the sacred fire? "
"Still, it is intellectual work," said my father. "But that's enough. Let us drop the conversation and I warn you that if you refuse to return to your office and indulge your contemptible inclinations, then you will lose my love and your sister's. I shall cut you out of my will—that I swear, by God! '
With perfect sincerity, in order to show the purity of my motives, by which I hope to be guided all through my life, I said :
"The matter of inheritance does not strike me as important. I renounce any rights I may have."
For some unexpected reason these words greatly offended my father. He went purple in the face.
"How dare you talk to me like that, you fool !" he cried to me in a thin, shrill voice. "You scoundrel !" And he struck me quickly and dexterously with a familiar movement; once—twice. "You forget yourself !"
When I was a boy and my father struck me, I used to stand bolt upright like a soldier and look him straight in the face; and, exactly as if I were still a boy, I stood erect, and tried to look into his eyes. My father was old and very thin, but his spare muscles must have been as strong as whip-cord, for he hit very hard.
I returned to the hall, but there he seized his umbrella and struck me several times over the head and shoulders; at that moment my sister opened the drawing-room door to see what the noise was, but immediately drew back with an expression of pity and horror, and said not one word in my defence.
My intention not to return to the office, but to start a new working life, was unshakable. It only remained to choose the kind of work—and there seemed to be no great difficulty about that, because I was strong, patient, and willing. I was prepared to face a monoto nous, laborious life, of semi-starvation, filth, and rough surroundings, always overshadowed with the thought of finding a job and a living. And—who knows—returning from work in the Great Gentry Street, I might often envy Dolzhikov, the engineer, who lives by intellectual work, but I was happy in thinking of my coming troubles. I used to dream of intellectual activity, and to imagine myself a teacher, a doctor, a writer, but my dreams remained only dreams. A f liking for intellectual pleasures—like the theatre and reading—grew into a passion with me, but I did not know whether I had any capacity for intellectual work. At school I had an unconquerable aversion for the Greek language, so that I had to leave when I was in the fourth class. Teachers were got to coach me up for the fifth class, and then I went into various departments, spending most of my time in perfect idleness, and this, I was told, was intellectual work.
My activity in the education department or in the municipal office required neither mental effort, nor talent, nor personal ability, nor creative spiritual impulse; it was purely mechanical, and such intellectual work seemed to me lower than manual labour. I despise it and I do not think that it for a moment justifies an idle, careless life, because it is nothing but a swindle, and only a kind of idleness. In all probability I have never known real intellectual work.
It was evening. We lived in Great Gentry Street—the chief street in the town—and our rank and fashion walked up and down it in the evenings, as there were no public gardens. The street was very charming, and was almost as good as a garden, for it had two rows of poplar-trees, which smelt very sweet, especially after rain, and acacias, and tall trees, and apple-trees hung over the fences and hedges. May evenings, the scent of the lilac, the hum of the cockchafers, the warm, still air—how new and extraordinary it all is, though spring comes every year ! I stood by the gate and looked at the passers-by. With most of them I had grown up and had played with them, but now my presence might upset them, because I was poorly dressed, in unfashionable clothes, and people made fun of my very narrow trousers and large, clumsy boots, and called them macaroni-on-steamboats. And I had a bad reputation in the town because I had no position and went to play billiards in low cafes, and had once been taken up, for no particular offence, by the political police.
In a large house opposite, Dolzhikov's, the engineer's, some one was playing the piano. It was beginning to get dark and the stars were beginning to shine. And slowly, answering people's salutes, my father passed with my sister on his arm. He was wearing an old top hat with a broad curly brim.
"Look! " he said to my sister, pointing to the sky with the very umbrella with which he had just struck me. "Look at the sky! Even the smallest stars are worlds ! How insignificant man is in comparison with the universe. "
And he said this in a tone that seemed to convey that he found it extremely flattering and pleasant to be so insignificant. What an untalented man he was ! Unfortunately, he was the only architect in the town, and during the last fifteen or twenty years I could not remember one decent house being built. When he had to design a house, as a rule he would draw first the hall and the drawing-room ; as in olden days schoolgirls could only begin to dance by the fire place, so his artistic ideas could only evolve from the hall and drawing-room. To them he would add the dining-room, nursery, study, connecting them with doors, so that in the end they were just so many passages, and each room had two or three doors too many. His houses were obscure, extremely confused, and limited. Every time, as though he felt something was missing, he had recourse to various additions, plastering them one on top of the other, and there would be various lobbies, and passages, and crooked stair cases leading to the entresol, where it was only possible to stand in a stooping position, and where instead of a floor there would be a thin flight of stairs like a Russian bath, and the kitchen would always be under the house with a vaulted ceiling and a brick floor. The front of his houses always had a hard, stubborn expression, with stiff, timid lines, low, squat roofs, and fat, pudding-like chimneys surmounted with black cowls and squeaking weathercocks. And some how all the houses built by my father were like each other, and vaguely reminded me of his top hat, and the stiff, obstinate back of his head. In the course of time the people of the town grew used to my father's lack of talent, which took root and became our style.
My father introduced the style into my sister's life. To begin with, he gave her the name of Cleopatra (and he called me Misail). When she was a little girl he used to frighten her by telling her about the stars and our ancestors; and explained the nature of life and duty to her at great length ; and now when she was twenty-six he went on in the same way, allowing her to take no one's arm but his own, and some how imagining that sooner or later an ardent young man would turn up and wish to enter into marriage with her out of admiration for his qualities. And she adored my father, was afraid of him, and believed in his extraordinary intellectual powers.
It got quite dark and the street grew gradually empty. In the house opposite the music stopped. The gate was wide open and out into the street, careering with all its bells jingling, came a troika. It was the engineer and his daughter going for a drive. Time to go to bed !
I had a room in the house, but I lived in the courtyard in a hut, under the same roof as the coach-house, which had been built probably as a harness-room—for there were big nails in the walls—but now it was not used, and my father for thirty years had kept his news papers there, which for some reason he had bound half-yearly and then allowed no one to touch. Living there I was less in touch with my father and his guests, and I used to think that if I did not live in a proper room and did not go to the house every day for meals, my father's reproach that I was living on him lost some of its sting.
My sister was waiting for me. She had brought me supper unknown to my father; a small piece of cold veal and a slice of bread. In the family there were sayings: "Money loves an account," or "A copeck saves a rouble," and so on, and my sister, impressed by such wisdom, did her best to cut down expenses and made us feed rather meagrely. She put the plate on the table, sat on my bed, and began to cry.
"Misail," she said, "what are you doing to us?"
She did not cover her face, her tears ran down her cheeks and hands, and her expression was sorrowful. She fell on the pillow, gave way to her tears, trembling all over and sobbing.
"You have left your work again ! " she said. "How awful!"
"Do try to understand, sister!" I said, and because she cried I was filled with despair.
As though it were deliberately arranged, the paraffin in my little lamp ran out, and the lamp smoked and guttered, and the old hooks in the wall looked terrible and their shadows nickered.
"Spare us !" said my sister, rising up. "Father is in an awful state, and I am ill. I shall go mad. What will become of you?" she asked, sobbing and holding out her hands to me. "I ask you, I implore you, in the name of our dear mother, to go back to your work."
"I cannot, Cleopatra," I said, feeling that only a little more would make me give in. "I cannot."
"Why?" insisted my sister, "why? If you have not made it up with your chief, look for another place. For instance, why shouldn't you work on the railway? I have just spoken to Aniuta Blagovo, and she assures me you would be taken on, and she even promised to do what she could for you. For goodness sake, Misail, think ! Think it over, I implore you !"
We talked a little longer and I gave in. I said that the thought of working on the railway had never come into my head, and that I was ready to try.
She smiled happily through her tears and clasped my hand, and still she cried, because she could not stop, and I went into the kitchen for paraffin.
Among the supporters of amateur theatricals, charity concerts, and tableaux vivants the leaders were the Azhoguins, who lived in their own house in Great Gentry Street. They used to lend their house and assume the necessary trouble and expense. They were a rich landowning family, and had about three thousand dessiatins, with a magnificent farm in the neighbourhood, but they did not care for village life and lived in the town summer and winter. The family consisted of a mother, a tall, spare, delicate lady, who had short hair, wore a blouse and a plain skirt à l'Anglais, and three daughters, who were spoken of, not by their names, but as the eldest, the middle, and the youngest; they all had ugly, sharp chins, and they were short-sighted, high-shouldered, dressed in the same style as their mother, had an unpleasant lisp, and yet they always took part in every play and were always doing something for charity—acting, reciting, singing. They were very serious and never smiled, and even in burlesque operettas they acted without gaiety and with a businesslike air, as though they were engaged in bookkeeping.
I loved our plays, especially the rehearsals, which were frequent, rather absurd, and noisy, and we were always given supper after them. I had no part in the selection of the pieces and the easting of the characters. I had to look after the stage. I used to design the scenery and copy out the parts, and prompt and make up. And I also had to look after the various effects such as thunder, the singing of a nightingale, and so on. Having no social position, I had no decent clothes, and during rehearsals had to hold aloof from the others in the darkened wings and shyly say nothing.
I used to paint the scenery in the Azhoguins' coach house or yard. I was assisted by a house-painter, or, as he called himself, a decorating contractor, named Andrey Ivanov, a man of about fifty, tall and very thin and pale, with a narrow chest, hollow temples, and dark rings under his eyes, he was rather awful to look at. He had some kind of wasting disease, and every spring and autumn he was said to be on the point of death, but he would go to bed for a while and then get up and say with surprise : "I'm not dead this time!"
In the town he was called Radish, and people said it was his real name. He loved the theatre as much as I, and no sooner did he hear that a play was in hand than he gave up all his work and went to the Azhoguins' to paint scenery.
The day after my conversation with my sister I worked from morning till night at the Azhoguins'. The rehearsal was fixed for seven o'clock, and an hour before it began all the players were assembled, and the eldest, the middle, and the youngest Miss Azhoguin were reading their parts on the stage. Radish, in a long, brown overcoat with a scarf wound round his neck, was standing, leaning with his head against the wall, looking at the stage with a rapt expression. Mrs. Azhoguin went from guest to guest saying something pleasant to every one. She had a way of gazing into one's face and speaking in a hushed voice as though she were telling a secret.
"It must be difficult to paint scenery," she said softly, coming up to me. "I was just talking to Mrs. Mufke about prejudice when I saw you come in. Mon Dieu ! All my life I have struggled against prejudice. To convince the servants that all their superstitions are nonsense I always light three candles, and I begin all my important business on the thirteenth. "
The daughter of Dolzhikov, the engineer, was there, a handsome, plump, fair girl, dressed as people said in our town in Parisian style. She did not act, but at rehearsals a chair was put for her on the stage, and the plays did not begin until she appeared in the front row, to astonish everybody with the brilliance of her clothes. As coming from the metropolis, she was allowed to make remarks during rehearsals, and she did so with an affable, condescending smile, and it was clear that she regarded our plays as a childish amusement. It was said that she had studied singing at the Petersburg conservatoire and had sung for a winter season in opera. I liked her very much, and during rehearsals or the performance, I never took my eyes off her.
I had taken the book and began to prompt when suddenly my sister appeared. "Without taking off her coat and hat she came up to me and said :
I went. Behind the stage in the doorway stood Aniuta Blagovo, also wearing a hat with a dark veil. She was the daughter of the vice-president of the Court, who had been appointed to our town years ago, almost as soon as the High Court was established. She was tall and had a good figure, and was considered indispensable for the tableaux vivants, and when she represented a fairy or a muse, her face would burn with shame; but she took no part in the plays, and would only look in at rehearsals, on some business, and never enter the hall. And it was evident now that she had only looked in for a moment.
"My father has mentioned you," she said drily, not looking at me and blushing. . . "Dolzhikov has promised to find you something to do on the railway. If you go to his house to-morrow, he will see you."
I bowed and thanked her for her kindness.
"And you must leave this," she said, pointing to my book.
She and my sister went up to Mrs. Azhoguin and began to whisper, looking at me.
"Indeed," said Mrs. Azhoguin, coming up to me, and gazing into my face. "Indeed, if it takes you from your more serious business"—she took the book out of my hands"—then you must hand it over to some one else. Don't worry, my friend. It will be all right."
I said good-bye and left in some confusion. As I went down-stairs I saw my sister and Aniuta Blagovo going away; they were talking animatedly, I suppose about my going on the railway, and they hurried away. My sister had never been to a rehearsal before, and she was probably tortured by her conscience and by her fear of my father finding out that she had been to the Azhoguins' without permission.
The next day I went to see Dolzhikov at one o'clock. The man servant showed me into a charming room, which was the engineer's drawing-room and study. Everything in it was charming and tasteful, and to a man like myself, unused to such things, very strange. Costly carpets, huge chairs, bronzes, pictures in gold and velvet frames ; photographs on the walls of beautiful women, clever, handsome faces, and striking attitudes; from the drawing-room a door led straight into the garden, by a veranda, and I saw lilac and a table laid for breakfast, rolls, and a bunch of roses; and there was a smell of spring, and good cigars, and happiness—and everything seemed to say, here lives a man who has worked and won the highest happiness here on earth. At the table the engineer's daughter was sitting reading a newspaper.
"Do you want my father?" she asked. "He is having a shower-bath. He will be down presently. Please take a chair."
I sat down.
"I believe you live opposite?" she asked after a short silence.
"When I have nothing to do I look out of the window. You must excuse me," she added, turning to her newspaper, "and I often see you and your sister. She has such a kind, wistful expression."
Dolzhikov came in. He was wiping his neck with a towel.
"Papa, this is Mr. Polozniev," said his daughter.
"Yes, yes. Blagovo spoke to me." He turned quickly to me, but did not hold out his hand. ' But what do you think I can give you? I'm not bursting with situations. You are queer people!" he went on in a loud voice and as though he were scolding me. "I get about twenty people every day, as though I were a Department of State. I run a railway, sir. I employ hard labour; I need mechanics, navvies, joiners, well-sinkers, and you can only sit and write. That's all! You are all clerks!"
And he exhaled the same air of happiness as his carpets and chairs. He was stout, healthy, with red cheeks and a broad chest; he looked clean in his pink shirt and wide trousers, just like a china figure of a post-boy. He had a round, bristling beard—and not a single grey hair—and a nose with a slight bridge, and bright, innocent, dark eyes.
"What can you do?" he went on. "Nothing ! I am an engineer and well-to-do, but before I was given this railway I worked very hard for a long time. I was an engine-driver for two years, I worked in Belgium as an ordinary lubricator. Now, my dear man, just think—what work can I offer you?"
"I quite agree," said I, utterly abashed, not daring to meet his bright, innocent eyes.
"Are you any good with the telegraph?" he asked after some thought.
"Yes. I have been in the telegraph service."
"Mm. . . Well, we'll see. Go to Dubechnia. There's a fellow there already. But he is a scamp."
"And what will my duties be?" I asked.
"We'll see to that later. Go there now. I'll give orders. But please don't get drunk and don't bother me with petitions or I'll kick you out."
He turned away from me without even a nod. I bowed to him and his daughter, who was reading the newspaper, and went out. I felt so miserable that when my sister asked how the engineer had received me, I could not utter a single word.
To go to Dubechnia I got up early in the morning at sunrise. There was not a soul in the street, the whole town was asleep, and my footsteps rang out with a hollow sound. The dewy poplars filled the air with a soft scent. I was sad and had no desire to leave the town. It seemed so nice and warm ! I loved the green trees, the quiet sunny mornings, the ringing of the bells, but the people in the town were alien to me, tiresome and sometimes even loathsome. I neither liked nor understood them.
I did not understand why or for what purpose those thirty-five thousand people lived. I knew that Kimry made a living by manufacturing boots, that Tula made samovars and guns, that Odessa was a port ; but I did not know what our town was or what it did. The people in Great Gentry Street and two other clean streets had independent means and salaries paid by the Treasury, but how the people lived in the other eight streets which stretched parallel to each other for three miles and then were lost behind the hill that was always an insoluble problem to me. And I am ashamed to think of the way they lived. They had neither public gardens, nor a theatre, nor a decent orchestra; the town and club libraries are used only by young Jews, so that books and magazines would lie for months uncut. The rich and the intelligentsia slept in close, stuffy bedrooms, with wooden beds infested with bugs; the children were kept in filthy, dirty rooms called nurseries, and the servants, even when they were old and respectable, slept on the kitchen floor and covered themselves with rags. Except in Lent all the houses smelt of bortsch, and during Lent of sturgeon fried in sunflower oil. The food was unsavoury, the water unwholesome. On the town council, at the governor's, at the archbishop's, everywhere there had been talk for years about there being no good, cheap water-supply and of borrowing two hundred thousand roubles from the Treasury. Even the very rich people, of whom there were about thirty in the town, people who would lose a whole estate at cards, used to drink the bad water and talk passionately about the loan—and I could never understand this, for it seemed to me it would be simpler for them to pay up the two hundred thousand.
I did not know a single honest man in the whole town. My father took bribes, and imagined they were given to him out of respect for his spiritual qualities; the boys at the high school, in order to be promoted, went to lodge with the masters and paid them large sums; the wife of the military commandant took levies from the recruits during the recruiting, and even allowed them to stand her drinks, and once she was so drunk in church that she could not get up from her knees ; during the recruiting the doctors also took bribes, and the municipal doctor and the veterinary surgeon levied taxes on the butcher shops and public houses; the district school did a trade in certificates which gave certain privileges in the civil service; the provosts took bribes from the clergy and church wardens whom they controlled, and on the town council and various committees every one who came before them was pursued with : "One expects thanks !"—and thereby forty copecks had to change hands. And those who did not take bribes, like the High Court officials, were stiff and proud, and shook hands with two fingers, and were distinguished by their indifference and narrow-mindedness. They drank and played cards, married rich women, and always had a bad, insidious influence on those round them. Only the girls had any moral purity; most of them had lofty aspirations and were pure and honest at heart; but they knew nothing of life, and believed that bribes were given to honour spiritual qualities; and when they married, they soon grew old and weak, and were hopelessly lost in the mire of that vulgar, bourgeois existence.
A railway was being built in our district. On holidays and thereabouts the town was filled with crowds of ragamuffins called "railies," of whom the people were afraid. I used often to see a miserable wretch with a bloody face, and without a hat, being dragged off by the police, and behind him was the proof of his crime, a samovar or some wet, newly washed linen. The " railies " used to collect near the public houses and on the squares ; and they drank, ate, and swore terribly, and whistled after the town prostitutes. To amuse these ruffians our shopkeepers used to make the cats and dogs drink vodka, or tie a kerosene-tin to a dog's tail, and whistle to make the dog come tearing along the street with the tin clattering after him, and making him squeal with terror and think he had some frightful monster hard at his heels, so that he would rush out of the town and over the fields until he could run no more. We had several dogs in the town which were left with a permanent shiver and used to crawl about with their tails between their legs, and people said that they could not stand such tricks and had gone mad.
The station was being built five miles from the town. It was said that the engineer had asked for a bribe of fifty thousand roubles to bring the station nearer, but the municipality would only agree to forty; they would not give in to the extra ten thousand, and now the townspeople are sorry because they had to make a road to the station which cost them more. Sleepers and rails were fixed all along the line, and service-trains were running to carry building materials and labourers, and they were only waiting for the bridges upon which Dolzhikov was at work, and here and there the stations were not ready.
Dubechnia—the name of our first station—was seventeen versts from the town. I went on foot. The winter and spring corn was bright green, shining in the morning sun. The road was smooth and bright, and in the distance I could see in outline the station, the hills, and the remote farmhouses. How good it was out in the open ! And how I longed to be filled with the sense of freedom, if only for that morning, to stop thinking of what was going on in the town, or of my needs, or even of eating ! Nothing has so much prevented my living as the feeling of acute hunger, which make my finest thoughts get mixed up with thoughts of porridge, cutlets, and fried fish. When I stand alone in the fields and look up at the larks hanging marvellously in the air, and bursting with hysterical song, I think: "It would be nice to have some bread and butter. "Or when I sit in the road and shut my eyes and listen to the wonderful sounds of a May-day, I remember how good hot potatoes smell. Being big and of a strong constitution I never have quite enough to eat, and so my chief sensation during the day is hunger, and so I can understand why so many people who are working for a bare living, can talk of nothing but food.
At Dubechnia the station was being plastered inside, and the upper story of the water-tank was being built. It was close and smelt of lime, and the labourers were wandering lazily over piles of chips and rubbish. The signalman was asleep near his box with the sun pouring straight into his face. There was not a single tree. The telegraph wire gave a faint hum, and here and there birds had alighted on it. I wandered over the heaps, not knowing what to do, and remembered how when I asked the engineer what my duties would be, he had replied: "We will see there." But what was there to see in such a wilderness? The plasterers were talking about the foreman and about one Fedot Vassilievich. I could not understand and was filled with embarrassment physical embarrassment. I felt conscious of my arms and legs, and of the whole of my big body, and did not know what to do with them or where to go.
After walking for at least a couple of hours I noticed that from the station to the right of the line there were telegraph-poles which after about one and a half or two miles ended in a white stone wall. The labourers said it was the office, and I decided at last that I must go there.
It was a very old farmhouse, long unused. The wall of rough, white stone was decayed, and in places had crumbled away, and the roof of the wing, the blind wall of which looked toward the railway, had perished, and was patched here and there with tin. Through the gates there was a large yard, overgrown with tall grass, and beyond that, an old house with Venetian blinds in the windows, and a high roof, brown with rot. On either side of the house, to right and left, were two symmetrical wings; the windows of one were boarded up, while by the other, the windows of which were open, there was a number of calves grazing. The last telegraph-pole stood in the yard, and the wire went from it to the wing with the blind wall. The door was open and I went in. By the table at the telegraph was sitting a man with a dark, curly head in a canvas coat ; he glared at me sternly and askance, but he immediately smiled and said :
"How do you do, Little Profit? "
It was Ivan Cheprakov, my school friend, who was expelled, when he was in the second class, for smoking. Once, during the autumn, we were out catching gold finches, starlings, and hawfinches, to sell them in the market early in the morning when our parents were still asleep.
We beat up flocks of starlings and shot at them with pellets, and then picked up the wounded, and some died in terrible agony I can still remember how they moaned at night in my cage and some recovered. And we sold them, and swore black and blue that they were male birds. Once in the market I had only one starling left, which I hawked about and finally sold for a copeck. "A little profit!" I said to console myself, and from that time at school I was always known as "Little Profit," and even now, schoolboys and the townspeople sometimes use the name to tease me, though no one but myself remembers how it came about.
Cheprakov never was strong. He was narrow-chested, round-shouldered, long-legged. His tie looked like a piece of string, he had no waistcoat, and his boots were worse than mine—with the heels worn down. He blinked with his eyes and had an eager expression as though he were trying to catch some thing and he was in a constant fidget.
"You wait," he said, bustling about. "Look here! . . . What was I saying just now?"
We began to talk. I discovered that the estate had till recently belonged to the Cheprakovs and only the previous autumn had passed to Dolzhikov, who thought it more profitable to keep his money in land than in shares, and had already bought three big estates in our district with the transfer of all mortgages. When Cheprakov's mother sold, she stipulated for the right to live in one of the wings for another two years and get her son a job in the office.
"Why shouldn't he buy?" said Cheprakov of the engineer. "He gets a lot from the contractors. He bribes them all."
Then he took me to dinner, deciding in his emphatic way that I was to live with him in the wing and board with his mother.
"She is a screw," he said, "but she will not take much from you."
In the small rooms where his mother lived there was a queer jumble; even the hall and the passage were stacked with furniture, which had been taken from the house after the sale of the estate ; and the furniture was old, and of redwood. Mrs. Cheprakov, a very stout elderly lady, with slanting, Chinese eyes, sat by the window, in a big chair, knitting a stocking. She received me ceremoniously.
"It is Polozniev, mother," said Cheprakov, introducing me. "He is going to work here."
"Are you a nobleman? " she asked in a strange, unpleasant voice as though she had boiling fat in her throat.
"Yes," I answered.
The dinner was bad. It consisted only of a pie with unsweetened curds and some milk soup. Elena Nikifirovna, my hostess, was perpetually winking, first with one eye, then with the other. She talked and ate, but in her whole aspect there was a deathlike quality, and one could almost detect the smell of a corpse. Life hardly stirred in her, yet she had the air of being the lady of the manor, who had once had her serfs, and was the wife of a general, whose servants had to call him "Your Excellency," and when these miserable embers of life flared up in her for a moment, she would say to her son :
"Ivan, that is not the way to hold your knife !"
Or she would say, gasping for brea'th, with the preciseness of a hostess labouring to entertain her guest :
"We have just sold our estate, you know. It is a pity, of course, we have got so used to being here, but Dolzhikov promised to make Ivan station-master at Dubechnia, so that we shan't have to leave. We shall live here on the station, which is the same as living on the estate. The engineer is such a nice man ! Don't you think him very handsome? "
Until recently the Cheprakovs had been very well-to-do, but with the general's death everything changed. Elena Nikifirovna began to quarrel with the neighbours and to go to law, and she did not pay her bailiffs and labourers ; she was always afraid of being robbed—and in less than ten years Dubechnia changed completely.
Behind the house there was an old garden run wild, overgrown with tall grass and brushwood. I walked along the terrace which was still well-kept and beautiful ; through the glass door I saw a room with a parquet floor, which must have been the drawing-room. It contained an ancient piano, some engravings in mahogany frames on the walls—and nothing else. There was nothing left of the flower-garden but peonies and poppies, rearing their white and scarlet heads above the ground ; on the paths, all huddled together, were young maples and elm-trees, which had been stripped by the cows. The growth was dense and the garden seemed impassable, and only near the house, where there still stood poplars, firs, and some old lime trees, were there traces of the former avenues, and further on the garden was being cleared for a hay-field, and here it was no longer allowed to run wild, and one's mouth and eyes were no longer filled with spiders' webs, and a pleasant air was stirring. The further out one went, the more open it was, and there were cherry-trees, plum-trees, wide-spreading old apple-trees, lichened and held up with props, and the pear-trees were so tall that it was incredible that there could be pears on them. This part of the garden was let to the market-women of our town, and it was guarded from thieves and starlings by a peasant an idiot who lived in a hut.
The orchard grew thinner and became a mere meadow running down to the river, which was overgrown with reeds and withy-beds. There was a pool by the mill-dam, deep and full of fish, and a little mill with a straw roof ground and roared, and the frogs croaked furiously. On the water, which was as smooth as glass, circles appeared from time to time, and water-lilies trembled on the impact of a darting fish. The village of Dubechnia was on the other side of the river. The calm, azure pool was alluring with its promise of coolness and rest. And now all this, the pool, the mill, the comfortable banks of the river, belonged to the engineer !
And here my new work began. I received and despatched telegrams, I wrote out various accounts and copied orders, claims, and reports, sent in to the office by our illiterate foremen and mechanics. But most of the day I did nothing, walking up and down the room waiting for telegrams, or I would tell the boy to stay in the wing, and go into the garden until the boy came to say the bell was ringing. I had dinner with Mrs. Cheprakov. Meat was served very rarely; most of the dishes were made of milk, and on Wednesdays and Fridays we had Lenten fare, and the food was served in pink plates, which were called Lenten. Mrs. Cheprakov was always blinking the habit grew on her, and I felt awkward and embarrassed in her presence.
As there was not enough work for one, Cheprakov did nothing, but slept or went down to the pool with his gun to shoot ducks. In the evenings he got drunk in the village, or at the station, and before going to bed he would look in the glass and say :
"How are you, Ivan Cheprakov?"
When he was drunk, he was very pale and used to rub his hands and laugh, or rather neigh, He-he-he ! Out of bravado he would undress himself and run naked through the fields, and he used to eat flies and say they were a bit sour.
Once after dinner he came running into the wing, panting, to say:
"Your sister has come to see you.*'
I went out and saw a fly standing by the steps of the house. My sister had brought Aniuta Blagovo and a military gentleman in a summer uniform. As I approached I recognised the military gentleman as Aniuta's brother, the doctor.
"We've come to take you for a picnic," he said, "if you've no objection."
My sister and Aniuta wanted to ask how I was getting on, but they were both silent and only looked at me. They felt that I didn't like my job, and tears came into my sister's eyes and Aniuta Blagovo blushed. We went into the orchard, the doctor first, and he said ecstatically :
"What air! By jove, what air! "
He was just a boy to look at. He talked and walked like an undergraduate, and the look in his grey eyes was as lively, simple, and frank as that of a nice boy. Compared with his tall, handsome sister he looked weak and slight, and his little beard was thin and so was his voice—a thin tenor, though quite pleasant. He was away somewhere with his regiment and had come home on leave, and said that he was going to Petersburg in the autumn to take his M.D. He already had a family—a wife and three children; he had married young, in his second year at the University, and people said he was unhappily married and was not living with his wife.
"What is the time?" My sister was uneasy. "We must go back soon, for my father would only let me be away until six o'clock."
"Oh, your father," sighed the doctor.
I made tea, and we drank it sitting on a carpet in front of the terrace, and the doctor, kneeling, drank from his saucer, and said that he was perfectly happy. Then Cheprakov fetched the key and unlocked the glass door and we all entered the house. It was dark and mysterious and smelled of mushrooms, and our footsteps made a hollow sound as though there were a vault under the floor. The doctor stopped by the piano and touched the keys and it gave out a faint, tremulous, cracked but still melodious sound. He raised his voice and began to sing a romance, frowning and impatiently stamping his foot when he touched a broken key. My sister forgot about going home, but walked agitatedly up and down the room and said :
"I am happy! I am very, very happy! "
There was a note of surprise in her voice as though it seemed impossible to her that she should be happy. It was the first time in my life that I had seen her so gay. She even looked handsome. Her profile was not good, her nose and mouth somehow protruded and made her look as if she was always blowing, but she had beautiful, dark eyes, a pale, very delicate complexion, and a touching expression of kindness and sadness, and when she spoke she seemed very charm ing and even beautiful. Both she and I took after our mother; we were broad-shouldered, strong, and sturdy, but her paleness was a sign of sickness, she often coughed, and in her eyes I often noticed the expression common to people who are ill, but who for some reason conceal it. In her present cheerfulness there was something childish and naive, as though all the joy which had been suppressed and dulled during our childhood by a strict upbringing, had suddenly awakened in her soul and rushed out into freedom.
But when evening came and the fly was brought round, my sister became very quiet and subdued, and sat in the fly as though it were a prison-van.
Soon they were all gone. The noise of the fly died away. . . I remembered that Aniuta Blagavo had said not a single word to me all day.
"A wonderful girl !" I thought. "A wonderful girl."
Lent came and every day we had Lenten dishes. I was greatly depressed by my idleness and the uncertainty of my position, and, slothful, hungry, dissatisfied with myself, I wandered over the estate and only waited for an energetic mood to leave the place.
Once in the afternoon when Radish was sitting in our wing, Dolzhikov entered unexpectedly, very sunburnt, and grey with dust. He had been out on the line for three days and had come to Dubechnia on a locomotive and walked over. While he waited for the carriage which he had ordered to come out to meet him he went over the estate with his bailiff, giving orders in a loud voice, and then for a whole hour he sat in our wing and wrote letters. When telegrams came through for him, he himself tapped out the answers, while we stood there stiff and silent.
"What a mess! " he said, looking angrily through the accounts. "I shall transfer the office to the station in a fortnight and I don't know what I shall do with you then."
"I've done my best, sir," said Cheprakov.
"Quite so. I can see what your best is. You can only draw your wages." The engineer looked at me and went on. "You rely on getting introductions to make a career for yourself with as little trouble as possible. Well, I don't care about introductions. Nobody helped me. Before I had this line, I was an engine-driver. I worked in Belgium as an ordinary lubricator. And what are you doing here, Panteley ? " he asked, turning to Radish. "Going out drinking?"
For some reason or other he called all simple people Panteley, while he despised men like Cheprakov and myself, and called us drunkards, beasts, canaille. As a rule he was hard on petty officials, and paid and dismissed them ruthlessly without any explanation.
At last the carriage came for him. When he left he promised to dismiss us all in a fortnight; called the bailiff a fool, stretched himself out comfortably in the carriage, and drove away.
"Andrey Ivanich," I said to Radish, "will you take me on as a labourer? "
"Why! All right! "
We went together toward the town, and when the station and the farm were far behind us, I asked :
"Andrey Ivanich, why did you come to Dubechnia?"
"Firstly because some of my men are working on the line, and secondly to pay interest to Mrs. Cheprakov. I borrowed fifty roubles from her last summer, and now I pay her one rouble a month interest."
The decorator stopped and took hold of my coat.
"Misail Alexeich, my friend," he went on, "I take it that if a common man or a gentleman takes interest, he is a wrong-doer. The truth is not in him."
Radish, looking thin, pale, and rather terrible, shut his eyes, shook his head, and muttered in a philosophic tone:
"The grub eats grass, rust eats iron, lies devour the soul. God save us miserable sinners ! "
Radish was unpractical and he was no business man ; he undertook more work than he could do, and when it came to payment he always lost his reckoning and so was always out on the wrong side. He was a painter, a glazier, a paper-hanger, and would even take on tiling, and I remember how he used to run about for days looking for tiles to make an insignificant profit. He was an excellent workman and would sometime earn ten roubles a day, and but for his desire to be a master and to call himself a contractor, he would probably have made quite a lot of money.
He himself was paid by contract and paid me and the others by the day, between seventy-five copecks and a rouble per day. When the weather was hot and dry we did various outside jobs, chiefly painting roofs. Not being used to it, my feet got hot, as though I were walking over a ret-hot oven, and when I wore felt boots my feet swelled. But this was only at the beginning. Later on I got used to it and every thing went all right. I lived among the people, to whom work was obligatory and unavoidable, people who worked like dray-horses, and knew nothing of the moral value of labour, and never even used the word " labour " in their talk. Among them I also felt like a dray-horse, more and more imbued with the necessity and inevitability of what I was doing, and this made nay life easier, and saved me from doubt.
At first everything amused me, everything was new. It was like being born again. I could sleep on the ground and go barefoot and found it exceedingly pleasant. I could stand in a crowd of simple folks, without embarrassing them, and when a cab-horse fell down in the street, I used to run and help it up without being afraid of soiling my clothes. But, best of all, I was living independently and was not a burden on any one.
The painting of roofs, especially when we mixed our own paint, was considered a very profitable business, and therefore, even such good workmen as Radish did not shun this rough and tiresome work. In short trousers, showing his lean, muscular legs, he used to prowl over the roof like a stork, and I used to hear him sigh wearily as he worked his brush :
"Woe, woe to us, miserable sinners!"
He could walk as easily on a roof as on the ground. In spite of his looking so ill and pale and corpse-like, his agility was extraordinary; like any young man he would paint the cupola and the top of the church with out scaffolding, using only ladders and a rope, and it was queer and strange when, standing there, far above the ground, he would rise to his full height and cry to the world at large :
"Grubs eat grass, rust eats iron, lies devour the soul ! "
Or, thinking of something, he would suddenly answer his own thought :
"Anything may happen ! Anything may happen ! "
When I went home from work all the people sitting outside their doors, the shop assistants, boys, and their masters, used to shout after me and jeer spitefully, and at first it seemed monstrous and distressed me greatly.
"Little Profit," they used to shout. "House-painter! Yellow ochre! '
And no one treated me so unmercifully as those who had only just risen above the people and had quite recently had to work for their living. Once in the market-place as I passed the ironmonger's a can of water was spilled over me as if by accident, and once a stick was thrown at me. And once a fishmonger, a grey-haired old man, stood in my way and looked at me morosely and said :
"It isn't you 'm sorry for, you fool, it's your father."
And when my acquaintances met me they got confused. Some regarded me as a queer fish and a fool, and they were sorry for me; others did not know how to treat me and it was difficult to understand them. Once, in the daytime, in one of the streets off Great Gentry Street, I met Aniuta Blagovo. I was on my way to my work and was carrying two long brushes and a pot of paint. When she recognised me, Aniuta blushed!
"Please do not acknowledge me in the street," she said nervously, sternly, in a trembling voice, without offering to shake hands with me, and tears suddenly gleamed in her eyes. "If you must be like this, then, so—so be it, but please avoid me in public !"
I had left Great Gentry Street and was living in a suburb, called Makarikha, with my nurse Karpovna, a good-natured but gloomy old woman who was always looking for evil, and was frightened by her dreams, and saw omens and ill in the bees and wasps which flew into her room. And in her opinion my having become a working man boded no good.
"You are lost !" she said mournfully, shaking her head. "Lost !"
With her in her little house lived her adopted son, Prokofyi, a butcher, a huge, clumsy fellow, of about thirty, with ginger hair and scrubby moustache. When he met me in the hall, he would silently and respectfully make way for me, and when he was drunk he would salute me with his whole hand. In the evenings he used to have supper, and through the wooden partition I could hear him snorting and snuffling as he drank glass after glass.
"Mother," he would say in an undertone.
"Well," Karpovna would reply. She was passionately fond of him. "What is it, my son? "
"I'll do you a favour, mother. I'll feed you in your old age in this vale of tears, and when you die I'll bury you at my own expense. So I say and so I'll do."
I used to get up every day before sunrise and go to bed early. We painters ate heavily and slept soundly, and only during the night would we have any excitement. I never quarrelled with my comrades. All day long there was a ceaseless stream of abuse, cursing and hearty good wishes, as, for instance, that one's eyes should burst, or that one might be carried off by cholera, but, all the same, among ourselves we were very friendly. The men suspected me of being a religious crank and used to laugh at me good-naturedly, saying that even my own father denounced me, and they used to say that they very seldom went to church and that many of them had not been to confession for ten years, and they justified their laxness by saying that a decorator is among men like a jackdaw among birds.
My mates respected me and regarded me with esteem ; they evidently liked my not drinking or smoking, and leading a quiet, steady life. They were only rather disagreeably surprised at my not stealing the oil, or going with them to ask our employers for a drink. The stealing of the employers' oil and paint was a custom with house-painters, and was not regarded as theft, and it was remarkable that even so honest a man as Radish would always come away from work with some white lead and oil. And even respectable old men who had their own houses in Makarikha were not ashamed to ask for tips, and when the men, at the beginning or end of a job, made up to some vulgar fool and thanked him humbly for a few pence, I used to feel sick and sorry.
With the customers they behaved like sly courtiers, and almost every day I was reminded of Shakespeare's Polonius.
"There will probably be rain," a customer would say, staring at the sky.
"It is sure to rain," the painters would agree.
"But the clouds aren't rain-clouds. Perhaps it won't rain."
"No, sir. It won't rain. It won't rain, sure."
Behind their backs they generally regarded the customers ironically, and when, for instance, they saw a gentleman sitting on his balcony with a newspaper, they would say :
"He reads newspapers, but he has nothing to eat."
I never visited my people. When I returned from work I often found short, disturbing notes from my sister about my father; how he was very absent-minded at dinner, and then slipped away and locked himself in his study and did not come out for a long time. Such news upset me. I could not sleep, and I would go sometimes at night and walk along Great Gentry Street by our house, and look up at the dark windows, and try to guess if all was well within. On Sundays my sister would come to see me, but by stealth, as though she came not to see me, but our nurse. And if she came into my room she would look pale, with her eyes red, and at once she would begin to weep.
"Father cannot bear it much longer," she would say. "If, as God forbid, something were to happen to him, it would be on your conscience all your life. It is awful, Misail ! For mother's sake I implore you to mend your ways."
"My dear sister," I replied. " How can I reform when I am convinced that I am acting according to my conscience? Do try to understand me! "
"I know you are obeying your conscience, but it ought to be possible to do so without hurting anybody."
"Oh, saints above! " the old woman would sigh behind the door. "You are lost. There will be a misfortune, my dear. It is bound to come."
One Sunday, Doctor Blagavo came to see me unexpectedly. He was wearing a white summer uniform over a silk shirt, and high glace boots.
"I came to see you ! " he began, gripping my hand in his hearty, undergraduate fashion. "I hear of you every day and I have long intended to go and see you to have a heart-to-heart, as they say. Things are awfully boring in the town ; there is not a living soul worth talking to. How hot it is, by Jove! " he went on, taking off his tunic and standing in his silk shirt. "My dear fellow, let us have a talk."
I was feeling bored and longing for other society than that of the decorators. I was really glad to see him.
"To begin with," he said, sitting on my bed, "I sympathise with you heartily, and I have a profound respect for your present way of living. In the town you are misunderstood and there is nobody to understand you, because, as you know, it is full of Gogolian pig-faces. But I guessed what you were at the picnic. You are a noble soul, an honest, high-minded man ! I respect you and think it an honour to shake hands with you. To change your life so abruptly and suddenly as you did, you must have passed through a most trying spiritual process, and to go on with it now, to live scrupulously by your convictions, you must have to toil incessantly both in mind and in heart. Now, please tell me, don't you think that if you spent all this force of will, intensity, and power on something else, like trying to be a great scholar or an artist, that your life would be both wider and deeper, and altogether more productive? '
'"We talked and when we came to speak of physical labour, I expressed this idea: that it was necessary that the strong should not enslave the weak, and that the minority should not be a parasite on the majority, always sucking up the finest sap, i.e., it was necessary that all without exception—.the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor—should share equally in the struggle for existence, every man for himself, and in that respect there was no better means of levelling than physical labour and compulsory service for all.
"You think, then," said the doctor, "that all, with out exception, should be employed in physical labour?"
"But don't you think that if everybody, including the best people, thinkers and men of science, were to take part in the struggle for existence, each man for himself, and took to breaking stones and painting roofs, it would be a serious menace to progress? "
"Where is the danger? " I asked. "Progress consists in deeds of love, in the fulfillment of the moral law. If you enslave no one, and are a burden upon no one, what further progress do you want? "
"But look here! " said Blagovo, suddenly losing his temper and getting up. "I say! If a snail in its shell is engaged in self-perfection in obedience to the moral law would you call that progress? "
"But why? " I was nettled. "If you don't make your neighbours feed you, clothe you, carry you, defend you from your enemies, surely, that is progress amidst a life resting on slavery. My view is that that is the most real and, perhaps, the only possible, the only progress necessary."
"The limits of universal progress, which is common to all men, are in infinity, and it seems to me strange to talk of a ' possible ' progress limited by our needs and temporal conceptions."
"If the limits of progress are in infinity, as you say, then it means that its goal is indefinite," I said. "Think of living without knowing definitely what for! "
"Why not? Your 'not knowing' is not so boring as your 'knowing' I am walking up a ladder which is called progress, civilisation, culture. I go on and on, not knowing definitely where I am going to, but surely it is worth while living for the sake of the wonderful ladder alone. And you know exactly what you are living for—that some should not enslave others, that the artist and the man who mixes his colours for him should dine equally well. But that is the bourgeois, kitchen side of life, and isn't it disgusting only to live for that? If some insects devour others, devil take them, let them ! We need not think of them, they will perish and rot, however you save them from slavery—we must think of that great Millenium which awaits all mankind in the distant future."
Blagovo argued hotly with me, but it was noticeable that he was disturbed by some outside thought.
"Your sister is not coming," he said, consulting his watch. "Yesterday she was at our house and said she was going to see you. You go on talking about slavery, slavery," he went on, "but it is a special question, and all these questions are solved by mankind gradually."
We began to talk of evolution. I said that every man decides the question of good and evil for him self, and does not wait for mankind to solve the question by virtue of gradual development. Besides, evolution is a stick with two ends. Side by side with the gradual development of humanitarian ideas, there is the gradual growth of ideas of a different kind. Serfdom is past, and capitalism is growing. And with ideas of liberation at their height the majority, just as in the days of Baty, feeds, clothes, and defends the minority; and is left hungry, naked, and defenceless. The state of things harmonises beautifully with all your tendencies and movements, because the art of enslaving is also being gradually developed. We no longer flog our servants in the stables, but we give slavery more refined forms; at any rate, we are able to justify it in each separate case. Ideas remain ideas with us, but if we could, now, at the end of the nineteenth century, throw upon the working classes all our most unpleasant physiological functions, we should do so, and, of course, we should justify our selves by saying that if the best people, thinkers and great scholars, had to waste their time on such functions, progress would be in serious jeopardy.
Just then my sister entered. When she saw the doctor, she was flurried and excited, and at once began to say that it was time for her to go home to her father.
"Cleopatra Alexeyevna," said Blagovo earnestly, laying his hands on his heart, "what will happen to your father if you spend half an hour with your brother and me? "
He was a simple kind of man and could communicate his cheerfulness to others. My sister thought for a minute and began to laugh, and suddenly got very happy, suddenly, unexpectedly, just as she did at the picnic. We went out into the fields and lay on the grass, and went on with our conversation and looked at the town, where all the windows facing the west looked golden in the setting sun.
After that Blagovo appeared every time my sister came to see me, and they always greeted each other as though their meeting was unexpected. My sister used to listen while the doctor and I argued, and her face was always joyful and rapturous, admiring and curious, and it seemed to me that a new world was slowly being discovered before her eyes, a world which she had not seen before even in her dreams, which now she was trying to divine; when the doctor was not there she was quiet and sad, and if, as she sat on my bed, she sometimes wept, it was for reasons of which she did not speak.
In August Radish gave us orders to go to the railway. A couple of days before we were " driven " out of town, my father came to see me. He sat down and, without looking at me, slowly wiped his red face, then took out of his pocket our local paper and read out with deliberate emphasis on each word that a schoolfellow of my own age, the son of the director of the State Bank, had been appointed chief clerk of the Court of the Exchequer.
"And now look at yourself," he said, folding up the newspaper. "You are a beggar, a vagabond, a scoundrel! Even the working class people and peasants get education to make themselves decent people, while you, a Polozniev, with famous, noble ancestors, go wallowing in the mire! But I did not come here to talk to you. I have given you up already." He went on in a choking voice, as he stood up: "I came here to find out where your sister is, you scoundrel ! She left me after dinner. It is now past seven o'clock and she is not in. She has been going out lately with out telling me, and she has been disrespectful—and I see your filthy, abominable influence at work. Where is she? "
He had in his hands the familiar umbrella, and I was already taken aback, and I stood stiff and erect, like a schoolboy, waiting for my father to thrash me, but he saw the glance I cast at the umbrella and this probably checked him.
"Live as you like! " he said. "My blessing is gone from you."
"Good God!" muttered my old nurse behind the door. "You are lost. Oh ! my heart feels some misfortune coming. I can feel it."
I went to work on the railway. During the whole of August there was wind and rain. It was damp and cold ; the corn had now been gathered in the fields, and on the big farms where the reaping was done with machines, the wheat lay not in sheaves, but in heaps; and I remember how those melancholy heaps grew darker and darker every day, and the grain sprouted. It was hard work; the pouring rain spoiled everything that we succeeded in finishing. We were not allowed either to live or to sleep in the station buildings and had to take shelter in dirty, damp, mud huts where the " rallies " had lived during the summer, and at night I could not sleep from the cold and the bugs crawling over my face and hands. And when we were working near the bridges, then the " railies " used to come out in a crowd to fight the painters which they regarded as sport. They used to thrash us, steal our brushes, and to infuriate us and provoke us to a fight they used to spoil our work, as when they smeared the signal-boxes with green paint. To add to all our miseries Radish began to pay us very irregularly. All the painting on the line was given to one contractor, who subcontracted with another, and he again with Radish, stipulating for twenty per cent, commission. The job itself was unprofitable; then came the rains; time was wasted; we did no work and Radish had to pay his men every day. The starving painters nearly came to blows with him, called him a swindler, a blood sucker, a Judas, and he, poor man, sighed and in despair raised his hands to the heavens and was continually going to Mrs. Cheprakov to borrow money.
Came the rainy, muddy, dark autumn, bringing a slack time, and I used to sit at home three days in the week without work, or did various jobs outside painting; such as digging earth for ballast for twenty copecks a day. Doctor Blagovo had gone to Petersburg. My sister did not come to see me. Radish lay at home ill, expecting to die every day.
And my mood was also autumnal; perhaps because when I became a working man I saw only the seamy side of the life of our town, and every day made fresh discoveries which brought me to despair. My fellow townsmen, both those of whom I had had a low opinion before, and those whom I had thought fairly decent, now seemed to me base, cruel, and up to any dirty trick. We poor people were tricked and cheated in the accounts, kept waiting for hours in cold passages or in the kitchen, and we were insulted and uncivilly treated. In the autumn I had to paper the library and two rooms at the club. I was paid seven copecks a piece, but was told to give a receipt for twelve copecks, and when I refused to do it, a respectable gentleman in gold spectacles, one of the stewards of the club, said to me:
"If you say another word, you scoundrel, I'll knock you down."
And when a servant whispered to him that I was the son of Polozniev, the architect, then he got flustered and blushed, but he recovered himself at once and said :
In the shops we working men were sold bad meat, musty flour, and coarse tea. In church we were jostled by the police, and in the hospitals we were mulcted by the assistants and nurses, and if we could not give them bribes through poverty, we were given food in dirty dishes. In the post-office the lowest official considered it his duty to treat us as animals and to shout rudely and insolently: "Wait! Don't you come pushing your way in here !" Even the dogs, even they were hostile to us and hurled themselves at us with a peculiar malignancy. But what struck me most of all in my new position was the entire lack of justice, what the people call "forgetting God." Barely a clay went by without some swindle. The shopkeeper, who sold us oil, the contractor, the work men, the customers themselves, all cheated. It was an understood thing that our rights were never considered, and we always had to pay for the money we had earned, going with our hats off to the back door.
I was paper-hanging in one of the club-rooms, next the library, when, one evening as I was on the point of leaving, Dolzhikov's daughter came into the room carrying a bundle of books.
I bowed to her.
"Ah ! How are you? " she said, recognising me at once and holding out her hand. "I am very glad to see you."
She smiled and looked with a curious puzzled expression at my blouse and the pail of paste and the papers lying on the floor; I was embarrassed and she also felt awkward.
"Excuse my staring at you," she said. " I have heard so much about you. Especially from Doctor Blagovo. He is enthusiastic about you. I have met your sister ; she is a dear, sympathetic girl, but I could not make her see that there is nothing awful in your simple life. On the contrary, you are the most interesting man in the town."
Once more she glanced at the pail of paste and the paper and said :
"I asked Doctor Blagovo to bring us together, but he either forgot or had no time However, we have met now. I should be very pleased if you would call on me. I do so want to have a talk. I am a simple person," she said, holding out her hand, " and I hope you will come and see me without ceremony. My father is away, in Petersburg."
She went into the reading-room, with her dress rustling, and for a long time after I got home I could not sleep.
During that autumn some kind soul, wishing to relieve my existence, sent me from time to time presents of tea and lemons, or biscuits, or roast game. Karpovna said the presents were brought by a soldier, though from whom she did not know; and the soldier used to ask if I was well, if I had dinner every day, and if I had warm clothes. When the frost began the soldier came while I was out and brought a soft knitted scarf, which gave out a soft, hardly perceptible scent, and I guessed who my good fairy had been. For the scarf smelled of lily-of-the-valley, Aniuta Blagovo's favourite scent.
Toward winter there was more work and things became more cheerful. Radish came to life again and we worked together in the cemetery church, where we scraped the holy shrine for gilding. It was a clean, quiet, and, as our mates said, a specially good job. We could do a great deal in one day, and so time passed quickly, imperceptibly. There was no swearing, nor laughing, nor loud altercations. The place compelled quiet and decency, and disposed one for tranquil, serious thoughts. Absorbed in our work, we stood or sat immovably, like statues; there was a dead silence, very proper to a cemetery, so that if a tool fell down, or the oil in the lamp spluttered, the sound would be loud and startling, and we would turn to see what it was. After a long silence one could hear a humming like that of a swarm of bees; in the porch, in an undertone, the funeral service was being read over a dead baby; or a painter painting a moon surrounded with stars on the cupola would begin to whistle quietly, and re-remembering suddenly that he was in a church, would stop; or Radish would sigh at his own thoughts: "Anything may happen! Anything may happen! ' or above our heads there would be the slow, mournful tolling of a bell, and the painters would say it must be a rich man being brought to the church. . . .
The days I spent in the peace of the little church, and during the evenings I played billiards, or went to the gallery of the theatre in the new serge suit I had bought with my own hard-earned money. They were already beginning plays and concerts at the Azhoguins', and Radish did the scenery by himself. He told me about the plays and tableaux vivants at the Azhoguins', and I listened to him enviously. I had a great longing to take part in the rehearsals, but I dared not go to the Azhoguins'.
A week before Christmas Doctor Blagovo arrived, and we resumed our arguments and played billiards in the evenings. When he played billiards he used to take off his coat, and unfasten his shirt at the neck, and generally try to look like a debauchee. He drank a little, but rowdily, and managed to spend in a cheap tavern like the Volga as much as twenty roubles in an evening.
Once more my sister came to see me, and when they met they expressed surprise, but I could see by her happy, guilty face that these meetings were not accidental. One evening when we were playing billiards the doctor said to me:
"I say, why don't you call on Miss Dolzhikov? You don't know Maria Yictorovna. She is a clever, charming, simple creature."
I told him how her father, the engineer, had received me in the spring.
"Nonsense! " laughed the doctor. "The engineer is one thing and she is another. Really, my good fellow, you mustn't offend her. Go and see her some time. Let us go to-morrow evening. Will you? "
He persuaded me. Next evening I donned my serge suit and with some perturbation set out to call on Miss Dolzhikov. The footman did not seem to me so haughty and formidable, or the furniture so oppressive, as on the morning when I had come to ask for work. Maria Yictorovna was expecting me and greeted me as an old friend and gave my hand a warm, friendly grip. She was wearing a grey dress with wide sleeves, and had her hair done in the style which when it became the fashion a year later in our town, was called "dog's ears." The hair was combed back over the ears, and it made Maria Yictorovna's face look broader, and she looked very like her father, whose face was broad and red and rather like a coachman's. She was handsome and elegant, but not young; about thirty to judge by her appearance, though she was not more than twenty-five.
"Dear doctor! " she said, making me sit down. "How grateful I am to him. But for him, you would not have come. I am bored to death ! My father has gone and left me alone, and I do not know what to do with myself."
Then she began to ask where I was working, how much I got, and where I lived.
"Do you only spend what you earn on yourself? " she asked.
"You are a happy man," she replied. "All the evil in life, it seems to me, comes from boredom and idleness, and spiritual emptiness, which are inevitable when one lives at other people's expense. Don't think I'm showing off. I mean it sincerely. It is dull and unpleasant to be rich. Win friends by just riches, they say, because as a rule there is and can be no such thing as just riches."
She looked at the furniture with a serious, cold expression, as though she was making an inventory of it, and went on :
"Ease and comfort possess a magic power. Little by little they seduce even strong-willed people. Father and I used to live poorly and simply, and now you see how we live. Isn't it strange? " she said with a shrug. "We spend twenty thousand roubles a year ! In the provinces ! "
"Ease and comfort must not be regarded as the inevitable privilege of capital and education," I said. "It seems to me possible to unite the comforts of life with work, however hard and dirty it may be. Your father is rich, but, as he says, he used to be a mechanic, and just a lubricator."
She smiled and shook her head doubtfully.
"Papa sometimes eats tiurya," she said, "but only out of caprice."
A bell rang and she, got up.
"The rich and the educated ought to work like the rest," she went on, "and if there is to be any comfort, it should be accessible to all. There should be no privileges. However, that's enough philosophy. Tell me something cheerful. Tell me about the painters. What are they like? Funny ? "
The doctor came. I began to talk about the painters, but, being unused to it, I felt awkward and talked solemnly and ponderously like an ethnographist. The doctor also told a few stories about working people. He rocked to and fro and cried and fell on his knees, and when he was depicting a drunkard, lay flat on the floor. It was as good as a play, and Maria Victorovna laughed until she cried. Then he played the piano and sang in his high-pitched tenor, and Maria Victorovna stood by him and told him what to sing and corrected him when he made a mistake.
"I hear you sing, too," said I.
"Too?" cried the doctor. "She is a wonderful singer, an artist, and you say—too? Careful, careful ! "
"I used to study seriously," she replied, "but I have given it up now."
She sat on a low stool and told us about her life in Petersburg, and imitated famous singers, mimicking their voices and mannerisms; then she sketched the doctor and myself in her album, not very well, but both were good likenesses. She laughed and made jokes and funny faces, and this suited her better than talking about unjust riches, and it seemed to me that what she had said about "riches and comfort" came not from herself, but was just mimicry. She was an admirable comedian. I compared her mentally with the girls of our town, and not even the beautiful, serious Aniuta Blagovo could stand up against her; the difference was as vast as that between a wild and a garden rose.
We stayed to supper. The doctor and Maria Victorovna drank red wine, champagne, and coffee with cognac; they touched glasses and drank to friendship, to wit, to progress, to freedom, and never got drunk, but went rather red and laughed for no reason until they cried. To avoid being out of it I too, drank red wine.
"People with talent and with gifted natures," said Miss Dolzhikov, "know how to live and go their own way; but ordinary people like myself know nothing and can do nothing by themselves; there is nothing for them but to find some deep social current and let themselves be borne along by it."
"Is it possible to find that which does not exist? " asked the doctor.
"It doesn't exist because we don't see it."
"Is that so? Social currents are the invention of modern literature. They don't exist here."
A discussion began.
"We have no profound social movements ; nor have we had them," said the doctor. "Modern literature has invented a lot of things, and modern literature invented intellectual working men in village life, but go through all our villages and you will only find Mr. Cheeky Snout in a jacket or black frock coat, who will make four mistakes in the word ' one.' Civilised life has not begun with us yet. We have the same savagery, the same slavery, the same triviality as we had five hundred years ago. Movements, currents all that is so wretched and puerile mixed up with such vulgar, catch-penny interests and one cannot take it seriously. You may think you have discovered a large social movement, and you may follow it and devote your life in the modern fashion to such problems as the liberation of vermin from slavery, or the abolition of meat cutlets—and I congratulate you, madam. But we have to learn, learn, learn, and there will be plenty of time for social movements ; we are not up to them yet, and upon my soul, we don't understand anything at all about them."
"You don't understand, but I do," said Maria Victorovna. "Good Heavens! What a bore you are to-night."
"It is our business to learn and learn, to try and accumulate as much knowledge as possible, because serious social movements come where there is know ledge, and the future happiness of mankind lies in science. Here's to science!
"One thing is certain. Life must somehow be arranged differently," said Maria Victorovna, after some silence and deep thought, "and life as it has been up to now is worthless. Don't let us talk about it.
When we left her the Cathedral clock struck two.
"Did you like her? " asked the doctor. "Isn't she a dear girl? "
We had dinner at Maria Victorovna's on Christmas Day, and then we went to see her every day during the holidays. There was nobody besides ourselves, and she was right when she said she had no friends in the town but the doctor and me. We spent most of the time talking, and sometimes the doctor would bring a book or a magazine and read aloud. After all, he was the first cultivated man I had met. I could not tell if he knew much, but he was always generous with his knowledge because he wished others to know too. When he talked about medicine, he was not like any of our local doctors, but he made a new and singular impression, and it seemed to me that if he had wished he could have become a genuine scientist. And perhaps he was the only person at that time who had any real influence over me. Meeting him and reading the books he gave me, I began gradually to feel a need for knowledge to inspire the tedium of my work. It seemed strange to me that I had not known before such things as that the whole world consisted of sixty elements, I did not know what oil or paint was, and that I could have got on without knowing these things. My acquaintance with the doctor raised me morally too. I used to argue with him, and though I usually stuck to my opinion, yet, through him, I came gradually to perceive that everything was not clear to me, and I tried to cultivate 'convictions as definite as possible so that the promptings of my conscience should be precise and have nothing vague about them. Nevertheless, educated and fine as he was, far and away the best man in the town, he was by no means perfect. There was something rather rude and priggish in his ways and in his trick of dragging talk down to discussion, and when he took of? his coat and sat in his shirt and gave the footman a tip, it always seemed to me that culture was just a part of him, with the rest untamed Tartar.
After the holidays he left once more for Petersburg. He went in the morning and after dinner my sister came to see me. Without taking off her furs, she sat silent, very pale, staring in front of her. She began to shiver and seemed to be fighting against some illness.
"You must have caught a cold," I said.
Her eyes filled with tears. She rose and went to Karpovna without a word to me, as though I had offended her. And a little later I heard her speaking in a tone of bitter reproach.
"Nurse, what have I been living for, up to now? What for? Tell me; haven't I wasted my youth? During the best years I have had nothing but making up accounts, pouring out tea, counting the copecks, entertaining guests, without a thought that there was anything better in the world ! Nurse, try to understand me, I too have human desires and I want to live and they have made a housekeeper of me. It is awful, awful! "
She flung her keys against the door and they fell with a clatter in my room. They were the keys of the side board, the larder, the cellar, and the tea-chest the keys my mother used to carry.
"Oh! Oh! Saints above!" cried my old nurse in terror. "The blessed saints! "
When she left, my sister came into my room for her keys and said :
"Forgive me. Something strange has been going on in me lately."
One evening when I came home late from Maria Victorovna's I found a young policeman in a new uniform in my room; he was sitting by the table reading.
"At last! " he said, getting up and stretching him self. "This is the third time I have been to see you. The governor has ordered you to go and see him to morrow at nine o'clock sharp. Don't be late."
He made me give him a written promise to comply with his Excellency's orders and went away. This policeman's visit and the unexpected invitation to see the governor had a most depressing effect on me. From early childhood I have had a dread of gendarmes, police, legal officials, and I was tormented with anxiety as though I had really committed a crime, and I could not sleep. Nurse and Prokofyi were also upset end could not sleep. And, to make things worse, nurse had an earache, and moaned and more than once screamed out. Hearing that I could not sleep Prokofyi came quietly into my room with a little lamp and sat by the table.
"You should have a drop of pepper-brandy. . ." he said after some thought. "In this vale of tears things go on all right when you take a drop. And if mother had some pepper-brandy poured into her ear she would be much better."
About three he got ready to go to the slaughterhouse to fetch some meat. I knew I should not sleep until morning, and to use up the time until nine, I went with him. We walked with a lantern, and his boy, Nicolka, who was about thirteeen, and had blue spots on his face and an expression like a murderer's, drove behind us in a sledge, urging the horse on with hoarse cries.
"You will probably be punished at the governor's," said Prokofyi as we walked. "There is a governor's rank, and an archimandrite's rank, and an officer's rank, and a doctor's rank, and every profession has its own rank. You don't keep to yours and they won't allow it."
The slaughter-house stood behind the cemetery, and till then I had only seen it at a distance. It consisted of three dark sheds surrounded by a grey fence, from which, when the wind was in that direction in summer, there came an overpowering stench. Now, as I entered the yard, I could not see the sheds in the darkness ; I groped through horses and sledges, both empty and laden with meat; and there were men walking about with lanterns and swearing disgustingly. Prokofyi and Nicolka swore as filthily and there was a continuous hum from the swearing and coughing and the neighing of the horses.
The place smelled of corpses and offal, the snow was thawing and already mixed with mud, and in the darkness it seemed to me that I was walking through a pool of blood.
When we had filled the sledge with meat, we went to the butcher's shop in the market-place. Day was beginning to dawn. One after another the cooks came with baskets and old women in mantles. With an axe in his hand, wearing a white, blood-stained apron, Prokofyi swore terrifically and crossed himself, turning toward the church, and shouted so loud that he could be heard all over the market, avowing that he sold his meat at cost price and even at a loss. He cheated in weighing and reckoning, the cooks saw it, but, dazed by his shouting, they did not protest, but only called him a gallows-bird.
Raising and dropping his formidable axe, he assumed picturesque attitudes and constantly uttered the sound " Hak ! " with a furious expression, and I was really afraid of his cutting off some one's head or hand.
I stayed in the butcher's shop the whole morning, and when at last I went to the governor's my fur coat smelled of meat and blood. My state of mind would have been appropriate for an encounter with a bear armed with no more than a staff. I remember a long staircase with a striped carpet, and a young official in a frock coat with shining buttons, who silently indicated the door with both hands and went in to announce me. I entered the hall, where the furniture was most luxurious, but cold and tasteless, forming a most unpleasant impression—the tall, narrow pier-glasses, and the bright, yellow hangings over the windows; one could see that, though governors changed, the furniture remained the same. The young official again pointed with both hands to the door and I went toward a large, green table, by which stood a general with the Order of Vladimir at his neck.
"Mr. Polozniev," he began, holding a letter in his hand and opening his mouth wide so that it made a round O. "I asked you to come to say this to you : 'Your esteemed father has applied verbally and in writing to the provincial marshal of nobility, to have you summoned and made to see the incongruity of your conduct with the title of nobleman which you have the honour to bear. His Excellency Alexander Pavlovich, justly thinking that your conduct may be subversive, and finding that persuasion may not be sufficient, without serious intervention on the part of the authorities, has given me his decision as to your case, and I agree with him."
He said this quietly, respectfully, standing erect as if I was his superior, and his expression was not at all severe. He had a flabby, tired face, covered with wrinkles, with pouches under his eyes; his hair was dyed, and it was hard to guess his age from his appearance—fifty or sixty.
"I hope," he went on, "that you will appreciate Alexander Pavlovich's delicacy in applying to me, not officially, but privately. I have invited you unofficially not as a governor, but as a sincere admirer of your father's. And I ask you to change your conduct and to return to the duties proper to your rank, or, to avoid the evil effects of your example, to go to some other place where you are not known and where you may do what you like. Otherwise I shall have to resort to extreme measures,"
For half a minute he stood in silence staring at me open-mouthed.
"Are you a vegetarian?" he asked.
"No, your Excellency, I eat meat."
He sat down and took up a document, and I bowed and left.
It was not worth while going to work before dinner. I went home and tried to sleep, but could not because of the unpleasant, sickly feeling from the slaughterhouse and my conversation with the governor. And so I dragged through till the evening and then, feeling gloomy and out of sorts, I went to see Maria Victorovna. I told her about my visit to the governor and she looked at me in bewilderment, as if she did not believe me, and suddenly she began to laugh merrily, heartily, stridently, as only good-natured, light-hearted people can.
"If I were to tell this in Petersburg!" she cried, nearly dropping with laughter, bending over the table. "If I could tell them in Petersburg ! "
Now we saw each other often, sometimes twice a day. Almost every day, after dinner, she drove up to the cemetery and, as she waited for me, read the inscriptions on the crosses and monuments. Some times she came into the church and stood by my side and watched me working. The silence, the simple industry of the painters and gilders, Badish's good sense, and the fact that outwardly I was no different from the other artisans and worked as they did, in a waistcoat and old shoes, and that they addressed me familiarly—were new to her, and she was moved by it all. Once in her presence a painter who was working, at a door on the roof, called down to me :
"Misail, fetch me the white lead."
I fetched him the white lead and as I came down the scaffolding she was moved to tears and looked at me and smiled :
"What a dear you are! " she said.
"I have always remembered how when I was a child a green parrot got out of its cage in one of the rich people's houses and wandered about the town for a whole month, flying from one garden to another, homeless and lonely. And Maria Yictorovna reminded me of the bird.
"Except to the cemetery," she said with a laugh, "I have absolutely nowhere to go. The town bores me to tears. People read, sing, and twitter at the Azhoguins', but I cannot bear them lately. Your sister is shy, Miss Blagovo for some reason hates me. I don't like the theatre. What can I do with myself?"
When I was at her house I smelled of paint and turpentine, and my hands were stained. She liked that. She wanted me to come to her in my ordinary working-clothes; but I felt awkward in them in her drawing-room, and as if I were in uniform, and so I always wore my new serge suit. She did not like that.
"You must confess," she said once, "that you have not got used to your new role. A working-man's suit makes you feel awkward and embarrassed. Tell me, isn't it because you are not sure of yourself and are unsatisfied Does this work you have chosen, this painting of yours, really satisfy you? " she asked merrily. "I know paint makes things look nicer and wear better, but the things themselves belong to the rich and after all they are a luxury. Besides you have said more than once that everybody should earn his living with his own hands and you earn money, not bread. Why don't you keep to the exact meaning of what you say? You must earn bread, real bread, you must plough, sow, reap, thrash, or do something which has to do directly with agriculture, such as keeping cows, digging, or building houses. . . ."
She opened a handsome bookcase which stood by the writing-table and said :
"I'm telling you all this because I'm going to let you into my secret. Voila. This is my agricultural library. Here are books on arable land, vegetable-gardens, orchard-keeping, cattle-keeping, bee-keeping : I read them eagerly and have studied the theory of everything thoroughly. It is my dream to go to Dubechnia as soon as March begins. It is wonderful there, amazing; isn't it? The first year I shall only be learning the work and getting used to it, and in the second year I shall begin to work thoroughly, without sparing myself. My father promised to give me Dubechnia as a present, and I am to do anything I like with it."
She blushed and with mingled laughter and tears she dreamed aloud of her life at Dubechnia and how absorbing it would be. And I envied her. March would soon be here. The days were drawing out, and in the bright sunny afternoons the snow dripped from the roofs, and the smell of spring was in the air. I too longed for the country.
And when she said she was going to live at Dubechnia, I saw at once that I should be left alone in the town, and I felt jealous of the bookcase with her books about farming. I knew and cared nothing about farming and I was on the point of telling her that agriculture was work for slaves, but I recollected that my father had once said something of the sort and I held my peace.
Lent began. The engineer, Victor Ivanich, came home from Petersburg. I had begun to forget his existence. He came unexpectedly, not even sending a telegram. When I went there as usual in the evening, he was walking up and down the drawing-room, after a bath, with his hair cut, looking ten years younger, and talking. His daughter was kneeling by his trunks and taking out boxes, bottles, books, and handing them to Pavel, the footman. When I saw the engineer, I involuntarily stepped back and he held out both his hands and smiled and showed his strong, white, cab-driver's teeth.
"Here he is ! Here he is ! I'm very pleased to see you, Mr. Housepainter ! Maria told me all about you and sang your praises. I quite understand you and heartily approve." He took me by the arm and went on: "It is much cleverer and more honest to be a decent workman than to spoil State paper and to wear a cockade. I myself worked with my hands in Belgium. I was an engine-driver for five years. . ."
He was wearing a short jacket and comfortable slippers, and he shuffled along like a gouty man waving and rubbing his hands; humming and buzzing and shrugging with pleasure at being at home again with his favourite shower-bath.
"There's no denying," he said at supper, "there's no denying that you are kind, sympathetic people, but somehow as soon as you gentlefolk take on manual labour or try to save the peasants, you reduce it all to sectarianism. You are a sectarian. You don't drink vodka. What is that but sectarianism? "
To please him I drank vodka. I drank wine, too. We ate cheese, sausages, pastries, pickles, and all kinds of dainties that the engineer had brought with him, and we sampled wines sent from abroad during his absence. They were excellent. For some reason the engineer had wines and cigars sent from abroad duty free; somebody sent him caviare and sturgeon gratis; he did not pay rent for his house because his landlord supplied the railway with kerosene, and generally he and his daughter gave me the impression of having all the best things in the world at their service free of charge.
I went on visiting them, but with less pleasure than before. The engineer oppressed me and I felt cramped in his presence. I could not endure his clear, innocent eyes ; his opinions bored me and were offensive to me, and I was distressed by the recollection that I had so recently been subordinate to this ruddy, well-fed man, and that he had been mercilessly rude to me. True he would put his arm round my waist and slap me kindly on the shoulder and approve of my way of living, but I felt that he despised my nullity just as much as before and only suffered me to please his daughter, but I could no longer laugh and talk easily, and I thought myself ill-mannered, and all the time was expecting him to call me Panteley as he did his footman Pavel. How my provincial, working-man's pride rode up against him ! I, a working man, a painter, going every day to the house of rich strangers, whom the whole town regarded as foreigners, and Drinking their expensive wines and outlandish dishes ! I could not reconcile this with my conscience. When I went to see them I sternly avoided those whom I met on the way, and looked askance at them like a real sectarian, and when I left the engineer's house I was ashamed of feeling so well-fed.
But chiefly I was afraid of falling in love. Whether walking in the street, or working, or talking to my mates, I thought all the time of going to Maria Yictorovna's in the evening, and always had her voice, her laughter, her movements with me. And always as I got ready to go to her, I would stand for a long time in front of the cracked mirror tying my necktie; my serge suit seemed horrible to me, and I suffered, but at the same time, despised myself for feeling so small. When she called to me from another room to say that she was not dressed yet and to ask me to wait a bit, and I could hear her dressing, I was agitated and felt as though the floor was sinking under me. And when I saw a woman in the street, even at a distance, I fell to comparing her figure with hers, and it seemed to me that all our women and girls were vulgar, absurdly dressed, and without manners; and such comparisons roused in me a feeling of pride ; Maria Victorovna was better than all of them. And at night I dreamed of her and myself.
Once at supper the engineer and I ate a whole lobster. When I reached home I remembered that the engineer had twice called me "my dear fellow" and I thought that they treated me as they might have done a big, unhappy dog, separated from his master, and that they were amusing themselves with me, and that they would order me away like a dog when they were bored with me. I began to feel ashamed and hurt ; went to the point of tears, as though I had been insulted, and, raising my eyes to the heavens, I vowed to put an end to it all.
Next day I did not go to the Dolzhikovs'. Late at night, when it was quite dark and pouring with rain, I walked up and down Great Gentry Street, looking at the windows. At the Azhoguins' everybody was asleep and the only light was in one of the top windows ; old Mrs. Azhoguin was sitting in her room embroidering by candle-light and imagining herself to be fighting against prejudice. It was dark in our house and opposite, at the Dolzhikovs' the windows were lit up, but it was impossible to see anything through the flowers and curtains. I kept on walking up and down the street ; I was soaked through with the cold March rain. I heard my father come home from the club; he knocked at the door; in a minute a light appeared at a window and I saw my; sister walking quickly with her lamp and hurriedly arranging her thick hair. Then my father paced up and down the drawing-room, talking and rubbing his hands, and my sister sat still in a corner, lost in thought, not listening to him. . .
But soon they left the room and the light was put out. . . I looked at the engineer's house and that too was now dark. In the darkness and the rain I felt desperately lonely. Cast out at the mercy of Fate, and I felt how, compared with my loneliness, and my suffering, actual and to come, all my work and all my desires and all that I had hitherto thought and read, were vain and futile. Alas ! The activities and thoughts of human beings are not nearly so important as their sorrows ! And not knowing exactly what I was doing I pulled with all my might at the bell at the Dolzhikovs' gate, broke it, and ran away down the street like a little boy, full of fear, thinking they would rush out at once and recognise me. When I stopped to take breath at the end of the street, I could hear nothing but the falling rain and far away a night-watchman knocking on a sheet of iron.
For a whole week I did not go to the Dolzhikovs'. I sold my serge suit. I had no work and I was once more half-starved, earning ten or twenty copecks a day, when possible, by disagreeable work. Floundering knee-deep in the mire, putting out all my strength, I tried to drown my memories and to punish myself for all the cheeses and preserves to which I had been treated at the engineer's. Still, no sooner did I go to bed, wet and hungry, than my untamed imagination set to work to evolve wonderful, alluring pictures, and to my amazement I confessed that I was in love, passionately in love, and I fell sound asleep feeling that the hard life had only made my body stronger and younger.
One evening it began, most unseasonably, to snow, and the wind blew from the north, exactly as if winter had begun again. When I got home from work I found Maria Victorovna in my room. She was in her furs with her hands in her muff.
"Why don't you come to see me?" she asked, looking at me with her bright sagacious eyes, and I was overcome with joy and stood stiffly in front of her, just as I had done with my father when he was going to thrash me; she looked straight into my face and I could see by her eyes that she understood why I was overcome.
"Why don't you come to see me? " she repeated. "You don't want to come? I had to come to you."
She got up and came close to me.
"Don't leave me," she said, and her eyes filled with tears. "I am lonely, utterly lonely."
She began to cry and said, covering her face with her muff :
"Alone! Life is hard, very hard, and in the whole world I have no one but you. Don't leave me!
Looking for her handkerchief to dry her tears, she gave a smile ; we were silent for some time, then I embraced and kissed her, and the pin in her hat scratched my face and drew blood.
And we began to talk as though we had been dear to each other for a long, long time.
In a couple of days she sent me to Dubechnia and I was beyond words delighted with it. As I walked to the station, and as I sat in the train, I laughed for no reason and people thought me drunk. There were snow and frost in the mornings still, but the roads were getting dark, and there were rooks cawing above them.
At first I thought of arranging the side wing opposite Mrs. Cheprakov's for myself and Maria, but it appeared that doves and pigeons had taken up their abode there and it would be impossible to cleanse it without destroying a great number of nests. We would have to live willy-nilly in the uncomfortable rooms with Venetian blinds in the big house. The peasants called it a palace; there were more than twenty rooms in it, and the only furniture was a piano and a child's chair, lying in the attic, and even if Maria brought all her furniture from town we should not succeed in removing the impression of frigid emptiness and coldness. I chose three small rooms with windows looking on to the garden, and from early morning till late at night I was at work in them, glazing the windows, hanging paper, blocking up the chinks and holes in the floor. It was an easy, pleasant job. Every now and then I would run to the river to see if the ice was breaking and all the while I dreamed of the starlings returning. And at night when I thought of Maria I would be filled with an inexpressibly sweet feeling of an all-embracing joy to listen to the rats and the wind rattling and knocking above the ceiling; it was like an old hobgoblin coughing in the attic.
The snow was deep; there was a heavy fall at the end of March, but it thawed rapidly, as if by magic, and the spring floods rushed down so that by the be ginning of April the starlings were already chattering and yellow butterflies fluttered in the garden. The weather was wonderful. Every day toward evening I walked toward the town to meet Masha, and how delightful it was to walk along the soft, drying road with bare feet! Half-way I would sit down and look at the town, not daring to go nearer. The sight of it upset me, I was always wondering how my acquaintances would behave toward me when they heard of my love. What would my father say ? I was particularly worried by the idea that my life was becoming more complicated, and that I had entirely lost control of it, and that she was carrying me off like a balloon, God knows whither. I had already given up thinking how to make a living, and I thought—indeed, I cannot remember what I thought.
Masha used to come in a carriage. I would take a seat beside her and together, happy and free, we used to drive to Dubechnia. Or, having waited till sunset, I would return home, weary and disconsolate, wondering why Masha had not come, and then by the gate or in the garden I would find my darling. She would come by the railway and walk over from the station. What a triumph it was ! In her plain, woollen dress, with a simple umbrella, but keeping a trim, fashionable figure and expensive, Parisian boots—she was a gifted actress playing the country girl. We used to go over the house, and plan out the rooms, and the paths, and the vegetable-garden, and the beehives. We already had chickens and ducks and geese which we loved because they were ours. We had oats, clover, buckwheat, and vegetable seeds all ready for sowing, and we used to examine them all and wonder what the crops would be like, and everything Masha said to me seemed extraordinarily clever and fine. This was the happiest time of my life.
Soon after Easter we were married in the parish church in the village of Kurilovka three miles from Dubechnia. Masha wanted everything to be simple; by her wish our bridesmen were peasant boys, only one deacon sang, and we returned from the church in a little, shaky cart which she drove herself. My sister was the only guest from the town. Masha had sent her a note a couple of days before the wedding. My sister wore a white dress and white gloves. . . During the ceremony she cried softly for joy and emotion, and her face had a maternal expression of infinite goodness. She was intoxicated with our happiness and smiled as though she were breathing a sweet perfume, and when I looked at her I understood that there was nothing in the world higher in her eyes than love, earthly love, and that she was always dreaming of love, secretly, timidly, yet passionately. She em braced Masha and kissed her, and, not knowing how to express her ecstasy, she said to her of me :
"He is a good man ! A very good man."
Before she left us, she put on her ordinary clothes, and took me into the garden to have a quiet talk.
"Father is very hurt that you have not written to him," she said. " You should have asked for his blessing. But, at heart, he is very pleased. He says that this marriage will raise you in the eyes of society, and that under Maria Victorovna's influence you will begin to adopt a more serious attitude toward life. In the evening now we talk about nothing but you; and yesterday he even said, 'our Misail.' I was delighted. He has evidently thought of a plan and I believe he wants to set you an example of magnanimity, and that he will be the first to talk of reconciliation. It is quite possible that one of these days he will come and see you here."
She made the sign of the cross over me and said :
"Well, God bless you. Be happy. Aniuta Blagovo is a very clever girl. She says of your marriage that God has sent you a new ordeal. Well? Married life is not made up only of joy but of suffering as well. It is impossible to avoid it."
Masha and I walked about three miles with her, and then walked home quietly and silently, as though it were a rest for both of us. Masha had her hand on my arm. We were at peace and there was no need to talk of love; after the wedding we grew closer to each other and dearer, and it seemed as though nothing could part us.
"Your sister is a dear, lovable creature," said Masha, "but looks as though she had lived in torture. Your father must be a terrible man."
I began to tell her how my sister and I had been brought up and how absurd and full of torture our childhood had been. When she heard that my father had thrashed me quite recently she shuddered and clung to me:
"Don't tell me any more," she said. "It is too horrible."
And now she did not leave me. We lived in the big house, in three rooms, and in the evenings we bolted the door that led to the empty part of the house, as though some one lived there whom we did not know and feared. I used to get up early, at dawn, and begin working. I repaired the carts ; made paths in the gar den, dug the flower beds, painted the roofs. When the time came to sow oats, I tried to plough and harrow, and sow and did it all conscientiously, and did not leave it all to the labourer. I used to get tired, and my face and feet used to burn with the rain and the sharp cold wind. But work in the fields did not attract me. I knew nothing about agriculture and did not like it; perhaps because my ancestors were not tillers of the soil and pure town blood ran in my veins. I loved nature dearly ; I loved the fields and the meadows and the garden, but the peasant who turns the earth with his plough, shouting at his miserable horse, ragged and wet, with bowed shoulders, was to me an expression of wild, rude, ugly force, and as I watched his clumsy movements I could not help thinking of the long-passed legendary life, when men did not yet know the use of fire. The fierce bull which led the herd, and the horses that stampeded through the village, filled me with terror, and all the large creatures, strong and hostile, a ram with horns, a gander, or a watch-dog seemed to me to be symbolical of some rough, wild force. These prejudices used to be particularly strong in me in bad weather, when heavy clouds hung over the black plough-lands. But worst of all was that when I was ploughing or sowing, and a few peasants stood and watched how I did it, I no longer felt the inevitability and necessity of the work and it seemed to me that I was trifling my time away.
I used go through the gardens and the meadow to the mill. It was leased by Stiepan, a Kurilovka peasant ; handsome, swarthy, with a black beard—an athletic appearance. He did not care for mill work and thought it tiresome and unprofitable, and he only lived at the mill to escape from home. He was a saddler and always smelled of tan and leather. He did not like talking, was slow and immovable, and used to hum "U-lu-lu-lu," sitting on the bank or in the doorway of the mill. Sometimes his wife and mother-in-law used to come from Kurilovka to see him; they were both fair, languid, soft, and they used to bow to him humbly and call him Stiepan Petrovich. And he would not answer their greeting with a word or a sign, but would turn where he sat on the bank and hum quietly: "U-lu-lu-lu." There would be a silence for an hour or two. His mother-in-law and his wife would whisper to each other, get up and look expectantly at him for some time, waiting for him to look at them, and then they would bow humbly and say in sweet, soft voices :
"Good-bye, Stiepan Petrovich."
And they would go away. After that, Stiepan would put away the bundle of cracknels or the shirt they had left for him and sigh and give a wink in their direction and say :
"The female sex! "
The mill was worked with both wheels day and night. I used to help Stiepan, I liked it, and when he went away I was glad to take his place.
After a spell of warm bright weather we had a season of bad roads. It rained and was cold all through May. The grinding of the millstones and the drip of the rain induced idleness and sleep. The floor shook, the whole place smelled of flour, and this too made one drowsy. My wife in a short fur coat and high rubber boots used to appear twice a day and she always said the same thing :
"Call this summer! It is worse than October!"
We used to have tea together and cook porridge, or sit together for hours in silence thinking the rain would never stop. Once when Stiepan went away to a fair, Masha stayed the night in the mill. When we got up we could not tell what time it was for the sky was overcast ; the sleepy cocks at Dubechnia were crowing, and the corncrakes were trilling in the meadow; it was very, very early. My wife and I walked down to the pool and drew up the bow-net that Stiepan had put out in our presence the day before. There was one large perch in it and a crayfish angrily stretched out his claws.
"Let them go," said Masha. "Let them be happy too."
Because we got up very early and had nothing to do, the day seemed very long, the longest in my life. Stiepan returned before dusk and I went back to the farmhouse.
"Your father came here to-day, " said Masha.
"Where is he?"
"He has gone. I did not receive him."
Seeing my silence and feeling that I was sorry for my father, she said :
"We must be logical. I did not receive him and sent a message to ask him not to trouble us again and not to come and see us."
In a moment I was outside the gates, striding toward the town to make it up with my father. It was muddy, slippery, cold. For the first time since our marriage I suddenly felt sad, and through my brain, tired with the long day, there flashed the thought that perhaps I was not living as I ought ; I got more and more tired and was gradually overcome with weakness, inertia; I had no desire to move or to think, and after walking for some time, I waved my hand and went home.
In the middle of the yard stood the engineer in a leather coat with a hood. He was shouting :
"Where's the furniture? There was some good Empire furniture, pictures, vases. . There's nothing left ! Damn it, I bought the place with the furniture!"
Near him stood Moissey, Mrs. Cheprakov's bailiff, fumbling with his cap ; a lank fellow of about twenty-five, with a spotty face and little, impudent eyes; one side of his face was larger than the other as though he had been lain on.
"Yes, Right Honourable Sir, you bought it without the furniture," he said sheepishly. "I remember that clearly."
"Silence !" shouted the engineer, going red in the face, and beginning to shake, and his shout echoed through the garden.
"When I was busy in the garden or the yard, Moissey would stand with his hands behind his back and stare at me impertinently with his little eyes. And this used to irritate me to such an extent that I would put aside my work and go away.
We learned from Stiepan that Moissey had been Mrs. Cheprakov's lover. I noticed that when people went to her for money they used to apply to Moissey first, and once I saw a peasant, a charcoal-burner, black all over, grovel at his feet. Sometimes after a whispered conversation Moissey would hand over the money himself without saying anything to his mistress, from which I concluded that the transaction was settled on his own account.
He used to shoot in our garden, under our very windows, steal food from our larder, borrow our horses without leave, and we were furious, feeling that Dubechnia was no longer ours, and Masha used to go pale and say:
"Have we to live another year and a half with these creatures? "
Ivan Cheprahov, the son, was a guard on the railway. During the winter he got very thin and weak, so that he got drunk on one glass of vodka, and felt cold out of the sun. He hated wearing his guard's uniform and was ashamed of it, but found his job profitable because he could steal candles and sell them. My new position gave him a mixed feeling of astonishment, envy, and vague hope that something of the sort might happen to him. He used to follow Masha with admiring eyes, and to ask me what I had for dinner nowadays, and his ugly, emaciated face used to wear a sweet, sad expression, and he used to twitch his fingers as though he could feel my happiness with them.
"I say, Little Profit," he would say excitedly, lighting and relighting his cigarette; he always made a mess wherever he stood because he used to waste a whole box of matches on one cigarette. "I say, my life is about as beastly as it could be. Every little squirt of a soldier can shout : ' Here guard ! Here ! ' I have such a lot in the trains and you know, mine's a rotten life! My mother has ruined me ! I heard a doctor say in the train, if the parents are loose, their children become drunkards or criminals. That's it."
Once he came staggering into the yard. His eyes wandered aimlessly and he breathed heavily; he laughed and cried, and said something in a kind of frenzy, and through his thickly uttered words I could only hear: "My mother? Where is my mother?" and lie wailed like a child crying, because it has lost its mother in a crowd. I led him away into the garden and laid him down under a tree, and all that day and through the night Masha and I took it in turns to stay with him. He was sick and Masha looked with disgust at his pale, wet face and said :
"Are we to have these creatures on the place for an other year and a half? It is awful ! Awful ! "
And what a lot of trouble the peasants gave us ! How many disappointments we had at the outset, in the spring, when we so longed to be happy ! My wife built a school. I designed the school for sixty boys, and the Zemstvo Council approved the design, but recommended our building the school at Kurilovka, the big village, only three miles away; besides the Kurilovka school, where the children of four villages, including that of Dubechnia, were taught, was old and inadequate and the floor was so rotten that the children were afraid to walk on it. At the end of March Masha, by her own desire, was appointed trustee of the Kurilovka school, and at the beginning of April we called three parish meetings and persuaded the peasants that the school was old and inadequate, and that it was necessary to build a new one. A member of the Zemstvo Council and the elementary school inspector came down too and addressed them. After each meeting we were mobbed and asked for a pail of vodka; we felt stifled in the crowd and soon got tired and returned home dissatisfied and rather abashed. At last the peasants allotted a site for the school and undertook to cart the materials from the town. And as soon as the spring corn was sown, on the very first Sunday, carts set out from Kurilovka and Dubechnia to fetch the bricks for the foundations. They went at dawn and returned late in the evening. The peasants were drunk and said they were tired out.
The rain and the cold continued, as though deliberately, all through May. The roads were spoiled and deep in mud. When the carts came from town they usually drove to our horror, into our yard ! A horse would appear in the gate, straddling its fore legs, with its big belly heaving; before it came into the yard it would strain and heave and after it would come a ten-yard beam in a four-wheeled wagon , wet and slimy ; alongside it, wrapped up to keep the rain out, never looking where he was going and splashing through the puddles, a peasant would walk with the skirt of his coat tucked up in his belt. Another cart would appear with planks ; then a third with a beam ; then a fourth . . . and the yard in front of the house would gradually be blocked up with horses, beams, planks. Peasants, men and women with their heads wrapped up and their skirts tucked up, would stare morosely at our windows, kick up a row and insist on the lady of the house coming out to them ; and they would curse and swear. And in a corner Moissey would stand, and it seemed to us that he delighted in our discomfiture.
"We won't cart any more! " the peasants shouted. "We are tired to death ! Let her go and cart it herself ! "
Pale and scared, thinking they would any minute break into the house, Masha would send them money for a pail of vodka; after which the noise would die down and the long beams would go jolting out of the yard.
When I went to look at the building my wife would get agitated and say :
"The peasants are furious. They might do something to you. No. Wait. I'll go with you.
We used to drive over to Kurilovka together and then the carpenters would ask for tips. The framework was ready for the foundations to be laid, but the masons never came and when at last the masons did come it was apparent that there was no sand; somehow it had been forgotten that sand was wanted. Taking advantage of our helplessness, the peasants asked thirty copecks a load, although it was less than a quarter of a mile from the building to the river where the sand was to be fetched, and more than five hundred loads were needed. There were endless misunderstandings, wrangles, and continual begging. My wife was indignant and the building contractor, Petrov, an old man of seventy, took her by the hand and said :
"You look here ! Look here ! Just get me sand and I'll find ten men and have the work done in two days. Look here! "
Sand was brought, but two, four days, a week passed and still there yawned a ditch where the foundations were to be.
"I shall go mad," cried my wife furiously. "What wretches they are ! What wretches ! '
During these disturbances Victor Ivanich used to come and see us. He used to bring hampers of wine and dainties, and eat for a long time, and then go to sleep on the terrace and snore so that the labourers shook their heads and said :
"He's all right! "
Masha took no pleasure in his visits. She did not believe in him, and yet she used to ask his advice; when, after a sound sleep after dinner, he got up out of humour, and spoke disparagingly of our domestic arrangements, and said he was sorry he had ever bought Dubechnia which had cost him so much, and poor Masha looked miserably anxious and complained to him, he would yawn and say the peasants ought to be flogged.
He called our marriage and the life we were living a comedy, and used to say it was a caprice, a whimsy.
"She did the same sort of thing once before," he told me. " She fancied herself as an opera singer, and ran away from me. It took me two months to find her, and my dear fellow, I wasted a thousand roubles on telegrams alone."
He had dropped calling me a sectarian or the House-painter; and no longer approved of my life as a working man, but he used to say :
"You are a queer fish! An abnormality. I don't venture to prophesy, but you will end badly ! '
Masha slept poorly at nights and would sit by the window of our bedroom thinking. She no longer laughed and made faces at supper. I suffered, and when it rained, every drop cut into my heart like a bullet, and I could have gone on my knees to Masha and apologised for the weather. When the peasants made a row in the yard, I felt that it was my fault. I would sit for hours in one place, thinking only how splendid and how wonderful Masha was. I loved her passionately, and I was enraptured by everything she did and said. Her taste was for quiet indoor occupation; she loved to read for hours and to study; she who knew about farm-work only from books, surprised us all by her knowledge and the advice she gave was always useful, and when applied was never in vain. And in addition she had the fineness, the taste, and the good sense, the very sound sense which only very well-bred people possess !
To such a woman, with her healthy, orderly mind, the chaotic environment with its petty cares and dirty tittle-tattle, in which we lived, was very painful. I could see that, and I, too, could not sleep at night. My brain whirled and I could hardly choke back my tears. I tossed about, not knowing what to do.
I used to rush to town and bring Masha books, newspapers, sweets, flowers, and I used to go fishing with Stiepan, dragging for hours, neck-deep in cold water, in the rain, to catch an eel by way of varying our fare. I used humbly to ask the peasants not to shout, and I gave them vodka, bribed them, promised them anything they asked. And what a lot of other foolish things I did !
At last the rain stopped. The earth dried up. I used to get up in the morning and go into the garden dew shining on the flowers, birds and insects shrilling, not a cloud in the sky. and the garden, the meadow, the river were so beautiful, perfect but for the memory of the peasants and the carts and the engineer. Masha and I used to drive out in a car to see how the oats were coming on. She drove and I sat behind; her shoulders were always a little hunched, and the wind would play with her hair.
"Keep to the right ! "she shouted to the passers-by.
"You are like a coachman !" I once said to her.
"Perhaps. My grandfather, my father's father, was a coachman. Didn't you know? " she asked, turning round, and immediately she began to mimic the way the coachmen shout and sing.
"Thank God !" I thought, as I listened to her. "Thank God!"
And again I remember the peasants, the carts, the engineer. . . .
Doctor Blagovo came over on a bicycle. My sister began to come often. Once more we talked of manual labour and progress, and the mysterious Cross awaiting humanity in the remote future. The doctor did not like our life, because it interfered with our discussions and he said it was unworthy of a free man to plough, and reap, and breed cattle, and that in time all such elementary forms of the struggle for existence would be left to animals and machines, while men would devote themselves exclusively to scientific investigation. And my sister always asked me to let her go home earlier, and if she stayed late, or for the night, she was greatly distressed.
"Good gracious, what a baby you are," Masha used to say reproachfully. "It is quite ridiculous. "
"Yes, it is absurd," my sister would agree. "I admit it is absurd, but what can I do if I have not the power to control myself. It always seems to me that I am doing wrong."
During the haymaking my body, not being used to it, ached all over ; sitting on the terrace in the evening, I would suddenly fall asleep and they would all laugh at me. They would wake me up and make me sit down to supper. I would be overcome with drowsiness and in a stupor saw lights, faces, plates, and heard voices without understanding what they were saying. And I used to get up early in the morning and take my scythe, or go to the school and work there all day.
When I was at home on holidays I noticed that my wife and sister were hiding something from me and even seemed to be avoiding me. My wife was tender with me as always, but she had some new thought of her own which she did not communicate to me. Certainly her exasperation with the peasants had increased and life was growing harder and harder for her, but she no longer complained to me. She talked more readily to the doctor than to me, and I could not understand why.
It was the custom in our province for the labourers to come to the farm in the evenings to be treated to vodka, even the girls having a glass. We did not keep the custom; the haymakers and the women used to come into the yard and stay until late in the evening, waiting for vodka, and then they went away cursing. And then Masha used to frown and relapse into silence or whisper irritably to the doctor:
Newcomers to the villages were received ungraciously, almost with hostility ; like new arrivals at a school. At first we were looked upon as foolish, soft-headed people who had bought the estate because we did not know what to do with our money. We were laughed at. The peasants grazed their cattle in our pasture and even in our garden, drove our cows and horses into the village and then came and asked for compensation. The whole village used to come into our yard and declare loudly that in mowing we had cut the border of common land which did not belong to us ; and as we did not know our boundaries exactly we used to take their word for it and pay a fine. But afterward it appeared that we had been in the right. They used to bark the young lime-trees in our woods. A Dubechnia peasant, a money-lender, who sold vodka without a licence, bribed our labourers to help him cheat us in the most treacherous way; he substituted old wheels for the new on our wagons, stole our ploughing yokes and sold them back to us, and so on. But worst of all was the building at Kurilovka. There the women at night stole planks, bricks, tiles, iron ; the bailiff and his assistants made a search ; the women were each fined two roubles by the village council, and then the whole lot of them got drunk on the money.
When Masha found out, she would say to the doctor and my sister.
"What beasts! It is horrible! Horrible!"
And more than once I heard her say she was sorry she had decided to build the school.
"You must understand," the doctor tried to point out, "that if you build a school or undertake any good work, it is not for the peasants, but for the sake of culture and the future. The worse the peasants are the more reason there is for building a school. Do understand ! "
There was a lack of confidence in his voice, and it seemed to me that he hated the peasants as much as Masha.
Masha used often to go to the mill with my sister and they would say jokingly that they were going to have a look at Stiepan because he was so handsome. Stiepan it appeared was reserved and silent only with men, and in the company of women was free and talkative. Once when I went down to the river to bathe I involuntarily overheard a conversation. Masha and Cleopatra, both in white, were sitting on the bank under the broad shade of a willow and Stiepan was standing near with his hands behind his back, saying :
"But are peasants human beings? Not they; they are, excuse me, brutes, beasts, and thieves. What does a peasant's life consist of? Eating and drinking, crying for cheaper food, brawling in taverns, with out decent conversation, or behaviour or manners. Just an ignorant beast ! He lives in filth, his wife and children live in filth ; he sleeps in his clothes ; takes the potatoes out of the soup with his fingers, drinks down a black beetle with his kvass—because he won't trouble to fish it out!"
"It is because of their poverty !" protested my sister.
"What poverty? of course there is want, but there are different kinds of necessity. If a man is in prison, or is blind, say, or has lost his legs, then he is in a bad way and God help him ; but if he is at liberty and in command of his senses, if he has eyes and hands and strength, then, good God, what more does he want? It is lamentable, my lady, ignorance, but not poverty. If you kind people, with your education, out of charity try to help him, then he will spend your money in drink, like the swine he is, or worse still, he will open a tavern and begin to rob the people on the strength of your money. You say—poverty. But does a rich peasant live any better ? He lives like a pig, too, excuse me, a clodhopper, a blusterer, a big-bellied blockhead, with a swollen red mug—makes me want to hit him in the eye, the blackguard. Look at Larion of Dubechnia he is rich, but all the same he barks the trees in your woods just like the poor; and he is a foul-mouthed brute, and bis children are foul-mouthed, and when he is drunk he falls flat in the mud and goes to sleep. They are all worthless, my lady. It is just hell to live with them in the village. The village sticks in my gizzard, and I thank God, the King of heaven, that I am well fed and clothed, and that I am a free man; I can live where I like, I don't want to live in the village and nobody can force me to do it. They say : 'You have a wife.' They say : 'You are obliged to live at home with your wife.' Why? I have not sold myself to her."
"Tell me, Stiepan. Did you marry for love?" asked Masha.
"What love is there in a village?" Stiepan answered with a smile. "If you want to know, my lady, it is my second marriage. I do not come from Kurilovka, but from Zalegosch, and I went to Kurilovka when I married. My father did not want to divide the land up between us—there are five of us. So I bowed to it and cut adrift and went to another village to my wife's family. My first wife died when she was young.
"What did she die of?"
"Foolishness. She used to sit and cry. She was always crying for no reason at all and so she wasted away. She used to drink herbs to make herself prettier and it must have ruined her inside. And my second wife at Kurilovka what about her ? A village woman, a peasant; that's all. When the match was being made I was nicely had ; I thought she was young, nice to look at and clean. Her mother was clean enough, drank coffee and, chiefly because they were a clean lot, I got married. Next day we sat down to dinner and I told my mother-in-law to fetch me a spoon. She brought me a spoon and I saw her wipe it with her finger. So that, thought I, is their cleanliness ! I lived with them for a year and went away. Perhaps I ought to have married a town girl"—he went on after a silence. f They say a wife is a helpmate to her husband. What do I want with a helpmate. I can look after myself. But you talk to me sensibly and soberly, without giggling all the while. He—he—he! What is life without a good talk? "
Stiepan suddenly stopped and relapsed into his dreary, monotonous "U-lu-lu-lu." That meant that he had noticed me.
Masha used often to visit the mill, she evidently took pleasure in her talks with Stiepan ; he abused the peasants so sincerely and convincingly and this attracted her to him. When she returned from the mill the idiot who looked after the garden used to shout after her :
"Palashka! Hullo, Palashka!" And he would bark at her like a dog : "Bow, wow!"
And she would stop and stare at him as if she found in the idiot's barking an answer to her thought, and perhaps he attracted her as much as Stiepan's abuse. And at home she would find some unpleasant news awaiting her, as that the village geese had ruined the cabbages in the kitchen-garden, or that Larion had stolen the reins, and she would shrug her shoulders with a smile and say :
"What can you expect of such people?"
She was exasperated and a fury was gathering in her soul, and I, on the other hand, was getting used to the peasants and more and more attracted to them. For the most part, they were nervous, irritable, absurd people ; they were people with suppressed imaginations, ignorant, with a bare, dull outlook, always dazed by the same thought of the grey earth, grey days, black bread ; they were people driven to cunning, but, like birds, they only hid their heads behind the trees—they could not reason. They did not come to us for the twenty roubles earned by haymaking, but for the half-pail of vodka, though they could buy four pails of vodka for the twenty roubles. Indeed they were dirty, drunken, and dishonest, but for all that one felt that the peasant life as a whole was sound at the core. However clumsy and brutal the peasant might look as he followed his antiquated plough, and however he might fuddle himself with vodka, still, looking at him more closely, one felt that there was something vital and important in him, something that was lacking in Masha and the doctor, for instance, namely, that he believes that the chief thing on earth is truth, that his and everybody's salvation lies in truth, and therefore above all else on earth he loves justice. I used to say to my wife that she was seeing the stain on the window, but not the glass itself; and she would be silent or, like Stiepan, she would hum, "U-lu-lu-lu. . ." When she, good, clever actress that she was, went pale with fury and then harangued the doctor in a trembling voice about drunkenness and dishonesty; her blindness confounded and appalled me. How oould she forget that her father, the engineer, drank, drank heavily, and that the money with which he bought Dubechnia was acquired by means of a whole series of impudent, dishonest swindles? How could she forget?
And my sister, too, was living with her own private thoughts which she hid from me. She used often to sit whispering with Masha. When I went up to her, she would shrink away, and her eyes would look guilty and full of entreaty. Evidently there was something going on in her soul of which she was afraid or ashamed. To avoid meeting me in the garden or being left alone with me she clung to Masha and I hardly ever had a chance to talk to her except at dinner.
One evening, on my way home from the school, I came quietly through the garden. It had already begun to grow dark. Without noticing me or hearing footsteps, my sister walked round an old wide-spreading apple-tree, perfectly noiselessly like a ghost. She was in black, and walked very quickly, up and down, up and down, with her eyes on the ground. An apple fell from the tree, she started at the noise, stopped and pressed her hands to her temples. At that moment I went up to her.
In an impulse of tenderness, which suddenly came rushing to my heart, with tears in my eyes, somehow remembering our mother and our childhood, I took hold of her shoulders and kissed her.
"What is the matter? " I asked. "You are suffering. I have seen it for a long time now. Tell me, what is the matter?"
"I am afraid. . ." she murmured, with a shiver.
"What's the matter with you?" I inquired. "For God's sake, be frank! "
"I will, I will be frank. I will tell you the whole truth. It is so hard, so painful to conceal anything from you! . . . . Misail, I am in love." She went on in a whisper. "Love, love. ... I am happy, but I am afraid."
I heard footsteps and Doctor Blagovo appeared among the trees. He was wearing a silk shirt and high boots. Clearly they had arranged a rendezvous by the apple-tree. When she saw him she flung herself impulsively into his arms with a cry of anguish, as though he was being taken away from her :
"Vladimir! Vladimir! "
She clung to him, and gazed eagerly at him and only then I noticed how thin and pale she had become. It was especially noticeable through her lace collar, which I had known for years, for it now hung loosely about her slim neck. The doctor was taken aback, but controlled himself at once, and said, as he stroked her hair :
"That's enough. Enough ! . . .Why are you so nervous? You see, I have come."
We were silent for a time, bashfully glancing at each other. Then we all moved away and I heard the doctor saying to me :
"Civilised life has not yet begun with us. The old console themselves with saying that, if there is nothing now, there was something in the forties and the sixties ; that is all right for the old ones, but we are young and our brains are not yet touched with senile decay. We cannot console ourselves with such illusions. The beginning of Russia was in 862, and civilised Russia, as I understand it, has not yet begun."
But I could not bother about what he was saying. It was very strange, but I could not believe that my sister was in love, that she had just been walking with her hand on the arm of a stranger and gazing at him tenderly. My sister, poor, frightened, timid, downtrodden creature as she was, loved a man who was already married and had children. I was full of pity without knowing why; the doctor's presence was distasteful to me and I could not make out what was to come of such a love.
Masha and I drove over to Kurilovka for the opening of the school.
"Autumn, autumn, autumn. . ." said Masha, looking about her. Summer had passed. There were no birds and only the willows were green.
Yes. Summer had passed. The days were bright end warm, but it was fresh in the mornings; the shepherds went out in their sheepskins, and the dew never dried all day on the asters in the garden. There were continual mournful sounds and it was impossible to tell whether it was a shutter creaking! on its rusty hinges or the cranes flying—and one felt so well and so full of the desire for life !
"Summer had passed. . ." said Masha. "Now we can both make up our accounts. We have worked hard and thought a great deal and we are the better for it all honour and praise to us ; we have improved ourselves; but have our successes had any perceptible influence on the life around us, have they been of any use to a single person? No! Ignorance, dirt, drunkenness, a terribly high rate of infant mortality—everything is just as it was, and no one is any the better for your having ploughed and sown and my having spent money and read books. Evidently we have only worked and broadened our minds for ourselves."
I was abashed by such arguments and did not know what to think.
"From beginning to end we have been sincere," I said, "and if a man is sincere, he is right."
"Who denies that? We have been right but we have been wrong in our way of setting about it. First of all, are not our very ways of living wrong? You want to be useful to people, but by the mere fact of buying an estate you make it impossible to be so. Further, if you work, dress, and eat like a peasant you lend your authority and approval to the clumsy clothes, and their dreadful houses and their dirty beards. ... On the other hand, suppose you work for a long, long time, all your life, and in the end obtain some practical results—what will your results amount to, what can they do against such elemental forces as wholesale ignorance, hunger, cold, and degeneracy? A drop in the ocean! Other methods of fighting are necessary, strong, bold, quick! If you want to be useful then you must leave the narrow circle of common activity and try to act directly on the masses! First of all, you need vigorous, noisy, propaganda. Why are art and music, for instance, so much alive and so popular and so powerful? Because the musician or the singer influences thousands directly. Art, wonderful art!" She looked wistfully at the sky and went on : "Art gives wings and carries you far, far away. If you are bored with dirt and pettifogging interests, if you are exasperated and outraged and indignant, rest and satisfaction are only to be found in beauty."
As we approached Kurilovka the weather was fine, clear, and joyous. In the yards the peasants were thrashing and there was a smell of corn and straw. Behind the wattled hedges the fruit-trees were reddening and all around the trees were red or golden. In the church-tower the bells were ringing, the children were carrying ikons to the school and singing the Litany of the Virgin. And how clear the air was, and how high the doves soared !
The Te Deum was sung in the schoolroom. Then the Kurilovka peasants presented Masha with an ikon, and the Dubechnia peasants gave her a large cracknel and a gilt salt-cellar. And Masha began to weep.
"And if we have said anything out of the way or have been discontented, please forgive us," said an old peasant, bowing to us both.
As we drove home Masha looked back at the school. The green roof which I had painted glistened in the sun, and we could see it for a long time. And I felt that Masha's glances were glances of farewell.
In the evening she got ready to go to town.
She had often been to town lately to stay the night. In her absence I could not work, and felt listless and disheartened; our big yard seemed dreary, disgusting, and deserted ; there were ominous noises in the garden, and without her the house, the trees, the horses were no longer "ours."
I never went out but sat all the time at her writing-table among her books on farming and agriculture, those deposed favourites, wanted no more, which looked out at me so shamefacedly from the bookcase. For hours together, while it struck seven, eight, nine, and the autumn night crept up as black as soot to the windows, I sat brooding over an old glove of hers, or the pen she always used, and her little scissors. I did nothing and saw clearly that everything I had done before, ploughing, sowing, and felling trees, had only been because she wanted it. And if she told me to clean out a well, when I had to stand waist-deep in water, I would go and do it, without trying to find out whether the well wanted cleaning or not. And now, when she was away, Dubechnia with its squalor, its litter, its slamming shutters, with thieves prowling about it day and night, seemed to me like a chaos in which work was entirely useless. And why should I work, then ? Why trouble and worry about the future, when I felt that the ground was slipping away from under me, that my position at Dubechnia was hollow, that, in a word, the same fate awaited me as had befallen the books on agriculture? Oh! what anguish it was at night, in the lonely hours, when I lay listening uneasily, as though I expected some one any minute to call out that it was time for me to go away. I was not sorry to leave Dubechnia, my sorrow was for my love, for which it seemed that autumn had already begun. What a tremendous happiness it is to love and to be loved, and what a horror it is to feel that you are beginning to topple down from that lofty tower!
Masha returned from town toward evening on the following day. She was dissatisfied with something, but concealed it and said only : "Why have the winter windows been put in? It will be stifling." I opened two of the windows. We did not feel like eating, but we sat down and had supper.
"Go and wash your hands," she said. "You smell of putty."
She had brought some new illustrated magazines from town and we both read them after supper. They had supplements with fashion-plates and patterns. Masha just glanced at them and put them aside to look at them carefully later on ; but one dress, with a wide, bell-shaped skirt and big sleeves interested her, and for a moment she looked at it seriously and attentively.
"That's not bad," she said.
"Yes, it would suit you very well," said I. "Very well."
And I admired the dress, only because she liked it, and went on tenderly :
"A wonderful, lovely dress ! Lovely, wonderful, Masha. My dear Masha."
And tears began to drop on the fashion-plate.
"Wonderful Masha. . . ." I murmured. "Dear, darling Masha. ..."
She went and lay down and I sat still for an hour and looked at the illustrations.
"You should not have opened the windows," she called from the bedroom. "I'm afraid it will be cold. Look how the wind is blowing in !"
I read the miscellany, about the preparation of cheap ink, and the size of the largest diamond in the world. Then I chanced on the picture of the dress she had liked and I imagined her at a ball, with a fan, and bare shoulders, a brilliant, dazzling figure, well up in music and painting and literature, and how insignificant and brief my share in her life seemed to be !
Our coming together, our marriage, was only an episode, one of many in the life of this lively, highly gifted creature. All the best things in the world, as I have said, were at her service, and she had them for nothing; even ideas and fashionable intellectual movements served her pleasure, a diversion in her existence, and I was only the coachman who drove her from one infatuation to another. Now I was no longer necessary to her; she would fly away and I should be left alone.
As if in answer to my thoughts a desperate scream suddenly came from the yard :
It was a shrill female voice, and exactly as though it were trying to imitate it, the wind also howled dismally in the chimney. Half a minute passed and again it came through the sound of the wind, but as though from the other end of the yard :
"Misail, did you hear that?" said my wife in a hushed voice. "Did you hear?"
She came out of the bedroom in her nightgown, with her hair down, and stood listening and staring out of the dark window
"Somebody is being murdered!" she muttered. "It only wanted that !"
I took my gun and went out; it was very dark out side ; a violent wind was blowing so that it was hard to stand up. I walked to the gate and listened; the trees were moaning; the wind went whistling through them, and in the garden the idiot's dog was howling. Beyond the gate it was pitch dark; there was not a light on the railway. And just by the wing, where the offices used to be, I suddenly heard a choking cry :
"Who is there? " I called.
Two men were locked in a struggle. One had nearly thrown the other, who was resisting with all his might. And both were breathing heavily.
"Let go !" said one of them and I recognised Ivan Cheprakov. It was he who had cried out in a thin, falsetto voice. "Let go, damn you, or I'll bite your hands!"
The other man I recognised as Moissey. I parted them and could not resist hitting Moissey in the face twice. He fell down, then got up, and I struck him again.
"He tried to kill me," he muttered. "I caught him creeping to his mother's drawer. ... I tried to shut him up in the wing for safety."
Cheprakov was drunk and did not recognise me. He stood gasping for breath as though trying to get enough wind to shriek again.
I left them and went back to the house. My wife was lying on the bed, fully dressed. I told her what had happened in the yard and did not keep back the fact that I had struck Moissey.
"Living in the country is horrible," she said. "And what a long night it is!"
"Mur-der!" we heard again, a little later.
"I'll go and part them," I said.
"No. Let them kill each other," she said with an expression of disgust.
She lay staring at the ceiling, listening, and I eat near her, not daring to speak and feeling that it was my fault that screams of " murder " came from the yard and the night was so long.
We were silent and I waited impatiently for the light to peep in at the window. And Masha looked as though she had wakened from a long sleep and was astonished to find herself, so clever, so educated, so refined, cast away in this miserable provincial hole, among a lot of petty, shallow people, and to think that she could have so far forgotten herself as to have been carried away by one of them and to have been his wife for more than half a year. It seemed to me that we were all the same to her—myself, Moissey, Cheprakov; all swept together into the drunken, wild scream of "murder"—myself, our marriage, our work, and the muddy roads of autumn; and when she breathed or stirred to make herself more comfortable I could read in her eyes: " Oh, if the morning would come quicker !"
In the morning she went away.
I stayed at Dubechnia for another three days, waiting for her; then I moved all our things into one room, locked it, and went to town. When I rang the bell at the engineer's, it was evening, and the lamps were alight in Great Gentry Street. Pavel told me that nobody was at home; Victor Ivanich had gone to Petersburg and Maria Victorovna must be at a rehearsal at the Azhoguins'. I remember the excitement with which I went to the Azhoguins', and how my heart thumped and sank within me, as I went up stairs and stood for a long while on the landing, not daring to enter that temple of the Muses! In the hall, on the table, on the piano, on the stage, there were candles burning; all in threes, for the first performance was fixed for the thirteenth, and the dress rehearsal was on Monday—the unlucky day. A fight against prejudice! All the lovers of dramatic art were assembled ; the eldest, the middle, and the young est Miss Azhoguin were walking about the stage, reading their parts. Radish was standing still in a corner all by himself, with his head against the wall, looking at the stage with adoring eyes, waiting for the beginning of the rehearsal. Everything was just the same!
I went toward my hostess to greet her, when suddenly everybody began to say "Ssh" and to wave their hands to tell me not to make such a noise. There was a silence. The top of the piano was raised, a lady sat down, screwing up her short-sighted eyes at the music, and Masha stood by the piano, dressed up, beautiful, but beautiful in an odd new way, not at all like the Masha who used to come to see me at the mill in the spring. She began to sing :
- "Why do I love thee, straight night?"
It was the first time since I had known her that I had heard her sing. She had a fine, rich, powerful voice, and to hear her sing was like eating a ripe, sweet-scented melon. She finished the song and was applauded. She smiled and looked pleased, made play with her eyes, stared at the music, plucked at her dress exactly like a bird which has broken out of its cage and preens its wings at liberty. Her hair was combed back over her ears, and she had a sly defiant expression on her face, as though she wished to challenge us all, or to shout at us, as though we were horses: "Gee up, old things!"
And at that moment she must have looked very like her grandfather, the coachman.
"You here, too? " she asked, giving me her hand. "Did you hear me sing? How did you like it?" And, without waiting for me to answer she went on : "You arrived very opportunely. I'm going to Petersburg for a short time to-night. May I?"
At midnight I took her to the station. She embraced me tenderly, probably out of gratitude, because I did not pester her with useless questions, and she promised to write to me, and I held her hands for a long time and kissed them, finding it hard to keep back my tears, and not saying a word.
And when the train moved, I stood looking at the receding lights, kissed her in my imagination and whispered :
"Masha dear, wonderful Masha! . . ."
I spent the night at Makarikha, at Karpovna's, and in the morning I worked with Radish, upholstering the furniture at a rich merchant's, who had married his daughter to a doctor.
On Sunday afternoon my sister came to see me and had tea with me.
"I read a great deal now," she said, showing me the books she had got out of the town library on her way. "Thanks to your wife and Vladimir. They awakened my self-consciousness. They saved me and have made me feel that I am a human being. I used not to sleep at night for worrying : 'What a lot of sugar has been wasted during the week.' 'The cucumbers must not be oversalted !' I don't sleep now, but I have quite different thoughts. I am tormented with the thought that half my life has passed so foolishly and half-heartedly. I despise my old life. I am ashamed of it. And I regard my father now as an enemy. Oh, how grateful I am to your wife ! And Vladimir. He is such a wonderful man ! They opened my eyes."
"It is not good that you can't sleep," I said.
"You think I am ill ? No a bit. Vladimir sounded me and says I am perfectly healthy. But health is not the point. That doesn't matter so much. . . . Tell me, am I right? "
She needed moral support. That was obvious. Masha had gone, Doctor Blagovo was in Petersburg, and there was no one except myself in the town, who could tell her that she was right. She fixed her eyes on me, trying to read my inmost thoughts, and if I were sad in her presence, she always took it upon her self and was depressed. I had to be continually on my guard, and when she asked me if she was right, I hastened to assure her that she was right and that I had a profound respect for her.
"You know, they have given me a part at the Azhougins'," she went on. "I wanted to act. I want to live. I want to drink deep of life; I have no talent whatever, and my part is only ten lines, but it is immeasurably finer and nobler than pouring out tea five times a day and watching to see that the cook does not eat the sugar left over. And most of all I want to let father see that I too can protest."
After tea she lay down on my bed and stayed there for some time, with her eyes closed, and her face very pale.
"Just weakness !" she said, as she got up. "Vladimir said all town girls and women are anaemic from lack of work. What a clever man Vladimir is! He is right; wonderfully right! We do need work!"
Two days later she came to rehearsal at the Azhoguins' with her part in her hand. She was in black, with a garnet necklace, and a brooch that looked at a distance like a pasty, and she had enormous earrings, in each of which sparkled a diamond. I felt uneasy when I saw her; I was shocked by her lack of taste. The others noticed too that she was unsuitably dressed and that her earrings and diamonds were out of place. I saw their smiles and heard some one say jokingly:
"Cleopatra of Egypt!"
She was trying to be fashionable, and easy, and assured, and she seemed affected and odd. She lost her simplicity and her charm.
"I just told father that I was going to a rehearsal," she began, coming up to me, "and he shouted that he would take his blessing from me, and he nearly struck me. Fancy," she added, glancing at her part, "I don't know my part. I'm sure to make a mistake. Well, the die is cast," she said excitedly; "the die is cast."
She felt that all the people were looking at her and were all amazed at the important step she had taken and that they were all expecting something remarkable from her, and it was impossible to convince her that nobody took any notice of such small uninteresting persons as she and I.
She had nothing to do until the third act, and her part, a guest, a country gossip, consisted only in standing by the door, as if she were overhearing something, and then speaking a short monologue. For at least an hour and a half before her cue, while the others were walking, reading, having tea, quarrelling, she never left me and kept on mumbling her part, and dropping her written copy, imagining that everybody was looking at her, and waiting for her to come on, and she patted her hair with a trembling hand and said :
"I'm sure to make a mistake You don't know how awful I feel ! I am as terrified as if I were going to the scaffold."
At last her cue came.
"Cleopatra Alexeyevna—your cue!" said the manager.
She walked on to the middle of the stage with an expression of terror on her face; she looked ugly and stiff, and for half a minute was speechless, perfectly motionless, except for her large earrings which wobbled on either side of her face.
"You can read your part, the first time," said someone.
I could see that she was trembling so that she could neither speak nor open her part, and that she had entirely forgotten the words and I had just made up my mind to go up and say something to her when she suddenly dropped down on her knees in the middle of the stage and sobbed loudly.
There was a general stir and uproar. And I stood quite still by the wings, shocked by what had happened, not understanding at all, not knowing what to do. I saw them lift her up and lead her away. I saw Aniuta Blagovo come up to me. I had not seen her in the hall before and she seemed to have sprung up from the floor. She was wearing a hat and veil, and as usual looked as if she had only dropped in for a minute.
"I told her not to try to act," she said angrily, biting out each word, with her cheeks blushing. "It is folly! You ought to have stopped her!"
Mrs. Azhoguin came up in a short jacket with short sleeves. She had tobacco ash on her thin, flat bosom.
"My dear, it is too awful !" she said, wringing her hands, and as usual, staring into my face. "It is too awful! . . . Your sister is in a condition. . . . She is going to have a baby ! You must take her away at once. . . .
In her agitation she breathed heavily. And behind her, stood her three daughters, all thin and flat-chested like herself, and all huddled together in their dismay. They were frightened, overwhelmed just as if a convict had been caught in the house. What a shame ! How awful ! And this was the family that had been fighting the prejudices and superstitions of mankind all their lives; evidently they thought that all the prejudices and superstititions of mankind were to be found in burning three candles and in the number thirteen, or the unlucky day Monday.
"I must request . . . request . . ." Mrs. Azhoguin kept on saying, compressing her lips and accentuating the quest. "I must request you to take her away."
A little later my sister and I were walking along the street. I covered her with the skirt of my overcoat; we hurried along through by-streets, where there were no lamps, avoiding- the passers-by, and it was like a flight. She did not weep any more, but stared at me with dry eyes. It was about twenty minutes' walk to Makarikha, whither I was taking her, and in that short time we went over the whole of our lives, and talked over everything, and considered the position and pondered. . . . .
We decided that we could not stay in the town, and that when I could get some money, we would go to some other place. In some of the houses the people were asleep already, and in others they were playing cards; we hated those houses, were afraid of them, and we talked of the fanaticism, callousness, and nullity of these respectable families, these lovers of dramatic art whom we had frightened so much, and I wondered how those stupid, cruel, slothful, dishonest people were better than the drunken and superstitious peasants of Kurilovka, or how they were better than animals, which also lose their heads when some accident breaks the monotony of their lives, which are limited by their instincts. What would happen to my sister if she stayed at home? What moral torture would she have to undergo, talking to my father and meeting acquaintances every day? I imagined it all and there came into my memory people I had known who had been gradually dropped by their friends and relations, and I remember the tortured dogs which had gone mad, and sparrows plucked alive and thrown into the water—and a whole long series of dull, protracted sufferings which I had seen going on in the town since my childhood; and I could not conceive what the sixty thousand inhabitants lived for, why they read the Bible, why they prayed, why they skimmed books and magazines. What good was all that had been written and said, if they were in the same spiritual darkness and had the same hatred of freedom, as if they were living hundreds and hundreds of years ago? The builder spends his time putting up houses all over the town, and yet would go down to his grave saying "galdary" for "gallery." And the sixty thousand inhabitants had read and heard of truth and mercy and freedom for generations, but to the bitter end they would go on lying from morning to night, tormenting one another, fearing and hating freedom as a deadly enemy.
"And so, my fate is decided," said my sister when we reached home. "After what has happened I can never go there again. My God, how good it is ! I feel at peace."
She lay down at once. Tears shone on her eyelashes, but her expression was happy. She slept soundly and softly, and it was clear that her heart was easy and that she was at rest. For a long, long time she had not slept so well.
So we began to live together. She was always singing and said she felt very well, and I took back the books we had borrowed from the library unread, because she gave up reading ; she only wanted to dream and to talk of the future. She would hum as she mended my clothes or helped Karpovna with the cooking, or talk of her Vladimir, of his mind, and his goodness, and his fine manners, and his extraordinary learning. And I agreed with her, though I no longer liked the doctor. She wanted to work, to be independent, and to live by herself, and she said she would become a school-teacher or a nurse as soon as her health allowed, and she would scrub the floors and do her own washing. She loved her unborn baby passionately, and she knew already the colour of his eyes and the shape of his hands and how he laughed. She liked to talk of his upbringing, and since the best man on earth was Vladimir, all her ideas were reduced to making the boy as charming as his father. There was no end to her chatter, and everything she talked about filled her with a lively joy. Sometimes I, too, rejoiced, though I knew not why.
She must have infected me with her dreaminess, for I, too, read nothing and just dreamed. In the evenings, in spite of being tired, I used to pace up and down the room with my hands in my pockets, talking about Masha.
"When do you think she will return?" I used to ask my sister. "I think she'll be back at Christmas. Not later. What is she doing there?"
"If she doesn't write to you, it means she must be coming soon."
"True," I would agree, though I knew very well that there was nothing to make Masha return to our town.
I missed her very much, but I could not help deceiving myself and wanted others to deceive me. My sister was longing for her doctor, I for Masha, and we both laughed and talked and never saw that we were keeping Karpovna from sleeping. She would lie on the stove and murmur :
"The samovar tinkled this morning. Tink-led ! That bodes nobody any good, my merry friends !"
Nobody came to the house except the postman who brought my sister letters from the doctor, and Prokofyi, who used to come in sometimes in the evening and glance secretly at my sister, and then go into the kitchen and say :
"Every class has its ways, and if you're too proud to understand that, the worse for you in this vale of tears."
He loved the expression—vale of tears. And—about Christmas time—when I was going through the market, he called me into his shop, and without giving me his hand, declared that he had some important business to discuss. He was red in the face with the frost and with vodka ; near him by the counter stood Nicolka of the murderous face, holding a bloody knife in his hand.
"I want to be blunt with you," began Prokofyi. "This business must not happen because, as you know, people will neither forgive you nor us for such a vale of tears. Mother, of course, is too dutiful to say anything unpleasant to you herself, and tell you that your sister must go somewhere else because of her condition, but I don't want it either, because I do not approve of her behaviour."
I understood and left the shop. That very day my sister and I went to Radish's. We had no money for a cab, so we went on foot ; I carried a bundle with all our belongings on my back, my sister had nothing in her hands, and she was breathless and kept coughing and asking if we would soon be there.
At last there came a letter from Masha.
"My dear, kind M. A.," she wrote, "my brave, sweet angel, as the old painter calls you, good-bye. I am going to America with my father for the exhibition. In a few days I shall be on the ocean—so far from Dubechnia. It is awful to think of ! It is vast and open like the sky and I long for it and freedom. I rejoice and dance about and you see how incoherent my letter is. My dear Misail, give me my freedom. Quick, tear the thread which still holds and binds us. My meeting and knowing you was a ray from heaven, which brightened my existence. But, you know, my becoming your wife was a mistake, and the knowledge of the mistake weighs me down, and I implore you on my knees, my dear, generous friend, quick—quick—before I go over the sea—wire that you will agree to correct our mutual mistake, remove then the only burden on my wings, and my father, who will be responsible for the whole business, has promised me not to overwhelm you with formalities. So, then, I am free of the whole world? Yes?
"Be happy. God bless you. Forgive my wickedness.
"I am alive and well. I am squandering money on all sorts of follies, and every minute I thank God that such a wicked woman as I am has no children. I am singing and I am a success, but it is not a passing whim. No. It is my haven, my convent cell where I go for rest. King David had a ring with an inscription : 'Everything passes.' When one is sad, these words make one cheerful; and when one is cheerful, they make one sad. And I have got a ring with the words written in Hebrew, and this talisman will keep me from losing my heart and head. Or does one need nothing but consciousness of freedom, because, when one is free, one wants nothing, nothing, nothing. Snap the thread then. I embrace you and your sister warmly. Forgive and forget your M."
My sister had one room. Radish, who had been ill and was recovering, was in the other. Just as I received this letter, my sister went into the painter's room and sat by his side and began to read to him. She read Ostrovsky or Gogol to him every day, and he used to listen, staring straight in front of him, never laughing, shaking his head, and every now and then muttering to himself :
"Anything may happen ! Anything may happen !"
If there was anything ugly in what she read, he would say vehemently, pointing to the book :
"There it is ! Lies ! That's what lies do !"
Stories used to attract him by their contents as well as by their moral and their skilfully complicated plot, and he used to marvel at him, though he never called him by his name.
"How well he has managed it."
Now my sister read a page quickly and then stopped, because her breath failed her. Radish held her hand, and moving his dry lips he said in a hoarse, hardly audible voice :
"The soul of the righteous is white and smooth as chalk ; and the soul of the sinner is as a pumice-stone. The soul of the righteous is clear oil, and the soul of the sinner is coal-tar. We must work and sorrow and pity," he went on. "And if a man does not work and sorrow he will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Woe, woe to the well fed, woe to the strong, woe to the rich, woe to the usurers ! They will not see the kingdom of heaven. Grubs eat grass, rust eats iron. . ."
"And lies devour the soul," said my sister, laughing.
I read the letter once more. At that moment the soldier came into the kitchen who had brought in twice a week, without saying from whom, tea, French bread, and game, all smelling of scent. I had no work and used to sit at home for days together, and probably the person who sent us the bread knew that we were in want.
I heard my sister talking to the soldier and laughing merrily. Then she lay down and ate some bread and said to me:
"When you wanted to get away from the office and become a house-painter, Aniuta Blagovo and I knew from the very beginning that you were right, but we were afraid to say so. Tell me what power is it that keeps us from saying what we feel? There's Aniuta Blagovo. She loves you, adores you, and she knows that you are right. She loves me, too, like a sister, and she knows that I am right, and in her heart she envies me, but some power prevents her coming to see us. She avoids us. She is afraid."
My sister folded her hands across her bosom and said rapturously :
"If you only knew how she loves you ! She confessed it to me and to no one else, very hesitatingly, in the dark. She used to take me out into the garden, into the dark, and begin to tell me in a whisper how dear you were to her. You will see that she will never marry because she loves you. Are you sorry for her?
"It was she sent the bread. She is funny. Why should she hide herself ? I used to be silly and stupid, but I left all that and I am not afraid of any one, and I think and say aloud what I like—and I am happy. When I lived at home I had no notion of happiness, and now I would not change places with a queen."
Doctor Blagovo came. He had got his diploma and was now living in the town, at his father's, taking a rest. After which he said he would go back to Petersburg. He wanted to devote himself to vaccination against typhus, and, I believe, cholera; he wanted to go abroad to increase his knowledge and then to become a University professor. He had already left the army and wore serge clothes, with well-cut coats, wide trousers, and expensive ties. My sister was enraptured with his pins and studs and his red-silk handkerchief, which, out of swagger, he wore in his outside breast pocket. Once, when we had nothing to do, she and I fell to counting up his suits and came to the conclusion that he must have at least ten. It was clear that he still loved my sister, but never once, even in joke, did he talk of taking her to Petersburg or abroad with him, and I could not imagine what would happen to her if she lived, or what was to become of her child. But she was happy in her dreams and would not think seriously of the future. She said he could go wherever he liked and even cast her aside, if only he were happy himself, and what had been was enough for her.
Usually when he came to see us he would sound her very carefully, and ask her to drink some milk with some medicine in it. He did so now. He sounded her and made her drink a glass of milk, and the room began to smell of creosote.
"That's a good girl," he said, taking the glass from her. "You must not talk much, and you have been chattering like a magpie lately. Please, be quiet."
She began to laugh and he came into Radish's room, where I was sitting, and tapped me affectionately on the shoulder.
"Well, old man, how are you?" he asked, bending over the patient.
"Sir," said Radish, only just moving his lips. "Sir, I make so bold . . . We are all in the hands of God, and we must all die. . . Let me tell you the truth, sir ... . You will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
And suddenly I lost consciousness and was caught up into a dream: it was winter, at night, and I was standing in the yard of the slaughter-house with Prokofyi by my side, smelling of pepper-brandy ; I pulled myself together and rubbed my eyes and then I seemed to be going to the governor's for an explanation. Nothing of the kind ever happened to me, before or after, and I can only explain these strange dreams like memories, by ascribing them to overstrain of the nerves. I lived again through the scene in the slaughter-house and the conversation with the governor, and at the same time I was conscious of its unreality.
When I came to myself I saw that I was not at home, but standing with the doctor by a lamp in the street.
"It is sad, sad," he was saying with tears running down his cheeks. "She is happy and always laughing and full of hope. But, poor darling, her condition is hopeless. Old Radish hates me and keeps trying to make me understand that I have wronged her. In his way he is right, but I have my point of view, too, and I do not repent of what has happened. It is necessary to love. We must all love. That's true, isn't it? Without love there would be no life, and a man who avoids and fears love is not free."
We gradually passed to other subjects. He began to speak of science and his dissertation which had been very well received in Petersburg. He spoke enthusiastically and thought no more of my sister, or of his grief, or of myself. Life was carrying him away. She has America and a ring with an inscription, I thought, and he has his medical degree and his scientific career, and my sister and I are left with the past.
When we parted I stood beneath the lamp and read my letter again. And I remembered vividly how she came to me at the mill that spring morning and lay down and covered herself with my fur coat—pretending to be just a peasant woman. And another time—also in the early morning—when we pulled the bow-net out of the water, and the willows on the bank showered great drops of water on us and we laughed. . . .
All was dark in our house in Great Gentry Street. I climbed the fence, and, as I used to do in old days, I went into the kitchen by the back door to get a little lamp. There was nobody in the kitchen. On the stove the samovar was singing merrily, all ready for my father. "Who pours out my father's tea now?" I thought. I took the lamp and went on to the shed and made a bed of old newspapers and lay down. The nails in the wall looked ominous as before and their shadows flickered. It was cold. I thought I saw my sister coming in with my supper, but I remembered at once that she was ill at Radish's, and it seemed strange to me that I should have climbed the fence and be lying in the cold shed. My mind was blurred and filled with fantastic imaginations.
A bell rang; sounds familiar from childhood; first the wire rustled along the wall, and then there was a short, melancholy tinkle in the kitchen. It was my father returning from the club. I got up and went into the kitchen. Aksinya, the cook, clapped her hands when she saw me and began to cry :
"Oh, my dear," she said in a whisper. "Oh, my dear! My God!"
And in her agitation she began? to pluck at her apron. On the window-sill were two large bottles of berries soaking in vodka. I poured out a cup and gulped it down, for I was very thirsty. Aksinya had just scrubbed the table and the chairs, and the kitchen had the good smell which kitchens always have when the cook is clean and tidy. This smell and the trilling of the cricket used to entice us into the kitchen when we were children, and there we used to be told fairy tales, and we played at kings and queens . . .
"And where is Cleopatra?" asked Aksinya hurriedly, breathlessly. "And where is your hat, sir? And they say your wife has gone to Petersburg."
She had been with us in my mother's time and used to bathe Cleopatra and me in a tub, and we were still children to her, and it was her duty to correct us. In a quarter of an hour or so she laid bare all her thoughts, which she had been storing up in her quiet kitchen all the time I had been away. She said the doctor ought to be made to marry Cleopatra—we would only have to frighten him a bit and make him send in a nicely written application, and then the archbishop would dissolve his first marriage, and it would be a good thing to sell Dubechnia without saying anything to my wife, and to bank the money in my own name; and if my sister and I went on our knees to our father and asked him nicely, then perhaps he would forgive us ; and we ought to pray to the Holy Mother to intercede for us. ...
"Now, sir, go and talk to him," she said, when we heard my father's cough. "Go, speak to him, and beg his pardon. He won't bite your head off."
I went in. My father was sitting at his. desk working on the plan of a bungalow with Gothic windows and a stumpy tower like the lookout of a fire-station—an immensely stiff and inartistic design. As I entered the study I stood so that I could not help seeing the plan. I did not know why I had come to my father, but I remember that when I saw his thin face, red neck, and his shadow on the wall, I wanted to throw my arms round him and, as Aksinya had bid me, to beg his pardon humbly ; but the sight of the bungalow with the Gothic windows and the stumpy tower stopped me.
"Good evening," I said.
He glanced at me and at once cast his eyes down on his plan.
"What do you want ?" he asked after a while.
"I came to tell you that my sister is very ill. She is dying," I said dully.
"Well?" My father sighed, took off his spectacles and laid them on the table. "As you have sown, so you must reap. I want you to remember how you came to me two years ago, and on this very spot I asked you to give up your delusions, and I reminded you of your honour, your duty, your obligations to your ancestors, whose traditions, must be kept sacred. Did you listen to me? You spurned my advice and clung to your wicked opinions; furthermore, you dragged your sister into your abominable delusions and brought about her downfall and her shame. Now you are both suffering for it. As you have sown, so you must reap."
He paced up and down the study as he spoke. Probably he thought that I had come to him to admit that I was wrong, and probably he was waiting for me to ask his help for my sister and myself. I was cold, and I shook as though I were in a fever, and I spoke with difficulty in a hoarse voice.
"And I must ask you to remember," I said, "that on this very spot I implored you to try to understand me, to reflect, and to think what we were living for and to what end, and your answer was to talk about my ancestors and my grandfather who wrote verses. Now you are told that your only daughter is in a hopeless condition and you talk of ancestors and traditions ! . . . And you can maintain such frivolity when death is near and you have only five or ten years left to live!"
"Why did you come here?" asked my father sternly, evidently affronted at my reproaching him with frivolity.
"I don't know. I love you. I am more sorry than I can say that we are so far apart. That is why I came. I still love you, but my sister has finally broken with you. She does not forgive you and will never forgive you. Your very name fills her with hatred of her past life."
"And who is to blame?" cried my father. "You, you scoundrel !"
"Yes. Say that I am to blame," I said. "I admit that I am to blame for many things, but why is your life, which you have tried to force on us, so tedious and frigid, and ungracious, why are there no people in any of the houses you have built during the last thirty years from whom I could learn how to live and how to avoid such suffering? These houses of yours are infernal dungeons in which mothers and daughters are persecuted, children are tortured . . . My poor mother ! My unhappy sister ! One needs to drug oneself with vodka, cards, scandal ; cringe, play the hypocrite, and go on year after year designing rotten houses, not to see the horror that lurks in them. Our town has been in existence for hundreds of years, and during the whole of that time it has not given the country one useful man not one ! You have strangled in embryo everything that was alive and joyous ! A town of shopkeepers, publicans, clerks, and hypocrites, an aimless, futile town, and not a soul would be the worse if it were suddenly razed to the ground."
"I don't want to hear you you scoundrel," said my father, taking a ruler from his desk. "You are drunk ! You dare come into your father's presence in such a state ! I tell you for the last time, and you can tell this to your strumpet of a sister, that you will get nothing from me. I have torn my disobedient children out of my heart, and if they suffer through their disobedience and obstinacy I have no pity for them. You may go back where you came from ! God has been pleased to punish me through you. I will humbly bear my punishment and, like Job, I find consolation in suffering and unceasing toil. You shall not cross my threshold until you have mended your ways. I am a just man, and everything I say is practical good sense, and if you had any regard for your self, you would remember what I have said, and what I am saying now."
I threw up my hands and went out ; I do not remember what happened that night or next day.
They say that I went staggering through the street without a hat, singing aloud, with crowds of little boys shouting after me :
"Little Profit! Little Profit!"
If I wanted to order a ring, I would have it inscribed : "Nothing passes." I believe that nothing passes without leaving some trace, and that every little step has some meaning for the present and the future life.
What I lived through was not in vain. My great misfortunes, my patience, moved the hearts of the people of the town and they no longer call me "Little Profit," they no longer laugh at me and throw water over me as I walk through the market. They got used to my being a working man and see nothing strange in my carrying paint-pots and glazing windows ; on the contrary, they give me orders, and I am considered a good workman and the best contractor, after Radish, who, though he recovered and still paints the cupolas of the church without scaffolding, is not strong enough to manage the men, and I have taken his place and go about the town touting for orders, and take on and sack the men, and borrow money at exorbitant interest. And now that I am a contractor I can understand how it is possible to spend several days hunting through the town for slaters to carry out a trifling order. People are polite to me, and address me respectfully and give me tea in the houses where I work, and send the servant to ask me if I would like dinner. Children and girls often come and watch me with curious, sad eyes.
Once I was working in the governor's garden, painting the summer-house marble. The governor came into the summer-house, and having nothing better to do, began to talk to me, and I reminded him how he had once sent for me to caution me. For a moment he stared at my face, opened his mouth like a round O, waved his hands, and said :
"I don't remember."
I am growing old, taciturn, crotchety, strict; I seldom laugh, and people say I am growing like Radish, and, like him, I bore the men with my aimless moralising.
Maria Victorovna, my late wife, lives abroad, and her father is making a railway somewhere in the Eastern provinces and buying land there. Doctor Blagovo is also abroad. Dubechnia has passed to Mrs. Cheprakov, who bought it from the engineer after haggling him into a twenty-per-cent reduction in the price. Moissey walks about in a bowler hat; he often drives into town in a trap and stops outside the bank. People say he has already bought an estate on a mortgage, and is always inquiring at the bank about Dubechnia, which he also intends to buy. Poor Ivan Cheprakov used to hang about the town, doing nothing and drinking. I tried to give him a job in our business, and for a time he worked with us painting roofs and glazing, and he rather took to it, and, like a regular house-painter, he stole the oil, and asked for tips, and got drunk. But it soon bored him. He got tired of it and went back to Dubechnia, and some time later I was told by the peasants that he had been inciting them to kill Moissey one night and rob Mrs. Cheprakov.
My father has got very old and bent, and just takes a little walk in the evening near his house.
When we had the cholera, Prokofyi cured the shopkeepers with pepper-brandy and tar and took money for it, and as I read in the newspaper, he was flogged for libelling the doctors as he sat in his shop. His boy Nicolka died of cholera. Karpovna is still alive, and still loves and fears her Prokofyi. Whenever she sees me she sadly shakes her head and says with a sigh:
"Poor thing. You are lost!"
On week-days I am busy from early morning till late at night. And on Sundays and holidays I take my little niece (my sister expected a boy, but a girl was born) and go with her to the cemetery, where I stand or sit and look at the grave of my dear one, and tell the child that her mother is lying there.
Sometimes I find Aniuta Blagovo by the grave. We greet each other and stand silently, or we talk of Cleopatra, and the child, and the sadness of this life. Then we leave the cemetery and walk in silence and she lags behind on purpose, to avoid staying with me. The little girl, joyful, happy, with her eyes half-closed against the brilliant sunlight, laughs and holds out her little hands to her, and we stop and together we fondle the darling child.
And when we reach the town, Aniuta Blagovo, blushing and agitated, says good-bye, and walks on alone, serious and circumspect. . . And, to look at her, none of the passers-by could imagine that she had just been walking by my side and even fondling the child.